“We were a moving train — we just pressed ‘pause,'” says Sleater-Kinney singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein, explaining why the beloved alt-rock trio broke up at the peak of its success and why it has reunited for its first album in 10 years, the excellent No Cities to Love (due Jan. 20 on Sub Pop). “But looking back, it’s a relief to stop while you’re ahead. It’s easier to start that back up again than to exhume a corpse.”
In the late 1990s and early ’00s, Sleater-Kinney was one of indie rock’s most thrilling, volatile acts — feminist, loud and proud, with sparks flying between singer-guitarists Brownstein and Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss’ power drumming. Legendary critic Robert Christgau, Time and others called them America’s best rock band, even as they were dogged by anxiety issues and internal conflict, seeing a couples therapist at one point. (“We’re kind of like a big couple,” Brownstein told Rolling Stone in 2003. In fact, she and Tucker, who met as students at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., dated in the band’s early days.)
But after the group, worn down by years of DIY touring, announced its “indefinite hiatus” in 2006, Brownstein’s career entered an unforeseeable second act: ThunderAnt, her comedy project with Saturday Night Live‘s Fred Armisen, evolved into the Emmy-nominated IFC show Portlandia, a sharp-toothed satire of the band’s adopted hometown and aging-hipster subculture. Now, for some of Sleater-Kinney’s new fans, the band is “the group that Carrie from Portlandia is in.”
Brownstein and Armisen on the new season of Portlandia.
And that’s fine with them. “We’ve always been on the fringes,” says Weiss, 49, who doubles as Portlandia‘s permitting manager and location scout. “The goal is for people to hear your music,” she adds, sipping cappuccinos with Brownstein, 40, at Portland cafe Extracto. “However they get in is cool.”
The IFC show’s fifth season started Jan. 8, and Tucker, 42, is delighted in the way it has changed Brownstein, who suffered from panic attacks in the final years of the band’s first incarnation. “She does a better job of taking care of herself,” says Tucker. “That infrastructure has been so good for her — she’s been mentored in a way that’s awesome.”
Brownstein’s success as co-star, co-writer and co-creator of Portlandia has opened new doors in Hollywood, including a recurring role (written specifically for her) on Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning show Transparent and a supporting part in the upcoming Todd Haynes film Carol, co-starring Cate Blanchett. She also has written a memoir that Riverhead is publishing in the fall, and there was a wave of online excitement when St. Vincent mentioned recently that she and Brownstein had been making music together. (Brownstein clarifies: “We played music in my basement — two friends jamming. We have some tracks in GarageBand that will never see the light of day.”)
But between her rising profile and ever-busier schedule, Brownstein still felt something was missing: Sleater-Kinney. In 2013, she and Tucker were inspired to reunite the band while watching an episode of Portlandia with Armisen and Tucker’s husband (filmmaker Lance Bangs, with whom she has two children). “We loved doing this, but there’s no guarantee we’re going to have an easy career, or a career at all,” says Tucker. “We didn’t know if people would remember us — or care.”
One thing holding them back: fear of becoming a nostalgia act, which meant that they had to come up with an album’s worth of new songs that would inspire them onstage. “We’re touring for an album — not for a legacy,” says Brownstein. “We were willing to shelve it if it didn’t live up to our standards; you don’t want this flaccid appendage at the end of a very strong body of work.”
Fittingly, the band didn’t announce the album, its first studio set since 2005’s The Woods, until the October day that it released Start Together, a vinyl box set of its first seven LPs. “We wanted to get the box set out and move on,” says Weiss. “Part of the impetus to make the new record was so we wouldn’t have to go back and live in those old songs. We relate to the new material more intensely.”
“It’s not a reunion — it’s a continuation,” adds Brownstein.
As a result, the group nixed the cash-in route of resurrecting old favorites for the festival circuit, which it doesn’t see as a good match for its abrasive rock. “There’s a harsh juxtaposition between playing heavy music and sunshine,” says Brownstein with a deadpan expression. “You should be playing music that you can throw a beach ball to.”
Indeed, No Cities to Love is Sleater-Kinney’s most tightly wound album, 10 ferocious but fantastic songs in 33 minutes, including “Price Tag,” a nightmarish vision of wage slavery, and “Bury Our Friends,” which laments “our own gilded age.” “There’s an enmeshing of personal and political that we’ve never tried to detangle,” says Brownstein, citing “very unafraid” rap duo Run the Jewels as a recent inspiration. She and her bandmates are perversely proud of how writing and recording it kept them, as Weiss puts it, “on edge the whole time. People ask me, ‘Is it fun?’ Well, ‘fun’ is not the right word — it’s challenging. It’s fun later.”
That fun begins when Sleater-Kinney starts touring in February, playing 44 shows in the United States and Europe, and wrapping just two days before the next season of Portlandia goes into production. There will likely be another run later this year, but beyond that, the future of the band is an open question.
“Sleater-Kinney is a mechanism that exists outside the three of us,” says Brownstein. “There’s an inevitability to it. There’s something we can say together that we can’t say separately.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of Billboard.