MAGNET Classics: Sleater-Kinney’s “The Woods”

SleaterKinney

The making of Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods
By Steve Klinge

The cover of Sleater-Kinney’s The Woodsis a Michael Brophy painting of a wooden slat-board stage with dark, heavy trees growing out of it—three in the foreground, backlit and casting shadows. Red curtains frame the sides and cover the edges of the stark white all-caps letters of the band’s name as it hovers in the middle of the scene. It’s unclear whether those curtains are opening or closing.

The Woods shocked and surprised Sleater-Kinney fans when it arrived in May 2005. One of the most beloved and fiercely independent bands of the era—the best in America, according to eminent critic Greil Marcus in the July 9, 2001, issue of Time magazine—had shifted from its riot-grrrl/punk-rock axis to embrace hard-rock jams that owed more to Led Zeppelin or Cream than to Bikini Kill or Fugazi. In place of terse, fast songs were improvisatory guitar solos and a continuous two-song suite that lasted nearly 15 minutes.

“I am proud of The Woods,” says drummer Janet Weiss. “It surprised a lot of people and expanded their perception of who we were. We loved nothing more than to destroy the boxes we were put in as artists. In the case of this particular album, we shattered the mold.”

In interviews soon after the album’s release, including one conducted by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for MAGNET, Weiss and singer/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker talked about how the album was opening new avenues for them. But, little more than a year after the LP came out, they announced that Sleater-Kinney was going on an indefinite hiatus. After a farewell tour, they closed the curtain with a final show in their native Portland, Ore., on Aug. 12, 2006.

And that finality changes how we hear The Woods: The album is now an endpoint—a period or maybe an exclamation point—to a significant body of work. Or, since speculations about a Sleater-Kinney reunion remain, it’s a question mark.

The Woods was Sleater-Kinney’s seventh album in 10 years, a discography commemorated by a new set of remasters on Sub Pop. Brownstein and Tucker joined forces in 1994 in Olympia, Wash. Both were active in the Northwest riot-grrrl scene, Brownstein in Excuse 17 and Tucker in Heavens To Betsy, and Sleater-Kinney was originally a side project for the then-romantically-linked partners. The band moniker came from the name of the road of an early practice space, although Sleater-Kinney, their 23-minute debut, was actually recorded in Melbourne, Australia, in one session with drummer Lora Macfarlane, an Australian recruit who moved to Olympia and stayed with the band through its second album, Call The Doctor.

Sleater-Kinney, released in 1995 as a 10-inch on Chainsaw Records, was an auspicious start that found Brownstein and Tucker figuring out the dynamics of their trio format of two voices, two guitars and drums. The basic elements of the band were in place: Tucker’s guitar taking the low-end riffs with Brownstein’s filling the mid-range and lead; Tucker’s powerful voice sailing over Brownstein’s contained, more plainspoken one. From the start, Sleater-Kinney’s underlying theme was to think about questions of self-definition and to challenge any force—be it personal or sexual, political or commercial—that might limit one’s freedom to define oneself. They hated boxes—anything that might contain or confine—and molds were something to be shattered.

1996’s Call The Doctor, also on Chainsaw, began the band’s string of indelible albums, with the title track’s clarion call, and with Corin Tucker proclaiming her desire to be “the queen of rock ‘n’ roll” on “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” That royal ambition sounded like punk-rock hubris or a scrappy challenge. The band wasn’t speaking from a position of authority—it was a buzzed-about group that hadn’t transcended its Pacific Northwest scene yet when it released Call The Doctor, although another verse from “Joey Ramone” sounds prescient now:

I wanna be your Thurston Moore
Wrestle on the bedroom floor
Always leave you wanting more
Throw away those old records.

“Always leave you wanting more”—that could refer to the terseness of the songs, to the insatiable desire for new music from our rock ‘n’ roll favorites or, ultimately, to the band’s career, which ended with its most Sonic Youth-like album.

Which old records should get thrown away, though? The members of Sleater-Kinney were iconoclasts, much more prone to looking forward than backward, but they valued their peers and predecessors. In part, that perspective was an outgrowth of the band’s riot-grrrl roots, the political agenda that sought to combat gender stereotypes and categories, especially the male hegemony of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll was not merely entertainment, but something meaningful: an agent of change, a powerful release, a stage for ideas, a communal experience for band and audience. S-K constantly navigated and explored that territory, and most of its records include at least one song that directly contemplates the meaning and process of rock ‘n’ roll. But the band had little respect for music, whether on old albums or new, that undermined or diluted those principles.

