Grrrls No More
Though the term "riot grrrl" may go down in history alongside "grunge" and "slacker" and "Gen X" as little more than buzzwords of the early '90s, in reality, the Northwest's feminist-punk movement wasn't just fodder for the hip lexicographers at Sassy and Newsweek. It involved real people -- real young women -- out to assert themselves through punk, a musical world that can be as male-dominated as any corporate boardroom.
Five years since bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile attracted national attention with their confrontational songs and grassroots following, the community dubbed riot grrrl still exists essentially outside the media's eye. You might say some have blossomed into riot wymmn, though the truth is a bit more complex. For Sleater-Kinney, the first significant post-riot grrrl band, maturing and stretching beyond the riot grrrl scene in no way diminishes their close connection to the community that's still the group's primary base of support.
"The media has a way of giving movements birth and having them die a couple months later," Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney's lead guitarist and second vocalist, says from her home in Olympia, Washington. "I don't think riot grrrl is dead. There are a lot of women doing important things. I don't necessarily identify with the [riot grrrl] label, but it's impossible for it not to be part of what we do. Corin [Tucker, the band's lead vocalist and second guitarist] and I definitely came out of that movement, and it definitely changed both of our lives and really created a space for us and other women to play music in."
Sleater-Kinney -- named for a road near the band's practice space in Olympia -- came together in 1994 as a side project for Tucker and Brownstein while the two were still playing in, respectively, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17. Both those groups had released records on Olympia's Kill Rock Stars and Portland's Chainsaw -- the main disseminators of riot grrrl music -- and both had about run their course when Tucker, then 21, and Brownstein, then 20, began playing together. What started as a friendship -- and for a time became more intimate -- quickly developed into an intense creative bond in which the two could explore new musical territory. Though they're no longer romantically involved, Brownstein and Tucker's close partnership continues.
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"Corin was the songwriter in Heavens to Betsy, and she really wanted to share the songwriting and guitar playing and singing with someone else to build the dynamics," Brownstein says. "That was the major difference in shaping our sound. We wanted things to be collaborative, and we were really surprised and blown away by the musical connection Corin and I had. The shared musical language, it seemed so natural to us."
In 1995, Tucker and Brownstein traveled to Australia, where they recorded a CD with their friend Lora Macfarlane on drums. While the album showed great potential, it was the follow-up, 1996's Call the Doctor, that established Sleater-Kinney as one of the top bands in indie rock. "The first CD was sort of a documentation of our trip to Australia," Brownstein says. "With Call the Doctor we really wanted to explore the dynamics and have things go between tension and fluidity, have it be contrasting and discordant. That's when we started to become more focused."
Call the Doctor took the band's minimal lineup of drums (again supplied by Macfarlane), two guitars and two voices and created simple yet surprisingly rich sonic textures. The women wove together guitar parts and traded-off vocal lines in a tightly wound and often ferocious musical melee that's as reminiscent of the Fall's wry angularity as it is of more obvious fem-punk reference points such as X-Ray Spex and the Slits.
Brownstein, who has one semester left toward a degree in socio-linguistics at Olympia's Evergreen State College, describes her interplay with Tucker in terms that seem drawn from her academic life. "Musically and lyrically, it's sort of a conversation," she says. "At any given time there's the conversation between your conscious and subconscious, then there's the conversation between the two guitars, and then the conversation actually between my and Corin's voices. Even sonically, Corin's voice is really galvanizing and frantic, and my vocals are often more grounding. So it creates a balance in some ways."
While Call the Doctor was a major leap from Tucker's and Brownstein's former bands in terms of musical cohesion and sophistication, it stayed fairly true to the aggression and identity politics of riot grrrl. As Brownstein notes, "The place we were coming from was more scratching out an identity,
scratching out of a trap -- self-imposed and societal ones -- and of feeling more victimized. Call the Doctor -- the title itself is sort of a cry for help."
With their latest CD, the recently released Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney have made huge strides again -- though this time lyrically as well as musically. "With Excuse 17 it was such a catharsis," Brownstein says of her former band. "It was very primal and guttural, about purging so many things out of me. With Dig Me Out we've come to a point where we're singing about pleasure and about the struggle it takes to be able to sing about pleasure. I don't think we were ever at a place before where we were singing about desire."
While Brownstein's and Tucker's past CDs expressed anger and obsession and loneliness, Dig Me Out is more concerned with passion, the pursuit of love ... and the simple joy of rocking out. Sleater-Kinney complements their expanded lyrical range with music that's both more traditionally rock-oriented and also tighter -- thanks largely to new drummer Janet Weiss, who replaced Toni Gogin (who had replaced Macfarlane). There are even some flirtations with girl-group pop, as in the hand claps of "Turn It On" and the "dum-dum-dee-dee-dee" chorus of "Little Babies." "The songs are more celebratory in a lot of ways," Brownstein says. "Musically, we had a lot more ideas."
With Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney bypass any notions that they're simply a great riot grrrl band and stake their claim as a really great rock and roll band. Still, the trio remains inextricably linked to the Olympia and Portland (where Tucker and Weiss now live) communities from which they emerged. Critical adulation -- such as being voted number three in the Village Voice's 1996 critics' poll (just behind multi-platinum acts Beck and the Fugees) -- has created interest from music moguls, but the only concession the band has made to their growing popularity is to switch from the Chainsaw label to the better-distributed indie Kill Rock Stars.
"We're very happy working in the independent community," Brownstein says. "Those are the people who supported us the whole time we've been playing music, so we don't have any plans to leave. The only reason that our band exists or that Corin and I started playing music is because of artists and communities in Olympia and now also in Portland. Because of the nature of the media, they can't have it be this communal thing we're part of, there has to be a standout. But we didn't just fall from the sky, we are a part of something."
Sleater-Kinney perform at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 24, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6 (all ages). For info, call 869-
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