Flashback, April 1996: Sleater-Kinney are playing a gig in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the basement of the local sushi bar Tokyo Rose. Their first big album, Call the Doctor, has just come out, and the basement is packed. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein stand on the tiny stage with their guitars, just a drummer behind them. No bass, I guess. They ask the girls in the house to come up front and then start bashing away.
My friend Jeanine screams and throws her bra onstage. It hits Tucker's mike, and Tucker lets it dangle there the rest of the show. None of us have ever heard anything like this. I can't believe two guitars can make such a ferocious noise. Tucker and Brownstein trade off vocals in their hilarious sex anthem "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone." "I swear they're looking right at me/Push to the front so I can see," Tucker screams. "I'm the queen of rock & roll!" My date waves goodbye and rushes up front. Some drunk dipshits with mohawks won't stop slamming into people. There's no security here, so my friend Darius tries to throw them out. I jump in and help him drag them outside. I haven't been in a fistfight since elementary school, much less won one, but I know I'm going to win this one — where all this testosterone is coming from, I have no idea. Tucker says, "Are you having a problem, boys? Well, if you can't handle it... we can! Right, ladies?"
We don't just come out of that show with a new favorite band — we come away feeling like we can conquer the world, start our own bands, do anything. It's the most amazing punk-rock show I've ever seen.
Sleater-Kinney started as just a friendly, low-key goof, two riot-grrrl guitarists messing around and writing songs in the living room. Over the years, they have improbably turned into one of the longest-running bands in American punk rock, and one of the best. Their songs are full of sex and love and loss and feminism and rock & roll — one of their earliest love songs is about wrestling with your lover on the bedroom floor, the aforementioned "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone." The two guitarists used to be a couple; now one of them is married, with a kid. They're punk rockers who climax their shows with twenty-minute guitar jams, covering oldies such as Bruce Springsteen's "The Promised Land."
When Sleater-Kinney started in 1994, there was room for creative expression in the commercial end of the rock business. Needless to say, now is not such a time. In case you're reading this in the waiting room outside the cryogenic-defrosting center, women rock stars have been phased out, and the current biz isn't friendly to either indie bands or woman power. Most of the other Nineties revolutionaries — Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Hole, the Breeders — imploded, burned out or faded away years ago. Sleater-Kinney have never had a hit, but for a devoted audience, especially what's left of the underground, they are more than just the best. They are the last band standing.
All three members of Sleater-Kinney have reputations as tough customers — their shit-taking days ended before your shit-giving days even began. They'll gladly vent their opinions about everything from the B-52's (whom they love) to the new Liz Phair album (which they hate) to George W. Bush (just guess). They never learned how to tone it down, which only makes their fans love them more. They're not sure where they can go from here, or even who is listening. They hate getting ignored by the mainstream, yet they're proud of having built their own scene outside of it. Nobody has ever traveled this far using the punk-rock map, and sometimes it's a lonely place to be. "It's like a game of Marco Polo," Brownstein says. "There's all these people with their eyes shut trying to drown out the cacophony of the bad music, searching for each other in the dark."
Carrie Brownstein is the punk die-hard of the band, the last one to move to Portland, Oregon, after years of commuting to rehearsals from the bohemian stronghold of Olympia, Washington, where she founded the band with Tucker in 1994. Drummer Janet Weiss joined in 1996, completing the lineup. Brownstein is one of the few bona fide guitar heroes around, the only person who can do a real Pete Townshend windmill besides Pete himself. She's charismatic in person, too, although she's horribly jet-lagged after getting in late the night before from the band's European tour. She leads me through the streets of downtown Portland in her torn and frayed raincoat and unwashed hair, cool and rumpled, a shabby punk-rock Lt. Columbo.
