Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney
by: Kyle Ryan for The Onion, June 1st, 2005
By the time Sleater-Kinney released 2002's One Beat, the band
had settled into a comfortable groove. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein,
and Janet Weiss had honed their sound: punkish, catchy songs built on
two guitars, drums, and vocal harmonies. They had a small-but-dedicated
and surprisingly powerful record label, Kill Rock Stars, behind them for
four straight records. Each album elicited critical praise, even from
mainstream media, and their shows often sold out. They'd even adjusted
well to the birth of Tucker's son, Marshall. A decade into their career,
the members of Sleater-Kinney enjoyed popularity, success, and
They also felt bored—with their music, themselves, and what the band
represented. Comfort can easily lead to complacency, and for a band
rooted in punk's Riot Grrrl movement, there's no greater sin than
phoning it in. So they left Kill Rock Stars and ditched much of their
newly written material because it sounded too familiar. When the time
came to record their seventh record, they left behind their longtime
producer John Goodmanson in favor of Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips,
Mercury Rev, Low), who wasn't even a Sleater-Kinney fan. The result is
The Woods, released by Sub Pop Records in late May. On its 10
tracks, Sleater-Kinney rebels against itself by delving into massively
overdriven guitar-rock excess, a sound with distinct ties to the
ultimate punk-rock nemesis: classic rock. Punk remains, though, as
The Woods seethes with unprecedented aggression and confidence. The
final two tracks—one 11 minutes long, and the other nearly four—were
improvised and recorded in one continuous take.
The Woods is a startling departure from Sleater-Kinney's style,
but it could also be the group's best work yet. Just before its release,
Brownstein spoke to The A.V. Club about complacency, classic
rock, and her band's identity.
The Onion: Last year, you said Sleater-Kinney was going through a
midlife crisis and needed to "press the reset button." Do you feel like
that has passed?
Carrie Brownstein: I don't know. I've never been in another
kind of midlife crisis. [Laughs.] I don't know what it feels like when
you're through that, but I definitely feel that changing a few things,
like being on a different label and having things kind of settle back
into a sense of normality, helps to feel grounded. I think when I [said
that], we were not on Kill Rock Stars anymore, but we weren't on another
label yet either, and we didn't have a booking agent any more because he
had retired, and our publicist had also retired. [Laughs.] I think in
some ways, we were just wondering, "Well, what is the future of this
band, and why should there even be one? Why do you keep making music
after nearly a decade, or after six records?" But yes, we realized that
we still wanted to.
O: The past three years seem like they've been trying; you've said
you're not sure Sleater-Kinney would still be together if Corin's
pregnancy hadn't forced a break. From the outside, it looks unstable.
How is it on the inside?
CB: I think it feels as stable as being in a band can ever
feel. [Laughs.] I think one of the reasons that we are able to actually
keep making music that we want to make, and that we're inspired by, is
because there is a certain amount of instability constantly, and I think
that mirrors the instability of any given life. I think that we make
better music and art in moments that are slightly precarious, so I feel
like that's kind of the bind of being creative; everyone yearns for the
constant or the stable, but it's often in moments where you're faltering
that something with a little more clarity or passion comes through. So I
guess it's trying to find a balance between the two. In our lives, I
think we're definitely feeling more stable. It's nice to have a label
again and feel like, "Okay, now we have some things in place."
O: You personally had a mission to grow as a guitarist before this
record. What did that entail?
CB: I think it was just about thinking about how I play and
whether I had reached, you know, the limit, or whether I could open up a
new part of myself and figure out a different way of approaching the
instrument. After a certain amount of time, you start to feel like you
know the way you're going to approach a song, or you know the way you're
going to approach a guitar part. Like, if Corin brings in this
kind of song, then I'm apt to put this over it. And if I bring in
this kind of song, it's always going to sound like this.
You don't want it to become formulaic, and you don't want it to become
predictable in any way. There were a lot of songs that we discarded in
between One Beat and The Woods because we were doing
something that just sounded so much like it could have happened on one
of the other records. And when we tried to deconstruct the song or tried
to take it into new territory, it just wouldn't go there, you know? So I
do feel like, in addition to working on the songwriting, I just needed
to think about the way I played guitar, the way that I approached chords
and leads, and see if I could go out and find myself a little bit.
O: So it was about trying something different?
CB: I think that's how we approached a lot of the songwriting
on this record, whether it was with Corin's voice, really getting her to
the point where she was just mad at us. "Why do you want me to
sing this differently?" To the point where she would be so mad
that then, when we went back into the part, she would be screaming, and
it would be incredible. And we'd be like, "That's exactly what we
wanted!" And she would just be like, "Arrrggh!" But to get to a
place that feels uncomfortable, I think was a really big theme of this
whole recording and writing process. It took a lot of patience, and
that's, I think, one reason it took so long for it just to happen.
