Sleater-Kinney's Rock 'n' Roll Fun
By Mark Jenkins, Special to The Washington Post
SLEATER-KINNEY is the most acclaimed rock band to come out of the Pacific Northwest since Nirvana, and the female trio doesn't suffer from an inferiority complex. Still, the band's fifth and latest album, "All Hands on the Bad One," sounds a bit defensive. "The best man/ Won't hang out with the girl band," complains "You're No Rock 'n' Roll Fun," while "Male Model" protests that "You don't own the stage."
It all started last year, Corin Tucker remembers, at the Bowlie Weekender, a hyper-hip indie-rock festival in Cornwall, England. "It was this inner circle of all these great bands that we really love," the singer-guitarist explains by phone from her Portland, Ore., home. Yet someone at this festival of diverse underground-rock culture wrote "Ladyman" on the message board for the band's chalet, an apparent comment on the band's association with the Pacific Northwest's lesbian and bisexual feminist rock scene.
"There's still like a naming that happens of people who are a little bit different, and I think that our political feminist stance is still threatening," Tucker says. "Once you do really achieve success, you have to decide what you're going to do with that. Are you going to try to fit in with this community that you've had a lot of success with, or are you going to stay true to the things that are important to you? And I think 'The Ballad of a Ladyman' [a song on the new album] is definitely taking on the identity of being a little bit freaky and having fun with it."
Some of the album's bark was inspired by the prominence of macho rap-rock acts like Limp Bizkit. "Those bands have really sexist, awful lyrics," she notes, "but I also think that in our underground community that we're still threatening to some boy bands. It's just a more subtle dynamic."
After several women were raped last year at Woodstock, Tucker and bandmates Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss felt they had to say something. "Sleater-Kinney has a big reputation in the press," the guitarist says, "but if you look at the general cultural map of 1999, in terms of mainstream cultural power, the bands that are making huge amounts of money and getting all this attention were bands like Limp Bizkit. Even though Sleater-Kinney mainly operates in an underground music community, we still want to have an effect on mainstream culture, and we still are affected by it. Some of the anger on this record is a reflection of that."
"All Hands on the Bad One" is not all rage, however. "We wanted to write songs that were fun to play live and were really carefree," Tucker notes. "Because 'The Hot Rock' [the band's previous album] was not carefree. It was just kind of another challenge, writing songs that were really straightforward but also a bit more mature in their structure and delivery than our earlier songs. This record has a very powerful stance," she says of the album, which features such band trademarks as piercing guitar riffs and Tucker's stratospheric high notes. "But it also has a sense of humor about it."
It's the threesome's most conventionally melodious album as well, thanks in large part to the addition of three-part harmonies. "We'd always tried to get Janet to sing, and we just finally talked her into it for this record," Tucker explains. "The songs are a bit more straightforward than on 'The Hot Rock.' We really wanted her to sing on 'The Hot Rock,' but the melodies were much more complicated, so it was harder to find vocal harmonies for the songs. But these songs are somewhat more traditional in form. Like 'You're No Rock 'n' Roll Fun' was a really easy song to get Janet to sing on. It just seemed to work really well with this record."
Promoting this album has brought Sleater-Kinney to the 9:30 club twice in five months, and in between the band did a month in Europe, where it performed at some large festivals. Tucker doesn't like playing such large-scale shows. But then, before the trio's show there in May, she worried that the 9:30 club would be too impersonal. "We kind of expected it to be a little too big for us, but it actually was a really great club. The stage was really fun. It's really open."
Between tours, the band members also found time to record with the Go-Betweens, the Australian band that made its new album--the first in 12 years--in Portland. "We ended up meeting them in San Francisco at a show that they played and talking to them," Tucker recalls. "Carrie was a huge Go-Betweens fan--Janet and I were fans, but not like Carrie--and they turned out to be huge Sleater-Kinney fans. It was totally bizarre. They really knew our music. Janet said, 'If you need a drummer on your record, I'll do it.' And they said, 'Okay.' So we all got invited to the studio to work with them."
Sleater-Kinney has recorded five albums in five years, but after its current East Coast mini-tour, Tucker says, the band plans only to "take a long break." Of course, when Sleater-Kinney goes on hiatus, the musicians simply shift to other projects: Tucker has the girl-pop trio Cadallaca, Weiss plays with Quasi and Elliott Smith, and Brownstein works with Helium's Mary Timony.
She and Brownstein haven't focused on writing songs for the next album, Tucker admits, but "when we are in the right space for writing, it happens pretty quickly. We do think about what we want to do next, what would be a good challenge for us. We do a little bit of thinking, but it's pretty intuitive."