She steers us into a coffee shop she likes, Radiohead's Hail to the Thief playing in the background. She's earnest and cerebral, with a contagiously loud laugh. Like a lot of naturally intense people, she has a habit of tilting her head sideways when she's trying to be friendly, yet when she gets impassioned, which is usually, her eye contact could wilt flowers. "We're not just a feminist band or a punk band or a girl band or whatever," she says. "I mean, we are, but we're not only that. We're all those things at once." It's no big surprise that she's not impressed by the state of mainstream rock. "It's pretty amazing that the resurrection of rock couldn't have been more boring. 'Another white guy with a guitar comes along to save us, thank God!' But where are all the girls? What happened to them?"
When Brownstein and Tucker started playing together in 1994, as students at Olympia's Evergreen State College, both were already active in the local music scene: Brownstein with her band Excuse 17 and Tucker with her duo Heavens to Betsy. Tucker named the band after a local road (pronounced slayter, not sleeter), but neither of them took it very seriously. "In Olympia at the time, there was a very non-monogamous musical community," Brownstein says. "Everyone played in, like, ten bands. It was really casual for Corin and me to say, 'Yeah, we should play music together.' I just remember sitting in my living room writing a song, 'You Ain't It,' and we just thought it was funny, bratty and weird."
But the musical connection was different from their regular bands. "It felt a little like something had opened up, "Brownstein says." I remember we were playing this song, and we had our mikes set up facing each other, and over her part I started singing this counterpart. It was 'Call the Doctor.' We just stopped, and she was just like, "That is so awesome, you have to keep doing that.' That song was a complete turning point. It just felt like I had fused with her. This bolt of lightning had gone from my chest to hers. And we just said, 'Oh, my God, when we sing together, what is that?' It was just ... I couldn't even name it. It was so big."
The connection turned romantic. "We started going out and playing music right around the same time," Brownstein says. "It was short-lived. We were really young. We were a lot more in love with the band."
Tucker and Brownstein went to Australia together to play their first live shows in the fall of 1994. For three months they gigged at bars for the price of crashing on the floor, got no sleep, played their guitars in two different keys. The night before they flew back to the States, they stayed up all night recording their first album. As soon as they got back home, they quit their other bands. "The door opened for us as songwriters," Brownstein remembers. "The other person had given us something we never could have had with someone else. It was exciting."
It was painful as well. Call the Doctor and the band's next album, Dig Me Out, are full of heartbreak, especially "One More Hour," one of the saddest songs ever written. "Well, that song was about me and Corin breaking up," Brownstein says, her face clouding over. "And that time for me is not particularly sad, but her take on that is really devastating. People responded so much to 'One More Hour,' and I was always like, 'Yeah, I like that one too,'but two years later it just hit me, wow, how sad that song is. It's like, 'This song is so sad. Corin was so sad. All these people are relating to the song, and I'm totally blind to what this song's about!' Thank God we don't write songs about each other anymore."
Corin Tucker has the kind of voice that fills up a room. For some people, it's just a shriek, too much to take, a deal-breaker. For others, though, it's a soulful wail that makes other singers sound halfway there. We're meeting for burritos at La Sirenita, the finest taqueria in northeast Portland, Tucker's stomping ground since she left Olympia in 1996. She lives here with her husband, Lance Bangs, and their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Marshall Tucker Bangs. Being a mom and a self-described housewife hasn't mellowed her. As Weiss says, "Corin will be riot grrrl until she dies."
She has a warm, self-deprecating sense of humor that you wouldn't expect from her music, but she reminds me of a character in a Dashiell Hammett novel — somebody whose pocket you wouldn't try to pick if you cared about the condition of your fingers. She has fond memories of her band's early days. "That's when I discovered punk, as a nerdy, slightly intellectual person," she says. "When I was growing up in Eugene [Oregon], the punk rockers were into mohawks and drugs and crime. And then I moved to Olympia, and it's suddenly sweater punks. People who drink tea and have long intellectual discussions, starting bands without any musical ability. I was like, 'My people!' It blew my mind."
