Published Jun 01, 2005I've just told one of my rock'n'roll heroes that I hated her new record at first, anyway.
"Really? Well, that's good!" laughs Carrie Brownstein, guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney, completely un-phased. "I think a lot of people are going to have that reaction. That was kind of the point. We wanted to create something that was pretty unsettling."
The Woods is the seventh album for Sleater-Kinney. It follows 2002's One Beat, a work that perfected a formula that they started in the ashes of the riot grrrl wave of the early '90s, a formula that they maintained during rock'n'roll's dark days near the turn of the century - days that were even darker for proudly political and feminist guitar bands.
And once you've perfected the formula, it's time to milk it or move on. Singer/guitarist Corin Tucker explains, "When you've been a band for ten years, it becomes an issue of, 'Why do we need to make another record?' We all felt that if we are going to make another record, it has to be really different and something we haven't done before."
The Portland, Oregon trio decided to challenge everyone's assumptions of the band - their critics, their fans, and most certainly their own. For other rock groups, this usually means keyboards, strings and horns, all of which appeared on One Beat to subtle yet profound effect. On The Woods, it means focusing on what they had already: even more guitars, even more throttling drum fills, even more excursions into the vocal stratosphere, and deconstructing their songwriting process.
"We wanted to destroy any perceptions people had of us," says drummer Janet Weiss. "How are we going to live up to One Beat? By doing the same thing? We went as far as we could with that record. We poked and prodded each other to find some new territory. We found some new vocabulary to talk to each other with. It's still just the three of us. This record's not that weird, when you get down to it. But for us, it's different. And different is something that's intimidating."
The Woods opens with two seconds of strangled feedback that give you little warning before an avalanche of distorted guitars and drums come crashing down. Soon enough a tornado of whooshy guitar swirls upwards, wrapping around your eardrums until the song opens up into sparse guitar chords bent wonderfully out of shape. Once some of the smoke clears, Corin Tucker unleashes her banshee wail, singing "Laaaaaaand, ho!" By the end of the song, Corin is screaming the phrase "noooo! looking! BACK!" at the top of her lungs - a height, by the way, that gives most of us vertigo. The rest of the band has their heads down, buried in guitar pedals and galloping drum rolls.
Carrie knows the first impression is jarring, but that's the point. "People are so interested in everything following a form and meeting expectations and being instantly gratified," she continues, sounding out of breath. "These days, the whole idea of creativity really challenges the way people expect to be entertained and feel good. I love Fiery Furnaces for that reason. I love Joanna Newsom for the same reason. Her voice - some people love it and some people hate it. More than ever, I appreciate bands that have a make or break element - bands that aren't palatable to everyone. It's good to have artists that are on the edge of love or hate, because at that point you feel they're doing something risky."
The Woods is certainly risky. It also feels transitory, in some ways like Sleater-Kinney's "mature" album, 1999's The Hot Rock. But that album softened the edges; this one sharpens them. Exhibit A is "Let's Call it Love," an 11-minute cock rocker that will be The Woods' dividing line. Here, Carrie embarks on a long, meandering guitar solo while Corin's oddly metallic vocals will give her cringing critics even more Geddy Lee ammunition, making the track their most indulgent and confrontational.
Drummer Janet Weiss explains, "When we wrote 'Let's Call It Love,' we were agitated after listening to something that we thought was so tame, and we were just fed up with passivity, with music being so soft. I get tired of pop where there's no danger, no edge and no substance. That song in particular is not meant to make you feel comfortable at all. We felt uncomfortable when we wrote it. We wanted to the person listening to it to feel uncomfortable. That was part of the writing and recording of the song."
The Woods' first single is "Entertain," in which Carrie asks, "So you want to be entertained? Please look away/ We're not here because we want to entertain don't look away." She goes on to challenge the necrophilia of nostalgia, whether it's '80s new wave or '70s garage rock. "You did nothing new with 1972," she sings. "Where is the 'fuck you'? Where is the black and blue?!" By the end of the verse she's screeching like she's lost her shit, grabbing her target by the collar and demanding that they get their hands dirty, embrace the chaos and jump into the unknown. She doesn't just talk the talk; the track is an immediately gripping rocker that eclipses anything they've done since their 1997 breakout album Dig Me Out.
In both sentiment and spirit, "Entertain" harkens back to those days when Sleater-Kinney started to attract the rockcritocracy to their shows, who saw them as saviours of sorts for punk rock. That is, "punk rock" in the way that most post-Fugazi intellectuals like to theorise and idealise it: DIY, on small indie labels, political (ideally feminist), angry and with plenty of angular guitars in the British art school tradition.
