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.
Call the Doctor (also on Chainsaw) finds this young band already in full command of its faculties. The title cut sets the stage with a driving beat, brash guitars, Tucker's piercingly crystalline voice and rhymes that constitute a ferocious defense of self ("I'm no monster/I'm just like you"). Just as passionate are "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" (a guaranteed music-crit fave), the chiming screamfest "Heart Attack," and "Little Mouth," in which Tucker gets more mileage out of the phrase "Damn you" than most people accomplish with more exotic profanities. There was nothing revolutionary about Doctor; it lingered in the locale where indie rock has resided for many years. But unlike many of the period's so-called riot grrrls, with whom they were often lumped, Tucker and Brownstein wrote actual songs that dispensed their blows in a punchy fashion. (The album's twelve tracks clock in at just over thirty minutes.) In addition, the album's anger was exceedingly accessible, thereby making it an ideal candidate for over-hyping--and the nation's scribes were happy to oblige. A profile in Spin had temporarily unpleasant consequences (Tucker was outed by the piece, which documented her brief physical relationship with Brownstein), but it was also rich with praise, as was practically everything else penned about the band.
The response to Dig Me Out, issued by Olympia's Kill Rock Stars label and featuring Weiss in the drum chair, was even more feverish, and justifiably so. The album is just as intense and heartfelt as its predecessor, but the songs display musical growth that's intoxicating. "One More Hour" contains a dynamic vocal joust between Tucker and Brownstein; "Turn It On" piles melody atop melody in a mad rhythmic rush; and "Words + Guitar" brings unadulterated joy to the group's canon. Better yet, there are no obvious weak spots: Like the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady, the album is a parade of one brief, catchy, propulsive offering after another.
The tour that followed the appearance of Dig soon became a circus, with trend-jumpers, record-company weasels and just plain folks jostling with one another in the center ring. The frenzy left the trio feeling unnerved, Tucker says. "The impact of Dig Me Out was really huge. It was just a feeling that we got slammed by it, and all of our lives changed. I remember feeling like, 'What is happening?' All of us had to learn to deal with it in our own ways.
"We went through some struggles with the band then. We were trying to get it all together, and we didn't know what we really wanted to do--and all of us had a lot going on in our lives, too. Carrie was still in college when this was happening; she just graduated [from Evergreen State College] this past spring, and we actually had to not do a lot of stuff in order for her to finish. And Janet is, like, 32, and she wants a rock-and-roll career. She likes to be on tour all the time, whereas for me, I can't really handle being on tour for eight months out of the year. It's too hard on me, and personally, I get sick a lot more than anyone else."
Conflicts like these fit nicely into the formula for band breakups. But rather than ditching Sleater-Kinney and going solo, Tucker says, "we learned how to compromise. We knew that we were all at really different places in our lives, and we had to come to terms with that and support each other and figure out what we wanted. And we realized that what we wanted was to keep doing this band. It's the musical connection that makes it worth it. It's so strong, and when we come together, we really do have such a blast--and that really came through when we were doing this record. All of us were collaborating so much and worked so hard on it."
When Tucker and Brownstein sat down to write material for the new disc, what came out was more musically elaborate than any of their earlier efforts. "We've grown as songwriters--and as people, we've been through a lot in the last year and a half," Tucker points out. "So we decided to try and do something that was more complex. But I don't think that we've changed our style of lyrics. Personally, my style has always been using short, simple words, and I think that will always be my style. But I think that maybe some of the images and ideas that we're struggling with are more complex, too. Maybe that's where the imagery lies. We're looking at things that are harder to grasp."
The choice to stay with Kill Rock Stars wasn't an easy one. Big-label offers started coming in shortly after the first barrage of Call the Doctor-inspired raves, and the success of Dig Me Out intensified the wooing. But the women didn't turn down the stacks of greenbacks being waved in their faces solely because of ironclad integrity and their loyalty to a punk ethos that's usually espoused most vigorously by lugs who don't have any other options. Indeed, Tucker refuses to rule out the prospect of inking with a major eventually, and she talks business without the slightest self-consciousness.
"We kind of struggled with the question of 'Where do we go from here?' But we finally decided to do another record with Kill Rock Stars and try to push the envelope a little bit more and to learn as much as we could from them. We started in a band not knowing very much about the music industry, but they've been really great about helping us do stuff like different kinds of promotion and getting us into chain stores and helping us do a video. And because they're letting us set our own plan, which is one of our things, we're learning a lot. We've been learning how records are sold and how labels are run, and because we know everyone there, we're figuring out what everyone does in their jobs and why they're important."
A happy side effect of sticking with Kill Rock Stars was Sleater-Kinney's avoidance of the Great Alternative Purge of 1997 and 1998. Label execs alarmed by the flat sales of CDs by alterna-acts suddenly concluded that practically any group whose members regularly used distorted guitars and refused to smile for their publicity photos was suspect and deserved dumping. By staying independent, though, Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss were able to survive the firestorm with their reputations intact.
"I feel like we dodged a bullet," Tucker says. "We had a lot of our friends who had these high hopes after getting signed to major labels, and then they got dropped. The music industry has really been in a lot of flux in the past year in terms of bands being dropped and A&R people leaving and a lot of other people getting let go. And with all this stuff going on, it just seems like there might be a better place for us right now. We really want to work with a label that sees us as important and respects us, because we've been building our musical career with these records."
In the meantime, the Sleater-Kinney three are squeezing other projects into their schedules. Brownstein is putting together material with Mary Timony of Helium ("Lighter Than Air," October 30, 1997); Weiss is spending much of her time playing with Quasi, a two-piece act that also includes Sam Coomes; and Tucker is part of Cadallaca, which she laughingly describes as "a dysfunctional Sixties girl group." (Cadallaca's debut arrived in selected stores last month.) But Tucker warns against interpreting these activities as a sign that their collective interest in Sleater-Kinney is waning.
"One of the things I think our band does is we have these moments of tension that we create with our guitar lines, and I really like that," she says. "We have a really good time building up these melodies and filling the space with our guitars. The music's developed its own personality. But the really important thing about our band is chemistry. It just came together when Carrie and I first started playing, and that's what makes our band special. We really value it, even though we don't really understand it.
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"That's what natural chemistry is: It's just something that totally happens and totally works, and you just have to be happy that it does. Carrie and I have this kind of chemistry that you only get once in a lifetime. It's just really amazing how we finish each other's sentences musically--and Janet has really helped that."
With what Tucker sees as a musical departure for Sleater-Kinney within a few months of birth, she's inexplicably nervous about the reception the new album will receive: "If the critics hate this record, we'll be fine, because we're making the music that we want to make," she allows, as if she's trying to convince herself that what she's saying is true. But at the same time, she'd like plain old music lovers to make up their minds for themselves and appreciate the band for what it is rather than for what the pundits claim it is.
"I read an article once where Sean Lennon said that his mother, Yoko Ono, always thought she was this pop artist," she notes. "He said she never understands why her songs aren't going to number one. And that's kind of how we are, too."
Sleater-Kinney. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 17, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, $7, 303-447-0095.