Sleater-Kinney Interviewed: On Reuniting, Empowerment and Staying Hungry

After almost nine years away, Sleater-Kinney have returned. And with their new, eighth album – the knockout ‘No Cities To Love’ – they sound as vital as ever. Laura Snapes meets them in London

In 2015, Sleater-Kinney return in a strange position: the seven albums they recorded before going on hiatus in 2006 gave them a hefty legacy, but nobody came along to take on their mantle.

“Something that I really noticed, once I had distance from the band, is that there was really no clear predecessor or successor,” says Carrie Brownstein, one of the legendary Pacific Northwest trio’s two singer-guitarists, on a December weekday in central London. “You assume, cyclically, that there will be somebody that comes and takes your place. That never happened. And I would have been fine if it had – like, okay, there’s the next iteration of who we are. So for me, [reuniting] feels like a strange obligation. But not an unpleasant one.”

Another Sleater-Kinney? Wishful thinking. The irreplaceable Portland band – back with their eighth album, ‘No Cities To Love’, after almost nine years away – came from an era and environment when popular rock music stood for pleasure, empathy and freedom from oppression. They were “America’s best rock band” (noted cultural critic Greil Marcus) and “America’s best punk band. EVER” (Rolling Stone). But they were also a feminist band, singing about subjugation and a political band, indicting George Bush for “hiding while working men rush in to give their lives” after 9/11. They were a heavy band. “It’s not a band you can do unless the three of us are 100 per cent dedicated to it while we’re doing it,” says drummer Janet Weiss, who joined in 1996. “It’s something that we have to live up to.”

As singer-guitarist Corin Tucker once explained, Sleater-Kinney operated from the principle that “you can love rock’n’roll and be enraged by it”. Their self-titled 1995 debut owes a debt to Bikini Kill’s insurrectionist feminist fire; they would later weld 1960s girl band melodies and handclaps to gnarled fretwork reminiscent of Wire and Hüsker Dü, forging their own unique interplay in the process. On what was their last album, 2005’s ‘The Woods’, they railed against a new wave of post-punk copyists (“You’re such a bore, 1984/Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore”) on a sprawling set that drew from Zeppelin and Hendrix. They reclaimed the distended sounds that punk had rejected, flexing the reactionary impulse that meant they never made the same record twice, and let them know when it was time to quit.

On August 12, 2006, Sleater-Kinney played their last gig in Portland’s Crystal Ballroom. They had announced their hiatus six weeks earlier, in a statement that thanked fans but explained nothing. By that time Corin was married with a young son; the natural assumption was that the band was over because she wanted to be closer to her family, though last year Carrie said that her own severe anxiety issues were an equal factor.
Watching her bandmates suffer, “it became very obvious: We can just stop. Let’s just stop,” says Janet. “I love making music with these guys. It’s difficult and rewarding and challenging. It’s a big deal. But no band should take over your life. Your ability to take control and take a break is very important.”

“I would have rather gone out then than grind to a halt and fade into an irrelevant, infertile period of creativity,” says Carrie. “That is my nightmare. It was like we had driven ourselves to the edge of a cliff then stopped before we went over.”

The return home was an anticlimax, but it lead to healthier situations. Carrie and Fred Armisen conceived the award-winning comedy show Portlandia, which lovingly skewers their hometown’s hippy character; she also wrote a column for NPR, appeared in dysfunctional family drama Transparent, and has a memoir and more film projects on the slate. From 2010 to 2012, Carrie and Janet were half of Wild Flag; Janet also played with Stephen Malkmus, Bright Eyes and The Shins, and is still in Quasi and the self-explanatory supergroup Drumgasm. Corin released two solo albums and had a daughter in 2008. “It was good for me to let [Sleater-Kinney] go and pursue other things,” she says. “To just live. Being a rock star and being a mother, they’re total opposite identities – you are so responsible for someone else’s needs that your own needs are almost non-existent.”

They were never estranged: for a brief moment they all cohered on Portlandia – Corin was a guest star, while Janet works as the locations manager. (“Being a musician does not afford you a lot of security,” she explains. “I would rather get a job than sell my songs to commercials.”) The show was indirectly responsible for their musical reunion, too: in autumn 2012, Carrie and Fred were at Corin’s house, watching upcoming episodes. The question of whether Sleater-Kinney would ever play live again arose, supposedly for the first time since the hiatus.

“Sleater-Kinney is very demanding, it’s a big project,” says Corin. “And so even when we were discussing it, everyone had to be like, ‘are you sure? Is everyone ready to go for it?’”

Janet said yes immediately: “Playing in a band with that sort of weight and meaning is pretty much what I live for. It’s a very powerful feeling to be the drummer in Sleater-Kinney.”

The idea of a nostalgia tour without new music was swiftly dismissed, their aim to reinvent the band for 2014. “To see if there was still a viable artistic chemistry there,” says Corin, “what the different life experiences – and also just time – would add to what we could bring to the band.” The remastering and re-release of their first seven albums on vinyl became a key part of their return, she says: “It was a sense of empowerment, of representing ourselves.”

