Where the wild things are
Sleater-Kinney's Carrie and Corin blaze their way out of The Woods.


By Johnny Ray Huston

IT WAS ALMOST a decade ago that I called Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker for the first large article about Sleater-Kinney to run in a newspaper or magazine. They'd recently stunned me and a couple of dozen other people at Bottom of the Hill with a set that promised amazing things to come. Passing the phone back and forth, Brownstein and Tucker were excited about the album they were recording, Call the Doctor. A week later, a hand-labeled tape of it arrived in the mail from their then-home base of Olympia, Wash., and I immediately knew I was hearing one of my favorite – one of the best – rock records of all time. Five albums and almost twice as many years have passed since then, and if at times my passion for the band has waned, their audience has only gotten bigger, thanks in part to the powerhouse drumming of Janet Weiss. Enter The Woods, their first album for Sub Pop and a "sonic assault" (to use Tucker's words) for war-roiled times that's fit to knock shoulders with the Hendrix and Led Zep albums that are an obvious influence on it. I'm a huge fan all over again. On the eve of the band's U.S. tour, I caught up with the duo for another phone call.

Bay Guardian: When you were living in the Bay Area, Carrie, what were you studying?

Carrie Brownstein: One of the papers [the East Bay Express] printed that I was studying journalism at Berkeley, but I wasn't in school. I moved down there for a relationship.

I'd always thought academia was pulling me in a different direction from the band. I was living in the East Bay, in Berkeley, and it was actually being in that milieu that made me realize I didn't want it, that it was too esoteric and insular. Music was fulfilling the opposite end of the spectrum for me, but it also was edifying in a way that I hadn't been appreciating.

BG: I want to talk about the song "Jumpers." There's a new movie, The Joy of Life, dealing with suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge – did the Tad Friend article in the New Yorker about the same subject influence you, and did the song stem from depression while you lived here?

CB: When I was living in the Bay Area, I read the Tad Friend article as I was taking BART into the city, and I found myself just crying and thinking about how out of place I felt. I was certainly thinking about my own struggles – I couldn't understand why, in this place of such intense beauty and sun, these things that were supposed to be healthy and helping me, I felt such a sharp contrast.

That was my first reaction to the article. By the time I was writing the song, I was living back in Portland, [Ore.,] and the song itself partially stems from my own feelings of disparity about the overall political and social climate.

The song is culled from specific stories in that article, which is a pretty amazing and touching piece. The intensity of feeling that you can't find meaning in your life, so you need to find meaning in your death – looking for a way for it to be somehow symbolic or beautiful or public. Especially when people feel so alone, it's such an intense thing to think about, or way of going.

Also, the larger picture of this album is about the instability of structures, whether they're internal structures that we thought were holding us together or political structures that we thought were stable or safe, that we could rely on for doing good. So the song is about this structure that is very solid in terms of engineering prowess, but unstable in that it's a launching place for those in despair. In that sense, it works as a metaphor for the rest of the album.

BG: Corin, your vocals embrace characters or other aspects of personality – they're almost menacing at times. Would you agree?

Corin Tucker: Definitely. I think this record was written by the dark side [laughs]. There was this need to let something else out.

BG: How was the songwriting different?

CB: Basically, it meant starting all together. What we said early on was that one of us could bring in a part, but we might not keep that part, or just keep one tiny element and go from there. Which was rough, because we've been playing together so long that things are intuitive for us. We'd start with an idea, and an hour later wind up with something completely different.

BG: Carrie, this album feels sort of like your version of Jimi Hendrix doing "The Star Spangled Banner." There's a thematic cohesion to the songs, as if America is this lover you have a difficult relationship with.

CB: The people who are latching onto this record see that or feel that, not necessarily right away, but after a certain point. The songs comment on one another.

For me, [the album] also felt like a reaction to all the simplification and reductivism in language and ideas today, the way people take a complicated political idea and just dumb it down. Or even music starting to feel safer. The role of art is to make something complex and ambiguous, and that's what I wanted to do, just to challenge ourselves, even if no one got it. It was like writing a song from a cliff's edge, without knowing whether we'd stay balanced – maybe we'd slip a bit, but something graceful or amazing or dangerous might happen. Living with that would be like learning to live with everything else [wrong with the world].

BG: Corin, your guitar work utilizes a lot more effects.

CT: Dave [Fridmann, our producer] loves that kind of approach. I think guitar pedals are overused, but he has good taste in terms of effects. When they come in on this record, they're so well-done and it's so over-the-top that it's a sonic attack. That's what I also totally love about My Bloody Valentine.

BG: Hearing that Dave Fridmann produced The Woods, the natural inclination is to think it would be this softer, cathedral pop. But in a way you've updated the ferocity of his early work with Mercury Rev.

