What it's like to be a grown man whose favorite band is three women | Music Feature | Indy Week
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What it's like to be a grown man whose favorite band is three women 

Brian Shaw and the Sleater-Kinney credo

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Brian Shaw and the Sleater-Kinney credo

I have seen Sleater-Kinney four times this year. I have cried every time.

Standing near the back of the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., watching my favorite band for the first time in 13 years, tears streamed down my face as the drums dropped into the song "Modern Girl" during the first half of a two-night stand. Corralled into a stage-right throng in Philadelphia, the crowd's chorus for "Sympathy"—Corin Tucker's personal anthem of motherhood, offered as a communal hymn—got me. And when I was stuck behind a railing in New York City during "Dig Me Out," barreling power and the unbridled joy of kids half my age dancing as hard as I've ever seen anyone anywhere dance overtook me.

The essence of one's favorite band is hard to describe. Though I have done so on occasion, it's silly to suggest Sleater-Kinney is empirically better than everyone else. And to say Sleater-Kinney and I were made for one another seems a tad dramatic. But really, what's more dramatic than finding your favorite band?

There's another complication for Sleater-Kinney and me, as the band consists of three women who have had an incalculable impact on inspiring and enabling other females to make music, art or most anything during the last quarter-century. Among sold-out crowds of gleaming-eyed women aged 14 to 50, all shouting lyrics from the depths of their hearts, I too lost my composure night after night.

But I am a 31-year-old balding male.

Gender was never a motivating factor in my discovery or embrace of Sleater-Kinney, even though it is essential to their perspective and legacy. In January, for instance, the band participated in a panel discussion with Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, stars of the TV sitcom Broad City. The comedic pair (and, by proxy, the show's producer, Amy Poehler) expressed gratitude to the band for facilitating their artistic expression as women. After a decade-long hiatus followed by a new album and tour this year, similar stories have emerged from all corners of the media world, uniformly shared by women motivated by Sleater-Kinney. "As long as Sleater-Kinney are making art and music," The Gossip's Beth Ditto put it, "then there's always going to be a place in the world for women to be taken seriously."

Still, I did not come to Sleater-Kinney because they provided role models to which I could relate. And I did not come to Sleater-Kinney because their lyrics spoke to my experience, though they sometimes do. I came to Sleater-Kinney because they were the best band I'd ever heard.

In December 2000, I attended a three-night charity event in Raleigh called the Great Cover Up, where local bands offered tribute sets to their heroes. It was rumored that Goner—a three-piece made of men—would perform as Sleater-Kinney. At 17, I hadn't progressed beyond the basics of indie rock, so I'd never heard of Sleater-Kinney. My friend Michelle, however, was excited enough to intrigue me. With a wash of clashing guitars and vocal acrobatics, this music was unlike anything I'd ever heard.

I dove into the records, especially 1999's The Hot Rock; the round, bouncing opening chords of "Get Up" poured from the speakers of my 1995 Pontiac Bonneville. Its layered counterpoint—and that of all the best Sleater-Kinney songs, really—is magnificent and swirling. "Get Up" is no longer my favorite Sleater-Kinney number, but it was the first one I ever loved; years later, I paid for the cover of its single to be tattooed on my left shoulder.

The musical strength of Sleater-Kinney comes from their ability to funnel several distinct voices into one compelling sound: Tucker's guitar is low and rumbling, a bedrock for her soaring voice. Those pieces bookend Carrie Brownstein's ear-twisting guitar lines and alternately smooth-and-agitated vocals. Janet Weiss' drumming and singing are always the last thing to be mentioned, but her presence is powerful. To wit, she joined Sleater-Kinney between Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out; while Call the Doctor documented a band of fine songwriters led by Tucker's tempestuous vocals, the opening seconds of Dig Me Out revealed a new force of nature.

Someone will occasionally say it's strange for me, a straight white male, to be so enamored with a "girl band," a pair of words that say very little. (This never happens within the band's fandom, mind you; my gender has yet to be an issue at shows or in discussing my love for Sleater-Kinney with other zealots.) But the gender of Sleater-Kinney's members never struck me as a point of concern. Yes, Brownstein is a world-making, multidisciplinary female role model to many—a TV star, a popular writer, a trendsetter. She's also the perfect medium between Tom Verlaine and Bob Mothersbaugh, slicing in and out of compositions in constantly inventive ways. Weiss barrels from song to song, projecting energy but never distracting with it. And Tucker is a wellspring of passion and fury, her graceful phrases pushing through chaos. These characteristics have very little to do with sex; it's just that my favorite musicians happen to be female.

I'm not the only man to share such a strong connection to this music, of course. Patrick Stickles, founder of New Jersey band Titus Andronicus, once cited a Sleater-Kinney show as a moment that led him to play rock music. Neither Stickles nor I bare any resemblance to Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss; we both love rock 'n' roll.

My Sleater-Kinney indoctrination came six months too late to see the tour for All Hands On the Bad One. I waited nearly two years for the release of 2002's One Beat to see my new top band. From the inclusion of my all-time favorite Sleater-Kinney song, the then-new "Light Rail Coyote," to the encore-ending "Dig Me Out," it remains one of the great nights of my life.

Indeed, that last moment remains the single most ferocious encounter I've ever had with a band onstage. They were on fire. The crowd was on fire. If it's weird to say that a rock band made me feel alive, then I'm OK being weird. Even in my best times, it's a feeling I haven't felt since.

Sleater-Kinney returned to North Carolina in 2005 to play in Winston-Salem, a 90-mile drive. A foolish college student, I decided it was too far. I vowed to catch them next time around. Soon after, they went on a hiatus that lasted nearly a decade.

As you can surmise, I'm not much for travel. Still, when they announced a new album and tour for 2015, I booked a three-city train trip to see them play four times in five days. The closest live date was Washington, D.C., six times farther than the once-too-far Winston.

I don't regret the decision. The new album, No Cities to Love, demonstrates Sleater-Kinney never ended, only paused. And the shows fulfilled the decade-plus of expectations left lingering from those three minutes of "Dig Me Out." Buoyed by excellent British guitarist Katie Harkin, the band is stronger than ever. During those four performances, I was in near-constant awe—a reminder that this is a righteous rock band, and that's why I love them.

This brings me back to that tear-jerking version of "Modern Girl" in Washington. It's a ballad of simple guitar lines and hummable verses that deliver a poignant message: "Happy/Hunger/Anger makes me a modern girl." But the magic happens in the crescendo of the third verse, where Weiss' beat falls into place while she plays a countermelody on harmonica. Tucker supplies a high harmony, and Brownstein sings, "I took my money/I couldn't buy nothin'." It's a merely mid-tempo song, but it consumed me.

I was still crying when "Modern Girl" shifted seamlessly into "Dig Me Out." The move whipped the crowd into a frenzy, much like the one I had felt 13 years earlier. It will always be silly to call any band the greatest of all time. But at that moment, to me, Sleater-Kinney seemed like precisely that—their gender, and mine, be damned.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Male model."

  • Brian Shaw is not shy when it comes to his love for Sleater-Kinney.

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