Drive south from Seattle on Interstate 5, through the outer suburbs and Tacoma and a steady stream of Burger Kings, and you'll know you've nearly hit Olympia when you see exit signs for Sleater-Kinney Road. Here three women once paid their dues lugging amps and guitars to a storage space where they practiced. It was the mid-'90s, when talent scouts still scoured Seattle for the next Nirvana, handing out record deals to young men in flannel with evocative band names (remember Candlebox?). Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney's singer-guitarists, lacked the commercial ambition to come up with a moniker that didn't glare at them from the highway. "Our friends gave us a lot of flak," says Brownstein, "naming all the other roads in Olympia that we could have used." David Geffen's ear was not glued to the wall of their cube.
Five albums later, Sleater-Kinney (Sleater rhymes with crater) is out of storage. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau declares that "they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967." Journalists routinely describe them as the world's greatest rock-'n'-roll band, a tag once reserved for the Stones. Big record labels have vainly courted them for years. Their new album, All Hands on the Bad One, contains some of the best songs of their career. For all the band's exposure on MTV's 120 Minutes and MTV2, Brownstein is in even heavier rotation as a guitarist in William Shatner's backup band in the Priceline.com ads--can one imagine higher honors? And aside from the rain, it's hard to imagine a town less like London circa 1967 than Olympia.
Hard, for example, to imagine Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull putting on this week's Ladyfest, Olympia's six-day festival of female bands, artists and speakers, open to both sexes. Workshops range from guitar lessons to basic auto mechanics, "girls only." Besides Sleater-Kinney, other nationally known Olympia acts performing include Bangs (a blissful marriage of the Go-Gos and the Ramones), the Need, and the Gossip. The bands from out of town are also formidable (Cat Power, the Rondelles, Bratmobile), but it's no coincidence that it's happening here.
Olympia's rock scene used to be Seattle's unpopular sister, sequestered in a state capital of 40,000 with a Norman Rockwellish downtown specializing in hiking gear and Italian sodas, and a local college, Evergreen, that is one of America's most left-wing and unconventional fonts of higher learning. While Seattle's bands headbanged on MTV in the alternative-rock heyday of the early '90s, Olympia was locked in her bedroom reading postmodern gender theory and writing songs on her eight-track for college-radio cognoscenti. Now that Seattle's grunge empire has been sacked and burned on the charts by Kid Rock and his rap-metal hordes, Olympia's homework is starting to pay off.