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Sleater-Kinney was well-equipped to open doors in women's rock
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published July 30, 2006
Lesson 57 in the rock handbook: Always pack at least one extra guitar.
When the Portland trio Sleater-Kinney plays what will be its last
out-of-town show ever Friday at Lollapalooza in Grant Park, they will
undoubtedly be more prepared than they were six years ago at Metro.
Call it a lesson learned on the way to becoming one of the best
American rock bands of the last decade. Carrie Brownstein, Corin
Tucker and Janet Weiss had been battling equipment problems all night
at that June 1999 gig in the North Side club, and their concert ground
to a standstill when Tucker's balky guitar finally died.
Some bands might've thrown a hissy fit and stalked off the stage;
others might've cracked and been booed into oblivion. Instead,
guitarist Carrie Brownstein picked up a book tossed by a fan and began
to read. "Most rockers get underwear," Tucker cracked, "Carrie gets
The audience cackled appreciatively, Tucker's guitar got fixed, and
the rock resumed. The encore was positively celebratory, a roaring
version of "Dig Me Out" with guitars, drums and voices howling like
they were tunneling out of a 10-foot snow drift into the daylight. As
the song wound down, Brownstein shimmied next to Tucker and briefly
rested her chin on her bandmate's shoulder. A tough night had turned
into a triumph.
A few months later, Brownstein laughed when reminded of the meltdown.
"I was horrified, to be honest," she said. "There we were onstage not
knowing what to do. In our mind's eye, we still think of ourselves at
this one level that most people think we've surpassed. It's like, `Oh,
yeah, I suppose we could have a guitar tech on the road with us.' It
wasn't until last year that I realized, `I could buy more guitars!' I
don't know if it has to do with coming from a relatively isolated
place like Portland [Ore.]. Or if we don't think we're such a big
band. We're going to have one extra guitar onstage from now on, all
tuned up and ready to go, with its own strap. It takes a situation
like this to make us realize, `Oh, I guess we could have a backup
A backup plan wasn't necessary in 1994 when college roommates Tucker
and Brownstein began recording songs in their bedroom in Olympia,
Wash. Seven albums later, they have one of the most respected legacies
in independent rock. Though they never broke through to a mainstream
audience, their albums sold steadily in the 80,000 range and they were
an inspiration to countless bands.
"They might bristle at this, because they've heard this a million
times, but the importance of what they've done for women in rock music
is second to none," says Tony Kiewel, who signed the band to Sub Pop
Records two years ago for what would be their final album, "The
Woods." "They've opened a lot of doors for women. They've also shown
that you can not only age gracefully but evolve in surprising ways and
achieve things beyond the obvious goal of pushing in new directions.
They've excelled over an extended period at trying different things,
and not a lot of bands have done that. Besides the Flaming Lips, I
have a hard time thinking of other bands who have produced as much
great music in various genres over the course of a long career."
Initially inspired by the riot grrrl movement, a loose coalition of
female artists who advocated empowerment on a range of social,
political and cultural issues, Tucker and Brownstein quickly evolved
as songwriters. They named their bedroom band after the road on which
they practiced in Olympia, and eventually enlisted a drummer but never
bothered to add a bassist. The trio's second album, "Call the Doctor"
(1996), emphatically stamped them as a ferocious rock band.
Corey Rusk, the founder of Chicago-based Touch and Go Records, says
the record obliterated what should have been obvious decades before:
the notion that there should be a separate standard for rock bands
based on gender. "That album was amazing," he says. "It was exactly
what I needed to hear that year, maybe because I wasn't hearing enough
great rock music anywhere else,"
The follow-up, "Dig Me Out" (1997), was even better. Part of the
reason was the tension that played out in the lyrics. The distinct
voices played off each other: Brownstein more reserved, bookish and
deadpan; Tucker a human howitzer always on the brink of a wail. They
would often swap lines or verses, or even sing against each other
instead of harmonizing, as if engaged in an animated conversation or a
quarrel. The effect mirrored their tumultuous personal relationship;
Brownstein and Tucker were once lovers who had broken up before
recording the album.
"It was definitely difficult," Brownstein said at the time of the
album's release. "But musically, Corin and I always have been
attracted to tension and friction -- we like dissonance in our music.
So our breaking up just sort of got sucked into the songwriting
process. And we found that the music we make transcends any
relationship we might otherwise have."
But what really pushed the album to another level was the contribution
of the band's newest member: drummer Janet Weiss, already a veteran of
the Pacific Northwest indie-rock scene when she joined the band. "It
was almost kind of scary how good she was," Tucker said a few years
later. "We knew we'd gotten really lucky, and Carrie and I also knew
we'd have to work hard as musicians just to keep up with her."
Weiss served not just as a tirelessly inventive rhythmic engine, but
as a song doctor in the studio. "A song is rarely complete when Carrie
and Corin come to practice," the drummer once explained. "We have to
organize it, think of how it will start, where to take the midsection
break, and I think that's where I help the most in coming up with
arranging ideas. The approach is always that the first idea is not
necessarily the best idea."
Those increasingly high standards took Sleater-Kinney past its riot
grrrl beginnings into wider ranging music: the giddy soul-strut of
"Step Aside" on "One Beat" (2002), the 11-minute roller-coaster ride
that is "Let's Call it Love" on "The Woods" (2005), and the
straight-up pop of "Leave Me Behind" from "All Hands on the Bad One"
That quest not to digress or recycle also led the band members to
question themselves every step of the way. Tensions spilled over into
personal and artistic conflicts and led to several near breakups; each
time the band members came back to produce galvanizing work. But after
recording "The Woods" and once again playing to mostly sold-out clubs
and theaters around the world, Sleater-Kinney decided to pack it in.
"After 11 years as a band, Sleater-Kinney have decided to go on
indefinite hiatus," Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss announced last month
on their Web site, www.sleater-kinney.com. "The upcoming summer shows
will be our last. As of now, there are no plans for future tours or
The band offered no more information, and declined all interview
requests. After Lollapalooza, the band will play two final shows Aug.
11-12 in its home base of Portland.
"I had the usual questions when they told me this is what they were
going to do: Were they OK? Is everyone still friends? Is there any
underlying drama that we can help with?" Sub Pop's Kiewel says. "But
there wasn't any drama involved. They were all just ready to move on
and do other things at this point in their lives."
Other responsibilities and opportunities pull at the trio. Tucker, 33,
is now married and has a child; Brownstein, 31, has begun a promising
career as a writer; and Weiss, 40, is a full-time member of the rock
They leave behind one of the best seven-album runs in rock history.
Not bad for three women who never used to pack enough guitars.
- - -
A parade of exceptional albums
"Call the Doctor" (Chainsaw, 1996): Whip-smart punk rock that raises a
din despite the low-fi production, highlighted by the instant anthem
"I Wanna be Your Joey Ramone."
"Dig Me Out" (Kill Rock Stars, 1997): Janet Weiss' drumming instantly
raises the temperature and varies the arrangements, the melodies
pinwheeling outward and upward in all directions.
"One Beat" (Kill Rock Stars, 2002): Another major leap in songwriting,
with a pointed protest song ("Combat Rock"), a Memphis-style soul
workout ("Step Aside") and even a potent blues ("Light Raid Coyote").
"The Woods" (Sub Pop, 2005): With Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Low,
Mercury Rev) producing, the trio turns another corner on its most
adventurous album, a new peak of focused passion fused with
increasingly accomplished musicianship.
-- Greg Kot