Local Current Blog

Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss on Lizzo and ‘A New Wave’ of empowerment

Carrie Brownstein performs with Sleater-Kinney at First Avenue on Feb. 14. (Photo by Steven Cohen for MPR)

When Sleater-Kinney came through town to play a sold-out, searing Valentine’s Day show at First Avenue with their new tourmate, Lizzo, the band’s lead guitarist and co-vocalist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss were gracious enough to swing by the Current’s studios earlier in the day for an interview.

The band’s ongoing tour and new album, No Cities to Love, are their first activities together since they dissolved in 2006. I couldn’t wait to talk to Carrie and Janet about being back on the road with their bandmate, Corin Tucker, and learn more about the empowering messages on their excellent new release. And yes, don’t worry—we also talked about what it’s been like to bring our hometown gal Lizzo along for the ride.

  1. Listen Sleater-Kinney talks to Andrea Swensson, Part 1

  1. Listen Sleater-Kinney talks to Andrea Swensson, Part 2

Andrea Swensson: Let’s start with the big question on everyone’s mind: Why is Sleater-Kinney touring in 2015? How did you get back together and decide to make a new record?

Carrie Brownstein: I think the idea was always percolating. I had been playing in Wild Flag with Janet, the three of us were still friends. One evening, I think Corin just kind of directly asked, “Do you think the band will ever get back together?” And then the conversation became a little more pointed. We talked to Janet. From the beginning, though, we never were interested in couching it as a reunion. So we knew we would make a new record. And then that took a little while, just because of logistics. And the reason we didn’t announce it is because we wanted to wait until we had a good record, and it was actually something we wanted to share.

That was actually my very next question.

Carrie: I knew that.

Janet Weiss: [laughs]

Carrie: We know what all the questions are now, so my new thing is just to answer the first three or four questions at once.

Janet: You answered who called who, and you answered about keeping it secret. You’re an interview genius. Take notes, kids.

The secretive nature of it—was that important to the creative process?

Janet: Yeah. I think we weren’t sure how long it would take to get the record completed, and we weren’t sure what the process was exactly going to be. And I think, as Carrie said, the goal was to make a great record, and to make a record that stood with our other records. And so we just figured keeping it secret would allow us more time to really craft it, and to make sure it was good enough and it was finished before we unleashed it onto the world.

I read that this was the first time that you didn’t perform any of the new songs live before recording. Did that change the writing process at all?

Carrie: Yeah. I mean, there had been some other songs on previous albums that were like that. Sometimes it’s exciting. Like “What’s Mine is Yours,” which is a pretty galvanic song on The Woods, we had never played live. But this was an entire album of material. I think it forces you to do more editing. Sometimes, when you play a song live before you record it, you can make changes based on the audience’s energy, or you can feel kind of a shift in a live room, in terms of, oh, that section’s too long, or maybe we should put a pre-chorus in there because that part is too jarring. And we just had to rely on our own sense of composition and melody. I think that’s why the record is very tight. It’s an insular record; it has that quality.

I also read that it was all written in this cramped space. Do you feel like that informed the writing process as well, or how it sounds?

Janet: Yeah, I mean it has definitely a compact, economical, very explosive sound, that I feel like the space being so lacking in reverberation really kind of sent us off in a direction that was kind of cocked and loaded. There’s just a lot of tension in the sound, and in the writing and the playing.

One thing that’s always stood out to me about Sleater-Kinney is the dueling guitar parts. Can you talk about the process of writing those parts? I’m picturing charts spread out all over the ground; they are so specific and well-composed.

Carrie: Corin and I, we have a very innate chemistry. And it’s a vernacular that always was very easy for us, even in the very early days of Sleater-Kinney; it felt like we were completing each other’s sentences. And today, it is very uncanny sometimes how those guitar parts come together. We’ve almost learned how to play guitar in relation to each other. We’ve both played guitar with other people, and it tends to fall into much more familiar terrain. When we play with each other, it just has a certain sonic and melodic quality that I don’t think we can emulate outside of the band. There’s no charts; it really is just intuition. But still, we don’t settle for the first thing all the time. We push each other, and I tend to be more riff-based, and Corin comes up with a lot of great sort of basslines. We just find a way of these interlocking parts.

One of my favorite tracks on the record is “A New Wave.” It’s really satisfying and empowering to listen to, especially the line, “Invent our own kind of obscurity.” I was wondering if you could talk about the inspiration behind that specific song.

Carrie: In terms of lyrics, I think there’s a lot of songs on this record that are about feeling like an outsider. It’s like you look for these shapes to fit in, these societal spaces, or a way of appearing or being that makes you feel like you belong—even though you often feel rejected by things that you hoped you would belong in. And ultimately I think the shape you want to fit in and find is yourself. And I think “A New Wave” speaks to that. It’s just about finding your own mode of being.

Another song that I know Current listeners are familiar with is “Bury Our Friends.” The whole record has this urgency to it, but especially that track. Do you have any recollections of how that came together?