1997’s Dig Me Out is Sleater-Kinney’s first classic, the one for which all the pieces came together. Weiss joined the band (all the while maintaining her partnership with Sam Coomes in Quasi), and the album—produced, as was Call The Doctor, by John Goodmanson—came out on Kill Rock Stars; the band retained the same producer and label for all its subsequent records until The Woods. Dig Me Out contained the bouncy, girl-group-like “Little Babies,” the meta-rock of “Words And Guitar,” and the rave-up punk rush of the title track and “Turn It On.” Many of the songs were about desire, and the band sounded hungry and eager. Dig Me Out was ubiquitous on critics’ best-of lists, which established another pattern for its future.

Sleater-Kinney didn’t repeat itself, but Dig Me Out became a template for 1999’s The Hot Rock, 2000’s All Hands On The Bad One and 2002’s One Beat. The songs looked outward more and more on those albums, especially as frustrations with the politics of the George W. Bush era grew, and the trio found new ways to intertwine voices and guitars and drums (and, occasionally, but rarely, other instruments).

But a template is also a mold.

Dig Me Out—everything just was the successor of that album,” Brownstein told MAGNET not long after The Woods came out. “And now I feel like that has been demolished or pushed further to the background and there’s all this new material and it’s not fixed, and it’s not static; it’s very much swirling around and can take us off into different directions.”

Several factors contributed to the band retooling the template for The Woods. Perhaps most significant was its choice to open for Pearl Jam on an arena tour in 2003, after One Beat. Touring was becoming increasingly difficult for Tucker, who married filmmaker Lance Bangs in 2000 and had a son in 2001. But rather than again headlining theaters and clubs full of fans and, often, preaching to the converted, the band commanded a larger stage for an audience that was sometimes indifferent or hostile, Pearl Jam fans apathetic about an opening act or venting sexist hostility toward a band made up of women.

On the other hand, PJ fans were often more receptive to S-K than some hardcore S-K fans were to the band’s association with the more populist, less punk, all-male PJ. Still, the two groups shared Northwestern roots, a commitment to rock ‘n’ roll principles and a political outspokenness. Shows often ended with Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss joining Pearl Jam for a raucous encore of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World.”

The Pearl Jam tour was a new way for the trio to challenge itself, and the experience informed the songwriting for The Woods.

“As much as anything, the physical space in which music is made shapes its sound,” says Weiss. “Playing in the giant arenas sounded and felt different—there was so much depth and reverb to each note, we could stretch out the time, slow down, get heavier. The fast and furious songs dissipated into the air with a lot less impact than the beefy stompers. I remember hearing (Led Zeppelin’s) ‘Whole Lotta Love’ on the radio on the way to a practice during this period and thinking we should try something that daring.”

“I think the songs (for The Woods) came out organically,” says Tucker. “We toured a lot, doing a lot of arenas with Pearl Jam where the sound bounces around the giant cavern. I think we started playing with the acoustics and liked the heavier stuff we came up with, plus we liked jamming a bit during a live show. We always liked to surprise people with what we could do; we always wanted to do something different with each record. We did discuss the direction, and argue a bit about things, but once we got most of the songs together, we were pleased with where we were going.”

S-K wanted to bring that “jamming” improvisational element to its new work, to stretch the songs and to stretch the band. It also chose to shake up its methods by moving to a new label, the venerable Sub Pop, and by working with a new producer, Dave Fridmann.

“I think The Woods is an album we made for numerous reasons, one of them being that if we didn’t make this album, we probably wouldn’t have made a record at all,” Brownstein told MAGNET at the time, in a comment that now seems to foreshadow the band’s hiatus. “We were in such need of feeling a renewed sense of excitement and vigor about our band and the way we create together.”

The political climate also factored into the tone of The Woods. One Beat arrived in the middle of Bush’s first term and contained overtly political songs such as “Combat Rock” (“Since when is skepticism un-American?” Brownstein sang) and “Step Aside” (“These times are troubled, these times are rough,” sang Tucker). Sleater-Kinney recorded The Woods in November and December 2004, just after Bush’s reelection.

“I think it’s a darker record because of the politics of the time, in some ways,” says Tucker. “We were definitely feeling a bit lost about going into a second Bush term, and I do think that comes into play on the album.”

The political themes of The Woods were less overt than on One Beat (“They’re not just couched in these more simplistic, strident phrases; they’re a little broader,” Brownstein told MAGNET at the time), but the music, which was often written before the lyrics, conveyed an even weightier anger. A song such as “Wilderness” works on several levels—as a story of a relationship, of changing demographics and, in the final verse, of a divided nation.

