Great music can be scary and can blow your mind. It’s important to remember that. Safe, passive music has never changed anything…The way someone sings or the way the songs are put together or the sharp emotional content of the songs, there just has to be something meaningful there, or why do it?
story by Justin Marciniak
photo by John Clark
The woods can be a scary, dangerous place. Just ask Little Red Riding-Hood. Or ask Sleater-Kinney. On The Woods, its seventh album, the post-punk power trio abandons its comfort zone to explore perilous and uncertain woods of its own. Making the record, the band endured the discomfort and difficulty of working with a new producer and the uncertainty of expanding its sound. If it entered the rock ‘n’ roll woods like Little Red, it has transformed and emerged like the Big Bad Wolf.
My, what big riffs Sleater-Kinney has! My, what a huge, heavy sound it has! The Woods is the biggest, the baddest and possibly the best Sleater-Kinney album to date. Drummer Janet Weiss talked to Chicago Innerview about making meaningful, dangerous music in an age of vapid, iPod-commercial ready tunes designed to be safe to.
The tale of Sleater-Kinney and The Woods begins once upon a time on tour with Pearl Jam. The dueling, angular guitars, Corin Tucker’s vibrato overlapping with Carrie Brownstein’s staccato phrasing and the inventive, versatile drumming of Weiss could move a club, but had not faced arenas every other night. Opening for Pearl Jam in 2003, Sleater-Kinney learned its music grew and felt different in arenas. The two guitarists and drummer had new ideas.
“We started to stretch out the notes,” Weiss says. “Notes were bending. Notes were longer. There was more space. We were improvising at those shows every night for about five minutes, and I think during those five minutes, we found a new territory for ourselves…It was partially the improvising and partially playing in these new arenas that allowed us to look at ourselves, reinvent ourselves in a way, and reenergize ourselves with these different sounds.”
Intrigued by the “heavier, looser” sound, the band sketched songs with more improvisation, solos and looser structures. In late 2004, the Portland trio traveled to meet producer Dave Fridmann in a faraway land. The band flew to a snowy, isolated town in western New York to play its songs for the new producer, who was not a fan of Sleater-Kinney. For two days, the musicians struggled to read Fridmann’s reactions, Weiss says. By the third day, Fridmann was sharing his ideas, and Sleater-Kinney was listening.
Fridmann encouraged the band to wander musically but focus on the moment. At first impatient and intimidated, the trio learned to trust Fridmann. “When you don’t know what you’re trying to get, you’re trying to get something down on tape that is more than what actually exists,” Weiss says. “You’re trying to capture something greater than what exists in reality. You have to let someone help you do that. You have to be in the moment. You have to be able to access what’s going on emotionally. You can’t be blocked, or you can’t be in a bad mood that day and not feel like giving yourself up. We had to be in that uncomfortable, heavy, intense mode while we made this record.”
That mode let Sleater-Kinney surprise itself and create an especially “beautiful moment,” according to Weiss, between “Let’s Call It Love” and “Night Light,” the final two songs on The Woods. Sleater-Kinney unexpectedly jams between the two songs, with the segue resembling Led Zeppelin II or a Sonic Youth freakout.
“It’s really like you’re just reaching in the air for something that is absolutely intangible,” she says. “It’s really an emotional thing: three people improvising and listening to each other, and you’re totally unsure what’s going to happen…And to actually have it resolve and end up somewhere real, you have a sigh of relief, and you’re also proud.”
Improvisation grants freedom, too. “You can do whatever you want,” Weiss says, “and maybe musical ideas you have or something you heard on the radio that day, or you’re feeling pent-up – whatever comes over you at that moment, hopefully, if you’re lucky, you have a few minutes to deal with those things…I think that’s part of why we play music or musicians play music in general. That’s our way of dealing with complexities or the shitty parts of life or the great parts of life. Everybody knows that. Without it, we’d probably go crazy.”
Out of the emotion, discomfort and uncertainty, The Woods sounds aggressive, heartbreaking, lustful and massive. Seasoned Sleater-Kinney fans who prefer earlier, punkier songs might experience a bad trip when Brownstein channels Jimi Hendrix during “What’s Mine Is Yours.” People who dig the serpentine guitar work and efficient, propulsive drumming of Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock might not appreciate the feedback and machine-gun drumming of “The Fox” or the album’s imperfect live sound.
Others might suspect that signing to Sub Pop Records forces Sleater-Kinney to make grunge music. The Woods isn’t grunge; however, it relates to that genre and classic rock more than previous records. Sleater-Kinney lacks a bass player, but Fridmann and the band balance many tracks with a big bottom end. Far from a prog-rock concept album, The Woods does contain several narratives, and the song structures vary. Like many classic-rock LPs, The Woods is greater than its parts. It was not made for shuffling iPods. To some, it might require too much effort in this time of 99-cent downloads.
Overall, The Woods holds dense rock ‘n’ roll that blisters fingers and rings in the ears. It’s a health hazard and a challenge. Weiss might call it dangerous.
“We hadn’t imagined it sounding that incredible,” she says. Fridmann helped the band harness “a heaviness and a rebelliousness that is the core of why I play music: having something sound dangerous and unique and capable of hurting someone,” she says. “Great music can be scary and can blow your mind. It’s important to remember that. Safe, passive music has never changed anything…The way someone sings or the way the songs are put together or the sharp emotional content of the songs, there just has to be something meaningful there, or why do it?”
The topic strikes a nerve with Weiss. A Portland alternative-rock radio station plays some good songs, she says, but she loathes the “übercatchy” tunes that seem designed for iPod ads. Such songs depress her and make her feel empty, she says. They are not scary enough. Sleater-Kinney mocks meaningless culture in “Entertain.” Brownstein asks entertainers to show her the art, meaning and soul in their work: “Where is the ‘fuck you?’ / Where’s the black and blue?”
Weiss believes that songs flowing through the mainstream become watered down and lose their power. Nevertheless, “I think that kind of music needs to exist,” she says. “It pushes people to make something that is real. They might get frustrated hearing vapid music and want to make something that means something to them.”
She hopes Sleater-Kinney disbands when it has nothing more to say. Seven albums into its existence, the band has reinvented itself with another approach to recording dangerous music. Unlike Little Red, Sleater-Kinney probably won’t leave the woods for the security of grandmother’s house anytime soon.
Sleater-Kinney :: with Dead Meadow :: Riviera :: June 16.