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Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker talk Sleater-Kinney, and 30 years of making music


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guests, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, formed the band Sleater-Kinney 30 years ago during the height of the riot grrrl feminist punk scene in Olympia, Wash. In January, they released their 11th album, called "Little Rope." They spoke to FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: It's been almost 20 years since Rolling Stone deemed Sleater-Kinney the best American punk rock band ever, so we're lucky that the band, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, are still making music and performing live. Since they started playing together in the '90s up until their latest album, "Little Rope," their music continues to evolve but still holds on to some signature tenets - the interplay of explosive guitars, Corin Tucker's distinctive wail, catharsis, vulnerability, guts and feminism, sour mixed with energetic joy.

During an eight-year hiatus, they both worked on solo music projects while Carrie Brownstein also co-created the sketch comedy show "Portlandia" with comedian and "SNL" alum Fred Armisen. Sleater-Kinney reunited 10 years ago in 2014 and became a duo in 2019 after the departure of longtime drummer Janet Weiss. "Little Rope" is their 11th album. While they were working on it, Brownstein's mother tragically died in a car accident. We'll talk about how that altered the trajectory of the songs and what it's like to work together for decades. Sleater-Kinney is currently on tour in the U.S. and will play abroad later this year. Let's start with a track from their new album, "Little Rope." Here's "Say It Like You Mean It" with Corin Tucker on vocals and guitar and Carrie Brownstein on guitar.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Lie gently with me. All clocks have stopped. Our minds - they can't reach, all counting off. No bitter endings and no false starts - just tell me one thing. Just say the words. Say it like you mean it. I need to hear it before you go. Say it like you mean it. This goodbye hurts when you go.

BALDONADO: That's "Say It Like You Mean It" off the album "Little Rope." Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start off by talking about this song. Corin, this is you on vocals. How did this song come about?

CORIN TUCKER: This song was something that I had an idea for. I had, like, a really rough demo of it. And it was really just - I just had the chorus to begin with. And then I shared it with Carrie, and she was like, it's great. I really like it. You need to finish it. And so Carrie worked on the music, and I eventually came up with a vocal melody and lyrics for the verses. And we went into the studio with it, but when we were recording it, the vocals weren't quite hitting where they needed to. And I went home, and I just ended up, like, going to bed and waking up in the middle of the night being like, I have an idea. And I sang a different melody into my phone and just started the song in a different place that was kind of, like, a quieter, sweeter place to start the singing in so that it gave it kind of a bigger arc to go to in the chorus.

BALDONADO: Well, so starting at a different place than when you - where you originally started it - how did that sort of help what you wanted the song to be about?

TUCKER: Yeah. I think that, you know, the song is about a relationship with, you know, your longtime person. And it's different when you write a song like that when you're older because you have this whole journey that you've taken with the person, and it goes through a lot of ups and downs. But I think one of the things about, you know, writing a love song when you're older is that you realize there is a goodbye coming at some point for all of us. And we don't know when exactly that's going to be, but we do know that that's kind of the price that you pay for being in love. So the song is kind of thinking about that concept and saying, let's really say what we need to say today because we don't know what's going to happen in the future. But there's a lot of emotions, I think. There's, like, layers and layers and layers of emotions. And I think I needed to start the song in a different place in order to go through some of the different emotions that happen with that concept.

BALDONADO: Now, you started writing the songs for this album a few years ago in 2022, and this album was written during a period of sudden tragedy. Would it be OK if I asked you to talk about what happened while you were working on the album?

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Sure. So we had written probably three-quarters of the album, and we had gone into the first session of recording in the summer of 2022. We were slated to go back into the studio that winter, at the end of the year. And in late September, I got the news that my mother and stepfather had been killed in a car accident in Italy while they were on vacation. So that really changed a lot of things personally, obviously, for my family. And it, you know, really changed the direction of this album because it changed the direction of my life.