In 1997, critical godfather Greil Marcus declared them the most important band in America, and all his disciples followed in line. This had the adverse effect of non-believers being bullied into liking Sleater-Kinney. Consequently their live shows were soon filled with what the band called "lookie-loos" - the crossed-arm, chin-stroking crowd there to examine the socio-political importance of the event, with no un-self-conscious rocking out allowed.
Hardly the behaviour demanded at a Sleater-Kinney show, where Carrie is all Keith Richards kicks and windmills, Janet drives every song with an explosive finesse, and Corin is modestly unleashing The Voice. It's the voice we all wish we had: the voice that explodes upon impact, the voice from deep in your chest that fills your entire body, the voice that demands everything from the listener, the voice that stands as the greatest weapon against enforced silence and sterility. And if that's not entertaining, then as the song says, "please look away."
Carrie says that "Entertain" can be particularly confrontational when played live, "especially if the crowd is lifeless. I can channel frustration into that song if I feel that we're just sort of a movie up there that people are watching. [As it appears on The Woods], it's not just about music or a critique necessarily of our own audience, but it's about the fact that right now, everything is entertainment. There's this conflation of high and low, where politics is entertainment, news is entertainment, real lives are entertainment, and of course art is entertainment. It's all part of a large mix that's there for our consumption. In that sense, it asks the question: if everything is entertainment, then what is the responsibility of art? Or music? And how does it rise above that and become something meaningful?"
All this talk of leaving comfort zones and challenging perceptions meant that a few things had to change in the Sleater-Kinney camp. First came their departure from the Kill Rock Stars label to the bigger Sub Pop. Then they decided to leave long-time producer John Goodmanson, whose relationship with the ladies predates the band itself; he was behind the boards for both Corin and Carrie's first bands, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, respectively.
Instead, they packed up for Tarbox Studios just outside of Buffalo, New York. This is where producer Dave Fridmann has been crafting magical modern psychedelics for the likes of the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Mogwai, the Delgados and others for the last ten years. Most recently, he also helmed S-K's fellow recent Sub Pop signees Low, on their aptly titled album The Great Destroyer.
Yet none of those bands sound anything like Sleater-Kinney - a raw rock'n'roll power trio. And perhaps tellingly, Fridmann wasn't even really a fan before he took the job. Says Carrie, "He was excited to work with us, but he wasn't blown away by the production of our other records. When we played for him in the studio, he was really moved by it and thought it was really visceral. He thought the old records didn't really capture the power he felt standing next to our amps. That's why he went in such an extreme direction, so that now we're bleeding through people's speakers. Dave is a sadist that way, even more than us. He's really tired of clean and sterile music."
Much of The Woods fucks with your expectations in ways that few guitar bands since the psychedelic '60s have bothered trying. Corin admits that records from the Summer of Love were on high rotation during the making of The Woods, and for once her vocal similarities to Grace Slick aren't the only comparison point to Jefferson Airplane; meanwhile, Carrie's guitars at times sound like they were borrowed from Big Brother and the Holding Company. Songs stop cold for Hendrixian guitar meltdowns. Distorted drums appear in only one channel. Whirling guitars are panned in ping-pong circles around your head.
Sleater-Kinney still doesn't have a bassist, yet the entire record rumbles and quakes and sounds impossibly loud no matter what volume it's played at. The entire sonic soundscape of The Woods is thick with distortion, with everything riding into the red on the VU meter at all times. Fridmann says, "The microphone can't tell how hard you are hitting the strings. Live, there is such a visceral action and response that can be engaged in, but it takes a lot to make a quiet, small set of speakers sound like they are punching you in the face."
"Dave blew it all to smithereens," says Janet, enthusiastically. "The sound is so destroyed, so thick and heavy. I don't know how he gets those sounds, they're so beautiful and incredible."
Although Sleater-Kinney were up for massive changes, surrendering to Fridmann's sonic vision didn't always happen easily. Explains Carrie, "When we started mixing, he'd ask our opinion of something and we'd always say, 'Oh, the vocals need to be louder.' Finally, he said, 'If you want to make this record sound different, first and foremost we have to make the vocals quieter than on your last record.' He really tortured us. He'd play us one of our older songs, and then he'd play us a Sarah McLachlan song and exclaim, 'Your vocals are louder than Sarah McLachlan's!' Eventually we realised it was the biggest hurdle that we have to get over. Now they just seem normal to me."
The isolation of Fridmann's studio helped them bunker down and immerse themselves in the new songs and approach. All their previous albums were made in their hometown of Portland, with the exception of The Hot Rock, which was set in the equally comfortable Seattle. In the rural setting of upstate New York on the shores of Lake Erie, Sleater-Kinney was removed from their family, their friends and the familiar. "Being together like that creates a closeness and incredible tension," says Carrie.
Which is when the guns came out.
