We’ve Got A File On You: Sleater-Kinney
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Happy 30th Birthday, Sleater-Kinney. Where does the time go?
In January 1994, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein decided to join forces. Their bands, Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17, respectively, incubated in the early ’90s riot grrrl scene in Olympia, WA. The two Evergreen State College students often found themselves on the same bill and were always, understandably, impressed with each other. Originally envisioned as a side-project, Sleater-Kinney quickly became the duo’s main concern after their other bands ended, and the two headed off on a celebratory post-graduation trip (for Tucker) to Australia that was capped with an all-night recording session for their 1995 self-titled debut album.
Right from the start, the blend of Tucker’s stadium-sized vocals, Brownstein’s knock-the-door-down guitar leads, as well as her interlocking guitar work with Tucker, were evidence of the sort of once-in-a-generation alchemy that can’t be faked or ignored. Over the years, Tucker has carved out a reputation as the more open-hearted navigator of the complexities of the human experience (she did sing “One More Hour,” after all) while Brownstein is often seen as the sharp-tongued social critic (she sing “Entertain,” after all). But these two ultimately complete each other, and they are always finding ways to complicate anyone’s preconceived notions of what Sleater-Kinney is or is capable of. (And yes, Brownstein sang “Modern Girl’ and Tucker did “Price Tag,” so the heart and the head dynamic isn’t quite so cut-and-dried.)
Upon the release of 1997’s Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney, who at this point included mountain-crushing drummer Janet Weiss, were immediately anointed as the best young rock band in America, and they went on one of the all-time greatest runs, culminating with 2005’s The Woods.
But while they’ve had plenty of triumphs in the past three decades, there have been low points and struggles as well. Around the time of the release of Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney were profiled by Spin, which outed Brownstein and Tucker’s former romantic relationship before they had told many family members. They were the subject of many jealous swipes from bands who clearly envied their status (LOL Stephan Jenkins), many sexist insults and more than a few well-meaning if condescending Women In Rock trend pieces. (The venerable critic Ann Powers once noted the ’90s were the Decade of the Year of the Woman features.) Then were more internal struggles, as Tucker endured the harrowing, premature birth of her son Marshall, and the non-stop touring and recording schedule of the band had a deleterious impact on Brownstein’s mental health, which led her to self-harm and eventually necessitated the end of the band in 2006.
Thankfully, they reunited in 2015, returning with the acclaimed comeback album No Cities To Love and a commitment to healthy levels of touring. But it wasn’t such a smooth ride in the second go-around, as Weiss left after the contentious sessions for 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold, and even the most die-hard supporters felt the 2021 Weiss-less album Path Of Wellness was uncharacteristically just pretty good.
In 2022, Tucker, who was still listed as Brownstein’s emergency contact, received a call from the American embassy in Italy. Brownstein soon learned that her mother and stepfather had been killed in a car accident. Sessions for the next album had already begun, but in the wake of the tragedy the two came together as a family for a trenchant exploration of grief, regret and resilience. Produced by John Congleton, a veteran with a knack for getting the best out of people, Little Rope is their strongest album in a while, filled with the fury and empathy this band does best.
Of course, to many people, Brownstein is best known as the funny lady from Portlandia that inspired America to put a bird on everything. She’s also directed plenty of episodes of television, wrote an acclaimed memoir (Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl), did some acting (The Nowhere Inn, Transparent, Carol), and wrote a script for a Heart biopic, amongst other projects. And in addition to raising her children and her career in web development, Tucker has a prolific solo career with the Corin Tucker Band and teamed with her hero Peter Buck for Filthy Friends.
I recently spent an hour speaking with Brownstein and Tucker over Zoom. Given more time, I would have talked with the duo more about their talent for cover songs, and sure, there was a small part of me that wanted to reinstate the Sleater-Kinney v Third Eye Blind beef we deserved. But anytime at all that you get to talk to a member of Sleater-Kinney is a treat, and as always they were funny, open and down to look back on the highlights and weird detours of one of the most illustrious bands in American history. Here’s to 30 more.
Below, stream Little Rope and read our conversation, edited for clarity and concision.
Little Rope & “Hunt You Down” (2024)
I want to start with my favorite song on the new album, “Hunt You Down,” which shows that your harmonies are as great as ever. Can you tell me how that one came about?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: That was a tricky one. I started that song by basically programming drums into Logic. I just built the song around that. We ended up subtracting those drums, obviously Angie Boylan plays drums on it, but I think we just have different ways of approaching songwriting, and sometimes I like to start with rhythm. I’ll start with drums and bass, despite the fact that guitar is our language of this band. Guitar and vocals. I often have to construct different ways of getting into guitar.
