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By Gerry Belsha
April 22, 2000
We should have known something was up when Corin Tucker showed up at a recent Sleater-Kinney house party performance wearing a t-shirt that read "show me your riffs." Not only was it a foreshadowing of just what their new album All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars) would be like musically, but the play on words of the favorite t-shirt worn by the Woodstock rapists showed that Sleater-Kinney was laying down the law and drawing a battle ground against the Dude Testosterone Culture that has grown out of control over the past year.
Like all great bands, Sleater-Kinney has never been afraid to try new things, to push out into different directions, both lyrically and musically. They've never been a band that has been hemmed in and restricted to the little boundaries that a band's fans tend to set up. One got a sense that on their last album The Hot Rock, Sleater-Kinney was grappling with the contradictions inherit in a band that at times has been called "the greatest rock 'n roll band in the world" and the heavy weight that title carries. The Hot Rock was completely different than anything they had done before. It carried a darker mood and the music was, even then, expanding and more textured. Not as overtly in your face and explosive as their earlier work, it still had the effect of heavy body punches to the targets of cynicism and laziness. The bomb explosions of their early albums were giving way to the subtilties of their new abilities.
However, as good as The Hot Rock was, you just knew that the time would come when their increased musical abilities and lyrical awareness would all come together. A time when they had the language to carry their political and social message to a higher level.
And then the growth continued....
Corin's alter-ego Kissy in Cadallaca allowed her to have some fun playing other characters and her vocals became bigger, sassier and more expressive. Janet Weiss began singing more and more on last year's Sleater-Kinney tour and the whole world of blissful harmonies became a possibility, opening up a window to vocal sonics other than Corin's trademark air raid siren roar. The new songs on last year's tour, some of which didn't make the final cut for AHOTBO, had Carrie ripping out guitar lines that had the power to slice through the bullshit. And it was RAWK.
Over the course of the year the band and anyone else with a heart and soul, saw a culture being poisoned by a venomous hateful backlash by male bands. Boy bands of the little-dick kind, paranoid and insecure, all worried that their rock n roll club was in danger of being overrun by intelligence and soul, all worried that they would run out of groupies to rape. All over the country you had a sense that dude fans of the no cojones bands, Korn and the like, were suddenly worried their girlfriends might not want to sit nude on their shoulders anymore. That their girlfriends might not let themselves be fingered from behind by other dudes. Then the testosterone kicked in and you had Woodstock, a scene so sickening it didn't even need pool sticks or Hell's Angels to perpetuate the sense that there was no sympathy to be found in these parts. This was hell.
It was under this backdrop that Sleater-Kinney operated and began to come to terms with their political stance and their rock and roll fun and the steamroller of the music industry. Instead of letting it weigh them down, the band's identity has become stronger than ever, as a matter of fact their identities were now all blended together. No longer separated into little compartments of different political, social, rock, punk, riotgrrl and pop personalities. This band now was completely focused on being themselves. Sleater-Kinney was no longer hiding their politics or any other aspect of their identity.
And AHOTBO shows it. When Tucker, Weiss and Brownstein hook up together vocally their harmonies are strikingly powerful. There is an out and out pop song ("Leave You Behind") that would be a number one hit across the land if the radio waves weren't all tied up by corrupt money-making sleazoid programmers and disc jockeys who are all bought and paid for by the five majors. Tucker sounds downright sexy and erotic on "Milkshake'n Honey." "The Swimmer" features some of Brownstein's most melodically beautiful guitar playing. And lyrically, the bullshit detector is out in full force. Blasting away at cynicism, the media, the music industry, the cries are there to take back our culture, to take back the power. And the topper? It is their most fun record yet.
...And suddenly the best band in the world is even better.
Check This Out! recently spoke with Carrie Brownstein about the new album, pop, politics and culture.
Check This Out!: The first thing that hits me with the new album, are the harmonies. Beautiful stuff. I know Janet was singing a bit more on the last tour, what inspired you to have more backing vocals and more varying arrangements vocally. How did this all come about?
Carrie Brownstein: When I wrote the song "All Hands on the Bad One" I asked Corin to make up a vocal part for the chorus. I told her I wanted it to be something that we could all sing together and that was the catalyst for the other vocal collaborations on the record. It was a very powerful feeling to have all three of us singing together, the way it almost seemed to drown out the music. We wanted to start utilizing all of our talents and keep expanding the possibilities available between the three of us.
CTO: With each album you must be getting more and more comfortable with the whole recording process. This album has the best overall sound of all your stuff, drum-wise, guitar sound, vocals etc. Are you having more hands on control with recording and getting the sound you want?
CB: I think we know what we want at this point and that we finally have the language to describe that to someone else. Personally, I like to be somewhat removed from the technical aspects of recording and that is one of the reasons we chose to work with John Goodmanson again. He has a very good sense of what we are trying to do.
CTO: There are some interesting themes that you hit upon on this album. First of all this album, and especially a song like "You're No Rock'n Roll Fun" seems to be a response to the heavy weight that seemed to be put on you as a band by the media over the last few years? I know you have said in the past that you don't let that kind of stuff enter your minds but it seems that it must have to take a toll on you, especially when people like Greil Marcus are calling you the greatest band in the world. Sleater-Kinney is always held up to higher standards it seems.
CB: I think "You're No Rock 'n Roll Fun" is more about taking rock music less seriously than about the issue you have described. The song describes an artist that is caught up in their own artistic prowess and in the myths of rock.
