The Hype Report

Sleater-Kinney is a critic's favorite that makes music you might actually enjoy.

Search the Internet for information about the average band and you're likely to wind up with sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Do the same for Sleater-Kinney, however, and you'll think you've stumbled into the Library of Congress. Since the release of the band's 1996 disc, Call the Doctor, the media has offered blanket coverage of Sleater-Kinney, with the majority of articles resembling salutes to Jesus Christ as delivered by his disciples. Guitarist-vocalist Corin Tucker insists that reviewers have smacked her group around on occasion--"Sometimes people write really nasty things about us," she says--but there's little evidence to back up her assertion. Apparently, anyone bold enough to suggest that Sleater-Kinney isn't all it's cracked up to be is immediately banished from the global fraternity of music journalists.

What gets lost in all of this hoopla, unfortunately, are many of the reasons Sleater-Kinney is worth following. With scribes like legendary blowhard Greil Marcus falling over themselves to declare the act's excellence (he once wrote a column pretentiously headlined "Sleater-Kinney Give Punk a Voice"), the unsuspecting music consumer is frequently left with the impression that Tucker, guitarist-vocalist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss are Important People who write Important Songs about Important Subjects. But listening to Sleater-Kinney isn't the equivalent of doing a book report on Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow or choking down two servings of beets each day as an aid to digestion. The first thing noticed by most people who hear "Little Babies," from last year's Dig Me Out, isn't its world-changing profundity but a hook that goes "dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do."

Tucker isn't offended by such observations--far from it. She actually sounds relieved to address something other than her towering brilliance. "I think we're this totally pop band," she says. "People say we're alternative, and we're like, 'We're alternative? Really?'"

Not that Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss lack ambition. They are in the midst of completing an as-yet-untitled album they hope will be available during the first few months of 1999. But rather than attempt to reproduce Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out, both of which landed near the top of separate Village Voice critics' polls, Tucker says they consciously chose to do the opposite.

"It's a lot different from Dig Me Out," she notes. "The guitar noises are definitely a lot different--and we spent a lot of time trying to make them that way. Whereas on Dig Me Out we basically just set up our guitar amps and played the songs, this time we experimented more with sound. We spent at least two hours on each song--and sometimes on each part of a song--getting sounds that are different from the last album and different from other sounds on the new one. And there's a lot more mid-tempo and slow songs than we've done before. We haven't sequenced the record yet, so I'm not sure what songs are going to be on it in the end, but that's the way it's looking right now."

Getting these tunes on tape was the job of producer Roger Moutenot, whose credits include engineering the 1993 Velvet Underground one-shot Live MCMXCIII and helming I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, the 1997 full-length by Yo La Tengo. Moutenot's methodology had little in common with the one used by Sleater-Kinney in the past. "We did Dig Me Out in eight days total, and we did Call the Doctor in five," Tucker says. "But we've spent almost a year on this one--and it's been hard, really hard, to adjust to that, because we're very impatient. We just want to knock them out, but Roger's like, 'Okay, let's settle down.'"

Tucker has nothing but compliments for Moutenot; she calls him "a really great guy, and very creative in the studio." But she acknowledges that part of her resisted his more studious, deliberate approach out of a fear that the spontaneity of Sleater-Kinney's previous CDs would perish in the process. "We definitely knew that we were taking a risk by making this record," she says. "But I think the real tragedy would be making the same record we'd already made again. I think that we would just be so bored with what we were doing if we just kept doing the same things."

That Tucker is wrestling with such issues still seems strange to her. After all, she began performing in 1991 not because she had always dreamed of conquering the rock world, but because she'd seen a really good show by Bikini Kill in her home base of Olympia, Washington, and thought it would be fun to start a band like that one. Her first try, Heavens to Betsy, didn't revolutionize music as we know it, but it impressed Brownstein, a fledgling tunesmith who reacted by forming Excuse 17, a group of her own. Before long, Tucker and Brownstein were writing together, and they liked the tunes they came up with well enough to begin a search for a drummer. The one they found, Lora Macfarlane, lived in Australia, but they didn't let that stop them; they headed Down Under to cut Sleater-Kinney, a 1994 EP issued in the U.S. on the Portland, Oregon-based Chainsaw imprint. Macfarlane returned the favor by traveling to the States for the recording of Sleater-Kinney's first full-length.

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