I’ve just caught shit from the drummer of Sleater-Kinney. In asking Janet Weiss about the state of women in music, I should have known better and she lets me know it.
“How do you feel about men in music?” Weiss fires back. “I feel like you’re putting me in the ghetto just asking that question. I just don’t segregate it.
“I don’t wake up and think, ‘I’m a woman in a band,’” she says. “I don’t think Pete Doherty wakes up every morning and thinks ‘I’m a man in a band. How do I feel about that?’ I think when that question stops being asked, that’s when we’re really going to start making strides. People can’t just look at women in bands with the same sort of freedom.”
The three outspoken musicians in Sleater-Kinney—Weiss, guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker—don’t have time to pander to journalists when asked questions with obvious answers. They let people know exactly what they’re thinking and have done so ever since they released their debut in 1995.
Whether it’s the issues of female equality in society and the music industry, politics, dysfunctional relationships or suicide, Sleater-Kinney hasn’t been afraid to vocalize its viewpoint in lyrics, interviews and on stage. It’s something the group—named after an exit ramp in Lacy, Washington, where its practice space was located—has something in common with fellow northwestern US cohabitants Pearl Jam, the band they’re opening for on their Canadian tour, stopping in Halifax on September 22. None of the members make any apologies for their words or actions.
“Politics to me aren’t separate from our lives and so if I’m talking about myself or books or films or politics, it’s all part of what we’re living and breathing,” Carrie Brownstein says from a Toronto hotel room. “Most of the times we don’t say anything on stage, but occasionally we’ll say something. But it’s really about the music for us. You can write political lyrics, but if it’s over a crappy song then it doesn’t matter.”
Crappy music is not something Sleater-Kinney makes. Formed from the remnants of the riot-grrrl groups Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 by Brownstein and Tucker, the group first made waves in 1996 with Call the Doctor, a brash call-to-arms made even more powerful by the vocal interplay between Tucker’s siren-caterwaul and Brownstein’s speak-shout words. It presented the band as unabashed, cathartic punk with a mind behind the music.
Subsequent recordings upped the ante. Now with full-time drummer Weiss in tow, the bassless trio recorded the 1997 masterpiece Dig Me Out and went on to record four more equally excellent records: the more mature and sombre The Hot Rock; the polished All Hands on the Bad One; the politically minded One Beat and their latest, most ambitious and certainly loudest record yet, The Woods.
“I would hope that it’s just that we continue to be a band that continues to be unique and doesn’t sound exactly like anyone who came before us and no one has been able to sound like us since,” Brownstein says. “We don’t really fit in. I think that people look on the periphery for something that’s a little more interesting or uncomfortable. There’s just something that’s a little bit weird about us.”
“I don’t know why people are inspired by us,” Weiss says from her home in Portland, Oregon. “I feel like we still need it. It’s still life or death for us and it must make some people feel like we’re worth knowing, I guess. It makes me feel that way—the fact that other people want to listen is great.”
However, the constant need to challenge one another is something that comes with a price, often taking a toll on the relationships between the three members. During the time of The Hot Rock the group attended therapy sessions to sort out their differences, laying down the ground rules they still follow to this day.
“It’s like putting three feral cats in a cage together,” Weiss jokes. “No, the dynamic is good. We’re just friends, you know? We have deep bonds, we’ve been through a lot of stuff, we travel all over the world together. We see each other at our worst and at our best. It’s a really intense relationship and we made it to the 10-year mark. It’s not easy.
“It’s just general courtesy things like always saying you’re sorry and if someone’s having a meltdown, to have a meeting right away and really basic relationship ground rules,” she adds. “When you’re with someone every day for a month, it’s only natural you’re going to catch them in a bad moment. The ground rules are there to prevent everyone from hurting the others’ feelings.”
It’s this creative and personal friction that drove the band to write The Woods, a turned-up-to-11, sonically dissonant document recorded by Dave Fridmann, famous for his work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. Where Fridmann took those groups’ psychedelic sounds and added lush, orchestral detail, he confronted the unabashed twin-guitar attack of Sleater-Kinney head-on, bringing out the ferocity in the band’s sound.
“I think he really understood us musically more than anyone we’ve worked with,” Brownstein says. “I think he’s good with finding the essence of a band, the thing that is at the core of the alchemy between the members of the band and making that come alive on tape. We can make it come alive when we play a show but when it comes to trying to translate that onto a CD to put on in someone’s home, car or MP3 player, that requires somebody who can intuitively work through a band’s chemistry and he was really good at that.”
The album features some of the longest songs of Sleater-Kinney’s catalogue, including the 11-minute opus “Let’s Call it Love,” complete with feedback-laden guitar solos, pound-through-the-floor drums and Tucker’s trademark banshee-wail singing. More so than on any other album, the group wrote material culled from improvised sessions in its home practice space and from extended song interludes during performances on its first tour with Pearl Jam in 2003. It’s a new element on the Sleater-Kinney palette, an added intensity that makes the band’s early work sound decidedly lo-fi.
“The way that it sounds is encouraging us to go further in that direction,” Weiss says. “We’d get a guitar sound and he’d be like, ‘No, it needs to be uglier. Make it sound wrong.’ He would really push us to make it sound more exaggerated.
“He really attacks it, it’s not wimpy at all,” she says. “For us, it’s great. That’s how our live performances are. They’re pretty aggressive.”
That said, the trio’s uncompromising nature, passion for their work and the kinetic Sleater-Kinney live show are all reasons why Eddie Vedder coaxed the band for over a year to tour with Pearl Jam. It’s also why anyone who arrives late to the concert this Thursday at the Metro Centre is missing one of the best and most vital bands—male or female—today.
“Show up early,” Weiss says. “A lot of people don’t show up early enough. That’s all we ask is get there, then we’ll take it from there.”
Sleater-Kinney w/Pearl Jam, September 22 at the Halifax Metro Centre, 8pm, sold out. See music, for tips on getting in.