Sleater-Kinney

The Onion talks to guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein about the perils of fame, the trouble with selling out, and why it's still fun to be in a rock band.

The music world has failed to produce many new sounds lately, but Sleater-Kinney somehow manages to excite people by doing what lots and lots of bands have done for ages: play explosive, ferocious, no-holds-barred punk songs that are as musically invigorating as they are politically empowering. Consequently, each of the Olympia, Washington-based all-woman trio's three albums–1995's Sleater-Kinney, 1996's Call The Doctor and the new Dig Me Out—have won new fans and almost universal critical praise. The Onion recently spoke to guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein about what happens when your little band suddenly becomes a hot commodity and a symbol of something more important than simple punk anthems.

The Onion: You were number 35 on Spin magazine's "Top 40 Most Vital Artists" list a couple months ago. How do you plan to climb the ladder of vitality in the next year?

Carrie Brownstein: [Chuckles nervously.] Well, I have to honestly say that the Spin "Most Vital" list to me doesn't really mean that much. You know, I mean, just looking at some of the other bands—it's just so arbitrary, really. There are just so many people who seem like obvious omissions. In terms of our own vitality outside the context of the media [laughs], we've always just been a really hard-working band, and I think we really just want to continue to write good songs and have fun playing music, and reach as many people as we can, and stay accessible to people, and not alienate too many people by... I don't know, the main thing about staying vital is staying true to ourselves, and I think we're going to keep trying to do that.

O: In the meantime, you've already passed up Green Day and Hayden.

CB: That's right. [Laughs.]

O: Have you been asked to do the Lollapalooza thing this year?

CB: Uh, yeah, but we said no.

O: Because you're just the sort of band they need for their high-traffic, credibility-building 11 a.m. slot.

CB: Exactly.

O: Did they want you to be a main-stage act or a side-stage...

CB: I'm not sure, because we really didn't get that far in the negotiations. It was pretty much "no" right away. [Laughs.]

O: How did they approach you?

CB: Actually, some friends of ours are possibly playing it, and they gave us the number of the woman we should call if we want to do it, and we just never did. So we didn't get too far into the process.

O: Are you at home right now, or are you at work?

CB: I'm at home.

O: Do you work?

CB: Not right now.

O: Do the others have day jobs, and if so, what do they do?

CB: Corin [Tucker, vocals/guitar] is an office worker—she does clerical work—and Janet [Weiss, drums] works for an ad agency.

O: Are you as a band ever tempted to take the biggest check a label throws your way, just so you don't have to work anymore?

CB: Not really. I think that we're able to look at the bigger picture, and not just grab at anything that is thrown toward us, because I think there's a lot of compromise and a lot of negative aspects to doing something for a lot of money. And I think that everything we've done has been with very little compromise on our part. We're happy with that.

O: Do you ever think about how much money you could get by fucking over that industry?

CB: I don't think you can necessarily fuck them over as much as they can fuck you over, though. I mean, I think there's a lot of obstacles in the way of really using the industry. And I also think that as female musicians, it's really hard to be represented as multi-dimensional and multi-faceted, and we would just become caricatures of ourselves, cartoon cutouts, especially in the media. I think that right now, at least we're choosing what we're doing in terms of the media, and what our artwork looks like, and what the ads look like. Money is one thing, but that is not the most important thing to us. Otherwise we would have done that. Obviously, it's tempting to go for the financial security and whatnot, but it's like a loan from a bank.

O: I've read lots of your press, and there's reams of stuff like "best album of the year," "this generation's Ramones" and "role models for young women," right down to the more insipid "riot grrrl" stuff. Do you ever look at all that stuff that says you're really important, and just say, you know, "We're just a rock band"?

CB: Oh, of course. [Laughs.] I think that one important thing, in terms of keeping any sort of balance in your life when you're doing something like rock music, is to not take yourself really seriously all the time. We also have other interests besides music, and we're proud of our own accomplishments on our own terms. You know, the more rewarding thing to us is just playing in front of an audience and having those people appreciate us, instead of critics. Yeah, we play music, and our music is very important to us, and I think that all three of us really rely on music as an outlet for a lot of things, as well as for fun. It's interesting to theorize and analyze music in terms of history and politics and social ramifications and that sort of thing, but it's also important to sort of look at it as entertainment, and that's what it is as well. So I think everything in terms of the media has to be taken with a grain of salt.

O: Is your band important?

CB: To us it is, and I think it is important to other people. It is important for men and women to see women playing music and interested in being musicians and songwriters, and not really willing to make a lot of compromises in terms of selling out to various different things. But I can't really say why we're important to other people. I don't think we'd be doing it if we thought what we were doing was completely futile.

O: Are you tired of being called "riot grrrls"?

CB: I am personally, but I can't speak for my whole band. I think there was a lot of good things about the term, but it had a lot of shortcomings. I don't think any of us identify as that. But I also don't want to knock it, because there was a lot of significance to it at a certain time.

