Northwest passages

by Meredith Ochs for Phoenix
 

Sleater-Kinney's Olympian Hot Rock

 Even over the telephone, the buzz in 26-year-old Corrine Tucker's Portland (Oregon) apartment is palpable when I call her a week before Christmas. Voices clamor and giggle in the background. The sound of movement rushes behind her. Tucker, singer/guitarist of the band Sleater-Kinney, apologizes profusely for being distracted by the racket. Considering that Sleater-Kinney have just begun talking to the media about their eagerly awaited fourth record, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars), I assume it's an interview or photo shoot gone out of control. But Carrie Brownstein, the band's other singer/guitarist and Tucker's songwriting partner, sets me straight. "Corrine and her roommates are handmaking very elaborate Christmas cards, and it's even more hectic than all the press we've been doing."

Handmade Christmas cards may just be the perfect reflection of Tucker and Brownstein's do-it-yourself ethos. Sleater-Kinney have already had the kind of success with indie-label releases that usually precedes a band's jump to a major label: their second album, 1996's Call the Doctor (Kill Rock Stars), brought them to national prominence, and the following year Dig Me Out (also Kill Rock Stars) put Sleater-Kinney on dozens of 1997 Top Ten lists from critics who heralded the band for busting out of the Pacific Northwest riot grrrl scene and breathing new life into punk rock. But rather than bask in this limelight, Sleater-Kinney decided to put the kibosh on doing interviews in favor of working on new material. The 24-year-old Brownstein also found the time to finish college.

"We were a little bit overwhelmed with the success of Dig Me Out," admits Tucker. "We weren't prepared for it to some degree. We needed to get our perspective back and figure out what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go musically. Success forces that -- if you succeed, you have to focus even harder on what you want to do."

The Hot Rock, which hit stores earlier this week, is clearly the result of some refocusing. It's a more mature, complex work than the band's previous albums -- a propulsive web of meticulous arrangements, raw emotions, and spiky shards of guitar in a dialogue that complements the dual vocal interplay of Tucker and Brownstein. On the slippery slope of alterna-rock, where so many bands sound indistinguishable from one another, Sleater-Kinney have refined punk abandon with an intellectual approach to their music. Influenced equally by New York smart-rockers like Television and Patti Smith, and by riot grrrl progenitors Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Tucker and Brownstein have made punk sound fresh and more vital than ever.

To be understood, or even properly discussed, however, Sleater-Kinney "cannot be taken out of the context of the Pacific Northwest," as Brownstein puts it. The band formed in 1994 amid a supportive community of musicians in Olympia, a long-time indie-rock hotbed established a decade earlier by Calvin Johnson and his label, K Records. Both Tucker and Brownstein were there as students at Evergreen State College, a loosely structured liberal-arts school for groovy kids. They found themselves energized by the (fe)maelstrom of the emerging riot grrrl scene in the early '90s.

"There's something to be said for seeing yourself represented on stage," explains Brownstein. "Some of my favorite bands and guitar players are men, like the Jam, the Ramones, and the Gang of Four, but they weren't singing about what was going on in my head, and Bikini Kill was. It's a much different experience when you can relate to something on a deeper level than just loving the music. Everything got blown wide open for me when I saw [the riot grrrl] bands. I realized I could be part of it, and not just as a fan or a girlfriend of someone in the band."

Tucker adds, "The scene in Olympia and the people creating it were really important to me as a musician when I was starting out. It made a huge difference to me to have that kind of encouragement, to be able to play shows and have a record out when I first started playing and writing music."

Inspired by the riot grrrls, Tucker formed Heavens to Betsy with drummer/bassist Tracey Sawyer. The duo's playing style was primitive, but even their lack of technical prowess couldn't mask Tucker's burgeoning talent as a singer and songwriter -- her fervent warble contrasted with Sawyer's bloodcurdling shriek created a tension that laid the groundwork for what would become Sleater-Kinney's distinct sound. Brownstein moved to Olympia after seeing Heavens to Betsy perform, striking up a friendship with Tucker and forming the band Excuse 17. The two began Sleater-Kinney (named for the intersecting streets where their old rehearsal space sat) as a side project, but their intense musical and personal connection turned the band into their main gig, though both continue to pursue other musical endeavors. "Corrine and I both felt lucky to find someone else who shared such a similar musical language," says Brownstein. "We wanted to explore that as much as we could."