So it started that way, and we always had the verses. The verses were very solid, but we could not crack the chorus. There were so many versions of that chorus. It was not that chorus for months. I think it was actually one of the most difficult songs to write, because we believed in it, but it just didn’t feel done until we recorded it. It was a tricky one, but it ended up coming out really well, and I’m really happy with the forcefulness of it, but also the catchiness. It definitely has a good groove to it. And I wanted something with a groove like that.
So Carrie, I’m really sorry to hear about your loss, my heart goes out to you. How soon after you got the news did you begin work on the new album, or was it already in process?
BROWNSTEIN: We were almost halfway done. At least we had recorded, what, five songs for it in August. And then my mom and stepdad were killed in September, and we were still writing. We were completing the album, it was ongoing.
What were those sessions like? Cathartic? Healing? Something else?
BROWNSTEIN: I wouldn’t say healing. There is catharsis, but there’s… it takes such craft and such diligence and deliberation and intentionality with recording. It’s not a diary. It’s not just emoting. Obviously with the vocals, sure, we are looking for a performance. But I think the studio is many things, and it’s a way of communicating with other people, for sure. It’s a way of distracting oneself. It’s a way of immersing. I really needed the band. I needed Corin’s voice, which is one of my favorite voices. And certainly my mother’s death affected more so than the content of the album, the process of making it. And I really just needed Corin to sing more.
And so, yeah, in the studio there was some catharsis, but it also was just…there was still this task at hand to finish this album, and we really felt like the stakes had been raised and we wanted to make a great album. And it also was very fun. I mean, it was difficult, but it was fun. John Congleton is amazing to work with, and he has a lot of levity, but he also has intensity, which we bring to the studio too. So it was all those things that you’ve asked about, but not just one of them at any given time.
Corin, what are some of your memories from this time period?
CORIN TUCKER: I think that in a lot of ways, it was just really fun to go into the studio everyday despite the background of tragedy. We all really enjoyed working on the songs together. I think “Hunt You Down,” was a challenge because of the logistics of the song.
I think Carrie worked really hard on it, but she was really trying to find the perfect chorus, and I feel like she finally did, and then I remember her finishing her lyrics right before she sang in the studio. And I just remember crying when she sang that song, it was really moving and very emotional. It’s hard when you have those kinds of personal tragedies. But I think Carrie just worked through it, and I think she wrote a beautiful song that is a tribute to her mom.
It can be really hard when a person you love is going through something. There’s only so much you can do, really, other than just to be there. I can imagine just watching her, you wonder, “What more can I do?” And sometimes there’s not much more you can do.
TUCKER: I mean, of course, and a lot of ways it was just about sort of immersing herself in this album and, and just kind of digging into the work and having that be a distraction and a channel for all of those feelings and just kind of making that a way to escape the kind of everyday reality.
Carrie, in your book you talked about how your mental health issues were a big reason why the band had to stop when it did. I think since then, as a culture, we understand those things a lot differently. These days, writing about what you’ve been through, talking about it in interviews, getting ready to tour, how are you approaching things differently, or are you approaching things differently?
BROWNSTEIN: I think when we came back in 2015 with No Cities To Love, we came back in a mode where we were willing to assess everybody’s mental well-being and I think we incorporated people’s needs into the touring schedule. And as you pointed out… bands cancel all the time now. I mean, it’s almost surprising because when we started, you would not… I mean, you would just play sick. You would play under any circumstance. Just, you could not cancel, or that’s how it felt. But I think we do keep each other’s holistic well-being in mind as we schedule things out.
But I think concurrent to that, is the feeling of not wanting to take this for granted. Our time is limited on this earth and our time in this band, and when people still want to see us, is potentially limited. So I think we balance wanting to be kind to ourselves in terms of how rigorous and extensive the touring schedule is, but we also want a tour.
There have been a lot of pauses in life in the last few years, and I think Corin and I don’t really feel like pausing right now. We feel like making and doing and connecting and embracing what it is to be on stage right now, which is very singular. There’s so few opportunities like that anymore, as so much of what we do is filtered and mediated through screens. Being in a room with a bunch of people is a way of connecting very spontaneously and specifically. So I think, yes, we will make sure we’re not over-touring, but we will tour and travel.
For my money, I think John Congleton is the best producer in indie rock or rock music in general. What was working with him like?
TUCKER: John’s really funny. We come from a similar community. We were on the same record label, Kill Rock Stars, for a while with his band, Paper Chase. So we have a similar language, I think, in terms of how we talk about music, and John has really good taste. So it was great working with him. He was super fast, when we were looking at something like a guitar tone, he’s great. He’ll make really good suggestions about the amp or a certain pedal to try or maybe an effect. He’s just quick on the things that he can bring up, and he likes to push things into a kind of distorted zone that we really like. He likes to make things sound edgy, in a way that I think we really enjoy and I think really suited our band.
