Sleater-Kinney: Now More Than Ever

Marking 30 years as a band with the release of their 11th studio album and its corresponding international tour are indie rock legends Sleater-Kinney. Founded by Evergreen State College undergrads Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein in 1994, their music has become the soundtrack for multiple generations of existing and would-be progressive feminist rock fans. Their latest album Little Rope has already been met with critical acclaim and is currently playing in a never-ending loop on my Spotify. I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Tucker, who joined me to discuss the new music, protecting her mental health while on the road, and what it was like to finish their record following the sudden deaths of Brownstein’s mother and step-father.

You are about to hit the road to tour your new album Little Rope. How do you prepare for a tour of this length?
I think we try and prepare as much as possible by rehearsing and thinking about the set lists and getting our equipment kind of tuned up for this album. So we both got our pedal boards refitted because we did some different guitar things on this record. Having those kinds of musical tools at our disposal, you have to reshape those when you do something different on each record. So that took some engineering. And then it’s getting vocally in shape, doing vocal warm-ups, and focusing on taking care of myself personally so that I can sing every night.

Are there things that you do each time to make sure that you’re having a healthy touring experience or do they change from tour to tour? Have those rituals changed as you’ve gotten older?
That’s a good question. I think that we started so young and really in a different era. There wasn’t a lot of language around mental health and touring and the kind of toll it took. I mean, we really pushed ourselves pretty hard. And it felt like we had to prove ourselves within a very male-dominated industry. And sometimes—both mentally and physically—it was just too much. We try now to build in more breaks for ourselves if we can, and we feel more free to say no or simply, “I can’t do that.” And I think there’s a broader conversation about that now that I really appreciate.

Speaking of mental health—and we’re just gonna jump right into it here—your new album was created on either side of an incredibly traumatic loss for Carrie. I’m wondering how the production process had been proceeding prior to that, and how that event changed the process for the band, and for you personally as a support system of sorts.
Yeah, truly it was awful. And of course we didn’t know it was going to happen and I just tried to be there as her friend and I just tried to show up. It turns out that the band is actually a very good kind of support system in terms of doing something that we enjoy that’s our world that we’ve built. And so just doing music every day or every other day was something that Carrie wanted to do when she was feeling so down. It gave her something to do with herself and goals and things to complete and a familiar place to be every day, which actually became a kind of solace. We just took it step by step. Some days she wasn’t feeling great and that was totally fine, but it turned out that finishing the record, finishing something that we had started, actually helped her have something to hold on to while she was going through that tragedy.

Did you find yourself having to tap into any of your own prior experiences with grief and loss to be able to make this record with her?
The thing about something that is that traumatic is that it reminds us of other people that we’ve lost in our lives and how fleeting those relationships can be. So, of course it reminded me of people that I’ve lost and I think that definitely seeped into things. My vocal performances on this record became more heightened in the face of that and just having to think about mortality and having to think about death and being aware that we don’t really have an infinite amount of time with the people that we love in this world. 

I first heard your music when I was 15 years old, when you released The Woods in 2005. I grew up in Chicago with older parents who listened pretty much religiously to Summer of Love-type stuff so I had no concept of your history as a band and your place in the legendary ‘90s music scene in the Pacific Northwest. On top of that, I would also have no concept of the magnitude of the hiatus that came shortly after the release and acclaim of that album. Can you remember how you felt during that time and how you coped with that change at that point in the band’s trajectory?
I think it really ties into what we’re talking about with mental health and being overwhelmed. If we’d had better language at the time we would have been able to be a little more sophisticated about how we navigated it and maybe it wouldn’t have needed to be such a long hiatus. It was tough, but for me personally I wanted to have another child. I really didn’t want to do that on the road. The hiatus gave me the space to do that. And Carrie started Portlandia, so it was like all these great things happened in that space of time as well. It’s complicated when you stop doing something that you love, but it also gives room to do other things that are important to you.

I’ve read that some of the first versions of Portlandia were filmed not only at your house, but that you’re the one that filmed them. Is that correct?
Probably. Actually it wasn’t just me who filmed. Much of that was Lance [Bangs, filmmaker and Tucker’s partner].

Could you ever have imagined at the time that it would become the phenomenon that it turned into?
No. I’m so happy that it did, though, because they were so great at making us laugh. Us meaning our circle of friends. And I’m so happy that they were able to translate that to such a broad audience and do such a great show. You know, I think everyone—in retrospect—really misses that show. I’m just really proud of Carrie and Fred [Armisen] for what they were able to accomplish. 

Can you illustrate for me the scene in Olympia in the early ‘90s when you were still at Evergreen? In particular the intersection of riot grrrl and zine culture and how that would set the stage for the first music you would create as Sleater-Kinney?
It was so funny to look back on it because it’s such a small town, you know, and the scene was so small. It’s just a few people, but they’re so incredible. There’s K Records with Calvin Johnson and when I got to town, I went to every single show he put on that I possibly could. I would go downtown at least once a week and he would put on a show at this club called the North Shore Surf Club. And I just saw so many bands that would come through, incredible indie rock. His independent pop underground was international—all these people that knew him and would come and play shows in Olympia. And then when the riot grrrl thing started, I thought it was such an interesting critique of the kind of masculine culture that went along with this sort of music industry. It took the ideas of first wave feminism from the ‘70s and rewrote it in a different language, a vernacular that was like a punk rock song or a fanzine. Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail were really the leaders in that. They’re both great writers, they’re both very different, but they’re also very intense personalities. And Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman from Bratmobile… I had met them before I moved to Olympia, and they were the ones who really told me about riot grrrl and all this stuff that they were starting. Immediately I was like, “Sign me up!” I was really intrigued by the intellectual manifesto that they were putting together, saying essentially that it feels like this culture is not inclusive to women and we’re going to say, girls to the front; we are going to start taking over the scene. I found that inspiring, so I started my first band, Heavens to Betsy, kind of at that invitation. There have been a lot of critiques of riot grrrl that I think are really important in terms of not being sophisticated enough to talk about intersectionality of race and class and how that has such a big influence on culture. But what I like about where we’re at today is that the conversation is ongoing. Having the conversation evolve and change over the years makes me feel like it’s a way for us all to broaden how we look at things and who gets included.

