Playing music 'to forge a language'

By Irene Yadao. For the San Diego Union-Tribune. May 13, 2004.

There are nuances in Carrie Brownstein's voice that reveal a West Coast provenance. When she speaks, her r's curl, and there is an ever-so-subtle rise at the end of her sentences, as if she might be posing a question in lieu of making a statement.

But Brownstein, along with Sleater-Kinney bandmates Janet Weiss and Corin Tucker, has built a career on making statements.

As an all-female punk band emerging from the Northwest during the grunge-addled musicscape of the early '90s, Sleater-Kinney engendered not merely a different sound and veneer, but an altogether different manifesto, one concerned with tearing down patriarchal notions of history, society, media and politics.

It was a platform inspired by bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, engineers of the short-lived radical movement known as riot grrrl.

"There is an academic language of feminism that is what it is on paper. It is theoretical and ideological," said Brownstein. "When Bikini Kill came out ... having somebody put it in a language that people could understand, such as music, was empowering. You could go to a show and dance, have the music speak to you. Suddenly, people had a way of applying it to their lives that was exciting."

Their own sound proved both exciting and relevant, and it spoke loudly to the disenfranchised, more specifically to women. The music was intense. It was edgy and imperfect. And it candidly articulated the female angst toward social conformity and social norms.

"I think that punk rock often stems from a place of a anger and frustration with the status quo's not wanting to view the world through the lens of anyone other than the dominant view," Brownstein said. "When we started out, we felt those things passionately. But back then it was more about shedding some of the trappings we thought we had. Now, we play music in order to communicate with an audience, to forge a language."

What has made Sleater-Kinney a band of singular importance is this very language, something they've gradually expanded from a vocabulary of feminism into one of humanism.

"We'd really tried to defy people's expectations of what kind of band we were going to be," Brownstein said. "A lot of the focus people placed on us when we first started playing was that we were women musicians; we had made it a point over the years to jar people, to deliberately not meet their expectations."

And there have been plenty of quiet-though-unexpected shifts in the music. Most notably in their sixth record-to-date, 2002's "One Beat," an album of tedious deliberation and melodic grandeur: There is a touch of metal in Brownstein's virtuosic riffs, wide-open melodies pumping furiously out of Weiss' percussion and a return by Tucker to ingenuously massive, unmitigated vocals.

"One Beat" is rife with impassioned dissections of a culture imploding at the hands of an anachronistic, rightist government. Let's break out all our old machines now, Tucker sings in the vitriolic "Combat Rock." It sure is good to see them run again. Oh gentlemen start your engines. And we know where we get the oil from.

What becomes poignantly evident through "One Beat" is that Sleater-Kinney's understanding of the potency of music belies mere posturing. There is a sense of pragmatism, of action, sometimes even of optimism. And what continually underscores the music is the band's determination to shake people out of complacency, out of indifference.

Rock writer Greil Marcus put it aptly when he described "One Beat" as the product of a band "unafraid of its own noise."