| Divine Trinity
by Eddie Vedder for Maganet Magazine
After a decade of being feminist rockers, riot
grrrls and political punks, the three women of Sleater-Kinney have become
one band with the beat. Eddie Vedder checks the group's pulse.
Divine Trinity. That's laying it on a bit
thick isn't it? It's the kind of over drawn, boy
they're-really-stretching-it headline we'd usually groan about. But there's
at least been something good, something righteous, about Sleater-Kinney, the
Portland, Ore., trio of singers/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie
Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss. Thousands of young women and men may
even testify to being saved by the band. The group is inspiring in its-here
come the admirable, adult-orientated buzzwords-independence, feminism,
political acumen and resolve.
Maybe Sleater-Kinney doesn't deserve sainthood or
religious worship just yet. But would you believe House of the Holy?
After six albums of tightly wound punk, the band is flexing its arena-rock
muscles on The Woods. Call it a seventh-album itch; Sleater-Kinney
left its longtime label, Kill Rock Stars, and signed with the larger-yet
still Northwestern and indie-Sub Pop. The band decided to record with
producer Dave Friedmann, best known for his finely detailed, orchestral work
with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev.
Those waiting for the strings to come in,
however, will be jolted by the primal urges of The Woods. When
Sleater-Kinney takes aim at bands that use post-punk's yesteryear as their
daily planner and garage-rock real estate as their fashion-trend runaway on
"Entertain," it sounds like a raw nerve has been struck. "You come around
sounding 1972," spits Tucker, "You did nothing new with 1972." And while
we're in the early 70's, it's the album-ending suite of "Let's Call it Love"
and "Night Light" that elicits-but doesn't require-the mention of a Led
Zeppelin album above or the thought of the Who in concert. The songs form a
15-minute piece connected by a full-on jam. Tucker wails herself into a
trance. Brownstein solos long and deep into a blues riff. At one point,
Weiss rings a bell.
Sleater-Kinney is navigating beyond
the borders of its fans' punk-rock map, and The Woods is the promised
land. It's the towering redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, where
flannel-flying bands such as Mudhoney kicked up dirt. It's the rolling river
valleys of upstate New York, where Friedmann coaxes performances on the epic
scale of the great outdoors. It's a place where we acknowledge gender
differences but don't dwell on them, a fork in the road where guitar
heroines don't wear capes and rock goddesses don't wear pedestals.
The three women in Sleater-Kinney found
themselves on a peculiar perch in 2003, when they opened shows for their
friends and fellow rock idealists in Pearl Jam. As riot grrrls on the
Riot Act tour, Sleater-Kinney faced amphitheaters full of people-some
indifferent, some energetic, some hostile-and it's tempting to think of the
come-alive sounds of The Woods as a reaction to that experience.
Eddie Vedder, in particular, is also acutely aware of the price bands pay
for their political stances and the cost of doing musical business on a
Vedder invited Sleater-Kinney to his home
in Seattle for dinner and discussion of identities, iPods and assassination
Vedder: My first question has to do with
cigarettes and speakers. I wonder what you think about people who smoke
cigarettes all their lives and then sue the cigarette companies for their
illnesses. They win these class-action suits because it turns out the
companies were putting additives in and making them not be able to quit...
Weiss: No one's ever asked us this in an interview before!
Vedder: My question is: I've played your new record in my car, and I
blew out the speakers. [laughter] Just like it's some people's choice to
continue to smoke, it's my choice to keep pushing up the volume. However, I
feel like you made me do it. So should you be responsible for my speakers?
Weiss: Probably so. We will write a check upon leaving this house.
Vedder: It was the first time I was listening to it, so I didn't know
it was going to go to a spot where I was going to lose my speakers. There
are things that happen on this record that, by the end, my speakers didn't
have a chance.
Weiss: I know how loud you listen to music. It's not normal volume.
Vedder: The hard part of asking questions is that, when I'm on the
receiving end of a compliment, I don't know how to take it. It's not really
a question, so I just say, "Thanks," or, "I don't trust you, so get on with
it." In this case, I just have to compliment you. I'm stunned. If The Woods
were a live show it'd be one of the best shows I'd ever seen. It also sounds
like a band's first record, all this stuff coming out at once. It's so
galvanized and powerful. How tough was that to do seven records into your
Weiss: We knew we wanted something really intense, heavy and
aggressive. We pushed ourselves so hard, almost to the point of irritation.
