By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
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As a 17-year-old freshman at Western Washington University in Bellingham--and with no access whatsoever to the beery, barry, boy-ridden garage-rock scene that emanated from that city--Brownstein began writing letters to riot grrrls in Olympia. She eventually transferred there.
"Olympia is a very tight-knit community, very liberal-minded, anti-materialist, anti-corporate, and very closely allied to Evergreen State," Brownstein says. "If you go there, you come out much more dogmatic then you go in, because you've been given these tools and armed with a discourse which shapes your world. You know you have to look for inspiration in the very boundaries of society. It's so hard to find good examples of art in the mainstream, and not everybody has access to those examples. I'm just really lucky that I never even see Jewel or Hole videos."
Would that we could all say that. Would that we had all been to universities in places where, as Brownstein says, the borders are a bit more out there. Evergreen State has a close association with K Records and Kill Rock Stars, both of which have always encouraged collaborative projects and private entrepreneurship. It's a remarkably creative world, but also a small and insular one. That may be why upon graduation (with a combo major of film and feminism), Brownstein and Tucker decided to travel for a few months. They chose Australia as their destination, and it was, Brownstein acknowledges now, a "totally crazy, youthful vision--things seemed really possible. I mean, if we'd had any foresight, we'd have gone to New Zealand."
Thanks to K Records, they hooked up with an Australian drummer named Lora McFarlane and booked a handful of totally haphazard gigs there--gigs, Brownstein now recalls, populated by anarchists and all-girl bands that sounded like L7. Something about the distance between the women and home inspired them. They began recording in Melbourne, and the music they made there became the songs on their 1995 debut, Sleater-Kinney, and was also the genesis of their next record, 1996's Call the Doctor. It seemed, Brownstein says now, "kind of special and different."
Sleater-Kinney was the obvious product of Olympia, and it didn't--still doesn't, actually--sound much different from a number of other bands in the Portland-Olympia-Kill-Rock-Stars-K-Records-Chainsaw-Records orbit. (Team Dresch, whose leader, Donna Dresch, originally signed Sleater-Kinney to her Chainsaw label, is a good example.) Yet just as Nirvana sounded like so many of its influences--the Pixies, Mudhoney, Soul Asylum, Black Flag--only to finally surpass them, so, too, did Sleater-Kinney quite suddenly transcend everything that came before. Texans might hear in Sleater-Kinney echoes of mid-'80s Austin-based band Glass Eye, alongside the slashing rhythms of British bands such as the Raincoats, the Slits, the Bush Tetras, and Delta 5. Brownstein claims The Jam as her biggest influence.
Sleater-Kinney has, over the past two years, become something of a mythical rock-and-roll band--adored by all who come into contact with it. No matter that Call the Doctor was raw and sloppy; no matter that its 1997 follow-up, Dig Me Out, was atonal and complex. The more out the band got, the more in it became. Sleater-Kinney--which would welcome the addition of Quasi's drummer Janet Weiss in 1996--is a throwback to the days when the word alternative meant something that was in opposition to the prevailing musical landscape and when allying yourself with such a thing was an assertion of personal dignity.
That may be why the band is also hyped and lauded by the media to an almost suspicious degree, in a way that even Brownstein circumspectly calls "one-dimensional." Reviews of Sleater-Kinney's music tend to treat it as a construct, rather than a band. They invariably use irritating and off-putting words such as "dialectic," "dichotomy," "meta-music"--even that most horrid and meaningless word of all, "post-rock."
It's the type of overpraise that, on a bad day, could be referred to as nostalgia. As rock music moves further away from the do-it-yourself ideal of a four-piece punk sound, critics become ever more hysterically enamored of Sleater-Kinney's simplicity, its intensity, its passion. They're being billed as Rock's Great Last Stand, saving the world from heartless techno and soulless alternarock. And to see Sleater-Kinney onstage is to simply love them; it's to be reminded of The Good Old Days, when bands were scruffy, atavistic, and wholly unself-conscious. It's to recall a time when three chords were enough to write a whole new bible of beliefs.
Maybe Sleater-Kinney is the next--last--best thing. I doubt they'd be the ones to say it. Instead, Corin Tucker once said that a person can "love rock and roll and also be enraged by it." It's a wonderful statement of intent, the perfect paradigm for the shortcomings of the mainstream--and the indie-rock--world. And if that phrase sums up Sleater-Kinney's attitude toward its own work, no wonder the band's so damned good. After all, if self-examination creates a life worth living, then it will certainly create a band worth hearing.