CT: We had no idea what it was going to be like working with him. He wasn't that big of a fan of our records [laughs], so it was an interesting situation. He was critical, and pushed us to make things dramatic and huge and powerful.

CB: Logistically, we were in western New York, close to Buffalo and the Pennsylvania border. We were isolated and didn't have the luxury of, at the end of the day, returning to our regular world. The intensity never let up – we ate and slept and breathed the music. While one of us was cooking, the other would still be working – then we'd all eat together. After recording we'd go up to our rooms – we slept at the recording studio – and watch DVDs until 4 a.m., because we couldn't just fall asleep.

Dave is a really easy guy to get along with. He'd say things to Janet like, "Play like Keith Moon, but Keith Moon with a blanket coming down over him." We'd just laugh and be so frustrated, like, "What are you saying?!" But ultimately I think maybe he understood us musically better than anyone else had.

BG: Besides watching movies, what other recreation did you take part in while making the album?

CB: We'd take walks in the woods with sticks to protect ourselves from the wild dogs. I would wear my orange vest because it was hunting season. Then it snowed, and we opened up the shed in the yard and got some sleds. Corin and I walked up to the top of the hill and sledded down and immediately ended up in a ditch.

The neighbor boys came over and let us fire shotguns at bottles. We were really out there – the term "fun" was relative. I thought, "Wow, I'd never shoot a shotgun off my porch, nor do I own one." But everyone has a gun out there. They also took us on their ATVs, all-terrain vehicles.

It was good, clean fun – everything we did was so unreal and so outside of anything we were used to, but it was always such a relief to step outside and let the cold wind hit you. Even just walking up to the end of the driveway and looking at the sky or the trees – the branches were covered with snow – you just felt entrenched in both this natural and technological way.

BG: Corin, how's Lance [Bangs, Tucker's husband, who is a film- and videomaker]? Has he been working on any film projects?

CT: He's starting to work on Where the Wild Things Are, which Spike Jonze is making.

BG: That sounds ideal for Marshall [Tucker Bangs, her son].

CT: I know. Marshall went down with Lance when they did the creature tests in L.A., and he got to play with the creatures and with the boy who is playing Max. The movie's going to be even darker [than the book], more adult.

BG: I've also heard that you've met Robert Plant.

CT: That was in Austin. I bumped into one of his crew guys and said, "That's not Robert Plant, is it?" and he said, "Yeah." I was like, "Holy shit!" I just freaked out, and suddenly I was, like, 14. I grabbed my notebook and pen and just booked – he was about half a block ahead of me, talking to his manager and obviously about to take a cell phone call. I completely interrupted him and said, "Can I please have your autograph?" He was so gracious. He said, "What's your name, luv?"

BG: In the blog on the band's Web site, Carrie wrote that during one European gig a girl in front got sick but stayed until the end of the show. What are the wildest things you've either gotten in the mail from fans, heard from them, or seen them do?

CB: One of the weirder things is that every week Corin gets a lottery ticket from someone in San Francisco. She's never won, but I always wonder, if she wins, does she have to marry this guy or something? That is so dedicated and really generous. It's almost like someone writing a postcard that says, "Good luck" every week – it's really sweet.

CT: People make us these amazing things, like three sock monkeys, one for each of us. Or some teenager taking art class in high school will spend hours and hours making the scariest drawings and caricatures of us.

CB: For a while we were getting a lot of stuffed animals in the mail. That really made me wonder, "What is our music saying to people? That we need to cuddle at night?"

Sometimes people cook us things, and I hear my mom's voice on Halloween in the back of my head, and think, "There's acid in there, or maybe a razor blade." I'm sure they have good intentions, but I picture her saying, "You can't eat the caramel apples anymore!"

As far as barfing goes, we've had a couple of vomits. We've had a seizure in the audience, which was really scary. We have a lot of make-outs, which always make me wonder, "Why did you come all the way to the front just to bug everyone around you?"

I find the most interesting thing is that people don't think we see them. We'll have people come to 10 shows in a row. It's wonderful, they're always in the same spot in the front, and we'll say to each other, "Those guys were in the front again." But then if I'm walking into a club and I see them, I'll say "Hey guys!" and they'll go, "What? Oh my god, you noticed I was at the show!" I'll say, "You've been standing in front of me for eight nights! I know what you wore last night, and the night before." That's something that always cracks me up. I'm watching them just as much as they're watching me.

Sleater-Kinney play with Mary Timony June 4, 9 p.m., Warfield, 982 Market, S.F. $20. www.ticketmaster.com.

To purchase the music of Sleater-Kinney featured in this article, visit iTunes: Sleater-Kinney