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Unapologetic rockers of Sleater-Kinney return with new songs to fight lagging stereotypes

Indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney, part of the ‘90s riot grrrl movement, has released its first album, “No Cities to Love,” in nearly a decade. Hari Sreenivasan asks the band what led to their surprise reunion.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now a reunion in the world of indie rock that has fans and critics abuzz.

    Hari is back with a look at the return of a band with a signature sound, style and songs that resonate.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It began in dark bars and concert venues in the mid-'90s barreling out of the Pacific Northwest's indie rock scene and the feminist punk rock "riot grrrl" movement.

    Rockers Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss comprise Sleater-Kinney, a band that became known for ferocious melodies and piercing vocals. Their music was unafraid to tackle questions of politics and social issues, such as the 2005 song about the surge in suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge called "Jumpers."

    They developed a devoted fan base amongst a generation of underground music fans. Bands, musicians and rock critics have long sung their praises, including the noted rock critic Greil Marcus, who called them at one point the best rock band in America.

    Between 1995 and 2005, Sleater-Kinney released seven albums. Their style evolved, but they held on to their political roots. "All Hands on the Bad One" tackled sexism. "One Beat" grappled with the aftermath of September 11.

    But in 2006, Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss performed their last show, before taking a indefinite leave from the band. They moved on to other musical projects. Tucker had a second child and for Brownstein:

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN, Sleater-Kinney:

    Hey, that's the fifth bucket this morning.

  • FRED ARMISEN:

    Wow. This is so much.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    I know. What are we going to do with all this milk?

  • FRED ARMISEN:

    Like overflowing with it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    "Portlandia." She co-created the Emmy Award-winning sketch comedy show with former "Saturday Night Live" star Fred Armisen.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    When they pasteurize milk, they are taking out a lot of benefits. That's the truth. But we found the answer.

  • FRED ARMISEN:

    Want to try some of this? It's raw milk.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Nearly a decade later, Sleater-Kinney has come back together. The new album, "No Cities to Love," was released later this week, to widespread acclaim.

    Their first performance since 2006 was on "The Late Show With David Letterman."

    I sat town with the band at the Mercury Lounge, a favorite venue of theirs in New York, to find out why they got the band back together.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    It's always interesting when you sort of step away from something, and in some ways you hope or assume that that sphere will be filled by something else. And it just — it didn't seem to happen with Sleater-Kinney. Like, it didn't feel like another — you want someone to sort of carry the torch or take the sonic landscape of your band and kind of explore that.

    And that really just never happened. So I think it just — it felt like something was on pause for a really long time. So it wasn't so much like, well, now we have something to say. It was just like, well, this has been sort of laying dormant and doesn't seem like anyone ease is kind of picking its up, so we did.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Was that disappointing to not see or feel like, oh, here's another group, they have learned from us and now they are even better?

  • JANET WEISS, Sleater-Kinney:

    It can be disappointing. I did sort of miss the sort of urgency that we possess as a band.

    And I felt like a lot of music was feeling very much like hugs, you know, like, comforting, soft, you know, nonthreatening sort of music, which I don't relate to, you know, as much as I do this sort of very visceral, physical music.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Besides the visceral sound, the new album still has the band weighing in on issues of the day.

    How much of it is just real life kind of creeping into your music? I think there's a lyric, making scrambled eggs for little legs, some reference to a deep moment that you have every morning?

  • CORIN TUCKER, Sleater-Kinney:

    Yes.

    Well, yes. I'm a mother of two and I do make scrambled eggs every morning.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    And her kids have really, really…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Tiny legs.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    Teeny legs.

  • CORIN TUCKER:

    But the character that I'm going for in that song is working a job that is like more of a minimum-wage job and still trying to make ends meet for her family.

    So there is a combination of my own life. But I am, you know, writing about economic struggle that I think that is happening in America. If we can call that out in a way that draws people in, like, that makes it a much stronger song. To me, it's something that I'm interested in.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Was it different 10 years, 15 years ago to find yourself a three-woman band? And really, frankly, there are very few that are successful today. Why do you think that is?

  • CORIN TUCKER:

    Well, I think that maybe the rock area has been a little culturally behind.

    I think there's some kind of lagging stereotypes of women within rock 'n' roll, you know? And I think we need more women to be writing rock songs to kind of have a different perspective.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And do you think that that makes a different when a young woman in the audience sees you rocking out on stage, having a great time, seeing — just like you, there's this huge cultural push to say, let's encourage women to be scientists and engineers and mathematicians and let's show them examples of it.

  • JANET WEISS:

    It's very similar to that.

    I feel like a part of my role being a musician and part of why I want to be a musician is to show women an alternative to sort of the cultural norms, the stereotypes of what we're supposed to be, demure and quiet and motherly.

    For a young woman to see three very powerful, independent, creative women who are not operating within a box, it is enticing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    At the same time, Brownstein says Sleater-Kinney never defined themselves as an all-woman band.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    I think this was a band that always, like, tried to like very forcefully and vehemently exist outside of these modifiers to our music.

    It's very rare for a group of men to be asked, like, why are you in an all-male band?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Sure.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    I don't think that's a question that's ever been asked.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Most people were probably a little shocked when they saw "Portlandia" and realized that she had this sense of humor. Right?

  • JANET WEISS:

    We were especially shocked.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Were you? Was she not funny with you?

  • JANET WEISS:

    Absolutely humorless.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Really?

  • JANET WEISS:

    No.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are you kind of surprised? Because now people are going to have this other adjustment where they're kind of used to sketch comedy, and then, wait, what? She's, like, a power rocker on stage?

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    One of our T-shirts says, do not laugh on stage.

  • JANET WEISS:

    I feel like there are real threads that go through Carrie's work in "Portlandia" and her work in the band and the sharpness and the critique and observations. And the writing has always been such a huge part of the band. It doesn't seem that crazy to us.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The worst thing that could happen is you really love this tour.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    That is the worst thing.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • CORIN TUCKER:

    What are you going to do?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What are you going to do? What are your families going to do? What are — the rest of your lives? Like, oh, my God, I have had a great February. I have got to stay on the road.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    When you're not sure if something is going to continue, the stakes seem high in the present tense.

    Instead of sort of spreading the stakes out over a long period of time, you just — you don't assume something is going to be around. And I think we will take it one day at a time. But, yes, that wouldn't be the worst thing, to enjoy a tour. And then we will come back, we will tour more next year.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • JANET WEISS:

    Thank you.

  • CORIN TUCKER:

    Thank you.

  • CARRIE BROWNSTEIN:

    Thank you.

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