A family feud
The red and the blue now
It’s truth against truth
I’ll see you in hell, I don’t mind.

The guitars crackle with distortion, the drums stomp and crash, and you can imagine every meter pushing into the red. The ones for Tucker’s vocals max out.

“I don’t think we plan a political viewpoint for an album,” says Tucker. “We are writers, and we have our own viewpoints, and the songs come from there. I think a song like ‘Let’s Call It Love’ is very much a feminist song; it’s almost a reworking of one of those ’70s rock songs from a strong female perspective.”

The 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love,” which segues directly into “Night Light,” could be Sleater-Kinney’s “Whole Lotta Love”:

A woman is not a girl.
I could show you a thing or two.
I’ve got a long time for love.

The ’70s-rock influence on The Woods was in reaction to what Brownstein felt was the safe, nostalgic and predictable alternative music of the period. “Suddenly, classic rock, ’60s rock, ’70s rock, sounded so much freer to me than anything going on,” she told MAGNET at the time.

Classic-rock moments are frequent on the album, from the heavy, distorted chords of “The Fox” that are the first sounds on The Woods, to the feedback-driven break in the middle of “What’s Mine Is Yours,” to the epic, improvisational jam that connects “Let’s Call It Love” to “Night Light.”

One can hear traces of contemporary bands such as Sonic Youth and Mudhoney, but more often the album got compared to Led Zeppelin and Live At Leeds-era Who, bands that were anathema to the original punk aesthetics.

“Of course, we love those bands and were flattered by the comparison,” says Tucker, before making a crucial distinction that recognizes the misogyny embedded in many classic hard-rock songs. “Perhaps not always lyrically, but sonically.”

“Any musician with half a brain would pay good money to be compared to those bands,” says Weiss. “As far as The Woods is concerned, you could throw Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Stones and Shocking Blue on that list as well. The three of us collectively listen to a lot of music, so in a way, the band is a melting pot of influences. Hopefully what we come away with is unique and our own. We are definitely not trying to imitate, but to express ourselves in the truest way possible.”

That list of classic-rock artists is exclusively dudes, and part of the thrill of entering The Woods is hearing Sleater-Kinney infiltrate that predominantly masculine domain. It’s a question of context: knowing how different The Woods is from its predecessors, knowing the band that produced it, makes hearing the album all the more startling and thrilling.

Weiss, however, bristles at the idea of attaching a gender to the sound of classic hard rock.
“The idea of music being masculine is ridiculous,” she says. “If you heard The Woods without vocals, there would be no way to tell if the musicians were women or men. Aggressive, tough, confident, yes. Fortunately, those traits are not exclusive to men.”

Brownstein was certainly eager to avoid any sense of nostalgia or of recycled sounds, and she wrote about that eagerness directly on “Entertain,” the album’s central statement of purpose: “If you’re here ’cause you want to be entertained, please go away,” she sings in the opening verse.

You come around sounding 1972,
You did nothing new with 1972.
Where is the “fuck you”?
Where’s the black and blue?

Sleater-Kinney was always good at the “fuck you,” and, in a sense, The Woods uses those 1972 hard-rock sounds as a fuck you to its own potential complacency.

Weiss was the one to suggest working with producer Fridmann after hearing him speak at a Tape Op conference in Portland. Fridmann, of course, is known for his work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, and for having a much more orchestral and ornate style than the precise and punchy one that Sleater-Kinney had developed with Goodmanson. Although his fingerprints are often very clear on the albums he produces, Fridmann doesn’t remake every project in his own image: Low’s The Great Destroyer, which also came out in 2005, sounds very different from The Woods, and that’s not only because of the quiet-versus-loud contrast.

The band has said Fridmann took some convincing to sign on to the project, but he doesn’t remember it that way: “For me, it was the same process as every band,” says Fridmann. “We had to have a few conversations to make sure that we were all on the same page before committing, but I had known about them for years and was very interested to make a record with them.”

The trio went to Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios in Cassadaga, N.Y., to record the album, and they spent several days getting to know one another (“They are vicious Yahtzee players,” says Fridmann) and figuring out plans for the album.

“We talked a lot about what we wanted to do, but a lot of that got thrown out the window once we did the live preproduction,” says Fridmann. “Sitting in a room with them playing the songs really changed how we wanted the final result to be. I had never seen them live and couldn’t hear the power from the demos, but once I did, we had to move in that direction.”

