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Punk trio Sleater-Kinney keeps on digging with fourth album

March 23, 1999
Web posted at: 11:56 a.m. EST (1656 GMT)
By Donna Freydkin

Special to CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- You can call them punk. You can call them chicks. In fact, you can call them anything. But whatever you do, just don't use that tired, worn phrase and call female trio Sleater-Kinney a riot grrrl band.

Prior to the interview, the band's publicist even suggested that we refrain from asking the inevitable "women in rock" questions. But after listening to Sleater-Kinney's tender yet irate brand of punk, you almost can't help it, and drummer Janet Weiss seems resigned to answering the unavoidable.

"My gender is who I am. It's how I see the world. But it's not something I consciously think about when I make music," says Weiss. "Music is so personal -- a woman is who I am, and who I am makes music."

While the women have already won over the critics, including the "Village Voice" and "Rolling Stone," the masses haven't heard of them yet. But with the release of their fourth and most accessible album "The Hot Rock," Sleater-Kinney may be a little closer to becoming something more of a household name.

"Some of the songs on this album are more graceful and quieter and more subtly complex," says Weiss of "The Hot Rock," out since February 23. "Our last album was exuberant and the songs were outgoing. If it were a person, it would be the life of the party. The new record is much more introspective."

The trio's fourth release features Sleater-Kinney's vintage brand of passionate, frenzied guitar-based punk swirling around the dramatic alternating vocals of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. The trio straddles the line between the grubby aesthetic of Bikini Kill and the polished California punk of Hole. Just imagine, perhaps, what might have been if the Go Go's hadn't gone so totally cutesy MTV.

Ferocious yet emotive

Sleater-Kinney, named after a local highway ramp, formed in 1994 in Olympia, Washington, two years after Tucker and Brownstein first met. Australia-born Lora Macfarlane, the group's first permanent drummer, signed on that same year; just two weeks later, the trio had completed recording their self-titled 1995 debut.

The album earned the trio widespread acclaim for its intensity and the group's provocative, charged songs. With 1996's "Call the Doctor," Sleater-Kinney garnered even greater media exposure and critical applause on the strength of the women's incisive, intelligent lyrics ("This is love and you can't make it, in a formula or shake me. I'm your monster, I'm not like you, all your life is written for you" from the title track, and "Feel safe, inside, inside those well-drawn lines; boyfriend, a car, a job, my white girl life" from "Anonymous").

The lauded, smart "Dig Me Out," recorded with new drummer Janet Weiss, was released in 1997, typified by the ragged interplay of Tucker and Brownstein's guitars and Weiss's jagged drumming. And while it was the band's most visible release to date and did garner the band a mighty if tight following, all that critical adulation hadn't exactly translated into impressive record sales, with the album having sold some 56,000 copies, according to SoundScan.

And now, with their status as critical darlings firmly cemented, Sleater-Kinney is reaching out to more mainstream audiences with "The Hot Rock," a very slightly poppier (in relative terms), more radio-friendly extension of its ferocious yet emotive brand of punk.

"It's not something that immediately sounds familiar. On this album, it's its own creation," says Weiss.

The trio merges influences as diverse as Built to Spill, Joy Division, and Sonic Youth into something uniquely their own, with intense interplay between guitars and vocals. "Get Up," "Hot Rock," and the angry "God Is a Number" are the standout tracks.

The trio's music is intensely emotional, wavering between rage and gentleness, and anchored by the melding of the sweet chants and unrepentant wails of singers Tucker and Brownstein.

"The songs are really personal. They're really honest, even if they're sometimes unpleasant," says Weiss. "The lyrics evoke so many emotions. Our analogies are visual and the metaphors are direct. Corin and Carrie are singing about things they care about. I feel it."

And the trio's maturity has emboldened the women to take some chances, adds Weiss.

"The more you play with people, the more chances you're willing to take," says Weiss. "It's an organic thing, how the songs are born. We play something and everyone starts adding to it. It's an intuitive process."

The majors beckon

Thanks largely to the left-of-field success of their first three albums, major labels have been calling. But so far, Sleater-Kinney have resisted the offers, opting to stick with their indie label Kill Rock Stars. They admit they want to reach wider audiences and hit the K-mart shoppers, but aside from that, the majors don't have that much to offer the trio.

"It's important to us to be successful at our music," says Weiss. "We're ambitious people and want people to hear our music. But all the accoutrements are not that appealing." "For us, it's a question of getting our records out to more people. It's about bigger distribution. We have to push the boundaries of the independent world and try to reach more people," she adds. "We try to do things within our framework. For now we're happy where we are."

Yet, the members of Sleater-Kinney insist that they're not making music for the money or the fame -- neither of which have been particularly easy to come by for the trio.

"We're not rich, but we're still doing it!" laughs Weiss.