Almost ten years after calling it a day, to the delight of queer fans everywhere Sleater-Kinney have reunited for an album and a world tour. Corin Tucker talks to Lisa Connell about how she, and the riot grrrl movement, were inspired by the fight gay rights.
It’s early morning in New York and Corin Tucker can barely contain her happiness about the reunion of Sleater-Kinney.
Formed in Olympia, Washington in 1994, the legendary band emerged from the ’90s Pacific Northwest riot grrrl scene, bringing emotional, intelligent, and defiantly female punk to the masses. Greil Marcus hailed them as “America’s best rock band” in Time magazine, and they went on to release seven albums over 10 years before going on an indefinite hiatus in 2006. Their legacy, culturally, politically and, of course, musically cannot be underestimated, particularly for queer-identified artists.
Talking to me on the phone, Corin explains that the reunion came about after she and former bandmate Carrie Brownstein casually mused about whether they would ever perform together again. Corin’s husband, Lance Bangs and Carrie’s co-star on hit show, Portlandia, Fred Armisen were both present at the time.
“They were like, ‘Wait, what did you guys just say?’” Corin explains. “It was one of those conversations that was like a pebble, it just kept rolling from there right down the hill.” Tucker and Brownstein brought the idea the third member of the Sleater-Kinney trio, Janet Weiss. “We started talking about it, and it just kind of came to life,” Corin tells me. “We weren’t going to be satisfied to do a handful of reunion shows. Like, if we were going to do it, we were going to have to come up with new material. Once we said that, then the process started of trying to write together again.”
From the get-go, the three women creatively gelled again. “The thing I like about collaborating with Janet and Carrie is that they’re such great players, but also incredibly ambitious writers,” says Corin. “They’re really comfortable with throwing a lot of ideas out – tossing things around and changing things, rewriting to make it the strongest song, the most compelling song it can be. I think that’s where our collaboration really shines.”
The night before I spoke to Corin, Sleater-Kinney released a video for the title track of their new album, No Cities To Love. It’s a star-studded affair, featuring a host of homemade videos from celebrities, including Ellen Page and Orange Is The New Black’s Natasha Lyonne, singing along to the track, and it went viral instantly. Corin credits Carrie with the idea.“I didn’t really entirely get the full idea when she was describing it, I was like, huh? What? But I think it came together so well.”
The album No Cities To Love shows that Sleater-Kinney are still in control of their craft. A pithy 33m ins long, it’s all hit and no filler. According to Brownstein the goal for Cities was to “write an album as if we were writing our first album.” While this may have been an exciting prospect for the trio, it was a daunting one too.
“It’s been so long that we did wonder if people would remember us,” says Corin. “But I actually think there are a lot of people who are interested in Sleater-Kinney who never got a chance to see us, so, that’s been really great. The response so far to the album has been really great.”
While no-one is any doubt that Sleater-Kinney are a political band, a feminist band and a queer band, they’ve been adamant about rejecting labels or being pigeonholed over the years. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that a generation of queer kids came of age with Sleater-Kinney. Songs like I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone or Jenny provided the soundtrack to many a coming out story. Perfume Genius cites the band as a formative influence, helping him come to terms with his sexuality through their lyrics. “I think I’ve seen Sleater-Kinney 13 times,” he told GCN last year. “I think I was 12 when I saw them first. Even back then I could glean from the lyrics, I was aware enough to grasp what was going and I could tell that I needed it. It was weirdly liberating even if I didn’t understand how yet.”
Corin relates this back to her own coming of age and the inspiration she found, both personally and artistically from the ACT UP movement of the 1980s. “When I was a teenager, the Aids crisis was happening in the United States and it was so bitter and awful,” she says. “There was this incredibly discriminatory, hateful ideology of just let them die, and if you’re gay there is obviously something wrong with you. All of these beautiful gay men died of that disease, with such a lack of compassion and empathy. To me the ACT UP was a game changer. It was so incredibly fierce. For me it was the precursor to riot grrrl, because we saw that movement owned an identity and took it back saying, ‘We deserve equal treatment, we deserve respect, we deserve compassion’.
“Since then we’ve witnessed the change of the dominant cultural attitude from being really discriminatory to the majority of Americans being in favour of gay marriage and being really okay with people being out and gay. I live in Portland. Being LGBT is just not a big deal here and that’s a big change to have lived through. We have to credit the people that came before us, the activists that came through so many hardships and did take the risk of coming out and putting their lives on the line really, they helped provide the foundation of that social change.”
Of course, while the riot grrrl movement may have taken some of its queues from the gay rights movement, its core driver was feminism. Twenty years after the movement formed, female representation in the music industry has become even more hyper-sexualised. Does Corin think this is a bad thing? “Women like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift call themselves feminists,” Corin says. “I think that’s important. If women are bringing their sexuality to the forefront in whatever shape they choose, that’s wonderful. I think sexuality is such an important thing for a woman to explore and to be interested in, and I think that is actually a really positive thing.
“But I think that the thing that’s really going to make progress is when women in economic power, political power and cultural power work together. Then we will see some progress in terms of women having more power and a better economic footing, making the same amount of money as men and being in charge of their own healthcare decisions. If there were more women in political power voting on these issues, then more women would be in charge of their own choices. We need to keep pushing until that happens.”
Back in the fray, Sleater-Kinney have embarked on a world tour, including a much anticipated Dublin date, which opened in Spokane in February to rave reviews, with Inlander calling it a “joyfully raucous set”. It’s an exciting time for Corin and co. “I’m connecting with people face to face,” she laughs down the phone. “I did miss that!”
Sleater-Kinney play Vicar St on March 26 and their album ‘No Cities to Love’ is available now on iTunes.
This interview features in GCN Issue 303 – March 2015
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