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.
Dig Me Out dramatizes this context, interrogating dependencies between musicians and listeners, between passion and catharsis--like "so much metamusic," as Brownstein puts it. The album's flirtiest track, "Little Babies," turns Tucker's lush, tremulous voice into the ultimate musical comfort inn ("are you hungry did you eat before the show") before snapping into a mocking bubblegum refrain about an audience's dumb need. Brownstein nods briskly: "On the chorus, we wanted to have that effect of like all the people in the audience, all the little babies, going 'gimmee, gimmee, gimmee.'"
"It's using this classic rock and roll"--Tucker sways above the remains of her waffles, snaps her fingers, and purrs--"dum dum dee dee dee dum, dum dee dum do. But there's so much rage coming through in that song. And that's what I hope people understand: that you can love rock and roll and also be enraged about it. You can love society, you can love the country we live in, and also be enraged by it. You don't have to choose one or the other."
The most reliable discomforter in the Sleater-Kinney arsenal is, of course, Tucker's tearing, ferocious voice, and all three know it. Brownstein and Weiss call it The Tool, as in "Oh, Corin's warming up The Tool." Which she does, shut inside a backstage bathroom, before every soundcheck. At the Fillmore, Jon Spencer's big, amiable tour manager Chris stops by the dressing room to "see if you guys are getting everything you need" and is blind-sided by a sudden rollercoaster roar. "Whoa!" he blurts. "I guess some people sing in the shower"--he's backing toward the door--"and some on the shitter!" "It's just Corin," says Brownstein, a fierce smile in her eyes.
"My actual voice is not that different from anybody else's," reveals Tucker later. "The first Heavens to Betsy record that we recorded I sing really low and deep. But eventually we played more live shows, and the songs I sang that were sort of higher and freakier, people would be so freaked out. That tension and that craziness," her voice rises and trembles, "is what I always wanted to create. I worked really hard to sing like that."
The daughter of a psychology professor, Tucker, 24, grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and moved to Olympia to attend Evergreen College. Without the example of riot grrrl bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Tucker emphasizes, "I would not be playing music today." When she started Heavens to Betsy in 1991, neither she nor drummer Tracy Sawyer knew their way around their instruments. They made up for it by drawing a raw mix of vulnerability and rage from Tucker's bald lyrics about growing up female (including the indelible "My Red Self").
These days, Tucker finds her Heavens to Betsy rants "self-righteous," although perhaps necessarily so: "It was like, OKAY, I can sing and write these things." If she now feels the need to present a more "multidimensional" image of womanhood, she believes riot grrrl has encouraged her to that end. "That's why it's really frustrating to me that riot grrrl--and women organizing around these issues--is seen as so superficial and unimportant." Later in the trip, when we fall into a discussion of riot grrrl's sensationalistic rise and fall in the world of USA Today, I wonder aloud why more riot grrrls in general didn't protect themselves with lies, provide fake manifestos, fuck the media right back. She gives me a look. "I was 18," she says, flatly.
Where the San Francisco show moved out in full strides, Portland circles uneasily. The band comes on, tunes, fine tunes (they deny that they deliberately dawdle, but Tucker concedes, "I don't want to be that consumable"). "What a start," a man grumbles behind me. The sound guy decides Tucker's guitar should serve as a bass, which clogs up the guitarists' bright exchange. A big guy near Brownstein mock roars "YEEAAHH!" This is their town (or at least Tucker and Weiss's) but not necessarily their crowd. Tucker lets her moon face contort with her words, pushing each persona to its extreme. "Little Babies," which she dedicates to a local teen punk band, Berserk, goes feral. Tucker's voice seems thin, distressed; she barely keeps up on Call the Doctor's dependable squabble "Little Mouth." Exiting stage right, Brownstein kicks her mic stand accurately and effectively into the crowd.
"Oh, so now she's punching people!" It's the next day, before the Seattle soundcheck, and Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simmons is not letting Brownstein forget about the Mic Incident. "We should have a big fight," he declares, "right here--the Explosion versus Sleater-Kinney." Half his size, Brownstein mouths back, no slouch at gasbag repartee. When she walks by later, I lift my eyebrows. Her glancing, sweet smile surfaces: "Jon Spencer came up to me last night and said, 'I heard you hit some guy with a mic stand.' They seemed to get off on it." So what was up? Brownstein shrugs. "That guy was totally harmless. He was just a figurehead for all the morons behind him. I mean...," she sighs, "whatever. It really wasn't specifically directed at anyone. I think I was just channeling a different energy for that show."
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.
And, still, Sleater-Kinney complicate themselves. "For women," says Tucker, "desire and sexuality are tied to so many other things, you can't separate it and be like, 'This is what I want, and I'm gonna go for it.' It's just not that simple." What she means, I think, is that, having been trapped and diminished in the defining gaze of a male tradition, these three women are not eager to overwhelm anyone else with their own prescriptive lust. They know the power they have over that listener in her bedroom; they've been there. And so, increasingly, their songs kick you out of their flow, insist that you recognize your part in their glamor, request you take responsibility for your stuff. It feels scary. But by respecting your freedom, they maintain theirs. And that is so not rock & roll, and that is so totally rock & roll.
Sleater-Kinney onstage at the Moore raising spirits, with an audience now. Down in front, where there are no seats, people crowd in, sing along, watch intently. A couple male faces light up with grins as Brownstein pulls off her patented slomo side kick. No one looks uncomfortable, exactly. I slip back to where the Jon Spencer fans lounge in their seats and face into a shuddering version of "Turn It On," Brownstein dancing and Weiss laughing to make up for Tucker's straining voice; this time, Brownstein falls over into Tucker's mic stand, then gets up and dedicates the move to Eddie Vedder.
"Can I be in your band?" pipes up a voice. "Hmmm," Tucker reflects, "Do you wanna be our dancer?" The guy nods furiously and crawls up to Tucker's left. "This song is called 'Little Babies,'" she says to the audience. "It's about you." The dancer is loose-limbed and fast, and he gets so excited by the "dum dum dee dee dee"s, he starts break-dancing. People get out of their seats to see. "Rock the little babies with one-two-three-four!" the band taunts. Not taunting, exactly. Three songs later, the band exits and the dancer crawls back in the crowd. "Well," a burly guy announces nervously to all of us in the back rows, "that was quite an opener!" And he stretches like he's been working against some great force.