The wondrous musical chemistry on "One More Hour" is actually the result of a true punk rock love story: Sleater-Kinney's famously intense lead singer, Corin Tucker, wrote the song about the band's other founder, Carrie Brownstein, after they broke up from a brief romance driven by musical connection.
The two riot grrrls met after a 17-year-old Brownstein heard Tucker's previous band, Heavens to Betsy, at a college show. Brownstein, was a restless young guitarist in her first year of college in Bellingham, Washington. She was impressed by Tucker and wrote her a piece of fan mail. Before long, she had transferred schools and was living in Olympia, where Tucker also happened to live. Olympia was also the site of a rapidly growing indie music scene in the 1990s. "A lot of other folks were there as well; making music and art, recording one another in basements and putting out records on their friend's labels," said Brownstein. She described it as "a very non-monogamous musical community" where "everyone was playing in, like, ten bands," which meant that the original liaison between the two was relatively casual.
Immersed in Olympia's counter-culture, Brownstein and Tucker started the band in a basement rehearsal space, and named it randomly after a nearby highway off-ramp. Sleater-Kinney recorded its first album on a trip to Australia after Tucker graduated from college (Brownstein still had three years to go) and released it on local queercore label Chainsaw Records. The second Sleater-Kinney album, Call the Doctor, was an even bigger critical success. The way Brownstein tells it, they connected with the fearsome drummer Janet Weiss in 1996, signed to Kill Rock Stars, and the rest is history.
In telling the story, neither Brownstein nor Tucker typically mentions that the pair of founders were also in love. In the most romantic telling of the story, Brownstein describes their love as a spark induced by musical intoxication: "It felt a little like something had opened up," Brownstein said years later, as quoted in Rolling Stone. "I remember we were playing this song, and we have our mikes set up facing each other, and over her part I started singing this counterpart. It was 'Call the Doctor.' We just stopped, and she was like, 'That is so awesome, you have to keep doing that.' That song was a complete turning point. It just felt like I had fused with her. This bolt of lightning had gone from my chest to hers. And we just said, 'Oh, my God, when we sing together, what is that?' It was just…I couldn't even name it. It was so big."
Driven by this lightning-intense connection, the two had a brief relationship, during which Brownstein says "we were a lot more in love with the band" than with each other. This might have been true for Brownstein, but also sounds like she was the one with the "darkest eyes" and the mysterious "other girl": to impose a presumptuous label, we'll say that Brownstein was the heart-breaker in the pair.
"One More Hour," one of several heartache gems on Dig Me Out, includes an overlapping call and response between the pained Tucker and a half-comforting Brownstein. "And that time for me is not particularly sad," Brownstein says, "but [Corin's] take on that is really devastating. People responded so much to 'One More Hour,' and I was always like, 'Yeah, I like that one too,' but two years later it just hit me, wow, how sad that song is. It's like 'This song is so sad. Corin was so sad. All these people are relating to the song, and I'm totally blind to what this song's about!' Thank God we don't write songs about each other anymore."
Brownstein's words have a pleasantly careless sting to them—surely softened by time—but the whole story is a reminder of how sometimes "no pain no gain" is a great motto, especially if you're a rock n' roller. The pair's tortured chemistry on this album, perfected in "Dig Me Out" (a song where Tucker compares herself to sores on her lover's body) and deepened in "One More Hour," resulted in what is widely considered one of the best rock albums of the 1990s.
"One More Hour" is brimming with sincerity, but much of Sleater-Kinney's music has an ironic, feminist-minded edge. They are hard-hitting riot grrrls who have been known to tell reporters what questions they are not allowed to ask and casually assert educated critiques of the entire history of rock during interviews. Classic songs like "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" and "All Hands On The Bad One" poke rock n' roll fun at the male-dominated music industry, the construction of fandom, and gender roles in general. But one of their biggest assets—and one of the things that being an all-girl band with a close collaborative relationship seems to bring out—is their musical vulnerability. They are committed to making music that flies in the face of safe, commercial boundaries, and to them that means taking risks:
"To me, safe music is music that doesn't have any meaning whatsoever, that's more about just commercial success…than having something that you actually connect with people," says Tucker. "And also having an element of danger," adds Weiss. "Something that's scary or challenges the norms." Brownstein, herself one of the band's elements of danger, said in an interview with MTV, "I like something that is gonna make you stop for a moment or make you have to catch your breath." Theirs is an ethic of openness, an ethic that lends itself perfectly to exploring the relationship between punk rock and love.
