Guitarist-singers Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein met in Olympia, Wash., in the early '90s, when they were playing in the bands Heavens to Betsy (Tucker) and Excuse 17 (Brownstein). Soon after, they formed Sleater-Kinney and released their first, self-titled, 10-song mini-album in 1995, with long-distance drummer Lora MacFarlane, who lived in Australia. Sleater-Kinney was patchy, but the dynamic range of Tucker's full-throttle whisper-to-roar and Brownstein's sharp, flexible yelp were already evident. In 1996, the trio recorded Call the Doctor, a supremely confident album that catapulted the band's status in the indie underground and turned them into critics' favorites overnight (it finished an amazing third in the Village Voice's year-end critics' poll). In 1997, Dig Me Out was even stronger, thanks to Hollywood-born Portlander Janet Weiss joining the band as drummer. Impressively, the band has lost no power as it has gained nuance, as 2002's sharply political One Beat demonstrates. Tucker sat out this Jury, which took place in Weiss' dining room in Portland on a blazing April afternoon.
Huggy Bear: "Her Jazz" (1993) from Taking the Rough With the Smooch (Kill Rock Stars)
Carrie Brownstein: That's Huggy Bear. "Shaved Pussy Poetry"? "T-Shirt"?
Seattle Weekly: It's "Her Jazz," which is sort of their hit, if you want to call it that.
Janet Weiss: They had a hit? [Laughs]
SW: When did you first start hearing stuff like this, riot grrrl stuff?
Brownstein: I guess right when we moved to Olympia. 1993. Huggy Bear actually came to Olympia but without [guitarist] Jon Slade, so Billy Karren from Bikini Kill had to play with them. But they came out with a sophistication that the other bands didn't—not necessarily musically, but they thought a lot more about aesthetics and the scene and the way that they presented themselves a little more, which was kind of impressive at the time. It looked like they were self-conscious. Olympia bands weren't that self-conscious, like Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill, and Bratmobile. They were just sort of out there. It just sort of made [Huggy Bear] different, you know? I think at a time when maybe people weren't synthesizing everything, like image and song and presentation, they were, where other bands were still trying to figure that out. I think it affected things in England more than Olympia. There were a lot of other small bands that sort of sounded like Huggy Bear without the passion of Huggy Bear.
SW: Was riot grrrl already starting to happen in a big way by the time . . . ?
Brownstein: It was practically over by the time we got there. They came before [Brownstein's first band] Excuse 17 started, or as we were starting. I think what happened was Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Bratmobile went over to England, and there was this band Huggy Bear there, and they were, like, "We're in love with Huggy Bear, they're incredibly cute." [Laughs] They were interesting, their music was powerful and catchy and feminist. How they presented themselves in terms of gender wasn't strident, it was ambiguous—sexually ambiguous. I think the ambiguity of their band made them different from the more strident, in-your-face Olympia bands. And I think that people were really enamored by that.
By the time Huggy Bear came over, they played basement shows. It's not like now when an import-export from England comes over as an indie band and they play the Showbox for three nights and get signed to a major label. I mean they just came over and played basement shows across the country and then went back home. It didn't really start a fire, but people bought their 7-inches and played them at dance parties. It's just really different, like apples and oranges. Being drunk and listening to them in a basement, then going home and having a 7-inch to remember it by is a lot different than, like, them coming over, you know, then getting signed to, like, A&M, and then going back home and playing, like, a stadium. It just was small.
SW: When you moved to Olympia, was the strident political feel of the bands you described attractive to you? Or was it more of a scene thing? Did you go there with the idea that you were going to play music?
Brownstein: No, I wanted to go to college. [Laughs] I wanted to get an education, and it was a town with interesting people that were motivated and doing things differently than the Seattle scene at the time, which is what I came out of. People were supporting one another, and there wasn't an infrastructure for music there. So they, a decade before that, started labels so they could put out cassettes of their friends' bands. You could record in someone's basement and your other friend would put it out. It was a weirdly matriarchal scene where there were tons of women heading lots of different movements and doing a lot of writing and organizing. That was really different than what seemed to be going on almost anywhere at the time. It was just insular. [Olympia's] insularity is attractive when you're 18 or 19 and want to be with other people who are doing what you're doing, sort of a hypercreativity where all you want to do all the time is just, like, create and be around your friends and lose some of the self-consciousness that you naturally have as a teenager, and I think Olympia was a great place for a lot of people in late teens–early 20s to do that. It was a really supportive environment; you could form a band Wednesday, play on Thursday, and record on Saturday. Everything was really condensed and exciting for a few years there, and that energy kind of became reduced later on.
Joey Ramone: "What a Wonderful World" (2002) from Don't Worry About Me (Sanctuary)
Brownstein and Weiss: [in unison] Oh! The Ramones.
SW: It's Joey; it's from his solo album released right after he died.
Weiss: Doing "What a Wonderful World"? Ohhhh! [pause] I do love this song.
SW: But not this version?
Weiss: The Flaming Lips' version is great.
