The Sleater-Kinney Guide to Living Well and Rocking Forever

s-k

1. Be Authentic 

The first thing about Sleater-Kinney is that no one else sounds like Sleater-Kinney. A lot of people have tried, and all of them have failed. The cold, hard truth is that the combination of Corin Tucker’s down-tuned, funky strums and Carrie Brownstein’s manic-yet-mathematical solos are the equivalent of hydrogen and oxygen coming together to make water. It’s a formula. The ratio of Corin to Carrie has to be perfect and precise. If the chemical equation is even slightly off balance, the band goes on hiatus. These are specific mysteries of the universe we’re talking about here, so don’t even try to pretend like you know what’s going on.

In all seriousness though, any guitarist who has read Sleater-Kinney tabs knows that these two musicians are so entirely original it’s uncanny. Who else but Corin could figure out how to play such counter-intuitive rhythms against Carrie’s? Who else but Carrie would build such a weird assembly of noises on such a solid foundation? And I haven’t even gotten to Janet Weiss. No one plays the drums like Janet Weiss. Even when she’s doing something completely minimal, you still know immediately that no one’s ever played that exact beat before. You also know that she fully believes in every single hit.

The ratio of Corin to Carrie has to be perfect and precise. If the chemical equation is even slightly off balance, the band goes on hiatus.

I have some words of advice for all aspiring artists: great art doesn’t come with a recipe. You will have to make your own recipe as you go along. For fifteen years, most people will probably say your food tastes like shit. But if you keep on cooking, after about twenty years, some people may come around to your particular flavor profile. By the time you’re 45 or so, if you’re lucky, you may actually have your own restaurant.

In the mean time, practice your ass off. Figure out what you do best. Get in touch with what you really feel and what you really want to say. Find the thing that you can do that no one else in the world can do, and live your whole life that way. In other words, be yourself. That way no one can tell you you’re doing it wrong.

At the end of the day, originality is more important than skill. Still, I guess it’s best if, like Sleater-Kinney, you’ve got both. The good news is that being yourself is a lot like playing an instrument: the more you practice, the easier it gets.

2. Take a Break

I recently read a statistic that said that us office workers get less productive over the course of the afternoon when we don’t leave the office at lunchtime. That statistic didn’t surprise me too much. It’s impossible to keep on working on the same thing forever, even when you’re fully engrossed in your work. We all need a break. So did Sleater-Kinney. Now excuse me, I need to check Facebook and binge eat some Thin Mints.

In all honesty, though, I’ve been the kind of person who’s revised a single page of writing hundreds of times, cutting and cutting away the bad parts, editing the thing down to a single sentence before realizing, “Oh my god. I just cut out all of the good parts, too!” Many times, I find that a creative project simply is not working out the way I’d hoped, and I beat myself up over it. Or, worse, I keep on working and working until the damn thing makes me miserable. A word of advice to everyone else involved in working hard: don’t do what I do.

Weirdly enough, Sleater-Kinney was smart about work-life balance in a way that very few artists are. It’s hard to quit while you’re ahead, but Sleater-Kinney made the choice to take a break from touring in 2006 to focus on other priorities: Carrie wanted to do comedy, Corin wanted to spend time with her family, and Janet? Well, Janet just wanted to play the drums. According to the New York Times, Carrie figured out that touring was making her miserable, and she was experiencing anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, Corin was missing her son. And if the new song “Hey Darling” is any indication, she wasn’t too happy in the spotlight either: “Sometimes the heat of the crowd feels a little too close,” she sings. “Sometimes the shout of the room makes me feel so alone.”

Weirdly enough, Sleater-Kinney was smart about work-life balance in a way that very few artists are.

So rather than burn out or fade away, as Neil or Kurt would have it, the three of them decided to, for lack of a better word, chill. Let the band incubate for awhile. Try some new stuff. Take a break and come back to it. And what do you know, the music didn’t just disappear as soon as they turned their backs. It gained force over time. It did its own work. Even while they were busy writing for NPR, making comedy shows, raising kids, and playing in other bands, Sleater-Kinney still existed. That’s the value of having made something. It never goes away. Even if no one is listening to it, even if no one ever hears it but you, even if your thing gets destroyed and the earth gets blown up through nuclear warfare or hit by an asteroid, the fact remains that you made something that did not exist before. And there’s always value in that. Also, if the earth doesn’t get destroyed while you’re on hiatus, you can get the band back together. And all of your ideas, your hopes, your musical dreams, your abilities and skills, they will still be there. You will just be a little older and wiser, your voice a little more mature, like Corin’s is on the new love songs. Art is a marathon, not a sprint. So take time out and live life when you have to. Everything you see and do along the road will only make you stronger when you’re ready to run again.

3. Women Can Choose the Lives they Want

Besides Corin’s battle cry of a voice, one of the most inspiring things about S-K is how different its members’ lives ended up being. Corin chose to settle down and have kids. Carrie had something like three different careers in the interim and somehow managed to carve out a niche for herself as an alt-A-list celeb. Janet stuck to music, but definitely made the rounds in her own way, pursuing her own project and playing drums in many other bands as well.

Now that they’re no longer the teens whose fresh faces adorned the dusty vinyl of my college radio station, these women serve as examples of the fact that there is no one right way to live your life. The teacher who once told me that a woman’s desire to be creative “simply goes away” after she has children was obviously not a huge Sleater-Kinney fan. Corin is a mom and got herself a day job working in web design. As is clear from the renewed power of her singing, motherhood did not at all inhibit her ability to create, and, in fact, has probably strengthened and deepened her connection to her work. That’s what she needed to do, and more power to her. Doesn’t make her any less of an artist. I would love to drag that particular teacher to Terminal 5 to see Corin fill up that huge, cavernous room with her voice and just stand there and watch as that prejudice got blown away.

The teacher who once told me that a woman’s desire to be creative “simply goes away” after she has children was obviously not a huge Sleater-Kinney fan.

When Corin gets on TV or on the cover of some magazine or something like that, it makes me so happy to see her looking, well, like herself. I’m so sick of sanitized images of middle-aged women. What’s beautiful is the smile lines Corin’s got, the thought lines, the awesome, deep eyes, the experience that’s visible in her face and audible in her voice. I often worry that the emphasis the internet places on speed of discovery makes us leap to snatch up all the art that’s new, while forgetting that good art takes a long time. Very often, the people who have been around the longest have the most to say. And while rock and roll was once an aspect of youthful rebellion, we’re rapidly entering a different sort of era. It’s undeniable that the genre has changed and is continuing to. At this point, several generations have grown up on it. I’m part of one of these generations, and I hope I can continue to grow up on it as long as I can. In my thirties, I want rock stars who do and don’t look like me. I want rock stars with careers. Rock stars with families. Rock stars with honesty, social responsibility, and integrity. Rock stars to look up to. Rock stars who lean in, lean out, and do jump kicks while singing fuck it to the whole system.

Amy Klein

Amy Klein

Amy Klein is a New York City-based writer and musician.
Amy Klein

Latest posts by Amy Klein (see all)