BROWNSTEIN: And he also pushes us performance wise. He’s not a purist about Sleater-Kinney, and neither are Corin or myself. But he knows what is good about this band and he knows what we’re capable of. So I feel like, whether it was vocals or guitar tone or drums, he was very particular about those performances and would not settle or want us to settle until we had gotten there. He is not a perfectionist, but he wants everything to be perfect for the song, and I think that’s how we view things too. Things can be messy, things can be unhinged, but they still have to be right.
Working With Miranda July (Ongoing)
Your recent video, “Hell,” has Miranda July in it. I know you go way back with her. What do you remember about your first meeting with her? And what’s it been like working with her over the years?
TUCKER: Miranda is one of a kind. I think we first met her in the Bay Area, probably early ’90s.
BROWNSTEIN: ’95, I think, Corin. Right?
TUCKER: I think it was earlier than that. I think we met her on an Excuse 17 and Heavens To Betsy tour.
BROWNSTEIN: We met her at Johanna Fateman’s house, who is in Le Tigre. Miranda was home from UC Santa Cruz in Berkeley, and we had just played Gilman St. and we met her, and I think she either have blue hair or flaming white cotton-ball hair.
TUCKER: She had blue hair. She was doing a one-woman play.
TUCKER: She was like, “Hi, I’m Miranda, I’m running a one-woman play.” She’s like 18 years old. And we were just like, “Yes.”
That’s honestly what you want to hear from her in that moment.
BROWNSTEIN: When I would see her perform in Olympia — she never lived in Olympia, but she was there a lot. Obviously, she was on Kill Rock Stars. She was very much associated with the Northwest punk scene. She always brought a higher level of artistry to her work. She always was a storyteller in a way that was very unique, and she has really always understood our music. She can really cut through the discourse around something and distill the essence of a song into a moment.
She did the video for “Get Up” back in 1999, but I remember when she just did the lyric video for [2015’s] “Bury Our Friends” and she just put on this old man mask, and just stood there and danced. If we had gone out to video directors, they would have made these elaborate treatments and maybe they would have been really interesting or evocative. But Miranda is able to capture exactly the essence of something with very little, and it’s so much more impactful, and she is trenchant in that way that we really appreciate, because it’s easy to kind of get over complicated, to over complicate those images, when really you just need something that speaks to someone on a visceral level. So we love collaborating with her. We always feel like it’s auspicious. And she was the only one really that understood “Hell,” she had just this simple, very emotional idea for the song.
Let’s take it back to the late ’90s with your first video, “Get Up.” What do you two remember making that video? I rewatched it and it holds up beautifully. It’s just so earnest and pure.
TUCKER: It was so cold. Do you remember how cold it was?
BROWNSTEIN: It was on Vern Rumsey’s farm. Vern Rumsey was the bass player in Unwound. He’s since passed away. And we shot on his farm and the ground was frozen and we were there all day. It was really fun. And then we shot the rest of it at Calvin’s house.
TUCKER: There was one part in an office where she’s dragging me by the hair.
BROWNSTEIN: And then I think we’re in Calvin Johnson’s house for when I’m on the phone in the bedroom. It was just the first time I’d seen Miranda direct anything. Of course, now she’s directed many films, but she’s just out there with, like, an old fashioned bullhorn, I guess.
TUCKER: [Laughing loudly] You’re right!
BROWNSTEIN: With this big furry hat on and mittens and a cast of 50 women. I just remember there were all these women in the field.
TUCKER: How did we get the…
BROWNSTEIN: Because most of them were fans, right?
TUCKER: I don’t even know how we got them.
I read that you put a message on your website asking for people, but said, “Please do not fly to this.”
[They both laugh.]
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, probably good that we said that. I remember it was mostly local people or people that could drive, It’s just wonderful to watch someone work who you admire and get to see their process and get to see them… at the time, you don’t realize it’s part of this long narrative of who and what they’re becoming, but we’re so lucky to get to watch Miranda direct something for a day.
Brownstein Backing William Shatner In Advertisements For Priceline (1998)
Carrie, how do you find yourself backing William Shatner in a series of Priceline ads?
BROWNSTEIN: That was controversial. Yes, I remember Phil… oh my God, what’s his last name?
