Joe Heim interviews Carrie Brownstein, co-singer, songwriter and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney
On the eve of a scheduled interview with Carrie Brownstein, the co-singer, songwriter and guitarist of the celebrated fem-punk trio Sleater-Kinney, I get an e-mail from the band’s manager asking me to avoid the following questions: How does it feel to be “women in rock”? Do you consider yourselves a “riot grrrl band”? What do you make of all of the press you’ve gotten?
“Don’t take it personally Joe, we’re just telling everyone that the band doesn’t want to answer these anymore.”
It’s easy to understand why. Praise for Sleater-Kinney from fans and critics alike has been surfeit, but so too has the tendency to lump them into the decidedly unimaginative “women who rock” category — as if Sleater-Kinney’s most important attribute was simply being an all-female band.
With the just released “The Hot Rock” on the small, fervently independent Kill Rock Stars label, along with “Dig Me Out” (1997) and “Call the Doctor,” (1996), the Olympia, Wash., trio has firmly established itself as one of the most important American groups to emerge in the last five years.
I spoke with Brownstein by phone from Portland, where she and bandmates Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss were about to embark on an extensive North American and European tour.
Sounds like you’re already getting tired of talking to the press.
It’s more that it’s just annoying to listen to ourselves talk about the same things. We start sounding like a broken record.
OK, well, let’s talk about the president.
Did you follow the impeachment at all?
I have to say, probably like a lot of the American public, that I became very tired of the impeachment trial. I think my dissatisfaction grew as I realized all the really important things that the government was ignoring, which are the same things that the government is always
ignoring. But this was in such a blatant way. There was a complete
disregard to the true feelings and needs and desires of the American
public. I thought it was a very alienating time to be a citizen here.
Often you feel like your voice isn’t being heard.
I hope that what comes out of this is that people’s skepticism toward our government breeds a new kind of leadership. There are always alternatives to the people that lead our country, but maybe more people would be willing to listen to alternative or different ideologies this time around.
Are you involved in anything politically?
Not in terms of government. Individually, I try to give donations where I can. I try volunteering at food banks and homeless shelters. And as a band we try to play benefits, like Rock for Choice and Planned Parenthood benefits. In terms of personal politics, I try to support
local businesses in Olympia and think about the kind of products I buy, where I shop, what I eat and where my clothing is made, which are all
political choices on a certain level and important to think about.
Sleater-Kinney have a reputation of being a political band, but it’s
certainly not overt.
That’s right. I think of ourselves as a band that has ideals that can be interpreted as political in the sense that they are outside the conventional way of being in a band. I think that choosing to be on an independent label and not work for a big corporation is a political
decision. I don’t think, though, that our songs are sloganistic. They’re
There are politics that govern this band, but musically and lyrically we encompass a broader scope of ideas and emotions, some of them more
political than others. But I wouldn’t say that we’re a political band in
the sense that Sleater-Kinney equals an ideology or anything. There are a lot of other things that are important to us. In terms of being a
songwriter, making art is important and I see art as a powerful force.
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Several of the new songs — “The End of You,” “Living In Exile” — seem to be addressing the perils of fame. Are temptation and dealing with fame something Sleater-Kinney have struggled with?
Well, I don’t know. I think we’ve struggle a bit more with that
personally than we have as a band. When all three of us are together and
we’re confronted with an offer from a major label, it’s very easy for us
to say no, actually. Personally, though, we all deal with it differently
in terms of how it affects our personal lives or our relationships to
the communities we live in, or our desire to have things that we want. Those things come into play, but we all know what’s best for the band
vs. what might be best for us individually. And we have to make
decisions for the band.
With all the critical accolades you’ve received, especially for the last two records, was there a lot of pressure on the band as you recorded “The Hot Rock”?
The biggest pressure comes from within. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. When I brought “Call the Doctor” home after we finished
recording it, I literally jumped around my apartment listening to that record. This was before anyone had written anything about our band. I
was like, “I love this record! Wow, we made such a good record!” That moment to me was equally significant to any of the accolades that were put upon us later. And I was really proud of “Dig Me Out” and I’m really
proud of “The Hot Rock.” So I think first and foremost that’s the most important thing. You just sort of hope that other people understand what
Plus, you can’t really take all that pressure into the studio. You really would implode. It’s so stressful anyway. If you’re thinking not only about yourself and your bandmates, and the engineer and producer, but also about the invisible entity that is the media or the fan, it is just too hard
So you weren’t feeling like you needed to duplicate your past success?
Well, we would have failed if we tried to make “Dig Me Out” again. We
would have failed on a personal level, because it would have been coming
from a dishonest place. If you continue to write from a place that’s
honest at least you’re going to come up with material that’s interesting and true and emotional. It does sound different, and that was a big
relief. As a listener, “Hot Rock” is a much more diverse record and has a
vastness to it that some of the other records didn’t, and I’m really
happy with that.
If you were a Sleater-Kinney fan, are there things about the band you would criticize or that would annoy you?
(Laughs) That’s a hard question. It’s hard to be objective. Being in the band, I always want us to be doing something different, but the biggest complaint that we get is for not staying the same. People are like, “What happened to ‘Call the Doctor,’” or “What happened to songs like ‘Little Babies’?”
I guess sometimes I wish we could be less, hmm, complicated (laughs). I really wanted this record to be really simple. I kept telling Corin, “It’s going to be minimalist. I’m just going to play the same guitar part the entire song.” Somehow, it just got really complicated. So to answer you I would say, simple. Simple pop songs. More of those, please. More pretty melodies, please.
Would you trade some of your critical success for more popular success? Would you rather have sold 5 million copies of your CD?
No, not really. Five million people having our records? That would be
really strange. I don’t know if I could sleep at night.
No, I’m really happy with the audience that we play to. Our music means a lot to them. They’re intelligent and have a pretty good understanding of it. I like that we can still play in a small setting. We’ve definitely grown, but I like our connection to the audience. The larger you get the bigger the disconnect with your audience gets and that starts to get scary.
Right now I feel really comfortable with the fact that I live a very
normal life. I can come home from Sleater-Kinney and almost separate
myself from it. Sleater-Kinney is a job in some ways, though it’s
clearly different from a 9-5 job. But I have a multitude of other things
that I like to do. And I like that I have friends and know people that don’t solely identify me based on my connection with the band.
So how does it feel to be a “woman in rock”?