Sleater-KinneyNo Censorship

by Brenda Kahn for womenrock.com


Sleater-Kinney, the indie punk heroines of self-expression and female empowerment, are on the road again this February going from Portland to Chicago. Their sixth album One Beat is out on the Kill Rock Stars label. I spoke by phone with Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss about drumming, Ladyfest, Liverpool, censorship, and fighting for rock'n'roll.

WOMANROCK:

I think the drumming is just phenomenal on the record. Do you have drummer heroes?

Janet:

Let's see. I draw from so much, it's not just drummers, it's music in general. I'm thinking about when I first started playing, it's more like styles. I'll explore different styles, like Devo and the B-52's. Kind of really think about how those drummers took their form to the maximum. I also listen to John Bonham or Keith Moon, for the really heavy rock vibe. Keith Moon is a big inspiration, I think just because he's so non-conformist, always. He's just never playing what you think he should be playing. And it just sounds incredible. And he made his band just so much better.

WOMANROCK:


I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of the drummer in bringing the band up as a whole. If the drummer is great, it's a lot easier to play well.

Janet:


I just feel like the drummer should be completely an equal as to how much they're contributing to the song. Like Sara from Unwound, those songs just wouldn't exist the way they are if not for her, she's as important as the band, she's as important as the vocals. That's what I strive for I guess.

WOMANROCK:

I really feel that from each band member when I listen to the album. You're all excellent musicians with great musical ideas. It's a combination you don't see often in indie rock bands with a punk edge. Are you formally trained as musicians?

Janet:

I think it's just natural ability that's been practiced a lot. And also the thing the three of us share is we're unafraid to try things. We're always looking for that new connection, new sound between the three of us. Musically we're really different. Corin is the most intuitive musician I've ever met. She hasn't had any training. She doesn't copy things that she's heard before. It's coming from a purely intuitive part of her. She hears the music in her head and it filters through her instrument and comes out. Carrie and I more mine our influences a little bit. We hear something and then we make it our own. We sort of study music and recreate it into something that sounds like us. The two of them, their styles are not like anyone else.

WOMANROCK:

What are your different influences?

Janet:

Corin, I think she's influenced more by emotional writers, like Patti Smith, Dolly Parton… It's part of the visionary that inspires her whether it's country or rock. I can see the thread being not the style of music but the intensity of the person and the intensity of their writing. Carrie has said in interviews before that Pete Townsend is a big influence, I think that's pretty obvious if you watch her play. She's the analytical one in the band.

WOMANROCK:

She's the thinker?

Janet:

Yeah, she's the thinker. Her playing can be sometimes sort of mathematical. She's a combination of things. Sometimes it can be super explosive. She just has a really good feel for what sound is. She just makes a good riff. The riffmaker.

WOMANROCK:


What's your tour schedule like, how long do you usually go out for at a time. Do you take days off?

Janet:


We used to go about 5 weeks. Now we're splitting it up into two portions, we're doing like two and a half weeks, and then we have a week off, and then another two and a half weeks. We try to have every 6 shows, we have a day of no show. Mostly for Corin's voice. We usually only have one full day off, where you don't move. At least we need a driving day where everyone can rest their bodies.

WOMANROCK:

Does Kill Rock Stars, give you tour support money, or are you paying for your tours through your shows?

Janet:

We pay for everything, we don't get advances. We pay for the tours. We use the money from the shows to pay for the tour expenses and we use the merch money as our pay that we just split up.

WOMANROCK:

Have you toured in Europe? And is it the same kind of people who come out to the shows there, or is it a very different crowd?

Janet:

It's pretty different. Touring in Europe is a lot harder. The drives are longer, and there's not as much of a network. The shows are great, but there's the language barrier, people who are seeing us for the first time. It's also a lot more challenging. You really have to win the crowd over. Instead of people immediately freaking out, you have to show them what you're about.

WOMANROCK:

What was you best show ever? …Top Ten?

Janet:

Top Ten was the Dig Me Out Tour, the first half. I guess that was '97 or '98?

WOMANROCK:

What's another Top Tenner?

Janet:

We played a couple shows in New York a couple months ago, and I thought one of those was really great. We played this strange little place called The Village Underground. It's really small and the stage is really low so that fueled a pretty high-energy show.

WOMANROCK:

Was there an all out worst night on the road?

Janet:

Our worst night ever we were supposed to play in Liverpool, and Corin's voice was going out, and we got there and they didn't have any monitors. And so we said we weren't going to play, because it's really almost impossible for us to play with three singers without any monitors. And it just turned into an ugly scene. We ended up getting some hate mail… that we were such prima donnas, and all the other bands play without monitors. Pretty bad night.

WOMANROCK:

I once did a tour in Germany and they wanted me to drive 10 hours to be somewhere at 6 o'clock to play a record store in Switzerland, and then drive back another 10 hours to play in Frankfurt.

Janet:

People who don't have to ride in the van ask a lot of people. In America it's a lot easier, because we've sort of weeded through the things that could go wrong. And now we know what to look out for.

WOMANROCK:

Do you tour in a van or a bus?

Janet:

Van. Sometimes we have a van and the three of us go in a separate car on the longer trips. I'm not sure how long we'll be doing that. Corin has a child now, so everything's probably going to change.

WOMANROCK:

How old is her baby?

Janet:

He's 16 months. He's cute. He's going to come on some of the tour. So they'll go in a separate car with her husband. Or a van.

WOMANROCK:

Do you think band members having families will change the band in any way, or is it just part of the evolution?

