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.
"I don't really think that we write music for other people," she continues. "We don't really think, 'Oh, how are our fans going to react to this?' We wrote The Hot Rock especially as just, 'We want to do this.' We don't know if our fans will like it or not; we just did it because we like it and we wanted to do it. If you start thinking too much about your audience and worrying about that, it's going to really hamper your abilities and your creative ideas."
It isn't just writers who salivate over Sleater-Kinney; a loyal following of (mostly) females treat them like friends, like sisters, like heroines. Rather than use the didactic tactics of Bikini Kill (whose Kathleen Hanna used a Magic Marker to write "slut" on her stomach), the members of Sleater-Kinney speak in metaphors just as easily as in dramatic gestures, and their fans respond to the sensitivity. People don't just like Sleater-Kinney, they love Sleater-Kinney.
And the band, true to its low-key roots, loves its fans right back. When it came time for the band to shoot its first video, for "Get Up," director Miranda July utilized the band's Internet-based fan newsgroup to find extras. "We have some very, very enthusiastic [fans], which is really great," says Tucker. "We see some of them so often they're people that we just sort of talk to, so it was really fun doing a video with them. We didn't even really know what was going to happen until the night before when we got there. [July] was just telling us, 'Show up at this field at seven o'clock in the morning.' It was hard. I didn't really realize I was going to be acting, but it turned out we all had to. It was fun."
That the staunchly independent band shot a video shows how far it has come. With heaps of praise come expected sales and rumblings that the band may leave the indie ranks for the corporate world of major labels. As Sleater-Kinney's members are the most visible and acclaimed of the riot grrrls (witness the band's Web sites, 'zines devoted to them and their impact on white suburban girls), major labels have been sniffing around. If the band got into bed with a multinational corporation, the impact would stretch beyond the three people playing the instruments. Though Tucker says she doesn't feel influential, there is a musico-political stance inherent in the Sleater-Kinney entity; they are on a label called Kill Rock Stars for a reason. Tucker, like many art-rockers before her, says the bandmembers have total control over their careers and wouldn't sacrifice that for the lure of money.
"We try to do things organically and slowly as each new thing comes up, that we want to be playing slightly bigger venues but not to the point where it's uncomfortable or doesn't feel natural to us," she says, before admitting they have been testing the big-label waters.
Even just a couple of years ago it would have made some sense for Sleater-Kinney to jump to a major label. But with alternative rock on a downswing and labels cutting staff, there isn't anything that a bigger company can offer them -- certainly not radio play on big rock stations. "We have been researching over the last couple of years what it would be like for us to be on a major label," says Tucker. "One of the most important things for us as a band is to be able to sort of write our own ticket in terms of everything that has to do with being in the band: Where we're going to record, what producer we're going to work with, where we're going to play. If we had a label that had a [lofty voice] big plan for us, I don't think we would be very happy in that situation."
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That's not to say that the bandmembers aren't concerned about the business aspects of their careers. "Somebody has a marketing plan for you, and if it's not you, you might be in trouble," Tucker says. "Somebody is going to have an idea of how they are going to make money from you. And if you're not involved in that a lot of times you are just going to be taken advantage of."
The band's own marketing plan for The Hot Rock involves paying attention to the heartland. Kids in between the coasts are only hearing the band -- if they're lucky -- on college radio stations, but they are reading about them. For an indie band, Sleater-Kinney is focused on getting its records into those hands. "We're really trying to have our records in the bigger chain stores, where people don't have mom-and-pop stores, in the Midwest and places like that," says Tucker. "We really don't sell that many records in the Midwest, and we'd like to have our records be more available to people there. We have pretty good plans for specifically trying to work on sales in different areas. As a band we are very aware of the business side of things and being savvy about it. I think that's important; a lot of bands go into it pretty naively about the music industry. It's really helped us to learn a few things along the way, that we can have a plan for how things are going to go for each record."
This careful consideration, combined with the band's ambitious songwriting, suggests that reams of articles will be written about it for a long time.
Sleater-Kinney plays Friday, March 12, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Call (713)862-3838 for ticket info.