Sleater-Kinney: Return of the Roar

Nearly a decade after they broke up, the beloved punk band is finding out how hot their fire still burns

After a 10-year hiatus, Sleater-Kinney return with a blazing LP: "We just went for it." Credit: Danny Clinch

A decomposing skull hangs beside Janet Weiss' doorbell: one bulging eyeball, jagged teeth, strips of flesh. Halloween was a few weeks ago, and Weiss hasn't gotten around to taking it down yet – perhaps because other, realer ghosts have been haunting her. Like, for instance, the Ford cargo van in her driveway. "That was Sleater-Kinney's gear van," she says. " 'The Silver Bullet' – we put more than 200,000 miles on that thing, and it's still going." Or take the brand-new vinyl box set perched magisterially in her study, collecting all seven albums by the epochal punk trio that Weiss joined in 1996, that Time called America's best rock band in 2001, and that announced its "indefinite hiatus" in 2006. Sleater-Kinney – Weiss on drums, Carrie Brownstein on windmilling lead guitar, Corin Tucker providing the klaxon-force lead vocals – had sealed their place in the indie pantheon by that point, with their fans ranging from the midcareer Eddie Vedder, who brought them out on a 2003 arena tour with Pearl Jam, to the pre-career Lena Dunham, who saw them live when she was an adolescent and thrilled, she says, to their "amazing mix of chutzpah and pure skill."

But the band was tired. Sleater-Kinney's seventh album, The Woods, pushed them farther from their creative comfort zone than they'd ever gone, and the arduous experience of making it, in wintry upstate New York, left them spent and raw: "It's freezing; there's 10 feet of snow every night," Weiss says. "You're really isolated. And when you're working creatively like that, 12 hours a day, sleeping in the same place as each other? It's an intense experience." By the end of the tour, she says, "Carrie didn't like being on the road. Corin wanted to have another kid. We were exhausted."

They pulled the plug, and for years there was little reason to suspect a reunion. Weiss, a Portland fixture who's played with Elliott Smith and Stephen Malkmus, focused on other projects, including Wild Flag, an amped-up collaboration with Brownstein. Tucker concentrated on a solo act and on raising two children. And Brownstein became exponentially more famous in just four years by co-creating the satirical sketch series Portlandia (average viewership: about 5 million per season) than Sleater-Kinney had become over two decades (total album sales: 596,000).

Then, one night in 2012, Brownstein and her Portlandia co-star, Fred Armisen, were hanging out at Tucker's house, on Portland's southeast side. Tucker made an offhand remark to the effect of maybe-possibly-sometime-imagining getting back together. Armisen became a cheerleader for the idea, as did Tucker's husband, the filmmaker Lance Bangs. "Then someone called me," Weiss says. "I think it was Corin, and Carrie put her up to it: 'See if Janet will do it.' " They started messing around in Tucker's and Brownstein's basements, seeing how it felt. By early 2014, Brownstein was dropping hints in interviews that the band might re-form, which turns out to have been a coy feint: "The album was probably already done by then," says Weiss.

Weiss' bungalow is furnished with the spoils of thrifting on the road: a Seventies-looking leather couch; oil paintings of dogs, horses and tigers; an orange novelty telephone fashioned to look like a basketball. Last night, she, Brownstein and Tucker caught a Portland Trail Blazers game. "We sat courtside, because Carrie gets amazing seats now – thanks to a certain friend of hers named Paul Allen," Weiss says. Brownstein's celebrity has earned her a social network of power movers that includes the Blazers' Microsoft-co-founding owner. "We were down by 16 points, but we turned it around," Weiss says of the game. "I gave Paul Allen a high-five. It was great." 

Courtside glamour notwithstanding, the L.A.-born Weiss lives a modest, bohemian life that hasn't changed that much since she first moved to Portland, in 1989. She drives a sensible station wagon, and the towering hedges lining her backyard are wildly overgrown, "because it costs, like, $1,500 to have them trimmed, so I don't do it that often," she explains. Recently, Brownstein hooked up Weiss with a job scouting locations on Portlandia. "I get to drive around with the director and have a say in what the show looks like – I love that job," Weiss says.

