By the time Sleater-Kinney released 2002's One Beat, the band had settled into a comfortable groove. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss had honed their sound: punkish, catchy songs built on two guitars, drums, and vocal harmonies. They had a small-but-dedicated and surprisingly powerful record label, Kill Rock Stars, behind them for four straight records. Each album elicited critical praise, even from mainstream media, and their shows often sold out. They'd even adjusted well to the birth of Tucker's son, Marshall. A decade into their career, the members of Sleater-Kinney enjoyed popularity, success, and well-earned respect.
They also felt bored—with their music, themselves, and what the band represented. Comfort can easily lead to complacency, and for a band rooted in punk's Riot Grrrl movement, there's no greater sin than phoning it in. So they left Kill Rock Stars and ditched much of their newly written material because it sounded too familiar. When the time came to record their seventh record, they left behind their longtime producer John Goodmanson in favor of Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Low), who wasn't even a Sleater-Kinney fan. The result is The Woods, released by Sub Pop Records in late May. On its 10 tracks, Sleater-Kinney rebels against itself by delving into massively overdriven guitar-rock excess, a sound with distinct ties to the ultimate punk-rock nemesis: classic rock. Punk remains, though, as The Woods seethes with unprecedented aggression and confidence. The final two tracks—one 11 minutes long, and the other nearly four—were improvised and recorded in one continuous take.
The Woods is a startling departure from Sleater-Kinney's style, but it could also be the group's best work yet. Just before its release, Brownstein spoke to The A.V. Club about complacency, classic rock, and her band's identity.
The Onion: Last year, you said Sleater-Kinney was going through a midlife crisis and needed to "press the reset button." Do you feel like that has passed?
Carrie Brownstein: I don't know. I've never been in another kind of midlife crisis. [Laughs.] I don't know what it feels like when you're through that, but I definitely feel that changing a few things, like being on a different label and having things kind of settle back into a sense of normality, helps to feel grounded. I think when I [said that], we were not on Kill Rock Stars anymore, but we weren't on another label yet either, and we didn't have a booking agent any more because he had retired, and our publicist had also retired. [Laughs.] I think in some ways, we were just wondering, "Well, what is the future of this band, and why should there even be one? Why do you keep making music after nearly a decade, or after six records?" But yes, we realized that we still wanted to.
O: The past three years seem like they've been trying; you've said you're not sure Sleater-Kinney would still be together if Corin's pregnancy hadn't forced a break. From the outside, it looks unstable. How is it on the inside?
CB: I think it feels as stable as being in a band can ever feel. [Laughs.] I think one of the reasons that we are able to actually keep making music that we want to make, and that we're inspired by, is because there is a certain amount of instability constantly, and I think that mirrors the instability of any given life. I think that we make better music and art in moments that are slightly precarious, so I feel like that's kind of the bind of being creative; everyone yearns for the constant or the stable, but it's often in moments where you're faltering that something with a little more clarity or passion comes through. So I guess it's trying to find a balance between the two. In our lives, I think we're definitely feeling more stable. It's nice to have a label again and feel like, "Okay, now we have some things in place."
O: You personally had a mission to grow as a guitarist before this record. What did that entail?
CB: I think it was just about thinking about how I play and whether I had reached, you know, the limit, or whether I could open up a new part of myself and figure out a different way of approaching the instrument. After a certain amount of time, you start to feel like you know the way you're going to approach a song, or you know the way you're going to approach a guitar part. Like, if Corin brings in this kind of song, then I'm apt to put this over it. And if I bring in this kind of song, it's always going to sound like this. You don't want it to become formulaic, and you don't want it to become predictable in any way. There were a lot of songs that we discarded in between One Beat and The Woods because we were doing something that just sounded so much like it could have happened on one of the other records. And when we tried to deconstruct the song or tried to take it into new territory, it just wouldn't go there, you know? So I do feel like, in addition to working on the songwriting, I just needed to think about the way I played guitar, the way that I approached chords and leads, and see if I could go out and find myself a little bit.
O: So it was about trying something different?
CB: I think that's how we approached a lot of the songwriting on this record, whether it was with Corin's voice, really getting her to the point where she was just mad at us. "Why do you want me to sing this differently?" To the point where she would be so mad that then, when we went back into the part, she would be screaming, and it would be incredible. And we'd be like, "That's exactly what we wanted!" And she would just be like, "Arrrggh!" But to get to a place that feels uncomfortable, I think was a really big theme of this whole recording and writing process. It took a lot of patience, and that's, I think, one reason it took so long for it just to happen.
