Olympia Ladystyle

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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 http://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.

In the early '80s, Calvin Johnson, a native Olympian and recent Evergreen grad, didn't follow his musical friends to Seattle. "I was like, 'What? Are you going to be able to wash dishes better there?'" he says. "You can do what you're doing just as well here, and you won't have to spend as much time washing dishes to survive." With help from fellow Evergreener Pat Maley, he launched a catalog through which he sold cassettes of bands he liked, most of which he had recorded himself. He dubbed the outfit K Records. "I was always taken by the concept of regional labels with regional sounds, like Stax," says Johnson, who over the past 15 years has built a reputation for touting local music.

Kill Rock Stars, another Olympia record label, founded in 1991 by Slim Moon (who still owns it), shared K's penchant for signing local talent and took in Sleater-Kinney in 1996. Sleater-Kinney's records are now its bread and butter. By making uncompromising but accessible postpunk, Sleater-Kinney has become Kill Rock Stars' resident rock-star band.

Listen, and it's easy to see why. Sleater-Kinney's contribution to pop has been to invent and perfect a new formula: lyrics worthy of discussion in a Women in Modern Media seminar, '60s girl-group-style vocals backed by two harmonizing guitar riffs, drums--and no bass. It would be hard to find a Sleater-Kinney cover band to play at your wedding reception. Brownstein and Tucker can belt on key and play lead guitar at the same time, and drummer Janet Weiss doesn't need a bass player to stay on beat. It's a style indebted to Olympia riot-grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and to bands from out of town that recorded on Olympia record labels, like Portland's Tiger Trap and Vancouver's Mecca Normal.

Olympians acknowledge how deeply they influence one another. As Maggie Vail of Bangs puts it, "We're very incestuous here." In the town's tight-knit scene, collaboration is the rule. "Someone comes up with the seed of an idea," says Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, whose second album, You Think It's Like This but Really It's Like This, was released on K in June, "and the rest of us are poised for action."

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