A lot can happen in two years. Just ask Portland trio Sleater-Kinney. In the time between All Hands on the Bad One and their new album, One Beat, guitarist/vocalist Corin Tucker gave birth; drummer Janet Weiss recorded an album with her side project, Quasi; and guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein moved from Olympia to Portland, where all three members now live.
Brownstein moving to Portland “has made things a lot easier,” said Weiss. “Before, we would have to drive two hours [to Olympia] and back, and we would try to work on material, even if we weren't really inspired or didn't feel up to it. But now... we can work together more often and hang out.”
The city of Portland itself was the inspiration to the hometown punk rock ode, “Light Rail Coyote,” one of One Beat's many highlights. But aside from their new home and Tucker's new family, most of the album is a reaction to 9/11, ranging from utter shock (“Far Away”) to skepticism and bitterness toward the Bush administration (“Combat Rock”).
The most intriguing of all the Sept. 11-inspired tunes is the title track, an inspirational cry for a complete overhaul: “Could I turn this place all upside down/And shake you and your fossils out/If I'm to run the future/You've got to let the old world go!”
“When we first came up with the title,” said Weiss, “it was just because I play one beat through the whole song. But the song, lyrically, is about coming up with a new ‘thing' that's better than what already exists, and if people are willing to give up everything for it.
“Corin sings the song from the perspective of that ‘thing,' and in these political and social times, it seems like there must be something that is a better solution than what's already out there.”
With the 9/11 anniversary, the sentiment does indeed fit the social and political times. But it could also be applied to the state of music, in that rock 'n' roll is the land of the stand-up urinal. The new ‘thing,' Weiss suggests, is a woman.
The band originally hails from Olympia, home of Kill Rock Stars. The record label is renowned as a haven for female-driven rock-from the Gossip to the Bangs to Sleater-Kinney themselves, who stand as the label's biggest “stars.”
The small Washington town has long been a source of pride for female rockers. But most of them, including Weiss, aren't satisfied. They want the emasculation of Olympian rock to serve as a national model.
“There are so many women in music who are underappreciated and don't get as much attention as they deserve,” Weiss said. “I mean, we get a lot of attention, but we're just one band out of thousands. I opened up Alternative Press the other day and there were about 30 men to one woman, and that was just ridiculous.
“What really shocked me is [the current] tour with Flaming Lips and Cake and Modest Mouse (Unlimited Sunshine). There are six bands playing and they're all men. There's not one woman in that whole lineup. And these are even bands that we [as women] can identify with, bands within our realm.”
The media is misleading. Stars like Britney, Christina, Cher and others attract a lot of attention, which makes it appear that women are alive and well in popular music. But in reality, only 14 entries of the Billboard Top 100 are from women, and all of those are either R&B, teen pop or country artists. There are no entries for female artists in the Modern Rock singles chart.
As firm as they are in their stance for the empowerment of women in music, no one expects Sleater-Kinney to make a run for the charts. Weiss knows that her band doesn't sit well with much of the mainstream, and sales aren't at the top of their agenda (even though each SK record sells very well in the relative scope of underground rock.)
“I don't think we could ever ‘go to the next level,' as they say,” she explained. “I don't know if we could actually blend into the mainstream. It can be kind of disillusioning because when you're that big, it's hard to know who your fans are. With bands like blink-182, it's harder to relate to the crowd because on that scale, you don't really know who's listening or where they're coming from. You like to think [they're] people like your friends, who you hang out with-the cool kids-but there's no way of knowing.
“We consider indie gold 10,000 records, and we've sold a lot more than that. We're very happy that there are that many people listening to our records, but I don't know if we would fit in outside of this realm.”
That's probably what Jack and Meg White were thinking right before radio took a left turn and went gaga for garage rock. Could it one day open its airwaves to three gals with taught, poppy rock songs and high-pitched vocals that harmonize amazingly well?
Such is not a Sleater-Kinney concern.