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.