Gonna start a riot: the return of Sleater-Kinney

There’s a pile of tinned good, toiletries, coffee and biscuits on a table at the entrance to Sleater-Kinney’s first gig in Scotland for a decade. Manned by Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry and the team at feminist blog TYCI, the collection represents a partnership between the famously political riot grrrls and Glasgow Women’s Aid, a local organisation that provides emergency shelter and support to women and their children who are experiencing domestic abuse.

Photo: Brigitte Sire

The table is heaving with donations from the Sleater-Kinney faithful. It is a tangible – and practical – symbol of the power that Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss still wield, almost a decade after Sleater-Kinney went on “indefinite hiatus” back in 2006. And the fact that, now they’re back on the road, they’re determined to use that power to speak up for people that need their help.

“We thought it was a really cool idea,” singer and rhythm guitarist Corin Tucker tells INSP. “We’ve collaborated with Planned Parenthood in the United States, which provides reproductive healthcare for women, regardless of income level. That’s been such a strong and well-received collaboration at our shows in the US that organisations around the world have started coming forward to say, ‘hey, we’d like to do something in collaboration with your show.’ It’s been a really organic partnership that’s fun for us to do.”

The world, and the music industry, has fundamentally changed since the heady days of the early-90s, when a snarl of bolshie, brilliant women exploded from the underground scene of the American Northwest, making a loud noise that would soon be branded as riot grrrl. Babes in Toyland, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, L7, Sleater-Kinney and their ilk rejected how women were meant to look, meant to sound and meant to behave. Their message was spread through handmade fanzines, sweaty gigs and political activism.

Those photocopied DIY zines are long gone, but in the modern world of Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Spotify, the riot grrrl voice has only become more vital. At the beginning of the movement, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail (also the woman who inspired Kurt Cobain to write ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) wrote, “I feel completely left out of the realm of everything that is so important to me. And I know that this is partly because punk rock is for and by boys mostly and partly because punk rock of this generation is coming of age in a time of mindless career-goal bands.”

You’d be hard pushed to argue that the intervening years have seen a victory for feminist punk principles over “mindless career-goal bands.” Though there’s some hope out there from crowdfunding sites and other alternative revenue streams, for the most part the collapse of the record industry’s finance has meant less support for smaller, more interesting bands. Meanwhile, as Corin says – echoing analysis from the UN, among others – the global economic crisis has hit women disproportionately hard. So it’s good timing for Sleater-Kinney to be back. There’s a gap for a politically savvy and unafraid band.

“Look out world!” laughs Corin, when I point out that it’s not just them stepping into the breach, but fellow riot grrrls L7 and Babes in Toyland too.

“It does seem kind of rare these days,” she says of bands that are willing to mix their political beliefs with their music. “I don’t know, to me the bands I always admired the most were the ones that took risks with their songs and their beliefs and really wore their heart on their sleeve.”

S-K’s primal comeback album, the fervently lefty No Cities To Love, serves that heart up raw and bleeding. Album opener Price Tag tackles the recession head-on, from the point of view of a single mother working a minimum wage job. “We never really checked, we never checked the price tag,” says the chorus, surely one of the catchiest explanations of the financial crisis, “when the cost comes in, it’s gonna be high. We love our bargains, we love the prices so low. With the good jobs gone, it’s gonna be rough.”

“There were just very few consequences for the scandal that happened with the real estate market in the US, which caused the great recession. Banks that were involved in those practices had so few repercussions from their actions,” explains Corin.

“And I feel that if we don’t speak out about the relationship between power and money and politics in the US, that the businesses will be just running things. The consequences that has for people who are working minimum wage jobs can be really devastating on a family. Especially a mother who’s trying to raise kids on her own with difficult working hours, and not really a living wage.”

If you could pick one voice to speak out, Corin’s – a full-bodied howl that would make a Banshee blush – has got to be close to the top of your list. “We need to raise the minimum wage in the United States,” she continues. “We need to be vocal about people working in those jobs and trying to raise families – and think about the consequences for the children involved. If one thing I can do as a musician is to give voice to that experience, you know, maybe that just gets the conversation going. Maybe that contributes to a larger conversation about the United States and political contributions and the way that finance and politics are intertwined.”

Photo: Brigitte Sire

Since Sleater-Kinney went off on their break, Corin has become a mother for the second time. Being on tour with the band again means leaving her husband (filmmaker Lance Bangs), 14-year-old son, and 7-year-old daughter back at home in Portland. “I miss them terribly,” she admits, but it’s also time to leave her own responsibilities – all the mornings scrambling eggs for the kids – behind.

“To me it’s almost like being in college again,” she says. “We just goof off. Whether that’s like, having a dance party inside the bus or, last night, we just got a quiet drink after the show and debated the difference between ‘now-ness’ and ‘newness’… It’s really fun.”

Given that Corin and Carrie were briefly an item right back at the beginning of Sleater-Kinney, many commentators are still searching for a Fleetwood Mac sense of heartbreak and tension. Was it there, Carrie’s newfound non-Sleater-Kinney success with hit TV sketch comedy Portlandia would surely be a trigger…

“I think it’s great!” Corin enthuses about her friend’s comedy breakthrough. “She obviously had other ambitions. She always did. There was always a part of her that felt a little frustrated with just being in the band and that cycle of write-record-tour-write-record-tour. That can turn a little monotonous, and I think it did for her.”

So no jealousy there then? “I’m just really proud of her because when she got the opportunity, she worked extremely hard and took a lot of chances. She took on a leadership role. From being a producer of that show, she’s really accomplished a lot. They’ve been so successful. It’s really great to cheer her on from the sidelines.”

The relationships she built have come back to Sleater-Kinney in more ways than just increased profile. For the song No Cities To Love, a clatter of super-famous, super-cool friends – including Portlandia co-star Fred Armisen, Evan Rachel Wood, Ellen Page, Connie Britton, My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, Brie Larson, Natasha Lyonne, Sarah Silverman, J Mascis, Vanessa Bayer, Miranda July and Norman Reedus – performed the song karaoke style, as though singing into their computer.

“That was really Carrie’s idea of kind of describing how people listen to music today,” says Corin. “She was like, ‘I really think people hum along to it on their computer. And wouldn’t it be interesting to see those people doing that?’ Then she was like, ‘Maybe I’ll ask some people I know!’ Of course, it turns out to be the funniest, most interesting bunch of people.”

The central role that the internet has come to play in music distribution is a double-edged sword, says Corin. In January, as the new album hit, she admits to finding the experience unexpectedly alienating. “When we released this record we did all of it online, which is something we wouldn’t have done a decade ago. So it was very different and a little isolating to be sitting alone at your computer when it was all happening.

“But in terms of how it affects our live shows – I think it’s really helped us reach different people. And reach new people. They’re all turning up to the shows and participating. So I think there’s two different aspects to that relationship.”

Thanks to iTunes and Spotify, the distinction between new and old music has collapsed – and cult concerns like Sleater-Kinney can reap the benefit as they are rediscovered by successive generations that are open to their message. This ability to access all of music with a few clicks has helped propel No Cities to Love to become Sleater-Kinney’s highest charting album in their 20-year history, on both sides of the Atlantic – and the tour has been packed to the rafters.

Given this rapturous reception – and the fact that we clearly still need people like them – are Sleater-Kinney back for good? “I’m not exactly sure, to be honest,” says Corin. “I’m just enjoying it in the moment right now. And seeing what will happen.”