Photograph: Ben Rayner

Sleater-Kinney talk about feminism, breaking the rules and their new record

Riot-grrrl torchbearers Sleater-Kinney may have reunited, but this ain’t no teary, wet-eyed nostalgia trip


Sleater-Kinney pressed pause in the summer of 2006 with a startling and surprising statement that simply read: “As of now, there are no plans for future tours or recordings.” Eight years later, their return was equally as sudden with the unforeseen release of the single “Bury Our Friends.” And just like that, they pressed play once more.

Formed in the riot-grrrl breeding ground of Olympia, Washington, in the early ’90s, the band (singer-guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, and drummer Janet Weiss) released seven records, bringing together a pioneering punk sound with powerfully personal lyrics and helping to shape the underground feminist movement in the process. After parting ways, successful postband projects—the Corin Tucker Band for Tucker; the Shins and Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks for Weiss; and Wild Flag and Portlandia for Brownstein—followed, and the return of this seminal rock trio seemed increasingly unlikely. But it turned out that they were merely waiting until they had something significant to say.

That something was No Cities to Love, the record the band is currently touring, that in sound and musical evolution is both signature Sleater-Kinney and a momentous leap from where they left off. Over eggs and coffee in the West Village, the three candidly survey where they’ve been and, more important, where they are this very second.

Let’s talk about the reunion. Were you really watching Portlandia when you floated the idea?
Carrie Brownstein: I think we really were. Fred [Armisen] and I went over to Corin and [her husband] Lance’s. I was showing them an early cut of the show, and they started asking us if we would ever tour and what that would look like. They were having this fantasy that Corin and I were watching and listening to, and it was fun to ruminate on that idea. Then we stepped back and said, “Should we? Should we talk to Janet? Maybe that’s a good idea.”

Presumably you’d had similar discussions over the years. What made this one stick?
Brownstein: We didn’t have them, no. I think it was either going to be organic or it wasn’t. It was never going to be someone approaching us or a Coachella offer. It was never going to be this function that was driven by money or by something overly sentimental, like an anniversary. It was always just going to be: Would it feel good to play?

Who actually called you, Janet?
Janet Weiss: I think Corin called me; we saw each other more. Maybe I could sense that the timing felt right, but I was still a little surprised when it came up. You know, you have a gut feeling about things. My gut feeling was that this seemed like the right time to do it, as long as we could do it and make the record great. You can’t do Sleater-Kinney halfway.

Did you have any particular concerns?
Weiss: I think it was just making sure I was in the right frame of mind to really be vulnerable to it. It was a big decision. The band means so much to me. What the band was and what the band will be is really important to me and to all of us.

It also meant so much to everyone else. Did that give you pause for thought?
Brownstein: I think there’s a tacit awareness of that, but at the same time you have to keep that separate from the entity that’s the band. We couldn’t write from that place; we had to still try and push forward and make the record we wanted to make. I think with any record we made after The Woods—if it was one year or two years afterward—we would have had that same directive, which was: How can we make a good record that sounds different from the others, that pushes the narrative further?

The urgency remains with this record. Is that something that just happens when you three join forces?
Corin Tucker: Yeah, I think it is. We have a really special chemistry. We also have the patience with each other to let things unfold. So we jam a lot, we play a lot, we write a lot, and then we wait until we’ve got something that feels really compelling.

Was it dependent on the material you produced? If you went in there and weren’t happy with the results, would you have shelved the entire thing?
Brownstein: Yeah, we probably would have. Or kept trying. We really wanted to put out a record—we didn’t want to just play shows. It took us a long time to write the record. We kind of had to return to the original way of writing so that Corin and I could reacquaint ourselves with the vernacular of the band. It definitely took some upheaval.

The kinship between you two: Was there a sense of resurrecting that, or was it just there when you were together?
Brownstein: Kind of both and not always in the best way. It can feel very intuitive and telepathic. Like I almost know what she’s going to play and vice versa, but then it’s not always the best thing because it’s almost too easy. We’d play something and it’d be, “That sounds like ‘Dig Me Out.’” To push it can feel harder because sometimes the way the puzzle pieces fit together, you have to tear it apart.

You still clearly have things to say.
Weiss: I certainly don’t feel that it’s all over. As I get older, it feels that I have more to say, in a way. Like my values and my belief system have shifted. It’s been boiled down to: What is it really about, what is it that you really want to say with your life? I live in the present; I appreciate the time that we have together more now. I don’t feel like, This band’s going to go on forever or, After this album, what are we going to do with the next album? That’s something I might have done when I was younger.

Well, people are already speculating about how long you’re going to stay together. Is there going to be another record…
Weiss: People get really ahead of themselves!

Is that something you’re even discussing at the moment?
Weiss: No. Not at all. We’re still just having a blast. Why would we want to jump ahead?

