Sub Pop producer pushes Northwest's Sleater-Kinney to rise again

 

Sleater-Kinney is dead.
Prime suspect: Dave Fridmann.

Using an illustrious portfolio (Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, the recent Low album), Fridmann lured the indie-superstar trio into the woods outside Buffalo, N.Y. There, with Sub Pop Records bankrolling the operation, he sonically slaughtered Sleater-Kinney.

Rather than a cold-blooded murder, this was an assisted suicide, as S-K was more than ready to kill off its past. It was probably a wise decision: While the politically-socially charged lyrics remained crucial to its devoted audience, after six albums, Sleater-Kinney's raggedly atonal, minimalist production style probably had gone as far as it could.

Co-guitarist and co-founder Carrie Brownstein says Sleater-Kinney was ready for "a deconstruction of ourselves."

That product is the week-old album "The Woods" the first meeting of the intensely respected Northwest trio and Seattle's famed record label. This is a musical rebirthing that the musical community seems to be joyously embracing.

The very title of this album is portentous, a sense of multilevel meanings that, from her home in Portland, Brownstein cautiously confirms. "A lot of people told me their interpretation of 'The Woods,' and all of them are really valid. We needed a title that could bear the heaviness of the songs. 'The Woods' is where all this darkness and heaviness could be housed. It also conjures images of a regional landscape, the Northwest."
 

Signing with Sub Pop

Ah, the Northwest: Brownstein knows it from many angles. She was raised on the Eastside, started playing in bands and collecting Sub Pop records (Nirvana's "Sliver," Mudhoney, Green River) while attending Lake Washington High School. After graduating, she was off to Olympia's Evergreen College, where in 1994 she and singer-guitarist Corin Tucker founded Sleater-Kinney (named after a road in the state capital) The band quickly outgrew the Bikini Kill/Bratmobile "riot grrl" Olympia scene, gradually building a national following and almost universally glowing press reviews.

Tucker was the first to leave Olympia for Portland, where drummer Janet Weiss lives; Brownstein grew tired of commuting from Olympia for practices, and moved to Portland herself four years ago.

Now Sleater-Carrie (as you might call Brownstein) has in a sense come home, as signing with Sub Pop brings her back to Seattle, at least on a business level. The decision to leave the Kill Rock Stars label was part of killing Sleater-Kinney's past, and Sub Pop quickly emerged as a candidate. It started with Sub Pop rep Steve Manning, who talked to them at a show last fall and gave them a typically straightforward schmooze: "You guys should be on Sub Pop!"

"I think ultimately it boiled down to their excitement and their feeling that we belonged there," said Brownstein. "... We were drawn in with their enthusiasm about music, and other bands on the label and the short drive up there to have some face time. Plus, they make us laugh, they like to make fun of us and vice versa."

Kill Rock Stars' loss was quite a gain for Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman. "I think they just wanted to do something different and to work with a label that had staffing substantial enough to support them," Poneman said.

 

The makeover artist

As they were negotiating with Sub Pop, Sleater-Kinney started the business of tearing itself down for a major renovation. During preliminary meetings (at Tucker's house) and rehearsals (in Weiss' basement) around Portland's east side, Sleater-Kinney decided to remake itself on its seventh album and found a brilliant makeover artist in Fridmann.

An excellent Magnet magazine interview by Eddie Vedder yes, by Mr. Vedder had the trio opening up about how intense it was to record with Fridmann.

Brownstein told Vedder that Fridmann admitted to not being a fan of the previous S-K albums: "... He thought all of our other records sounded the same. When we got [to the studio], he said that they never captured the emotional intensity of our band."

Tucker told Vedder, "I think this whole record kept pushing in this territory of doing something so different and so outside of ourselves." More colorfully, Brownstein said to the Pearl Jam leader: "There was a lot of crying in the studio: 'I can't do this.' "

The actual recording, Brownstein, said last week, "actually was kind of an extension for the writing process which had been difficult and lengthy. ... We were already in a place that was new and a little bit uncomfortable." They extended that feeling with a wildly new recording environment. Rather than following the pattern of recording in the Northwest ("there is something that's comforting and kind of grounding about being able to go home at the end of the day"), for the recording of "The Woods," the trio recorded and slept at Fridmann's studio in Cassadaga, N.Y. "That kind of intensity was really good for us for us to live and breathe the album. ... And Dave coming from an outside perspective, we wanted it to be just a little uncomfortable; as foreign and uncomfortable as possible."

 

"You're done"

Uncomfortable? Just a bit. Fridmann turned out to be an emotional perfectionist who, like a theater director, insisted on clarity of feeling. "I actually had it a little easier on this record than Janet and Corin," Brownstein said with a chuckle. "I'm playing so many leads, and they're intuitive. [Fridmann] pushed Janet really hard, saying things like 'This part should sound like Keith Moon and then like a blanket being lowered over Keith Moon's kit.' Janet would be, 'What does that mean?'

"And with Corin sometimes he'd ask her to add a few notes to a line ... sometimes he'd hear things in his head and try to translate them. The scariest thing for me is he gave me so much freedom. And getting into an emotional place that was scary and that was dark. Being able to play in a way that wasn't note-for-note perfection, but being daring.

"We'd say, 'How's that sound?' Just silence. The Fridmann pause, we call it. ... He's a man of few words. He's not a cheerleader. When you get it, he just says, 'You're done.' For us it was hard."

After 2 weeks of intensity in late November and early December, Fridmann was satisfied and the band was done.
 

"Really shocked"

Labels normally have their representatives lurking near or in recording studios, to make sure their money is being well spent. Sub Pop remained in Seattle, hopeful after hearing early versions of the songs that S-K was on to something big. "We got to hear a bunch of stuff live down in Portland not too long before the [recording]," said Tony Kiewel, who became S-K's Sub Pop rep. "Then I didn't hear anything until the record was mixed they FedEx'ed it to me over Christmas break.

"I was really shocked, the first time I heard it. I remember calling Megan [Jasper, Sub Pop's general manager] and saying, 'Did she just do a guitar solo? What is going on?!' "

Now that the creative murder-rebirthing is done, Sub Pop's job is to do the grunt work. "As Tony likes to say around the office, 'The heat is on!' " said Poneman, probably only half-joking. "I feel like it's my job to help bring the music to as many people as possible," said Kiewel. That means trying to land magazine articles, pushing the video of "Entertain" to MTV, facilitating TV appearances.

Sleater-Kinney has never made platinum-selling albums, and, as it doesn't cater to a sugar-pop, cookie-cutter-loving audience, probably never will. Neither the artists nor the label expects that. "Our passion drives everything," said Poneman. He insisted that, at his smallish label, "there's not a calculated 'they suck but they'll sell a lot of records.' "

Poneman is passionate about all of Sub Pop's artists and albums, but when he talks about Sleater-Kinney and "The Woods," the enthusiasm is mixed with reverence: "This is such an amazing album, it's just so gratifying and humbling to work with them."

With the album just arriving in record stores, the Sleater-Kinney tour begins, fittingly enough, in Seattle: tomorrow night at the Moore Theatre.

"We love starting [tours] in the Northwest," Brownstein said. "The only thing is, two weeks later we're tighter."