The bass-less trio (drummer Janet Weiss, who also plays in the pop-rock band Quasi, solidified the line up in 1996) set out to push the musical dialogue between the two songwriters as far as it could on The Hot Rock. Exploring love, desire, and the struggle to maintain control over their own rising stars, Tucker's shrill, Poly-Styrene-meets-Kate-Pierson vocals are answered by the calmer-sounding Brownstein. Their interplay feeds the emotional intensity of songs like "The End of You," where Tucker uses mythical imagery as a metaphor for her own bold rejection of the trappings of stardom. "The first beast that will appear/Will entice us with money and fame," she sings. "Tie me to the mast of this ship and of this band/Tie me to the greater things/The people that I love." Brownstein answers her with quieter misgivings: "You say sink or swim/What a cruel cruel phrase/I'd rather fly, don't want to get caught in this endless race." And the duo's deceptively simple guitar parts gain momentum as they intertwine. Tracks like the opening "Start Together" and "Burn Don't Freeze" hover on the verge of chaos until they're snapped back into submission by Weiss, who not only grounds the electricity of her bandmates but also frames it with clever arrangements.

"The interaction among the three of us is more interesting than an individual guitar line or vocal, and it was really important to us to capture that dynamic on this record," explains Brownstein. "I don't see our music as a monologue: I see it as a play with lots of different characters, with the guitar, drums, and vocals all having significant roles. To me, the interplay between our guitars, and vocals too, is often telling different parts of the same story, kind of like a conscious and subconscious."

It took the band three and half weeks to record The Hot Rock, quick by major-label standards but an eternity in indieland. But the extra time allowed them to focus more on creating a layered sound. "It was a totally different approach to recording [for us]," says Brownstein. "Making our previous records felt kind of like throwing up -- we went in to the studio and just purged. It happened so fast we didn't have time to analyze it. On The Hot Rock we took more time to decide things like how we wanted the guitars to sound and what amps to use. We really focused on individual parts of songs -- overdubs, keyboards, guitar parts -- but we hadn't realized how scary it would be to take our songs apart like that because at a certain point, you stop being able to discern how the song sounds as a whole. I found it hard to compartmentalize the songs, but the end result was great."

Sleater-Kinney's more mature, sophisticated approach to The Hot Rock didn't, however, put them out of touch with the classic punk-pop approach that originally inspired them. The disc is full of jagged guitar and vocal melodies, as well as the memorable choruses that helped make the band critics' darlings to begin with. "We don't try to be complex just for complexity's sake," says Brownstein. "I challenge myself to put dissonant or angular parts within a great three-chord pop song. I like making our music accessible, because that's the kind of stuff I listen to. Just not in a traditional way."

Not that anyone would accuse the band of being traditional. Sleater-Kinney continue to rock norms, with no bass player and Tucker and Brownstein eschewing the usual roles of lead/background singer and lead/rhythm guitarist. "We wanted to steer away from the hierarchy of those titles," says Brownstein. "Our live shows are the best way to experience that. There's no real front person, but the energy that flows among the three of us and out into the audience is really powerful."

Even more remarkable than the success of this democratic approach has been the group's ability to grow without making the compromises young bands are often forced to accept. Remaining part of a close-knit home-town music scene has certainly been a big help in that regard. And their devotion to that scene is reflected in their rejection of a number of major-label offers in order to stay on the Olympia-based Kill Rock Stars label.

"I like working with people who are interested in the music we write and don't look at us as a commodity, or will drop us if we don't make money for them," says Brownstein. "Signing to a major is like getting a big loan from a bank, and I don't want to work under that kind of pressure. I like being able to control our artwork, image, interviews, and videos, and making our shows accessible by not charging more than $8. We've tried to push the boundaries of what we can do on an independent label and so far I think we've been successful. I hope it will encourage bands who don't want to work with large corporations. I'd rather try to change things than assimilate."

"The music has to come first," adds Tucker. "If we're not challenging ourselves, then we won't have a band anymore, and the rest of it won't matter."