An interview with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein
By M. Brianna Stallings
The first CD I bought after moving to Albuquerque in 1997 was Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out. From the title song's opening riff all the way through to Corin Tucker pleading “Do you see her face when she’s gone?” on closing track “Jenny,” I was hooked. Sleater-Kinney was everything I wanted it to be—loud yet melodic, political yet danceable. There were S-K albums before that, and others followed—The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat and The Woods. Then one day in 2006, after a decade of nearly universal critical acclaim—Greil Marcus once called them “the greatest rock band in America”—the trio was gone.
As a caricature of the modern-day music fan, when I heard about Sleater-Kinney's “indefinite hiatus” on Pitchfork, I burst into tears. A few months later, I was on a plane to Portland, Ore., for one of (what I thought would be) their last shows at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom. It was the best concert of my life.
So where did Sleater-Kinney's members go after the final note? Corin Tucker released two well-received albums as part of the Corin Tucker Band: 1,000 Years and Kill My Blues. She’s also a mother of two and married to cinematographer Lance Bangs. Janet Weiss drummed in Quasi and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, as well as with indie supergroup Wild Flag, formed with Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole and former S-K bandmate Carrie Brownstein. Since I don't live in a cave, I know that Brownstein stars alongside a certain former “Saturday Night Live” cast member in the IFC sketch comedy “Portlandia.” But these post-hiatus connective tissues—while all significant to reshaping the 21st-century zeitgeist—don't mean a thing when these three get together to make music again. Sleater-Kinney is a wholly unique entity, explosive and thoughtful, vibrant and exploratory.
Today's musical landscape is peppered with bands reuniting for seemingly mercenary purposes. It’s as though every one of them is thinking the same thing: “We were popular 20 years ago, and now we have kids in college. Why don’t we get back together and play our hits?” I could see that level of cynicism being applied to Sleater-Kinney’s return, but it isn’t like that at all. The group constantly pushes themselves beyond the trappings of sonic familiarity, complacency and cheap gimmicks.
The Alibi spoke with Carrie Brownstein about Sleater-Kinney’s continued relevance, producer John Goodmanson's no-BS approach, their new live member and the joys of working with Planned Parenthood and “Bob’s Burgers.”
During a “PBS Newshour” interview titled “Unapologetic rockers of Sleater-Kinney return with new songs to fight lagging stereotypes,” the band talked about the idea of filling a void in the musical landscape. When I asked her about this idea, Brownstein replied, “One thing that we did gain perspective on in the intervening years was that—and I think you don’t know this when you’re entrenched in something—we did, and still do, have a unique sound. But relevancy is something I think about all the time. I think there’s no reason to do something unless it’s relevant. So I think realizing that we weren’t looking out onto a musical landscape that was full of people [who] sounded like us made it more exciting and encouraging to make another record.”
With No Cities to Love, secretly recorded over a year and their first album in almost a decade, Sleater-Kinney renegotiates the terms of access afforded by industry, sexism and their predecessors. One of my favorite lyrics comes from “A New Wave,” which commands that we “invent our own kind of obscurity.” So I asked how Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss approached the lyrical process on this record. “A lot of things we were writing about on this album had to do with power and relationships to it—fighting for it, feeling alienated by systems that are meant to keep certain people in power and other people disenfranchised,” Brownstein said. “We were thinking a lot about self-discovery and a sense of anxiety, about trying to find pockets of hopefulness in times that feel very anxious.”
There are a lot of classic elements on No Cities to Love: Corin’s tender yet explosive voice, Janet's erratic-heartbeat drumming, Carrie’s uncommon tuning and Townshend-esque stage antics. There’s innovation too, and that’s one of the things I appreciate as a fan; I’m not being subjected to some sort of casino-style “Best Of” show. The album shows new musical agency and purpose.
