Sleater-Kinney: “Our music has typically appealed to outsiders, and that’s okay for us. We like those people”

Sleater-Kinney‘s return marks a renewed commitment to urgency, authenticity, and the unpredictable path of rock. Check out our latest Upset cover story.

Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Chris Hornbecker.

Having released ten brilliant albums over the past thirty years, Sleater-Kinney are undeniable indie-rock legends. Essays have been written about the impact of 1997’s breakout album ‘Dig Me Out’ while the clear musical chemistry between Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker has constantly pushed the band from riot grrrl and beyond. In 2015, a ten-year hiatus was brought to a close with ‘No Cities To Love’, an album that was as urgent and vicious as anything that had come before, but despite Sleater-Kinney’s sprawling and influential legacy, the band really aren’t that interested in it all.

“I need to feel like I’m doing something meaningful, even if it’s only meaningful to me,” explains Corin. Sleater-Kinney have never done an anniversary tour, and the closest they’ve come to revisiting old albums was their 2022 ‘Dig Me Out’ covers record, which saw the likes of St. Vincent, Self Esteem and The Linda Lindas put their spin on the iconic album.

“Nostalgia is a very satisfying feeling to luxuriate in, but there is a cynicism to it,” continues Carrie. “You’re basically saying the present is not as good as the past. It can be corrosive to not believe that right now is worthwhile.” Live, Sleater-Kinney still celebrate every corner of their back catalogue, “but we’re really trying to embrace who we are now and what the world is, for better or worse,” says Carrie.

This brings us to eleventh album ‘Little Rope’, perhaps the perfect introduction to the spiky, melodic might of Sleater-Kinney.

“You never want a new record to be met with an eye roll, and ideally, every one feels like its own entity,” Carrie continues. Still, ‘Little Rope’ has been described by the band as the start of a new era. Corin says making the album saw the pair make a “renewed commitment” to one another, while Carrie describes it as a “restart” following 2021’s “insular, isolated pandemic album, ‘’Path Of Wellness’.”

“So much of Sleater-Kinney is about connection. It’s about community. It’s about a shared experience. After making something more introverted, we wanted to embrace the perennial restlessness of Sleater-Kinney,” continues Carrie, with the pair chasing urgency at every turn.

They spoke about their love of punk rockers The Clash and Queen of Funk Chaka Khan, but it was more about energy than sonics. “We have such a unique way of playing together that no matter what we’re inspired by, it always ends up being funnelled through the landscape of Sleater-Kinney,” says Carrie. “I don’t take for granted that there is a uniqueness to what we do. We’re a hard band to emulate.”

“I love that ‘Little Rope’ conjures the things central to Sleater-Kinney,” she continues. “It has an urgency and a rawness familiar to us, but we can’t always get there authentically. It’s a really great hybrid of all the things I love about Sleater-Kinney while also sounding new.”

From the opening roar of ‘Hell’, a renewed anger rattles through ‘Little Rope’. “We want to reflect what’s going on in the world,” explains Corin. “We find purpose in writing about things that we feel are important, that we wish were different and that we are going through personally.”

“Everything is confusing right now,” continues Carrie. “Our goal is that these songs, written in moments of despondency or fury, connect with others. I do think people will feel seen by this record. It captures a lot of things that many of us are going through.”

A lot of ‘Little Rope’ deals with the precariousness of life, she continues. The album sees the band on a precipice, “straddling light and dark, or sorrow and joy. The songs really explore the discomfort of being neither here nor there, whether that’s because of your own sadness, other people leaving, being forced to retreat, or not being able to access something that seems shimmery and joyful,” Carrie adds. “There’s a lot of just sitting in the mess.”

Still, “it’s not totally dire,” promises Carrie, with ‘Little Rope’ also championing moments of levity and joy. Music videos for singles ‘Say It Like You Mean It’ and ‘Hell’ feature actual dancing, and there’s a blossoming, undeniable resilience across the album. “ I wouldn’t say it’s hopeful, but it has desire and faith. It’s that freedom of getting to the other side of something,” says Carrie. “The freedom of letting go, the freedom of reckoning with the messy truth of things.”

“There’s a joy in being able to understand what you’re going through, have a name for it, and call it out,” continues Corin. “We have faith in the power of music.”

Sleater-Kinney reunited in 2015 after ten years of pursuing other projects. “We just felt like there was still something to say,” says Carrie of the band’s ambitions back then. “When you stop, sometimes you assume something will come along that takes the place of your band, but it didn’t feel like that for us. It felt like there was still space for Sleater-Kinney, and the story was unfinished.”

From the outside, every album that followed saw the band out to prove something, from working with St. Vincent to produce 2019’s ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ to recording without longstanding drummer Janet Weiss on 2021’s ‘Path Of Wellness’.

“In some ways, I think you need something to prove. I don’t know how to approach an album without that feeling,” says Carrie, who’s set out to “defy expectations and prove you’re still worthy of continuing” with every record. “We’ve always wanted the same thing, which is to be considered a good band,” she explains. “Even back in 1995, people were trying to pigeonhole us.” 

The band have always focused on chasing what felt most inspiring, and their noisy, guitar-driven, angsty album comes as rock is very much back in the mainstream. “When you’ve been around long enough, it’s obvious that everyone is ready to declare rock dead before resurrecting it, but it feels like the younger generations really just appreciate music,” explains Carrie. “It doesn’t feel like you’re put out to pasture the second you hit 50 anymore, and there’s a real openness by them to listen to everything.”

“We’ve always just felt very attached to guitars and the loudness of what we do musically. Sometimes we will be out of fashion, and sometimes we’ll inadvertently ride a wave,” says Corin. Still, as much as she wants to “reintroduce the band with this album,” they’re not aiming for a breakout moment. “We’re not mainstream, and that’s okay. We’re not for everyone, and I think we have always known that. Understanding that we are different gives us a freedom to really do things our own way that is ultimately very satisfying.”

“There’s something too weird about our band,” continues Carrie. “Our music has typically appealed to outsiders or people who sometimes feel at odds with the world, and that’s okay for us. We like those people.”

“And what is great is that people are just discovering us now,” she adds, with ‘Little Rope’ getting positive comments across social media from fans new and old, with a similar scene playing out at gigs. “It’s a wonderful feeling to play live and have the first couple rows populated by teenagers and people in their early 20s. It’s a huge privilege to have a multi-generational audience because it means the songs transcend demographics or scenes. They just speak to people, and that’s what we’ve always hoped for. Our goal is always to feel relevant. You want to be assessed as your present self.”

“It’s always been part of our ethos to not necessarily offer up exactly what people imagined Sleater-Kinney would do next,” she adds. “That can be a little treacherous, but it also keeps things exciting.” ■

Sleater-Kinney’s album ‘Little Rope’ is out 19th January. Follow Upset’s Spotify playlist here.