Suicide Girls Interview with Carrie

Keith Daniels talks to Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney.

KEITH DANIELS: There was a lot of press last year about the Strokes, the Hives, White Stripes, do you think there’s a real movement back towards basic rock’n’roll?

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Well, I don’t think that basic rock’n’roll ever went away. I think the media sortof had a wonderful time saying that rock was dead and that guitars were passé’, and that electronic music was the new thing, but y’know, people were still playing rock in probably every city. Certainly it seems like the mainstream interest in rock is sortof high right now, but as a trend I don’t imagine that rock ever really went away.

KD: The next Sleater-Kinney album is going to be the seventh one. When you first started out, did you imagine that it was going to go that far?

CB: No, I didn’t. We didn’t have a specific goal in mind when we started, specifically in terms of longevity. I don’t think we knew how long it would last or what we would be doing. It is kindof amazing to me, I used to, when we had two or three records out, I used to look at other bands, y’know, when you go to the record store, go under their name and they have seven or eight records – that seemed totally impossible to me. It’s kindof amazing that we’re in that area now.

KD: A lot of bands seem to get worse over time, but you guys seem to get better. Do you put a lot of pressures on yourselves to up the ante every time?

CB: Yes, we do put pressure on ourselves, I don’t know necessarily to up the ante, but certainly to challenge ourselves. To try to explore new territory and take risks and I think that none of us want to put out the same record twice. So I think we do try to push ourselves enough so that we’re not becoming formulaic. I think that’s really important to us, and I think that part of our interest in the band, part of the reason that we have been around so long is that we have been able to grow as musicians and as people and we don’t feel locked into any kindof identity that prevents us from changing.

KD: I’m sure that you could’ve signed to a major by now if you had wanted. Why was it important to you to remain on an indie like Kill Rock Stars?

CB: I think that we were interested in working with people that cared as much about us as artists, and cared about our well-being, and didn’t just see us as a commodity—as a way to make money. We were interested in staying contextualized in our community, being part of something, instead of separate from something, which we felt like we would have become if we had signed to a major label. We also wanted to maintain artistic control, and control of the music, and what songs we put on the record. It was a decision based on all those things – they were all very important to us.

KD: I’ve read that you also play classical piano. Is that true?

CB: It’s slightly true. I played piano as a child, and have a piano, and I do play sometimes. Sometimes I write songs on the piano, and sometimes I dabble with classical music, but not too much.

KD: Is the appeal of classical music different, to you, than the appeal of rock’n’roll?

CB: Playing it, yes. I think there’s a discipline about playing classical music that is different than how I feel about rock music. Listening to classical music and rock music to me is not that much different, they can have the same sortof visceral effect on me.

KD: Who are some of your favorite composers?

CB: [Dimitry] Shostakovich, [Gustav] Mahler, [Erik] Satie. Those are probably my favorites.

KD: There’s kindof a whimsical and self-referential humor in Satie’s work, like “A Piece in the Shape of a Pear”. What is that you identify with about that?

CB: I suppose, being disciplined and working toward something that is whole and unique, but also not taking yourself totally seriously. Seeing absurdity in music I think is important, and I like that kindof self-referencing in 20th century composers in general, it definitely became more self-reflective, and more of a dialogue about their relationship to an audience, or their art’s relationship to a listener, and which I think that we do a lot, or have done in the past.

KD: When you hear about the life of someone like Shostakovich, who was censored and persecuted all his life, does it give you a little perspective on living somewhere that you don’t have to deal with that, at least overtly?

CB: Oh my god yes. I read “Testimony” by Shostakovich, in conjunction with another man. Making art for Shostakovich, the differences in terms of the societies that we live in, makes me feel very fortunate to make art without the threat of death, basically.

KD: Do you think Americans have a duty to use the relative freedom that we have here?

CB: Certainly, I don’t know if it’s to use our freedom, but I think people do in some sense take it for granted, don’t really realize how good we have it, until like recently some of our civil liberties are starting to be threatened, and people are sortof waking up a little bit. I do think there is a complacency in the US, a level of comfort that a lot of people live with, and I think that sometimes when you don’t have that level of comfort it does drive you to make art, to create, and sometimes people don’t do that here.

KD: Has the role that music plays in your life changed as you’ve gotten older?

CB: Slightly. On a practical level I find myself going out to less shows, but I still listen to music all the time. I’m still very interested in discovering new things, buying new cds, and going back and finding old records to buy, and a song can still make my stomach flip over, or make me want to dance or move around my apartment. I still see it as a way of interpreting my life, or giving meaning to something. It always seems to be a soundtrack to what I’m doing. So, in that sense, it hasn’t really changed. Music to me is such a visceral experience, which is in such contrast to the way that we’re constantly asked to use our brains and shut ourselves off from our emotions, but it’s so vital for me to have it in my life as a way of being emotional about something.

