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Members include Carrie Brownstein (born c. 1975), guitar; Toni Gogin (left group, 1996), drums; Lora Macfarlane (left group, 1995), drums; Corin Tucker (born c. 1973; married filmmaker Lance Bangs; children: Marshall Tucker Bangs), guitar; Janet Weiss (born c. 1965; joined group, 1996; divorced), drums. Addresses: Record company--Kill Rock Stars, 120 Northeast State Ave., #418, Olympia, WA 98501, website: http://www.killrockstars.com. Website--Sleater-Kinney Official Website: http://www.thisissleaterkinney.com.
Sleater-Kinney, a trio of unrepentant feminists who made waves with their 1997 release Dig Me Out, grew out of both the riot-grrrl movement and the punk/indie scene in the Pacific Northwest. Consisting simply of a drummer and two guitarists, the band has earned both sincere praise and fawning press. According to Rolling Stone writer Evelyn McDonnell, Sleater-Kinney "is poised to become the first band to emerge from the feminist-punk riot-grrrl movement of the early 1990s and cross over to a broad rock audience."
As a child, Sleater-Kinney's co-founder, guitarist, and frontperson Corin Tucker lived in both Eugene, Oregon and North Dakota. Her father was a folk singer and she grew up listening to his Velvet Underground records. Co-founder and fellow guitarist Carrie Brownstein was a native of the Seattle area and, during her formative years, became a fan of English punk acts like the Jam and the Buzzcocks. By the mid-1990s, Tucker was a student at Evergreen State College and member of a band called Heavens to Betsy, which grew out of the riot-grrrl scene that originated in the Pacific Northwest. Riot-grrrl politics and culture involved a wave of radical young feminists like Brownstein, who was running a feminist network group booth when she met Tucker. The riot-grrrl movement was well organized and its participants often relied on thought-provoking street art or action to get their messages across. Many of them picked up the instruments of previous oppression--inherently sexist rock and roll--to further explore new avenues of communication. "Riot grrrl suddenly made feminism something I could embrace and utilize and be empowered by," Brownstein explained to McDonnell in Rolling Stone.
Brownstein was also a musician who played in the band Excuse 17. She and Tucker became romantically involved, and one day during the summer of 1994 sat down and wrote a few songs. They found a rehearsal space in nearby in Lacey, Washington, and, in need of a band name one day, simply adopted the street names at the nearest intersection. They had a more difficult time, however, finding a permanent drummer. In their first two years of existence, Sleater-Kinney went through drummers at an alarming rate: first came Australian Lora Macfarlane, who stayed until 1995; she was replaced by Toni Gogin for part of 1996; finally Janet Weiss joined that year.
Call the Doctor
After playing some shows, Sleater-Kinney signed with Villa Villakula/Chainsaw and released their self-titled debut in 1995. It was followed by 1996's Call the Doctor, which contained the track "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," referring to the debauched and dissipated member of the seminal New York punk-rock legends, The Ramones. The lyrics, Tucker explained, were a sly diatribe against the male-oriented alternative-music scene. "The song is about all these bands that are like the kings of indie rock," Tucker explained to Elizabeth Vincintelli in Rolling Stone. "But it's also a joke about jumping in and out of those roles. Imagine living your life like Joey Ramone!"
Call the Doctor was met with favorable words from critics. Greil Marcus, writing in Interview, even liked the name--"what a title for a piece of music that means to call everything into question," he noted. He found much to praise inside the record, especially Tucker's vocals. "With a steely passion channeled through the affect of her all-American-mallrat accent, she starts off at high pressure and stays there, the tension of her refusal to press any harder turning into a nervous worry that she might," observed Marcus. "Against this, the fabulously engaging interlocking guitar lines seem more found or received than made--the deep inventiveness of the band coming off simply as the necessary consequence of a voice this demanding."
Robert Christgau of the Village Voice also found much to laud in Call the Doctor, and echoed Marcus's appreciation of Tucker's vocal talents, which some other writers have even compared to Belinda Carlisle's in timbre. "The obvious reason Tucker dominates this band is her voice," wrote Christgau. He also commended her lyrical delivery: "in a music of becoming, Tucker's albums enact a coming-of-age-in-progress that's conveyed by the conviction in her singing, not the acuteness of an analysis millions of young women have already stumbled toward," noted Christgau. "From a parental perspective the effect is intense, touching, an up. For her fans and peers, I bet it feels like life itself."
As for the dual guitars and no-bass sound, Christgau called it "minimalist in its own way, original without self-indulgence, often fairly fast but never speedy, a punk-informed variant sure enough of where it's headed that it can take its time getting there," he wrote in the Village Voice. Other critics have struggled to match Sleater-Kinney's sound with that of lauded predecessors--PJ Harvey, Gang of Four, Swiss girl punkers Liliput, and Sonic Youth are but a few names that crop up in reviews of their work.