The Woods is certainly Sleater-Kinney’s most powerful record—sonically, at least. Fridmann was able to maintain the sense of three distinct players while also capturing the feelings of risk and frustration by careful use of distortion, of loud-and-louder dynamics, and of improvisatory experimentation.

“My other band Quasi does a lot of improvising,” says Weiss. “So, it was really fun to stretch out with Corin and Carrie as well. When it was good, the S-K jams felt like a freight train. Our momentum could be overwhelming.”

“Fridmann is an incredibly methodical producer, and I feel like we learned a lot from him,” says Tucker. “He spent two or three days with us in pre-production, going through all the songs with us and making some suggestions on how to improve them. But mostly he wanted to bring the best out in our band by making the sounds as fully formed as they could be. He is very inventive in the studio and basically breaks all the rules.”

“He is very rebellious in his approach without being self-consciously so,” says Weiss. “He is an innovator. We are lucky to have worked with him during that particular era when our material was more psychedelic. It was a fantastic match for The Woods.”

Fridmann downplays any talk of inventiveness on his part. “That’s very nice of them to say,” he says. “Really, though, the only goal I ever have is to help the band make the best record they can at the time. We all worked very hard to make that happen.”

The process, however, wasn’t easy. “There was a lot of crying in the studio: ‘I can’t do this,’” Brownstein told Vedder in MAGNET, and the band talked of pushing one another and testing their limits during the recording.

“I think I probably had the hardest time in the studio,” says Tucker. “I was away from my son, who was about three at the time, and that stressed me out. Doing the improv jams pulled me way out of my comfort zone. But sometimes that is how you can get to a new place as an artist, jumping out of your skin and what you know you can do easily and trying something very different.”

Tucker also composed some deliberately difficult material. “I also wrote some really challenging vocal lines, right out of my range. ‘Let’s Call It Love’ definitely involved some reaching for me,” she says, and she’s clearly pushing her powerful voice to its limits on “The Fox.”

“Let’s Call It Love”/“Night Light” is the album’s most outrageous and impressive achievement. Fridmann recorded the band playing together live in the studio, with minimal overdubs on the LP, and those two songs were done in a single, 15-minute take. It was a defining moment of the session.

“I think we got ‘Let’s Call It Love’ with the jam into ‘Night Light’ pretty early on and felt like we had set the bar for the album,” says Tucker.

“Not too many groups could have pulled that off,” says Fridmann.

It’s like nothing else in Sleater-Kinney’s catalog, but that’s also true of “The Fox” and “What’s Mine Is Yours” and, ultimately, The Woods as a whole. The sing-songy “Modern Girl,” the anxious “Jumpers,” the jittery “Rollercoaster”—these songs sound like what they are: the products of an expert band pushing itself into uncharted territory and enjoying what it discovers there.

The Woods is like—I can’t believe that sound,” says Fred Armisen, Brownstein’s current partner in Portlandia and a longtime friend of Sleater-Kinney. “I think some bands try for something this dense and heavy, but this record is somehow chaotic and clear at the same time. I can hear it all. What an album! How did they do it? Whenever I ask Carrie about it, she just kind of shrugs and smiles.”

“I’m stunned,” Vedder said in MAGNET of the album. “If The Woods were a live show, it’d be one of the best shows I’d ever seen. It also sounds like a band’s first record, all this stuff coming out at once. It’s so galvanized and powerful.”

It may sound like a first record, but it was a last one.

“I think it was a new path for us, musically, and maybe one that didn’t last that long, which is OK, too,” says Tucker.

The album met critical acclaim when it came out, although, as the band expected—and in a way hoped—it alienated some longtime S-K fans who wanted more Dig Me Out. The band toured, including another leg opening for Pearl Jam, but then abruptly and unexpectedly announced its hiatus. It hasn’t fully explained the reasons, although Tucker says, “I don’t think people realize how stressful touring can be; it was very stressful for us at the time, so we stopped.”

“My whole life was like a picture of a sunny day,” goes the chorus of “Modern Girl.” It’s a song about disillusionment and emptiness and lack of fulfillment in a consumerist society. That line is subtly layered: A picture of a sunny day is not a real sunny day. What seems a new path could be a road not taken.

But let’s indulge in some wishful thinking. In November 2013, Weiss, Tucker and Brownstein joined Pearl Jam onstage again for “Rockin’ In The Free World.” And when Weiss and Tucker spoke to MAGNET for this piece, they often use the present tense when referring to Sleater-Kinney. Maybe that curtain is still open after all.