O: You've mentioned the media a couple times. Do you want to be left alone by certain elements of the media, or does the attention help you reach some kind of musical and political goals? Do you get to a point where you're like, "Okay, not USA Today"?

CB: Definitely, and I think that we've sort of been experimenting in terms of what is going too far and what feels safe. I think that definitely one of our goals with the last two records was to reach a larger audience. I think that in the context of punk-rock, you're dealing with a fairly homogeneous community. I mean, the punk scene itself is usually pretty homogeneous, and I think we wanted to reach out, and the media can be a good tool for that. But I also think that with the nature of rock journalism, you know, the first wave of writers really like your music and are writing about you because they think you're interesting, and the second wave is writing about you because other writers have written about you. And we've been able to start discerning who are the people who have listened to our records and whatnot.

O: So what are your musical and political goals?

CB: Well, musically, we want to tour for a while; we haven't done a full U.S. tour for a year, so we really want to get out there and play music. And we'd like to just really work on our songwriting and work on the dynamics in our songs, and hopefully keep it interesting. I think it's really important in our band to be able to transcend a specific genre of music: I don't want to just be a punk band, or be so easily labeled. And I think we're trying to make music that really speaks to people, and not just a certain kind of person. So I think that's definitely a musical goal. Politically, I mean, we all have our own personal politics in the band; I don't think that as a band, we have one agenda or one sort of dogma or something, but I do think that we want—in terms of politics and music combined—to make our shows safe places for all people. And we're really trying not to fall into the traps that other bands have [fallen into], or that are easy to fall into.

O: What do you mean by traps?

CB: Um, I just think that it's easy sometimes to sort of let things go in terms of what you initially set out to do. I think when you start playing larger shows, you really want to hold onto the connection to the audience. And I don't want to fall into the trap of, when you're playing a larger place, "It doesn't matter if people are getting slammed into and hurt, or there's someone yelling really obnoxious things in the audience." I really want to keep that connection there; I don't want to lose that, because that to me is why I play music, to have a connection with other people. I don't really want to fall into that trap.

O: As you get more and more press, it's not just going to be that core group of fans in the audience. Are there frat boys in the pit, and does it matter?

CB: I don't know if there's frat boys in the pit. I've definitely noticed that our audience has expanded along various lines in terms of age; it's always been fairly even in terms of gender, but I guess we are starting to reach a more mainstream audience. I would never want to be so popular that... I don't really want a lot of frat boys in our audience, you know what I'm saying? Our music isn't for them, and I can imagine that one of the scariest things would be to look out into your audience and have it be full of people who...

O: You hate?

CB: Who you hate, and who would hate you if they knew anything about you. It's difficult, and it's really complicated as you try to reach out to more people, because there are people who I wouldn't really want to know who listen to our music. But on the other hand, our music is for anyone, you know, and that's just me on a totally personal level. Musically, we want it to be accessible to anyone, and maybe people will actually listen to what we're singing about. As long as people can sort of make a connection to the music, I think we'll be okay. And I think that because we're not on mainstream radio—people have to go out and buy the record and listen to the record and not just hear one song over and over—they are more intelligent listeners. It's not just something that's been spoon-fed to them on MTV or the radio. So I think that as long as we don't tap into those media, we have a better chance of people really appreciating what we're doing.

O: Are you afraid of a backlash?

CB: Um, I'm not afraid of a backlash, but I definitely see the drawbacks of any sort of oversaturation, of seeing someone's face in a magazine over and over again. But we don't really depend on the media—if we get a good review, that's fine, but the media are very fickle... If I counted on the media for praise and accolades, I would have to also really adhere to what they were saying when it was negative, and internalize that as well. So I think in terms of any media backlash, I try to keep a safe distance from that. I would be much more disappointed and frustrated if people who like our music now started really getting angry at us for... You know, when bands start doing more media, I know that some people get mad, because they're like, "I liked you before you were in Spin." So the media are so fickle that inevitably we're either just going to disappear or there's going to be a backlash, but luckily we're not playing music to be in magazine.

O: Is it glamorous, though? Is there a part of you that flips open Spin and says, "That's me!"

CB: Um... [Pauses.] There's definitely a part of it that feels like you're stepping into the shoes of someone else. And that you're playing dress-up, and I think that's sort of interesting: to play different roles and to feel like you're in some weird play or something. But playing rock music is pretty absurd. I think, if anything, when I look at myself in magazines, it's not really glamorous, but it's... funny. [Laughs.] Like I said, I mean, most of us work day jobs. So it's pretty funny to compare being in a magazine to our daily lives, you know? It's kind of a nice outlet, but you have to have a sense of humor about it.

O: Isn't it fun?

CB: Oh, definitely. I mean, I wouldn't play music if it wasn't fun. It's definitely fun. I don't have too many complaints: I think we're really lucky, and I think that we've also worked really hard. So I'm not saying, "Oh, it's such pain, blah blah blah," because it's not. It's totally fun.