SW: When did you first hear the Ramones?
Weiss: High school. Seventh grade or something.
SW: You grew up in Hollywood, correct?
SW: I just saw that documentary, Mayor of Sunset Strip, about [KROQ radio DJ] Rodney Bingenheimer, who was the first guy who played the Ramones on the radio. Were you listening to that stuff at the time?
Weiss: Oh yeah, everyone listened to that. It was kind of all we had. Rodney on the ROQ—it's a joke now but wasn't really such a joke then. The Ramones' songs become so much a part of your subconscious it's hard to have an exact memory.
SW: Has "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" ever been an albatross around your neck? I know you still play it, but just in the sense that it was probably the first song that you did that was kind of bigger than the rest of them; it was the one people really kind of latched onto. Has it ever been difficult to play for that reason?
Brownstein: No, it's just that we take it in and out of rotation if we're tired of playing it. There are a handful of songs like that. I mean, we wrote that song in the '90s; any song we wrote that long ago, we need to take out of the rotation and bring back in. But it doesn't feel like a burden. We don't play any song because we feel like we have to play it. There's plenty of other arcane, random songs the crowd is apt to yell out for—"More Than a Feeling," or some other first-7-inch song, but we're, like, "No." But we don't have a signature song. That wouldn't be it.
Sheila E.: "The Glamorous Life" (1984) from The Glamorous Life (Warner Bros.)
Weiss: Prince? "The Glamorous Life?" Once I heard that [synth] blast . . .
SW: Yeah, it's a very Prince move. I have to be honest—this is more of a Corin song. [They laugh] I remember Corin saying something once onstage about being a big Prince fan when she was a kid.
Brownstein: I don't remember stuff like that.
Weiss: You make me nervous. I'm never going to say another word at the show—people remember it for 10 years.
SW: Sorry! It was more or less to see if that was still accurate, if that kind of Prince thing was still there.
Weiss: She's a pretty big Prince fan. I'm a Prince appreciator. I saw the Purple Rain tour; it was amazing. I think it's amazing; it's not totally my thing. I doesn't make me crazy, but it's so good.
Brownstein: I can see Prince working Corin into a frenzy. Corin really likes people that have a lot of, like, sexual energy in their music. She likes when things are a little bit dirty.
SW: Do you guys, or . . . ?
Brownstein: No, we're really square. [Laughs] Corin drags us into really, you know, kind of questionable situations all the time. [Laughs] We go to confession on Sunday and clear it up, and then . . .
SW: I think we'll go to the next one now.
The Cure: "A Forest (Tree Mix)" (1990) from Mixed Up (Sire)
Brownstein: Is it the Cure?
SW: Yes. A friend told me this song reminded him of "Dance Song '97," from Dig Me Out, or vice versa.
Brownstein: I can kind of see that.
Weiss: I can totally see that!
Brownstein: ["Dance Song '97"] is such an anomaly for us anyway. There are two songs that end our record, that song and "A Quarter to Three." How did those songs happen? You know, they're really different, "Dance Song '97" especially. We tried to play that one live a couple of years ago, and it was just like it happened in a vacuum.
Weiss: They don't even seem like our songs! I just couldn't get into the Cure, it was too . . .
Brownstein: I wasn't a Cure fan, either. My friends in high school were split. There were the Smiths fans and the Cure fans.
Weiss: I was definitely on the Smiths side of the fence.
Brownstein: [Among] my friends, that was one group, and the rest of us listened to the Jam and the Ramones, and I always liked the Smiths better than the Cure, too. And now so many bands imitate Robert Smith that now I appreciate the Cure.
Weiss: The production kind of irritates me. So clean, thin, and dispassionate, like, "Oh, we're so wasted we can barely sing our songs." It's so trying, and when you find out what really went down with that band, like no one got along, they hated each other, totally hated each other, you could kind of tell.
SW: Even over and above unhappy being their shtick?
Stephen Trask: "Hedwig's Lament" (2001) from Hedwig and the Angry Inch OST (Hybrid)
Brownstein: Oh, it's Hedwig, Stephen Trask.
SW: You covered "Angry Inch" on the Wig in a Box compilation, and Trask sang on "Prisstina," from One Beat. How did you end up working with him?
Brownstein: Michael Cerveris came to our show. He had taken over John Cameron Mitchell's role as Hedwig when it was still at the Jane Street Theater. Normally things [like that] never work out, but for some reason he was, like, "We're performing it tomorrow night," and we're, like, "We have the night off." We all went and saw it, and we met Steven that night. He was still playing in the [pit] band and just barely really kept in touch over the years, but then right before we recorded that record, he contacted us because he was doing the music [for] that movie with Gina Gershon, Prey for Rock and Roll. He wanted us not to write songs but actually, on the recording, to play his songs. But it didn't work out because we were recording at the same time. So when we had this song that needed a little flamboyance, a little extra something or another, we called him.
