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LET THEM ENTERTAIN YOU -- Sleater-Kinney Get Deep and Dark in The Woods

Interview with Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney
Conducted on August 23, 2005 at 2:00 p.m.
by Marc Hirsh

Sleater-Kinney pic #1 Smart people realize that when something's not working, you change your tactics. And while most people would be hard-pressed to argue that Sleater-Kinney's superlative catalogue was in any way lacking, Misses Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss saw things differently. Perhaps it was the complacency of having fallen into a formula (no matter how winning), perhaps their previous approach was honed as finely as it was ever going to get on 2002's One Beat, perhaps it was the fact that Bush and his cronies remained in power despite their efforts. Whatever the reason, Sleater-Kinney stepped back and made a few changes; when the dust cleared, they had left longtime label Kill Rock Stars for Sub Pop, traded producer John Goodmanson for Dave Fridmann (the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) and closed the door on the longest between-album delay of their career with The Woods, a fierce and noisy record that abandons the measured fury of their earlier work for a visceral howl of indignation and, hopefully, catharsis. I recently spoke with drummer Janet Weiss about getting the Led out, the mystique of the artist and unexpected awesomeness.

SCR: I'll start things out with a hypothetical question. If an incredibly lazy interviewer were to ask you to describe your music, what would you say?
Janet: I'd say that's too hard to do. (laughs) That's what I would say. "You do the describing, you're the writer." I try not to describe it, really. It's just too difficult. Actually, I would prefer not to describe it. If an uncle asked me what kind of music I play, I'd say it's rock music. That's about it.

How did you start playing music? Did you start out on drums?
Well, it was a long time ago. I played guitar for a few years and then I got an offer to be in a band playing drums. So I learned how to play the drums in a couple weeks and went on tour. I've been playing ever since.

You learned to play drums in a couple of weeks?
Yeah. That's true.

Wow. How did you do that?
I just practiced a lot. I mean, I wasn't good. I was terrible. If that's any indication of what the band was like, you know, they would take a drummer who had only been playing for three weeks. But you get better much faster when you have to embarrass yourself on stage every night. It's a lot of incentive, having people watching you play when you first start out.

How long did it take you before you felt comfortable with the drums?
Fifteen years. (laughs) That's a joke! I don't know, maybe a year, year and a half? But you're always getting better. I still wanna get better. It's not like I think, "Oh, I'm as good as I'm gonna get." I have a lot to learn and still practice and hope that I can be a better drummer someday.

-- Sleater-Kinney record cover
Sleater-Kinney, The Woods


(Music courtesy of Sub Pop Records.)



Sub Pop Records

Are there any drummers that you specifically look to as your heroes?
John Bonham is my drumming hero.

That's interesting because in a lot of what I've been reading about The Woods and especially in some of the press materials, Led Zeppelin is coming up a lot in comparisons to you guys, which I don't think has happened too much before. Was that intentional?
No, not intentional at all. I mean, if there's any comparisons to Led Zeppelin, I'm totally honored. (laughs) They're one of my favorite bands and although we sort of come from a different place -- our roots are in punk rock -- I think a lot about Led Zeppelin songs and records just kind of transcend time and place. And I think that that's something to strive for.

How did you end up getting the drum slot for Sleater-Kinney?
A band I was in at the time played with Sleater-Kinney, so we had met and seen each other play, and I had Call The Doctor and listened to that quite a bit. And they were looking for a drummer, and a friend of mine suggested me. I think this came pretty soon after we had played together, so Corin just kind of called me out of the blue. And we set up a practice, and they had this song they had written called "Dig Me Out" and they showed it to me, and I wrote drums to it, and the rest is history, I guess you'd say. It was just kind of an obvious connection, like an obvious spark, I think, when we all played together. They had several drummers before me. I'm not sure they ever had someone who could keep up with them. 'Cause they're quite prolific and I'm kind of older than them and had been around the block a few times. So I think that it was a good mix.

How long did it take you to stop feeling like the new kid? If you ever did?
No, I definitely did for the first record, for Dig Me Out. I felt a little bit like the new kid until that record came out and I could sort of prove myself and bring my own personality to the band. But for all the shows up until then, I definitely felt a little bit like the new kid. I felt like I didn't wanna tread too heavily on what the band already was, but I also wanted to make it my own. Otherwise, it wouldn't be worth doing, you know? But after that record came out, that became less of a concern.

Do you or Corin or Carrie ever look back and think, "God, I can't believe we made that album?" Or All Hands On The Bad One or One Beat?
Not a record on the whole. Sometimes there's a song where we're like, "Oh. Wow, we never would make that song now."

Actually, sorry, I didn't mean to imply that in a negative way. I actually meant÷
Oh, in a positive way?

