Music

A Deep Dive Into Sleater-Kinney With Hungry Modern Girl Carrie Brownstein

"All you can do is put work you’re proud of out into the world."

There’s a moment in Carrie Brownstein’s recent memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, where she recounts the memory of an early gig with her band, Excuse 17, played in support of post-rockers Codeine. Unlike the hundreds of shows she’d go on to play as part of Sleater-Kinney, this one did not go well.

Unfamiliar with playing in large venues with elaborate sound systems, Carrie and her bandmates couldn’t amplify their sound the way they needed to, and came across looking (and sounding) shambolic and amateurish. She writes that they’d later watch Codeine perform “a taut, deliberate set while we felt undeserving of having ever been onstage, blaming one another and ourselves, mad and heartbroken”. This not only adds texture to her origin story, but serves as a reminder that it’s not that women can’t play music (lol) or that they don’t know how to negotiate the technical skills required to be in a band (please), it’s that the act of asking questions, of demystifying the process, is off-limits to them in a way that it’s not for men in the same position. One mis-phrased question to the sound guy or one too many questions to a booker, and a woman in a band can be instantly written off as a fraud.

Just as her book exposed what it was like behind the scenes of one of the best-loved rock bands of the ’90s and ’00s, it lifts the curtains on this very specific sense of disquietude that comes with being a girl in the boys’ club. It forcibly removes the rose-coloured glasses from the faces of everyone who’s been swept up in the ’90s resurgence and riot grrrl nostalgia machine in recent years (guilty) by regaling us with the reality of life in Olympia, Washington (the one from the song!) at that time. But it also acts as a loving archive of all that Sleater-Kinney stood for. A lifelong fan herself, Carrie has written the ultimate guide for Sleater-Kinny die-hards by painstakingly recounting their fears and aspirations, fights and allegiances that occurred between the band’s formation in Sydney and its dissolution, 10 years later, during a 2006 European tour.

When the band returns to tour Australia this month, they’ll play gigs all over our major cities with Carrie also taking the stage in Sydney and Melbourne to discuss how the music influenced her life. Before that, I called her up to ask some very specific questions about the parts of her book that I (and many other fans) lovingly dog-eared.

Junkee: I read your book a few months ago on a trip to Sydney, and it was such a strange experience to be reading your memories of forming Sleater-Kinney there while I was in the same place, decades later. What does it mean to be going back there again with Corin [Tucker] and Janet [Weiss]?

CB: We’ve been back a couple times; it’s not like we recorded the album and haven’t been back in 28 or 30 years. I think we have a fondness for Australia, and it definitely feels like it’s part of the story of this band. There’s almost a familiarity to it that I think we really embrace.

On a practical level, we’re always excited to go over in the summer when it’s winter here.

The book is ultimately about being a fan and how fandom was your entry-point to music. What are you a fan of right now?

There’s this poet named Matthew Dickman; I feel like I always am giving his books of poetry out. Maggie Nelson, I’m a huge fan of her writing; Claudia Rankine. I loved the new Beyoncé song, ‘Formation’, that’s so great. I’ve been listening to the new Rihanna album a lot too. I guess I’m always seeking out new things, but I feel like that album is what I’m enmeshed in, musically.

Your career has gone through so many variations — as a musician, an actress, a writer, an animal shelter volunteer — that a lot of readers might’ve come to your book from different places or with different levels of fandom for Sleater-Kinney. Did you have a reader in mind when you were writing, and what did they look like?

You can’t really — or I don’t like to — write with a specific audience in mind because I think that can warp the process a little bit. I think the book seems pretty relateable, even for non-Sleater-Kinney fans.

I think the reason the book focuses more on Sleater-Kinney is that [the band] was a better container for the story that I wanted to tell, which was going from feeling disembodied and like an outsider, to finding a sense of place and community and belonging. The story of Sleater-Kinney served that narrative better.

In some ways, my ideal reader wasn’t a Sleater-Kinney fan at all, because you have to write something that’s interesting even for people that don’t know what you’re talking about when they start the book. So that’s the more ideal reader to think about, because otherwise you assume so much and leave out too much information.

There’s a page in your book where you talk about finding clues of your father’s sexuality in retrospect, like when you know the answer to something and can only then see all the little hints that could’ve lead you to it. Did you have a similar experience of self-discovery about yourself when you wrote this book? Did it explain parts of yourself that you didn’t realise were connected?

