Into The Woods With
by: Aaron Richter
first time I heard Sleater-Kinney, I was sitting in a high school desk
waiting for the lunch bell to ring. It was my last semester before
college, and I had treated myself to a class called Music and American
Society, a history class that traded its textbooks for CDs.
first week found us chronologically exploring women’s history by
listening to such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, and
Madonna. With discussion topics ranging from women performing
male-penned songs to the emergence of female sexual expression
populating much of our class time, the week eventually came to a close,
but not before the disc changer switched on its final song—“One More
Hour” by Sleater-Kinney.
After the startling vocal howl and dueling guitars struck their final
note, the teacher asked us what made the song different from the other
music we had listened to. The class was silent; faces were filled with
blank stares. Observing the room in confusion, I thrust my hand into the
air to declare the seemingly obvious fact that the song was about a
romantic relationship with a woman.
The class’ silence has always confused me. Was there something about the
subject matter that made them uncomfortable? Did the lyrical appearance
of marginalized sexuality drive them to construct a barrier against the
music? Was the concept of an openly discussed same-sex relationship too
much for them to grasp? Were they just too hungry to care?
Whatever the case, it was certain that in just three minutes
Sleater-Kinney had stepped up with one song from its 1997 release,
Dig Me Out, and challenged a group of over-privileged,
over-sheltered high school kids to confront this slice of reality.
Days away from hearing the final masters of her band’s new album,
Sleater-Kinney vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker reflects on the band’s
decision to nourish its experimental side as a way to keep things
interesting while working on its seventh album.
“There’s a lot of new sounds and textures on this record that we haven’t
done before,” she says. “We really tried to go for it with guitar
sounds, just totally experimenting with different sounds and really
taking a lot of risks with all the sounds on the record.”
There are two ways you can take this. Approach it with an air of
skepticism, and Tucker is throwing out a derivative answer to the broad
what’s-different-this-time-around question when, in truth, the album is
actually more of the same. Or, grab yourself a spoon and eat up Tucker’s
words as gospel with no regard for the fact that her comment sounds like
every band’s response when talking about a new release. The difference
here is that Tucker couldn’t be more honest about the new album.
Portland, Ore., trio, composed of Tucker, guitarist/vocalist Carrie
Brownstein, and drummer Janet Weiss, has just spent five and a half
weeks in the middle of the woods working on jumping out of their comfort
zones. And recording some music.
Exchanging coasts and trekking through the woods, Sleater-Kinney
traveled to Tarbox Road Studios in Cassadaga, N.Y., to work with
producer David Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), who was
unfamiliar with Sleater-Kinney’s music. Accustomed to working with John
Goodmanson in the past, the band entered the studio with songs written.
was pretty intense the first few days,” Tucker recounts. “We went in
with someone that we didn’t know, who had never really heard our music
before and just played all the songs for him. He sat there taking notes
like a college professor.”
the band tossed around ideas of creating a new, wild sound, Fridmann
listened to the preliminary versions of the songs and developed an idea
of what the band needed to do with the recording process.
glad that I wasn’t really familiar with their recordings though,”
Fridmann says. “I think it would have made it harder to follow new paths
if I had.”
New paths? Try a whole new sound with just enough Sleater-Kinney kiss
that it reminds us why we’re listening in the first place. “The Fox”
begins the album with Sonic Youth–style fuzzed-over guitar shredding, a
drastic departure from Sleater-Kinney’s trademark crisp riffs. There are
ridiculously over-indulgent guitar solos (“What’s Mine Is Yours”), lo-fi
singalongs (“Modern Girl”), and even a ten-minute tour de force that
transitions into the following song with a live studio improvisation
(“Let’s Call It Love”). But somehow this all works.
