A chat with Carrie Brownstein
“Sorry, we’re already playing the Donnas, we can’t play any more female bands,” says the radio promoter to the greatest rock band in America — male or female.
Who would have the nerve to say that to a band who has landed spots in top 10 lists of critics everywhere, won over Time Magazine, inspired legions of fans and doesn’t need a major label to sell hundreds of thousands of records?
Sleater-Kinney’s three members, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss are a modern rock and roll success story. Inspired by riot grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney (named after an intersection of roads near a practice space) translates their feminist energy into rock with technically mind-blowing guitar and powerful, soaring vocals. They’re angry, seductive, inspiring and melodic all at once.
Their latest release, One Beat, came out in August 2002. The band is currently touring with Pearl Jam, and Ink 19 talked to guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein, who doesn’t see herself or her band as the role models they’ve become.
How is One Beat different from your other albums?
We spent a lot of time working on it. The other records have sort of a condensed energy. The writing period for this one is a lot longer and it covers a vast territory.
Which one of your albums are you the most proud of?
This one, actually. I just think that so many elements came together on this record. We took all the lessons we learned from other albums and spent a lot of time on it. I have very few regrets when I listen to this album. There’s a common thread or cohesion on it, with moments that are tense, moments that are beautiful. It just encompasses the type of music that I’d like to listen to.
Speaking of that, what artists are you listening to right now?
I can never think of that right when people ask me! [she asks a friend] Oh yeah. Have you heard of Cody ChesnuTT? I heard him on the Roots record. He sings this beautiful vocal melody on a song called “The Seed.” It’s like Marvin Gaye, with very sort of smooth sound. I went out and bought his album Headphone Masterpiece. I like Bright Eyes and Missy Elliot too. I rediscovered Nirvana recently and I feel pretty moved by it after not listening to them for a long time.
Are you into hip-hop?
Yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop, like The Roots, Jurassic 5, Jay-Z and Missy Elliot. I feel like it’s really fresh and vibrant and there’s excitement in it — it’s the way indie rock used to be.
Do you have any favorite guilty pleasure bands?
Led Zeppelin, definitely. Classic rock is sort of the genre that’s my guilty pleasure; I’m such a sucker for it. I like Queen too, really cheesy stuff like that.
Has Sleater-Kinney ever discussed recording on a major label?
We discussed it years ago when we switched from Chainsaw to Kill Rock Stars. We’re more comfortable on indie labels with people who respect us as artists and not as commodities. I like knowing the people I work with and caring about them. I’d rather work with people than for people.
Who are your guitar influences?
Pete Townshend, the guitarists from Television [Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd], Jimmy Page and Mary Timony from Helium.
Has moving to Portland from Olympia affected your music?
The writing process was more organic and didn’t compartmentalize the music so much. I can have it as part of the day and not have to drive two hours and sometimes turn right around and go back to Olympia. If we’re not inspired we can just all go out to a movie or something since we’re all friends. Moving made the process more natural and more fluid and that lends itself to why the album is more fluid.
What else do you do besides band stuff?
I write. Right now I’m finishing up an essay for a Seattle music project. I’m in a theatre group too. Mainly writing and acting and I read a lot. I did some substitute teaching when we took a year off. I loved it, I love working with kids and hearing their ideas and trying to inspire kids.
Did you ever think you would become as big as you are when you first started?
No, we didn’t really have any big goals, just to play music, play shows and have some fun — getting big was never part of the picture. It’s taken us by surprise. But we’re getting along, challenging ourselves, staying friends and that’s all stuff we’ve wanted to do the whole time.
I’ve read messages on your website from people who say you’re like a savior or therapist to them. What do you think about that?
We’re not therapists. I think especially when you’re young, music has a way of explaining the unknown. I think there’s a certain amount of inarticulateness when you’re young. You look to music to explain. I feel appreciative of people who talk about our music, but it’s our music that’s doing that, not us. I know that I don’t feel like I’m a therapist.
Do you think that you are a role model?
No, but I guess we are in some ways. I’m a person with flaws and I think we try to demystify some of the myths that people get about people in bands. But I’d rather have Sleater-Kinney be a role model than Britney Spears.
How do you think perceptions of women in music have changed since when your band first started?
I feel like they go in waves. There seems to be more women playing music. I still feel like there’s a certain amount of tokenism. Rolling Stone or Spin will have a ‘women in rock’ issue and get it all over with in one issue. The iconography of music is male. I think when people think of rock they think of rebellion and that’s mostly male. We still deal with mainstream radio stations and specialty shows sometimes and we’ve had promoters call and say, ‘Oh, we’re playing the Donnas and that’s the only female band we can play right now,’ like there’s some sort of quota.
How did you end up touring with Pearl Jam?
They asked us to tour with them. We’ve known Eddie for a couple of years cause he’s a Seattle-ite and he’s always supported the band. We thought we’d try something different.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen at one of your shows?
Probably 13 or 14-year-old kids making out in the front row. I guess it’s because they’re too young to do it anywhere else and our shows are like a safe haven. They think we can’t see them.
Do you have any pre-show rituals, like any type of music you listen to or anything you do?
No music in particular. We jump around and sing and do calisthenics.
Who does Sleater-Kinney want to fight?
George W. Bush — we’ll fight against him and his rhetoric any day. I think we’d have a shot at winning.
This interview originally ran in Street Miami on 4/11/03.