After breaking down so many barriers for women in rock, SleaterKinney are back on the road again, writes Ed Power
CORIN TUCKER laughs wryly. She is contemplating her band Sleater-Kinney’s status as icons of American alternate rock. That isn’t, she would like to point out, what people were saying about the all-female three-piece 20 years ago. The reaction from the mosh-pit was, she recalls, rather lewder.
“There weren’t that many women playing rock at the time,” remembers the guitarist. “People would heckle us. There was a lot of antagonism. We were ready to fight for what we wanted. But we were pushing hard for sure. The idea of women playing guitar was difficult for some to get their heads around.”
Having preserved in the face of music industry misogyny, through the 1990s and early 2000s, Sleater-Kinney became one of the most important bands in America (whether or not Tucker is prepared to embrace the fact). Not only did they offer intoxicating proof that women could rock as hard, and as intelligently, as men (if not more so). They were, furthermore, an all too rare example of an independent outfit that got better record after record.
Or at least they did until 2005 when, burnt out and fed up, they called time on Sleater-Kinney. Tucker started a side project and had a family; singer Carrie Brownstein embarked on an unlikely second career as writer and actress, finding success with the HBO comedy Portlandia (a parody of hipster hotbed Portland Oregon, the band’ s home town).
But Sleater-Kinney was still the greatest accomplishment of their lives and, as the years crept by, all three musicians (Janet Weiss, on drums, completes the line-up), began to feel a hankering.
It wasn’t that there was any sense of unfinished business — more a sadness that a great rock band might have come to an end before its time. So, last year, they reunited, with the ground rule that their comeback would not be a victory lap or a celebration of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.
“Because everyone has achieved so much in the interim, it was a little sweeter this time around,” says Tucker, speaking the morning after a universally acclaimed performance on David Letterman. “We did talk about just playing a few reunion shows. We all knew it would be really boring. We said, ‘You know, we should write a new record’. Of course, it didn’t occur to us that it would take so long.”
The wait has proved worthwhile. Not only is No Cities To Love one of the year’s most vital rock documents (it will feature prominently in the end of year best-ofs), it also stands shoulder to shoulder with such classic Sleater-Kinney records as Dig Me Out and All Hands On The Bad One.
“Were we ‘intimidated’ by our back catalogue? Absolutely,” says Tucker, 42. “We didn’t want to write anything that wouldn’t stand up to our earlier work and not meet our expectations. We ‘over wrote’ — we would re-write and re-write and never throw anything away. It was really intense.”
Band reunions are often accompanied by baggage. Not in this case. First time around, there were no fallings-out or frosty tour-bus silences. After a decade on the road and in the recording studio, Sleater-Kinney simply realised they needed to take pause.
Deep down, they always suspected the group would return and that this would most likely come-about organically, when they began to miss the music and each other. “The stress of touring was becoming difficult. We’d talked about it for a while — we all felt we needed a break. There was no set length of time.
“We knew there would be one final tour and that would be it for a while. We had things we wanted to do. It is wonderful to consider all that we have accomplished in the interim.”
With all three musicians in their 40s, Tucker feels Sleater-Kinney return to the coal-face with a unique vantage point. They are rank and file members of the American middle class that bore the brunt of the economic downturn.
With mortgages, children and sundry other responsibilities, they do not have the luxury of youthful insouciance, cannot retreat into cynicism or nihilism. No Cities To Love is about taking a stand, speaking up for the ‘squeezed middle’ — those sweating to put food on the table and get their kids through school.
“We wanted to give a perspective you don’t always hear in mainstream music. Having gone through a recession in the US, we’ve all seen first hand just how slammed the middle class and working class have been. For me, raising a family, these are really important issues — and I have a much changed outlook compared to what I would have had 10 years ago.
“I grew up listening to bands like The Clash, who always had a sympathetic voice for working people. Having family and responsibilities, gives everything a weight to it. You are aware of the responsibility you are under. That gave us a very different outlook on everything, for sure.”
The group’s origins have taken on a near mythical gloss. They came together in Olympia, Washington , a college town 60 miles south of Seattle. By the early ’90s, the state capital had become a hot-bed of post-grunge counter-culture, with Sleater-Kinney at its epicentre.
In his account of the American rock revolution of the ’90s, writer Michael Azerrad portrays Olympia as a birthing pool of contemporary underground music, no less influential than New York and Los Angeles. Without Olympia — and Sleater- Kinney — the alternative awakenings in Brooklyn and across America, it was implied, might never have come to pass.
“It was a vibrant, creative scene — it was also tiny,” recalls Tucker. “There were like literally 30 people involved, all in bands, all watching one another’s stuff. At the same time it was a very rural community. The city was conservative. There was definitely a clash. We’d be down town and people would yell stuff at us. That used to happen a great deal.”
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