"It's just horrible," she says over the phone from the band's hometown of Portland, Oregon. "It's hard to wake up every morning and know we're at war and people are dying and the rest of the world pretty much disagrees with what we're doing."
But Brownstein and her bandmates -- drummer Janet Weiss and guitarist Corin Tucker (all three sing) -- aren't scribbling down protest songs. Yet.
"I feel like right now it would be hard to create something," she says. "It's too big. How do you write about it? It's pretty hard when we're in the middle of it."
It would be surprising, however, if the conflict in Iraq didn't make the band's next album, as the members of Sleater-Kinney don't shy away from big topics. Their sixth album, the recently released One Beat, was bluntly political. Three songs on the 12-track record offered commentary on the 9/11 tragedy, and the tone of those songs wasn't your typical stars and stripes forever. The rowdy "Combat Rock," for example, questioned the blind allegiance that followed the attacks, with lyrics like "Dissent's not treason but they talk like it's the same / Those who disagree are afraid to show their face."
"I think we definitely use music as a means of explaining what's going on in our inner world in terms of our hearts and minds and bodies, but also our external, real world," says Brownstein. "Music is a populist medium to me."
Although the group recently was declared an Important Band by fawning profiles in The New York Times and Time, the women of Sleater-Kinney have been political ever since the mid-'90s, when they formed just as the riot grrrl wave was beginning to break. From the raw minimalist punk of their first few records to their relatively lush latest release (which includes heretofore uncharacteristic trumpets, violins and cellos), their songs have readily taken on topics like women's rights and the gender politics of rock and roll.
"Music is really pure, a very emotional way of connecting with someone," says Brownstein. "Because I see it like that, I want to infuse it with meaning. Not in a didactic way or all the time, but most of the time."
So what is a band with this much integrity doing on a bill with a mega-act like Pearl Jam? And what will it be like for the group, long used to playing gritty clubs like Fitzgerald's, to play large arenas like the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, where they sell Budweiser in plastic bottles?
"We haven't been an opening band in a long time," explains Brownstein, "and I feel like it's a good way of exposing your music to new people. I think it helps to raise the level of performance sometimes just to be in front of people that aren't converts already."
Brownstein likens the tour to the band's experiences in Europe, where the group is not as well known. Every time they play the other side of the pond, "it feels like we're starting over," says Brownstein. "You have to prove it."
The tour is not a sign that the group is trading in its independent flavor for mainstream vanilla. The group is still recording for the indie Kill Rock Stars label, and the ladies will not stop playing the small clubs where they built their reputation.
"I wouldn't like to tour like this all the time," says Brownstein. "I think in some ways it could be frustrating for us. But I think it's going to be fun. We do like to sort of push ourselves and try new stuff."
That sense of experimentation on tour reflects their attitude in the studio. While One Beat held tight to the group's hallmarks -- Tucker's ferocious vocals, Brownstein's spirited guitar attacks and Weiss's hell-be-damned drumming -- the band was not churning out the same old songs. In addition to the horns and strings, the bandmates brought in a synthesizer and theramin to add new layers of texture to the record.
"There are six albums, so we just thought, well, why not?" explains Brownstein. "It's freeing to think, 'Oh, we can put anything we want on our record.' We don't have to adhere to 'We're two guitars and drums and vocals.'"
The record came after a hiatus for the women, who took a break from one another after the spring 2000 release of the infectious All Hands on the Bad One. Tucker had a baby boy with filmmaker husband Lance Bangs, Weiss went on tour with her other band Quasi, and Brownstein acted in two small independent films and worked on a sociolinguistics research project with her former college professor.
Brownstein says she didn't play a note for six months, and she credits the sabbatical with strengthening Sleater-Kinney's personal and professional bonds.
"I think to step away from it and take perspective is really important, to remember why you do something, and what role it plays in your life," she says. "It is so unique, the kind of language that me and Corin and Janet speak with one another, that I just don't have with anyone else. I think we definitely realized this is something we never want to take for granted."
And while that sort of rock and roll language is currently being celebrated by the music industry, don't lump Sleater-Kinney into the "Rock Is Back!" movement. After all, Sleater-Kinney was a thriving rock band long before the Strokes made their first video. Brownstein says the whole neo-garage "trend" is a sham, an invention of editors at Rolling Stone and other music rags.
"They declared rock dead only so they could resurrect it later," laughs Brownstein at the expense of critics. To her, it's just another way for the "white boy"-dominated rock establishment to maintain its choke hold on tastemaking. "How hubristic, really. You have the power to say, 'Only electronic music is in now,' but how wonderful later to be the ones to raise rock from the dead."
But while Brownstein might deride trend-spotting journos, she admits she's pleased that bands that write their own music are in, at least for now. Whether it's political commentary or a love song, people want the real thing, she says.
"I think when authenticity is in question, people tend to revert back to writing their own songs," says Brownstein. "I'm glad. I knew electronic music was never going to be the main thing, because music is based on aurality and the sharing of stories. Music is storytelling, essentially. People always want to hear stories."