Vedder: With each other?
Weiss: With each other. A lot of times when we write, it's not
pleasant. It's hard.
Vedder: With Pearl Jam, if one of us knows it's a bad idea, we play
it three times so it can become apparent it's a bad idea.
Tucker: There's definitely a negative creative process that happens
that's really uncomfortable.
Vedder: It doesn't sound like music that came out of conflict. It
sounds like you three against the world. Did you have 10 songs ready before
you even met up with Dave Fridmann?
Weiss: We had nine and a half songs.
Vedder: He wasn't necessarily a big fan of Sleater-Kinney, was he?
Brownstein: Not at all. He was pretty critical of our old records and
really reticent to say anything positive, actually, about anything we'd done
- even the demos we'd sent him. The most positive thing he said before we
got there was, "I'm excited to work on this record." But he thought all of
our other records sounded the same. When we got there, he said that they
never captured the emotional intensity of our band.
Vedder: A lot of the The Woods sounds like it was played live.
Brownstein: It's all live. Everything but the vocals and some guitar
Weiss: The main performances are live. There's two guitars and drums
on every song.
Vedder: So you kept all the perfect flaws that are in there. The
guitar tones are just kind of sick and crazy. Anybody in my group would be
envious of having the space the guitars have to revel in that tone. You're
able to hear the guitars divebomb.
Weiss: I think that's what's so beautiful about the power trio. When
the guitar player - usually it's a bass player, we have Corin in this case -
goes to single notes or something high or jagged, there's that rhythm space
that just drops. Like when Hendrix takes a solo, there's not someone playing
rhythm guitar; I love that space. It's kind of unsettling and it's kind of
scary, like the bottom dropped out.
Vedder: I was in the car with someone listening to (opening track)
"The Fox," and when the vocals came in, we looked at each other. She was
looking at me to answer the question, "Is she really doing that with her
voice or is there a machine on that?" Corin, I don't imagine there's an
influence that can be citied that got your voice to start doing these
things, but did you ever realize you were doing something that nobody else
Tucker: I think this whole record kept pushing in this territory of
doing something so different and so outside of ourselves.
Weiss: It's like, we know what Corin is capable of. We know what each
of us is capable of, and we hope for even more than that. So if someone's
having a bad day or if someone's not in the mood to bare their soul, we get
on it. But Corin especially, when she gets emotional, all these amazing
things start coming out of her. It's one of the more incredible things I've
ever witnessed. So I feel kind of bad for pushing her and making her upset,
but then something amazing happens and I don't feel so bad anymore.
Tucker: Part of it is keeping up with these two. On this record,
they're going off. And I had to go off, too. I had to keep up with them.
Vedder: Like Roger Daltrey between Pete Townshend and Keith Moon.
[Laughter] I always thought John Entwistle was so smart to just say, "I'm
out of it. I'll be over here." Let me go to the last two songs, "Let's Call
It Love" and "Night Light." Is that one piece?
Brownstein: One take, yeah.
Vedder: By the middle of that, it's like listening to (the Who's)
Live At Leeds. I can't remember a studio record where I've felt that. Maybe
a Sonic Youth record, maybe a Fugazi record.
Tucker: We wanted to incorporate the kind of improvisation we'd been
doing at our shows onto the record somehow, and "Let's Call It Love" had
that improv vibe. But we didn't know how to get from that song into another
song until after we'd played with "Night Light" for a while and Carrie
realized it was in the same key.
Brownstein: We knew at some point it would disintegrate and Janet
would go into the drumbeat for the next part, but there were no rules or
markers, so it does feel out of control a little bit. There's that element
of surprise and not really knowing, because we didn't really know. We just
knew we had to stay in the moment the whole time and not anticipate it. So
much of this record was letting go of the mental process. The writing was
deliberate and frustrating and cerebal. But the performance was emotional.
Just to be in an emotional sphere was really hard. [Fridmann] always pushed
us to get there. "I'll think about it. You guys play it."