The Go-Betweens: "People Say" (1979) from The Indie Scene 1979: The Story of British Independent Music (Connoisseur Collection)
Brownstein: The Go-Betweens. We flew in from Japan and we're, like, "Oh my God, the Go-Betweens are playing." For some reason, we found out that they even knew who we were. I was a really big fan of the Go-Betweens; I was really surprised that they knew who we were. We went backstage afterward, and they were just, like, [raspy voice] "Sleater-Kinney, your drummer—we need you!" [Laughs] And then suddenly, they were, like, "We'll come to Portland." It was really surreal.
SW: So they weren't already planning to come out here?
Weiss: [Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are] really interesting and have such an intense dynamic. You don't even know how many times I'll say, "Come to Portland, make a record, let's play!" And it's never panned out.
Brownstein: And then a band from Australia says OK.
Weiss : They just took me up on it.
Brownstein: More fun than the recording session was the one night we spent with them in San Francisco. We spent a long time trying to find alcohol from some corner store, then we went back to the hotel room.
Grant taught me and Amy [Linton] from the Aislers Set and Billy Karren from Bikini Kill all the songs we wanted to know.
Weiss : We also took them to karaoke in Portland—that was pretty amazing. Grant has the best voice of any human being alive. He did a Joni Mitchell song. Robert did a James Taylor song. Grant and I did a duet, an Everly Brothers song . . . it was so good! That's my dream, to just be able to sing with someone with a voice like that.
Neko Case: "Deep Red Bells" (2002) from Blacklisted (Bloodshot)
Brownstein: Is it Death Cab or something? [Vocal comes in] I like Neko Case.
SW: I interviewed her a couple years ago; she told me this was basically about growing up in the Northwest scared to death of the Green River Killer. You grew up in the Northwest, right?
Brownstein: Yeah. It was weird because they just caught him last year, and people that didn't grow up in the Northwest—I mean, I was following that story so intensely because there was a whole span of time in my early teenage years where there was this weird, abstract fear of this man killing women in the forest and off the highway. Then I went to Evergreen, and he had picked up; he had killed really close to Olympia. But the Northwest is always gripped by fear of a serial killer, especially Washington—it's like the end . . .
SW: The end of the line?
Brownstein: That's how I always feel. In Olympia a couple of years ago, they found a body in the woods that had been there for two years, you know? There's something weird about Washington in particular. It's just like a seedy, dark element where those kinds of things can happen and they're part of the mythology of [the place]. Yeah, it's completely normal to grow up in the Northwest fearful of a man that killed people. That, and the Sasquatch. [Laughing] You know, it wasn't any different.
SW: There's something mythological about both.
Brownstein: Yeah. They're [things] that kill you in the woods, whether, like, it's a bear, a Sasquatch, or the Green River Killer. Seriously, when you're that young, the woods are just a scary place.
United State of Electronica: "La Discoteca" (2004) from United State of Electronica (B-Side)
Weiss: I'm not going to know this one.
SW: It's a band from Seattle called United State of Electronica. They told me it took six months of playing regularly in Seattle for people to start dancing at their shows.
Weiss: I think the encouragement for people to dance [at our shows] is like an encouragement for people to just kind of let go, you know, to experience the show with us. We're not really good dance music, but it's more like movement and energy and emotion, like, just don't be afraid to let that show, like we are, that's what it's about, sharing that with the crowd. If I was unhappy people didn't dance, I'd be unhappy a lot of the time. But I am unhappy when people are, like, stone-faced and have their arms crossed. That can be disorienting—you're in the space of totally letting go and trying to reach this level of feeling, and if the crowd is giving you back sort of a dead feeling, then it's hard. Certain cities are more stubborn, but you kind of never know.
Brownstein: Remember that Detroit show on our last tour?
Weiss: That honestly sucked. There was a guy in the front during the opening band, flipping the bird to the band the whole time. The whole time!
SW: Just stood there with his arm up?
Weiss: Yeah. He just hated them, so he just stood there flipping them off, with his back to them.
SW: Didn't his arm get tired?
Bruce Springsteen: "The Promised Land" (1978) from Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia)
Weiss: Springsteen—come on! [Laughs] Of course we know it. I know every word to every song on this record.
SW: You covered this recently. How did you decide to do that?
Weiss: I probably brought it up. It's just got such good words. It's a great song.
SW: You don't do a lot of covers, but you have done a few—I've seen you play "White Rabbit" and "Fortunate Son."
Weiss: My other band has done, like, probably 35 covers.
SW: Is it easier to do it just with two people?
Weiss: We just know all the same songs. [With] Sleater-Kinney, it just has to be a certain kind of song.
Brownstein: It has to have some meaning intrinsic there, but it takes on its new meaning when we do it. It's hard to find that song. "Fortunate Son" was perfect and this song was really good, and "White Rabbit," Corin just really aces that at karaoke.
SW: You've mentioned karaoke a few times.
Brownstein: There's not that much to do here.
Sleater-Kinney play the Sasquatch Festival Mainstage at 5:15 p.m; doors at 11 a.m. Sat., May 29. $49.95. See listings.