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Return Of Riot Grrrl Rock: The Sleater-Kinney Interview

Sleater-Kinney find renewed inspiration in the mid-'90s Riot Grrrl movement.
By Michael Goldberg

In the novel "High Fidelity," Rob, the main character, who owns a used record shop, is arguing about pop songs with his girlfriend, Laura. Rob can't understand how Laura could like Art Garfunkel better, or at least as much as, soul star Solomon Burke. "I know I sound like your mum, but they're only pop records," Laura says. "And if one's better than the other, well, who cares ... There are so many other things to worry about."

Grow up, Laura is trying to tell her 36-but-still-acting-like-he's-19-year-old boyfriend. Laura is right of course, but she is also wrong. "My life was saved by rock 'n' roll," Lou Reed once sang.

Sleater-Kinney defy Laura's logic, and they confirm Reed's sentiment by making music that matters. Music that must be heard. Music that is a call to action. This post-punk, post-riot grrrl trio from the Northwest has delivered another album, All Hands on the Bad One, and it's the kind of audio communique we haven't gotten in quite a while. (Think The Clash. Think Nevermind, think Zen Arcade.)

All Hands on the Bad One is an all-points bulletin, a rock state-of-the-union address. Sleater-Kinney - singers/guitarists/ writers Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and singer/drummer Janet Weiss - know that these are bad times. This is the age of Woodstock, where women were raped and exploited. This is the age of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, of adolescent, testosterone-driven sexism. This is the age of the co-optation of what is real by corporate America. "And for all the ladies out there I wish/ We could write more than the next marketing bid," Tucker sings in "#1 Must-Have."

So they wrote and recorded an album that deals with all of that. And, of course, lots more. There are layers upon layers of meaning in the songs on their album. Sleater-Kinney are artists. They know how to summon up the raw, rebel spirit of rock and get it into their recordings, but they're also sophisticated poets. All Hands on the Bad One is a rockin' album, but it is also beautiful poetry. Even as they take on evil in song after song, they do it in a way that is artful, elegant and transcendent. "We're just putting it on the line," Tucker said when I interviewed them. "We've been doing this for long enough that we feel like we can say whatever we want. Sort of like the truths, as we see them. We love playing music but also there's some really nasty things about it at the same time."

I met with Sleater-Kinney in a Portland, Ore., sushi restaurant in late March. We spoke for several hours. Legendary Seattle photographer Charles Peterson (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) took photos. We talked about the new album. About the struggle to get respect for their political rock 'n' roll. About how they've been misunderstood, and about what they have to say in some of their new songs. And we talked about the Ladyfest event that will take place in August in Olympia, Wash., where female artists, including many bands, will gather to experience each others' art, and for inspiration.

The Interview

Addicted To Noise: Several of the songs on your new album, All Hands on the Bad One, seem like they're about coming to terms with the success that you've had. I'm thinking of lines in the song "Ballad of the Ladyman," such as "They say I've gone too far with the image I've got and they know I'd made a mint with new plastic skin and a hit on the radio," which is obviously sarcastic, but at the same time you have had to deal with how people are reacting to their perceptions of this band.

Corin Tucker: I think that we are playing with that in a way, definitely. That song is ... it's almost making fun of how people see us, how people see what you're supposed to be when you're a woman in rock. That whole idea seems really bizarre to me and really obtuse without much kind of room for personality. And I think this band is really unique. So, in a way, to me, when people think that about us, I think it's really ridiculous. Someone said to me, I did this email interview the other day that was like, 'What do you think about people saying, with The Hot Rock, that you really sold out and that it was a really commercial album?' I was like, 'What? The Hot Rock?'

Carrie Brownstein: You're like, 'Nobody liked The Hot Rock!' [Laughing]

Tucker: I know. I was like, 'That was our least commercial album ever.' But people's reactions are so not what you think they would be. It's like, why even bother responding to them sometimes?

Brownstein: That song was also a character study though, right?

Tucker: Yeah, but it does seem it's literally about that, though.

Janet Weiss: "Ballad of the Ladyman," is that what you're referring to?

Addicted To Noise: Yeah.

Tucker: There's kind of a story behind it. When I got the inspiration for that song, we were playing this convention in England called the Bowlie Weekender. It was this insider indie rock convention. It was put on by the people in Belle and Sebastian and they picked all the bands. All the bands were great and it was really, really fun. And we were treated really well.

But at the same time, in a way, it was also this reminder that people still look at us differently than they do other bands. They had this message board up in the merchandise room that's an anonymous message board. We were all staying in little chalets or whatever and we had our own cabin and we were cabin 216. Someone wrote this message to us that was like, 'Cabin 216 ladymen.' And we were like, 'What?'

It was meant to be a funny thing, but in this other way, it was really this naming of us. It was a subtle way of saying, 'Oh, you're different because you're a woman band and because you're in some ways political.' It's still seen as threatening to people. It's not like we had this weekend where we just relaxed with everyone and just hung out. I think, in some ways, people are still a little bit guarded when they're around us. I don't know what they think. It was just this uncomfortable thing to recognize that it still, in some ways, can be a boy's club.

Addicted To Noise: You addressed that on this album too, really explicitly in "Male Model." ["You don't own the situation, honey/ You don't own the stage/ We're here to join the conversation/ And we're here to raise the stakes/ Now do you hear that sound?/ As the model breaks/ Take the stage!/ Let the image of him fade away .../ It's time for a new rock 'n' roll age/ History will have to find a different face/ And if you're ready for more/ I just might be what you're looking for."]

Tucker: Yeah, those lyrics are pretty specific.

Addicted To Noise: What you're really doing is articulating something that has been there for a long time now, but you're actually laying it out there.

Tucker: Yeah, definitely. I think, with this record, we're just saying ... [Turns to Brownstein] What did you say?

Weiss: She said, 'Balls outside the pants.' [Laughing]

Tucker: Yeah, balls outside the pants. [Laughing] We're just putting it on the line. We've been doing this for long enough that we feel like we can say whatever we want. Sort of like the truths, as we see them, doing what we do. We love playing music but also there's some really nasty things about it at the same time.

Addicted To Noise: This album - not to say that the others don't feel like this - but this one really feels like a communique. Like, 'We've got a lot of things we want to say right now about what we observe in this period of time.' Did it feel like that to you when you were writing the songs?

Tucker: I think that there were some things that happened last year that really made me feel a sense of urgency about making music and writing. I felt like it was a really nasty year. Nineteen-ninety-nine was a really nasty year and a lot of really sexist things happened in rock and that's the area where we work. The most popular bands have really misogynistic lyrics and a lot of women were raped at the Woodstock concerts. So, to me, it was a reminder that you can't ... even if we're older and we're successful and we've made this niche for ourselves as musicians, we can't give up. We can't say there's not these really sexist things happening because they are affecting women, young women.

Brownstein: I think a lot of the way we've been treated is like, politics is something you grow out of. Like, 'Oh, when you get older, you grow up and away from politics and this sort of righteousness.' I think that we tried to reiterate it and make it more holistic in a way that it's integrated in our music. That's just not something that we've left behind. It's part of who we are.

So, I think that this record sort of proclaims that most eloquently. We felt like in the past we were being labeled as having arisen from the riot grrrl ghetto, or out of this political yet immature sort of hub of politics that didn't make any sense. Like the only way we could be accepted was to leave that at the door. So, I think this is just saying, 'Well, that's not really true.'

We're a great rock band. Our songs aren't just political but some of them are very political. Some of them are fun. Some of them are nonsensical and some of them are personal. But it's all these things at once and it's really important that these things are integrated into us as people. I mean, obviously those live within us and they can live within our band without us having to choose and access them or pick one in order to move on. I mean, we can move forward with all these things with us and not have to leave anything behind in order to be successful.

Addicted To Noise: Did you feel a couple years ago like you had to mute things at all?

Weiss: It didn't seem like there was ever a conscious choice to mute anything. It's just like you go through different phases in your life and, maybe at one point in your life, you're writing about more personal things than at another point. It's just knowing that. With this record, there were things that had to be said and there was never any censorship among the three of us, which I think is the important part.

Tucker: It's more the way that the people responded to the different things that we wrote about. Like the way that people responded to the more personal songs was like: 'Oh they've gotten past that immature, personal stuff and now they're writers.' It's just irritating to me.

Weiss: It's just constant pigeonholing as you go along. I think you just have to fight that always.

Brownstein: I think there was a time when, like Corin was saying, we felt really labeled. It takes a lot of energy to try to get people to a point of neutrality. So you spend so much time fighting in the interview for them to even understand that you're all these things, that you end up just talking about that. So, I think it wasn't like we were defensive. I just think there was a time we felt like we had to explain ourselves so much that we weren't able to actually talk about anything else. We had to backtrack so much just to get people to catch up and understand we weren't just this or that.