Vedder: On this record, I didn't think there was really a let-up.
Until I got the lyrics, I thought "Modern Girl" was this wonderful song
about a mother singing to her child or whatever. Then I realized even that's
Brownstein: I felt like so much of the emotional tenor in this record
is implicit in the music itself. The vocals were just sort of commenting on
it or helping to accelerate it. Parts of the record that I think are really
emotional come from through a sonic expression or through a guitar/drum
expression. The vocals are just steering it, marking time or place. That's
why the lyric writing was so difficult, trying to figure out how to make it
congruent with what the music was saying without sabotaging or taking away
from the music. It's such an album. One song comments on another or
completes another song in a way, showing the other side of that story.
Vedder: That's the thing: There are stories being told here, as
opposed to lyrics. Nowadays, a lot of what you hear is diatribes by the
singer or diary entries or whatever. I heard one song recently by a
modern-day woman folk singer. I was listening to it with Tim Robbins, and I
was like, "Can you believe this? This is what diaries are for." And he said,
"No, this is what locks on diaries are for." [Laughter]
Weiss: I think a callenging thing about this band is that it's two
people commenting on the same thing in two different ways, sometimes even
within the same song. Carrie's philosophy is sometimes darker than Corin's.
Corin is very hopeful. There's always a glimmer of hope in a Corin lyric.
The juxtaposition is part of what makes the song "Wilderness" move so well.
Brownstein: And the tension, too.
Weiss: It's explosive. These two things are butting right up against
each other. It shouldn't work, but it does. This record is even more
collaborative than ever before. Who does what, who plays what - you just
can't tell anymore. It's bigger than that now. It's beyond that.
Brownstein: It wasn't a simple process at all. There was a lot of
crying in the studio: "I can't do this."
Vedder: Not to air my band's laundry, but our music seems to be
getting more cerebral, and I need it to be more visceral or something. And
there's a place where those two meet.
Brownstein: We really felt like music was becoming so soft and tame
and smoothed-out and perfect.
Vedder: And most bands, the longer they play together, they will
become more comfortable. You go from punk-rock songs to contemporary music.
It's a trap.
Brownstein: I think we also just get sick of people feeling like they
know who we are and what we're capable of. That feeling that you've been
pigeonholed, and that all the possible people that could like you already
like you, and all the other people are like, "Eh, I already know what that
band sounds like." It's almost like you're tired of being yourself. I
remember saying in the studio that I'd really love to make some of the fans
kind of angry.
Tucker: One of our greatest assets as a band is that people
Vedder: I don't. I never have. But those other people...[Laughter]
Brownstein: Do you feel like that about your band? That people are
like, "Oh, Pearl Jam is like this."
Vedder: They probably have, and I never even thought about it. Even
when we do something positive, it's, "Oh yeah, they do positive things."
Tucker: I think playing with you guys onstage, there's potential
there of being totally free and open. That was what was so great about
playing together. We got to just jam in these huge stadiums - just hearing
that kind of sound. We didn't even reallly think about it that much at the
time, the impact of it all. I think it comes through a little bit on this
Brownstein: It gave us the chance to step outside ourselves a little
bit, and we were able to approach songwriting from that perspective. Even to
imagine ourselves in those kinds of spaces and feeling bold. You guys have
such good fans that we felt like, "We have to show these people that we can
really play. These are people who know music." And we were surprised that we
made new fans. It felt right.
Tucker: There were so much more in common with the two bands than I
knew. It was like, "Oh. We're all sort of from the same background and we're
playing music for the same reason."
Vedder: I know you'd rather be in an interview and maybe not hear
anything about "girl bands," or whatever, but I find it offensive to be
lumped in with all those other "dude bands." [Laughter]
Weiss: Stone (Gossard, Pearl Jam guitarist) is barely a guy,
anyway.[Laughs] He's not a dude. He wears flip-flops on stage. It was not
like being on tour with a dude band at all. You have a community of people
who surround you, and there's lots of women that work with you all the time.
Tucker: I didn't feel that dynamic at all when we were on tour, and I
thought that I would.
Weiss: You're sensitive to it.
Tucker: I am really sensitive to it, and there's a lot of bands that
we've toured with that are really macho.