Carrie: I had this riff, the riff that starts the song, and we had already pretty much finished the record, and I just—I think we were stressed, we were anxious to get into the recording studio, but I really was just like, “I think this might be a good song if we can just get it done.” So Janet came up with a great drum part, and even then we kept changing it. We just kept working on that song over and over, we knew it had potential. And again, that is kind of a rallying cry, that chorus. There’s so many ways to feel beat down and desperate, and it’s harder to pick yourself back up after a sense of despair. So that’s kind of why we put that song out first. It felt like a way of taking stock of what we had and hoping to make the best of it.

Janet: Interestingly, that song we completed in a different room than the small room that we had completed everything else in, and I feel that it does have a different, more expansive feel than the other songs. We very much reflect the space that we’re writing in, and that was a very clear example. It does sound more open because of the different room—which is so interesting, about music, that that happens.

Right now you’re at the very beginning of a 40-city tour. How’s it going so far? What’s it feel like to be on the road again?

Janet: It’s fun! I think the first show was very surreal, and I was actually just relieved when we finished it. Thinking, okay, it’s all going to be okay, we got that over with. I feel like we’re really finding our place, and enjoying playing the new songs a lot. As always; we’ve always been a band that wanted to play more new songs than old songs, and we enjoy the old songs as well, and the fans really enjoy the old songs, but for us it’s about exploring those new tunes and finding new voices in the new material. So that’s been a lot of fun.

One thing that was really exciting to us here in Minnesota is that you announced that you’re going to be joined by Lizzo on the tour.

Janet: Hometown hero!

How did that selection come about, and what has it been like to tour with her so far?

Carrie: We’re touring with an additional player, who plays guitar and some keyboards, her name’s Katie Harkin, and she introduced us to Lizzo. She played some videos for me and I sent the videos on to the band, and I think it was just unanimous once we heard Lizzo’s music that this was someone we wanted to have on tour. And it has exceeded our expectations. I mean, we knew she would be an amazing performer. She’s such a natural. She’s so kind, and she’s just powerful and empowering. The crowd loves her, and she wins them over immediately if they’re unfamiliar with her work. So it’s been great to have her grace the stage before us. We like to be excited and energized before we get on stage, and challenged, you know—it’s nice to have someone kind of leave the stage warm, and know that we have to get up there and do really well.

I was reading an interview with her recently where she said that she felt that she’s trying to do something for R&B and hip-hop now that is similar to what you did for rock in the ‘90s: Blazing a trail and making room for more women on stage. Now that you are being introduced to a whole new generation of fans with this record and this tour, what do you want younger fans to know about the Riot Grrrl movement, and how do you feel like it translates to what’s going on today?

Janet: I feel like, if there is a message, first and foremost, it’s in the music. And I think being current is really important for us, as musicians and as people. Our place historically is important as well, but I think, for me, I don’t necessarily think back as much as I think about showing some sort of alternative for women who don’t fit into a mainstream way of being, who don’t fit into mainstream music, and they want to be a musician or they want to do something that’s not expected of them, and we show them that that’s viable and important. Beyond that, I think the history is there for them to discover on their own, and it’s very important, but I think we’re definitely in the moment, and trying to empower women to be able to feel confident.

Do you think your role has changed at all, in trying to accomplish that? I guess I’m asking, do you think things have changed for women in music since you started playing?

Carrie: I think on some levels, yes. I mean, it’s obvious to survey the landscape and to not have it feel as marginalized, or not have women feel as much on the periphery. It’s not as notable to see a band that features a handful of women or all women. I think there’s still, just in the broader cultural landscape right now, there’s obviously a lot of issues in terms of politics, like with abortion rights and health care, or festivals not having a lot of female headliners. You can still see places where we still are behind as a culture. But I think music is, pretty fortunately, it just seems less gendered. I think we’re moving away from these kinds of binary definitions of, “This is female music” and “This is male music.” I think that’s a good place for art, in general, to be.

You obviously have some downtime out there on the road while you’re riding in the bus. If we were a fly on the wall, what would you guys be listening to, what are you reading, how do you pass the time?

Janet: We don’t have that much extra time on the bus, actually. We have a new crew and we’re all just kind of getting to know each other, so there’s actually a lot of talking on the bus right now. I don’t think we’re to the stage yet where we’re trying to escape into our cubbies. So mostly it’s talking, currently.

Carrie: There was the Quiet Riot documentary.

Janet: There was the Quiet Riot documentary. And we watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But I think we just talked through most of it. But eventually…

Carrie: …we’ll tune each other out.

Janet: [laughs]

Carrie: I fall asleep to the Amy Poehler book Yes Please on audiotape. Just because I’m trying to not watch a screen before I go to bed, because they say that it makes it hard to go to sleep. So instead of watching something I try to listen to something. But yes, I love the book. It’s nice to fall asleep to Amy’s voice every night.

And she’s a big Sleater-Kinney fan, isn’t she?

Carrie: Yeah, she is.

What’s that like, to know that someone like Amy Poehler is such a vocal Sleater-Kinney fan?

Carrie: I mean, it’s very flattering. But I think for all of us, we’re grateful for all of our fans. And we’re not putting them into a hierarchy. I mean, you go out and you play in front of a group of people, and it’s the people that show up and participate—no matter who that is, we’re thankful for it.