Into The Woods With Sleater-Kinney

by: Aaron Richter for Playbackstl

The 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.

The 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.

Taking Chances
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.

The 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.

“It 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.”

As 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.

“I’m 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.

But more than anything, it’s the sound of a band having fun.

“S-K 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.”

Feeling Lost
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.

“I 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.

With 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 administration.”

In addition to songs of political comment, much of The Woods is an introspective exploration.

“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.”

Bringing 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 drummer.

“We’ve been 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,” Tucker says.

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.

Freedom of 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.”