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Sleater-Kinney’s Hands-On Approach

It's hard to be a riot grrrl in a world where everyone from Britney Spears to the Spice Girls has appropriated the term "girl power" and lunkish boy bands

It’s hard to be a riot grrrl in a world where everyone from Britney Spears to the Spice Girls has appropriated the term “girl power” and lunkish boy bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn dominate the pop charts. But as the biggest crossover artists to come out of that musical movement, Sleater-Kinney has succeeded in keeping its idealism ignited on its latest Kill Rock Stars album, All Hands on the Bad One.

However, the present environment doesn’t help, says guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein. “In music, it just suddenly seemed like female musicians kind of became ghetto-ized again,” says the Sleater-Kinney co-founder from her Olympia, Wash., home, discussing the assaults on female audience members at Woodstock ’99 and movies such as Fight Club. “It was like a big backlash. A lot of these male musicians felt it was like their right to get back after all these women had softened up rock and kind of ruined it. It just seems like now is not the time to put out a record that isn’t saying anything. If you’re silent, you’re just complicit in continuing this really sexist behavior.”

At turns humorous and hard-hitting, the new album’s lyrics attack the frat-boy tendencies in today’s pop culture. “I could be demure like /girls who are soft for/boys who are fearful of/getting an earful/But I gotta rock!/I’d rather be a Ladyman,” vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker yowls in “Ballad of a Ladyman” like a new sort of Ziggy Stardust above surging mellotron and punchy chord progressions. Other songs such as “#1 Must Have” poke fun at the commercialization of girl power (“They took our ideas to their marketing stars/and now I’m spending all my days at”), and tunes like “Male Model” tweak male vanity (“You don’t own the situation, honey/You don’t own the stage/We’re here to join the conversation/And we’re here to raise the stakes.” Keyboards and Weiss’ vocals move further up in the mix this time around, and Tucker tries out new vocal characters. The result is a powerful musical statement that rebuts those who still think women can’t rock.

All Hands also marks the return of producer John Goodmanson (Harvey Danger, Blonde Redhead), who worked on the trio’s Call the Doctor and the critically acclaimed Dig Me Out. “We decided that we definitely wanted to work with John again primarily because of the way the songs sounded,” drummer/vocalist Janet Weiss says. “He has a real knack for making things sound rockin’, making things really explode. The Hot Rock was really introverted and complex. All Hands on the Bad One is very confident and sassy.”

The album is also a testament to the communal spirit that rules Sleater-Kinney’s school of indie rock ‘n’ roll. “It’s an interesting band, the dynamics between the three of them. It’s a democracy, so you have a little bit of strife sometimes,” says engineer Larry Crane, who had previously worked on Sleater side projects such as Weiss’ Quasi and Tucker’s Cadallaca. “It’s a lot of give and take. It would be one of the hardest things to be in a band like that. But there’s such a respect from each one for each other that it all balances out. And being a democracy, if someone doesn’t like a certain sound, and the other two really like it, it gets to go.”

All Hands began to take shape last spring, when the five-year-old band (named after an exit off I-5 in Olympia) started to work on the songs. “I think that we were really kind of going in the direction of intense musical intricacy with Hot Rock,” Tucker says, “and it was almost like being in this pressure cooker of ‘Oh, we have to live up to this complicated musical scheme.’ One day, we had a talk about it, and we thought, ‘Let’s just open the door and write whatever comes into our heads.’ So for me that was the door opening, and I just started writing a bunch of songs.”

The band’s collaborative aesthetic extended to songwriting, which was mainly done last fall with Brownstein and Tucker practicing at each others’ Olympia and Portland, Ore., homes. Sometimes, Brownstein says, Tucker would bring in two parts of a song, such as “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun” or “Ballad of a Ladyman” and Brownstein would write the break, or vice versa.

The songs were recorded as demos at Weiss’ Portland project studio. “I have one of those Roland digital 8-tracks and a really basic studio-lots of SM57s, an Alesis Microverb and a Mackie submixer,” the drummer says. “I have a really basic setup, but I do some recording in the dining room, and I’m lucky to have a nice-sounding house, with wood floors and high ceilings.”

Some vocals were recorded at Goodmanson’s Seattle studio, John & Stu’s Place, the former Reciprocal Recording Studio, where influential grunge recordings such as Nirvana’s Bleach were cut. But most of the tracking was done in five or six days at Crane’s Jackpot! studio in December.

“I think getting out of that room [at John & Stu’s] was a big part of this current record and the last record, too,” Goodmanson says. “The thing is Jackpot! is a 16-track and I knew they were going to need 24 tracks to get all their ideas down, so I ended up bringing my 24-track tape machine back and forth from Seattle to Portland. It was exhausting, but it kind of worked out-it kept them close enough to home so that they were comfortable, but enough away from home that they didn’t feel like it was practice. They were really on task the whole time.”

Jackpot! has a small 25×25-foot live room and no isolation booths, says Goodmanson, “So, I was very worried about [bleed] when we first got there. But it actually worked out great. Larry’s got his system for keeping stuff separate from each other. I think they did their acoustics by ear when they were building, which actually, I think, works a lot better than somebody trying to get scientific with it a lot of times. My own live room is three times the size of Jackpot!, but it’s also very dry and dead.”

Not surprisingly, Crane is a firm believer in bleed. “We just put some office-panel-type baffles in front of the amps. There wasn’t too much problem with the snare rattle, and the bleed was good,” he says. “I just think when you’re playing a guitar in a room with drums, and there’s just enough bleed that it’s coming through the overhead, it makes the guitar sound so much larger, and it makes it feel like a live tape.”