O: From what you've said in other interviews, it seems like
recording was tense. Was that constant, or just intermittent?
CB: I think it was just moments like that. First of all, we
put ourselves in a position where we were really isolated from our
friends and family. We were out in western New York outside Buffalo,
just like in a really remote, small town, so I mean just physically,
there was an element of discomfort. In addition to that being a little
uncomfortable and isolating, it was also insular, and I think sometimes
that insularity breeds, like, a kind of energy and almost desperation,
where you're just relating to, for us, three other people: the two other
people in the band, and the producer. It becomes kind of symbiotic; it
becomes kind of magical. You really lose perspective of what's going on
in the outside world. In some ways, that is good.
But yeah, certainly there were moments where we just felt like we
couldn't push it any further, that we were so frustrated with ourselves
or each other, and we had to get through that. I mean, I think more of
the tension was with the songwriting [than] in the studio. It was just
more like we so wanted to be capturing a moment. There were so many
parts of the songs that we left open to be spontaneous, and then trying
to get to a place where it just felt organic and natural and not forced
during those parts, you know? And if we weren't able to get there,
instead of [saying], "Okay, let's try again right now," [we said] "Okay,
let's wait three hours and then approach it." So, I mean, so many ways
that we approached the recording process were really different. And in
some ways, it was really freeing to know that what we were trying to
capture was a moment or an emotional tenor instead of note-for-note
perfection. When John Goodmanson would say, "Okay, we're recording," I
would have so much anxiety. I'd just be like, "I have this part; it's
very static. It's fixed, and if I mess up, that means I have to go back
in later and fix my part." Whereas with this approach, it was like
"Okay, if I don't feel my way through this song, if I'm not
inside this song right now, then it's not going to be a good take, but
as long as I'm inside of it, I can do anything with it. And even if I
totally mess up, it could be great, you know?" [Laughs.]
O: In one interview, you referenced a who's who of groups that
influenced you for The Woods: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep
Purple, Jimi Hendrix. How did you come to embrace that sound?
CB: I guess I think I've always kind of liked some of those
bands. I've always loved The Who or some Led Zeppelin, and, you know,
like Cream and Blue Cheer and those bands. But in a way, they didn't
really speak to me the way The Clash spoke to me, you know? But I would
listen to the radio and listen to modern-rock stations, and I would just
be so annoyed at the direction of where, like, the legacy of punk
and alternative rock had gone—like just this super safe, "Oh, every song
that the station plays has to be under three minutes. I have to know
what the chorus is going to sound like even before it happens." It was
just so safe and predictable. And then I would turn to the
classic-rock station, and it would be like this eight-minute song that
breaks into this insane part, and you'd have no idea what was going to
happen. I was just like, "How did we come so far from this? Why does
this sound punk-rock now?" I thought punk rock was about breaking
rules and going to a place that's a little bit dangerous, and nothing on
the contemporary rock station sounds dangerous at all.
All of the sudden, the music that was appealing to me was just this
music that was trying to reach kind of like a sonic freedom or
expression of complexity. So yeah, I think part of it was just realizing
that like, okay, a guitar solo doesn't have to be wanky. A guitar solo
can be a sentence, whereas a riff is a phrase. Maybe it's time in this
culture of oversimplification [where] rhetoric is just reduced down to
the most basic terms so that we feel safe and protected, that maybe it's
time to be speaking in sentences now. [Laughs.] I started to get, like,
"What is the role of art when entertainment and politics and everything
is conflated into one thing?" Well, I guess the role of art is to make
something that is ambiguous and complex. So it wasn't just like, "I want
to make a record that sounds like classic rock" at all. It was more
like, "I want to make a record that is a little more unsettling and
maybe isn't as easily understood now." That just seemed more important,
like, for me to make as an artist, than it was to make something to make
people feel safe right away.
O: It seems pretty indicative of this record that you went with a
producer who wasn't necessarily even a Sleater-Kinney fan.
CB: I think that he respected us and was interested and liked
the songs he had heard on the demos, but I think he didn't really
necessarily know how he was going to approach it. When we played for
him, he really just was taken aback by, like, the power and energy of
the songs, and just kind of how emotional they made him feel. You know,
I think he hadn't really counted on that, and he just sort of said, "I
feel like my hands are tied. I just want to plug you guys in and record
you just like this." I mean, he really wanted to find a way of capturing
the raw and visceral element to the band.
O: The Woods definitely reflects that. It's so distorted,
overdriven, and just loud.
