|back||view article in its original form|
Pure rock fun
Sleater-Kinney returns to the Bay Area
When Time magazine named Sleater-Kinney the country's best rock band in last summer's cover story on America's best artists and entertainers, no one was more amazed than the members of Sleater-Kinney. It was, to borrow from one of the trio's song titles, an instant of pure rock 'n' roll fun. "It came out of left field," singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein says of being canonized by Time contributor (and longtime S-K fan) Greil Marcus in July. "I really enjoyed it. I heard that Bryant Gumbel on 'The Today Show' said something like, 'And Time's pick for best band is . . . Sleater-Kinney? Who are they?' " She laughs. "Mainstream culture at large is so challenged by our music that it's always funny when we get shoved into that arena."
Sleater-Kinney -- Brownstein, singer-guitarist Corin Tucker and singer- drummer Janet Weiss -- has always approached success on its own terms. Its last album of ferocious punk-rock-pop, 2000's "All Hands on the Bad One," lyrically blasted the mainstream stardom that has courted the group since its 1996 sophomore album, "Call the Doctor," became a critical cause celebre and major labels began calling -- and calling. Through it all, the trio born in Olympia, Wash., and based in Portland, Ore. , stuck to its indie guns and chose to remain on the small Kill Rock Stars label. In 2001, after spending an exhausting 12 months touring the United States and Europe, S-K decided to take a year off to reassess its musical direction and live a little. Tucker and her husband, filmmaker Lance Bangs, had a baby; Weiss devoted herself to her other group, Quasi; and Brownstein tackled everything from acting to teaching high school English.
Now, with a new album in the works, Sleater-Kinney is back in the rock ring and hitting hard. The band sold out this week's three-night stand at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall before most people realized tickets had gone on sale. In December, two shows in Seattle sold out just as quickly and drew a crowd that ranged from 15-year-old students to a 50-year-old bus driver. Tucker admits that the concerts, their first since an appearance with Patti Smith last August, were a little nerve-racking. "We were nervous because everyone's had bad shows this fall," she says, juggling a phone in one hand and 9-month-old Marshall Tucker Bangs in the other. "Attendance has really dropped off for music. But we have an incredibly loyal fan base. People came out, and I recognized a lot of faces."
S-K's fans aren't alone in their enthusiasm. Weiss says she and her band mates all feel a renewed sense of purpose as they emerge from their hiatus. "It's been a good year, a rest period we've all needed. Having time off to step back and remove ourselves from the Sleater-Kinney world made coming back to it extra exciting." The next album is still in the writing stage, but the current set list does feature six new songs, including one Tucker describes as "bluesy" and "Led Zeppelinish." The band members plan to enter the studio in March or April. Brownstein's decision to leave Olympia and join Tucker and Weiss in Portland has accelerated the album-making process, marking the first time in five years that all three S-K members have lived in the same city. Tucker loves the shortened commuting time. "It's exciting to be able to write together several times a week and try new things. There isn't the pressure of having to drive two hours to get to practice and another two hours home, which was a drain on the creative energy."
That Brownstein has any energy left at all is impressive: In the past year S-K's inexhaustible guitarist released an EP with singer-guitarist Mary Timony, took the Graduate Record Examination, worked as a substitute teacher in high school English and history, became an assistant researcher in sociolinguistics at Olympia's Evergreen College and acted in two films. "I was kind of a multitasker," she understates. "But I felt a sense of urgency -- like, how much can I fit into a year? So much of me got wrapped up in Sleater-Kinney that it felt good to do things that had nothing to do with my musical identity."
Brownstein and Tucker were already veterans of the Pacific Northwest rock scene when they formed Sleater-Kinney, named for a freeway off-ramp, in Olympia in 1994. A single and a self-titled LP followed, but it wasn't until their second album for Chainsaw Records, "Call the Doctor," that critics began to discover and champion the band's distinct brand of punk euphoria. Then as now, S-K's music is a blend of compelling rhythms, improvisational power chords, raggedly operatic vocals and lyrical explorations of everything from gender and identity politics to love's pitfalls and the tedious nature of mainstream music. In 1997, S-K switched to another indie label, Kill Rock Stars, for the band's third album, "Dig Me Out." It also found a permanent drummer in Weiss, already a member of the duo Quasi. Ignoring the hype, the trio remained musical mavericks, adding progressive layers of complexity to "The Hot Rock" in 1999 and "All Hands on the Bad One" a year later. In the process of becoming cult stars, the members of Sleater-Kinney realized that they had also become role models for young female musicians aching to breach rock's male-dominated borders. Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss never courted the responsibility, but they've never tried to dodge it, either - - especially not in an era when female pop stars are increasingly little more than hyper-popular stereotypes. "Our fans are way cooler than we are, especially the 18- to 22-year-olds," Tucker insists. "But we've known for a few years that we're role models, and I think we've come to terms with that. We want to feel good about our choices, and hopefully inspire other young women to be courageous and go for what they want instead of worrying so much about how they look and what other people think of them." And, according to Brownstein, the three members of Sleater-Kinney have never been in a better position to relay that inspiration. "We feel really relaxed and comfortable in our shoes right now," she says. "After 'Dig Me Out,' we were catapulted into a more public realm and saw our image reflected back in a lot of different mediums. It became hard to reconcile what Sleater-Kinney was and who was defining it. Now we aren't relying on any external definition because we realize we're not just a song or a record: We're all those albums, all those songs. We're where we are right now. Sleater-Kinney is Sleater-Kinney is Sleater-Kinney."
Sleater-Kinney The band performs sold-out shows at 9 p.m. tomorrow through Wednesday at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., San Francisco. Tickets: \$12. Call (415) 885-0750.