In the last half of the ’80s and the first few years of the ’90s, the art of punk rock was starting to find a hold in the minds of some young musicians. After a decade known for lightweight pop music and synth-based noise, these artists were looking to find a way to channel the squall and gravity of groups like X-Ray Spex and Dead Boys. It was a pointed shift away from the compressed music that flooded radios and televisions of the time, opting for something far more vicious and acerbic. And certain cities became beacons for these sorts of voracious punk attitudes, including Olympia, Washington—which found itself the home of bands such as Bikini Kill, Halo Benders and Some Velvet Sidewalk.
Among the musicians scrambling around for their own piece of this Pacific Northwest punk rock feast were three woman who came together under the auspices of Sleater-Kinney to dole out righteous rock licks and grungy riffs that shook the neighboring Olympic Mountains. For every generation fed up with the current musical landscape, punk rock seems like the perfect escape, a brash and anti-authoritarian antidote for all the troubles in the world. And from these initial punk reverberations of the ’80s and ’90s, a new and ferocious scene was built on the hopes and aspirations of hundreds of musicians who looked to the past for solace and influence.
Sleater-Kinney. (Photo: Contributed)
Formed in 1994 in Olympia, Sleater-Kinney was the brainchild of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, two musicians whose love of the riot grrrl roar and classic punk methodologies brought them together to make a self-aware distillation of these raucous inspirations. They got their name from Sleater Kinney Road in the city of Lacey, Washington. They had both been regulars in Olympia’s music scene, with Tucker playing guitar in Heavens to Betsy and Brownstein playing guitar with Excuse 17.
Sleater-Kinney was supposed to be just a side project for them, but when their respective bands disbanded, it became their sole musical focus. The band would have a few different drummers during its tenure, including Lora Macfarlane, Misty Farrell and Toni Gogin, but it was Janet Weiss of Portland, Oregon, indie rockers Quasi who made the biggest splash behind the drums—and who continues to perform with the band alongside Tucker and Brownstein today.
When Tucker graduated from Evergreen State College in 1994, she took a trip with Brownstein (her girlfriend at the time) to Australia, and they recorded the songs for the band’s debut record on their last day there. They released it the following year to critical acclaim, beginning their rise through the ranks of the ever-shifting punk and indie rock circles. Their caustic lyricism and feminist perspectives gave them a unique insight into the experiences of women who bucked convention, both socially and musically. Their work was loud, ragged and clung to your bones. For those too young to remember the original ’70s punk rockers, it was a breath of fresh air that quickly cleared the cobwebs from all corners of independent music.
In 1996, they released “Call the Doctor,” a stripped-down batch of incandescent songs that reek of fire and determination. It is a 30-minute bout of lightning and brimstone that continues to rework the assumptions people have about punk and its modern relevancy. But when their third album, “Dig Me Out,” came out in 1997, their brand of astringent rock was embraced wholesale by their musical peers and fans. This was also the moment when Weiss came on as drummer and the lineup of the band was solidified. Produced by John Goodmanson and recorded at John and Stu’s Place in Seattle, the record was influenced by both classic rock ‘n’ roll and the band’s usual punk predecessors.
Opening with the craggy title track, the album wastes no time establishing the blistering pace with which it demolishes expectations and stereotypes. Far denser in construction than their previous records, “Dig Me Out” is a volatile emotional experience, one that examines and tears apart ideas of love, survival and heartache. And with Weiss’ impressive drumming anchoring each track, Tucker and Brownstein are left free to focus on their vocal interplay and interlacing guitar parts. Other songs such as “One More Hour,” which details the dissolution of Tucker and Brownstein’s relationship, and “Little Babies,” which breaks down traditional ideas of maternity roles, are both incisive and painful.
And that’s really the core of “Dig Me Out”—its powerful ability to lacerate and reveal in the same breath. The band was looking at fairly universal experiences, but they surrounded each narrative with thistles and spikes, creating a barbed landscape of broken hearts and altered perceptions. Voices are strained and pulled taut over difficult memories as the band sheds light over their own troubles and strained pasts. They weren’t afraid to open themselves up and give us a glimpse into their battered hearts and the years of bruised love.
“Dig Me Out” was a revelation for both its clever use of punk principles and for its breakdown of social assumptions. These three women weren’t buckling to the demands of the musical landscape around them; they were altering the dynamic of that landscape to fit their unique vision of rock ‘n’ roll. And with this record, they succeeded in reshaping what was considered possible for punk rock. It could be meaningful and subtle (in its own way), and yet it could still shake the bones from your skin with an unmatched ferocity. After this album was released, Sleater-Kinney became more than just a rock band; they were an institution of rebellion and proponents of a musical insurgency. And they never compromised on their ideas of what music could and should be.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.