Ironically, Brownstein told me part of said agency stemmed from a return to working with longtime producer John Goodmanson. “We didn’t want to approach this through the lines of nostalgia and sentimentality, and we knew that John just would not be precious about this band,” Brownstein said. “He’s worked with us so many times that his only interest would be to make a record that sounded new and different from the other ones. He wouldn’t be one of those producers who would be like, ‘We need to be purists about this. We need to capture what’s interesting about this band or what people liked about them.’ Which, when we talked to other producers, we kinda got that feeling. They were looking at it like, ‘This is an important moment.’ And John’s like, ‘Listen, are you gonna make a good record, or are you not?’”
Critics and fans alike felt Sleater-Kinney did, in fact, make a good record. As expected, the band’s return has drawn a lot of attention. Terms like “triumphant,” “comeback” and “legends” are all in use. Meanwhile, those young, queer feminists who’d heard about Sleater-Kinney’s live shows but never dreamed they would experience one are getting that chance for the first time. Rebecca Weinberger wrote an article for SPIN about seeing Sleater-Kinney at NYC’s Terminal 5, and she concluded by saying that the show “wasn’t indulging in outdated nostalgia. I still need encouragement to be that huge and loud. Every woman I know does.”
When I asked for her thoughts on such epic terms being applied to Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein was quick to note that she is “just living it from the inside. I don’t know what it means to other people, you know? I know what it means to myself. I know that these shows were really important to us. It was wonderful to look out into the audience and see such a range of people. There were young people and now old people nowadays. It was very invigorating.
“It’s difficult to join in on this sort of assessment of something you’re doing when it’s actually happening,” she continued. “I don’t have the objectivity that other people might have. It’s flattering, and we’re grateful that people like the new album and are coming to our shows, but I think it’s other people’s job to assess what we mean or don’t mean. We just do the work.”
During her recent interview of Kim Gordon at JCC-San Francisco, Brownstein offhandedly remarked that she didn’t think of herself as a musician. I asked her for clarification on this comment. She replied, “Yes, that’s in there, but it’s not as cut and dried as that. I am technically a musician; I play music. But I think within the music community, and even from outside of it, people are kind of aware that there are different kinds of musicians—people that can read music, that can write music notation, that can play by ear. There are many permutations of what it means to be a musician. I have no interest in undermining my own credibility or being falsely humble. It’s just that, in certain contexts, one feels silly calling themselves something. It’s almost like a difference between how the term ‘artist’ at certain times in history meant a craftsperson and then more of an interpreter of culture. I think it’s just a semantics conversation. I’m definitely not allergic to the term.”
When I asked how she negotiates public perception versus private reality, Brownstein said, “There’s always this disconnect between how other people see you and how you see yourself. That can seem more acute if you feel like a lot of people are looking at you. But that’s when you have to work on your own compassion, kindness and being indifferent, and not allowing those external definitions or that white noise that exists on the periphery to sink in. That awareness can really become stifling; you have to keep it in check.”
Another thing Sleater-Kinney always tries to keep in check are the sort of niggling concerns about alienating fans that other bands might let overwhelm them. Case in point? The introduction of a fourth member, Katie Harkin of Sky Larkin, to the live roster. “We’ve always added elements to the album that we weren’t able to perform live, and that was fine,” Brownstein explained. “But we wanted to hear the songs the way that we had put them on the record, especially on the new album. We were really excited to be able to play some of those additional parts live. So in a way it’s cementing the fact that this was a continuation and not a reunion—that we were looking forward.”
Never a band to shy away from the political, Sleater-Kinney partnered with Planned Parenthood for the No Cities to Love tour. As a uterus owner, I know why such a gesture is important, but I asked what the band's reasoning was. “The three of us as a band are huge supporters of Planned Parenthood, individually and collectively,” Brownstein said. “It’s an organization that is crucial in terms of women’s health care. It always feels good to give them an opportunity to reach people. It’s also a way of combining things that we feel are important; to us, the personal and the political have always been intertwined, part of the same conversation. So having Planned Parenthood with us on tour, tabling at all of our shows, feels like an extension of that. We’re not compartmentalizing our politics from the music we play.”
Since the music they play is often quite animated, the Sleater-
“It’s one of my most favorite videos that I’ve ever been a part of, and I was barely a part of it except that my music’s in it,” Brownstein said. “But yeah, it was really flattering and fun.”
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