Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker Look Back on 25 Years of Sleater-Kinney

Ahead of the band’s 10th album, the pair talks Rihanna and tour style.

Photo Credit - Nikko LaMere.jpg
Nikko LaMere

There’s been no shortage of unnecessary reboots in recent years, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d lament the reunion of Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s seminal rock band that first made waves in the post-riot grrrl Pacific Northwest a full quarter of a century ago. Plenty has changed in the years since they formed—Brownstein is now a celebrity in her own right, thanks to projects like Portlandia— but somehow, the group has managed to stay true to its original spirit (even though they’ll be touring their 10th studio album, “The Center Won’t Hold,” out August 16, without their longtime drummer Janet Weiss, who announced that she was leaving the band just last month.)

“The band is heading in a new direction,” Weiss explained on Twitter, and she isn’t wrong; Sleater-Kinney is still mixing the personal with the political, and even still releasing their latest album on cassette tapes, their original form of recording on a Walkman. But they’ve also been making moves like adding someone new to the mix: St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, who stayed on as producer for the entire album, even though they originally planned to partner with her on just three songs. In fact, Clark isn’t the only new face to come on board; for their latest album’s art direction, the group tapped Brian Phillips of Black Frame and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony. Speaking on the phone from Portland last week, Brownstein and Tucker took stock of the band’s past and present, ahead of their tour this fall for “The Center Won’t Hold.”

Did you ever think you’d get up to 10 albums together? Corin Tucker: Well, we started out when we were in our very early twenties, and I don’t think there’s a lot of prognosticating when you’re that age about what’s next. We didn’t have any idea how long it would last or how long the journey would take us. So, no. [Laughs.]

How did Humberto Leon and Brian Phillips get involved this time around? Carrie Brownstein: It felt like we were trying to break new ground musically, so we wanted to do something really strong physically, too. We wanted to have a kind of cohesive visual look for the artwork. As we’ve made more albums, I think we’ve tried to really include that in our planning as well. Obviously, you want to start with the sound of the record, so that it feels like it actually has a relationship to the music. We started with kind of a mood board that included Carolee Schneemann and Martha Rosler and other feminist artists from the ’70s, and some gothic imagery in addition to that. We were just kind of compiling visual ideas that felt like they conjured the album.

Is that normally your process? CB: There’s definitely a conversation, but I don’t know if we’ve ever quite made a mood board before. We’ve definitely worked with other artists—Mike Mills, the film director, did our last record, so it’s definitely not unprecedented for us to work with outside artists. I think though that with Humberto and Brian, they wanted just in general, and we wanted to create just a world for this album that anyone who was collaborating with us would be able to reference—whether people who were going to work on the lighting design or help design t-shirts and merchandise for us, that everyone could dip into this visual world and see the kinds of things that we were referencing. And, like the title itself, it had a lot to do with fragility, fractiousness, unrest, structures upon which we rely, being unstable. A lot of the images felt this partiality, like humans and buildings splitting apart. So like you would with any project, just have some sort of a common language for it.

It definitely feels cohesive, but to me—in a good way—the photo with Carrie’s butt stands out. What’s the backstory of that image? CT: We went to New York to work on press photos with Humberto and Brian, and they recommended this really amazing photographer, Charlie Engman. We had a bunch of ideas that we wanted to play with in terms of the album being industrial and new wave and kind of reflecting technology, futurism, all of those ideas. We wanted to show that in the images as well. Also there’s a lot of talk about the female body and how it’s viewed in our culture. We wanted all of those ideas to come through. And then Carrie did suggest the idea of nudity on the album cover, and I was like, you know what, that’s a hard pass for me. My daughter was looking at my phone with me when the texts were coming in, and she was like, no way, you can’t do that. [Laughs.]

How old is she? CT: She’s 11. She’s about to go into middle school, so she had an opinion. But we still really wanted to comment on the female body in the pictures, so they had the idea to put this see-through trench coat on Carrie. We were just playing with all of those ideas, and that’s how it turned out. CB: Yeah, we wanted something that was unsettling, that spoke to that unease. It wasn’t meant to be sexy or titillating, but to conjure an idea that was disturbing and a little off-putting.

Even though it has such a different vibe, it did remind me of the St. Vincent’s last cover, which also stars a butt. I’m guessing that was unrelated to working her, though? CB: Yeah, it was. And there is a reason that that wasn’t our album cover, but a singles cover instead.

Carrie, you’ve also gotten more and more involved with the fashion industry through Humberto. Looking back to the early days of Sleater-Kinney, how has your style as a band changed over the years? CB: We came out of a music scene in the Pacific Northwest that was fairly unadorned. There wasn’t as much persona-based aesthetics, because it was in reaction to those more heightened, and at the time kind of perceived as artificial looks of glam rock and the ’80s. A lot of punk in the late ‘80s and ‘90s was kind of purposefully stripped down and very normal and grunge, but then of course there were bands like Bikini Kill. Those women had great style and aesthetics, but it was definitely more about being yourself and doing it yourself—about that self-created, self-made kind of look, which I think we embraced.

