Quiet Riot

The indie movement that is Sleater-Kinney keeps getting bigger

Every article written about Sleater-Kinney begins with the four questions its publicist says not to ask: How does it feel to be "women in rock"? What are your influences? Do you consider yourselves a "riot grrrl" band? What do you think of all of the press you've gotten?

With write-ups in magazines ranging from hand-copied 'zines to TIME, the members of Sleater-Kinney have been asked those questions hundreds of times. In the course of their five-year career, the trio -- originally from Olympia and now living in Portland, Washington -- have answered them, but usually only though their music. They are probably the most-written-about, least-heard band in the United States.

So much attention has been focused on the fact that guitarist/singer Corin Tucker, guitarist/singer Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss are women that you'd think they were a political movement or medical miracle instead of a teensy-weensy indie-rock band. Yes, they emerged from and are influenced by the strong, female-led bands of the punk rock/feminist Riot Grrrl school. And, yes, they think the same thing about the mountains of press that most people would: Being called "the next Nirvana" doesn't have a whole lot to do with being a band.

Tucker makes a long, monosyllabic sound when asked about the pressures of being tagged as a band to break through. "Nnnnnnnnn," she says. "A lot of times the press is looking for the next big thing. We are really interested in being around for a long time and making the music that we want to make, instead of being the trend of '99. We'd rather do something that is maybe not as glamorous, but it's going to keep us going for a long time. Creatively, that means that we can do a record that explores a different theme and not to have to cover everything at once because we are going to break up in a week. It gives us space to work with."

The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars), Sleater-Kinney's fourth and latest record, proves her point. The players realize that they will have more records, that they don't need to say their entire peace in 13 songs. They still touch on gender issues, but mostly they concentrate on losing identity -- and faith -- in love. The title track compares reclaiming a broken heart with a jewel heist. "Burn, Don't Freeze" mentions hell and the devil as metaphors for being in love, and in "Living in Exile" the narrator loses her kingdom, knowing "my heart is my own worst enemy." Yet The Hot Rock is not a sad record. Its glee comes from the vital punkish energy of Weiss's drumming as much as from Tucker's dive-bombing vocals and the spiraling riffs and power chords from the twin guitars of Brownstein and Tucker.

"Our songs are more collaborative now than ever before," Tucker says. "We've come together more as musicians, and we communicate extremely well, especially on the new record. These songs are more collaborative than anything that we've done. It's one of the things that makes us stronger as a band is that we have really great creative abilities."

Sleater-Kinney formed in 1994 in Olympia, an hour south of Seattle, at the height of Riot Grrrl mania. It's a town of 40,000 that has a progressive (meaning radical) college, Evergreen State College, and a whole lot of Do It Yourself attitude. Tucker was inspired to start playing rock and roll on the heels of a show by Bikini Kill/Bratmobile, two early Grrrl bands, in 1991. Part of the appeal of Riot Grrrl groups was that they took the empowerment of punk rock's "everybody can do it" attitude and made it gender inclusive. Tucker's first band, Heavens to Betsy, was a duo of drums and guitar, whose powerful attack inspired many other women to pick up guitars and do their things.

One of those inspired women was Brownstein, who formed Excuse 17 and moved to Olympia to attend Evergreen. In the quick-moving DIY atmosphere the pair hooked up (and even dated briefly) and began writing music together. After grabbing a drummer, they recorded a handful of songs and took the band's name from the intersection near their rehearsal space. What began as a side project soon gained momentum when they found themselves heading to Australia to record their debut record with a new drummer, whom they had never met.

The first, self-titled record was released by a pair of micromini labels (Chainsaw did the CD, and Villa Villakula handled vinyl) in 1995. A year later came Call the Doctor (Chainsaw). Featuring the memorably titled "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," Doctor made the critics and indie-rock underground take notice. Getting Janet Weiss (of Quasi and Elliott Smith's band) in 1997 led the band to record the near-classic Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars). Widely hailed (Details rated it ten out of ten, and Rolling Stone gave it four stars out of five), Dig ended up on top of many critics' year-end lists, and the ensuing tour found them in the midst of overexposure, and all those annoying questions.

"I think that there is always pressure when you have expectations that you need to live up to," Tucker says, just days before the band begins a six-week tour. "I think for us, we realize that other people have expectations of us, but we try and focus on our own expectations as a band even more so that we're always challenging ourselves and that we live up to our own expectations first. Those are the ones that make a difference.

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