Hungry Heart

1996: The year Sleater-Kinney ate my popcorn

By Todd Inoue from From the May 12-19, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Eight years ago, I nourished Sleater-Kinney. The Portland band was about to release its second album, Call the Doctor, on Donna Dresch's Chainsaw Records and was in the middle of its first major tour. The members of the band burned rubber from Southern California to play an afternoon show at the SJSU Student Union Amphitheater, arriving at the noontime gig late, looking frazzled from the I-5 drive.

A freak rainstorm moved the outdoors show inside. To kill time, I bought a big bag of popcorn. After they loaded in, I munched away and started to introduce myself to the group--vocalists/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and then-drummer Toni Gogin--when Brownstein interrupted the pleasantries. She explained that they were famished and asked if they could please have some popcorn.

"Sure, have the whole bag," I said, handing it over. The girls killed the sack in 20 seconds.

Fueled by salt and empty carbs, Sleater-Kinney went on to play for 15 people in the Student Union Ballroom. Tucker's voice radiated in raw form--bouncing off the bare walls, soaring just above emotional wreckage, relying on instinct than on professional training. Brownstein was all trademark rock & roll cool--striking delicious poses, shuffling her feet, doing Townshend windmills and kicks. Gogin kept the affair measured and steady, punctuating fills with a tinny VW Bug hubcap. Afterward, buoyed by the energy, the girls asked where the nearest go-kart racetrack was; they wanted to celebrate their roadie's birthday. I gave directions to the now-defunct Monterey Road track and saw them off.

Don't know if they ever made it there, but this much is confirmed. Call the Doctor went on to be one of the biggest independent albums of 1996. The record propelled Sleater-Kinney out of confessional mixtape straits and into the record collections of indie nerds everywhere. A year later, the celebratory Dig Me Out furthered their reputation; Sleater-Kinney was hailed by critics as one of the most important rock & roll bands--male or female--of the late '90s.

As their popularity grew, they refused to compromise. They welcomed change and sought musical and lyrical growth. The interplay between Tucker and Brownstein matured as the two-guitar/no-bass dynamic fully meshed. They explored relationships, vulnerability and issues related to tolerance and respect on follow-ups The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One.

Live, Sleater-Kinney elevates audiences to angelic heights of catharsis and release. The group sets dance floors ablaze with "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," "Get Up," "Words + Guitar" and "You're No Rock & Roll Fun." It incites swirling undertow with sing-along anthems "Heart Factory," "Little Babies," "Be Yr Mama," "The End of You" and "Get Up." Then, it takes it all the way down to cradle the listener on "Size of Our Love," and "Good Things."

The band's lineup is a solid study of strength and growth. Current drummer Janet Weiss collects equal adoration as timekeeper of Quasi, which also performs at the Catalyst show. Corin Tucker is married to filmmaker Lance Bangs and is mother to 3-year-old Marshall Tucker Bangs. Carrie Brownstein relocated from Portland to Berkeley and slings a mean Gibson SG.

Sleater-Kinney makes continuously challenging music. Its last record, One Beat, released in 2002, embraced elements of pop, New Wave and ambient tones. On this tour, the band is working out new songs, redoing old ones and even dabbling with extended jams. The latter may sound disconcerting to old-school punks who associate the word "jam" with Hacky Sack-kicking longhairs, but the result is more Sonic Youth than Phish.

The latest word is that Sleater-Kinney played a cover of Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" at a couple of shows--a nod to its formative Riot Grrrl roots. But those hoping for a nostalgic post-punk retrospective should look elsewhere; the band is in a much different space from eight years ago. With album No. 7 in progress, Sleater-Kinney is older, wiser and still hungry.