BROWNSTEIN: Phil Morrison, reached out. [Before Morrison made the 2005 film Junebug, which famously introduced Amy Adams to the world, he made music videos for Juliana Hatfield and Superchunk.] He was directing commercials at the time. I, you know, Sleater-Kinney, we would never have touched a commercial. Our songs would never be featured in one. We were personally very against any commercialization of our music, anything that reeked of commodification. And I remember he had asked Mary Timony to be in it as well. And Mary was from a different scene than I was. And I remember she just said, “You’re crazy. You’re not going to do this commercial? We’re going to work for a day and you’re going to get a nice paycheck, and then we’ll get residuals.”
It’s just interesting to think how different somebody that lives on the East Coast, from Boston… she just thought, “You Olympia people are so closed-minded. What, you think you don’t want to make some money?”
Anyway, she’s like, “It’s an acting gig. It’s not Sleater-Kinney. It’s not your music. We’re doing silly covers with the guy from Star Trek.” I think Phil saw it as an opportunity to just get a handful of musicians who he liked together and give them some money for rent for a few months. So I flew to New York and we shot that commercial with William Shatner, who didn’t really talk to us that much. But he was not unkind. He was very pleasant on set, but generationally, not part of our world. He didn’t know or care about any of our bands, but he was very professional on set, and it was fun to hang out and see what it was like to make a commercial.
It’s funny watching the video today when you’re covering Cheap Trick, you’re playing one of those guitars, which to quote Otto the bus driver from The Simpsons, is like a double guitar.
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, it’s a double.
If you busted it out today, it’d be so sick.
BROWNSTEIN: It would be sick. I should look into it.
Collaborating With The Go-Betweens (2000)
What do you remember about working on The Friends Of Rachel Worth with the Go-Betweens? Was that the first time you two met one of your heroes?
TUCKER: We met them on this, actually, crazy night in San Francisco where we had flown in from a tour of Japan. We landed in San Francisco, and we were continuing on with the tour from there. And they were playing a show that night in San Francisco, and we went, and that’s where we met them. And it was definitely like the best case possible scenario of meeting your musical heroes, who were also just absolutely lovely people.
BROWNSTEIN: They played as a duo, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, at the Great American Music Hall, and we went backstage afterwards and met them, and then we took them out. They said, let’s go get some wine and bring it back to the hotel room. And it was us and Billy Karen from Bikini Kill, and Grant played us “Love Goes On” on guitar.
I remember him showing us that song, and we told them that night that The Hot Rock had been very influenced by the Go-Betweens, and I think they were flattered. And then I think Robert said something like, “I think I can hear that. I think you can hear it on that record.” And then they had Janet play drums and Corin went in and sang, and I played a little guitar in one of the songs, but it was very organic, but also kind of mind blowing to us as well, to meet up with people who we admired so much and have them, as Corin said, be as as wonderful and generous as you can hope for.
Covering The Hedwig And The Angry Inch Song “Angry Inch” With Fred Schneider (2003)
Okay, let’s turn to a different rock icon. What do you remember about working with Fred Schneider on the Hedwig And The Angry Inch cover for the Wig In A Box compilation? And was Fred Schneider what you would hope for?
BROWNSTEIN: We never met him during that, did we?
Oh, you didn’t?
BROWNSTEIN: That was the magic of sending files back and forth. We have met Fred, though.
BROWNSTEIN: We were flattered. We would have done anything with Fred, even if it was just us in one studio and him in another. Which is what happened. We met him at the zoo. And the B-52s played the zoo, right Corin?
TUCKER: Yes. He’s amazing. Fred’s, he’s lovely. He’s very funny, of course, and just really gracious about working on a project like that. It was such a thrill to work with him.
Brownstein Working On A Script For A Heart Biopic (Ongoing)
Now, speaking of rock royalty, Carrie, are you still working on the Heart biopic script?
BROWNSTEIN: I have finished my version of the biopic, and we are probably going to do more rewrites. Here’s the thing that’s so frustrating about that world, is that things kind of languish in development for a long time, so I hope it happens. Honestly, doing the research for that script, getting to meet with Ann and Nancy Wilson, it’s a highlight for me. Both of those women are incredible. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with both of them in person and also have done so much deep diving into their catalog and their history. And it was a way of celebrating the Pacific Northwest, at a time that predates Sleater-Kinney, which I think was important to learn about and also predates a lot of what people know about Northwest music, because Heart was around well before Nirvana or Soundgarden. They were up in Vancouver, BC, that’s where they started. They are a Seattle band. They’re from the Bellevue. But the band really formed up in Vancouver, BC, so shout out to Vancouver, BC. They don’t get a lot of shout-outs music wise from the ’70s.
Speaking of the Pacific Northwest, I don’t know how I lived my entire life without visiting Portland until recently, but my wife and I did go early this year and she definitely started humming “Light Rail Coyote” while we were driving around. I’m curious, when did the band move to Portland, and how do you think that changed your career and trajectory?