Simply titled The Woods (to be released May 24), the album
works because it is Sleater-Kinney’s first true foray into the world of
studio antics, and it doesn’t try to fool listeners into thinking the
band’s done this its entire career. It sounds just as a band should when
taking its first dive into such unfamiliar waters, complete with a
handful of awkward moments that manage to come across as endearing.
more than anything, it’s the sound of a band having fun.
wanted a raw and crazy sound,” Fridmann says, “so I tried to help them
find that. This is the record that they wanted to make, and I was lucky
enough to be there while they were doing it.”
As apparent by the title of the record, working at Tarbox Road
Studios had more of an affect on Sleater-Kinney than just providing a
place to record the album. The name represents the seclusion the band
members felt being so far removed from their normal city life. But
Tucker says the title holds a much broader meaning as well.
also think The Woods can really be in reference to the climate
of things our country is going through right now,” she says. “We’re in
the middle of a really horrible war and really intense political times.
It can definitely feel like scary, uncharted territory.”
Tucker’s comment reflects a political edge Sleater-Kinney has always had
in its music.
more artists having used their music as a tool of protest in the days
counting down to the presidential election, it would seem the concept of
a protest song has lost some steam after the blue states were severely
lacking on Nov. 2, but Tucker sees the spirit of the protest song as
strong as ever.
“ We have to keep some kind of morality alive that says that we object
to this kind of injustice,” Tucker says, “just for the sake of letting
the rest of the world know that we don’t all agree with the Bush
addition to songs of political comment, much of The Woods is an
“There’s a lot of mental struggle on the album that sort of reflects the
past four years we’ve been living in and trying to make some sense of
it,” Tucker says. “It’s a very dark record for sure.”
It all Back Home
The Pacific Northwest has always provided a home for Sleater-Kinney.
Emerging from the early ’90s riot grrrl explosion, Tucker and
Brownstein, then students at Evergreen State College, first met when
Tucker was performing in a duo called Heavens to Betsy. The friendship
led Brownstein to start her own band called Excuse 17, but in 1994 the
two launched Sleater-Kinney as a side project. As the other bands fell
to the side, Sleater-Kinney began making a name for itself by releasing
politically and socially charged records on Donna Dresch’s Olympia-based
Chainsaw label. Upon making the jump to the Kill Rock Stars record
label, also out of Olympia, the band picked up Weiss as a permanent
playing in the Pacific Northwest for ten years, and we share a lot of
history with people who have been doing music here for a long time,”
With the need to
explore new musical ground, Sleater-Kinney also saw the necessity to
begin ties with a new record label. The band split amicably with Kill
Rock Stars, for whom they released four albums, and, sticking to its
northwest roots, Sleater-Kinney signed a deal with legendary
Seattle-based Sub Pop Records. Not only did the band members remain in
the region that raised them, but they also remained true to the spirit
of their music by avoiding the urge to sign with a major label, a feat
even formerly northwestern electro-rockers Le Tigre was unable to avoid
in the past year.
“For us, we just
thought Sub Pop would get us,” Tucker says. “We’d be working together
rather than working against, which is something that can sometimes
happen with a major label when they have totally different ideas about
what they might want you to do with your record.”
Perhaps if some
record exec had put his or her input into writing “One More Hour” in
1997, the woman with the “other girl” would have been a man, and instead
of her taking off her dress, he would take off his slacks. If this had
occurred, my high school class wouldn’t have shut itself off in an
attempt to avoid the issue minutes before lunch. Sleater-Kinney’s album
would have gone six-billion times platinum, and the band would be pasted
across nearly every media outlet in the world. The Woods would
have been filled with delightful pop gems pledging Jessica Simpson-style
support to our country’s foreign affairs, and Sleater-Kinney would even
have its own “Support Our Troops” ribbon with the band’s smiling mugs
faded behind the cursive letters.
But thankfully this exaggeration isn’t the case.
expression is something Sleater-Kinney has always valued; compromise
would be a cop out. If this causes some listeners to close their ears,
then so be it.
“We’re not the
kind of band that soothes people and you can just have on while doing
the dishes,” Tucker says. “We’re a very challenging band to listen to,
and I think we know that. It’s just important to us to make music that
we find daring and passionate.”