Weiss: There's lots of girls that are dudes.
Vedder: That's another reason why I think you're an important band.
This is what they didn't get (when we played) in Hershey, Pa., and what made
me so upset. Because the audience didn't respond to you the way I thought
they should have. I felt that's what started me off. There was something
amiss, and it turned into Girls Gone Wild - or Girls Gone Stupid - by the
time of our set. There's been a lot of opinions on my addressing that
situtation that night (July 12, 2003). It's either how horrible it was of me
to denigrate a woman (who was flashing the band) or how horrible it was for
her to denigrate herself. What they don't realize is that it was over and
over in my face. It was like, "Stop, please. We're trying to do something we
feel is meaningful." But enough of that. Another unfulfilled dream of mine
is being on Sub Pop Records.
Vedder: Yep. And now you are doing that, and I assume you did that on
the power of their logo alone?
Weiss: We've been chasing grunge for a couple of years now.
Brownstein: If we were going to stay independent, we figured we might
as well stay on a Northwest label. There really is a kind of regional
musical language that comes out of this area. It's very unadorned, it's a
little unpolished, it's always a little bit misunderstood by the more urbane
folks out there. I've always heard it said that we come from this community,
but I really started to feel it. Especially with this kind of "alternative"
or "indie" music rising to a higher level of awareness; even though we are
an indie band, we still don't fit in. Why don't we fit in? Because we're
from this place that's different. It's a little bit wild, it's prickly and
we're willing to be a little bit uglier than everyone else. And we don't
Vedder: I can't imagine what an asshole I would've made of myself if
it weren't for being grounded in this kind of situation. Without knowing
that, say, Mark Arm would hear about something that I'd done. You always
have to face it and you have to come home. I wanted to ask what a couple
bands meant to you, and one of them is Mudhoney. I hear some similar tones
on your records.
Brownstein: Definitely in high school, I listened to Mudhoney a lot-Superfuzz
Bigmuff. They wre so grotesque. They were so out there and dirty.
Vedder: How about Babes In Toyland?
Tucker: They were a huge influence on me. That was my time. They
played at the OK Hotel (in Seattle) and I was in the crowd as much as
possible, getting beat up.
Vedder: Were you at the same shows as me?
Tucker: We probably were at the same shows. There were skinheads
beating up the riot grrrls.
Vedder: And the skaters and snowboarders....
Tucker: Kat(Bjelland, Babes In Toyland singer/guitarist) was
terrifying! They wre really intimidating onstage. She was so badass, kicking
at the audience while playing guitar.
Vedder: The other connections, it seems, are with Fugazi and Sonic
Youth. They just seemed to raise the bar to this level of what's right and
correct. For me, they're a certain light. I can't imagine a world without
Tucker: I was a big Sonic Youth fan. When I was 16, I snuck into
their show as a "radio person" and would follow them around. Their entire
attitude was that it was only about the music; it had to be dangerous and
interesting and meaningful. But at the same time, they were kind of
Weiss: They were so snotty.
Vedder: To the crowd in general or to you as a person?
Weiss: Oh, just their music - they don't care.
Tucker: They were cool, but they knew the kids mattered. They love
the kids. And that was really inspiring to me.
Vedder: To pick up on the word snotty and surround that adjective -
Pete Townshend was able to write about kids on Quadrophenia in his mid-30s
or 40s, and Thurston Moore still remembers that attitude exactly. He can
express what it's like to be teenager.
Weiss: It was rebellious - or still is - without the aggression of
punk rock, which put me off as a young girl who couldn't be in the front by
the stage because I'd just get plowed over. It's snottiness in a good way: a
smile-you attitude. At the same time, I love the experimental, sonic
landscape Sonic Youth was creating. It was so original and unique. And their
personalities are so unique. Like Fugazi, too. We're really interested in
our dynamic as three people who've been together all these years. What does
Vedder: When you grow up listening to bands, you see the Who as a
four-headed monster - they all think the same, they all eact exactly the
same thing. And when you start being in a band yourself, you think, "I need
to find three other people exactly like me." The reason I bring this up is
for people reading this and thinking about starting a band: Don't wait to
find three other people that are just like you. It's not gonna happen, and
that's not what creates the good stuff.