That became ‘Start Together’, a handsome boxset released in October that secretly contained a seven-inch of their comeback single, ‘Bury Our Friends’, with its corroded riff and commanding chorus: “Exhume our idols! Bury our friends!” It was one of the hardest songs to finish in an already protracted writing process. In autumn 2012, the trio started playing together before Janet suggested that Carrie and Corin go away and rediscover their strange shared vernacular. “This record has a succinctness that we wanted that wasn’t going to happen with three people improvising in a room,” says Carrie. “It was too amorphous.”

Even once Carrie and Corin isolated the process, they still had to deter each other from dipping into their “intoxicating, innate chemistry”, pushing beyond anything that sounded like Sleater-Kinney. The sound was forged in Carrie’s basement, a “very dead room”, forcing them to really attack their instruments to create an impact “because you can’t rely on anything becoming expansive in there,” she says. “There’s a suffocation to all the sounds; a pointedness and a slight anxiety and strangulation.” It’s the opposite of the aerated ‘The Woods’, though she admits that if they’d followed up that record two years later rather than 10, their reactionary nature would have made it “more extreme”.

By Janaury 2013, they were ready to record, and called John Goodmanson, who had worked on four of their records (excepting the debut, 1999’s ‘The Hot Rock’ and ‘The Woods’), to ask if he would produce the album. They spent 10 “crazy productive” days in San Francisco before even shorter spells in Seattle and Portland. Although John went to college with Carrie and Corin, there was no sitting around getting sentimental, no consideration of legacy beyond trying to make the greatest record possible. Only after finishing it did they reflect. “Like, oh, this is heavy, this is gonna be a heavy thing when the world hears it,” says John.

‘No Cities To Love’ opens with ‘Price Tag’, a throttled squall demonstrating Corin’s inimitable bluesy wail. It’s an anti-consumerism anthem that came from living through the recession in Portland, and expresses empathy for workers trying to fit inside a lamentable system – where Bush told America to “go shopping” as the financial crisis hit, and corporate personhood gives companies human rights.

“That came from feeling the really great consequences of not having compassion and empathy for the working poor in our country, seeing the effect on working women and their children,” says Corin, calling it “the failure of America” if there is no clear pathway out of the oppression of poverty. “I think that if we don’t speak out about that kind of power imbalance that we have in America, then we aren’t succeeding as a country.”

It’s an empathetic, collective take on an issue that’s too often dismissed as someone else’s problem. ‘No Cities To Love’ rejects oppression while showing its effects on the individual: the lyrics are full of bodies scarred by fitting predetermined molds, and the fight to construct a powerful personal exterior. The heavy ‘No Anthems’ is the kind of emphatic ode to collective action with which Sleater-Kinney made their name, surging with constructive anger: “I want an anthem/A singular anthem/An answer and a force/To feel rhythm in silence/A weapon, not violence/A power, power source”.

‘No Cities To Love’ isn’t explicitly a political record – one of four songs that didn’t make the album, ‘Here We Come’, was a Corin-led song about America’s involvement in Iraq. Rather, the angle is personal as political.

“We try to empower people, empower women to be confident and stand up for what they believe in and band together,” says Janet. “What we stand for can help individuals have the strength to face these other things that are real and very intense, very overwhelming.”

Sleater-Kinney are acutely aware of their power as a band, which they relish: frequently referring to their work as “singular” while Janet lays bare their ambition “to be daunting and scary and intense.” But they thrive on vulnerability, too. Corin’s lyrics on ‘No Cities…’ in particular are laced with anxiety. Confidence has always been something she struggled with, she says. “It’s not something that has gone away now I’m older. It’s being a little bit of a diva and having low self-esteem at the same time – those things are really intertwined in a way that’s kind of bizarre, but fuels me. And I understand that a bit more now and am accepting of it.

In Corin’s view, that tension is key to what makes a great artist. Hunger reminds us that we’re alive. She wrote ‘Surface Envy’ to capture the struggle and triumph of Sleater-Kinney’s reunion, essentially singing them back into being. “I took the long way down, lost track of myself,” she howls, before Carrie joins her to yell the chorus: “We win, we lose, only together do we break the rules”. “That is definitely written with the idea of the moment when we were talking about being a band again,” says Corin. “And what an incredible opportunity and a giant challenge that is to me being a mom and trying to have this really intense career.”

Sleater-Kinney’s very existence breaks rules that surround women, motherhood, rock stardom. Corin and Carrie are in their early 40s, while Janet turns 50 in September. “A mom deciding to probe her inner creativity and allowing a darkness or a commentary on culture is kind of revolutionary,” Janet says of Corin, while recognizing the contradiction that she and Carrie are also exceptions for choosing not to have kids. “Proving that being demure and passive and quiet are not all the qualities that embody a woman. There’s aggressiveness and there can be dominance, there can be power, there can be control.”

Their return might last just one album – filming Portlandia in the summer puts a natural cap on their comeback tour, which hits the UK in March. “It allows us to really appreciate the time we have together, and put some natural stopping points on the tours and on the work so we don’t have the possibility of overdoing it,” says Janet. But during that time, they’ll stand for nothing less than making a significant cultural impact. “We’re not just going back and living those shows and living our lives as they were then,” says the drummer. “We want progress.”