CB: Yeah, I think Dave really just wanted things to sound
wrong. When I was setting up a distortion pedal for a song, I'd call
into a control room like, "How does the distortion sound?" And he'd be
like, "Meh. I don't know—it sounds just like blues distortion. It
doesn't sound wrong enough." Like, "Well, if you want to sound
distorted, why should it just be a little bit distorted? Let's
throw subtlety out the window." It is weird how people don't actually
notice things. You do really have to, like, go to a certain extreme or a
certain place to even capture it. I remember when I did the vocals for
the song "Entertain," which at the time just sounded totally unhinged.
Dave was just like, "God, it's intense," and Corin heard it and was
like, "Are you sure you want to sound like that? Are you sure you want
to sound like you're losing it?" And Dave was like, "Why would we try to
get something else? We've captured that. Why would we want to tame it
down?" It was weird, like, five days into it, we would bring it up
again, and I'd be like, "Is that the right one, or did you use the
cleaner one?" He's like, "No, that's it." You just realize after a
while, it all kind of sounds normal, like you really have to go so far
to even make any impact on record. It's weird how it kind of just fades
into the background. The more I listen to it, I'm like, "Oh yeah, I can
remember the vocal take." When I first heard it back, I was like, "Oh my
God, what's wrong with me?"
O: Did you ever feel like you made a mistake going in this
CB: Not really, because I just feel like, on a personal level,
we have nothing to lose. What, we're just going to put out a record that
sounds like One Beat? That would be a mistake, or it would be a
bigger mistake—like, "Another Sleater-Kinney record, good job, girls!"
That, to me, would be the bigger mistake. I would rather [hear] "God,
it's so different. I can't stand it, I just hate it," than "It's just
like their other records, and that's okay." That kind of middle of the
road, not inspiring any opinion—to me, that's like the enemy of all
creativity. The enemy of any artistic statement is to create something
that no one cares about, in the sense they have no opinion either way.
I'd rather have people be divided on it and feel passionately that it's
our worst or best record than feel nothing. [Laughs.] So I mean in that
way, it's not a failure, and like I said, it would feel much more
detrimental to us as a band to just get a pat on the back, like, "Oh,
it's another decent one out of the canon." I don't feel like it's a
really good time to be sitting on the fence with anything, no matter
what you're doing.
O: So do you have any predictions about how fans will react?
CB: I don't know. I mean, I feel like the people that have
been watching us live in the last couple of years—to me, this doesn't
seem like that much of a stretch, for where we were taking some of our
songs. We were starting to build in improvisation within even a song
like "Dig Me Out," which is eight years old or whatever.
So I think for the people that have been seeing us live, this record
shouldn't be that much of a surprise. I also think it does take into
consideration things that have preceded it. You know, to me there is an
urgency that I haven't felt in us since like Call The Doctor, or
Dig Me Out. The songs sound urgent and aggressive and raw in a
way that I feel like sonically hasn't been there for a while. So I don't
know; I feel like it has elements of us, you know? I think the
vocabulary is a little bit different. I feel like people will either get
it or they won't. It's not really a record someone's going to listen to
once. "Well, I didn't like it. I listened to it once; I didn't get it."
There's so many other records out there that you can buy that you can
get right away, but at least this one you gotta listen to a couple of
times. You hope people get it, but definitely there's going to be people
that aren't. I think it's going to be the kind of thing where, for the
people that are like, "Well, it's not my thing," there'll be other
people that nothing else we did was their thing. [Laughs.] I've never
felt that this band is about one thing or one idea, so you just kind of
hope people trust you to grow or change.
O: You say Sleater-Kinney has never been about one thing per se,
but the band has definitely come to be associated with a certain sound
and image, and The Woods seems like a reversal.
CB: A decade is a long time to be in a band. You almost feel a
little bit sick of who you are. You just kind of feel like you know what
you're capable of. I didn't want to feel like I knew what was going to
happen every time Dave hit the "record" button. And I didn't want to
feel like I knew what was going to happen when one of us brought in a
song—or that I knew what a record was going to sound like before we went
in there. I think on our other records, I really did have a sense like,
"Well, the songs, when they come out, they're going to sound like this,
but a little more polished. Or they'll have keyboards on them." Which
was fine, but I think there's, like, so much uncertainty right now, just
in the world, and a lot of this record is about trying to learn how to
live with that. I feel like a lot of the writing and playing was
happening from a ledge, and there were going to be moments that kind of
faltered a little bit, whereas before, like you said, even with our
identity or with who we were, I felt like "This is who we are." Even
though that feels complex and multidimensional, I still kind of have an
idea. And then it's like, "Wait a second, do I even like that? Do I want
to be all those things? Or do I just feel like I'm kinda stuck in it?"
So I mean, not even so much how other people viewed us, but how we
viewed ourselves, it was important [that] we shook ourselves out of
that. Even if we jump right back in, just to feel like, "Oh, okay, we
can go to a place that's dark and new, and it's okay to be in here."