Sleater-Kinney - Biography
By Adam McKibbin
Sleater-Kinney emerged as one of the most influential and critically acclaimed bands linked to the “riot grrl” feminist cultural movement of the ‘90s, only to transcend attempts at pigeonholing to stand as one of the country’s most vital rock and roll bands at the turn of the century.
Before they came together in Sleater-Kinney, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein had already made influential in-roads in riot grrl culture. Tucker was the singer/guitarist for Heavens to Betsy, a lo-fi band of garage punks that played on some pivotal bills in the early ‘90s alongside kindred spirits like Bratmobile and Excuse 17. Brownstein sang and played guitar for the latter.
Tucker and Brownstein became fast friends and, at least for a little while, romantically involved. Both of their bands released albums on Kill Rock Stars, a pioneering indie label in Olympia, WA. When Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 fell by the wayside, the duo began Sleater-Kinney – and would soon make a return to the Kill Rock Stars roster.
While Sleater-Kinney would come to be inextricably linked with the Pacific Northwest and its array of hipster enclaves and progressive cultural centers like Olympia and Portland, the band’s recording career began in Australia. While playing some shows Down Under, Tucker and Brownstein met drummer Lora MacFarlane, and then promptly found some studio time to record their aggressively lo-fi debut, Sleater-Kinney (1995 Chainsaw). While their signature sound had yet to crystallize, their first record immediately announced them as a leading feminist punk band; Tucker’s wail was as ferocious as anyone’s, but she also knew her way around a melody. Lyrically, the songs were hostile and unafraid to reveal open wounds and exposed nerves; a number of tracks considered the implications of gender and the trappings of fame and fortune in the world of music – two themes that they would revisit and expand upon at length.
A year later, Sleater-Kinney were back with a second album – making a quantum leap with Call the Doctor (1996 Chainsaw). Whereas their debut was the result of a “full speed ahead” sort of recording session, Call the Doctor brought producer John Goodmanson into the fold; Goodmanson would remain a key player in shaping the band’s sound for several albums to come. While their punk power and DIY ethos remained firmly intact, they also heightened their accessibility – without pandering. This evolution was best showcased on what would become an enduring staple of their live sets and lists of fan favorites: “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” in which Tucker thirsts (tongue near cheek) for the same perks afforded to the male rock gods. “I’m the queen of rock and roll!” she declares at one point; a lyric that seemed cheeky and brash at the time would later serve as an unintentionally prophetic statement.
Call the Doctor also began Sleater-Kinney’s affectionate relationship with the music press, an abiding love that would last throughout the trio’s career. Critics gobbled up almost every album by the band, who became a regular on year-end best-of lists. Just as they were starting to gather momentum from Call the Doctor, however, a few personal developments put the band’s future in jeopardy. MacFarlane’s visa expired, and the drummer returned to Australia. In the meantime, Brownstein and Tucker had broken off their romance. Sleater-Kinney soldiered on – adding Toni Gogin behind the kit and heading off on tour.
By the time they began their next album, they had a new drummer – which, as it turned out, would be the band’s final line-up change. Quasi’s Janet Weiss provided an immediate and permanent upgrade, earning a reputation as one of indie rock’s most powerful and reliable drummers, and giving Sleater-Kinney the rare luxury of having three distinct personalities and performers, each of whom would come to be considered at or near the top of her class.
Weiss made her recorded debut on Dig Me Out (1997 Kill Rock Stars), one of the trio’s most defining documents – a seamless blast of muscle and melody. Tucker and Brownstein had begun to perfect their back-and-forth vocal style, and a wider section of the press had begun to stand up and take notice – often using the “women in rock” angle as the hook in their pieces. The band soon discovered that little was off limits when it came time to find a story; in what Brownstein would later call a “complete invasion of privacy,” a feature in Spin even outed the guitarist to her own family.
While Brownstein and Tucker were no longer romantically attached, and while Dig Me Out contained some open-nerved breakup songs, any off-stage drama only served to make the music most powerful. The trio pounded the pavement on tour while Dig Me Out reached an ever-increasing circle of converts. By the time they returned home, they were indie music celebrities – even if still unknown to the masses – and the pressure was on them to keep delivering the goods.
Dig Me Out had sold in the neighborhood of 55,000 copies – the sort of figure that would get a band bounced from a major label, but a fairly majestic figure for a band on a small indie with very little support from mainstream television and radio. The majors came to court the band, but none of them got very far. While Sleater-Kinney hoped to see their music spread beyond the reaches of the underground, they also couldn’t quite fathom shackling themselves to the giant machinery of the music industry. Their decision to remain independent and continue to record for Kill Rock Stars secured their reputation as a beacon for DIY-minded fans and next-generation indie rock bands.