Weiss: There was also a period where we were very guarded. And I think that's the time when people were like, 'Oh, they're not talking about these important things,' or 'They're selling out.' But really it was just a reaction to being misportrayed. So we were like, 'O.K., if they're going to print everything wrong, we're not going to reveal ourselves to people who are going to misrepresent us.' It can be disheartening when you're really trying to be honest and communicate through your art or music. Being misunderstood is really tough. You think you're being really clear. The record is really the best representation we have for what we're trying to say. And, a lot of times, it's portrayed in a lot of different ways.

Addicted To Noise: Can you talk a little bit about the new album? Did you talk amongst yourselves about some of the things you wanted to do? How did it work this time?

Tucker: The songs just came out. It was so spontaneous with this record. The songs just kept popping up one after another. We didn't really talk about anything. It just kind of happened. We did have one conversation that was before we even started writing that was like, 'We need to be able to write really freely.' We had been writing much more sophisticated melodies with The Hot Rock, doing stuff that was really intricate. And we just decided for this record that we were going to let go and whatever came out was just going to be something we would work on. So after that it was like the songs just popped up, I guess.

Addicted To Noise: It seems to me like "#1 Must-Have" is the centerpiece of the album. Some of the lyrics that made me think that were: "Bearer of the flag from the beginning/ Now who would have believed this riot grrrl's a cynic .../ But now my inspiration rests in between my beauty magazines and my credit card bills." You started doing this five years ago. You have fans and success. That line seems to me to be about how you've changed over time and about realizing that it's possible to get far from where you want to be in terms of inspiration.

Tucker: Yeah, I think it's a really honest song about feeling so apathetic and numb. And I think that it's easy to do, as you get older, to sort of internalize the stuff that society puts out there. Especially with the commercialization and consumerism that's put out there. It so targets the 30-year-old white woman. To me, the commercialization of riot grrrl and all the dot.coms ... the kind of marketing that happened with that image and that look was so depressing. It's really easy to just get depressed and just feel like, 'Oh well, we tried something that failed and now they're marketing it and there's nothing we can do.'

I think that it's much more difficult to say, 'This really makes me angry. I can do something about that.' There are more important things than just spending all your time on outward appearance.

And a lot of other stuff happened this year. EMP [the Experience Music Project, a music museum in Seattle scheduled to open in the summer of 2000] did this riot grrrl interview. They flew a bunch of people up to Olympia and interviewed us all at a roundtable. And it was the first time any of us really had had a conversation about riot grrrl and everything that had happened. It was a really intense experience for me to look back at what I went through as an 18-year-old. And everything that has happened since then and how ripped off I think we were by the mainstream media and ridiculed ruthlessly.

Addicted To Noise: Who else participated in that discussion?

Tucker: Candace Peterson, who works at EMP and was facilitating the discussion. She used to run K Records with Calvin Johnson. Maggie Vail, Molly Neuman, Allison Wolfe, Erin Smith from Bratmobile, Sharon Cheslow, who is a musician and an artist from D.C. and now lives in San Francisco. Am I forgetting someone? That was the roundtable. And then there were many, many other women that were interviewed separately for the riot grrrl thing. It was really intense and I think it reignited a lot of our feelings of wanting to be political and be activists. For me, it definitely did.

Addicted To Noise: So, that happened before you wrote some of the songs?

Tucker: No, actually that happened after we had recorded. They asked us months before, and the whole idea of talking about it made me go back and look at what we had done. I was finding old fanzines and videos for them, and thinking about it on my own. I think that was really what sparked some of those thoughts and definitely "#1 Must-Have" was written while I was thinking about that.

Addicted To Noise: How hard is it to stay true to your vision given that there's always potential distractions? The music business, the way it works is the more success you have, the more that it's possible to get distracted.

Weiss: You get more offers to do these things. If you don't have any offers to do anything, you can have a really pure vision. But then not that many people are going to hear your music. For us, we're in a really weird state where we have to maneuver through these decisions of how much we want to enter into commercial, corporate America. How much do we sacrifice in order to have a kid in the middle of nowhere be able to have access to our music? It can be really difficult. We're three very different people with different ideas and different opinions. It can be hard ...

Tucker: It's a really constant dialogue between the three of us about what we want and where we want to go and ...

Brownstein: ... What things mean to us and our band.

Weiss: And to our fans and people who buy our records and have been fans for years. It's a lot to protect.

Addicted To Noise: What's an example of a specific thing that you really had to wrestle with during the last year?

