Perfect Prescription

Sleater-Kinney defies academic labeling and preconceived notions

When big money alt-rockers get that hunted feeling in their pool grottos, they might turn around to see the tip of Carrie Brownstein's six-string rising from the water like a fin. The Sleater-Kinney guitarist's talent transcends boundaries (if not bodies of water). Rolling Stone even compared her to Jimmy Page. Though her band, which got its name from a freeway off-ramp back in Olympia, Washington, is categorized as "post-punk," or something like it, there is something decidedly classic-rock about Brownstein's sound. Lately, her playing has been given the uncertain distinction of sounding very "stadium" -- a good thing, it would seem, since the band is now on tour with Pearl Jam.

Brownstein's bandmates are singer/guitarist Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss. The band's thoughtful, hard-hitting punk converged in Olympia during the mid-'90s alongside tetchy female acts like Bikini Kill, Team Dresch, L7, and the Butchies. It became a good time for an angry female musician to sling a tampon into a rude audience or grab a breast while giving the order to "suck it." From such angry displays, the term "riot-grrl" was coined.

Sleater-Kinney took aim and fired an arsenal of outstanding albums during the decade of grrl battle. News rags and dailies have consistently listed their latest offering, One Beat, as one of 2002's best. Between the bitter wailing and gnashing of beats, lyrics strut from the back of Tucker's throat like Mick Jagger on a virile day ("Combat Rock" and "Hollywood Ending").

For Sleater-Kinney, language really is a virus: Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker
For Sleater-Kinney, language really is a virus: Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker

The band meant for One Beat to be a voice in the silence following September 2001. But now, some of the anti-war demonstrators wearing army fatigues and fake blood very likely had the disc in the deck during the drive to the rally. In these times, even a simple, disaffected turn of the volume knob can signify protest.

Tucker recently agreed to a telephone interview with New Times.

Q: How do you view One Beat?A: It has the most acuity. If it were a landscape, it would be a vast, sweeping landscape. Emotionally, I think it covers a lot of terrain. I feel like it's the most fully formed [of the Sleater-Kinney albums].

Q: Are you all as tough as you sound in the music?A: No. I don't think so. It's like a composite. It's so separate from who we are. The band has this entity, and the way we connect to people is through the music. But what's written about in the music and what comes across in the press doesn't always embody who we are as people. We imagine people have a slight disconnect when they meet us. They're normally shocked to see that we're not, like, five-eleven.

Q: Do you think it's at all ironic that you study sociolinguistics but are much more well-known for how you express yourself on guitar?

A: People are multifaceted. Hopefully, I would have more than one interest or facet.

Q: I read that ³prescriptivism² is your pet peeve.A: What linguistics is supposed to do is describe how people do talk, not how people are supposed to talk. Prescriptivists are linguistic purists constantly preoccupied with grammar and syntax, but one of the most beautiful things about language is how it's constantly changing, how malleable it is. Through all those broken rules, we have new words.

Q: What do you think about the term ³riot-grrl?²A: It doesn't necessarily apply to us anymore except in a historical way. I also think it's a term that was misunderstood and co-opted by the media like some of the other phrases that came out of that movement. Like "girl power." I mean, "Girl Power" became a fanzine. The "riot-grrl" movement started mainly to marry the ideas of feminism and punk rock -- to take feminism out of context and put it in a context that was populist, that could forage into the teenage society. It had a very specific notion -- the broader ideas were murkier -- but it was very important and it changed many scenes and towns and really paved the way for a lot of rhetoric. To me it was specific to the early '90s, but the original idea of it is still really incendiary.

Q: One word that's been used quite a bit to describe the band on this last album is ³mature.² Is it odd when people you don't know talk about how you've ³matured?²A: Umm, I think it's certainly their subjective opinion. Obviously, people have different ways of weighing maturity. People have different ways of relating to it. I think the adjective "mature" is like a back-handed compliment when used in rock, though, especially when rock tends to exalt immaturity. The idea of "maturity" and rock music are strange bedfellows.

Q: I've also read that you said you feel ³really exposed and vulnerable onstage?²

A: Sometimes, yeah, certainly. There are ways of transcending that and being larger than that vulnerability, and then there's sort of a collective vulnerability with the audience. I also feel sort of powerful, it's a weird mix of awkwardness and power.

Q: Does the idea of touring with Pearl Jam make you nervous?A: I think there's a bit of anxiety and apprehension about how we'll go over. I think it's about how formidable the stage and space will be. It will be quite a challenge to play to people who aren't already familiar with the music.

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