Yeah. (laughs) Sorry. I realized how that sounded as soon as you started answering.
"Oh, God, I can't believe we wrote that." But we don't do that that often. I mean, hopefully we edit stuff enough so that we're not gonna be embarrassed by what we've made. Although it's been almost ten years, and sometimes you look back and think, "Oh, I can't believe that's where I was in my life." Really, it's just like looking at a picture and "I can't believe I had that haircut," it's that kind of thing exactly, except that it's music. You know, you're like, "Oh, look at my funny musical haircut I was wearing back then." It's really similar. But in a good way, I think this most recent record, sometimes, yeah, I kind of am surprised that we pulled that off for our seventh record. I think it's a good album and it does sort of delve into some new territory for us and I'm proud of us that we stuck with it and made something that to me seems worthwhile.

How do you feel that The Woods fits into the Sleater-Kinney catalog? What's different about it that you feel that, as opposed to everything else you've done?
I don't do that so much. I don't go through and rank them or overanalyze the records too much. You really have to just make 'em and kinda move on and try not to reproduce a record you've already made. To me, the most clear connection I have to the songs is how we relate to them live. I don't listen to the records that much. I have certain memories that are attached to certain records that could be positive or negative. Some records I care not to revisit. (laughs)

Can I ask what some of those might be?
The Hot Rock for me is definitely the hardest record to listen to, for a lot of reasons that no one except the three of us will ever know. (laughs)

Then I won't ask.
Yeah, I mean, I don't think I can make it through that whole record without just cringing. So yeah, for me, as a person playing, it's just different to the listener. There's no way my relationship to my own band is the same as my relationship to, you know, the Arcade Fire. (laughs) I can just create all my own images and it's a greater freedom listening to someone else's band than listening to your own. There's a lot of baggage when you listen to your own music. But The Woods and One Beat, I think, are two records that I could actually listen to all the way through and for the most part feel pretty good about it. And of course Call The Doctor, 'cause I didn't play on that. (laughs)

Do you ever feel a little weird playing any Call The Doctor songs onstage?
No. I mean, I've been playing 'em for ten years. Like, I think those guys wanna play 'em less than I do. I really like playing those songs, but they're like, "Oh, that's so long ago, they're so old." They have a much greater aversion to playing 'em. I enjoy playing 'em. Maybe not as much as if I was playing my own drum parts, but the songs are great.

Sleater-Kinney pic #2 You were mentioning how much easier it is sometimes to be a listener of other people's music than a creator of your own. Are you ever surprised, from the other side, how your own albums are received?
No, I just like my own experiences as a listener. You know, life's most beautiful moments are usually musical for me. So when I can see that genuine emotion in someone, of course it makes me feel really good to have that effect on someone. Although I think it kind of makes me feel weird, sort of. (laughs) But also, it's like, I don't have any kids. My legacy lives on through my music, I guess. That's what I'm leaving behind when I die and I'm glad that it means something to people.

Do you ever find yourself as a fan wanting to know things about an artist that you might not actually put up with as a musician?
I think everybody's different, really, and certain musicians like Joni Mitchell or Conor Oberst, who are extremely revealing in their lyrics and in their songs, will sort of tell you everything, almost to a fault sometimes. Like, you're just, "Okay, okay! Enough! Enough! I don't wanna know, it's too personal!" I mean, it doesn't mean that fans have the right to know anything, really. A musician tells you all they wanna tell you in their music, and I guess I do sort of respect that. I don't read that many interviews or articles about musicians. I like it to be a little mysterious, actually. That allows me to use my imagination a little bit more and imagine what the person is. I find that I'm more let down than anything when I actually find out specifics about my heroes. I mean, I'm a huge Wilco fan, and I've had the extreme pleasure of meeting Jeff Tweedy, who's like one of my heroes. But it's almost like, that's Jeff Tweedy as a person, which I don't really wanna know about. (laughs) You know, I just wanna let the lyrics represent something less tangible and something that relates more to my life. I can sort of manipulate them to mean whatever I want, and I don't really wanna know what the songs are about. (laughs) That's too boring. So yeah, for me, it's more like an art form or something. I want to interpret, I don't want someone to tell me what it is.

The new album has a very different feel from all of your other albums. How did you choose to work did Dave Fridmann rather than John Goodmanson?
Well, I think "Let's Call It Love" and "Entertain" were maybe two of the first songs we wrote, and we were feeling like we were delving into all of this different territory. And we just wanted a different viewpoint and a different set of tools to work with, I think. And a producer really is like a toolkit. If you wanna make something that's not like anything you've made before, you gotta switch it up. You have to get a new perspective on what you're doing and I think the songs were dictating an aggressive, trippy, weirder approach, so we just looked for someone who had that. And I've been a big fan of Dave's for a long time. And I think we needed a rebellious leader to see us in a way that no one had seen us before. I think we were feeling like, "God, we need to make something that's not just typically Sleater-Kinney." You know, like, "We don't wanna be pigeonholed, we don't wanna just be this one thing to people." And Dave didn't particularly like what we were anyway, (laughs) so we figured he wouldn't be attached to the things that kind of kept us in a box.

