“It feels inexplicable, the act of being alive,” Sleater-Kinney reflects on the impact of grief and how their music helped them heal.


Fifteen years in the past, Carrie Brownstein, one of the members of the feminist punk group Sleater-Kinney, was at a hair salon when she heard loud guitars coming from the speakers. She wondered about the song and the woman’s voice screaming. After 15 seconds, she realized that it was her bandmate, Corin Tucker. The sound was rougher than Brownstein remembered. The song she couldn’t identify was Dig Me Out, a fast-paced three-minute track that gained the band worldwide recognition in 1997.

“We’ve been doing this for so long,” Brownstein smiles on a rainy afternoon in London. Brownstein and Tucker were barely out of their teens when they came up with a “fly-by-night” name for what they imagined would be a fleeting venture, inspired by the sign for Sleater Kinney Road near their practice space in the Washington suburb of Olympia. Little did they know, three decades on, they’d still be here. “It’s kind of amazing,” Tucker says, “but we’ve also nurtured it.”

During their early years, Sleater-Kinney was a band that emerged from the riot grrrl movement, challenging patriarchal hypocrisy. As they released their album “Dig Me Out,” they began to boldly incorporate elements of rock classics into their music. This was evident in their subversion of girl-group pop on “All Hands on the Bad One” in 2000 and the inclusion of politically charged epics on “The Woods” in 2005, which was their final album before going on a hiatus until 2014. In their current phase, now as a duo after the departure of drummer Janet Weiss in 2019, they continue to evolve and reject conformity.

Brownstein and Tucker performing in Oakland, California, in 2019.

Days before our interview, I observe this scenario unfold at a crowded concert at the Roundhouse in London. Accompanied by three female band members, they energetically perform songs such as One More Hour (depicting the end of Brownstein and Tucker’s short-lived romantic relationship) with a mid-90s jangle, the playful harmonies of Oh! from 2002, a delicate rendition of 2005’s Modern Girl, and tracks from their upcoming 11th studio album, Little Rope, set to release in January. Brownstein, wearing flared pants reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker, moves with her guitar in an arching and lunging manner, while Tucker’s lively energy is conveyed through her powerful vocals.

Their most recent performances have gained a newfound significance. “I was unsure of how it would feel to perform on stage after my mother’s passing,” Brownstein shares, while sitting next to Tucker in a hotel bar four days after the show. This moment in the hair salon is not the only instance where Brownstein has revisited Dig Me Out with a fresh perspective. Last year, during a period of mourning, the raw lyrics took on a deeper and more meaningful significance. “When Corin sings ‘Dig me out’, I think: please, help me get through this. Free me from this terror, this chaos, this unpleasantness.”

Sleater-Kinney’s latest release, Path of Wellness, was inspired by the shared sorrow of the Covid pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland (where band members Brownstein and Tucker reside), and the devastating wildfires that ravaged the Oregon landscape. However, their upcoming album in 2024 is influenced by a more personal tragedy. In the fall of 2022, Brownstein received devastating news that her mother and stepfather had passed away in a car accident while vacationing in Italy.

‘We didn’t do what people wanted’ … Brownstein, Janet Weiss and Tucker in 2002.

She and Tucker had already recorded five songs for their new album. Brownstein states, “There was never a doubt that we would continue recording. It was important for me to keep moving forward.” Lost in sorrow, the only thing that brought solace was playing her guitar. Instead of cooking meals to comfort her, Tucker would often send over a chorus or melody. Brownstein would spend hours reworking the chords, saying, “It felt like a form of prayer.” In the midst of feeling disconnected and numb, the physical sensation of touch reminded Brownstein that she was still capable of existing. She explains, “Grief is intangible and leaves you feeling incoherent. There’s a clear division between before and after, but it’s impossible to reconcile. It’s not like a broken bone that can heal. It’s just gone.”

The concept of touch as a healing force is a prevalent theme in grief, often described as a feeling of being incomplete or missing a part of oneself. I wonder if this has affected her ability to play music. Brownstein responds, after a moment of contemplation, that she has come to appreciate the presence of her guitar. She explains that it was something she used to play as a child, and her voice breaks as she begins to cry unexpectedly. Tucker comforts her by stroking her hand. Brownstein reflects on the loss of her parent and how it is a grieving process that spans all ages. She shares that playing the guitar was a way for her to express herself during her shy teenage years. As she returned to playing after her loss, she saw it as a way to communicate once again.

