An Interview With Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein

By Joe Heim for washingtonpost.com
 

With the release in August of their sixth CD, "One Beat," on the Kill Rock Stars label, Sleater-Kinney has solidified its standing as one of the truly great rock bands of the last decade. The trio of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss continues to make music that matters even if it's rarely heard on commercial radio. On Sunday, Oct. 20, the group will perform at the 9:30 club along with openers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Quails. And they will be at the Recher Theatre in Baltimore on Sunday, Oct. 27.

In a recent interview from her home in Portland, Ore., guitarist and vocalist Carrie Brownstein talked about the band's new album, Sept. 11, Bruce Springsteen and playing in Washington, D.C.

So, a lot has been made about how the band has chosen to respond to Sept. 11 with this album. How many of these songs were written after the attacks?
I think about half were written after but only three were written as a response to that: "Far Away," "Combat Rock" and "Step Aside."

What were you doing on that day?
I remember just getting up with a phone call around 7:30. I just remember spending a lot of time watching TV and not being able to turn it off. And then I spent time calling everyone and feeling disoriented and scared and kind of at a loss. It was all just surreal.

Have you been surprised by how few bands and artists seem to have addressed Sept. 11 and its aftermath in their music?
It has been a little bit surprising. I sort of have this romanticized idea of late '60s and '70s music and the time where musicians were sort of the spokespeople and were voicing opinions of dissent or questioning or using their music as a means of bringing people together. And because I wasn't around then, that could be false, but it seems like there was definitely a collective push from the arts community to address issues. So, yeah I was a little bit surprised.

Well, why do you think there aren't more musicians addressing this with their songs?
I think the biggest reason is just how watered down mainstream music has become. To the point where I don't really feel that people look to music as a medium that contains a lot of meaning. I think that music has become mainly entertainment, at least on a mainstream level. Some of the efficacy of music has been lost in the last decade or especially in the last five years. It's over-saturated and people just have a different relationship to music, first and foremost.

What about the new Springsteen record "The Rising"? Have you had a chance to listen to that?
Yeah, and we actually went and saw him play. He played here (Portland) the day our record came out and we treated ourselves to a very expensive Springsteen concert. (laughs) It was pretty good. Janet is a huge Springsteen fan. She went to see him on the River tour in 1980. I was impressed with the show. Not only did they seem really excited to be playing with one another and playing for this crowd, but he has so much cultural power and I think people still turn to him as a leader and it's kind of amazing to see that and have it be positive.

Do you like "The Rising"?
I do think the record is pretty good. I don't love it but there are definitely some good songs on there. I really like them live. He's doing a lot from "The Rising" and from "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and those two records are pretty connected in a way. I think it's phenomenal for a writer to make an album that sounds fresh and be able to see a thread and a lineage to his earlier work and have it still be relevant. That's what you want as an artist. That's what you hope for, so it's pretty impressive.

Well, when you listen to your earlier records, what's your reaction to them? Or do you even go back and listen to them?
I don't as much as Janet and Corin because I remember all those songs (laughs). When we're about to leave on tour everyone picks old songs to see which ones we want to play. And they have to go back and listen because they don't remember, so I probably listen to them the least. The one thing that I do notice is how fast they are, how much higher Corin's voice seems, how my voice is weaker. I'm pretty critical but I still love the songs. I don't discount them at all. When I contextualize them and think of the progression from album to album I think it's really natural and organic. They each have their place in our canon and in my own life. I'm usually the biggest fan of the latest record.

Would you agree that the new record sounds vastly different musically than your previous albums?
Well, I don't know. I think of "Dig Me Out" and "The Hot Rock" as the two ends of the spectrum and it's kind of been combined on this record. And then we also pushed ourselves beyond that. I think we pushed ourselves farthest in a lot of different realms, especially songwriting and production. The freshness and the immediacy that I think the album has comes from a combination of challenging ourselves but also reconnecting. It captures some of the excitement that I feel exists on "Call the Doctor" and "Dig Me Out" because we took so much time off and we came back to it with a need for it that I don't think necessarily exists on "The Hot Rock" or on "All Hands on the Bad One."

Is it different for you playing in Washington than in any other city?
The only time it felt completely surreal was when we opened for Belle and Sebastian at Constitution Hall. That was horrifying.

That was the show earlier this year where there was hardly anyone in the venue when you played. Almost all of the seats were empty when you came on.
Yeah. I felt like I was in another country, and it made me feel completely out of place and it made Washington feel like the most elitist place. But I guess it's good for those things to happen. It was humbling and totally surreal. But normally we feel a kinship with Washington, D.C., because of it having such a rich music history and community and so usually it doesn't feel so alienating.

How are things different for the band now that Corin is a mother?
Well certainly it affects Corin and it affects logistics, but it has only been really wonderful. I mean her son is really amazing and I think it has changed Corin in really profound ways as an artist and as a person. It's just really wonderful to be around. I think it has had only a positive effect.

What do you mean by profound ways?
Well, I think there's a certain kind of selfishness that can be afforded to you when you're not a parent. When you have a kid, that really changes you. I think it's changed her perspective. She's always been a very selfless person but she's even more selfless and giving and understanding and concerned. She said something at our show in Portland the other night like, "I see some people leaning over the balcony and it makes me really nervous and I don't want anyone to fall." And I was like "Oh my god, who are you?"

Has it changed your perspective at all?
Somewhat. I mean I've never known someone for so long who's then had a kid. She's my oldest friend and I feel just lucky to be around him and watch him grow up. But it also changes for me the way I think about society. It makes me think about more abstract things like sociology and socialization, nature v. nurture, that kind of thing. I guess I'm able to think about it from a more theoretical perspective. (laughs)

You guys have never really had to deal with bad press at all.
No, we have. We definitely have! (laughing) You just don't see it in our press packet. We got a bad review in Magnet this time around. They were like, "If you're gonna have a message, you gotta have the music to back it up." I mean I've read bad reviews, but that one I was like, come on this is actually our most complicated musical record. We get a lot of backhanded compliments. And we get gnarly little jabs.

Do you remember the worst thing anyone ever said?
Yeah, I think it was in Dallas and this woman just hated female bands. She hated Joni Mitchell, hated Patti Smith, really just hated the icons of female songwriting. It was harsh, but then again we were in really good company. We thought, "Well she hated Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell, I guess it would be weird if she liked us." That was the worst one. That really made me angry. I had to stop myself from sending off a mean letter.

Okay, one last question. Are there three bands that you never had a chance to see that you would have loved to have seen?
Oh yeah, the Kinks. Probably the Velvet Underground. And, um, well probably, I mean maybe the Beatles. (laughs) I mean there's so many. Oh no, no, no. Not the Beatles. Led Zeppelin

Okay, we'll let you have four.
Okay. Thanks.