TUCKER: I think that it was kind of a gradual thing where I moved first to Portland from Olympia. Then we kind of went back and forth because then I went back up to Olympia and we wrote Dig Me Out when I was subletting a friend’s house. And I think that Portland is just really exciting. In 1996, it was still kind of an undiscovered city. It wasn’t Seattle, it wasn’t this big city. It was still very under the radar in terms of the music scene. But it was there. The music scene was really important. There were all these clubs to play, all these different opportunities, I think, for the band that were really ripe. And so I think we benefited from being able to play those clubs and venues and having that kind of local audience was really helpful.
Tucker Writing “Sympathy” From One Beat (2002)
While we’re talking about One Beat, Corin, I think a song a lot of your fans really love is “Sympathy.” Obviously that came from a very difficult circumstance. Were you afraid to talk about your life in such a revealing way? And what do you think about that song, looking back on it?
TUCKER: I think I really just needed to talk about it. I really needed to write about it, because my son’s birth was so difficult. Looking back, I was so traumatized, and I definitely had postpartum depression and didn’t realize that at the time. There wasn’t the language that there is now, and a lot of that just went into One Beat and went into that song, and it helped me process it.
It is hard. It’s hard sharing that. It’s hard for me to play that song and go back to that place. But I know that it helped other people who’ve struggled as parents. I know that it has. And that’s what’s so important about music, is that when you share something that’s so raw and so personal and painful. The best thing that I can do is help somebody else that’s struggling with that.
Thoughts On The Intersection Of Queerness And Indie Rock Culture (Ongoing)
So there has been a debate raging online that I think you two might have an interesting perspective on. Some younger people, recently, have been making the argument that indie rock, as a culture and as a genre, was suffocatingly heteronormative until very recently, with the success of people like boygenius, MUNA and so forth.
But older people are like, while it’s great that Generation Z is the most open-minded generation ever, this is simply an ahistorical take. For countercultural music, the Ground Zero is Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and indie rock wouldn’t exist without R.E.M., the Smiths — as problematic as they are — Hüsker Dü, the B-52s and other queer artists. So to call indie rock heteronormative simply doesn’t make sense. As proud out musicians and indie rock veterans, what’s your take?
BROWNSTEIN: Of course, I mean, it is the job of younger generations to usurp [laughs] previous ones and in some ways to have an ahistorical take.
BROWNSTEIN: But I do think predecessors are important. I think to negate those or erase them or just leave them out of the narrative is a disservice to how difficult it was. And I’m not even talking about myself or Sleater-Kinney, but I just think, historically, there are so many queer artists and non-binary artists and artists of color who have just had to insert themselves upon a landscape and into a context that was uninviting and potentially even alienating or dangerous. And so I’m glad that there are countless queer artists and perhaps more visibility, but that visibility exists because people came before them, that allowance for visibility exists for a reason.
But I also don’t want to negate current struggles. So to me it’s about a dialogue between the past and the present. Not solely focusing on one or the other.
Yeah, it’s very interesting how much things have changed and how much work there still is to be done. For instance, you’ve been very vocal about your thoughts about being outed by Spin in the late ’90s. And if that were to happen to a young artist today, younger online people simply would not stand for it. It’d be a bloodbath.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes it would. What’s also interesting is that because it didn’t exist online, I don’t even know how many people that piece reached. I mean, sure, a lot more people read Spin in 1996 or 95 than they do now, but still the virality didn’t exist in terms of how far reaching a story like that could be. So whereas people would have shut that down immediately and called the writer out or the publication out for being problematic, the conversation was able to be contained. So it’s hard, there’s not really an analog for it because it was so of the time. But certainly, people would not do that today, for sure.
Tucker Forming Filthy Friends With Peter Buck (2014-Present)
So speaking of R.E.M, Corin, I know that was a huge band for you growing up. When did you first meet Peter Buck, who now obviously you’re in a band with, and when did you go from “That’s Peter Buck!!!!” to “This is my friend Peter. We’re in a band together.”
TUCKER: I first met Peter when we played the Crocodile, in the ’90s. He was always a big supporter of Sleater-Kinney, I think he was like, “Wow, that’s a great show.” And I was definitely kind of in awe of him for years because I was just a huge R.E.M. fan, a huge student of their music. And I didn’t really get to know him until Scott McCaughey got a hold of me and said, “Hey, can you come and sing on Peter’s record?” And I just went into the studio and sang on the record and everybody really liked it. And then he called me and was like, “We should make a record together.”
