Sleater-Kinney are back with the same fire that led the riot grrrl movement
Riot grrrl torchbearers Sleater-Kinney have regrouped, and they've still got plenty to say
It's barely past 10am, and Sleater-Kinney are already on the offensive. "What do you mean by 'complacent'?" asks drummer Janet Weiss, responding to a question that insinuates the reunited punk rock group appear more comfortable today than they did in the early 1990s.
Let's back up. There is, to be sure, nothing that sounds remotely content on No Cities to Love, the trio's first album in a decade. It's aggressive in a way that can frighten off the uninitiated: vocals are on high alert, guitar riffs blare with the urgency of a weather-alert system and rhythms don't allow for time to catch one's breath.
The group from the US Pacific Northwest were always more than just a band. As leaders of the riot grrrl movement, they were up against a male-dominated grunge-rock era. So it's no real surprise that the group members, now all in their 40s, resist the implication that they're older, wiser and simply having more fun this time around.
"It's a bit of a cliché that you get older and put on your fuzzy slippers and cuddle up by the fire with the cat on your lap," Weiss says.
"Not that there's anything wrong with that, but that's not my life. Outside of this band, there are a lot of struggles to get music heard and to make music that's vital. That continues. The reasons we come back … are because there are things we can say in this band, and there are ways to say it that feel urgent. There's an urgency when we say things.
"Even though I'm older, I don't feel any more relaxed. I feel just as desperate to connect with people on a vital level. We're alive. Let's prove it."
Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus after The Woods was released in 2005. In the ensuing years, guitarist Corin Tucker started a solo career, Weiss recorded albums with her ongoing project Quasi as well as with Conor Oberst and former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus, and rejoined guitarist Carrie Brownstein in 2011 to play in the group Wild Flag. Brownstein made a name for herself as a writer-comedian alongside Fred Armisen in the IFC sketch show Portlandia.
Tucker recalls the day the band called it quits and says she remains haunted by an image. "I remember when we were in Portland and we announced the hiatus. I was driving my son around to camp … and there was a girl."
The girl was wearing a Sleater-Kinney shirt. A local radio station had just reported on the group's split - a station, Tucker clarifies, that never bothered to play the band when they were together.
"And I drove past this girl with a Sleater-Kinney shirt on, and she was crying," Tucker says. "It's an intense relationship we have with our fans."
There's always been a sense of unfinished business, Tucker admits, but as the post-Sleater-Kinney projects mounted, a reunion seemed unlikely. Last year, Sub Pop Records in Seattle remastered and released the band's seven studio albums, collecting the works, which spanned from 1995 to 2005, in a limited edition boxed set.
Could it be that Sleater-Kinney were entering the era of retrospective releases? Again, Weiss offers a correction. "'Retrospective' seems more like it's for someone who has died, and we didn't ever feel like the band was dead. It didn't seem like a mausoleum piece."
Fans were ultimately caught by surprise that the collection boasted a new single in Bury Your Friends, which teased that a proper reunion was imminent.
"It had all the right sonic ingredients," Brownstein says, explaining why the single was chosen for the coming-out party.
"It had riffs. It had a big chorus; it didn't sound like our other songs. It's also a rallying cry in terms of the chorus, about trying to find moments that glimmer when you feel defeated. It just seemed to encompass all the things that we would want to put out there first," Brownstein says.
Tucker adds: "We worked really hard to make this very intense for people, very immediate, so we took away four other songs that we recorded. It was a stronger record the more we edited. The most powerful thing you can say is better said in fewer words."
Like all of Sleater-Kinney's work, No Cities to Love marries the personal and the political. Price Tag opens the record with bracing images of the challenges of making ends meet. The title track, says Brownstein, is "about trying to find meaning on the fringes", and Fangless is a tightly wound dissertation on the need to never stop fighting.
"We really take the time to think about writing songs that would mean something," Tucker says. "The songs could not be convenient; they had to mean something beyond that day. Writing a convenient song is not the same as writing something you're going to be really proud of in 10 years or a song that someone will be proud of after you're gone. If that's not part of why you're doing this, I don't think you're going to make it for more than a few years."
Sleater-Kinney have made it. Older? Wiser? Maybe, but just as angry. "I can feel the power of the band - just the three of us as people and what we believe in, how we live and the energy that is created with the three of us," Weiss says.
"There's a lot of tension and explosiveness. This feels meaningful. These are stories about things that matter."
Los Angeles Times