I think so. I think that discovery is kind of latent, because the process of writing a book is so deliberate and intentional and it’s not diaristic. You’re not just pouring something emotional onto the page; you’re thinking about syntax and tone and tempo. Later, I think I was able to get a sense of the bigger picture, but I think in writing it, it was more about how to tell a story the way I wanted to tell a story in terms of theme and chronology. So I guess it felt like that in retrospect.

Unlike lots of memoir writing that tries to put a nice spin on past events, yours didn’t feel revisionist, or like you were trying to sweep your mistakes or rebellions under the rug so you come off looking good. To the point where you come across looking pretty bad a lot of the time, particularly in band-related issues. You dedicated the book to your bandmates, but what were Corin and Janet’s responses to the book?

Well, I should say that, with Corin, there were elements of the story that had never been told publicly and I wanted to make sure she was comfortable with those sections of the book. So she was the only person — aside from my editors — that I read sections of the book to, and I actually read them to her when we were on tour. She was really flattered.

I guess the best way to answer your question is, the weird thing that happens is that people are actually more offended about being excluded than they are about being included. People want to be written about. I think it would’ve been more frightening if I hadn’t included them.

It never aimed to be some kind of definitive biography of the band, and it doesn’t claim to be, so I don’t think they were worried about that. When Corin finished the book she sent me a text that said, “It’s even better than I thought it would be”, and Janet also sent me a really nice message. So they were really happy with it.

How is touring with them different now to how it was then? The book opens with a really intense touring story, and being on the road was so much a part of what Sleater-Kinney was about. What’s changed in the last ten years?

I think that we are more aware of each other’s strengths and limitations on tour, and we try to cater to all of those. And that’s not just mine; Corin has two children and she can’t be out on the road for six straight months. I think her schedule dictates our touring life, as does my schedule, because we run into Portlandia production in the summer, which is a common time for bands to tour. It’s kind of frustrating for me, and everyone else, that we can’t do festivals in the summer. There’s logistics that keep us touring less frequently but it also means that we enjoy tour more because we don’t take it for granted; we’re not on the road for very long so we try to make the most of it.

You’ve talked a lot in interviews about the casual conversation between you and Corin where you both decided to start working as Sleater-Kinney again, but in the years before that you were making music in Wild Flag and she was fronting The Corin Tucker Band. Was there music you were each filing away during those years, that you saved with Sleater-Kinney in mind?

No, I think that it wasn’t until we were first fully immersed in the band again that we started writing for Sleater-Kinney. And even once we were, we were not even certain that we would put out a record unless we really liked it. I think we were really hesitant to put out anything that would not be something we were proud of. It’s sort of all or nothing; there’s no way in dabbling or trying to write a song for Sleater-Kinney. We needed a commitment from everyone before we really got writing again.

The book talks about the ways that the press will dictate your story and character if you don’t form that narrative of your own, referring to that Spin magazine story [a 1997 cover feature on the band made public the fact that Carrie and Corin were in a relationship, something they hadn’t told many people]. How much of the memoir was kind of setting the record straight and laying out your narrative on your own terms?

I think you just can’t control that. It’s a rabbit-hole to go down to try to control people’s impression or interpretation of you. I think all you can do is put work you’re proud of out into the world and the good stuff gets talked about and dissected.

It affects people in different ways, sometimes it’s divisive, the impressions are varied and disparate — but I don’t think you can worry about that. I try to focus on the other side of it, which is the making of it, the creating of it, the innovation. And I enjoy immensely getting to tour with the band, or getting to tour with the book, where I can meet people — that’s all very rewarding and I feel lucky that people connect to the things I have done and do. I try not to worry about every little misinterpretation; life is full of those, in every realm. And you can get really tripped up on trying to over-explain something until you take all the joy and mystery out of it.

Sleater-Kinney 2016 Australian Tour

Adelaide: March 4, HQ – tickets here

Brisbane: March 5, The Triffid – tickets here

Sydney: March 6, Sydney Opera House – tickets here

Melbourne: March 9-11, The Croxton Bandroom – SOLD OUT

Carrie will also be explaining some of the joy and mystery on stage in Sydney on March 6 (in partnership with All About Women) and in Melbourne on March 8 (in partnership with The Wheeler Centre).

Brodie Lancaster is a writer and editor from Melbourne. She edits Filmme Fatales, a zine about women and cinema, and has contributed to Rookie, Rolling Stone, Vulture and Pitchfork.