Divine Trinity

by Eddie Vedder for Maganet Magazine April/May 2005

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 larger scale.
       Vedder invited Sleater-Kinney to his home in Seattle for dinner and discussion of identities, iPods and assassination attempts.

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 career?

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.

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 overdubs.

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 could do?

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 fucked up.

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 underestimate us.

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 record.

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.

Weiss: Really?

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 care.

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 them.

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 glamorous.

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 that create?

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 all meant.

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 reality show.

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 Cornell...

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 manufactured product.

Tucker: That's what people want. They want a happy little pill they can swallow.

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 trust you."

Vedder: Well, I'm glad you can trust me.