TUCKER: I was like, “Uh, okay.” So it’s really through the process of making music with him, which is so fun. And it’s not dissimilar to how we do things in Sleater-Kinney. Except that he’s such a completist with his songwriting. He’ll come up with a lot of things and it’s almost a little bit more of editing that needs to happen with the songwriting. But just a joy to work with and to write with for sure. He’s fun.
Brownstein Reuniting With Her Childhood Guitar Teacher, Sunny Day Real Estate Frontman Jeremy Enigk (2022)
So speaking of early childhood music and Alternative Rock icons, Carrie, did you have a moment where you’re like, “What do you mean my guitar teacher is in the greatest emo band of all time? When did you make that connection?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, certainly not when I was taking guitar lessons from Jeremy Enigk. He was my neighbor and friend and classmate, but I always knew he was special, as did all our entire friend group. I mean, he would serenade every hangout we had with his amazing voice and his guitar playing. And he was very influential for me. I was excited when Sunny Day Real Estate started, and I was also very excited when they got back together in the last few years. And I saw him at Riot Fest, actually. And what was really sweet was that we hadn’t seen each other for a while, and he thanked me for writing about him in my memoir. Which was nice because I’m very thankful to him. But he said it also just meant a lot. Yes, Sunny Day are, in certain circles, very revered. But they were never huge. They had a lot of influence, obviously. And I think he is still a very special singer, writer, and guitar player.
Expanding Beyond The Power Trio Line-Up (2015-Ongoing)
So during the first version of the band, you performed as a power trio. And then when you came back, you had Katie Harkin helping you out on various things. And these days you have a much bigger band when you perform. And I’m not making fun of anyone, but when I saw the band a few years ago, I was like, “There’s guys in Sleater-Kinney now? That’s weird.” What made you decide to expand the band and move away from the power trio thing?
BROWNSTEIN: First of all, there’s no guys in the band. There’s not right now.
BROWNSTEIN: There were during our pandemic era. I mean, we were fine with that. But we’re going back to the The Center Won’t Hold band, basically. That’s sort of our ideal band, which was in terms of the current era, which is Katie Harkin, Toko Yasuda, Angie Boylan.
TUCKER: I think that in order to grow as songwriters, we’ve always wanted to experiment with different instrumentation. And so, being able to write something on the album and have someone else play that, whether it’s a synthesizer or an extra guitar part, that really helps us develop the song and have different tools at our disposal and it gives us a new canvas to play with, new territory to go towards as writers. And so I think we’ve really enjoyed working with everyone that we’ve been able to work with, including the guys.
BROWNSTEIN: I would say starting with The Hot Rock, but definitely by the time we got to All Hands, there are things that appeared on the album that we were not able to reproduce live. And sometimes that’s okay. I mean, the power trio is still very… I love that dynamic. But there is, I think, a frustration when you actually intend to have multiple guitar melodies, in addition to the ones that just Corin and I are capable of playing. If I write an additional melody or there’s a great synth part, I want to hear that live, too. And we don’t want to have backing tracks. So you start to just get expansive. Also, I love when Corin can just sing on a song, it’s just really powerful live to be able to just have her concentrate on that. So I think it’s helpful, as we’ve gone on to just be able to not feel limited, I think, in the live aspect of the band.
Working With Mom + Pop And Loma Vista (2019-Present)
Now, the band has always been on independent labels, but now you’re on Loma Vista, and your last two were on Mom + Pop, which aren’t major labels, but they’re a bit bigger than Sub Pop. What’s it been like being in this space?
TUCKER: Well, firstly I just want to say that we’re really excited about Loma Vista because they actually are an independent label and Concord (Loma Vista’s parent company) is the largest independent label. So it’s a really interesting network for a lot of different music. And to be able to access that, and to work with people of this caliber, I think is really exciting. Obviously we have a lot of respect for all the labels we worked on, whether it’s Sub Pop or Mom + Pop or Loma Vista or Kill Rock Stars. For us, we are looking for an opportunity to make our next good album. Maybe great album. I think that just right now, we’re very excited about this opportunity that we have, the label is super excited about the music, and we just feel like this is just a really good moment for the band.
Early Tours With Pre-Sleater-Kinney Bands Heavens To Betsy And Excuse 17 (1993-94)
I want to take things back to the very beginning. Was there an early Excuse 17/Heavens To Betsy show you two played together, where you’re like, “Why aren’t we in a band together?” Or did you realize something was going on with the universe?
BROWNSTEIN: I think we just felt that way from early on. We toured together, and so we would watch each other play every night. And I think, we just intuited that there could be something really exciting about combining our skill set. Of course, you never know for sure, but Corin was a fan of my guitar playing, and I was a fan of her singing and her songwriting, and I think we imagined a way that could be greater than the sum of its parts. So we tried it out and it worked.
