The hallways of San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium are papered with '60s-show posters, their curlicue lines and letters reaching out to entangle you like a persistent, still-perplexing dream. From where I stand, watching Sleater-Kinney put the pedal to a new song, I can see a naked Janis Joplin enshrined above the bar. Corin Tucker's wild vibrato rings through the old room, and the scrim of history descends. Suddenly Tucker is Bonnie--still peach-faced and violent, but ready to run without Clyde. Gangly Carrie Brownstein cocks her hips, launches a volley of stuttered guitar, and blurs into the Clash's Mick Jones. Snapping her gum and her snare, black-banged Janet Weiss dances on her drum stool, Stockard Channing's Rizzo riding her own carnal beat.
The two guitars dare each other on: one engine noise, the other speed. Weiss presses into their rush. "He said, tell me baby what's wro-AH-o-AH-ong," wails Tucker, her long lines opening like miles of road. "She's on fire now," Brownstein warns, "you think you wanna watch." Then the song goes into a spin, and suddenly I'm cut out of the momentum and left alone, face to face with my own frustrated desire. "Not what you wanted?" Brownstein sings teasingly. I blink. And Sleater-Kinney look like themselves again--not Bonnie, not Mick, not Rizzo, not particularly glamorous. Just two guitarists and a drummer and three smiles sneaking between them.
Earlier, backstage, a gussied-up Tucker emerges from the bathroom to a chorus of semi-serious "whoa!"s. "You look like an old-time Olympic woman athlete," says Brownstein, admiring Tucker's denim culottes and patterned sleeveless top. "Like on trampoline?" Tucker grins. "That's my new look--I want to always look like a trampolinist." And I catch a quick vision of this trio bending and warping the past in order to fling themselves high into the sky: This is the magic of Sleater-Kinney, that they can get you--and themselves--giddy again on rock & roll at the same time they're trying, patiently, deliberately, to dig deep into the giddiness and make it answer for its sins.
The scene is a diner in Olympia, Washington, the town of Sleater-Kinney's birth, an hour or so south of Seattle, where last fall the band wrote Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars), their follow-up to 1996's near-universally acclaimed Call the Doctor. Brownstein hunches over a bean burrito, her thin, earnest face peeking between the mischievous tips of her shiny black bob. "The media always makes me the clown, the goof, and Corin the purist," Brownstein grouches with a grin, "when, if anything, it's the opposite." At once graceful and gawky, Brownstein strikes me as more of a provocateur; if she allows herself to be transported by music, or her musicianship, or the quick sentences that tumble from her mouth, she's never heedless. She's sharp, to the elbows. Maybe because the center is soft.
Tucker, conversely, seems round as ripe fruit until you look into her determined eyes. I get the feeling she could've lived that star cliche--spacily absorbed, helpless with practical details, a savvy manipulator--were it not for her clear, articulate self-awareness, and her politics. So, while she'll admit she's not a driver or van-organizer of Weiss's caliber, she drives and she packs. The goal, finally, is flexibility. "For me, the important thing is being able to create all these different roles," she says of her songs. "It would be really boring if you were doing a personality, or a gimmick, and doing it every night. I think that would be so tedious.
"How can you not wanna fuck with that?" she wonders, managing to sound both reasoned and gushy. "How can you not wanna be able to do caricatures of yourself or who you might be--like 'Jenny' [Dig Me Out's last song] just being this super rock intense knock-the-house-down..."
"Lighter ballad," fills in Weiss succinctly from beneath her blunt Cleopatra 'do. The drummer that Brownstein and Tucker say they have always been waiting for, Weiss joined the band nearly a year ago and instantly granted them a low-end.
Sleater-Kinney want to be seen, Tucker proposes, as "slightly terrifying," able "to raise the hair on the back of a kid's neck." I'm here, travelling up the West Coast as Sleater-Kinney open for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, because it is still terrifying for young women to wield the kind of purposeful charisma that Tucker speaks of. I'm here because, perhaps more remarkably, these particular young women use their power to ask why power continues to reside in this space--between words and guitar--and where that power comes from and what it means to use it. Unlike so many other self-conscious and ironic "alternative rock" bands, Sleater-Kinney demand that rock & roll change: I'm here because I'm curious to see if that challenge places them firmly within grand old rock & roll tradition.
The national response to Call the Doctor,released on the tiny Chainsaw label, has lifted the band--absurdly, they think--from its Olympia riot grrrl/pop underground milieu to the glossy pages of magazines, the tops of critics' best-of lists, and this series of shows in halls and theaters. Wary of being singled out and thereby hyped, exhausted, discarded, Sleater-Kinney push context on me: not only the musical and political community they say inspires them, but the band relationships that make Sleater-Kinney more than just a Corin Tucker star vehicle.