And then in the last decade or so we’ve just enjoyed more dressing up onstage. It feels more like a privilege. When we first started out, it was just about getting to be there, and being ourselves onstage. And then later, we were able to embrace the heightened nature of performing. As the stages get bigger, you sort of do feel the sense of wanting to step outside of yourself a little bit more onstage. So I enjoy dressing up with those kinds of performances and playing with different textures—I like that it adds to the personality of the show itself. It’s definitely changed over the years, but to us, the music is still really paramount.

There is something I think that people forget, especially when you play an instrument, like a guitar, you’re always bisected across your front. So you can’t necessarily play with really dramatic silhouettes; there always has to be something kind of streamlined about it.

Carrie Brownstein (right) and Corin Tucker (left) of Sleater-Kinney perform at the Southgate House on September 15, 2000 in Newport, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

When did you did start to embrace the performance aspect? Do you have any favorite looks you’ve work since then? CB: When we came back after the hiatus, it was a reconsideration of what we were doing. I remember we played our single “A New Wave” on David Letterman, during what was maybe his last week of being on-air, and I wore this white vintage Chanel jumpsuit that I was pretty happy about. It was a really hard thing to bring on tour. [Laughs.] But I did wear it on the show. What about you, Corin? CT: Yeah, I ruin clothes on tour, and I get bored of things really easily, so I love that vintage stores are as popular now as ever. It’s fun to do something different for a different kind of show—like for Letterman, I think I found this vintage Italian mini skirt dress.

Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney backstage at the Fillmore in San Francisco, California, September 2002. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Rihanna is kind of the antithesis of the practical silhouettes you mentioned before, but since you took cues from her musically, I’m wondering what you think of her personal style, whether you’d emulate it or not. CB: I mean, Rihanna has great style. She can do anything, wear anything. I like that she’s such a boss. Her Fenty line is just like world domination with her makeup and clothes. She sends a message of positivity and self-love and intersectionality, so, yeah—I’m pretty much down with just about everything Rihanna does. I think she’s just a really crucial artist. Mostly I just love her music, but I think she’s got a great sense of style… that I will never emulate, because I can’t pull it off. [Laughs.] We are shaped very differently. CT: I like her style in Ocean’s 8 where she’s a hacker. She can rock so many different kinds of looks.

You both recently spoke with the New York Times about feeling as if you have a bigger responsibility as a band, and what you can do with the bigger platform that you have now. Is there anything you’ve planned for your tour to reflect that conversation? CT: We’ve been talking about it with the record label and promoters and come up with a plan where we’re going to work with two tabling organizations at every show. One of them is Head Count, which helps register people to vote, because we think that’s really important, and the other is the Ally Coalition, which works with different local LGBTQ organizations. We’re also going to support GLAAD’s action on the Equality Act, the legislation to prevent discrimination against the LGBTQ community. So we’ll be doing that at every show, but we’re still talking about the possibility of partnering with some other organizations on donating a portion of the proceeds for merch items, which we’re still trying to lock down.

Do you think it’ll feel at all different to perform your new songs, which you’ve said are more personal than ever? CB: I mean, Sleater-Kinney has always mixed the personal with the political, and I think the one thing about writing songs that come from a place of vulnerability is that you always have a different relationship to that song in the moment, and that’s what’s really wondrous about live music in general—that you’re bringing your current self into a very site-specific space and merging who you are with a room full of people. The songs take on different meanings; they have their own life inside of that space and in that moment and in that context. And sometimes it’s very powerful to share that vulnerability. It can allow one to feel a sense of overcoming certain struggles. I don’t know, I think we’ve always approached songwriting from a place of honesty and transparency, and I think for us, forging connections with the audiences and having people feel seen and heard and safe has always been very paramount for us. So when we bring our own fragility and hearts to those shows, it only makes it better. So yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I don’t think we’ll necessarily be in the exact same mindset in which we wrote it, but I think that it’s always very powerful to share those moments with other people.

Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney.

Nikko LaMere

Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to this time around? CB: It’s just been a couple of years since we’ve been on the road. Actually, we were last touring in 2015 and 2016, leading up to the presidential election. We’re in a time now, too, where politics feel very divisive, and I like the ways that being in different cities and spaces in this country reminds me of the ways that people are similar, and working and striving towards the same things. I think that getting outside of your comfort zone and your own space helps breed compassion and understanding. I feel lucky to be able to go around and see other parts of the country and the world.

Corin, is your daughter going to be coming along? CT: Oh yeah. She loves to come along. She came on our whole New Zealand/Australia tour, and she had a blast. She’s definitely looking forward to getting on the tour bus.

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