Sleater-Kinney found themselves approaching this critical birthday during the recording of their seventh record--and first for label giant Sub Pop--The Woods. It ended up taking longer than any of their previous releases, and after years of working with Northwest producer John Goodmanson, they chose to work with Dave Fridmann, an East Coast producer known primarily for his role in Mercury Rev and work on the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin. Fridmann wasn't a big fan of the band's back catalog and made it clear that taking on the project would be an exercise in artistic discomfort. It resulted in the most difficult studio sessions they've been through: There were fights, miscommunications, and more than a few creative differences between both the band members and their producer. There were even moments where the possibility of a breakup hovered over the women, threatening to close the book on what had been an impressive and critically acclaimed career trajectory.
But what could have been a disastrous studio experience--or simply an all-out demolition of the band--turned out to be an utter triumph. The Woods is far and away the best record that Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss, and Carrie Brownstein have recorded since 1997's Dig Me Out (widely regarded to be their breakthrough album). After a career built on fierce compression (literally and stylistically), economical riffs, and what appeared to be a Ramones-like compulsion to give their audience the most bang for their buck, Sleater-Kinney are relinquishing the punk-rock rationality that had been their calling card.
Over the course of The Woods' 48 minutes, the band ditch their former songwriting habits in favor of almost entirely nonlinear arrangements--song structures stretch out and drop off, leaving room for wildly distorted, heavy guitar solos--disorienting snatches of effects-driven studio mischief, and a general upheaval from everything they're known for. Sure, Tucker continues to wield her distinctive caterwaul, but there's a fresh elasticity and depth to her range. Brownstein's approach to her instrument is still aggressively angular, but alien-sounding tunings and effects put a startling spin on her signature style. Instead of furtively searching for fills at every turn, Weiss is now willing to slow down, leave space, and let the formidable weight of her hits gain potency though restraint and minimalism. The Woods is the most original-sounding piece of work Sleater-Kinney have produced, but it also exhibits all the trademarks of a timeless, classic rock record--an ambidextrous stylistic feat.
During a sporadically stormy weekend in May, I spent time with the band--both collectively and individually--discussing the new record and their admirably rendered 10-year benchmark. I walked away with a picture of three women whose determination to earnestly evolve or gracefully perish might be stronger than any modern rock band since the Clash.
The most warmly gregarious and sweetly goofy member of the band, Brownstein is easy to talk with and wears her intellectual passion for music on her sleeve. When she walks into India Grill, the restaurant where we're all having dinner, I'm reminded of the curious nature of her physical presence: She's a tiny woman offstage and barely resembles the larger-than-life rock star she becomes onstage, striking her guitar strings with a Pete Townshend-esque windmill.
Born and raised in Seattle, Brownstein began playing guitar at 15 with guidance from classmate and future Sunny Day Real Estate/the Fire Theft frontman Jeremy Enigk. "He lived in the neighborhood next to mine, so I would just walk my guitar over to his house," she recalls. "He showed me a couple of open chords and I just took it from there. I'd gone through so many phases as a kid with my interests that my parents put their foot down with guitar. So [the instrument] ended up being the first thing that I had to save up my own money for--and maybe that was the whole reason that I actually stuck with it."
The Jam's All Mod Cons opened up a whole new world for a teen whose primary musical exposure to that point had been Top 40 pop. "The lyrics were meaningful--Paul Weller was always kind of a social critic. I couldn't really believe that this thing called 'punk rock music' was so poppy and accessible. It was the first time I felt really passionate about the spirit of influence--how one person connects with another."
After hooking up with Tucker at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, recording Sleater-Kinney's self-titled debut, and completing an inaugural tour in Australia (where then-drummer Lora Macfarlane lived), Brownstein began to focus more intensely on her guitar playing. "I think if you're self-taught, you kind of learn things in a backwards way," she explains over samosa appetizers.
"If you're coming at it from a less-than-traditional angle, occasionally the thing that is technically wrong sounds a little more interesting. And I think that was sort of happening with [1996's] Call the Doctor and [1997's] Dig Me Out. The influence came a little more out of post-punk stuff like Gang of Four or Television. When I heard the way those two bands married two different guitars, I was definitely really inspired by that."
The interlocking nature of Brownstein and Tucker's playing has always been one of the band's hallmarks, and its evolution from the rudimentary call-and-response of their debut to the feverish dialogue that characterized later records like 2002's One Beat is one of the most salient areas where both women push each other to hit new creative levels. The presence of Fridmann behind the boards for The Woods also forced them into uncharted territory. "[Fridmann] was always encouraging us to do what instinctively sounded wrong. We were so used to filling each others' [guitar parts] out, it was really foreign for me to play a guitar solo with nothing else underneath it," she explains, referring to the sudden, unexpected shard of distortion she unleashes two minutes into "What's Mine Is Yours." "Pushes like that and incorporating more improvisation were a big part of what made these sessions so different for us."
For a woman possessing a voice so commanding it could qualify as an instrument in its own right, Corin Tucker is impressively soft-spoken and polite while we're chatting at the Kennedy School. "I sang when I was a teenager just for fun, but I didn't really seriously start singing or playing guitar until I had formed [Heavens to Betsy]," she explains. "My dad plays music, so he was always trying to teach me how to play guitar. Initially I thought it was too hard and too frustrating but when I realized the potential of how much I could communicate with this instrument, I got into it more."
Tucker's voice has always been a love-it-or-hate-it component of the band. Unlike her peer Kathleen Hanna, Tucker's wails and screams didn't just sound bratty or angry, they sounded like she could really do some damage--or accomplish a hell of a lot, depending on your perspective. It's still a deal breaker for many music fans; a reality that Tucker's quite familiar with.