As the pair continued to record, certain slower songs evolved into more joyful pieces. Tucker cites “Say It Like You Mean It” as an example, an anthem filled with emotion and yearning. She explains that it initially began as a simple concept, but she soon realized her delivery lacked the intensity needed to convey the pain and suffering she saw in her friend. She goes on to say that each track on the album reflects these highs and lows, as they are experiences common to aging.

Their newest album carries a sense of urgency in its tone, reflecting the drive they feel as they enter their 50s: Brownstein at 49 and Tucker at 51. Brownstein explains that after her mother’s sudden death, she experienced frequent panic attacks. But now, she is determined to make the most of her life. She emphasizes that death is the only certainty in life and it can feel arbitrary, but this thought also makes her feel exhilarated, especially when performing on stage. She exclaims in disbelief and excitement, “Can you believe it? Can you believe that we’re all here and we’ve all survived this show?”

‘The guitar was a way for me to convey my feelings and ideas when verbally I was less able’ … Brownstein performing in 2015.

Similar to Brownstein’s rekindled bond with her guitar, Tucker’s connection to her famously powerful voice is also evolving. Growing up, she was drawn to the “big voices” of Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin, and her earliest memory is singing folk songs with her father, a passionate folk musician, in North Dakota. She shares a laugh with Brownstein as she credits her father for instilling in her the belief that music has the power to inspire positive change in the world.

The connection between this approach and the groundbreaking feminist work that followed has evolved over time. From addressing rape culture and gender-based double standards to reflecting on Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, Sleater-Kinney’s music has always been driven by a spirit of protest. This drive to continue agitating is also reflected in their creativity, but it has caused some disagreement among fans. The split in fans following Weiss’s departure and the release of their “arty” and “sleek” album, The Center Won’t Hold, produced by St Vincent, raises questions about the pressure to maintain their brand with each new release. Brownstein reflects on this confusion, noting that even in the past, the band did not conform to people’s expectations, as seen in the difference between their albums The Hot Rock and Dig Me Out.

Tucker chimes in: “That’s dark!” Brownstein chuckles. “Dark,” she says again with a playful accent. “We’ve always gone against the norm and resisted the notion that we’ll just keep making the same record over and over again.”

Tucker is in agreement. “We are a unique band, so I don’t fully comprehend the concern over changes or additions.” Are they writing in response to this? No, Brownstein clarifies. “But I also don’t appreciate being underestimated.” She acknowledges the origin of this expectation. “I understand that change can be difficult, especially after experiencing a loss. I have more compassion for those who are trying to cling to a sense of security. However, I would argue that it is a false perception – and I cannot contribute to it.”

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how the band stands out as older women in the world of rock music. Some may see their presence on stage, playing guitar, as a rebellious act. Does this annoy them? “We’ve always seen ourselves as unique and unconventional women,” says Tucker. “So now that we’re unconventional older women, it’s just another challenge to overcome.” According to Brownstein, the music scene isn’t filled with many people who are still making music like they are. They recently had the chance to see Shirley Manson perform, which was “really amazing”. Brownstein also learned that Joan Armatrading has written her first symphony. “She’s fearless. These are the people I look up to.” Brownstein believes we should celebrate longevity in artists. “I hope we get to see Beyoncé performing 20 years from now. Why do we want artists to stop creating? It’s strange to wish for the end of creativity and performance, and to dismiss stories from the later stages of life. That’s a negative way of thinking.”

‘Raging against patriarchal hypocrisy’ … Tucker, centre, Brownstein, right, and Laura MacFarlane, left, performing at the LA Riot Grrrl Convention in 1995.

Given this, does she still envision herself performing on stage in her flared pants well into her 70s? They both laugh. “Oh my God, I really hope those pants make it through,” says Brownstein. “If they do, then I will too.” After their break, creating music holds a deeper significance. “When you’re young, that level of success seems natural but it’s actually much more rare,” says Tucker. “When we returned, we realized how truly special it was.” They also had to think about the future. “What kind of potential did we not reach?”

Ten years have passed, and it seems like this inquiry is still in a state of change. Brownstein expresses that we may be the sole ones capable of sharing this narrative in our unique way, and so let us discover what other ideas we have to offer.

The release date for Little Rope is January 19th, through Loma Vista.

Source: theguardian.com

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