Punk in general has a reputation for both male supremacy and self-satisfied guitar-smashing. Guitar-smashing, it would seem, is the visual symbol for the raw, nonspecific sense of rebellion associated with the music over the years. In the early 1990s, riot grrrl entered the scene with a new edge, as a reaction against the sexism of the indie music scene as well as the mainstream media. Riot grrrls made zines, issued manifestos, and tried to hold their male counterparts in music accountable for some of their masculinity issues. But most importantly, riot grrrls like Tucker and Brownstein were cultural activists: they pushed against the mainstream not just by critiquing, but by making their own music. Their guitar-smashing had a cause, and in the case of Sleater-Kinney, they defended the turf of girl bands while refusing to be pigeon-holed as one.
They carried that torch to the end: "We're not just a feminist band or a punk band or a girl band or whatever," Brownstein told Rolling Stone in 2003. "I mean, we are, but we're not only that. We're all those things at once."
The challenge and the victory of Sleater-Kinney was to take their symbolic power (as riot grrrls, as feminists, and as female punk rockers) and make it a channel for their deeper, more vulnerable and complex emotions. Nowhere is it more clear that they are not "just" a girl band or "just" a punk band than on "One More Hour."
Tucker, whose emotional presence and wild voice drives the song, believes that the whole album was about bridging the gap between love and outrage: "That's what I hope people understand: that you can love rock and roll and also be enraged about it. You can love society, you can love the country we live in, and also be enraged by it. You don't have to choose one or the other," she told an interviewer.
Even absent Tucker's explanation, the album struck many a reviewer as the perfect mixture of love and rage, not just a continuation of the punk tradition before it but an improvement on it. "It's as if Tucker is the latest voice called to tell the world that what punk has too often lacked is sensuality," said critic Chris Nelson. "She not only carries the message, however, she rectifies the situation." Someone at Kill Rock Stars once wrote that with Sleater-Kinney's songwriting, "It's like victory and having feelings become synonymous."
Although they deny that their romantic relationship is a huge influence on their work, even Weiss has remarked on the connection between Brownstein and Tucker (who is now married with two kids): "They do seem a little bit like soulmates when you hang around and play music with them," she told Spin Magazine in 2005. Listening to the music, where their guitars and voices combine as if they are literally playing as one, the soulmate theory seems like a good one.
But sometimes chemistry breeds volatility, and (not surprisingly) the trio started having problems on tour a couple albums later. As if they hadn't rebelled from the male model of rock music enough already, their problems led to a major departure from all known punk history that came before.
Brownstein explains the decision that Sleater-Kinney made at this critical juncture: "There were these two women in Olympia who specialized in couples therapy. We said, 'Well, we're in a band, but we're kind of like a big couple. Like a threesome.' Corin and I had the most issues. It was really hard." And with that, the nation's most prominent riot grrrls were off to the comfy couch of a counseling office.
"We set up some guidelines about putting our friendships first," said Brownstein. "Because it's often two against one. And each one of us has been the one. It's pretty brutal."
Corin Tucker laughs about Sleater-Kinney's collective decision to get help: "If the Clash had gone to a counselor, they could have made some more great records. But, you know, no guy band is gonna go to counseling. No way! You have to be totally earth-mama, like us. Peppermint tea and counseling!"
The band's humble indie stars changed the face of punk in more than one way—infusing the 1990s with a new flavor of rock n' roll, and infusing the early 2000s with a rock band who had been to couples therapy. "In the play of Brownstein versus Tucker, they also allowed for something not often seen in rebellions of any sort: the certainty of uncertainty, the sureness of complication," said a 1997 review of Dig Me Out. In 2006, seven studio albums into rock anti-stardom, Sleater-Kinney announced they were taking an indefinite hiatus. The certainty of uncertainty perfected in "One More Hour" was literally the band's last word, and its final encore.