Do you feel like those principles still make their way into the current music that you and Carrie create together?
Yeah, I mean, certainly. I think that we’re having a conversation about women’s rights in the United States that is shocking. Roe v. Wade was overturned two years ago and we are seeing women denied the ability to take care of their own bodies and their own health care and make their own decisions about their health. It was something that was a part of riot grrrl culture in the ‘90s. We talked a lot about abortion rights and the fear that Roe v. Wade would be overturned. That was always a goal of the conservative movement in the United States. And they just finally accomplished it. What I think is important about that is that our culture has changed now and women are not stigmatized as much when talking about abortion. There are a lot more female obstetricians who will talk to their patients and treat it as the medical procedure it is. I think it’s an interesting intersection of a very changed culture, a very stymied political landscape, but, you know, that’s what culture can do. It can open up the conversation and ask people to think about the bigger questions that we’re facing and what our strategies can be to give as many women as possible the rights that they deserve.

How does it feel to have had this specific platform as Sleater-Kinney for 30 years and to be able to have your own commentary on the things that are happening for women in the world? How does it feel to have a 30-year-old band child?
It’s definitely a bit surreal at times to be this old. But I think we really appreciate it. There have been times when we haven’t done the band and we’ve been through a lot. It’s a place that we really can go with our rawest emotions and opinions on things, and it’s our space to do that. I do think we appreciate it now more than ever.

Do you remember what ultimately made you decide to come back together to release No Cities to Love in 2015?
I think that it was a series of conversations wondering how and when we’d ever do the band again. But I do remember it being a conversation between Carrie and Fred and I and my partner Lance Bangs, where we were just talking about like, what if we played a couple shows and did this or that? As we kept talking about it, it was like, well, no, it should be something that’s more intentional and dramatic. And we wanted to really let the band comment on where we were at that particular time by making new material. So that’s what we ended up doing. And it took us a few years to accomplish that.

Does it sometimes feel like there have been different lives that the band has lived in the three decades since y’all formed it?
Oh, for sure. We kind of see it as different chapters in our story. We were basically kids when we started the band, you know? I feel like it’s different chapters with different phases of your life and different parts of your personality as you get older.

I think it’s so exceptionally cool that Sleater-Kinney has had this endurance and a fan base that has matched that endurance so that you can keep returning to it, which I guess brings us back to the Little Rope chapter. I’d love to know, if anything, what you were listening to outside of the studio while you were recording this album.
We did some listening to other artists and songs that made us think, “How did they do this?” I remember listening to Chaka Khan—I love her work and I think she’s so underrated—and thinking, how do you make a big successful song like that? Or like The Clash, how do they do “Rock the Casbah,” you know? That’s something that I think is really helpful as a songwriter is to take someone that you admire and think about how they did what they did and even try and emulate it. It doesn’t come out sounding like that song at all, but it sometimes is a good starting point when you’re trying to write.

Literally speaking, we hear so much more of your voice on this record than we have in many years. What led to that and did that make it reminiscent of your early albums at all when you were writing or recording?
Honestly, it was that Carrie didn’t feel like singing. Once she was going through losing her mom and her stepdad, she wasn’t in that place. And so she just asked me to step up and sing more and I was happy to do it. That kind of harkens back to earlier times in the band when she just wanted to play guitar more and, believe it or not, she was kind of a shy guitar player in the beginning. So yeah, it just set us up in a way that I think touched on some of our musical history and some of our core strengths as a band. It gave us that touchstone we had on some of the earlier records like Dig Me Out. But also there was a lot of intentionality of writing in the present day, and Carrie is a great singer, and she does sing some of my favorite songs on the record, too. So it was kind of both things at once.

How has your relationship to your own voice changed since starting the band at the age of 21?
I definitely try to be more disciplined as a singer and realize that I don’t have infinite resources. If I don’t take care of myself, it’s not gonna be good the next day when I can’t talk or sing. I’m just more disciplined about doing a vocal warm-up every day and I’m really trying to take care of myself and drink a lot of water and eat as healthy as possible. The kind of stuff you don’t really do when you’re in your 20s, you know?

What songs are you most excited to sing live when you get out on the road next week?
Six Mistakes”’ is my biggest challenge song because it’s so full-on with guitar and vocals that it’s a little bit of a tricky one to get right, but we’re working on it. And “Don’t Feel Right”—it’s a really fun one that I sort of get to sing backup on and just kind of enjoy it. So I’m looking forward to both of those for sure.

I wish I could go back in time and tell young me that I was going to get to talk to you. It was very cool and I appreciate it.
Awesome. Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.

Sleater-Kinney will be at the Joy Theater on Friday, March 8 with Black Belt Eagle Scout opening. Their new album Little Rope is available worldwide. More info at

Photos of Sleater-Kenney at the Civic, April 2015, by Adrienne Battistella

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