This interview originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland)
Occasionally, something happens that makes you realise that you might be an adult. One such thing is catching yourself making a phone call sat on the hall stairs, so as not to be disturbed by your children, as opposed to fearing your parents might overhear. Another is noting that you have loved US indie-punk heroes Sleater-Kinney for a lifetime; from your teenage years to the present day. The two intersect when you find yourself chatting with the band’s Corin Tucker – or rather, whispering down the phone-line, lest the offspring interrupt. “Oh, I hear you,” says the singer and guitarist, laughing. “I’ve done the same myself.”
Many things have changed since Sleater-Kinney emerged from riot grrrl’s femme-punk underground in 1994. Tucker, singer / guitarist Carrie Brownstein and Quasi drummer Janet Weiss (who joined in 1996) have variously created TV shows (Portlandia) and spin-off groups (Wild Flag, The Corin Tucker Band). Feminism has become a more prevalent subject in pop music dialogue. And Sleater-Kinney have been hailed as “America’s greatest rock band” (Time Magazine) and “The best American punk band ever” (Rolling Stone).
But many things are still the same. Inequality and sexual and domestic abuse are still rife, myriad less privileged or dominant voices in society are still unheard, and these were always issues that Sleater-Kinney sought to address through their music and its characters. Plus, the band still sound like nobody else. Returning with a new album, No Cities To Love, after a nine-year hiatus, they’re as relevant, riled and urgent as ever. It’s a brilliant return to form, and it rightly bagged the trio their first-ever UK Top 40 album last month.
“I know, it’s crazy! It’s amazing,” says Tucker. “It’s just been so overwhelming and rewarding with this record, because we didn’t know what was going to happen, after so long of not being a band. When we decided to write a new album – Carrie and I first started talking about it in late 2011 – we had to reconnect with being a band again. We had to see if we felt like we still had something to say. And we did.” Or, as they holler in disco-punk anthem Surface Envy, “We’ve got so much to do, let me make that clear.”
The tale of Sleater-Kinney’s glorious rebound began last Autumn, when they released a vital, career-spanning remastered box set, Start Together. The endeavour was spearheaded by Tucker – did she learn new things about the songs, or band, in the process of re-inhabiting these records?
“Yeah, I thought that some of the old songs were just hilarious,” she offers. Any in particular? Tucker laughs. “I think Sold Out, from our first album [1995’s Sleater-Kinney], is pretty outrageous – just the persona, and the sexual references. We were outlandish in our characters and voices and everything that we were doing, and I think that’s great,” she says. “When you look at all of the music, you can so clearly hear the struggle of us trying to figure it all out: who are we, who do we want to be, where do we want to go? How do we deal with society’s expectations, how do we destroy them, how do we reinvent ourselves? Looking back, we were struggling with all these different issues. So I have an affection for everything that we’ve done in different ways.”
Start Together consolidated Sleater-Kinney’s rightful place – centre-stage – in the punk-rock canon. But that’s not all. There was also a brand new single hiding in plain sight within the vinyl box set. A seven-inch white label bore the title Bury Our Friends along with an enigmatic series of digits – 1/20/15 – which transpired to be the US release date of a new album (their first since 2006’s The Woods). It was recorded in secret last year. The ensuing online excitement was clamorous.
Bury Our Friends is a furious, joyous call-to-arms – fighting fit and rising from the underground, which is a recurring scenario on the new album. (“Exhume our idols!”) It provided the perfect comeback kick-off. “Yeah, Bury Our Friends was actually the last song we did, but it really became this fiery kind of mission statement, of how to reinvent the band, and why we were doing what we were doing,” Tucker says. “Because we wanted to do something new with this record. We wanted to reinvent ourselves in the present.”
Was there a particular moment, or song, during writing, where they realised the new material was going to work; that their fire was far from out? “I think we had a piece of the song No Cities To Love – maybe just the verse – and I thought it was great and really interesting. I loved it,” Tucker recalls. “But it took us a long time to find the right chorus, and that was typical of the process. We’d find part of a song and then we just had to keep working and working until we found the rest of it.”
No Cities To Love is a gorgeous post-punk chorale, all trademark serpentine guitars, interwoven vocals and formidable drums. Its lyrics are variously transcendent (“My body is a souvenir”), restless (“A life in search of power”) and reinforced by a sense of community (“It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love”). Are the band still roused by the same concerns and frustrations that drove them two decades ago?
“Yeah, absolutely,” Tucker nods. “I think we’re always trying to reach a sense of a larger picture, of what the society looks like, from our point of view. And I think that there’s always that sense of looking at where we’re at, where we’ve come from, and where we need to go. What will happen if we don’t call out some of the things that we see? To me, that was, and is, rock ‘n’ roll. It’s people who have something to say, and who’re not just angry for their own personal frustrations. It’s more about a collective relationship between our selves and our fans. I feel that more than ever.”
Tucker views her mythological riot grrrl status in similarly communal terms (she played in Heavens to Betsy; Brownstein was in Excuse 17). “I feel like I’ve been part of a movement, of a group of people, a group of women, who were trying to raise awareness and work together,” she says of the early-90s DIY revolution that included Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Huggy Bear. “And maybe that work has the most impact when you view all of the bands, and all of the things we wrote about, together. Then it can really have a sense of force for people.”
True to this, No Cities To Love is galvanised by a collective spirit, from Surface Envy’s battle-cry (“Only together can we break the rules”), to Price Tag’s diatribe against commerce and exploitation (“It’s 9am, we must clock in, the system waits for us”). The latter song opens the new album, and its theme resurfaces in sublime closing track, Fade. “Oh, what a price that we paid,” they lament in unison, on the remarkable conclusion of a thrilling comeback album. When they sing its final words – “The end” – it sounds like anything but that.
No Cities To Love is out now via Sub Pop. Sleater-Kinney play Glasgow 02ABC on March 25 – there’s an official aftershow at ABC2, hosted by the ever-righteous TYCI.