Sleater-Kinney on Riot Grrl, Reuniting, and Portlandia

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Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

On Saturday, the elegant Directors Guild Theater was packed to the gills for the New Yorker Festival panel with Sleater-Kinney and staff writer Dana Goodyear. Fans of all ages were eager to see Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss chat about everything from the earliest days in Olympia to the magical city of Portlandia. The panel also featured audio and video clips of the band, as well as their fantastic music video with the Bob’s Burgers gang for their song “A New Wave,” off their first album since going on hiatus in 2006, No Cities to Love. Here are 10 things we learned from the panel:

1. For Tucker, riot grrrl isn’t a dirty word. “I was definitely part of riot grrl in Olympia,” she said. “For me, that was about having this really supportive group of women that wanted to do art — that was fanzines, that was music, it was spoken word, it was visual art — and that we would support each other and make a larger space for women’s voices in the world. And so I was definitely an active member of that, and I had a band called Heavens to Betsy. I met Carrie at a Heavens to Betsy show in Bellingham.”

2. Back when Sleater-Kinney first wrote “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” it was about tackling the archetype of the dude musician head-on, as well as trying it on for size themselves. “We definitely admire Joey Ramone and the Ramones, but we were playing with all these kind of archetypes, especially like these male archetypes of rock stars, you know?” Tucker said. “It still seemed like sort of a masculine role, and that we wanted to take that on, and what would that look like in a song, in a way. And so we were kind of playing with that idea in that song. I mean, we literally imagined ourselves, like, ‘What would it be like to be, you know, this crazy rock star?’” She described the song as “like a child going into a closet and putting on a fancy coat. That’s the way it sounds, and we were basically that age.”

3. Sometimes, it’s a fine line between being badass feminist musicians and being boxed in as an all-girl band, especially with confrontational, in-your-face lyrics and music. Tucker said, “For us, the lyrics are really tied to our beliefs and our desire to change things – that’s really the scene that we came from, is all about sincerely being angry and wanting to use music to change the world, basically,” adding that, “Sometimes there’s this tendency to kind of put people in a box with identity, like, ‘Oh, well that’s a girl band’… And so I think part of what we’ve kind of run up against is wanting people to see beyond that box and just see who we were as musicians and as writers, and to scratch the surface a little bit as to what we had to say and the way that we did it.”

4. One of the clips played during the panel was of a baby-faced Weiss absolutely killing the drums. One of Goodyear’s crowd-sourced Twitter questions was about how flawless the drummer was able to keep her hair even when hitting the skins, and the answer is pretty creative:

“I bring my own fan,” she admitted. “If not for the fan, I would be a sweaty, disgusting mess. But the reason I have the fan is I move my head around a lot, and if I’m sweaty, my hair will stick to my face, which is kind of does in the clip, and it’s distracting. The hair is part of the rhythm, and if it’s sticking to my face, it screws me up. It’s not that easy, I gotta say. There’s straightening irons, there’s all kinds of stuff involved!”

5. There’s a certain freedom in taking on an onstage persona that Brownstein especially digs. “I think I’m definitely different within the confines and the container that’s Sleater-Kinney,” she said. “I think that the music is bigger than us, and so the space I can fill is larger than in regular life, and I think that that ability to explore and to seek, and for me, [to] destroy is one I relish. Every moment on stage, the point is to reach an edge and go beyond. In my regular life, hah, no one wants to be around that.” (Um, your fans would beg to differ!)

6. Sleater-Kinney had a watershed moment in 2003 when they joined the North American leg of Pearl Jam’s massive tour as an opening band, and it sort of helped to turn their music inside out. Going from indie rock shows to massive arenas was jarring, but they took advantage of the situation.

“We would mess around a lot and make a lot of noise because we wanted to fill the space and seem like we were formidable enough to take these people somewhere,” Tucker said. “Very few people were listening,” Weiss added.

Still, it gave them a certain freedom to jam out and explore their music from a new angle. “We had nothing to lose. People literally were eating hot dogs,” Brownstein said. “We had one goal, which was to watch somebody put their hot dog down. That was it. That was a good show. So I think because no one knew our songs, we didn’t necessarily have to play our songs. We started deconstructing our songs onstage. So we started jamming at the end of ‘Dig Me Out,’ and we just sort of let loose and unravel, and we started to turn inwards, because it was scary to look out there and just be met with indifference.” Their last album before their hiatus, The Woods, was forged in that chaos. “I think if we hadn’t toured with Pearl Jam, we would not have written The Woods,” Brownstein explained.

7. Coming out of The Woods was not easy, though. The band announced a sudden but entirely amicable hiatus in 2006, much to the public’s surprise. Weiss explained, “You can’t do this band and feel broken, really. You have to really feel strong and healthy to play this music and have the music be what it needs to be. And we were just at a place where it was becoming too difficult. Carrie was getting a sick a lot. Corin was so torn between her family. And for me, that affects me too, if they’re not feeling well; it’s too hard to do this band that way. And I think our fans, they know us well enough to know that we make our decisions from a real caring place. We’re not just haphazardly getting in a fight and calling it quits. We really think about it, and we feel a responsibility to this thing that’s greater than us, to really come at it with love and energy and to be able to do it [at] a certain level.”

Of course, they all remained friends, and they even worked together on various projects. A reunion, Weiss said, “seemed sort of inevitable.”

8. In a roundabout way, Portlandia was the catalyst for the reunion. Brownstein said that she and Fred Armisen were showing an episode to Tucker and her husband which featured a skit starring their son Marshall. They started talking about people playing different shows when Tucker said something that made everyone stop in their tracks.

"I was like, ‘I wonder if we’re going to play together again,’ and then there was kind of like this electric charge that went through the room,” Tucker said. 

“It’s not like we were isolated from each other,” Weiss added. “Like Corin said, there’s a respect there between the three of us, and that’s always there, no matter what. So I think it’s hard for Carrie and I to look at Corin and not think we’re gonna play together. It’s just to actually find the time for it — it’s like I said, you can’t do Sleater-Kinney and not… You have to really do it. For us, it means so much that we had to make sure the time was right and we were ready to do it.”

9. Goodyear said it best when she asked, “All your fans must want to know: Are you in it for one album or are you in it?” 
“Yeah, I think we’re just in it. We’re just in it,” Brownstein said to audience applause. For now, they’re just enjoying playing live together once again.

10. As it turns out, playing at Terminal 5 is a lot less harrowing than going to see a show there. Weiss described her experience playing there on the first night of their stop in NYC, and it was almost as cool as being there. 

“Everyone’s packed in, and you can kind of see the whole floor, you can see the whole balcony. I saw my sister shielding her eyes from the bright lights. You can see everything,” Weiss said. “You’re really involved with the audience and what’s happening.” The moment she’ll never forget happened during their performance of “Dig Me Out.”

“I definitely am out of my head during that song,” Weiss said. “I feel like if someone was looking at me, I don’t know what I would look like… Suddenly I look up and they turn the house lights on, and everyone at once threw their arms up in the air, and it was just so moving. It was a moment you never forget in your whole life. We were all there together, and it was amazing. I remember a lot of moments like that on this tour, but that one really sticks with me.”