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Words Out of Washington

Music Preview: Sleater-Kinney

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Until fairly recently, punk rock was classic rock's mortal enemy. Punk's do-it-yourself ethos seemed utterly incompatible with the excesses of classic rock's chief architects, such as Led Zeppelin and The Who. For decades, those acts were called "dinosaurs," endlessly ridiculed by the safety-pin-and-spikes set. But like many revolutions, the movement invariably became what it set out to destroy. Much of what passes for punk these days seems manufactured, an excuse to sell T-shirts to suburban mallrats.

Well, it's time to repair some bridges. Sleater-Kinney -- an all female trio from Olympia, Washington -- combine punk's uncompromising edge with the sonic vocabulary of rock. In their decade of playing together, the band have matured from learn-as-you-go "riot grrls" to a true musical powerhouse, closing the gap between vitriol and virtuosity. They bring their intricate, passionate tunes to the Higher Ground Ballroom this week.

Taking their name from the street where they used to rehearse, Sleater-Kinney exploded onto the male-dominated music scene with their 1995 self-titled debut. The band's two-guitar assault (that's right, no bass) and provocative, politically-minded lyrics were a welcome antidote to the mid-tempo wallowing of grunge.

Singer/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein's interlocking melodies and no-bullshit attitude are augmented by the thunderous drum work of Janet Weiss, who joined in 1997. Weiss' commanding presence on the skins gave the band a more solid foundation to build upon. And build they did: Their last album, 2002's One Beat, was hailed by critics as one of the greatest records since The Clash's Combat Rock. That was before their latest release, The Woods.

The new disc is already racking up accolades. Produced by Dave Fridmann, who has worked with art-rock superstars The Flaming Lips, The Woods features the most adventurous songs of Sleater-Kinney's career. A molten surge of blazing guitars and pummeling percussion, the album sounds as if it was recorded with all the meters in the red. Weiss' drumming recalls the work of rock's greatest percussionists; driving and dynamic, her powerful rhythms help anchor the band's spiky guitar work.

Weiss -- who at 40 is the trio's oldest member -- may hold the backline, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have plenty to say. Seven Days recently spoke to her from the road about what it's like to be in one of punk and rock's hottest bands.

SEVEN DAYS: It seems like everywhere I look, there's a Sleater-Kinney article or interview. Are you burned out on talking to rock journalists yet?

Janet Weiss: [Laughs.] Well, I'd rather be playing the record than talking about it! But that's always the case.

SD: A lot of critics are calling the new album a radical departure, but it still sounds punk to me. Why do people think guitar fills and drum solos are the exclusive property of classic rock?

JW: I think that rock journalism is rooted in cliches, and that might have something to do with it. I'm sure anybody who has read a lot of articles has noticed that. Much of rock music is about perpetuating an image. We as a band have never really fit any one image or category. We've drawn from many sources from the beginning, and I think that's still the case. Hopefully, something unique has been created. Listen to Sex Pistols records -- there are plenty of guitar solos on them.

SD: Dave Fridmann produced The Woods. He's known for getting some pretty gnarly drum sounds. Did you have to adapt your playing style to his methods?

JW: Not at all -- I was dying to have my drums sound like that! I was particularly excited to work with Dave. He uses the drums as another palette, as a way to alter the sound and increase dynamics. I try to do that with my playing, but to have someone doing it sonically as well was really exciting.

SD: I hear a lot of [Hendrix drummer] Mitch Mitchell and [Led Zeppelin drummer] John Bonham-style stuff on the new disc. Were they heroes of yours?

JW: Yeah! I think those were actually my two earliest influences, Mitch Mitchell especially. He was someone who, for whatever reason, I just related to right off the bat. It's just a mysterious kind of thing, why you like certain musicians or bands and you absolutely cannot stand others. It's in your DNA makeup, or something. Since I was a little kid, Zeppelin was my favorite band, and Bonham is probably my most loved drummer these days. But people seem almost offended by a drummer that's expressive. Even Dave Fridmann. He's like, "You never play the same thing twice!" And I'm like, "What are you talking about? I play the same thing -- I just put some fills in there!"

SD: Sleater-Kinney have a reputation as a politically charged band. Yet there's always a strong personal dimension to the lyrics. Can the personal be political and vice-versa?

JW: I think that's pretty much the truth of it. Politics, for the three of us, has a wide definition. Out of the respect we have for each other, we allow it to be fluid. Everything on the records is extremely personal, especially this one. The new album is very raw and it cuts deep for us, as far as the playing goes. The lyrics have to match that, and be able to carry the weight of the music. But to me, what you do creates the political aspect of your art -- it doesn't always have to be explicit. Making a record that's really loud and abrasive at a time when people would love it if you just shut your mouth, to me, says something.

SD: You were on tour with Pearl Jam at the onset of the current Iraq War. What was it like playing in front of such a huge audience at such a divisive time in America?

JW: It was an unusual situation for us. Our audience, for the most part, shares our political ideas. Pearl Jam's audience doesn't necessarily share the ideas of the band. You've got 25,000 people, and half of them really support George W. Bush and don't want Eddie Vedder to speak out. That created a great amount of solidarity between the bands, and I think we also learned from Eddie Vedder about how to talk to your audience when they don't agree with you. He'd find these sensitive ways to talk about things without getting all irritated.

SD: He's had a lot of practice.

JW: Yeah. The first night we were out, Corin said something about the war, and we got booed. We were like, "Oh no -- we're gonna get fired!" After that, we decided that we should let Pearl Jam handle the political talk, and we would speak through the music.

SD: The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for being laid-back and lefty, not unlike Vermont. How does Sleater-Kinney go over in more traditionally conservative states?

JW: I don't think the South has warmed up to us too much yet. Except for Texas, which is pretty much a departure in general. I think we might still be looked at as a girl band or whatever. But at the same time, it's great to not always be preaching to the converted. It challenges you to really look at what you believe in. You can't just assume that what you believe in is right.

SD: The group has been together for a decade. Most romantic relationships don't last that long. How do you keep it together?

JW: At this point, the relationship is really just a great friendship. And certain friendships can last a lifetime. This one has taken some work -- lots and lots of communicating and even more respect. We try. I think a lot of bands just give up, but we try to be together. But at this point, the personal issues have all been worked out. We're not gonna break up for all the stupid reasons that bands do within the first couple of years.

SD: Sometimes I feel bad for kids growing up with the cookie-cutter version of punk rock. How do you reach these people?

JW: Well, we really don't. It's a very commercial atmosphere right now; the underground is shrinking. But listening to the radio has never been all that inspiring, anyway. When there's not as much chance of commercial success, when you know you won't be heard on the radio, you don't even think about it.

SD: What happens if the band stays together another 10 years and you're inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Are you gonna show up?

JW: [Laughs.] I don't know. But I'm definitely not going to worry about that right now.

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