Was there anything in his approach that gave you pause or made you nervous because it was so different?
Yeah, I mean, we didn't know him, first of all. It's really unnerving to go entrust a year of your life. We basically spent a year writing these songs, or two years, and it was nerve-wracking at first, until we knew that he's kinda got it. He doesn't talk that much, and before we got there, he hadn't really expressed any sort of love for the songs. I think he was kinda checking us out while we were checking him out. So it was extremely nerve-wracking. But once we got there and played the songs for him live, sitting in the room with him live, a few of the comments he made were really indicative that he totally got it and that he was gonna take us in a really, really awesome direction.

How did working with Dave Fridmann compare to working with Roger Moutenot on The Hot Rock? How do the three producers that you've worked with compare?
Well, they're all totally different. Totally different. Roger's great. Meeting Roger was such a pleasure, and he's really talented and he's a craftsman. They're similar in a way that they're artists at what they do. Roger happened to come along at just a little more difficult time for us personally. For me, Dave's more of a drum guy. He's a lot more involved with the drums and the drumming and the parts and how they fit in. So for me, that was really exciting and fun to work with him. And he was so adept at getting a drum sound and really kind of understood where I was coming from.

Were "Entertain" and "Let's Call It Love" the only two songs that you had already written before you started officially working on a new album?
What do you mean "officially working on"? Recording? I mean, there's never like an official start to working on the new record. You know, where we're just like, "Let's write new songs." It's hard for us to write immediately after a record comes out, but eventually you start wanting to write songs again. I mean, it was like a two-year period, maybe, before we wrote songs and we had eight months where we started in the crunch of, "Okay, we're gonna have to go in the studio." We didn't make a studio date until we thought we were ready to go in. We weren't gonna rush it and be like, "We need to make ten songs by this date." It's the seventh record, there's no giant hurry. So, yeah, we waited until we had some good songs. I think there was one song that wasn't finished when we went in the studio. I think "What's Mine Is Yours" was the one song we hadn't finished, and we finished it there. All the other ones were pretty much done.

I specifically remember hearing "Entertain" once or twice when you guys were touring behind One Beat. At what point do you decide a new song is ready to be performed?
Well, (laughs) there's no voice from above that tells you, "This song is done." I mean, we're sort of experienced at doing this. Seven records in, you kinda can tell when a song is ready to play. I mean, sometimes we play songs and they never make it on a record or we end up changing 'em. Playing songs live is a really good way for us to gauge when a song is ready to record. We try to play all the songs live if we can, 'cause there's stuff you don't pick up on in the basement that you pick up on when there's an audience watching. But that's just experience, knowing when a song's done, knowing when it needs more work, or a certain part that's not happening the way it should be happening. I mean, that's what we do. (laughs) That's our job, sort of. Like, that's our thing.

A lot of your lyrics certainly have political components, but it seems like One Beat was probably your most explicitly political album, whereas it seems to have sort of gone a little more subtle, less overt on The Woods. But on the whole, it actually seems maybe like even more of a political album.
Well, I think that's true. I think you're on the right track.

Obviously, a lot of One Beat was sort of in response to September 11th.
Yeah, there were two politically overt songs on that record, as far as U.S. politics. But there are less overtly political songs on this record, true.

And you guys are a very politically active and vocal band.
To me, it's broader than that. Politics can mean a lot more than just talking about the government. To me, this record is political in a more cultural way, I think, and how it's presenting itself and how loud or abrasive and unconventional it is, it's sort of commenting on the stagnant culture. It's like, there's a rebelliousness against cultural uniformity. I think there's more of a political statement on this record than on maybe some of the other ones.

At what point during the process of working on "Let's Call It Love" did somebody say, "What we need right here is a big freakin' bell?"
(laughs) That would be Dave Fridmann. For sure. I remember the moment when he suggested the bell. He loved those bells.

It was awesome, but it was totally unexpected.
Yeah, well, that's Dave for you, in a nutshell. Awesome and totally unexpected. That should go on his headstone.

What was your response when he said, "Let's put that bell in"?
I was like, "Well, let's figure out what note it is, I wanna play it." Certainly. I think all of Dave's suggestions at least were trying. There was not one stinker in the whole batch. (laughs) END


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