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A Darker Side of Sleater-Kinney

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 12, 1999

  Gigs to Watch

    Sleater-Kinney Dark tones imbue Sleater-Kinney's edgy sound on "The Hot Rock," the trio's latest release. (By Marina Chavez)
One of Sleater-Kinney's new songs, "By the Time You're 25," is a typically brawling attack on society's expectations of young women. After listing some of the things she's supposed to want, Corin Tucker vows, "I'm going to beat you/ At your own stupid game."

With its spiky, two-guitar attack and the dynamic vocal interplay of Tucker and bandmate Carrie Brownstein, the track is exemplary of the edgy style that has won the Pacific Northwest punk trio both critical acclaim and a growing audience. But the song isn't included on the band's latest album, "The Hot Rock." It's available only on a three-tune EP that features one of the new long-player's most upbeat numbers, "Get Up."

Perhaps that's because it doesn't fit the mood of the threesome's fourth album. "'Dig Me Out' was so explosive and celebratory," explains drummer Janet Weiss of the band's previous disc. "This record in a sense is a reaction to that. A looking inward, exploring really personal defeat in a way."

"The Hot Rock" has been called Sleater-Kinney's darkest release, and Weiss doesn't disagree. "I think it has a certain moodiness to it that the others don't explore so much. The themes are not as overtly desperate but more intricate and – I guess 'dark' is a good word."

The album's sound is also more nuanced, in part because of the efforts of producer Roger Mountenot, who's previously worked with Yo La Tengo. "He taught us a lot about how to achieve the sound and texture that we were looking for on this record," Weiss says. "We had ideas about how we wanted the songs to feel, and he interpreted that into things you could actually hear. He knows how to take a band's ideas and work within their format."

The drummer reports that "The Hot Rock" was recorded in about a month, while "Dig Me Out" took roughly 10 days. She estimates that "Call the Doctor" – the band's second album, recorded before Weiss joined – was recorded in a week.

Lack of preparation wasn't why the sessions for "The Hot Rock" were more extended. "We had most of the songs worked out," Weiss says. "That's sort of how we came to our conclusion to work with Roger in the first place. Listening to the songs and realizing that they did feel different and they required a different sort of approach. There was more space within them, and we wanted a less distorted, more subtle sound.

"I think the biggest difference in having so much time to record," she continues, "is that you can craft your song into its own unique personality. On 'Dig Me Out,' we pretty much played all the songs with the same settings, the same sounds. It was more a document of our live performance. The songs on 'Dig Me Out,' dictated that, but this record is a little more introspective."

Sleater-Kinney's songs are characterized by the way Tucker's high-pitched voice plays off Brownstein's vocals. Weiss says the two singers' contrasting vocal parts develop organically. "At practice we work on music first, usually. We'll have a riff or a guitar part, or maybe I'll just play something on the drums and they'll start layering over it. And then they really just start singing. It's strange. Carrie and Corin have the ability to complete each other's musical phrases. They do it quite naturally. Sometimes Carrie will say or Corin will say, 'You should sing at this part.' It's usually not a harmony that arises from that; it's two separate parts, creating the tension at the same time."

Weiss notes that her two bandmates always write the words they individually sing. The songs are "all very collaborative, but the theme of certain songs is developed by one person more than the other. The other person writes the complementary part. I definitely think of some songs as either Carrie or Corin's, and certain songs as all of us together."

Such collaborations work, Weiss suggests, because "we all have very distinct personalities. We're all aware of our positions in the band, and what areas we've already explored and the new areas we want to go to. We all want to push the boundaries of our music. Try not to do the same things over and over again."

One way of doing that is to play with other bands. Weiss remains a member of Quasi, a duo she founded with singer-keyboardist (and ex-husband) Sam Coomes before she joined Sleater-Kinney. Last year, Tucker made an album with neo-girl-group Cadallaca, and Brownstein has been collaborating with Helium's Mary Timony.

"There's been very little time off," concedes Weiss of her two-group schedule. "But it's very rewarding. Both bands are very respectful of each other and of the people who are participating. We don't sort of drive each other to points of exhaustion or mental collapse. We definitely take breaks when we need to take breaks."

Sleater-Kinney will perform Thursday at the Black Cat, its customary Washington venue. "We prefer clubs of that size," Weiss says. "We compromise in some places and play bigger venues. In certain cities, it's too sad when they're 100 kids outside who can't get in or lots of people who can't get tickets."

Playing larger rooms, the drummer muses, could distance Sleater-Kinney from its loyal following. "We think about that a lot. Because we've grown at a comfortable rate, we've learned how to connect with people in bigger clubs. I think we've learned how to step it up a notch. But we're still learning how to perform in atmospheres like that."

Despite that concern, Weiss doesn't really seem all that worried about the famously spirited trio's ability to reach the kids in the back. "That's sort of the idea with this band," she laughs, "to blow the roof off no matter how high it is."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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