Corin Tucker, singer and guitarist for the great punk trio Sleater-Kinney, was talking about the night she crossed paths with the Backstreet Boys. "They were recording in the same studio. It was"--in a perfect mall-rat accent--"we're definitely meeting them. For sure. We met the one, I think his name is Kevin." She was asked whether the pop star treated her as if she were a besotted fan or another musician. "Well!" Tucker said. "Total besotted fan. He didn't see me as a musician at all. He doesn't know who I am. He'd never listen to Sleater-Kinney."
Sleater-Kinney, composed of Tucker, 28, guitarist-singer Carrie Brownstein, 26, and drummer-singer Janet Weiss, 35, is a punk band because, among other reasons, a sense of exclusion and marginalization is part of what drives its music. That sense is a source of the vehemence in the trio's sound, which--on albums released on the small Pacific Northwest labels Chainsaw and Kill Rock Stars--has become at once bigger and more agile, harsher and more unpredictable, since the band formed in 1994 in Olympia, Wash. The world is organized so as not to have to listen to songs as frightening and fast as Youth Decay, from last year's album All Hands on the Bad One, and there are thousands of people living in the world desperate to hear a song so unafraid of its own noise, to go to a show precisely to feel unafraid of the noise that they themselves might make.
On the radio, a Sleater-Kinney song throws everything around it off balance, the way a Smokey Robinson composition like The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage can make whatever might play before or after it seem stupid. "It can be thrilling and scary at the same time," Weiss says of hearing the band's music on the radio, which, on commercial stations, almost never happens. "To be involved in that--it's almost as if it's not real."
Tucker has an almost unnaturally huge voice, but when momentum builds inside a Sleater-Kinney rhythm and then arrives like a flash flood, the sound makes Tucker's seem the only appropriate voice to speak of what's at stake: in Youth Decay, love and hate, life and death.
Sleater-Kinney also plays any number of light, happy tunes that don't threaten anybody--that's what one is supposed to say after talking about a song like Youth Decay, to take the edge off. But with Sleater-Kinney the edge is never off. It's what the band was created to pursue: "2001 will be a space odyssey for us, and we won't...be here," Brownstein said from the stage at Sleater-Kinney's most recent show, last November in San Francisco. In the midst of their brief hiatus, Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss remain off the radio but on the mind of the pop world, and plotting their return.
Greil Marcus is a columnist for Salon.com and Interview and author of The Old, Weird America