Planning ahead helped speed up the sessions. “Pulling the sounds together, we spent a bit of time on each song, getting their live guitar sounds and using lots of different flavors for that,” Goodmanson explains. “I tend to favor recording with smaller guitar amps as opposed to big giant live rigs, and we would just go from amp to amp, song by song.” The dozen amps used included two Vox, borrowed for Brownstein’s guitar, and Goodmanson’s battery-powered Mini-Twin amps, an old Ampeg Jet and a little Fender Pro Junior, which he calls “the greatest amp in the world. I think it’s a copy of the old Champ circuit or something, and it just sounds monstrous-no one would ever guess, because it’s like 5 watts.”

Crane used Beta 57s on a lot of the guitar amps, but also used a Manley CR3A Langevin for Brownstein and a new Shure KSM32 for Tucker-“the condenser mic that looks like a Ford Taurus,” he explains. “But it’s got really good low end, so it was really good to put on Corin’s guitar, because they don’t have a bass player. It’s really hard to get the bottom end to fill out on a record properly. So we used that to kind of bring out more bass, and Corin would sometimes play through two amps. One was deeper sounding, and we’d put that mic on that amp and put that through its own track, and then bring it in for a little more boom on the bottom end for the record-just to make it sound full.”

Tucker played a Danelectro with vintage pickups as well as Goodmanson’s Les Paul through a DOD equalizing pedal and a Vox overdrive pedal, among other effects. “I like very uncomplicated guitar sounds for myself,” Tucker adds.

Brownstein says she went for a variety of specific tones, mostly because Tucker’s lyrics were so audacious, they demanded powerful rather than “post-punk, angular, tinny, trebly” guitar. “A lot of the distortion is overdriven amp as opposed to pedals, and it’s raw in some ways but refined,” she says. “I think my playing has also become more refined, so that allows me to have the sound be a little more texturally raw instead of having an unrefined style and a really unrefined sound.”

Drums got SM57s on the toms and snare, an RE20 on the kick, slightly inside the shell, and a pair of Earthworks TC30s overhead, as well as an AKG D112 over the center of the kit. Crane also threw a Radio Shack Optimus PZM around the room for “Leave You Behind.”

Goodmanson says they tried to do punch-ins and fixes on each live track before they moved on. After the basic recording, the band sat down and decided what other sounds they needed. “I thought that was really a fun thing to do,” Weiss says. “We all had our pens and papers and just sort of brainstormed on what we wanted to add or what direction we wanted the songs to go in. It was kind of like being at camp-and liking it!”

The band started doing overdubs, when Goodmanson left to work on a major-label project for the band Relative Ash. That’s when Goodmanson’s impact was definitely felt, says Weiss, who describes him as fast, intuitive and pleasant, yet decisive. “He’s shaping the thing, but in a really unobtrusive way, and he doesn’t let you know how much he’s actually doing, but when he’s not there that’s when you realize, ‘Omigod, John is integral.’ Without John, we fall apart in the studio,” she says with a laugh. “Really, he’s like the fourth member for the recording process.”

Goodmanson doesn’t give himself as much credit: “That’s really nice, but I have a theory about that. You start the record with a certain dynamic in place and if that dynamic changes it kind of throws things off balance.”

Sleater next moved to John & Stu’s to do vocals and guitars and then went back to Jackpot! to track more guitars, keyboards and other musical textures. Synthesizer, mellotron, piano, Wurlitzer and Hammond L102 were played by Weiss, Sarah Dougher of Cadallaca and Sam Coomes of Quasi. “[Coomes] has a little Roland vintage keys module, and he was running that off of a MIDI keyboard, and also running John’s samplers,” Crane recalls. “You can run MIDI to MIDI to MIDI, and we triggered the keyboard to run both of the different mellotron modules at the same time, and then I blended it down to the mixing board and ran it to tape, so it’s really layered more than a single-voice module.”

Tracking the vocals was very straightforward with some slightly distorted scratch vocals making it on songs such as “Milkshake ‘n Honey.” Goodmanson says, “They’re to the point now that they’re doing a nice straight-up vocal sound. I didn’t want to put too much distance between them and the audience that way.” Tucker’s vocals took an AKG 414, Brownstein’s an SM7 and Weiss’ an RE20.

“I think a primary difference is that I sing a lot more on this record,” Weiss says. Her vocals are on half the songs. “This record is all about having your voice be heard, and so it was just natural that I start singing now. I think we noticed it at the live shows that it was really moving, and people would comment after the show, ‘Boy, when you all sing, it’s incredible.'”

The four-day mix moved back to John & Stu’s, mainly because Goodmanson felt familiar with the setup. Goodmanson’s desk is an old Quad Eight console with no automation, and he rented an Ampex 11/42-inch tape machine to mix to. “I’m not really big on a lot of outboard gear,” he says. “I got a really great old spring reverb at my studio, an old AKG reverb tower,” he says. “It was a breeze, and I think [Sleater-Kinney] were surprised by how fast it got mixed because they went through a couple phases, remixing stuff, for The Hot Rock.” The album was mastered in February at Sterling Sound in New York City by Greg Calbi.

In the end, both the band and the production team were extremely excited with the power of All Hands on the Bad One-and they had some rock ‘n’ roll fun at the same time. “I want to be inspired by women playing music, really badly,” says Weiss, “and I want other people to be able to have that as well, and hopefully we can do that.”