Like most Tarbox clients, the ladies of Sleater-Kinney took some target practice on unsuspecting bottles off of Fridmann's porch. "There are a lot of hunters up here and they're friendly enough," says Fridmann, explaining why most of his clients end up bearing arms. "There's not a ton of crossover between the gun lovers and musicians. So when a musician comes across a gun, it's a taboo and illicit experience that interests them."
"You can't avoid it!" says Carrie. "First of all, you hear gunfire all the time, so eventually you just pick one up yourself. I had actually shot guns before, but it was new for Janet and Corin. It was all a bonding experience, for better or worse. It was great, to be isolated from the world. A lot of this record is about dealing with so much uncertainty and things that are dark and unsettling. Being in a place that was more difficult for us was really helpful for the way this record turned out. You're able to lose perspective and take leaps and be risky in ways you don't realise you're being."
Losing perspective, taking risks, revelling in discomfort and confrontation - it might be Miles Davis making Bitches Brew, or it might be Jeff Tweedy asking listeners to endure a 12-minute re-enactment of his migraine. Early reaction to The Woods has been polarised: some long-time sceptics love it immediately; some long-time fans scratch their heads, though they come around eventually. "All the writers seem worried for us!" laughs Janet, in the middle of a week of interviews. "Maybe you thought you knew how it was for us or how things were going to sound. But with this record everything shifts: you lose your footing, but eventually you get it back."
Carrie is characteristically charming in her defiance of expectations. "We weren't making a record for someone that was going to listen to it once," she says. "You can listen to Franz Ferdinand or Bloc Party and get it right away. It's great - you put it on once, you know what songs you like, you know what's going to happen. I appreciate the stuff I 'get' right away. It's just not what I want to be creating."
Why Can't We Get Along?
It's a well-worn cliché that being in a band is akin to a marriage or a family. And the power dynamics in a trio can be deadly. "We call it 'evil-minded buddying up,'" says Janet Weiss, "and it's not allowed." Carrie Brownstein adds, "It's always two against one, in every permutation. Everyone has been the third wheel, and it is hard. At least if you have four, you can pair off into teams and duke it out."
Before making 2002's One Beat, Sleater-Kinney took time off from each other. When they returned, they went to group counselling to work out their issues, a process that later became widely mocked when Metallica did the same thing for documentary filmmakers in last year's Some Kind of Monster. "It's such a rarefied experience, and it became this newsworthy thing: 'band going to counselling!'" says Carrie. "But we didn't really go that much, just a handful of times. What did Metallica spend, $40,000 a session or something? We don't have a manager, so it was really just to have an outside perspective, a mediator. People tried to make it seem akin to the Metallica experience, but it just helped us get things into the open and to be objective. It established some respectful boundaries for people when they're around each other too much.
"It also set the stage for the future of the band, and [taking a break in 2001] really re-ignited our interest and the realisation that we needed this band. It was really difficult for us not to have this outlet. After One Beat, we felt a new sense of urgency and necessity to have an outlet where things can be dangerous. You can act out in songs and on stage, in ways that you can't do in your everyday life. For us, that was really vital. We knew we'd go crazy if we didn't have music."
Sleater-Kinney rarely take opening slots, and they had certainly never played stadiums before. But when their admirers in Pearl Jam invited them on the road in early 2003, S-K found themselves no longer preaching to the choir: musically or politically.
"It's totally different when you're playing for a Pearl Jam audience," says Corin Tucker. "It's huge and much more diverse, culturally and politically. We toured with them right at the beginning of the war on Iraq. The first show we did with them was in Denver, where there's a huge military base there, the NORAD headquarters. I got up there and midway through our set I started going off, saying things like, 'We're really concerned about the police cracking down on the anti-war protesters.' I got booed by about 15,000 people.
"It was an interesting experience," she continues, "and [Pearl Jam] struggled with that as well, that their audience is more conservative than they are. But we both continued to talk about the war while it was going on. It was a really great experience because it pushed us to reach out to people. We could have gone up there and phoned it in, but we wanted to reach people as much as we could. We were playing our best and improvising and doing all kinds of stuff that was a bit crazy. Hearing your music reverberating around a huge arena, it sounds a lot different and takes up a different space."
Whether they made new fans or not, Janet Weiss doesn't really mind. "Those people did not know who we were, no question about it," she says. "Honestly, not that many people were even there yet. It's not like we had thousands of people staring at us. We weren't paying that much attention to the audience, because we couldn't. And that's what was so fun about it, was that there was no pressure at all. The only pressure was to get out there and really surprise some people. A lot of them were kids, or college dudes who probably love Pearl Jam and Audioslave. I'm sure a lot of those people had probably never even seen a woman on stage before. I don't know if they'd even like [former S-K opening band] the White Stripes. It's definitely a dude scene. These kids are not going to clubs. They're going to see stadium shows, and we're not from that world."