But it is like it was an organic extension of our friendship. But I think when you watch someone on stage every night, you start to get a sense of what it might be. I think we recorded our 7” first and then we went to Australia and made our self-titled album.
Brownstein Directing Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner In An Episode Of Search Party (2019)
So sometimes when I interview a young artist, occasionally I’ll think “that person really has that special thing. They’re going to conquer the world.” I’m wondering, Carrie, when you directed Michelle Zauner in an episode of Search Party, did you notice that? What do you remember about directing her?
BROWNSTEIN: I already was a fan of Michelle’s and Japanese Breakfast, and I think I requested her for this part because we needed someone who could actually play guitar. Now, Michelle was up in a balcony, so my interactions with her were basically directing from the floor to her way up top. But Michelle is very talented. She’s very enigmatic. She’s a really hard worker. She’s a great writer. I can’t say I knew from the Search Party episode, but I think I knew before that, and which is why I asked her to be in it. But the thing about Michelle is she’s very game, she was up for doing that. Part of achieving things is being curious and open and that willingness. She really dove into that long day just standing up there playing like that song on guitar.
Thoughts On Woodstock ’99, “#1 Must Have,” And The Commodification Of Feminism (2000-Ongoing)
A song I’d love to hear a little more about what you think of was both of its time and very ahead of its time is “#1 Must Have,” which obviously was about Woodstock 1999. But you also have thoughts on the song about how easily something like feminism can become corporatized. These days, I believe we call that Girlboss Feminism. What were you thinking about with that song? How do you think about it now when you look back on it?
TUCKER: I think that it was so frustrating at the time because I felt like there had been this co-opting of the language that was part of the radical movement into, like, “Girl Power.” I mean, still it’s on every T-shirt, every mug, and yet in the actual environment of rock music and that particular festival, all these women were raped.
It just felt like we weren’t having a real dialogue about sexual violence and sexual assault and the culture of rock music and the power dynamics there. So looking back on it, that song, it’s a little prescriptive. It’s a little on the nose in terms of the writing, I think. But it also is just calling something out that I thought was still really unchanged about the rock environment. That’s our work environment, and how horrible for that to be an environment for that. So I think it’s just important to be honest and to address things like that in terms of the space that we work in.
Mariah Carey Allegedly Recording A Sleater-Kinney-Influenced Rock Album (1995) (Apocryphal)
So are you aware that Mariah Carey says she’s been a Sleater-Kinney fan since 1995, and that she recorded an album under the name Chick, inspired by you, L7 and Green Day? If so, have you heard this album?
BROWNSTEIN: We have heard of this. We have not heard the record, but we are standing by, waiting to hear this album. Send it our way, Mariah.
All due respect, I’m dubious that she’s been a fan since 1995. ’97 maybe.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Good point Michael. Good point. She would have had to be a very early adopter. [Laughs] She would have had to go to Evergreen State College with me if she had been a fan since 1995, and I know she didn’t.
Brownstein Forming Wild Flag With Janet Weiss, Mary Timony, And Rebecca Cole (2011)
Carrie, what are your thoughts when looking back on Wild Flag? It only lasted for one album, but it’s a great album. Was it always supposed to be a one off?
BROWNSTEIN: I like that record too. I’m really proud of it. It was really fun to play with that group of people. Mary Timony and I had played together in a side project called the Spells. I’m a huge fan of Mary’s guitar playing. I think she was very ahead of her time in terms of her sound, what she sang about. And she has just one of those styles that’s very distinctive. You can put on anything with Mary Timony and there’s no one that sounds like her. I love that. That’s something I’m always looking for in an artist. And I think something that makes them timeless. Janet Weiss is one of my favorite drummers, and it was fun to do a project with her that was different from Sleater-Kinney. And Rebecca Cole is just an amazing person and musician, and it was fun to add keyboards to a dynamic for me and as a songwriter to have that element. So I think sometimes with a band like that, you just get in and get out. You just come together, you make something cool, you tour and then you move on. I think it had its moment and it was a really fun moment and it really helped, after Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus, when my relationship to playing was a little uncertain. And it was, I think, very rejuvenating for me to just get out there with some people and make music like that.
Brownstein’s Stage Moves (Ongoing)
Carrie, when did you first try out the jump kick on stage?
