The beat goes on

an interview with Sleater-Kinney

by Margaret Wappler for Venus

You canít help but pump a fist in the air and hiss, "Yes!" when you hear lyrics like "Disassemble our discrimination" wedged into a dance number. Who would risk killing the mood with a thinker like that? But instead of plunging the song into rhetoric, it raises the stakes, turns it up a notch. A barn-burner that couldíve been ordinary fun lifts into something you could imagine blasting into some kind of warped feminist VFW Hall, where instead of drunken, loutish sailors, thereís an army of women ready to "shake a tail for peace and love."

 

That call to arms, a counterattack of sorts on the one that is being called for by America and our new pet project, War on Terror or Infinite Justice or Infinite Arrogance or something like that, is demanded by Sleater-Kinney on their new album, One Beat. The song, collared by a brassy marching beat and surging horns, is "Step Aside." Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker sing and wail, respectively, "Knife through the heart of our exploitation / Ladies, one time can you feel it?" in a freaking dance number!

Thatís Sleater-Kinney for you.

Known for rocking booty (tell me that certain songs on Dig Me Out or All Hands On the Bad One didnít make you want to pop out of your seat and rock it in your bedroom with your door locked and shades down, junior high-style), the band of three (Tucker, Brownstein, and drummer extraordinaire Janet Weiss) are also beloved for giving a middle finger (sometimes gently or slyly, but always with sensitivity and intelligence ó a middle finger goes a long way here) to whatever bullshit system in their path.

 

Full-fledged adults now, Sleater-Kinneyís been around the block. One Beat is album No. 6; it was time to spin their own system on its head. It seemed like a natural step, especially considering all the curveballs life had thrown them lately anyway. In addition to Brownstein moving to Portland to join her bandmates, Tucker got married to filmmaker Lance Bangs (he filmed the nuptials of Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt, not to mention directed several Pavement videos) and had a baby, Marshall (full name Marshall Tucker Bangs; a name that started as a joke about the Marshall Tucker Band, but eventually grew on the parents). Adored as he is by all the band members, of course, Marshall poses a new challenge: Can you imagine the focus needed for writing a rock song in the few hours youíve secured a babysitter?

As always, there are those people out there who would be perfectly happy if Sleater-Kinney stuck with the routine. Why fix it if it ainít broke? After all, theyíre established, respected, as secure in the canon of ladyrock (at least my personal one) as Joan Jett and Debbie Harry, even if they havenít enjoyed the same level of mainstream success. But who says they want it anyway? As Weiss said when asked if Sleater-Kinney would ever think about switching to a mainstream label (theyíve stayed loyal to indie labels like Kill Rock Stars and Chainsaw throughout their career), the independent realm is where theyíre most comfortable. "We have total control over everything that we do," Weiss said. "Our path is our own." And now, more than ever before, they followed that path for One Beat, without letting any distractions from the outside creep in and taint their vision.

 

I interviewed Sleater-Kinney in New York City in May 2002, while they were touring in early support of One Beat. We met in front of the, well, Met and then wandered into Central Park, where the previously schizophrenic weather finally made up its mind to stay sunny and reasonably serene. Lying on a grassy knoll (donít worry ó no Kennedys were killed in the making of this story), Brownstein, Weiss, and I talked while Tucker rushed to meet us (she was staying in New Jersey). Tucker eventually made it ó baby, husband, and sister-in-law in tow. We talked about the Joan of Arc statue in Portland, Led Zeppelin, and the visceral language between three women, to name a few topics. Hereís a cross section of our conversation.

ONE BEAT

How did you come up with the title One Beat?

Brownstein: Well, it was the name of one of the songs on the album. It seemed to be the one song title that embodied the broadest theme of the record. A lot of this record, from a personal standpoint, is about this synergistic energy created between the three of us and sort of refocusing on the dynamic, this language that exists between the three of us. And trying to have a sense of unification. And I think One Beat sort of symbolizes a coming together of forces. Itís the underlying force of the album.

Did you feel like that was something you had gotten away from for a while ó the musical language between the three of you?

Brownstein: Not necessarily, but I think possibly way back on The Hot Rock, it was almost like two different stories being told at once on that album. And I think we definitely returned to a more unified energy on All Hands On The Bad One. That was a very celebratory record about the kind of visceral ecstasy that comes with playing with each other, but it was a more external energy. This one is more internal, more intrinsic. So in that sense, it is different from the last record.

Weiss: Also, there had been a physical separation because we had taken a year off. So I think that when we actually came back together it was out of choice and a desire to be together and play together.

And you had been living in different cities, right? Where are you all now?

Weiss: Corin and I live in Portland, and then Carrie moved down in December from Olympia.

Janet, you seem to have more input here vocally.

Weiss: Actually, more on the last record. I always just sing a little, but I feel like I had more input in other ways, like in the structuring of the songs, or making up the break of a song. I feel really proud of this record, because I think we pushed ourselves to explore some new territory.

What new territory?

Weiss: Just new sorts of rhythms or song structures, or a new way to approach a song. I mean, "One Beat" is a totally different song from any other weíve ever recorded or written. A lot of things about this album seem to me more adventurous. And the more chances you take, the more reward you feel when it works out. And then if it fails, at least you feel like you really tried.

Do you think wanting to take a risk was something that came from the energy of your musical dialogue?

Brownstein: Yeah, well, I think as artists we donít really want to go backwards. We write from where we are in our lives and I think that since our lives arenít really static, weíre not going to be able to make the same record twice, even if we wanted to. I think that thereís also a release of pressure when you havenít made a record. By the time this record comes out, it will have been two and a half years since All Hands on the Bad One and I think that ó

It doesnít feel that long.

Brownstein: It doesnít feel that long to us either. But thereís a sense of oh, we could do anything at this point and itís good to get out of that cycle ó that feeling like the next record has to be a reaction to the last one because certainly All Hands was so reactionary coming from The Hot Rock. The Hot Rock was an intensely personal record; All Hands was our least personal record. It was our most anthemic and extroverted and The Hot Rock had been dark and internal. And I think we felt like we had a really clean slate to work with and thatís a really good place to be at if you want to take risks.

Weiss: And we reminded ourselves over and over: Itís the sixth record, itís the sixth record. Weíve got to push, weíve got to go further. Itís really important. Important to us, it was coming from within us. It wasnít an external thing where someone was like, "You have to do this."

Brownstein: People would probably rather have another Call the Doctor again, but for us, how many people ó thereís definitely a handful ó but how many bands are on their sixth record? Itís like, wow. Itís sort of weird to believe weíve been making that many records. You do just feel a sense of, production-wise, songwriting-wise, letís just take a risk here.

The second half of this interview is published in the print version of Venus Zine, issue No. 13 (summer/fall 2002).