On the subject of having something to say, “Surface Envy” really sounds like a rallying cry.
Tucker: That song is really personal, actually. It’s about the moment we became a band again, how I felt about that and what it means to be an artist and have this great band. Not just a good band, but a great band that may not exist for very long but is a great band.

A lyric like “only together do we break the rules” refers to you but also presumably to a wider audience?
Tucker: For sure. There are still so many boundaries that women need to break down. There are still a lot of things we have to say and have to comment on.

What, specifically?
Tucker: There’s still not enough [women] in positions of power and I think that’s pretty frustrating. Women have advanced so much in terms of accomplishing [things] in different careers and fields but there still aren’t many women in Congress, there’s never been a female President, not very many women are on boards of major corporations or are CEOs.

How significant has Obama been in terms of equality?
Tucker: When he invited Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State, I thought that was brilliant. He took this adversarial relationship and just turned it on its head. I’m not saying the administration doesn’t have its flaws and that I agree with everything Clinton did as Secretary of State, but I thought that was a really progressive, brilliant, different way of handling politics.

As a band, is it different to comment on politics in a world where Obama is President, as opposed to a post-9/11 world where Bush was President?
Brownstein: Yeah. I feel like music is different under different administrations. I think that there’s a kind of a collective agitation artistically under certain administrations—moments of irreverence, aggression, rebellion, and that can take on many forms; it doesn’t have to be active rebellion. It can be an artistic creative push toward commenting on something. I do think music changes under Democrats. Sometimes there’s a mildness to it, for better or worse. But yeah, no matter what, we wouldn’t have made One Beat again, which was a very explicitly political record.

How have things changed for women in the music industry?
Brownstein: They’ve changed dramatically. I think some of the most interesting, exciting music is made by women right now. There are a lot of feminist ideals that have become pretty mainstream in the pop vernacular, whether it’s Beyoncé singing about motherhood or her relationships. She’s so strong and such a boss businesswoman! There’s just a strength there that’s monolithic and impenetrable. And Taylor Swift is such a feminist now. Unabashedly feminist and her audience is young girls.

Do you think it’s revolutionary for someone like Taylor Swift to be a feminist?
Brownstein: I think it’s awesome. If I was 14 and this was the person I was listening to, I would be psyched.
Tucker: My daughter loves Taylor Swift. I’m very happy that she has someone to look up to that is so in charge of what’s going on. She’s such a smart businesswoman and she just seems really empowered.

There’s been a lot of discourse around “bad” feminism and “good” feminism. Do you find that unhelpful?
Tucker: When you want to discuss ideology, let’s discuss the ideas instead of taking a person’s life and saying they’re not living it correctly. It just seems really not that useful to me.

Someone like Beyoncé has come under fire for being a boss but still being a sexual person onstage or dressing a certain way.
Tucker: When would they ever say that about a man? “Oh he’s so sexual, because he dresses so sexual.” When would that ever be offensive if a man did it?
Weiss: Michael Bolton! When Michael Bolton does it, I feel like it’s a little bit offensive. [Laughs]

Then there’s Lena Dunham, who’s had backlash because of nudity. Do you think she’s forcing people into uncomfortable places?
Brownstein: Yes. It’s all pretty ridiculous to me, that the female body is up for debate. I think there’s a vulnerability that Lena expresses that makes people uncomfortable. Female vulnerability is acceptable if men can help that person, but if it’s like, “No, I’m going to be exposed and I don’t need your help,” they don’t know what to do with that so they try and kill it. I think feminine vulnerability is the most threatening thing for men and patriarchy.

Angry is a word that’s been applied to your music before.
Brownstein: It’s a dismissive term. Our music doesn’t actually sound angry; there’s so much joy in it and levity. It’s easy to diminish something by calling it angry. You can write it off as being reactionary. And reactionary means that it wasn’t intentional, but our music is intentional.

Are you pleased with how this record has continued your narrative?
Weiss: Of course the story continues, but I do feel like the story is on the record already. It’s very current and personal. It doesn’t feel nostalgic, it feels new. But as with any piece of work, you start to think beyond it. You want to be able to move forward and continue the story. The story doesn’t stop.

Sleater-Kinney plays Terminal 5 Thu 26 and Fri 27.

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Sleater-Kinney + Lizzo
Sleater-Kinney + Lizzo

A mysteriously unmarked 7" (containing a heretofore unknown song) in Sleater-Kinney's 2014 career-spanning box set was all it took to get the blogosphere buzzing with reunion rumors, and days later, it was official—the band's back. In January, the riot-grrrl torchbearers and indie-rock luminaries released their eighth LP, No Cities to Love, their first LP in 10 years and an admirably toothsome, no-fuss comeback, and are playing a slew of 2015 dates, including these big ones at T5. Blazing Minneapolis MC Lizzo opens.

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