CTO: Also, with "The Ballad of a Ladyman" "#1 Must Have," and "The Professional" you seem to be touching on issues such as being in control of your own art and the whole problem having to deal with getting product out and not being swamped by the capitalistic nature of the music industry. And then extending that not just from a musician's perspective, but also for everyone out there. Lines like "how much control should we give up of our lives," "culture is what we make it" "we could write more than the next marketing bid." Can you expand on that and explain your feelings about control over your music and your life?
CB: To me those songs are connected by a couple of different themes. Some if it is about letting go of the cynicism that can have a deteriorating effect on both your political and artistic life. It's about creating culture instead of merely consuming it. We live in a time where so much is readily available to us that it is easy to be passive and to leave the inventions up to other people. It becomes harder to remember that we too have cultural power and that some of that power lies in our refusal to buy into such a consumer driven culture. Those songs also carry the theme of feeling like this band doesn't fit in anywhere. We often feel like we are asked to leave our politics at the door. I think this has happened in the mainstream media as well as in the indie-rock community. The media has often portrayed us as "escaping the ghetto of riot grrl" or as being some sort of exception to the rule. It is important for us to be seen has multi-dimensional, as being a political entity, a feminist entity, a rock entity, a girl entity, a band entity, a punk entity, a pop entity, all at once. Those things can coexist within us without canceling each other out. However, we often feel like we can fit in only if we leave some of those identities, especially the political ones, behind. It is very frustrating. This record is about bringing those elements together, toying with and enjoying the contradictions, instead of letting them tear you apart.
CTO: The media seems to be all pervasive in our society, not only for people that tend to be in the spotlight, such as yourself, but everyone. In "Was it a lie?" there is that great line, "I want a day not made for you to see." It seems like the media is everywhere looking for anyone to screw up and to broadcast it to 200 nations via CNN. Is "Was it a lie?" based on any actual event?
CB: Corin was listening to the radio and heard Will Oldham talking about sitting in a bar in Germany where the closed-circuit TV was playing a loop of a woman getting hit by a train. The song tells the story of the woman but also is a metaphor for how voyeuristic our society has become. It often feels like there is nothing unavailable to us anymore; privacy is something that we can destroy and lives are something that we can devour. I think that for women especially there is an awareness of this kind of watchful eye; of always being aware of how other people look at you.
CTO: "The Swimmer" has the same underlying sense of alienation that John Cheever's story "The Swimmer" had, are you familiar with that story?
CB: I am familiar with that story but actually the song is based on the life of a long distance swimmer named Lynne Cox. She did "peace swims" in the 80's with the hope of illustrating a commonality among warring nations. I felt like all of her glory and hope was tied up in a world that could only be hers temporarily, so I used that as the springboard for the song.
CTO: All three of you have your side projects that you are working on, how does that effect your relationship in Sleater-Kinney? What about it helps? Is there a negative side?
CB: It is good to gain perspective by stepping away from something and I don't think any of us could do Sleater-Kinney 12 months out of the year. It's nice to be inspired and learn things from other people and through other musical collaborations. The only negative aspect is scheduling but it all works out.
CTO: Corin's vocals seem to have a little more sassier edge to them this time around, a little touch of the Shangri-las. Is that something carried over from Cadallaca.
CB: I think Cadallaca helped Corin to feel comfortable exploring different characters and to take on different rolls. I think that for a long time she felt like Sleater-Kinney had to be the "serious band". Not always true.
CTO: I've asked this question quite a bit lately. This past year had some horrid events with the rapes at Woodstock, and bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. After all these years since Excuse 17 and Heavens to Betsy, has anything changed? Do you feel like you are beating your heads against the wall sometimes.
CB: I think that we took a huge step backwards last year. There has been such a backlash against women in pop culture based on such tiny steps forward, but it obviously felt threatening to a lot of people. There were some female songwriters on the charts for a few years and somehow that made certain male bands/fans feel like there was nothing for them. Then they tried to reclaim something that they had never really lost and they did so with such vehemence. It was really scary to me what happened at Woodstock. Music is where I work and to think that this is happening in my work place is horrifying.
CTO: Katherine Spielman of Puncture magazine, wrote that bands like yourself and Le Tigre are a response to the boy bands of the past year and she feels that a new polemic is on the horizon, a polemic of taking control, taking the stage. Do you see this or feel this happening?
CB: I hope this is happening. I know that we personally felt like we could no longer be silent and that we needed to bring this discussion into the mainstream media.
CTO: Tell me about Ladyfest and your involvement in that, your goals.
CB: Ladyfest is a women's art festival taking place August 1-6 in Olympia, Wa. It will showcase the artistic, political, organizational, and musical talents of women. There will be workshops, films, visual/performance art, music, open mics and much more. I have been working on the budget committee to help raise funds for the event. I hope that Ladyfest will inspire women to return to their communities and take similar steps to network with one another in order to form political and artistic alliances.
CTO: You have all girl bands supporting your tour. Was that a concerted effort on your part, or something that just happened?
CB: It was a concerted effort on our part to give back to our community by supporting other women that play music.
CTO: What are all of you listening to these days?
CB: I have been listening to the new Mary Timony record, Neko Case, Bill Fox, Mahler, and Bach.
CTO: How many songs do you have left over from the sessions. I know on your last tour you were playing two songs that didn't end up on the album. One I think was going by the name "Maraca" and the other one was referred to in setlists as "Wipers" Will those be seeing the light of day?
CB: "Maraca" is the B-Side to an upcoming 7" on KRS. We didn't record "Wipers".