Making a Scene
Olympia, Wash., bands balance ideals, music with powerful results
By Bill Friskics-Warren
MARCH 8, 1999: For a band that once roared "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," Sleater-Kinney sure have a funny way of showing it. After their second album, Call the Doctor, struck a chord with critics in 1996, this Olympia, Wash., trio became deluged with major-label prospects. Rather than going that route, though, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss decided to sign with the small but influential Olympia imprint Kill Rock Stars. Two years ago, they released Dig Me Out to even more acclaim, and last week saw the release of their latest album, The Hot Rock.
During this time, the band has emerged as one of the decade's staunchest proponents of punk's do-it-yourself ethic. Seizing the anger and ideology of such first-generation all-female punk bands as Liliput, the Raincoats, and the Slits, Sleater-Kinney have wed sonic rebellion and liberationist politics to dismantle the rock-star myth. In doing so, they've helped to nurture and sustain an active musical community in their hometown. Indeed, the fairly small city of Olympia (pop. 36,740) serves as a model of just how fertile a supportive, independent music scene can be: Not only did it give birth to the riot grrl movement of the early '90s, it continues to be a place where women play a huge role in making things happen.
No wonder, then, that Sleater-Kinney were so reluctant to enter the male-dominated world of corporate rock. "We talked to people, and we asked them about how they saw us fitting into their roster and their label," Brownstein says. "Most of them did not have a very organic view of a band's growth. They don't want you to take small steps. And they don't really have long-term goals for you. That to us was very frightening and seemed like it would be very disruptive to our lives.
"A lot of Sleater-Kinney has to do with the musical communities we've come from, and feeling part of that," Brownstein adds, referring to Olympia's dynamic music scene. "We didn't want to feel uprooted from those communities or to be taken out of that context.... You can work with people you care about, and people that care about you and your music, and still put out records that a lot of people are able to buy."
The title track of the group's new album--an allusion to a 1972 movie starring Robert Redford--bristles at the way music conglomerates package the bands they sign. "An uncut stone is flawed and beautiful/Don't try to size me down to fit your tiny hands," warns Brownstein, perhaps addressing an A&R rep. These lines could of course also have more personal or broader social connotations. But "The End of You," a song that invokes Odysseus' close encounter with the Sirens, expresses Sleater-Kinney's wariness of the rock-star trap with resounding clarity. "The first beast that will appear will entice us with money and fame," Tucker sings. "If you listen long enough, you'll forget there's anything else/Tie me to the mast of this ship and of this band/Tie me to the greater things, the people I love."
Sleater-Kinney have reached an estimable audience while embracing this ethic of resistance. Together, Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out have moved 100,000 or so copies--no mean feat for a pair of indie releases. The trio have also set a staggeringly high artistic standard for themselves, one they uphold on The Hot Rock. Produced by Nashvillian Roger Moutenout, perhaps best known for his work with Yo La Tengo, the record is more refined than its predecessors. The band works with a broader sonic palette and more spacious arrangements here, stressing the melodic aspects of their vocals and guitars more than on previous albums. (In this regard, Sleater-Kinney recall another influential punk group, the British band Wire, which effected a similar transition on its first two albums.)
The Hot Rock may not offer the visceral thrill of Call the Doctor, nor the cathartic release of Dig Me Out, but neither does its newfound subtlety come at the expense of Tucker's piercing, Poly Styrene-like wail, Brownstein's stiletto guitar, or Weiss' rhythmic command. Rather, consolidating the band's punk-bred strengths, the record should appeal to modern rock audiences as well as to Sleater-Kinney's longtime fans, many of them young women who came of age during the riot grrl upsurge of the early '90s.
The band's link to its core audience, Brownstein insists, is integral to its identity. "So much of Sleater-Kinney is about the intense reaction and feedback that we've gotten from the people who come to our shows," she says. "I would never want to suddenly propel ourselves away from those people."
This spirit of kinship and accountability strikes at the heart of Olympia's music scene, where ethical ideals often supersede aesthetic considerations. "There's a sense of community here based on principles that have more to do with economics than music," observes Sarah Dougher, a solo artist and a member, with Sleater-Kinney's Tucker, of the neo-girl group Cadallaca. "Younger people are encouraged by older people to take on responsibility and to participate in a way that really transcends a profit motive."