Brownstein: You mean the last week? [Laughing]

Addicted To Noise: Last week is fine. [Laughing]

Tucker: We were just talking today about this whole idea of a radio remix of one of our songs. Kill Rock Stars wants to try to do a remix of the single of our song. With Kill Rock Stars, we have a real partnership, but at the same time, all of us are experimenting. We don't necessarily ... none of us come from the background of being commercial. We know nothing about commercial radio - hopefully, thankfully, because it's so awful.

I think that [Kill Rock Stars owner] Slim [Moon] is really trying to be a good label person and be creative and try all these different ideas, while still working with an independent format. And I'm willing to try out these ideas, like, 'O.K., you can remix the song.' John [Goodmanson], our producer, remixed it. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're going to say yes to it. It's very difficult to decide, 'Well, are we giving up on our music by changing it for someone else's format?' It's very difficult and we don't all agree.

Tucker: Yeah, we don't all agree. You have to compromise sometimes. Even within your band, you have to decide what is important.

Weiss: You also have to realize that you'll make mistakes. We've made mistakes. Kill Rock Stars has made mistakes. You have to let that happen and let yourself think about what you want to live with, what kind of mistakes you can live with and what kind you can't.

Addicted To Noise: Has there ever been a case where the band came apart because you were so torn about something that came up?

Brownstein: No.

Weiss: No, it doesn't ever get that urgent.

Tucker: We're all different, but I don't think we're that different. I think that, in terms of music and what we really care about, we wouldn't have made it this far if we didn't all really care about playing music and playing it live and writing really good songs. For all of us, that's our true love and we all share that in common and all respect each other a lot. So that keeps us together.

Addicted To Noise: Is there a particular song on this album that, when you first started playing it, you went, 'Wow!' ?

Brownstein: "All Hands on the Bad One" was a song where - I wanted us all to sing on the chorus. So I wrote the music and asked Corin to sing on the chorus. I said, 'Sing something we can all sing over.' So she started singing, "All Hands on the Bad One/ We would be no better." And then me and Janet sang. And then I was like, 'I have a really cheesy idea: Let's stop in the middle.' And it's rare that we go for something like that, and we tried it. It was sort of magical and sonically all you could hear was our vocals, which was kind of all-consuming.

That was sort of a springboard in terms of thinking about melody and harmony on the record, because we had done a little bit of Janet doing harmonies on The Hot Rock, but we hadn't really used the power of all three of our voices before. Especially in sort of a droning repetitive phrase that just felt sort of eerie and also empowering at the same time. So I think we felt like we had a lot more open to us after that song in terms of what we could use in terms of our talents, between the three of us. It just seemed wide-open.

Addicted To Noise: From album to album, it seems to be this evolving kind of thing where you keep finding new things that you can now do that you didn't know you could do before.

Brownstein: Yeah, we definitely don't feel tapped out. I think we continually find inspiration outside of ourselves and from one another. And I think that's really important to be able to be inspired by the people that you work with. So that continually happens and that's continually renewed. We don't have this sense of like, 'Oh, we can make any kind of record.' I don't want to make a jazz record with Sleater-Kinney. We set boundaries. [laughs]

Weiss: We could get jazzy, though [laughing].

Brownstein: Yeah, we could get jazzy. When you really utilize all three people instead of counting on one person to do something, obviously it works exponentially, so it happens like that.

Addicted To Noise: Why did you choose that song to become the title track?

Brownstein: Well, we tend to name our albums after a song, always. We didn't want to stray from the norm. It seems the only title that works well, in terms of describing the sentiment of the record.

It's a song that has to do with your relationship to evil and your relationship to the hypocrisy of forcing a morality on someone else when you yourself are no better. As a character study, I find that the notion of 'the bad one' is an interesting one: Who is the bad one? The person labeling themselves or us for thinking that 'the bad one' even exists in the first place?

I think that relates to a lot of songs on the album. "Ballad of the Ladyman," for instance - who is 'the ladyman'? Is the person that wants to be on the radio, 'the bad one,' or is it the fans assuming that they [the artist] want to be on the radio - are they 'the bad one'? Or is "The Professional," the ominous professional figure, 'the bad one'? I think all these songs can go into that machine of 'the bad one' and that mentality and then be spit out in a bunch of different scenarios. So that's why I think it works as the title.

Addicted To Noise: If I have this right, one of the things you wanted to address was that it's not black and white. It's not like this person is right because they follow this particular approach to life.

