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."
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 ½ weeks of intensity in late November and early December,
Fridmann was satisfied — and the band was done.
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
"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
"We love starting [tours] in the Northwest," Brownstein said.
"The only thing is, two weeks later we're tighter."