In other words, things were perfectly fine post-Sleater-Kinney, and to hear the band members tell it, they approached the reunion with a mixture of excitement and wariness. "I was just like, 'Carrie, do you have enough time to put into this? Corin, do you have enough time to have it be great?' " Weiss says. These questions skirted a trickier one, about whether Tucker and Brownstein – who began the band as romantic partners, and whose elaborately interlocking guitars, vocals and personalities form the band's spiky DNA – were prepared for the Buckingham-Nicks-esque emotional intensity that working with each other has always entailed. "It's almost like they're weird twins," Weiss says. "They're kind of telepathic. And they can push each other's buttons: When the other person's so in there, sometimes you're like, 'Back off!' " As Brownstein puts it to me later, "I feel like Corin knows the map of my veins. And you don't always want someone to know those things."

"Corin knows the map of my veins," Brownstein says. "You don't always want someone to know those things."

The resulting album, No Cities to Love, transforms those densely tangled doubts, vulnerabilities and ambitions into some of the most assured and powerful music Sleater-Kinney have ever made. There are no slow songs. The lyrics aim high, concerning idol worship here, the collapse of the American middle class there. "Carrie was like, 'If we're gonna do this, it's gotta be a total renewal,' " Tucker says. "All or nothing. We just went for it."

Brownstein enters a small Italian restaurant on Burnside Avenue. "I'm sorry I'm late," she says. Her work on Portlandia has led to other gigs – a supporting part on Transparent; a "tiny role," as she puts it, in the next Todd Haynes movie – all of which she's juggling in addition to Sleater-Kinney. In a few months, she'll load up her two dogs and drive down to a rental house in Los Angeles to join the Portlandia writing staff for the show's next season. As Brownstein consults the menu, a waiter crouches by her knee and regards her with the blissed-out affect of a yogi. "Helloooo," he says. Brownstein orders the cappelletti soup. "Wasn't that strange, how he got down so close?" she asks when he's gone. "I don't know that guy, but to him it was like we were old friends!" In the real-life Portlandia, material is everywhere; she starts riffing on the trend of servers telling patrons, " 'Have you eaten with us before? We do things a little differently here.' I always want to tell them, 'I've eaten at a restaurant before. Unless I have to order in Esperanto, I think I'll be able to get the hang of it. . . .' "

Brownstein is a former theater kid from the Seattle suburb of Redmond. Growing up in the Eighties, she loved bubblegum pop with an ardor you can hear, albeit obliquely, across Sleater-Kinney's catalog. "I listened to Madonna, New Kids on the Block," she says. "You can embrace punk all you want and try to push melody to the side, but pop is infectious." She describes herself existing, as a child, "in a constant state of performance – I did theater and drama, and I had this insatiable appetite for attention." The author and filmmaker Miranda July, who befriended Brownstein when they were teenagers, remembers her appearing in a parodical Christmas play opposite fellow punk-scene stalwarts in the early Nineties. "Carrie was wearing, like, a bad sweater with Christmas appliques," July says. "It sounds so Portlandia now, but at the time it was like seeing the Fonz wearing a mom sweater and discovering that he was really into acting. It took me a long time to understand that this is a huge part of who Carrie is." 

In adolescence, Brownstein grew withdrawn and disaffected. "It was junior high," she says. "Feeling like your body is going in two different directions." Her home life suffered an upheaval when her parents split, leaving her father, a corporate lawyer, to raise Carrie and her younger sister by himself. (A few years ago, he came out as gay; he and Carrie are close.) Brownstein enrolled at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, the epicenter of the early-Nineties feminist-punk movement known as riot grrrl, where she started a band, Excuse 17, and saw shows by iconic Evergreen acts like Heavens to Betsy, who were fronted by Tucker, and Bikini Kill. The scene was revelatory: "I thought, 'This is the sound my heart would make if I could amplify it,' " Brownstein recalls. "Sometimes, with your family, you're like, 'How can you be so close to me and not see me?' And then, all of a sudden you see yourself portrayed in music, and it's like, 'On the other side of the telescope is someone that sees me.' "

In Heavens to Betsy, Tucker steeped her songs in what academics call intersectional politics: Queerness, race and the plight of working people were recurring, overlapping themes. Tucker made no effort to prettify her massive wail, knew her way around a stingingly pithy phrase, and was not only righteous but also funny: On the Heavens to Betsy song "Waitress Hell," she sang from the perspective of a server imagining her crappy customers writhing in flames.

Tucker and Brownstein began to collaborate, taking their band name from a Washington road they practiced on, and they also began to date. Conceived as a side project, Sleater-Kinney quickly won their full attention, and in 1994 Brownstein and Tucker traveled to Australia, playing tiny bills with an Aussie drummer named Laura MacFarlane, whom they'd met via the punk-zine circuit. "Being women in music was really important to them," MacFarlane recalls. "I remember them giving me a mixtape of indie bands from America featuring women."