Janet:


We don't really think about the future in those terms. We kind of just take it a year at a time, and just try to take it one record at a time. Hopefully start working on another record early next year. But you never know, we haven't really talked about it. It's been the most relaxing time for us I think as far as how much pressure we put on ourselves. We're happy with the record, and we're trying to take it a little slower because you know Corin's got a lot more to handle now than she did before.

WOMANROCK:

Sleater-Kinney albums are all different in their own way, but they each have the same high energy, indie/punk rock kind of vibe. Do you ever feel your audience has an expectation of you to deliver in that way? Do you feel like you have the freedom to change? For example, what do you think would happen if Sleater-Kinney put out a country album?

Janet:

If we were good at that maybe we would. I think our expectation of ourselves is so high, that we don't worry about it. We have to play the music that we want to play. If we decide that we really want to play country music, then we have to do it, you can't censor yourself because you think the fans won't like it. Because who knows, the fans might love it, you can't predict what people are going to like and not like. That's the twist, if you try to predict and cater your music to be what people want, they're not going to want it, it just doesn't work that way. Better not to try and figure out what's going to be popular, because that's just going to get you in trouble.

WOMANROCK:

How much do you as a band do to promote your tours, and how much does the label do?

Janet:

We have a press person provided by the label who handles a lot of the tour promotion. We do lots of interviews for weekly papers. The record company does things like getting the record on a listening station, or dealing with radio stuff, we're not that involved in that stuff.

WOMANROCK:

Do you maintain your own mailing list? Is there a Sleater-Kinney Web site?

Janet:

The record label upkeep's a really good Web site. I think that's how fans find out about the tours.

WOMANROCK:

There's no Sleater-Kinney.com?

Janet:

Not yet, but they have a lot of stuff on there, photos we take, to spice up the site. We actually signed 2300 posters for this record. The first 10 people at the mom and pop stores get a signed poster. That's the most work we've done in a long time.

WOMANROCK:


I'm surprised you can still play the drums.

Janet:

I can't really sign my name anymore, it's just morphed into a blob.

WOMANROCK:

Was Sleater-Kinney part of the original Ladyfest in Olympia, WA?

Janet:

Corin and Carrie helped Becca set it up. Corin especially is involved with the original Riotgrrrl posse. Like Alpha Wolf, and Molly from BratMobile. Then we ended up playing that first Ladyfest.

WOMANROCK:


Are you guys still involved in doing the Ladyfest shows?

Janet:

No, it's great how it's just grown. Each city has really taken on it's own spin. The idea was exactly that, to have the first one, and have other women organize their own Ladyfest, and it's great, it's worldwide, it's just really taken off.

WOMANROCK:

I think when people look at your band they see powerful women taking on anything they want. I think it's different today than it was 10 years ago. What changes do you see that maybe were started by the cultural and musical events like Lilith Fair, Riot Grrrl, Ladyfest since the early nineties. Is it a different world?

Janet:

I guess things are changing. I still feel like women musicians are slightly ghettoized. People look at you in the context of comparing you to other women musicians, instead of just thinking of you as a musician. Maybe the popularity of hip-hop has changed things for everyone in a way. At this point there are lots of really influential women hip-hop artists. More so than rock. I just don't think there is as much of a difference in people's eyes between Missy Elliot and Puffy Combs. They're totally equal. And that's something that in the rock genre we haven't really attained. I think in the indie rock world it's not like that. But in the major label Rollingstone Magazine world it is.

WOMANROCK:

If a male band had the kind of cache and fan base and everything else that you have, I'd imagine the major labels would be banging down your door. But would you do a major label deal?

Janet:

No, we wouldn't, but we never even get any offers. They don't look at us as equals. And screw them, I don't look at them as equals, they suck. We notice when we do interviews for Rollingstone or Spin. We always get that question, how does it feel being a women doing rock music. Well, would you ask how does it feel being a man and playing rock music? It would never even come up.

WOMANROCK:

Going along with that train of thought, where do you draw that line between just playing great music and fighting for women's equality? Do you have feminist heroes, and not necessarily bra-burning heroes, but women who inspire you?

Janet:

Well, I think we are in a way fighting a fight. By doing what we do and staying honest to what we believe is setting some sort of example. It's also proving that it can be done. You don't have to be a certain type of women to be a good musician or to be outspoken. You can be your unique individual self, and make a difference by doing something, by creating something, by saying something. It's really important just not to be silent and actionless. There has to be movement, some sort of progress.

WOMANROCK:

Just do something…

Janet:

That's just my personal opinion. Just to take action is an important step. But we are musicians, that how we speak, that's how we communicate. I think other musicians before us who were outspoken and were worth your respect, and took chances or challenges themselves, someone like Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, or Xene Cervenka. Women who came before us who made things a little bit easier for us. I think those people were really inspiring.

WOMANROCK:

So do you have any advice for the young punk rocker who's sitting in her living room trying to figure out why she can't get a good sound out of a Peavy amp?

Janet:

I guess just don't be intimidated. There's a lot of turns you take being in a band where people try to cut you down. And don't read the press. It can be really hurtful and it can make you change what you do because you don't want to be criticized again. And if you don't know what someone says, then you have no censorship. Trying to keep censorship to a minimum is really important. Whether that means not reading what someone says about your art. Whether that means really consciously trying new things and taking chances. You really have to figure that out for yourself. But the internal monologue of "Oh, maybe someone's not gonna like that," is dangerous. And just making something that you like is the important thing.