KD: …it’s hard to do that now, too, you’re bombarded by so many inputs, that it’s hard to just shut off and listen to one.

CB: Yeah, it’s true. Definitely as everyone’s attention spans get shorter ((laughs)), it’s harder to sit with a record. I’ve been really trying, when I buy new records recently, because I tend to buy a bunch at a time, to just focus on one thing for a while and really absorb a record, the way I used to when I was young. I thought it was easier, I would always listen to a record over and over again, and know all the lyrics, know the intricacies, and now I find that I’m much more apt to y’know, listen to song number one, skip over song number two. I try to really absorb it all.

KD: What was the last batch of records that you bought?

CB: I’ve been buying a lot of hip-hop lately. I really love the Roots’ new record “Phrenology”, and also that hip-hop band Jurassic 5 “Power In Numbers”, that was also a good record, the new Missy Elliott record – thought it was really great. I’ve been listening to Bettie Davis, who was the funk/soul singer from the very early 70s, she was married to Miles Davis. The new Flaming Lips record, I really liked the Spoon record “Kill the Moonlight”. Those are my most recent acquisitions I think.

KD: So the next Sleater-Kinney record’s gonna be funky.

CB: ((laughs)) I don’t think so. Fortunately I think we have a way of listening to things without letting them come directly into our.. I don’t think we’re.. no, basically, to answer your question. No.

KD: When you were a kid there must’ve been some records that, when you were listening, made you feel like “I’ve got to start a band.”. What were some of those?

CB: When I was really young I listened to Madonna, Michael Jackson, sortof the 80s pop icons which didn’t necessarily make me want to start a band, but when I was in high school we had a student teacher in Chemistry, and we had been talking about music one day, and he brought me the Jam’s “All Mod Cons”. The Jam totally made me want to start a band, and then when I discovered the Ramones, in I think also my sophomore year of high school, they made me want to start a band. Those are probably the first two.

KD: Your cat doesn’t sound very happy in the background.

CB: He wants to go outside.

KD: What’s his name?

CB: Hector.

KD: Is it exciting to think that right now someone is listening to your record, and maybe getting the same feeling, like you got from the Jam?

CB: It is exciting, wow, I don’t really think about that very often. It’s actually weird, I think about it so little that sometimes if I’m in a car and someone’s made them a mix tape or a mix cd and they put one of our songs on it, I’m still surprised like “Oh, people actually listen to it!” Yeah, I think that is an exciting feeling, and I think one good thing about me still being such a music fan is that when people come up to me and sortof gush, and then of course they feel really embarrassed about gushing, and I’m sortof like “Don’t be embarrassed”. I mean, I definitely understand the excitement about music, and I feel grateful and lucky that people find that in our music.

KD: Do you still get star-struck when you meet one of your heroes?

CB: Yeah, depends who it is, I actually don’t like meeting people I look up to ((laughs)), because I’m so afraid. Y’know, I don’t expect people to be saints, I always know that it’s different, because you imagine what they’re like from their music, and then you’re like “Oh, this is just a person.” I sortof just appreciate the music more.

KD: You’re also involved in the Spells, when do you think an album will come out of that?

CB: Oh, I don’t know. Mary and I, we live on opposite sides of the country, and when I’m not touring and she’s not touring we both just want to be home. So I don’t know, we’d have to plan a trip, and then write, and then record, so I don’t see it in the near future, but hopefully one of these days..

KD: Do you think you’d ever become directly involved in politics, or would you ever want to become?

CB: No-one’s ever asked me that before.. I don’t think so, but I do feel like in lieu of the way the elections went down in November, and what’s going on in the world right now, possibly a war with Iraq, it just seems like everyone should be getting more involved in politics. Just meaning that people need to be forming coalitions, people need to be talking to their neighbors. I don’t think it’s necessarily as easy as “I’m not going to buy anything made in China” and “I’m gonna shop organic”. It used to really seem like all the little, personal, decisions that you made were really having a great effect, and I think that’s true, but I think at this point it needs to be a little bit bigger than that. So, in that sense, I hope to be involved in politics, but I don’t think I’m going to enter politics.

KD: Why do you think the Pacific Northwest has become such a Mecca for the anti-capitalists, like you were talking about, the local shops..

CB: I just think, y’know, we’re frontier people out here. I think that there’s a weird… there’s sortof a strange mix, and one of it is the idealism that comes with being the final place in America, and the sense of wide open space, and having a relationship to the land, and having there be a lot of it. Y’know, the cities aren’t very big out here, we’re surrounded by nature, we have more of a constant dialogue with nature. There’s also, y’know communities crop up here that are very artisan, hippy-commune oriented, and I just think that that has always been at the fringe of society in the Northwest, and then slowly it permuted the mainstream until that’s very normal. People have always been sortof the rugged outdoorsy type, and I think that when you have more of a dialogue with nature and the environment you’re much more apt to want to protect it and see yourself as part of it.