The band recorded a self-titled LP fast and loose in Australia, then returned to Washington to make another, Call the Doctor. The process was so turbulent that Sleater-Kinney actually broke up, for the very first time, before it was through. "I was there on a three-month visa," says MacFarlane, "and right before I left, they sat me down and told me, 'The band's over.' Everyone needed some breathing room."

The dissolution of Brownstein and Tucker's romantic relationship was an agitating factor, and lent the album an added air of urgency and volatility. "It's hard to be professional and creative with someone you've broken up with," Tucker says. "And we were all living in a weird one-bedroom apartment together. It was insane." As the album's producer, John Goodmanson, who has worked on several Sleater-Kinney albums since, puts it, "There's never been any hiding in this band – everyone's completely exposed."

With time, Tucker says, she and Brownstein "got it together enough to go on tour." In 1996, Weiss – a powerhouse who says she hails from "the John Bonham tradition of hard-hitters" – joined the band; the next year, Sleater-Kinney released their breakthrough, Dig Me Out. Fittingly, for songs about women who reject quiet, subservient roles, the band crafted a scabrously catchy sound, in which melody is alternately flirted with and thwarted. This push-pull aesthetic relates to the formal choice, Brownstein explains, to tune every song to C-sharp: "It's one and a half steps below standard tuning, which creates a sourness and a darkness that you have to overcome if you're going to create something harmonious and palatable. So even when we're getting toward something with a little bit of catchiness or pop sheen, there's this underlying bitterness to it." 

Most of the songs on No Cities to Love began as collaborations between Brownstein and Tucker – a throwback to their earliest method of working. At first, Tucker says, "the dynamics were a little rusty – we were getting a little frustrated." Weiss notes that "at the beginning, Carrie and Corin needed to reconnect. I was just like, 'You guys just need to sit in a room and play together. You're not ready for me yet.' On other records we would write as a three-piece, but with this record I got the sense that they were going to go into some crazy rabbit hole, and it would be awesome."

The waiter returns with Brownstein's soup and purrs, "Let me know how you like it." She admits that, after a creative life mostly defining herself as a musician, the celebrity she's enjoyed with Portlandia is "very surreal. There's a bittersweet quality to it, because Sleater-Kinney is precious to me, and seeing it eclipsed, there was a little part of me that went, 'No, guys, you know this other thing I did is important, right?' " She pauses for a beat. "But I don't pick. I don't pit one against the other."

The clerk at Powell's Books on Southeast Hawthorne needs to see Corin Tucker's ID. The singer has hauled in a bag of used children's books to sell – she and Bangs have two young kids, "so this is a great way to clear space at home."

We find a table at the bookstore cafe, where Tucker gets a tea. She grew up in Eugene, Oregon, arriving at Evergreen in 1990 and writing songs that regarded the patriarchy and her own white privilege with equal acidity. On No Cities to Love, she again turned her gaze outward – "Price Tag" is about the "downward spiral of the working poor," as she puts it, in the big-box-chain era – and inward, too. On "Gimme Love," Tucker confronts what she describes as her own "monstrous" need for an audience's approval: "That song started with me asking, 'Why are we doing this band again? Why are we here? There's no guarantee we're gonna make a reasonable amount of money!' "

When Tucker's done with her tea, she hustles home for dinner with her kids, then over to a newly opened pingpong hall on Southeast Belmont to meet Weiss and Brownstein. Sleater-Kinney played a lot of ping-pong on the Pearl Jam tour; a few years back, Weiss and Brownstein crushed the Willamette Week in a Portland charity tournament. The Belmont hall is new, with sleek tables and nouveau-mod decor. One of the owners, spotting Brownstein, rushes over. "This place is the culmination of a lifelong dream of ping-pong!" he says. "My brother and I started it as a pop-up party, to see if people were as crazy about the game as we are!" The band nods politely. Weiss tells me later that the place would make a wonderful Portlandia location.

We play a doubles game, with me and Weiss against Brownstein and Tucker. "How does this go again?" Tucker asks. "I serve to that side?" Brownstein's style of play is cool, with one hand tucked nonchalantly into a pocket. Weiss plays the way she drums – precise and clobbering. In just a few minutes, thanks to her, we're up 10-0. Weiss sends a blazing serve fast and low across the table. Brownstein and Tucker both go for it, and both whiff: 11-0. "That telepathy between them that I told you about?" Weiss cracks. "It doesn't extend to ping-pong."