Sleater-Kinney: “When I think about a figure like Sinead O’Connor, I don’t see a lot of people taking the career and financial risks that she did”

Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein need their legendary band, just like everyone else. And as they release new album Little Rope, they confirm that they're still not a band asking for permission from the mainstream

For a band predicated on tight friendships and feminist ideals, Sleater-Kinney’s recent history has felt a little disorienting. After 24 years in the group, drummer Janet Weiss departed in 2019, alleging she was no longer deemed “a creative equal” by her bandmates. And while founding members Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein forged forward as a duo, 2021’s self-produced lockdown LP Path of Wellness received a largely lukewarm reception, with critics painting post-Weiss Sleater-Kinney as something of a diminished force.

If comeback single ‘Hell’ proves anything, it’s that nothing could be further from the truth. The explosive opener from their forthcoming 11th LP Little Rope, it’s a nihilistic thunderclap, the arid atmospherics of the verses contrasted with a squalling chorus powered by buzzsaw guitars, Tucker’s primal howl and the pulverising percussion of touring drummer Angie Boylan. Speaking on a video call from their homes in Portland, Oregon, Tucker and Brownstein are rightly feeling proud of their latest chapter.

“When you give yourself over to art and to the subconscious part of your mind, you can have this moment of pure, emotional, almost spiritual realisation,” says Tucker. “I think that’s what [‘Hell’] is trying to do: I was trying to be an observer and also to have a human reaction to the situations we’ve conceded to in the past few years.”

‘Hell’ was written in the aftermath of the 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which claimed the lives of 19 students and two teachers. As mother to a teenager and a 22-year-old, Tucker remains utterly horrified by how normalised gun violence has become in US society: “[At school] all the kids go through these shooter drills, getting ready for what’s going to happen when someone brings a gun into their school. Like, that’s now an accepted part of our culture, stitched into our routine.”

‘Hell’ also captures the cognitive struggle that underpins persevering in the face of seemingly continual setbacks. Brownstein explains: “There is a sense of direness, sure, but there’s also an irrepressible fight to live with the mess. It’s not even hopeful; it’s just a way of acknowledging that optimism is its own false prophecy. Because all of these false notions of heaven or progress – or however you want to couch enlightenment – like, that’s a contested space; a space that excludes other people constantly, whether it’s through legislation or governance or discrimination. These supposed utopian bases are actually not designed for many of us.”

She continues: “For me, the album as a whole is about saying, ok, what if living in the mess is the norm? Because if we reimagine darkness as a place where we can exist with our transgressions – a space isn’t maligned or immoral but just an acknowledgement of fragility – then that is the space we want to be in. So much of the album is about recreating that darkness as a place from which to set forth and to exist and connect.”

The importance of human connections was only reinforced by the devastating circumstances preceding the completion of Little Rope. In autumn 2022, Tucker was contacted by the US embassy in Italy trying to get in touch with her bandmate, having been listed as Brownstein’s emergency contact on an old passport form. Tucker passed on the new number, and the embassy rang Brownstein to break the news that her mother and stepfather had been killed in a car accident in Italy.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Tucker rallied around her friend, with music functioning as an important tool for healing. “I’d send [Carrie] my ideas and she would text me to say she’d been working on the song for like eight hours straight. It was wild.” Brownstein smiles. “Playing guitar is like a ritual of love,” she says. “There’s something sacred about it; a choreography that reminds you that you’re alive.”

Similarly, Brownstein found herself seeking comfort in Tucker’s singing. “On the last five or six records Corin and I volley the vocal duties back and forth. But I just wasn’t in a place where I could do the kind of sassy vocal that you might hear on the verse of ‘A New Wave’, because that’s simply not where I was at emotionally. My voice was channelled much more through my guitar and so Corin did have to sing more. I needed to hear her voice: that’s part of what got me through.”