"Oh yeah, people will say that they can't stand the songs that I sing. We got a letter after Dig Me Out where someone said, 'I really like the record, but can you please replace all of Corin's vocals with Carrie's because I can't stand her voice,'" Tucker remembers, a trace of hurt still showing on her face as she fidgets with her retro-styled blazer. "I try to have a sense of humor about it and not take it too seriously. I've always over-sang and stepped out of the boundaries of where people wanted to put me. I had all these things I wanted to say and I need a sound to match the kind of urgency I felt about things. It was meant to be an attention-grabber."
When our conversation drifts toward discussion of the conflicts all three women have alluded to Tucker chooses her words carefully, but doesn't try to hide the challenges inherent with collaborative creativity. "You can bring in your own idea for a song, but it's definitely going to get worked on by everyone--whereas when we first started out, we'd all write our parts separately. It is total conflict all the way through, but we've been through enough at this point that we can argue and fight about it and then go home and still be friends. We argued about a lot of things [on The Woods], threw away things, and then had to write more things. It's just part of the process."
Part of the process is also figuring out how to juggle band practice, marriage, and motherhood, a challenge that Tucker seems to pull off admirably, squeezing in a Mother's Day brunch with her four-year-old son before our photo shoot. Although she brings her kid on the road occasionally and the band limits tours to six weeks, it's clearly a difficult balance to negotiate. "It's hard to leave your family and go on the road," she says. "Having a child makes everything different, obviously."
Weiss is the eldest and unquestionably the most openly confrontational member of the band--she won't suffer fools, but she also carries herself with a defensive posture that could only result from more than her fair share of personal and professional heartbreak. Despite the difficulties with interviewing someone so guarded, her salty demeanor and dry wit have their own charm after a while, particularly after a few rounds of Jägermeister shots have had their effect. When the bartender tells Weiss there's no smoking until 10:00 p.m., Weiss just grabs an empty cocktail glass to use as an ashtray and returns to the table. "Unless he comes over and tells us to put it out, let's just keep smoking," she says conspiratorially. We're at Tennessee Red's--the local watering hole where she's chosen to attempt her goal of beating Sub Pop publicist Jed Maheu at pool. Maheu can't be taken down, but eventually some of Weiss' defenses are, and we ease into conversation about her formative musical years.
Although she started playing guitar at 16, Weiss didn't become a drummer until her early 20s while she was attending college in San Francisco. "I was terrible; I had never played a kit before," she remembers. "As I got older and became more in tune with who I want to be as a drummer, that's when I came to learn how much a drummer influences what a band is. That's when John Bonham became my hero!" she laughs.
Much like Brownstein, Weiss is armed with an encyclopedic grasp of rock music history and remains a committed fan to this day, spilling over with suggestions for new records to buy, barbs for bands she dislikes, and a delightfully childlike love of music. That love also extends to her own band and her fears about its potential demise. The next day, when asked about her biggest challenges in the studio, Weiss--who also plays drums in Quasi--immediately cites the anxieties generated by Tucker's contemplations of retirement.
"Corin's hurdles were my biggest hurdles," she says, locking eyes to emphasize her point. "Her pulling away from the band was the hardest thing for me as far as writing music. She said in an interview the other day that she thinks about quitting every week--and that's heavy for me, 'cause this is all I want to do. I can't wait to play, I can't wait to write--I already made my decision a long time ago that this is my life. The times when it gets hard for me are when there's personal turmoil--other than that, artistic challenges are what I live for."
All three women are obviously pleased with the new creative ground they broke with producer Dave Fridmann, but Weiss' enthusiasm is the most abundant. "I'd love to work with him again; I don't think we've even touched the tip of the iceberg. I didn't think he had a bad idea the entire time we were there, but it was challenging. I do remember having to fight back tears at one point. He'd give me these vague suggestions--'Okay, play this part like someone's slowly coming up to you and draping a blanket over your drum kit. The dynamics need to shift slowly.' And I was like, 'What? I don't know what you're talking about.' I was already frustrated and the part wasn't working… But really what he's trying to do is to pull you out of yourself. He wants something more off the cuff and emotionally unplanned. We have a tendency to be fidgety and jump from one thing to the other very quickly. And he'd say, 'Fine, you've changed the structure, now sit there and relax with it.' It was pretty genius."
The fact that Sleater-Kinney are a decade-old band is impressive in itself--the reality that they willfully mired themselves in a recording environment requiring so much discomfort and hard work speaks volumes about their potential to endure for many more years to come. Watching them tease and cajole each other throughout an hour-long photo shoot also reveals much about where they are as friends and colleagues. We're in an old classroom at the Kennedy School and the women are taking turns writing a rough timeline of their history on a blackboard. "It's your turn, Tucker," Brownstein concedes, handing her the chalk. "Should we put the big fight here?" Tucker asks, gesturing somewhere in the vicinity of 1998. "Which fight--there's been about 40!" retorts Weiss, half-laughing, half-serious.
It's fascinating to watch how the women balance each other out, pushing and pulling with both affection and antagonism--a collective rhythm that is not unlike the sonic schism they draw from in their work. My final chat with Weiss later only affirms this idea. "At this point, I feel like if one person starts to pull away, it's the job of the other two to pull them back in. We're not going to let someone quit very easily. It'd probably have to be all three of us saying, 'All right, we're at the end, we're done.' There's some sort of ending to this somewhere, but we haven't seen it yet. We haven't really felt it yet, which is why we keep coming back to it, even when it's really hard."