Music

Sleater-Kinney On Politics, Music, And Their Come-Back

"We felt like we had something new to say."

The first time I listened to Sleater-Kinney, I was both repelled and fascinated by the band’s unholy trinity: Corin Tucker’s silence-demolishing yowl atop rhythm guitar; Janet Weiss’s nimble, driving drums; and Carrie Brownstein’s pointed yelps and guitar solos. After the initial shock wore off, I noticed that a restless, urgent part of me had found an amplifying channel in their no-bass, no-bull rock music.

For over 15 years now I’ve been in thrall to Sleater-Kinney’s musical vision: blistering battlecries about heartbreak, politics and rock, that give me the verklempts every time. Despite my trepidation that I wouldn’t connect with their new material—who hasn’t worried about love for an old favourite band dying?—No Cities To Love, Sleater-Kinney’s first album since 2005, sent synapses sparking all over my body. “Hungry / But I’ll hunger on,” sings the electrifying Tucker on ‘Fangless’. As usual, the album–ten songs, released in Australia tomorrow–treads the line between charismatic and fearsome, to leave you breathless: how is there any oxygen left in the room?

Why The Comeback?

The three women have been involved with many different projects over the past decade — among them, Tucker’s The Corin Tucker Band, Brownstein and Weiss’s collaboration in new band Wild Flag, and Brownstein’s thespian turns in Portlandia and Transparent. “When we thought about being in the band again, we decided that we really had to have new material so that we would be able to almost reinvent ourselves—that we felt like we had something new to say,” Tucker tells me.

No Cities to Love is a characteristically fiery offering from the three-piece, featuring songs about consumption, solidarity and isolation, tinged with sometimes proggy, sometimes psychedelic sounds from the annals of ‘70s rock. It opens with ‘Price Tag’, a too-far-gone reflection on modern living: “We never checked the price tag / The cost comes in / It’s gonna be high,” Tucker wails. Like other takes from the S-K songbook, this song puts us on notice that things aren’t quite right in the world.

The Personal And The Political

The difficulties facing America were on Tucker’s mind while she was working on the new album. “Going through the recession in the United States this past decade had an influence,” she says. “Raising two kids and watching so many people around me lose their jobs and have a really tough time making ends meet was a really difficult thing to have happen. [It’s] become tougher and tougher in the last 20 years. I think that if we don’t speak out about the kind of income inequality that we have in this country, we’re going to lose that strong basis for the middle class in the United States.”

Is writing unabashedly political lyrics something that Tucker consciously sets out to do? “Actually, no. I approach songwriting in a really subconscious way. I listen to the music first, and come up with a vocal melody and maybe an idea for what the song is about, but no—I don’t approach things in a conscious way. I’m just a really opinionated person, I think, and I’m interested in voices that we might not otherwise hear from.”

Some of the songs spring from a deeply personal well, too: “Oh, what a price that we paid,” rails Tucker on epic album closer ‘Fade’. The band tackle their own storied past (on ‘Hey Darling’, which acknowledges the band’s hiatus, Tucker reasons, “Seems to me the only thing that comes from fame is mediocrity”), and topics as personal as yearning (“I’m sick for you like a rabid dog,” hiccups Brownstein on ‘Fangless’). “There are a lot of themes of trying to make sense of how we’re living our lives on this record,” Tucker explains. “Are we doing the right things, what’s the right way of going about things? I think those are always things that have been true for this band and they’re still true today.”

The band reportedly rejected many potential songs before landing on the final ten. “The songs that had the strongest voice were the ones that we eventually chose for the album—that told a story that was succinct and very compelling,” Tucker says. Although the band’s sonic idiosyncrasies—duelling vocals, spiky guitar and intuitive yet tricky beats—have endured in the new songs, Tucker notes that their approach combined different strengths: “We wanted a little bit of a the new sonic experimentation we had done in the later years of the band, but we [also] wanted to almost return to the classic songwriting style that was a little bit catchier, a little more focused.” In comparison to their last record, 2005’s The Woods, which throttled out longer jams–including one 11-minute assault–in No Cities To Love, no song tops four minutes.

I’d spied Start Together, a vinyl box set containing remastered versions of all of the band’s seven records, at my local record shop earlier in the week, and asked Tucker whether it had caused her to reflect on Sleater-Kinney’s past. “Yeah, it has—I spent a lot of time on the remastering [of the albums for the box set], and I’m really pleased with how everything turned out. I’m really proud of those records—we all are. We’re still really fond of those songs, and they still have a lot of meaning for us. It’s really nice to have that to come back to now that we’re going out on tour.”

But for now, the new album is the most thrilling part: “I’m really excited for people to hear the new record. It’s been kind of a long journey of making it, and now finally being able to play it for the world is really exciting.” Tucker is also looking forward about the forthcoming tour, though sadly it doesn’t include Australian dates. “We’re not quite sure what the end of our year looks like, but we hope to make it to Australia sometime soon.” Oh, well. At least we have No Cities to Love—a bullet of rage and hope from a straightshooter I never thought I’d see fight again.

Sleater-Kinney’s new album, No Cities To Love, is out now.

Estelle Tang is a literary scout and writer. Cop her tweets @waouwwaouw.