O: From what you've said in other interviews, it seems like recording was tense. Was that constant, or just intermittent?
CB: I think it was just moments like that. First of all, we put ourselves in a position where we were really isolated from our friends and family. We were out in western New York outside Buffalo, just like in a really remote, small town, so I mean just physically, there was an element of discomfort. In addition to that being a little uncomfortable and isolating, it was also insular, and I think sometimes that insularity breeds, like, a kind of energy and almost desperation, where you're just relating to, for us, three other people: the two other people in the band, and the producer. It becomes kind of symbiotic; it becomes kind of magical. You really lose perspective of what's going on in the outside world. In some ways, that is good.
But yeah, certainly there were moments where we just felt like we couldn't push it any further, that we were so frustrated with ourselves or each other, and we had to get through that. I mean, I think more of the tension was with the songwriting [than] in the studio. It was just more like we so wanted to be capturing a moment. There were so many parts of the songs that we left open to be spontaneous, and then trying to get to a place where it just felt organic and natural and not forced during those parts, you know? And if we weren't able to get there, instead of [saying], "Okay, let's try again right now," [we said] "Okay, let's wait three hours and then approach it." So, I mean, so many ways that we approached the recording process were really different. And in some ways, it was really freeing to know that what we were trying to capture was a moment or an emotional tenor instead of note-for-note perfection. When John Goodmanson would say, "Okay, we're recording," I would have so much anxiety. I'd just be like, "I have this part; it's very static. It's fixed, and if I mess up, that means I have to go back in later and fix my part." Whereas with this approach, it was like "Okay, if I don't feel my way through this song, if I'm not inside this song right now, then it's not going to be a good take, but as long as I'm inside of it, I can do anything with it. And even if I totally mess up, it could be great, you know?" [Laughs.]
O: In one interview, you referenced a who's who of groups that influenced you for The Woods: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix. How did you come to embrace that sound?
CB: I guess I think I've always kind of liked some of those bands. I've always loved The Who or some Led Zeppelin, and, you know, like Cream and Blue Cheer and those bands. But in a way, they didn't really speak to me the way The Clash spoke to me, you know? But I would listen to the radio and listen to modern-rock stations, and I would just be so annoyed at the direction of where, like, the legacy of punk and alternative rock had gone–like just this super safe, "Oh, every song that the station plays has to be under three minutes. I have to know what the chorus is going to sound like even before it happens." It was just so safe and predictable. And then I would turn to the classic-rock station, and it would be like this eight-minute song that breaks into this insane part, and you'd have no idea what was going to happen. I was just like, "How did we come so far from this? Why does this sound punk-rock now?" I thought punk rock was about breaking rules and going to a place that's a little bit dangerous, and nothing on the contemporary rock station sounds dangerous at all.
All of the sudden, the music that was appealing to me was just this music that was trying to reach kind of like a sonic freedom or expression of complexity. So yeah, I think part of it was just realizing that like, okay, a guitar solo doesn't have to be wanky. A guitar solo can be a sentence, whereas a riff is a phrase. Maybe it's time in this culture of oversimplification [where] rhetoric is just reduced down to the most basic terms so that we feel safe and protected, that maybe it's time to be speaking in sentences now. [Laughs.] I started to get, like, "What is the role of art when entertainment and politics and everything is conflated into one thing?" Well, I guess the role of art is to make something that is ambiguous and complex. So it wasn't just like, "I want to make a record that sounds like classic rock" at all. It was more like, "I want to make a record that is a little more unsettling and maybe isn't as easily understood now." That just seemed more important, like, for me to make as an artist, than it was to make something to make people feel safe right away.
O: It seems pretty indicative of this record that you went with a producer who wasn't necessarily even a Sleater-Kinney fan.
CB: I think that he respected us and was interested and liked the songs he had heard on the demos, but I think he didn't really necessarily know how he was going to approach it. When we played for him, he really just was taken aback by, like, the power and energy of the songs, and just kind of how emotional they made him feel. You know, I think he hadn't really counted on that, and he just sort of said, "I feel like my hands are tied. I just want to plug you guys in and record you just like this." I mean, he really wanted to find a way of capturing the raw and visceral element to the band.
O: The Woods definitely reflects that. It's so distorted, overdriven, and just loud.
