Enraged and In Love

Sleater-Kinney and the dichotomies of rock & roll

Brownstein, 23, charts her musical history from high school in Redmond, Washington, when with two other girls, she started her first rock band. They thought of themselves as a joke, she says, because everyone else did. After seeing an awesome Heavens to Betsy show while in college at Bellingham, she sent Tucker a fan letter, and eventually transferred to Evergreen. In 1994, as Brownstein's band Excuse 17 was coming apart, the two joined forces and Sleater-Kinney, named after the street near their practice space, began proceedings with Seattle drummer Misty Farrell. In need of a replacement, the guitarists hooked up with an Australian Heavens to Betsy fan, Lora Macfarlane, and ended up recording the promising, if occasionally crude, Sleater-Kinney mostly in Melbourne in 1995. An astonishingly more confident and complex album, Call the Doctor was actually recorded not long after the first, although it was not released until 1996.

At the most basic level, Sleater-Kinney build their music on the dialogue between Brownstein and Tucker: Two complementary/contentious guitars, neither of which owns the "lead"; two voices, one poised and contained, one gross and furious, "not complete," Brownstein claims, "without the other person's part." She types their distinctive dual vocal lines as "the conscious and the subconscious," and it's tempting to face them off like that, as reason vs. emotion, or sardonic commentary and action. They are those things, and yet they are not. Their meaning shifts, mutates, much as the relationship between these two women has changed, will change.

After the Portland show, Brownstein catches a ride up to Olympia with singer and home girl Lois Maffeo. The next morning, Weiss, Tucker, and I head north to pick her up and go on to Seattle in the band's hulking, vaguely water-logged (it's been a rainy winter) Chevy. That I am in the van is a concession on the band's part: They are concerned, with some recent cause, that I will make personal details the primary focus of the story. "I don't want to read 'Janet kissed her boyfriend goodbye,'" Weiss stresses, as we rattle up I-5. "That just terrifies me. What does that have to do with the music?" This is what I learn: that the band has playful, bantering relationships with two smart and funny wannabe boy roadies, neither of whom thought to plug an errant guitar cord back in last night. This is what I see: Weiss's comfortable mastery of the heaving, crotchety van and, behind me, Brownstein's head resting easy on Tucker's round shoulder.

Weiss characterizes the guitarists' relationship in terms of both tension and an almost wordless musical understanding. Indeed, Tucker and Brownstein treat each other with the familiarity and respect for space that ex-lovers can sometimes attain after the pain lessens; they've lived in different towns and cultivated their own friends for a year now, but they still complete each other's thoughts. When the time came to assemble Dig Me Out, "Corin moved up to Olympia for a couple months," recalls Brownstein with her usual rushed precision, "and we just holed up at her house and wrote songs. We needed that kind of intimacy, sequestered in a place together. Because our songs are about our connection to each other, they play off the dynamic Corin and I have as people and as musicians. That is what, to me, makes our music special."

Having said that, Brownstein is quick to give credit to Weiss's driving role in the conversation. "We've got a backbeat now. She's like the rock in our rock and roll"--another gulpy laugh--"or something. She's the first drummer who has matched our intensity." I remember those words later, standing behind Weiss at the Seattle soundcheck, watching the muscles in her forearms flutter as her sticks tease the toms, grasping the delight with which she does this strenuous bob and weave. With nearly a decade of experience in various San Francisco and Portland bands (one of whom, Quasi, has just released their second album), the best revenge for Weiss, 31, is simply playing better than anyone else.

After a lengthy Blues Explosion soundcheck, the house crew at Seattle's Moore Theater is impatient for dinner, and--more egregiously--condescending ("the ladies need to move their amps"). The "ladies" nevertheless check 'til they're satisfied with the monitor mix. Looking past their heads at rows of seats, my head in their mix, I understand, for the first time, how strong they feel up here. Even thinned by an incipient cold, Tucker's voice comes back to her like an unfurling, radiant banner. Brownstein can't help but wag her head and rise up on her toes as, mid-way through Call the Doctor, the guitars hesitate above Weiss's insistent roll, and then bang into an exultant, ambulatory riff.

I think: This band has grown past their old songs. On Sleater-Kinney and even Call the Doctor, Sleater-Kinney bitched and shoved to clear a space within history where they could begin to create their own definitions. They used their anger and sense of absurdity, both standard issue in the rock tool box. But, in the play of Brownstein versus Tucker, they also allowed for something not often seen in rebellions of any sort: the certainty of uncertainty, the sureness of complication. Now, on this record and this stage, Sleater-Kinney have become huge with their own acknowledged desire. It is they now who sweep people up, who establish--with their humor and comfortable expertise, their momentum and, yes, anger--what it might mean to be a woman, to be a musician, to be human. Their new tunes are love songs directed to the action of desiring; they are, says Tucker sincerely, about feeling powerful, and sexy.

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