Tucker: That song is kind of about embracing 'the bad one' inside you or evil, the whole idea of your worst impulses and looking at them and saying, 'Well, what can I do with those?' And instead of banishing them, saying, 'Well, how can I channel those?' I mean, that sounds really new agey, I know. But I think that when you're a writer and you're trying to think about characters, I think that definitely you can call upon 'the bad one' many times. And sometimes 'the bad one' is what will get you through a certain experience. It sort of relates to anger and how that can be used positively.

Addicted To Noise: Can you be more specific or give an example?

Tucker: [laughs] I think that having a sense of humor about something. Like "Ballad of the Ladyman," it's like you feel so used sometimes as an entertainer. Like people are just using you up. For, like, a wind-up toy of what they think they can get from you. You really have this impulse to turn on your audience and kind of mess with them. And I think you can recognize that, play with it and have a sense of humor about it, but not necessarily become that negative or that bitter about anything. It's like you have to address that feeling, you have to address that feeling of negativity that the rock industry has 'cause it's a really negative place sometimes, but if you look it in the face and address it and maybe write about it, then you've dealt with it. Rather than pretending it's not there and becoming bitter, which I think a lot of people do.

Addicted To Noise: Do you sometimes feel a little constrained by the expectations of fans? As though they're putting you in a particular box, and you're like, 'No, that's not who we are'?

Tucker: I think sometimes I do. I think that, in general, our fans are respectful people. I think we're really lucky with the audience we have. But even still, on The Hot Rock tour people were just like ... they were really disappointed with some of the songs we were doing because they were long and they were intricate and they weren't exciting and they were difficult. We wanted to be doing difficult work. We wanted to be expanding as musicians and people didn't want that from us. They wanted us to jump around and yell. And sometimes that is hard. It's hard to disappoint people.

Addicted To Noise: But it seems like bands that don't challenge their audiences ultimately get into this rut.

Brownstein: Yeah, it's boring. Those kids will realize it later. It's boring when people make the same album four or five times. It's often only in hindsight or retrospect when 10 years later you're going through your Sleater-Kinney albums that you're like, 'Oh, thank god they made The Hot Rock so they learned how to write some more interesting melodies.'

Weiss: I think we would get bored.

Brownstein: Yeah, it's more important how we feel as artists and how much we're pushing ourselves. I think a lot of people want to be instantly gratified and it's instantly gratifying to hear the same thing over and over again because it's familiar and you don't have to get used to it. I think most of our fans try to see us as artists or real people - ones that have complexities and different dynamics going on - and can understand why that would be expressed differently over a period of years. We would not be a band if we made Dig Me Out three times. We'd be pretty uninterested in what we're doing by now.

Addicted To Noise: What about this line from "#1 Must-Have": 'I've been crawling up so long/ On your stairway to heaven/ And now I no longer believe that I wanna get in.' Is that true?

Brownstein: Is that line on the record? [joking]

Tucker: I think it sort of goes with what I was talking about before. About this feeling that we have with being a really successful female band. I feel like there's all this weight put on us to really keep being successful and doing all these things.

But at the same time, I feel like what Carrie and Janet were saying earlier - when you are led into the rock world there is this idea of like, 'Check your baggage at the door, check all that riot grrrl stuff at the door and all your politics.' Because there were so many articles that were written about us that were like, 'Riot grrrl grows up,' 'Out of the riot grrrl ghetto,' 'After they've left those ridiculous politics behind.'

Weiss: 'Mature now.'

Tucker: Now that we're mature, now that we're not bothering anyone with our feminist sentiments - it was really patronizing to me. I think our own ideas of success will be different than anyone else's. Our own ideas of accomplishment will be different than those of any successful male band just because of who we are. Our path is not going to be like all the other bands, because we are different and that's just who we are.

Addicted To Noise: What are some of the things that you feel will be different about ...

Brownstein: I don't think we know what will be different.

Tucker: And that's probably different ...

Weiss: Right there. We don't map it out.

Brownstein: And there's really no blueprint for us to follow anymore. I'm sure if you were a kid growing up with Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and you wanted to be a rock star, you knew exactly what you wanted: you wanted be like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. We don't have a blueprint of like, 'Oh, I'd love to follow in the footsteps of that great '70s all-girl band that made five records and then did this ...

Tucker: ... that sold like five million records, you know. There's no band like that.

Brownstein: So of course we don't know what's going to happen.

Weiss: It's not about groupies and drugs for us - at all. Which I think a lot of high school boys who want to be in bands, and even bands I know now ... the rock star life is a big part of why they start bands. For us, it's not about the rock star life. It's not interesting to us. Expressing our ideas and projecting an image of strength is really important to us.

To be continued ...