CB: Yeah, I think Dave really just wanted things to sound wrong. When I was setting up a distortion pedal for a song, I'd call into a control room like, "How does the distortion sound?" And he'd be like, "Meh. I don't know–it sounds just like blues distortion. It doesn't sound wrong enough." Like, "Well, if you want to sound distorted, why should it just be a little bit distorted? Let's throw subtlety out the window." It is weird how people don't actually notice things. You do really have to, like, go to a certain extreme or a certain place to even capture it. I remember when I did the vocals for the song "Entertain," which at the time just sounded totally unhinged. Dave was just like, "God, it's intense," and Corin heard it and was like, "Are you sure you want to sound like that? Are you sure you want to sound like you're losing it?" And Dave was like, "Why would we try to get something else? We've captured that. Why would we want to tame it down?" It was weird, like, five days into it, we would bring it up again, and I'd be like, "Is that the right one, or did you use the cleaner one?" He's like, "No, that's it." You just realize after a while, it all kind of sounds normal, like you really have to go so far to even make any impact on record. It's weird how it kind of just fades into the background. The more I listen to it, I'm like, "Oh yeah, I can remember the vocal take." When I first heard it back, I was like, "Oh my God, what's wrong with me?"
O: Did you ever feel like you made a mistake going in this direction?
CB: Not really, because I just feel like, on a personal level, we have nothing to lose. What, we're just going to put out a record that sounds like One Beat? That would be a mistake, or it would be a bigger mistake–like, "Another Sleater-Kinney record, good job, girls!" That, to me, would be the bigger mistake. I would rather [hear] "God, it's so different. I can't stand it, I just hate it," than "It's just like their other records, and that's okay." That kind of middle of the road, not inspiring any opinion–to me, that's like the enemy of all creativity. The enemy of any artistic statement is to create something that no one cares about, in the sense they have no opinion either way. I'd rather have people be divided on it and feel passionately that it's our worst or best record than feel nothing. [Laughs.] So I mean in that way, it's not a failure, and like I said, it would feel much more detrimental to us as a band to just get a pat on the back, like, "Oh, it's another decent one out of the canon." I don't feel like it's a really good time to be sitting on the fence with anything, no matter what you're doing.
O: So do you have any predictions about how fans will react?
CB: I don't know. I mean, I feel like the people that have been watching us live in the last couple of years–to me, this doesn't seem like that much of a stretch, for where we were taking some of our songs. We were starting to build in improvisation within even a song like "Dig Me Out," which is eight years old or whatever.
So I think for the people that have been seeing us live, this record shouldn't be that much of a surprise. I also think it does take into consideration things that have preceded it. You know, to me there is an urgency that I haven't felt in us since like Call The Doctor, or Dig Me Out. The songs sound urgent and aggressive and raw in a way that I feel like sonically hasn't been there for a while. So I don't know; I feel like it has elements of us, you know? I think the vocabulary is a little bit different. I feel like people will either get it or they won't. It's not really a record someone's going to listen to once. "Well, I didn't like it. I listened to it once; I didn't get it." There's so many other records out there that you can buy that you can get right away, but at least this one you gotta listen to a couple of times. You hope people get it, but definitely there's going to be people that aren't. I think it's going to be the kind of thing where, for the people that are like, "Well, it's not my thing," there'll be other people that nothing else we did was their thing. [Laughs.] I've never felt that this band is about one thing or one idea, so you just kind of hope people trust you to grow or change.
O: You say Sleater-Kinney has never been about one thing per se, but the band has definitely come to be associated with a certain sound and image, and The Woods seems like a reversal.
CB: A decade is a long time to be in a band. You almost feel a little bit sick of who you are. You just kind of feel like you know what you're capable of. I didn't want to feel like I knew what was going to happen every time Dave hit the "record" button. And I didn't want to feel like I knew what was going to happen when one of us brought in a song–or that I knew what a record was going to sound like before we went in there. I think on our other records, I really did have a sense like, "Well, the songs, when they come out, they're going to sound like this, but a little more polished. Or they'll have keyboards on them." Which was fine, but I think there's, like, so much uncertainty right now, just in the world, and a lot of this record is about trying to learn how to live with that. I feel like a lot of the writing and playing was happening from a ledge, and there were going to be moments that kind of faltered a little bit, whereas before, like you said, even with our identity or with who we were, I felt like "This is who we are." Even though that feels complex and multidimensional, I still kind of have an idea. And then it's like, "Wait a second, do I even like that? Do I want to be all those things? Or do I just feel like I'm kinda stuck in it?" So I mean, not even so much how other people viewed us, but how we viewed ourselves, it was important [that] we shook ourselves out of that. Even if we jump right back in, just to feel like, "Oh, okay, we can go to a place that's dark and new, and it's okay to be in here."