Sleater-Kinney: "I Definitely Think a Torch Has Been Passed"
Photo by Brigitte Sire/Courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Sleater-Kinney's music is so intense that the trio has always belonged to something greater than themselves whether they really wanted to or not. Lyrically, they've never shied away from politics -- quite the contrary -- but their anthems have always been of a more personal nature, even as together the three women have made some of the most epic, fiercest rock and roll of the past quarter-century.
Calling it "punk" or "riot-grrrl" is thinking much too small considering what Sleater-Kinney has come to represent today, but that is where their roots lie; specifically, in the early-'90s Olympia, Washington, groups Excuse 17 and Heavens to Betsy. Sleater-Kinney formed in 1994 and recorded two albums on Portland-based Chainsaw Records (including breakthrough Call the Doctor) before jumping to riot-grrrl's flagship label, Kill Rock Stars, from 1997's Dig Me Out through 2002's One Beat. Each album received a warmer greeting from fans and critics than the previous one (as well as a steadily swelling audience); so did 2005 Sub Pop debut The Woods, after which Sleater-Kinney abruptly announced a hiatus.
Afterward, singer Corin Tucker started a family and eventually her own eponymous band; guitarist Carrie Brownstein became an indie-comedy star thanks to Portlandia, the hipster-skewering sketch show she started with SNL alum Fred Armisen; both drummer Janet Weiss and Brownstein joined indie-rock supergroup Wild Flag, who released a well-received eponymous album in 2011; and Weiss also kept right on playing the drums, both with slacker-rock deity Stephen Malkmus's post-Pavement group the Jicks and Quasi, the lo-fi duo Weiss and Sam Coomes started a few years before she joined Sleater-Kinney in time for Dig Me Out. [Note: this paragraph has been edited after publication to correct the lineup of Wild Flag.]
According to Weiss, it was never a matter of whether Sleater-Kinney would re-form but when, considering their crowded schedules. But in a low-key fashion, a couple of years ago they began writing and recording another album (their eighth overall), titled No Cities to Love, with producer John Goodmanson.
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"It wasn't a difficult decision," says Weiss by phone from her home in Portland. "It's something I think we all wanted to do. We just wanted to make sure it was the right time."
Their timing was spot-on, as usual. No Cities to Love received a typically rapturous reception from the press upon its release in early January; its current Metacritic score is an even 90 out of 100. Here is a brief sampling of the reviews:
The Guardian: "All hail Sleater-Kinney: as riotous and vital as ever."
Consequence of Sound: "As injustice, inequality, and oppression have continued to rage over the last few years, No Cities to Love burns that new fuel in a startling conflagration."
Entertainment Weekly: "But the band's own power comes from a more confident place...Now that they're back, here's to them living forever."
Not surprisingly, Weiss says the reaction to their reunion has been equally enthusiastic, if not more, among Sleater-Kinney's rank-and-file fans she's encountered since going back on the road. She admits it's overwhelming, but "in a very good way."
"I mean, we always played off that energy and used that energy to make the live shows better," she says. "The more of that energy that flies at us, the more we return back in our performance, so I think it's all good. It feels amazing to feel that kind of love from the crowd, that what you're doing is important to them. That's really irreplaceable."
It takes real stamina to sustain Sleater-Kinney's kind of energy throughout a 90-minute set, Weiss notes.
"It's pretty exhausting," she says. "As far as playing a rock and roll show, it's pretty high-powered. And these shows especially are very emotional. People are so excited, and so the energy level is very high. From the minute we hit the stage, it's a heightened sort of experience for an hour and a half."
Sleater-Kinney pulls into what ought to be a packed Warehouse Live Ballroom on Saturday night. We had just a few more questions for Weiss before letting her get back to the business of being awesome.
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Houston Press: Since you started playing shows again, what are some of the things you've noticed have changed since the last time you were out? Janet Weiss (laughs): Well, there's more people there. And there's a lot of young people, which has been excellent. There's young girls down in the front singing the words. I think a torch has definitely been passed to this younger generation. They respond to the message and the energy and the sound of the music. That's different. I wasn't expecting that, and it's been a really, really pleasant surprise recently.
Do you think a lot of younger girls are more likely to start their own bands because of the contributions that Sleater-Kinney made? Well, I would hope [we] at least carved a path for girls to feel like it's possible, and you don't have to be a certain thing to be able to be successful in music. You don't have to be a beautiful, perfect singer who went to school and technically can sing scales. I hope we created some sort of alternative to the pop-star mold, which is a pretty hard thing to fit into.
I hope we've done that for people, and people definitely come up to us and say they started playing music [because of us]. I think seeing yourself onstage in some way inspires you to do it yourself. It makes it seem like it's possible. If you're only going to stadium shows and seeing million-dollar productions, it can be overwhelming.
Do you think trios make the best rock bands? Ha! Yes. I love a power trio, I do. I love playing in them, and I love listening to them. I don't think there's any formula for the best or the worst, but I do think it's something that I enjoy.
What is it about a rock trio that just makes sense? It's just that there's a space there. You're not filling up every space in the song. There's a space that can make tension, that can make something edgy, can make something powerful. It's not always like a secure, tightly knit sound. I really like that.
Last question: Who's your favorite drummer? I don't really have one favorite drummer, I guess. For today, I'll say Elvin Jones, just because I just listened to [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme, and you really can't beat that.
Sleater-Kinney performs with special guests Thee Satisfaction Saturday, April 18 at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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