Janet Weiss is a Musician and Producer based in Portland, Oregon. One of rock's greatest drummers, she is best known for her roles in Sleater Kinney and Quasi.
Natasha Wheat: Where are you from and how did you wind up where you are?
Janet Weiss: I grew up fairly unsupervised in Hollywood during the 70's. A kid with divorced parents and two older sisters, I developed a self-reliance and weariness of strangers early on. I begged my dad for a horse and at age 11 he relented and bought me a $400 Red Roan named Applesauce. The lessons I learned at the barn, a run down haven in the Hollywood Hills, were more valuable than those I learned at home. That place, and music, saved my life many times.
At 17 I moved away from my confusing family for college in San Francisco. I was thrilled to be on my own and away from home. Lightening struck at age 22 when I was asked to join a band as their drummer. I had taken exactly one drum lesson on a practice pad from a friend Rich Ferguson.
When people talk about their lives taking a left turn, this is the kind of thing to which they are referring. Playing music and being a musician undeniably shaped the years to come - my moving to Portland, my infatuation with drumming, my collaborations and relationships - they all boil down to this moment.
NW: What is the most meaningful object in your life?
JW: My house. I feel safe there.
NW: Can you talk a bit about being a drummer. Girls are sometimes taught to be quiet or composed when we are young. Do you ever feel like your gender role collides with your rocker role?
JW: I often feel this way. Girls are taught to be sweet and gentle. In our culture, aggressiveness, dominance, power, forcefulness, rebelliousness are usually considered male attributes. Women are far less likely to be considered larger than life or heroic, and are accepted as victims. We are expected to be maternal, devoted, passive.
For me playing the drums is a way of creating a space for women who choose an alternative to conservative gender roles, who embrace emotions only as human. I grew up feeling determined and rugged and wanted a way to communicate that sense of authority with music. People don't expect a woman to be pounding away on their instrument like I do. It surprises them. Hopefully it broadens their image of the feminine.
NW: Who and what are your great loves?
JW: Dogs, horses, drums, sister, boyfriend.
NW: Music has gone through a process in past 100 years of becoming an object (through recording), becoming commodified through that object as records-tapes-CDs, and then that object becoming de-valued through technology and napster -> spotify. How do you think music and musicians will retain their value, both cultural and financial in the future?
JW: I am not sure. All I know is that for me, music loses its cultural power when it is co-opted by big corporations for advertising. This puts a lot of musicians in a tough spot as everybody knows the revenue stream for musicians, as small as it ever was, has dried up. Consumers think music should be free. There is no clear path as to how to make meaningful art as a means of supporting oneself - we will all just need to continue searching.
NW: What three songs can’t you imagine existing without?
1. Elliott Smith - Between the Bars
2. Led Zeppelin - Misty Mountain Hop
3. Aretha Franklin - Respect
NW: What have you learned about humanity through touring?
JW: Traveling in packs and coexisting in tight spaces is challenging. Touring has taught me to bite my tongue at least some of the time. When your band and crew are exhausted, best to keep complaints to a minimum and to be self-contained. If you’re not helping propel the situation forward in a positive way, you’re probably doing more harm than good. Mood and vibe are contagious and are more powerful tools for change and progress than we give credit.
NW: What is the most beautiful sound that you have ever heard?
JW: I love the sound of migrating geese traveling overhead, their volume slowly escalating and then shrinking into the night air.
NW: Who haunts you?
JW: My close friends who have passed away - frozen in time.
Photography by Natasha Wheat
Edited by Jim Fairchild