KD: What do you like the most about Portland? And why are there so many strip clubs out there?

CB: The thing I like the most about Portland is that it’s a midsize city, but it feels like a small town. I lived in a small town, in Olympia, Washington for many years, and appreciated that a lot, but I like how Portland is a little bit larger yet I still feel like there’s a community here. It’s also situated between the Cascades to one side, you have the ocean not so far away, you have a river running through the city, with these eleven beautiful bridges, it’s just a very scenic city. And I don’t know why there’s so many strip clubs here.

KD: I guess I just realized what you were talking about on “Light-Rail Coyote” “..rivers cross bridges.”.

CB: Uh-huh.

KD: Had you ever heard of Suicidegirls before I contacted you?

CB: No, I went to the website though.

KD: Would you have ever considered doing something like the girls do on here, and do you feel that it’s empowering or degrading?

CB: No, I don’t think it’s degrading. Let me go to the website here..

KD: When do you feel that erotica becomes porn? What’s the line?

CB: I think that depends on who’s buying, and the power balance between the two people.

KD: What was it like to meet Conan O’Brien? Is he really super tall?

CB: He is super tall, and he’s very nice. He did that thing that a lot of people seem to do that are successful, but in some other part of the entertainment industry, or in the arts, where they’re like “I just wish I was a musician!” He was like “I just wanna be doing what you guys are doing!” Which, I didn’t actually find disingenuous, but I just always find it very odd. But he was really friendly, his wife is from Seattle, and he was like “Oh she’s very happy that you guys are coming on the show.”

KD: He always has really good musical guests on there.

CB: Yeah. He comes across immediately as very smart, and not totally affected by the world that he’s in. I have no idea what the other talk show hosts are like but he seems like the best of the bunch.

KD: What are your plans for the immediate future, are you guys going back on tour?

CB: Yeah, we’re going back on tour in February.

KD: What do you think will happen in 2003? Do you think we’ll go to war with Iraq, North Korea?

CB: Well I was thinking for a while that war with Iraq seemed inevitable, but I started being a little more hopeful that maybe we were gonna be sane about it and not go. I do think that this’ll be an interesting year. I know a lot of people that surprisingly felt hopeful about this year, about it becoming 2003, but it does seem like some military action is going to be taken, something is going to happen in Iraq, whether the UN goes in and sets up an interim government and ousts Saddam Hussein, there’s gonna be some major changes. Hopefully there’ll be a shift where people feel less disenfranchised. Hopefully, because it seems like most people don’t want to go to war with Iraq, that will signal a turning of public opinion about George Bush. I’d love to see his popularity go lower in the ratings.

KD: Geez, yeah, It’s like 65% right now.

CB: Yeah, which is lower than it’s been though. I mean, God, after September 11th it was like 93%. “Highest approval rating ever.” I think it’s going to be interesting with some of these new Supreme Court judge appointments. I just think it’s a very interesting time, I feel like we’re poised to make decisions that are going to really affect our country for the next ten or fifteen years. I think it’s making people think about oil and consumption, and I think people felt really disillusioned after the Enron scandal. I feel like 2003 is the year where people are just waking up from the dream, or the nightmare, of September 11th and the political fallout that ensued, and just starting to question a little bit more. Hopefully there’ll be some positive things this year.

KD: Do you think the internet is going to play any role in the grassroots anti-George Bush movement?

CB: I think so. It seems like some people consider the internet the great democratizing tool, where one person with a very radical opinion has the same amount of space as Pepsi. Which is amazing. But I truly hope that people actually get out of their homes and do real coalition building, and actually talk to their neighbors, and talk to real people, and start in their own communities. I think that there are communities on the internet that are important and that have been very interesting and crucial for people, but I think it has to be on a more real, tangible level. Maybe it will start there, and then people will feel comfortable to leave their homes.

KD: Do you think there’s ever going to be a viable third-party in this country?

CB: Ugh. Hopefully. I don’t know if it’s gonna be any time soon, but I’m interested in the next elections. People might feel just alienated enough that they’d be willing to vote for somebody else. It just seems like people are really interested in the “lesser of two evils” idea, and are scared to support a third-party candidate because they feel like they have no hope.

KD: Recent history has kindof reinforced that belief.

CB: Oh, certainly.

KD: Do you enjoy giving interviews? There’s a perception that you’re going to have something interesting and intelligent to say, even though you don’t know what they’re going to ask.

CB: ((laughs)). I don’t mind giving interviews, no, sometimes they’re fun.