BROWNSTEIN: Oh, the jump kick? Oh, gosh. It’s interesting, because in the early days of Sleater-Kinney, I did not move around very much on stage, and I was very shy on stage. In fact, we recently — I think last year, whenever the 25th anniversary of Dig Me Out came out — we put some audio up. I think we had the full show on YouTube, but we put a little clip on our socials, and Corin is the only one talking, really. She’s playing those Dig Me Out songs. She’s talking in between songs. At some point that changed, but early on I just kind of moved around a little bit. One of my feet sort of went back and forth, almost a little more like Elvis or something. And then at a certain point… I think a couple things inspired me. One was when we toured with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and I just remember watching Jon on stage, just thinking, “I can move around like that. Like, I don’t need to be so still.” And also just gaining confidence. As I moved through my 20s, I was just a pretty diffident kid, and certainly in my early 20s, I was as well. So I would say the jump kick came probably after Hot Rock. It must have been more like All Hands. It’s a little later, it wasn’t from the beginning. Which is interesting because that’s when I’m the youngest and really could probably do a high version of that, but I waited until I was solidly late 20s to start.
You also have the stage move where you’re standing still, but moving side to side. Where did you get that one from?
BROWNSTEIN: That’s the ’80s kid in me watching dance videos on MTV. There’s a lot of versions of that, whether it’s Chuck Berry, I mean, he has a very specific Chuck Berry move, or Bo Diddley, I always like that kind of kinetic performer, especially with guitar. Pete Townsend, I love watching those Who videos. He does an amazing jump kick or did in the heyday of the Who, with his flight suit on and yeah, big kick, So I just find that very exciting. So I don’t have names for that move. But I know which one you’re talking about. That will be easier for me to do as I get older.
Sleater-Kinney’s Post-Reunion Popularity Growth (2015-Ongoing)
As near as I can tell, Sleater-Kinney became much, much bigger when it came back from hiatus. Am I correct about that? And do you have any theory as to why?
TUCKER: I think that maybe while we were away, there was kind of a reassessment of some of our records and an appreciation for our music. So I think it was just kind of good timing to take the time off and then come back with what I think was a really strong record. Also at a time when I think people were really excited and able to go to shows and listen to music. It was a really nice time for the band, I think.
Before the band came back, do you think you were done or did you always kind of think, “One day we’ll get back together?” I always kind of wonder what bands think when they break up.
BROWNSTEIN: I don’t think it was a certainty at all. I don’t think that our future was assured. I think our friendship was. I hung out with Corin and her family all the time. Janet and I were in Wild Flag together. The three of us saw each other sometimes, but it took a couple of years before that conversation began in earnest. And then I think, in particular, I didn’t want to return to a reunion. I wanted to return as the next era of this band with new songs, because I really wanted to contend with the present version of the band and who we were in that moment, because otherwise, to me, there is something inauthentic or kind of gimmicky about that. I don’t know who to be right now if I’m only playing songs from 20 years ago or 10 years ago. So that was very important.
And then we had to test that. What were we capable of in terms of writing? And we didn’t want to make a record that just sounded like Dig Me Out or The Woods or some version of the band that we knew people really loved. We wanted to make something that had a central quality of Sleater-Kinney, but that was a step forward sonically and album wise, so it took a while for all of that to coalesce and realize that the need was there between the three of us, and that also the material was there so that we wouldn’t let people down, because it’s hard to do. It’s hard to come back.
Getting Anointed As The Greatest Working American Rock Band Upon The Release Of Dig Me Out (1997)
In 1997, Dig Me Out comes out and big-deal critics like Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, all these people, are saying this is America’s best band. Were you like, “What? How the hell did this happen?” Or was it more “You’re goddamn right we are.”
TUCKER: I think if we didn’t have that kind of bravado, we would never have made it through the kind of tours and grueling circumstances that a small rock band has. I think it was a surprise, when we started selling out shows for the Dig Me Out tour, that was a jump. It was a jump up for us. So it was both of those feelings. I think at the same time, it was a surprise and we were also like, “Yeah, we are great.”
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, you sort of have to believe in yourself that much, even to write a record like Dig Me Out. And you also have to have a certain amount of belief in order to keep going because you don’t always have the critics there. You have to be able to tune that out. So yeah, it was both, I agree.
Do you have any memory from when that album came out? Things got big really fast or really “big,” in quote marks. Any surreal memories from that time period?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, definitely. We were on tour with literally one person in our crew, Tim Holman. He was one of the drivers in the van, the other drivers being me, Corin and Janet. He sold our merch for us. Although we helped him, sometimes. He helped carry our gear. And one day we were stopping to get gas and he went in and he came out with Time magazine, I think. And they had reviewed Dig Me Out. And that was absolutely surreal because it wasn’t a music magazine. It was a magazine that my grandparents and my parents would read. This was validation from the mainstream, and that was very surreal. That was the beginning of some real surreal moments.
Little Rope is out now via Loma Vista.