Brownstein deals directly with her catastrophic loss on ‘Don’t Feel Right’. Setting out her goals for the future to deceptively buoyant indie-pop, she sings, “I get up, make a list / What I’ll do, once I’m fixed.” By the song’s conclusion she’s succumbed to the sheer incoherency of grief, detailing her new daily routine in the couplet, “Drive around, drown the pain out / Warped from grief, can’t go home.”

And yet, Brownstein is the first to admit that singing honestly about her pain brought a sense of catharsis: “One of the most wondrous things about music is it’s a living thing. A song that was written in sorrow can become celebratory, it can become silly, it can become absurd. Every time you play a song, you experience it for the first time, and that is really the gift of being alive.”

This determination to seize the moment is stronger than ever in the band. That’s why when Weiss left there was never any question that they might fold completely. “The thing about collaboration is that when you get older, you realise how fragile it is,” says Tucker. “You lose people around you, you’re parenting, you’re taking care of parents that are ageing… Like, there will be things that can and will stop the band. But [Sleater-Kinney] is a really important collaboration, and it’s something that brings me a lot of joy so I want to keep doing it as long as we can.”

“We really need this band,” Brownstein impresses. “After every record we have to reassess whether the band can speak to the moment and also to the present version of ourselves. And if we can find the authenticity and the honesty within the vessel that is Sleater-Kinney, then there’s always an imperative to return to it, and to continue this ongoing conversation that Corin and I have had with each other for nearly three decades.”

Similarly, their sense of social responsibility remains undimmed, as exemplified by songs like ‘Crusader’. A blast of choppy post-punk, it finds Brownstein taunting, “You’re burning all the books in this town / But you can’t destroy the words in our mouths.”

Outlining the context, she explains, “[The song] acknowledges that things have grown dire. As a queer person, it’s hard to believe that we’re in a place again where our very existence is a threat to someone, particularly in the broader LGBTQ+ community where trans lives are being threatened and legislated against. And the trespasses on bodily autonomy across the board are absolutely exhausting. But ‘Crusader’ imagines that instead of shrinking, you grow and resist smallness and self-effacement.”

When Sleater-Kinney first emerged from the ashes of the riot grrrl movement, the idea of musicians publicly expressing political opinions still felt a relatively radical act. Today, righteous anger appears almost a prerequisite, whether that’s Billie Eilish rallying against climate change or Phoebe Bridgers advocating for pro-choice charities. How heartened are Sleater-Kinney to witness a whole new generation of musicians putting their politics front and centre?

“I mean, I think it’s absolutely crucial,” says Brownstein. “But when I think about a figure like Sinead O’Connor, I don’t see a lot of people taking the career and financial risks that she did. So, while I’m grateful that so much has shifted, and that a lot of the top-down hierarchies have started to erode, I think that as we move towards this very branded, commercialised society, that it is – in some ways – easier to speak out.”

She continues: “There are certainly people in the activist community who are risking career, life and status for their political beliefs. But I think, as artists, it’s still hard to imagine the kind of bravery of someone like Sinead or Tina Turner or Nina Simone. You know, those were very different times.”

Times may have changed, but Little Rope reveals that Sleater-Kinney are driven by the same outsider spirit that permeated 1995’s self-titled debut. It’s there in Brownstein’s refusal to conform to patriarchal beauty standards during ‘Dress Yourself’, and in Tucker’s vow to resist oppression on ‘Untidy Creature’ (“You built a cage but your measurements wrong / I’ll find a way, I’ll pick your lock”).

“That’s Sleater Kinney in a nutshell, right?” Brownstein laughs, when I quote the lyric. “We’re not a band asking for permission from the mainstream. Even as we age, that is so uninteresting to me.”

Tucker nods in agreement. “That’s the community the band came from: one with absolutely no interest even in winning people over, and just writing for ourselves and for other people who feel like outsiders, whether that’s other queer people, other women or whatever… You can still do great things while being trespassed upon or denied your rights. And we want to make sure that young people feel like they’re not alone in that struggle.”