"Made a Space for Women in Music"
Sleater-Kinney also became known for playing notoriously user-friendly shows--if the crowd is right. At one gig at a tiny venue in Portland, an audience member dancing maniacally near the low stage kept whacking Tucker's guitar during the set. "But instead of chastising the enraptured fan, Tucker voted her Best Dancer," reported Charles R. Cross in Rolling Stone. "Between songs, Tucker ... urged the young girls in the crowd to start their own groups." In early 1997, they opened for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and were heckled by a male-dominated front row. At the end of one show, Brownstein sent her microphone stand flying into the head of one particularly rabid anti-fan. Still, as Tucker told McDonnell in Rolling Stone, they had mellowed some. "We're not as apt to want to start arguments everywhere ... Still, everything about where we're coming from has to do with the fact that there was a first wave of girl bands that we were part of, and that has made a space for women in music."
Sleater-Kinney released their third studio effort in 1997, shortly after Spin magazine named them to "The Spin 40" in its April issue, a list of acts the editors termed vital to alternative music. Less thrashy than their previous two records, Dig Me Out included love songs and some poppy dance numbers done with a Farfisa organ. Other songs seemed to find intense pleasure in the simple catharsis of rock and roll. Dig Me Out, according to Matt Diehl in Rolling Stone, displays not just Sleater-Kinney's lyrical talents but combines them with "an explosive musical chemistry that mixes infectious melodicism with innovative punk deconstruction." Ann Powers reviewed the record for Spin and declared that Tucker "lets the songs' electric momentum strip her down to her emotional core--a pure and antisocial humanity. From start to finish, Dig Me Out aims for this place of undiluted emotion, where girlishness yields to the rage and joy of women who feel no need to charm."
Powers concluded her review noting the negative connotations the term "feminist" has received over the years, but she hinted at the new radical strain found in Sleater-Kinney's message. "If they wanna be our Simone de Beauvoir, Dig Me Out proves they're up to it," Powers declared. Christgau, writing in the Village Voice, also found hope in the very act of Sleater-Kinney's existence. "The truth is," Christgau opined, "that most people can't make great rock and roll, or create themselves in public either. But the more people get the chance to try, the better off we are."
Balanced Fame and Personal Politics
With the release of 1999's The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One in 2000, the band found itself balancing their newfound fame with a keen interest in politics, both of the social and rock and roll sorts. Not only did the records reflect Sleater-Kinney's already established left-of-center ethos, but the band brought Planned Parenthood activists on the All Hands on the Bad One tour to promote their cause and help raise funds for the financially threatened agency. That year Tucker started a family of her own when she married filmmaker Lance Bangs and had a child with him in 2001.
For many politically minded bands, 2001 was an unforgettable year. The events surrounding September 11th and the fall of the World Trade Center caused Sleater-Kinney to produce the most politically charged album of their career. Released in 2002, One Beat was both a direct criticism of George W. Bush's governmental actions and an attempt to distance the socially accommodating indie rock community from its oppressive corporate counterpart. Of the record's political impact, New Musical Express writer Victoria Segal commented: "Few bands could explore motherhood and terrorism without making you want to shoot them." But with sly wit and emotionally connected song writing, Sleater-Kinney did it with ease.
by Carol Brennan and Ken Taylor
Group formed in Olympia, WA, 1994; released self-titled debut on Villa Villakula/Chainsaw, 1995; drummer Lora Macfarlane left group, 1995; released Call the Doctor, 1996; drummer Janet Weiss joined group, 1996; released Dig Me Out on Kill Rock Stars, 1997; released The Hot Rock, 1999; released All Hands on the Bad One, 2000; released One Beat, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Sleater-Kinney Villa Villakula/Chainsaw, 1995.
- Call the Doctor Chainsaw, 1996.
- Dig Me Out Kill Rock Stars, 1997.
- The Hot Rock Kill Rock Stars, 1999.
- All Hands on the Bad One Kill Rock Stars, 2000.
- One Beat Kill Rock Stars, 2002.
- Interview, July 1996, p. 53.
- New Musical Express, August 15, 2002.
- Rolling Stone, June 13, 1996, p. 82; November 14, 1996, p. 49; April 3, 1997, p. 32; May 15, 1997, p. 112; June 12, 1997, p. 36.
- Spin, April 1997, p. 130; June 1997, p. 117.
- Village Voice, April 16, 1996, p. 64.
- Sleater-Kinney Official Website, http://www.thisissleaterkinney.com (February 3, 2004).
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