Call of the Wild
Mia Lily Clarke for The Guardian,
June 8th, 2005
The influential rock critic Greil Marcus called them the 'best band in
the world'. Now Sleater-Kinney have made their finest music yet.
Upstate New York in the wintertime is full of hazards: any moment a
blizzard might hit the storm-prone east coast or there's the risk of
getting shot. No wonder Janet Weiss, drummer with the Oregonian rock
trio Sleater-Kinney, hardly ever went outside in the five weeks she and
her bandmates were recording their album in a remote woodland studio.
"It was the height of bear-hunting season," she explains. "Even a brief
walk was impossible. If we went out for any reason, we'd have to put on
bright orange vests so we could be spotted through the thickets and
"We felt extremely isolated during our
time there," adds singer/guitarist Corin Tucker. "We picked The Woods as
the title because it relates to where we recorded it, but also because
we liked the fact that it has multiple meanings. The woods represent
something very scary and dark, both physically and emotionally, but also
enticing and mysterious. And wild."
Since Sleater-Kinney formed in
Washington State in 1994, they have hit a succession of highs and
stamped an impressive imprint on rock history. Initially the band was
just Tucker, then singer with the punk duo Heavens to Betsy, and
guitarist Carrie Brownstein, then guitarist with Excuse 17. They had a
brief love affair and held their first rehearsals in a student garage.
By the time Weiss joined in 1997, they had released two albums; by their
fourth, The Hot Rock, in 1999, influential rock critic Greil Marcus was
championing Sleater-Kinney as "the best band in the world".
Now on their seventh album, they have
stayed true to their punk-political roots: their lyrics address topics
such as gender inequity and mass consumerism, and their sound is
consistently fierce and exuberant. Their fanbase is loyal and steadily
growing, but the trio admit to feeling occasionally restricted by the
expectations of their audience. Brown-stein, who has the reputation as
the most outspoken member of Sleater-Kinney, recently aired her
frustrations in US music magazine, Magnet: "We are sick of people
feeling they know who we are and what we're capable of. I remember
thinking in the studio that I'd really love to make some of our fans
kind of angry."
Weiss smiles at this remark, but shares
Brownstein's opinion. "I think people attach themselves to the songs
they were listening to when they first fell in love with the band. You
can't blame them for wanting more of that. But it's our responsibility
to do what we feel is right at the time. This record is rebellious. We
wanted to push ourselves to make something aggressive and ballsy, not
something our fans could vacuum the floors to."
Before recording The Woods, the band
experienced what they call "a seventh-album itch". They took a break,
during which Brownstein, who has a linguistics BA, immersed herself in
"cooking and academic research", Tucker spent time with her family, and
Weiss went on tour with Quasi, the group she formed in 1993 with
ex-husband Sam Coomes. They left their long-time record label, Kill Rock
Stars, last year, and switched to Sub Pop, a larger independent label
located in Seattle. And then they set out to reinvent their music.
Those familiar with Sleater-Kinney's
previous work are likely to find The Woods an unsettling departure from
the prickly pop and serrated, high octave tirades that shaped their
popularity during the 1990s. And yet this is the group's most
accomplished material to date. The trio are often praised for their
explosive live shows, yet their earlier albums had a tendency to feel
tight and one-dimensional. In contrast, The Woods sounds free and
exhilarating, dark and complex. It's no surprise to discover the band
drew inspiration from the meltdown live energy of The Who's Live at
Leeds, Jimi Hendrix and early Pink Floyd.
"We knew that things needed to be
different this time," Tucker says. "We needed to be revitalised if we
wanted to keep going."
A significant factor was their decision
to part with long-time producer John Goodmanson, who worked with the
group on five albums, and work instead with Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev
producer Dave Fridmann, who they felt had a "free and unruly" attitude
to recording. They are pleased with the result but, as Weiss points out,
"nothing to do with the creation of this record was smooth and simple.
There were a hell of a lot of tears in the studio."
"It was really hard," Tucker agrees. "I
was on the edge. It would have been a very different record if we had
made it in Portland, Oregon."
As the only member of Sleater-Kinney
with a family - film producer husband Lance Bangs and four-year-old
Marshall - Tucker drew on the difficulty of being away from her son to
spark the visceral energy needed to record her vocals. She is at her
full throttle finest on The Woods, her voice veering dramatically
between tyrannical hollers and shimmering, howling sopranos. After the
powerful tug of the opening track, The Fox, the listener is pulled into
the multiple stories that the record has to tell: tales of a teenager
jumping from San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge; wry observations on
contemporary romance in the deceptively breezy love ditty Modern Girl;
and a devastating insight into domestic life on Night Light ("How do you
do it/This bitter and bloody world/Keep it together and shine for your
"It's really hard for anyone to
shift gears and exist in another part of themselves," says Tucker. "I
knew that I needed to do that, but it took a lot of trying before I was
able to. My husband is really supportive, and he took our son on
vacation so that I could concentrate on writing lyrics. I wanted to do
something to match the music, so the lyrics I wrote had to be suitably
The final section of The Woods
contains some of the finest material Sleater-Kinney have recorded: an
11-minute opus titled Let's Call It Love that features a series of
Brownstein's stingingly sweet guitar solos before collapsing into a
striking, unedited improvisation. Led Zeppelin comparisons are
inevitable, and Tucker and Weiss admit to absorbing the band's back
catalogue during their time in the studio. "We were in our pyjamas in
the room upstairs listening to Zeppelin over and over at four in the
morning," says Tucker, laughing. "We were totally obsessed."
"We had to inspire and excite
ourselves with a challenge, and we've done that - thank goodness," says
Weiss. "I don't think we would have made this record if we didn't feel
we had material that was worth making. We wouldn't have bothered to get
so freaked out and uncomfortable. We did it because we knew we had a
shot at making something worthwhile."