Her son was born nine weeks premature, a terrifying experience that inspired the One Beat song "Sympathy." In the CD booklet, Tucker wears an old Marshall Tucker Band T-shirt. "It was one of those jokes my husband and I had. We just joked, 'It would be funny to name a kid Marshall Tucker Bangs.' But then I felt, 'Hey, I really like the name Marshall.' "
"He's a total boy," Tucker says about her son. "He loves cars and trucks, squirting us with the hose. He loves to play the drums. " Tucker's husband was the director of photography on the latest White Stripes video, and he asked Meg White for one of her spare drum kits. When Tucker got home from the European tour a couple of days ago, she found Marshall rocking out. "There's this huge drum kit in the middle of the living room," she says. "A huge Meg White cherry-red Ludwig kit. And Marshall is playing and screaming, 'Drums!Drums!' "
After lunch, Tucker takes me on a tour of Portland, driving around to point out some of the local punk landmarks. We end up at the first house where Tucker lived when she hit town. A couple of her friends, social workers in Portland, still live here. They drag me outside to show me a spot on the sidewalk where Tucker wrote her initials in the cement one hot summer night in 1997. We all stand in a circle on the sidewalk, giggling at the spot where she and a friend wrote "C.T. + L.B.," "Sleater-Kinney," "6/97" and "Dykes Rule" in the concrete. It's a funny moment of time travel, back to the days after Dig Me Out first dropped, a moment when the band was just starting to take off. We're all cracking up, Tucker the loudest.
Janet Weiss comes off as the worldly, wiseass big sister to the other two. She is several years older and played in other Portland bands for years before Sleater-Kinney. She still drums in the acclaimed indie band Quasi, with her ex-husband, Sam Coomes. Before joining Sleater-Kinney, she worked in an ad agency. She's the one who had a shot at a normal, quiet life and turned it down. Weiss grew up in Hollywood and got into punk while she was in college in San Francisco. "I loved going to see the Replacements and the Minutemen," she recalls. "So much vitality and danger. You never knew what was going to happen. You had no idea what song they were going to pull out of the hat or if one of them was going to jump into the audience. It was great."
She was a Sleater-Kinney fan before she joined, but she added a heavy drum attack that gave the music a whole new kick. "I was intimidated to play with her," Tucker remembers. "She wasn't in that Olympia crowd. But the first time we played with Janet, she was so powerful. Carrie and I looked at each other and went, 'Oh, my God, we totally got lucky.' Janet had a real job, but we were like, 'Come on, hit the road! Join our slacker world!'" Weiss has been touring ever since, and she's seen it all. "It can be pretty gross at skanky, skanky rock clubs," she says, grimacing. "We still are a bunch of girls."
After a few years on the road, Sleater-Kinney were in rough shape. They were not getting along. "One night, we were in Austin," Brownstein recalls with an evil grin. "I said something really mean to Corin right before we got on stage, and then the mikes were already on, and I walked up toward her, and she goes, 'Get the fuck away from me!' Into the mike. I was like,'Um, hi, we're Sleater-Kinney.' It was really weird."
That's when the band decided to boldly go where punk had never gone before: therapy. "There were these two women in Olympia who specialized in couples therapy," Brownstein says. "We said, 'Well, we're a band, but we're kind of like a big couple. Like a threesome.' Corin and I had the most issues. It was really hard." Did it help? "Definitely. We set up some guidelines about putting our friendships first. Because it's often two against one. And each one of us has been the one. It's pretty brutal."
Not a very punk-rock thing to do, is it? Couples counseling? Tucker laughs about it now. "If the Clash had gone to a counselor, they could have made some more great records. But, you know, no guy band is gonna go to counseling. No way! You have to be totally earth-mama, like us. Peppermint tea and counseling!"
So what are the guidelines? "No evil-minded buddying up, "Weiss says. "No making decisions on tour about band stuff. I can't remember the other ones. Oh, wait: Always say you're sorry. And if someone calls an emergency meeting, you have to oblige." She pauses. "Although Corin has broken that rule before."
Well, at least she said she was sorry, right? "I'm sure she did," Weiss cackles. "After hours of torture."