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Sleater-Kinney’s return proves we need them now more than ever

February 18, 2015

In the decade since Sleater-Kinney's breakup, nothing filled the void left by the world’s best rock n’ roll band. So they came back and did it themselves.

I still remember the first time I heard Sleater-Kinney.

I was 18. Music was a salve to the dumb, vaguely terrifying travails of my early university life, and I spent a lot of time hunched at my desk writing bad essays to good albums. I’m not sure exactly how I stumbled upon “I Wannaw Be Your Joey Ramone,” but I remember how I felt the exact second I heard it. As the anxious, scratchy opening riff played though my shitty desktop speakers, as the drums leapt into action with breathless insistence, and as Corin Tucker’s first howled “Yeah!” poured into the space between my ears, something shifted in my consciousness. I was into girl bands, yeah, but this was more than a girl band: it was an epochal moment, a virtuoso roar of emotion and cleverness and skill that was perfectly controlled in its chaos. The song wrenched something deep inside of me, twisting everything I thought I knew in my wretchedly limited experience of the world. I was flattened. I hit play again and again.

When the band announced their breakup in 2006 following the release of their monstrous coup de grâce, The Woods, their fans and the music community at large reeled and mourned. The three band members kept working: drummer Janet Weiss put out another Quasi record, vocalist/guitarist Tucker embarked on her solo project and raised a family, and guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein turned to music writing, made and starred in a hit TV show, Portlandia, and started a new band, Wild Flag, with Weiss drumming. But through it all, something seethed. Within this decade of absence, the Sleater-Kinney clarion call hummed and persisted. What other band could simultaneously twist and emulate the tropes of rock while stripping themselves totally raw? What other band wielded their empowerment and feminism with the same self-possession with which they expertly swung their guitars? And though others have followed ably in their footsteps—Swearin’, Speedy Ortiz, Perfect Pussy, Screaming Females—nothing else could truly fill the void left by the world’s best rock n’ roll band.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moFFnDf8xGI

Sleater-Kinney knew this too. In recent years they teased a possible reunion with hints in interviews and, in late 2014, one pronounced clue: a 7-inch tucked in their career-spanning box set, stamped with the date of what would be the release of their eighth studio album—their first in ten years—No Cities To Love. But the songwriting process for No Cities actually started back in 2012, in Portland, down in Brownstein’s cramped basement. According to Weiss, it was tough; for Sleater-Kinney, songwriting is endless, often difficult work.

“I think we were pretty rusty,” she recalls over the phone from her home in Portland. “I remember realizing the commitment that this band sort of demands…a certain physicality, a raw energy. It’s intense. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re having so much fun!’”

You can hear every second of the work in No Cities To Love. It’s a heart-poundingly urgent record that worries around themes of modern-day displacement, class anxiety, and various crises of identity. Musically, it’s controlled and beautifully cacophonous: the guitar lines skitter and explode, Weiss’ drums rumble below, and Tucker and Brownstein’s voices cajole and wail and duel. From the bridge of the opening song “Price Tag,” where Tucker snarls, “I was lured by the devil/I was lured by the cost,” you can feel the delirium of a righteous, youthful sense of injustice tempered by a revitalizing crush of wisdom and power. The world has changed, and so has Sleater-Kinney. The weight of the past 10 years runs in tandem with each ratcheting chord, each slam of the kick drum, each shout. It’s exultant and cathartic and hugely powerful.

Sleater-Kinney have referred to the new album and tour as a continuation rather than a reunion—an extension of where they left off with The Woods, which they recorded in a remote cabin in upstate New York. While No Cities is far less improvisational, the process of making The Woods showed that Sleater-Kinney could evolve and adapt to different types of songwriting.

“Hearing yourself in a new way is thrilling,” Weiss says. “The vibe [of The Woods] was of focus and risk taking, and the isolation allowed us to cut ties to what we had known of the recording world and step out on a creative ledge.”

In typical Sleater-Kinney fashion, songs for No Cities formed carefully, in pieces, and some were excised and scrapped without mercy. “There’s a lot of really good songs on the cutting room floor,” Weiss laughs. “I feel really lucky to play with people who don’t get too attached to things. It’s dangerous to get too attached to things. To really push a song to its best incarnation, you have to be willing to throw things away.”

Once the album was released this past January, the band began picking through seven albums for their upcoming tour, which will see them traverse the U.S., Canada, and Europe, capping off with a final show in Barcelona at the end of May. Some songs have invariably aged better than others—and some promise to be exhilarating.

“Yesterday we practiced the song “Little Mouth” (from 1996’s Call the Doctor) and Corin was unbelievable,” Weiss says. “Sometimes I look at her and she’s red in the face, screaming or sweating…it was amazing watching her sing that song again.”

Listening to Weiss, you hear her genuine respect and admiration for her bandmates, and it’s easy to understand how Sleater-Kinney has maintained their seemingly infallible connection to their audience and to each other over the years. Much has been written about Tucker and Brownstein’s relationship in Sleater-Kinney—yes, they dated briefly at the band’s inception, but it’s their intense synchronicity as songwriters that keeps their music so compelling. All three members have endured their share of strife over the years, and Brownstein revealed in a 2003 Rolling Stone article that at one point, all three sought couples therapy. “We set up some guidelines about putting our friendships first,” she told reporter Rob Sheffield. “Because it’s often two against one. And each one of us has been the one. It’s pretty brutal.”

This sense of care extends to the band’s politics, and particularly their commitment to feminism in all of its iterations. In a year when women continue to be eclipsed in music (hello, nearly all-male 2015 Coachella lineup!) when we reached the cultural nadir of misogyny known as Gamergate, and when reproductive rights continue to be determined by male politicians, Sleater-Kinney have held their beliefs and values stalwart. Case in point: in early February, the band announced that they would be partnering with Planned Parenthood on their upcoming tour. Volunteers will be posted at all 15 of Sleater-Kinney’s February tour dates, selling a specially designed t-shirt reading “Sleater-Kinney Loves Planned Parenthood” with proceeds going towards the organization’s health care providers and education. Considering that many young new Sleater-Kinney fans will likely be attending these shows, it’s a thoughtful and important move.

“As long as women are being raped and blamed for it, as long as there is pay inequality between the sexes and white men are given privilege and protection that others are not, I will feel frustration and anger,” Weiss says. “Hopefully our music and our shows provide people on the fringe with a safe place.”

In Pitchfork’s review of No Cities to Love, Jenn Pelly marvelled that a band as punk as Sleater-Kinney—with their roots in riot grrrl and DIY culture—could produce such stunningly catchy music and keep these ideals firmly and wisely entrenched. They’ve grown, but grown so beautifully, dignified, and forever uncompromising. Perhaps that’s the key to the Sleater-Kinney effect: keeping them deep in our bones; raw and ecstatic and vital.

“The three of us are not the same at all,” Weiss says. “Our ideals are not the same. But there’s this collective—as a band—the work stands for something. How we conduct ourselves is who we are. Of course we have done things that are undignified. But I think we’re good to each other. We protect this thing— Sleater-Kinney— that means a lot to us and means a lot to other people. We don’t want to just trash it. It carries a lot of weight for us, and for people who listen to us.”

Alison Lang is the editor of Broken Pencil. She lives in Toronto and you can follow more of her rad writing and work here.

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