Over the course of eight years, Sleater-Kinney have thrived in the indie-rock movement. The bass-less trio from Olympia, Washington, has built a loyal fan base, released a steady stream of critically lauded albums, and has produced tighter tunes and broader tonal colors with each subsequent record. Along the way, they’ve taken nary a misstep—a Herculean task in a music biz that has little patience for the phrase “artist development.” Helping drive the band’s ascension into indie bliss are Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, whose agitated guitar stylings rub against each other with just enough friction to give the group’s pop tendencies a righteous middle finger.
Do the two of you have designated roles?
Brownstein: Corin definitely plays more of the bass lines—even though it’s a guitar—and I typically do the leads.
Were the roles blurred before?
Brownstein: They weren’t necessarily blurred, but by the third or fourth record, we were realizing what worked, and that meant using Corin’s guitar more and more to fill in the low end. Once you start relying on something sonically, it kind of ties you into a certain kind of style.
Tucker: To get that low end, I plug my Danelectro DC-3 into an A/B box which goes to two amps: a Music Man combo and a Fender Dual Showman running through an Ampeg 4x12 cabinet. Onstage, I put the Music Man behind me, and the Dual Showman is behind Carrie.
Brownstein: My main guitar is a ‘72 Gibson SG. I’m really comfortable with the neck, and I perform the best on that guitar in the studio. So when I want a different tone, it’s usually a matter of changing the amp around, or plugging in a different pedal. Sometimes, we’ll crank up a Fender Champ or an old Ampeg for natural amp distortion. I’ll also use my main stage amp—a Vox AC30.
Was the decision not to have a bass player in the band a calculated one?
Brownstein: No. Neither Corin nor I play bass, nor do we want to play bass. We’ve always liked the dynamics and chemistry between three people on stage, but not having a bassist challenged us to come up with a unique kind of music, as well as a different style as guitar players.
Tucker: I also think there’s a frenetic energy with just our two guitars that we like, and we didn’t want to risk losing that by adding another instrument to the mix.
How do you approach writing your riffs?
Brownstein: No matter what type of music I’m listening to, what always catches me before the vocal comes in is when the band is playing a good riff. That’s what appeals to me about early blues stuff like Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson—or even mid-period blues like Buddy Guy or B.B. King. Before they start singing, the band is chugging on a riff. So, when I’m writing, I always think, “If I can just come up with a good riff everything else will fall into place.” If the riff isn’t interesting, it’s hard for me to stay engaged as a listener. And when I play live, it’s fun to have a cool riff that starts the song. When we write, it’s all about the parts. The sonic character comes in later.
During the writing process, does Corin come in with chord progression, and then you lay a riff over that?
Brownstein: Actually it’s sort of reversed. I often come in with a riff, and Corin will fill out the chord progression underneath it. It’s almost like the song is written inside out.
Is there a particular two-guitar band that has had a big influence on you guys?
Brownstein: I would say Television. Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine had an amazing language they spoke with their guitars.
Tucker: Definitely Sonic Youth. Beat Happening was another two-guitar and drum band that was a big influence, as well.
Do you consider yourself perfectionists in the studio?
Brownstein: Only in the sense that I won’t let anything stand if it makes me cringe. I think that one important lesson to learn is that some mistakes are good. I don’t like listening to records that are too perfect. When I listen to a song, and I can hear the vocalist take a gasp, or hear a note in the solo that is kind of muted—like the guitarist didn’t hit it quite perfectly—it’s great. That’s character.
But where do you draw the line between character and a bad performance?
Brownstein: The part in question shouldn’t distract from the song. If I’m in the moment, for example, and there’s something that’s a little bit off, but it’s a cool mistake that adds to the song, then we usually keep it.
Do you still get asked a lot of questions about what it’s like to be in such a male-dominated industry?
Brownstein: Yeah. It was annoying, but now it has just become interesting. Fielding those questions has become part of the experience of playing music for me. A while back, I realized that no man has ever been asked how does it feel to be a man playing in a band. I’d like to think that music isn’t gender specific.
Why is a woman playing guitar in a rock band still such a big deal?
Brownstein: Many of the rock icons are male, so I think it’s hard for women to break through all that. In general, I think women are socialized to think that their role in music is relegated to singing or doing something that’s kind of an appendage to the rest of the band. When you only see yourself represented in the media that way, then you have no way of understanding all the possibilities that are out there for you.
If there were more women guitarists, young girls would definitely see that as a viable option. I just don’t think they’re seeing that right now. It’s “I can be Britney Spears and wear a half-shirt and dance around.” Sure, that’s easier—and you get more attention for it—but the more women who actually play guitar are seen, the more other women are going to know that it’s something they can do, too. –Excerpted from the February 2003 issue of Guitar Player