One of the perks of their independence was that they weren’t rushed into their next album, and instead took a year to write and record The Hot Rock (1999 Kill Rock Stars), whereas Dig Me Out had been knocked out in a couple months. To further shake up their sound, they brought in producer Roger Moutenot, best known for his work with Yo La Tengo. The result was a more introspective and spacious album, one that continued to contemplate fizzled relationships and lost chances at love, as well as broader swipes at societal flaws, like the irrational Y2K panic that wormed its way into the public consciousness. The latter point was memorably skewered on “Banned from the End of the World,” with Tucker singing “I’ve no millennial fear / the future is here / it comes every year.”
Despite the dramatic shift from the earliest albums, the press continued to play the “riot grrl” card at nearly every turn, leading Sleater-Kinney to formally request that journalists refrain from asking them banal questions about gender identity in every interview – but there was little escape. Their complicated place in the male-dominated music world was explored further on All Hands on the Bad One (2000 Kill Rock Stars).
With John Goodmanson back in the fold as producer, All Hands on the Bad One returned the trio to a more immediate and propulsive sound. “Now who would have believed this riot grrrl’s a cynic?” Tucker asked on “#1 Must Have.” “But they took our ideas to their marketing stars. And now I’m spending all my days at girlpower.com / Trying to buy back a little piece of me.”
Given this sense of conflict – not to mention a fairly relentless schedule of recording and touring since their debut – it was little surprise when Sleater-Kinney decided to take 2001 off. Weiss made another album with Quasi and appeared as a guest drummer on a Go-Betweens record. Tucker and her filmmaker husband, Lance Bangs, welcomed a child into the world. But while they were largely gone from the public eye, they were hardly forgotten. If anything, their buzz was growing, as indicated when TIME named them “America’s Best Rock Band.”
Motherhood made an immediate mark on Tucker’s songwriting, but the event that most shaped the band’s next album was well beyond the personal realm. September 11 sent shock waves through the country and, among its many other effects, seemed to cause a sort of creative paralysis in the music industry. Even a year later, few songwriters had addressed the day or the aftermath – aside from a smattering of mostly tepid but well-meaning tribute songs. Even against an increasingly controversial political climate, few artists were ready to take the gloves off.
“America’s Best Rock Band” had no such qualms. “Far Away,” the rampaging second track on One Beat (2002 Kill Rock Stars), went into painful detail to document Tucker’s feeling of helplessness as she watched the events unfold from afar. Then she got mad about something else. “And the president hides,” she snarled, “While working men rush in and give their lives.” While criticizing the president would eventually become practically a rite of passage for bands, One Beat arrived at a time when few bands were speaking up. Sleater-Kinney bemoaned this very fact on “Combat Rock,” sounding a call for protest songs and issuing a powerful reminder to their audience that dissent did not equate to treason.
One Beat couldn’t be pinned down as simply an aggressive political statement. Matching the sociopolitical songs in passion was the bluesy “Sympathy,” Tucker’s prayer for her sick baby. “Far Away” was audaciously followed on the track list by “Oh!”, the band’s most effervescent love song.
All of the above endeared Sleater-Kinney to a high-profile kindred spirit in Pearl Jam, and the two acts hit the road together in 2003, putting Sleater-Kinney in front of massive arena audiences. The friendship between the bands would prove durable, and, years later, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder would serve as the opener for Sleater-Kinney’s final show in their adopted hometown of Portland.
Figuring out how to translate their catalog in a stadium setting had a direct impact on the band’s next album. For the first time in a decade, they parted ways with Kill Rock Stars, signing with Seattle’s venerable Sub Pop. They enlisted producer Dave Fridmann, best known for his psychedelically-tinged explorations with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, and retreated to rural New York to record. If they found a comfort zone, they seemed determined to leave it behind.
The Woods (2005 Sub Pop) broke new ground for Sleater-Kinney by turning backward and going blow-for-blow with rock giants like Led Zeppelin. The cacophonous, abrasive and allegorical opener “The Fox” made it clear that The Woods would be unlike its predecessors – and this assertion was driven firmly into place by the 11-minute, sexually charged guitar jam “Let’s Call It Love.” Far from pushing them into some sort of atmospheric direction, Fridmann instead helped the band channel their most aggressive sound in years.
After spending some time on the road in the support of The Woods – even more of a beast in its live incarnation – Sleater-Kinney announced in June 2006 that they would finish their summer tour and then “go on indefinite hiatus.” They played their final show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom on August 11.
In the following years, Tucker played a few solo shows, sang alongside Eddie Vedder on the Into the Wild soundtrack and gave birth to a second child. Brownstein began blogging for NPR and started a comedy team with Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen, while Weiss went on to play with Bright Eyes and Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks.