A Sleater-Kinney Album Mutated by Grief

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Like many great recording studios, Flora Recording & Playback, in Portland, Oregon, is unspectacular from the outside. A brick building situated on a moderately busy street in between two residential neighborhoods, it has a set of heavy, grayish doors that look like they lead to the kind of place where people spend their time sorting files and making spreadsheets. But, when you open the doors, you find another, single door, adorned with small colorful paintings of musical notes. And through that door: the magic of noise.

On a recent weekend afternoon, Carrie Brownstein, the co-guitarist and co-vocalist of the rock band Sleater-Kinney, was inside, tilting her head at a row of guitars on the wall. The studio around her was cluttered with gear—vintage pianos, pedalboards with incoherent scribbles on strips of masking tape—belonging to the Decemberists, who had been there for months, working on a forthcoming album. “Tucker!” Brownstein shouted, calling not for her Sleater-Kinney bandmate, Corin Tucker, who was standing next to her, but for Tucker Martine, the studio’s owner, who was tinkering nearby in a soundproof booth. “Tucker!!” Brownstein called again, in a tone of rising excitement. Martine poked his head out.

“Is that my guitar?” Brownstein asked, pointing at a white custom model that resembled a Fender. She and Tucker hadn’t been back to the studio since recording an album there almost a year before.

“I decided to put it up on the wall because I figured someone would come in and claim it eventually,” Martine replied.

Brownstein is forty-nine years old, with brown hair that sometimes falls into her expressive face. She pulled the guitar down and ran her hands along its strings, as if she were touching a ghost. Tucker, who is blond with wide eyes, explained, “We had a lot of our gear stolen from our storage unit shortly after recording the album. We just assumed the guitar was gone.”

Brownstein and Tucker have been playing together in Sleater-Kinney for three decades, since the band burst out of riot grrrl, the feminist punk scene in Olympia, Washington, in the early nineties. They made a run of seven albums, between 1995 and 2005, before taking a hiatus that ended up lasting eight years. Since 2019, when their longtime drummer, Janet Weiss, departed the band, Brownstein and Tucker have been operating as a duo. They completed “Little Rope,” which is out this month, while navigating sudden tragedy. In the fall of 2022, Brownstein learned that her mother and stepfather had been killed in a car accident while on vacation in Italy. Most of the tracks for “Little Rope” were already written at the time, and at least one was already recorded. But Brownstein’s grief twisted the music into new shapes.

“Finishing the record was basically my way of praying every day,” she told me, after we’d settled around a table in the studio’s kitchenette. “I am not a religious person, but I had to ask. I had to wonder, I had to talk and commune with something that was beyond what I could see in front of me.”

Sleater-Kinney has always been a band of communion, the engine of their songmaking found in the restless interplay between Tucker and Brownstein. The women developed a deep friendship as students at Evergreen State College when both were playing in other groups. The early riot-grrrl scene was characterized by a matriarchal spirit of creative collaboration. Bands would be formed on Monday and have their first show on Friday. They would watch one another, learn how to idiosyncratically tune and detune guitars, how to bend notes into the sweet spot of distortion. Playing music was an exchange of information, operating against the hoarding of brilliance, against the idea of scarcity. Tucker’s band, Heavens to Betsy, and Brownstein’s, Excuse 17, toured together, and the two women developed a fascination with each other’s playing. “I was, like, She’s a shredder,” Tucker said. The two briefly became a romantic couple and fled the scene to Australia, where they began working on what would become their first, self-titled record. When they reëmerged back in the States, they were a fully formed band. “It seemed like the beginning of a love story,” Brownstein said, “except the love story became about the band.”

Sleater-Kinney’s music is constructed out of precise collisions. Brownstein’s guitar distortion sounds like a person howling out a loud, final breath. Tucker’s voice, one of the most distinctive in music, is siren-like, loud as if out of necessity, but underpinned with a sneering sweetness. Sometimes their songs sound like the women are having two entirely separate conversations that erupt outward, other times like they’re having a string of enticing arguments. When Weiss joined the band, in 1996, after the release of “Call the Doctor,” the intensity was heightened, with Weiss’s relentless, versatile percussion forming a kind of container for the songs to dwell in. Tucker recalled, “I was a huge fan of singers that could really do something big. And I think that because of the chemistry of our guitars together and what we could do together, I could see that and I could see that happening in this band. And I feel like some of that stuff only happens in this band.”

“Little Rope,” the band’s fourth album since reuniting—and their second since Weiss left —has fortified the bond between Brownstein and Tucker in new ways. When the accident in Italy occurred, Tucker, whom Brownstein had listed on her passport form as an emergency contact, was the one who received a call from the Italian Embassy. The person on the other end of the line asked to speak with Brownstein, and Tucker assumed at first that it was a scam. In Sleater-Kinney’s down years, Brownstein embarked on a second career as a comedian, most notably on the satirical sketch show “Portlandia,” opposite Fred Armisen, in a role that brought her a level of fame beyond the indie-music world. “Carrie is a TV person, and people are always trying to get her phone number,” Tucker said. “But once I digested the legitimacy from the Embassy, and the tone of it, it made me very concerned.”

“You didn’t think they were calling to give me diplomatic status?” Brownstein replied.

When Tucker called Brownstein to relay the message, Brownstein was heading into the studio, so she asked her sister, Stacey, to return the Embassy’s call. A few hours later, Stacey called her to break the news: there’d been an accident four days earlier. Their mother and stepfather were both dead.

Afterward, Brownstein recalled, she retreated into music, and she found herself tinkering with “Little Rope” ’s existing songs, adding new riffs and “sinister melodies.” “I hadn’t played that much guitar since I was in high school or college—hours, just hours, playing riff after riff, changing parts,” she said. “It was a choreography that I understood because things like eating or being in public, seeing friends, that was harder for me. Because I was scared—I felt so misshapen, I think, but not with music.” The track “Six Mistakes” was originally recorded in the band’s first session, with no lead guitar, foregrounding voices and drums. Now it grew layers of muddy, heavy distortion that made the song feel like walking through a fog, until it opened up, about halfway through, with Brownstein’s screeching guitar now wrestling with Tucker’s voice. “Everything got spikier. Or sicker. Or prettier,” Brownstein said. “Everything had to take on its final form. Nothing could have been stuck in the middle. Everything had to rear its head.”

Even the tracks that were written before the accident became reshaped by the news. “Dress Yourself” is a sonically sparse track about persuading oneself to leave the house, with lyrics like “dress yourself in clothes you love / for a world you hate.” Brownstein said, “I think what kind of haunts me about that song is that I wrote the lyrics, exactly as they are now, before my mom died. The chorus is very much about the pain I have in my life. Or, a pain. A long-standing pain. Of depression, or a sense of feeling misplaced sometimes. It was surreal to have her die after I’d written it. It was like I’d gifted the song to myself beforehand.”

Brownstein found that singing in her stricken state came less easily than playing the guitar, so she leaned on Tucker. Most past Sleater-Kinney albums had a fairly even distribution of vocal duties; on “Little Rope,” Tucker does more solo singing than she’s done since the band’s early years. “Sometimes Carrie would say, ‘I just need you to sing. Can you just sing for me?’ ” she told me. “And I would say yes. It was out of necessity.”

“I really needed to hear Corin’s voice,” Brownstein said. “It’s one of my favorite voices, and I needed it. It’s bigger than I am.”

They worked on the album with the producer John Congleton, who pushed Tucker to manifest the weight of feeling in the lyrics. Sometimes this meant confronting the strain of volume, other times it meant maintaining a patient control over each word, a kind of restraint. “There was a real emotional, heightened quality to a lot of things,” Tucker said. Once, she woke up in the middle of the night and sang new vocal arrangements into her phone, then used them the next day in the studio to rewrite melodies with Congleton. Critics in the past have ascribed a sense of rage to Tucker’s vocal stylings, which I think confuses the concerns of the music with the vessel delivering them. In fact, Tucker’s voice was not far off from that of, say, Pat Benatar: her singing is more concerned with urgency than with prettiness, but that doesn’t mean that it forsakes softness altogether. On “Little Rope,” to my ear the most dynamic and flexible vocal performance of Tucker’s career, she sings in some capacity on all of the songs except one, contorting her voice into near-whispers in between shouts. In the opening line of the opening song, “Hell,” she sings over the dizzying drone of synthesizers and meticulously heavy guitar strumming, “Hell don’t have no worries / Hell don’t have no past” and “Hell is desperation / and a young man with a gun.” Then the song explodes into distortion and drums, with Tucker wailing, “You ask ‘why’ like there’s no tomorrow” two long, aching times, in a tone of frustrated surrender. Elsewhere, she and Brownstein perform a kind of vocal role reversal, with Brownstein taking the more anguished-sounding highs while Tucker’s voice serves as a sturdy bridge, finding quieter, weightier, stabilizing notes.

When it comes to albums, there is the myth of aboutness, the notion that some inciting event—a death, a breakup—defines a project in its entirety. Sleater-Kinney’s “One Beat,” from 2002, is most commonly referred to as a wartime album, made in protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is less often noted that it was also an album in which Tucker confronted her grief and fear surrounding the arrival of her first child, Marshall, who was born nine weeks premature. (“Precious baby, is your life hanging by a thread? . . . All I have all I am all I can / For him,” she sings.) On “Little Rope,” grief is the undercurrent, but the album is also roiling with broader questions of how to move through an increasingly harsh world. A sense of uncertainty runs through the lyrics. In “Six Mistakes,” over bending guitar notes, Tucker repeats, “Is it all in my head / the life I’m living?” The album at times sounds like a collection of fractured love songs. “Say It Like You Mean It,” the second single, hinges on a series of pleas, repeated in the chorus, including, “I need to hear it before you go.” (Delightfully, it never reveals what exactly the “it” is.) “Little Rope” might be Sleater-Kinney’s most tender album, articulating forgiveness for the person who is unable to bear the unbearable. It is an album that understands that not leaving the house would be just as reasonable as forcing oneself to do so.