Weiss: When I think about Fugazi or Sonic Youth, when you take those
people apart, they're not as good individually as they are together.
Vedder: Would you do an iPod commercial?
Brownstein: As a band, we would probably say no.
Weiss: I think commercials ruin songs. For me, they do. So it's hard
for me to imagine putting one of my songs that I put my heart and soul into
a TV ad.
Vedder: The iPod is almost a product you can believe in, as far as
products go. It facilities music, I guess.
Weiss: To me, it's not even about the product. It's about the song:
what it does to your song, what context it puts your song into and what
imagery it attaches to your song. The imagery of buying something.
Vedder: The imagery I won't argue with. Let me ask you this: The
commercial is 30 seconds long, and they use the parts of the song. So all of
a sudden, instead of trying to push your single, which is three minutes
long, you have 30 seconds of all the best parts. In a way, it's ingenious:
30 seconds of hook.
Brownstein: This is such a hypothetical question because we'll
probably never be asked to do something like that.
Tucker: It just totally depends on the situation and song and what it
Brownstein: And whether the album was out already. I remember having
lunch with this music-critic friend of mine, and he was like, "The first
time I heard the new Storkes song was in a commercial. I hadn't heard the
record yet." I would hate for anything to be released before the record that
was associated with something that's not us. I would have a harder time
debating an iPod commerical than an SUV commercial. No way. We're never
gonna do that.
Vedder: What's happening is that this is the level of mainstream. If
you're going to participate in the mainstream or compete with the amount of
stuff that's out there, the bar gets raised. Now, it's not even about
getting your video played. It's actually about getting a commercial when the
record comes out.
Brownstein: It's such a tough call, because there's so much crap out
there that I wish people would hear this record and realize there's
something better than safe, gutless music. Other times, I wonder if it takes
away from the music.
Vedder: I would rather that loads of people - including young women -
heard your song through an iPod commercial, and then bought your record and
be changed and affected by it - which they would be - as opposed to, say, a
Brownstein: Which we'll be forced to do when we retire in order to
keep making a living. We might as well do the iPod commercials so we never
have to do a reality TV show. This is our future, right here: We'll be
living together in a dorm room in five years. Me, you, Mark Arm, Chris
Vedder: Dorm room? Let's stay here.
Brownstein: I'm gonna get my suitcase.
Vedder: It's hard for someone not to imagine what a better world it
would be if Ashlee and Jessica Simpson were playing music like yours and it
really had a positive effect as opposed to playing music that's a completely
Tucker: That's what people want. They want a happy little pill they
Vedder: It's music to be Republican by.
Brownstein: It's like a balm or something.
Tucker: Like, "I wanna smooth everything over so I don't have to
think about what's happening in the world."
Brownstein: And we're not that easily digestible. The first interview
I did for this record, the writer said, "it took me a couple of listens to
really feel settled." We didn't make the record for people to feel settled.
Hopefully, something will make you feel unsettled every single time you
listen to it. That's fine with us. That's a diffuclt marriage with
commercialism. Has Pearl Jam done a commercial?
Vedder: No, and I don't think we ever would. OK, I wanted to share
something with you. It's 2003, a year before the elections. This is when
it's not so popular to be wearing a peace sign on your sleeve or speaking
out against the war in Iraq. And you saw the Dixie Chicks and then us thrown
on the fire as not being patriotic. All of a sudden, Pearl Jam was part of
the "activists of evil." As Pearl Jam and Sleater-Kinney were going through
Oklahoma, or wherever we were, at the end of the show we'd play "Rockin' In
The Free World." I remember the music still going and I was holding hands
with Corin, and with our other hands we were flaring out the peace sign.
There were a lot of people in the crowd who seemed offended by it, and I
remember - and Corin, I never told yo this at the time, because I wanted to
keep doing it - being afraid that something bad was going to happen. That
you would be assassinated, or you'd be holding the hand of someone being
assassinated. I felt really incredibly vulnerable up there. Do you remember
how you were feeling at the time?
