The Classic Sleater-Kinney Lineup Looks Back on ‘The Hot Rock,’ 25 Years After Its Release

One could call Sleater-Kinney’s The Hot Rock a departure album, but no such thing really exists in their discography. The critically acclaimed band from the Pacific Northwest has never stood still stylistically for long. Though they started out as part of Olympia, Washington’s riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney has become increasingly difficult to categorize over the years. At the time of its release in 1999, Sleater-Kinney’s fourth album was their strongest declaration of their willingness to tread new musical territory.

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Just prior to the 25th anniversary of The Hot Rock’s release, the trio that comprised Sleater-Kinney from 1996 to 2019 (minus an eight-year hiatus) shared their thoughts about this important album in the band’s discography with American Songwriter via email. Guitarist/vocalists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss (who left the band after recording The Center Won’t Hold) discussed their impressions of the album in general, as well as their favorite tracks.

Starting from Square One, Together

All three members of Sleater-Kinney were wanting to create an album that was markedly different from their 1997 breakthrough Dig Me Out. After having worked with producer John Goodmanson on their previous two albums, the band hired Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Guster, Jill Sobule) to produce The Hot Rock. Weiss says, “Following the explosive, raw energy of Dig Me Out, we wanted to explore cleaner, more intricate textures. The Hot Rock songs are mazelike, with Corin and Carrie’s vocal and guitar melodies neatly twisted together.” Browstein says The Hot Rock “felt quite experimental coming off the unhinged, fairly full-throttled energy of Dig Me Out.”

The change is apparent right from the opening bars of the album opener “Start Together.” It’s a little slower than the ferocious title track and opener to Dig Me Out, but by comparison, it feels far more spacious. That illusion is created in part by Tucker’s decision to try a different vocal approach. She says “Start Together” was “one of the first songs where I tried something different with my vocal, [with] the long stretched notes reaching across.” Tucker also cites the guitar interplay between her and Brownstein as a reason for the song’s unique feel, adding “the guitar playing locks in a way that sounds anthemic and uplifting.”

Tucker calls “Start Together” “one of our better songs.” The band is particularly fond of three other tracks from The Hot Rock—”Burn, Don’t Freeze,” “Get Up,” and “A Quarter to Three.” Each one is a showcase for Sleater-Kinney’s successful experimentation. In their messages to American Songwriter, they explain what makes these songs special and what makes them work.

“Burn, Don’t Freeze”

Because the songs on The Hot Rock have so many intricately interwoven parts, there is always something new to discover. This is particularly true of “Burn, Don’t Freeze,” in which Tucker and Brownstein simultaneously sing seemingly unrelated melodies. This, as well as other songs on The Hot Rock, presented Weiss with an opportunity to forge a critical role for her part. She says, “I felt my drum parts should unify the two complex conversations, serving as anchor and propeller. The song that best exemplifies this more detailed approach is ‘Burn, Don’t Freeze’—it feels like two different narratives perfectly existing side by side, each filling any space left by the other. Playing ‘Burn, Don’t Freeze’ live felt like running an obstacle course.”

Tucker notes the song’s complexity and busyness doesn’t take away from its melodicism. She points out, “It’s such a strange song with both of us singing almost the entire time, two vocal lines twisting through the song, intertwined. But it’s catchy, it’s like a party maze.”

“Get Up”

Weiss recalls that Sleater-Kinney eventually ceased playing “Burn, Don’t Freeze” live, and one of the songs that supplanted it was The Hot Rock’s lead single, “Get Up.” She cites it as one of her favorites from the album (along with the epic “The End of You”).

As with “Burn, Don’t Freeze,” “Get Up” manages to be quirky and complex while still being highly singable. Some of “Get Up’s” unconventional feel comes from Weiss’ beat (which she demonstrates here in an interview with Fred Armisen.). Tucker’s spoken-word verses play a role as well. Brownstein is still mystified by how it all came together. “I remember writing ‘Get Up’ in Calvin Johnson’s (of Beat Happening and K Records) basement. … I still can’t figure out the weirdness of that song or how we sorted out where to put the vocal melodies. It kind of shimmers the whole time but whenever the verse comes back around there’s a different brightness to it.”

“A Quarter to Three”

Just as The Hot Rock opens with “Start Together” and a change in Tucker’s vocal approach, the album ends with a track containing features that were novel for Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein and Tucker are still playing interlocking guitar melodies, but on “A Quarter to Three,” they leave some gaps. Brownstein also takes an extended solo, which results in one of the most beautiful moments on a Sleater-Kinney album.

But wait, there’s more. Brownstein mentions a couple of other unique aspects of the track. “Corin plays the melodica at the end of this song—she improvised a sanguine and charming melody. It was unlike anything we’d done before and I think our first ‘fade out’ on a song.”

Even 25 years after recording it, “A Quarter to Three” holds some surprises for Brownstein. “We relearned this one recently in order to play it on tour and I was shocked at the amount of guitar lines I’d written for this tune, one after the other, as if I’m chasing the vocals, trying to keep up.”

All these years later, Sleater-Kinney are still finding ways to keep their sound fresh. That’s in no way a commentary on their earlier albums, which still have plenty of luster. As much as any album in their catalog, The Hot Rock continues to be an exhilarating listen, as the trio’s experimentation is still providing payoffs for its listeners.

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Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage

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