Brownstein told me that it was hard to figure out when to stop tinkering. “The album felt alive,” she said. “And I was wrestling with finality in the rest of my life. It was hard for me to put this album to bed.” Playing Sleater-Kinney songs was a kind of emotional alchemy. The music, she said, “can add up to something that doesn’t feel like grief at all. It could add up to something that feels really joyful. We could play it until it’s not about grief.”

There’s a thing that sometimes happens when bands go away, and it happened to Sleater-Kinney: their albums, already critically adored, got reassessed and gained new admirers. In 2006, Rolling Stone declared the group the “best American punk rock band ever. EVER.” During their years apart, the three women all pursued different musical interests. Tucker released a solo album. Working on “Portlandia,” Brownstein and Armisen formed a close platonic partnership. Fans began mourning that the band might never return. But one day in 2012, Brownstein and Tucker were watching TV at Tucker’s house. Armisen was there, along with Tucker’s husband, the director Lance Bangs, and Armisen asked if the band would ever consider playing a show. There is some disagreement between Tucker and Brownstein about the conversation that followed. Tucker insists that this was the first time they discussed getting back together. Brownstein recalls that talks of a reunion had already begun. Either way, Tucker said, “We thought, Oh, my God, maybe we could.”

It was the day after our visit to Flora and we were sitting outside a bustling coffee shop in the east side of Portland, where eighties pop standards were being piped from speakers onto the street. Brownstein was wearing brown corduroys and a pair of bright, low-top Nikes. Tucker was wearing a brown suède jacket over a sweater. They were clearly recognizable to the café’s other patrons—I noticed furtive glances in our direction—but not in a manner that seemed to make their lives claustrophobic, which I suppose is one virtue of being in a place you call home. The leaves on the trees lining the sidewalk had a mid-autumn fluorescence. A massive dog had decided it didn’t want to follow its owner any farther and sprawled itself on the concrete.

Tucker recalled, “I had two kids at that point, and I thought we could just do a few shows and see what happens, but Carrie was, like, ‘Absolutely not, we need to write a new record. I’m not going to do some dumb reunion thing.’ ”

“I think you’re overdramatizing that, potentially,” Brownstein said.

“But I could see it in your mind!” Tucker replied. They agreed that if they made new music they would be careful to avoid capitalizing on nostalgia for their past selves. They recorded their comeback album, “No Cities to Love,” in the early months of 2014, mostly in secret, and released it in January the following year. Whereas their last pre-hiatus album, “The Woods,” luxuriated a bit, stretching ten songs over nearly fifty minutes, with long, winding solos, and tunes that felt almost like mini-suites, “No Cities” returned to the blistering, breakneck pace of the band’s earlier work, sprinting through ten tracks in barely more than half an hour. The choruses were catchier than they had ever been before.

The reunion eventually led to a fresh fracturing. When Weiss left the group, after the making of 2019’s “The Center Won’t Hold,” she gave an accounting of her exit on a music podcast, saying that her bandmates had made clear that they no longer considered her a creative equal. Before her departure, the band tried group counselling, but it didn’t change the end result. Brownstein, at the time, succinctly expressed, “She left. We asked her to stay. We tried. It’s hard and sad.” (The band has since worked with Angie Boylan and other drummers, both in the studio and onstage.) When I asked Brownstein and Tucker about this, they were careful to emphasize Weiss’s contributions to the band. “Janet was such a careful arranger of our songs,” Brownstein said. “She never wanted anything to sound like the same thing twice.” But Tucker implied that collaboration feels easier now, as a duo. “It’s less like we’re in the basement hammering all of it out together, and it’s more like a discussion.”

The economic path forward for musicians is more uncertain today than it was in the nineties. Tours are harder to sustain. Albums are harder to promote. Attention spans are depleting. Brownstein spoke cynically about the effect that Spotify has had on artists. “Algorithm-based listening breeds mediocrity,” Brownstein said. “No artist ever said, ‘I’m just running toward the middle,’ but now, inadvertently, people are and they don’t even realize it.” On the upside, Olivia Rodrigo had recently liked one of Tucker’s posts on Instagram, which Tucker joked would gain her some clout with her teen-age daughter. I asked the inevitable question about longevity: could they see Sleater-Kinney surviving another decade, maybe two? Could they be like Springsteen, like the Cure, playing into their sixties and seventies to eager audiences? Do they have the stamina and the desire, music industry be damned, to carry Sleater-Kinney into Acts III or IV?

They looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

“Well, I don’t know,” Brownstein said. “The problem is that we were never popular like a Springsteen, or even like the Cure. We just don’t have this bread and butter when it’s, like—”

“That’s true,” Tucker said. “Carrie’s always a realist.”

“It just wouldn’t make any sense if we . . .”

“We’d just end up playing in a café here.”

“Right! We’ll be playing this place.”

“We brought you here because we’ll be inviting you here in twenty years.” ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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