Tucker: I remember being so blown away at our first show with you
guys in Denver. And it was the first week of the war. We got up in Denver
and blabbed about the war and were booed by about 10,000 people. It was
really shocking. I felt like I was suddenly six years old and taking a
really hard, cold slap to the face. But it made me really angry, and anger
for me can override anything. The fear is secondary to that feeling of "shut
up." That's what I felt like at that moment: someone saying "shut up" to me.
And I was like, "OK, now you're really asking for it." I would try to think
about creative ways to say something during those shows when things were so
tense. And there's also the feeling of, "OK, we're going to get fired.
Someone's going to fire us." [Laughter] Not you.
Vedder: Someone higher up. [Laughter]
Tucker: But what was going on in the world was so awful that I can't
imagine performing in front of all those people and not saying something.
And I couldn't imagine you not doing it, either. And you did it every night
to people who were so angry. It just has to come up, because you are
relating to these people honestly.
Vedder: I was particularly energized by the solidarity. It wouldn't
have been the same without all you guys up there, and to be able to hold
your hand and stand together, it was like, "smile it. I'll take the bullet.
This is important." So Sleater-Kinney will be on tour before Pearl Jam is,
and you'll be facing a country that failed to do its civic duty to educate
itself and vote properly in this last election. Do you hold it against a
certain state, like Ohio, before you even get there?
Tucker: I think the people who come to see us are the ones who are
like, "Man, this country is fucked." There's not gonna be a lot of
Republicans coming to see Sleater-Kinney. Maybe a few, and they might write
on the Internet, "We're so annoyed that you're so vocal about these things.
But we still like your music."
Brownstein: At a Sleater-Kinney show, there's a slightly more
homogenous political atmosphere. Which, in some ways, is frustrating. At a
Pearl Jam show, there is that danger of playing and talking in front of
people who have different views than you. That really drove the writing on
this record. It's scary to get bigger, but there's something exciting about
realizing that maybe your music is transcending something and you're not
just preaching to the converted. If you say something pro- or anti- a
certain politican, you might be met with resistance. Resistance isn't
necessarily a bad thing for art. In some ways, it fuels it.
Tucker: That's what's so great about Pearl Jam: You actually have the
possibility of asking someone to think in a different way than they might.
That's what rock 'n' roll used to be. People would do things that were crazy
and would upset people.
Vedder: Writing a song seems to be like attending to a child in a
way. If a lyric comes, you have to attend to that idea immediately or it
will not grow in the proper fashion. Corin, you're writing lyrics at the
same time as raising a child. (Tucker's son with husband/video director
Lance Bangs, Marshall Tucker Bangs, just turned four.) How are you able to
consolidate those two?
Tucker: It's hard to find the mental space to get to the point of
getting something decent. It's one thing to have 15 minutes to scribble a
bunch of crap down on paper, which I do all the time. I have notebooks full
of junk. The diary that should have a lock on it? I have 15 of those for
this record. But when it actually came time to write, Lance took Marshall to
his parents' house for a week. Marshall is older no; he goes to school, so I
have a block of four hours to work on lyrics. "Let's Call It Love" took me a
week to write. The idea of being a role model of a mom and taking care of my
son has to be able to just fall away in order to really get to the kind of
monstrous characters that are on this record. And that was hard. There was a
point where Marshall came out to the studio, and I was suddenly so worried
about him being comfortable I couldn't perform the way I needed to. I
couldn't get into those characters while he was there.
Vedder: No other band really sounds like Sleater-Kinney. Because they
can't. Most bands that sound like us, it's because they can. Make the voice
a little lower [makes guttural singing noise] - top-10 hit! But they can't
do what you guys do. Are there any Sleater-Kinney cover bands?
Tucker: Why would they want to? [Laughter]
Weiss: Mike Watt covered "All Hands On The Bad One."
Vedder: I'd love to hear it. [Singing in a deep voice] "All hands on
the bad one..."[Laughter] Carrie, some people say that your playing sounds
like surf guitar. But I think it actually sounds like you're surfing. The
notes you choose and the way you play them, it's like somebody surfing on a
wave, going up and down and slashing. So it's not just surf guitar, it's
actually surfing guitar. I just wanted to say that.
Weiss: My favorite part of this interview is when you said that when
someone gives you a compliment, you either say, "Thank you," or, "I don't
Vedder: Well, I'm glad you can trust me.