Brownstein agrees. "A lot of people in Olympia have taken the time, in a sort of apprenticeship ideology, to pass on their skills to other people, allowing them to do things for themselves."
Ever since the punk explosion of the '70s, this sensibility has been a crucial part of the American musical underground, in cities as far-flung as Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. By the mid-'80s, it flowered in Olympia, thanks in large part to the anti-macho, antiestablishment rhetoric of Calvin Johnson's K label. And by 1991, Olympia's supportive, tightly knit scene had given rise to riot grrl, establishing the town as the center of the punk feminist movement.
"Grrl" bands soon started popping up all over, and not just in Olympia and the Pacific Northwest. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, and others, inspired by the in-your-face sexual politics of such groups as Mecca Normal, Babes in Toyland, and Frightwig, reclaimed punk's insurrectionist spirit and spoke out against rape and other forms of violence against women. Taking aim at incest, Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna would tear off her top in concert and scream, "Suck my left one!" In "My Red Self," Corin Tucker's former band, Heavens to Betsy, confronted the socialized shame associated with menstruation. True to this spirit of liberation, riot grrls soon began urging their peers to examine issues of race, class, and sexuality as well. In particular, the movement became an open and affirming scene for lesbians and gay men.
Along these same lines, riot grrls created locally based alternatives to the cockrockracy of major labels and the male-dominated, post-Nirvana rock underground. Foremost within this infrastructure were fanzines, such as Jigsaw, Girl Germs, and Bikini Kill, as well as record labels, most notably Kill Rock Stars, Boston's Villa Villakula, Olympia's Chainsaw, and Portland's Candy-Ass.
Alternative means of expression such as these are what drew Dougher, a Portland native who was getting her doctorate at the University of Texas, back to the Pacific Northwest. "There weren't many women in the Austin area who were taking an active role in creating the infrastructures of music or creative communities that I felt like I could be a part of," she recalls. "There are some great women musicians there, but there aren't labels run by women, and there wasn't, at that point, any riot grrl stuff going on there."
Dougher cites Cadallaca's emergence as evidence of the possibilities inherent in Olympia's close-knit musical community. "I bought this Farfisa organ and set it up in Shanna's basement," Dougher explains, referring to Shanna Doolittle, her bandmate in the swell, but now defunct, band the Lookers. "Corin and I just went over to Shanna's one day. I think maybe we were drinking, but we went downstairs and just started writing some songs. And when we had 10 songs, we were like, 'Hey, let's make a record!' "
From there, Dougher called Calvin Johnson to ask if he would mix their album. Johnson, in turn, offered to release the project, Introducing Cadallaca, on his K label. "We had no idea what we were going to do," Dougher says. "So we were like, 'OK, sure, we'll put it out on K.' It just happened like that. We're pals, and Calvin had enough knowledge and respect for our other projects that it was easy for him to say 'yes' without ever having heard us."
The speed and openness with which this scenario unfolded couldn't be more foreign to the way that mega-majors like Universal and EMI operate. And yet it's this spirit of reciprocity, nurtured by a deep and abiding sense of community, that makes the Olympia scene and a handful of others like it so unique. Where else, except perhaps in Olympia, would a punk band like Cadallaca have license to release a record that exults in the sound of '60s girl groups even as it reminds us of how those groups were exploited by their male producers and record execs?
"Having a respect for what every person has to offer is a fundamental ethic for me," Dougher says. "I'm really amazed and flattered that people want to come see me play. But I also want to know, if I have energy for it, what kids are doing in their communities. Are they in bands? Are they making films? Are they creating structures so that they don't come say to me, 'Oh God, I wanna move to Portland'? And when they do, I say, 'Tell me more about Medford. What's going on there? How can you make Medford your place and make it good for you?' "
Helping people claim their own strength, Dougher believes, is what most Olympia bands are trying to do. "A lot of people are saying, 'OK, I've done those things, but you can do them too. I've been in a famous band, but that aside, have you registered to vote?' It makes people realize their power, and that's important."
It's also what Sleater-Kinney's "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" is ultimately about--tapping into one's own power and saying, "I can do this," and then going out and doing it. Sleater-Kinney have certainly achieved as much. They might have attained minor stardom, but the true measure of their success lies in the band's adherence to the very ideal espoused by their record label: They've proven that you can sell lots of records without buying into the rock star myth.
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