Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker are discussing what gifts to buy one another for their 30th (pearl) anniversary together. “It’s a pearl brooch,” laughs Corin. “It’s going to look so good on your guitar strap.” Carrie one-ups her: a Victorian-style choker with a huge brooch in the middle. After three decades together, Carrie and Corin have developed a shared language, an almost sibling-like way of interacting without saying anything. One starts a joke or a story, and the other knows intuitively where it’s going to go while giving space for the other to speak. That ease of communication didn’t happen overnight.
“When you first start out playing music with someone, I don’t think that you are necessarily predicting longevity, you’re only thinking about the present moment,” explains Carrie. “You’re not necessarily putting time or energy into the traits that are required for a lasting friendship, such as good communication, or having boundaries, things that you learn later to do. Of course there’s a volatility, and you’re able to handle that and have more patience for it when you’re younger, because often your whole life has this impulsive nature to it.” As they entered their 30s and 40s, however, they lost patience for that tempestuousness. “I think there’s more consideration and deliberation and intentionality once you realise that there is something to protect. When you no longer take anything for granted, there are shifts in that dynamic.”
The band formed in 1994 in Olympia, Washington, becoming figureheads of the Riot Grrrl movement and heroes to women everywhere. With some line-up changes, a hiatus and other shifts behind them, the core of the band has always been Carrie and Corin. Of maintaining their integrity and closeness, Corin says, “We really prioritise making something together, that feels really vital. So we write a lot, and there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t work, that doesn’t measure up, and we keep going until we hit something that we feel measures up.” Drummer Janet Weiss, who had been with the band from 1996 until their 2007 hiatus and from their reunion in 2014, left in 2019, shifting the dynamic of the band. “Janet was a very fruitful and rewarding musical partnership and musical collaboration for us,” says Carrie.
Despite that, it wasn’t a major adjustment for either of them. “Because we had started out differently, it didn’t feel so dissimilar or unfamiliar or foreign. We weren’t necessarily the same people anymore, so it was different, but it also wasn’t foreign,” says Carrie. Janet’s departure was a loss, but one that still left the beating heart of Sleater-Kinney: Carrie and Corin. “We rarely look back. We acknowledge and we bring the past along with us, but as writers, we’re always looking to the present, and to how we can change from the last album and push ourselves. That task remains perennial. Whether it’s the two of us or with other collaborators, that’s always our mission.”
“We rarely look back. As writers, we’re always looking to the present and how we can change from the last album and push ourselves. That task remains perennial.”Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney’s latest record, ‘Little Rope’, is their 11th album. It’s raw and alive, turning their potent energy inwards to a complex, difficult grief. In 2022, Carrie lost her mother and stepfather in a car accident while they were on holiday in Italy. In part, ‘Little Rope’ is an effort to make sense of that immense loss. “There is some catharsis to the doing and making of music. Playing it, performing it. The task of it can be meditative and often prayerful, at least that’s how I found it. More so than it being a relief or a release, it provides the scaffolding and structure, which is necessary when you’re going through the morass of grief,” says Carrie. While the album was partly born from Carrie’s grief, both women wrote evenly on the record. “We had songs like ‘Untidy Creature’ and ‘Hell’ for a while, and we were refining them and working on them during the whole process,” says Corin, adding that they “over-wrote” the album. “It wasn’t until certain songs began to feel like they hit a bar for the album that it felt like it was starting to build a world. ‘Hell’ and ‘Needlessly Wild’ felt like they had the frenetic energy and the world-building that we wanted for the album.”
On ‘Little Rope’, Sleater-Kinney worked with the producer John Congleton (Phoebe Bridgers, St Vincent, Angel Olsen) for the first time. “We inherently trust John, we trust his taste and his acumen and his ear. He knows the strengths of Sleater-Kinney, and he wants to elicit that in each song,” says Carrie. Of course, though, the band is their baby–and there was some back and forth. “You feel less sensitive to someone saying ‘I think we should make that more distorted or less distorted on guitar.’ It’s hard when somebody says ‘I don’t know if this vocal performance is strong enough.’” John told Corin that her vocal performance on ‘Say It Like You Mean It’ wasn’t quite right, and she reacted as anyone might: “I wanted to yell and scream ‘what are you talking about?’” she laughs. Instead, though, she reworked the vocals, and is proud of the outcome. “I realised that he was doing it out of respect for me because he really cares about my voice. He’s listened to it, he’s familiar with it, he knows what I can do. He wanted me to do my absolute best. That’s the journey that we took together in the studio. I’m really happy about that because I do think the vocals on this album are the best I’ve ever done.”
“Little Rope” is a catharsis, offering a space for the listener to work through their grief, too. Corin cites Nick Cave, who lost his 15-year-old son in an accident in 2015, as someone who has been generous with his discussions of grief, offering people a way to make sense of their own experiences. “It’s so incredibly brave of him to show us the way he opened the door into using art and the experience between artist and audience to become like a shared prayer or a meditation. It’s really instructional on how to use your art for something that’s really meaningful.” Carrie agrees: “When an artist puts themselves into the work and shares something that is vulnerable and that speaks to the fragility of humankind, it really does bring people in and help people feel seen and understood. There are so many ways that people can be rendered incoherent and unable to properly express their situation or what they’re feeling and music, especially, sometimes gives people the words. I think it’s a real privilege to be able to give someone else a way of communicating their feelings or thoughts.”
“When an artist puts themselves into the work and shares something that is vulnerable and that speaks to the fragility of humankind, it really does bring people in and help people feel seen and understood.”Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney
‘Little Rope’ offers that space for the listener. The stage, though, is where Sleater-Kinney really come alive, and this record will likely be no different. “Sometimes songs become something else when you perform them for other people. It’s such a shared experience that sometimes when you’re actually on stage singing, the song becomes less of a sorrowful moment or a moment of anger and more of a moment of celebration or a transformation,” says Corin. They both enjoy the “unpredictability” of the live environment, and are looking forward to embarking on a “hefty” tour next year. “That is really where the songs cohere for us, and not just the current material but the merging of the new album with the older albums and curating those songs and constructing a setlist. We like the craft of that a lot,” says Carrie. “One of the reasons we keep doing music is for that communal experience that can only happen in a live setting. It’s spontaneous, and an embrace of the present.”
The live show is often the space where Carrie and Corin learn which songs really connect with people. “Sometimes it takes a minute for people to register the song or absorb it. It reaches people when they need it,” says Corin. Carrie adds, “You learn to have that patience, and as a listener, you know that intuitively.” Their long career has given them perspective: “One of the really special things about staying around is that you get to see those patterns and reassessments and the reemerging of certain songs. It’s a pretty wondrous experience. The same thing happens with our own songs with ourselves and our own feelings about them. Sometimes there’s something that we might have dismissed or underestimated, and then we suddenly want to play it because of where we’re at right now. We’re lucky in that we have 11 albums with which to do that, for ourselves and for the audience.”
30 years into a career that shows no sign of slowing down, ‘Little Rope’ has a vitality and potency that makes it a valuable Sleater-Kinney record. But it also has elements of growth, the wisdom of age and loss threaded with the kind of intimacy that only knowing and working with another person for 30 years will bring.
‘Little Rope’ is out January 19 2024. In the meantime, dive into Sleater-Kinney’s back catalogue with our curated playlist.