BALDONADO: Did any part of you want to stop or take a break? - 'cause that would have been totally understandable.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, to be fair, there wasn't any pressure to continue, not from Corin or our management or - you know, there are no outside influencers that were, you know, saying that it was an imperative to finish the album. And I don't even know whether I was thinking as clearly or cogently as, let's finish the album. But what I did know was that I needed structure and walls and stability at a time where everything faded and seemed to dissipate and blur. And playing music and playing guitar, which is something that I started doing in my teens - that was a ritual and a choreography that I really understood. I knew what to do with my hands and fingers upon a fretboard or the neck of the guitar, but I didn't know what to do with the rest of my body. I didn't really even know how to walk through a room or get out of bed as someone who was grieving. So I turned to something that I did know, and it was just the act of doing and making, I think, that gave the days shape and started to give my life a little bit of shape.

BALDONADO: Yeah. When I read that, you sort of, like, found comfort in going back to guitar and, you know, playing guitar like you did when you were younger, that made a lot of sense to me because it seems so physical. And I can understand that because I feel like grief affects your body, whether it saps you of energy or - I mean, even for me, I felt like I changed the way I was in my body. It's hard to describe, but it sort of sounds like what you're talking about. I don't even know, like, what words to use, but you just sort of feel different.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I think especially with parents or family members...


BROWNSTEIN: ...It's an architecture, you know? It's like the scaffolding of your life and how you see yourself in relation to it is gone. You know, it's sort of crumbling. And you have to sort of write yourself in a new way and see yourself in relation to others in a different way. And I think, you know, it's like you're sort of walking around without a skeleton for a while.

BALDONADO: Now, you said that you didn't feel like you could handle the vocals the way you usually do. These days, you kind of trade off on songs. Can you explain why you wanted to play guitar but not sing as much?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, it's interesting because in the early days of Sleater-Kinney, as our listeners will know, or if people are just going back now and listening to our earlier records, you know, Corin is the voice of Sleater-Kinney. She has this amazing capacity to express so many emotions with her voice. She's really a very singular vocalist. And, you know, I was sort of always a sort of milder companion to that, more of a punk or personality singer. But over the years, I gained confidence, and partly because I had to kind of keep up with Corin, and we liked the intertwining vocals. You know, I started to sing more as we continued on.

And with this album - well, first of all, I'm such a fan of Corin's voice. Like, it's bigger than me, and I needed to hear it. I needed something bigger than me to step inside, to be a cloak, to be a shield, to be able to listen to sort of as a fan. So I turned to Corin as a - you know, just to help. And I needed her to rise to the occasion, which she definitely did. But I think I just felt part of it was that usually I have the words. I have the language. I'm fairly eloquent. But I just felt slightly misshapen and felt like I could express myself more clearly through guitar, which I think is an instrument that really emulates the human voice quite well. And that's where I did my wailing and let the notes bend and let, you know, the sorrow come through, or the sourness or the agitation or even the terseness and the frustration. That's all there in the guitar on this album.

BALDONADO: Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. My guests are Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, co-founders of the band Sleater-Kinney. They just released their new album called "Little Rope." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) My baby loves me...

BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado, back with Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, the band Sleater-Kinney. They've just released their 11th album called "Little Rope."

Going back to some of the difficult part of this story - can I ask you, Carrie, was it even more difficult that the accident that happened with your stepdad and your mom happened far away? You know, your mother and stepdad were on vacation in Italy when the accident happened. Did that make it feel strange or not real? I mean, it's always kind of strange and not real, I think, when you hear that someone that close to you has passed away. But...


BALDONADO: ...Just wondering if there was a difference.

BROWNSTEIN: I have not been asked that question, but I will say that Italy is a wonderful place to visit and a terrible place to die. It is - just takes a long time. I'm not singling out Italy, but it's just - as anyone knows who has lost someone in a far-flung place, the logistics are agonizing. The death certificates, just all - I mean, honestly, it just threw everyone in my family and Eric's (ph) family - Eric was my stepfather - like, it just - you know, we were just mired in all of these details. And that, I think - so it felt both far away, but what we were forced to focus on was just this minutia that was sometimes so absurd as to just be funny, sort of that laugh-cry kind of...


BROWNSTEIN: ...Combination. And yeah, it was aggravating and very protracted. It actually really prolonged a lot of things, including the memorial service and just our ability to find closure. There was just a lot of paperwork and legalities to sort through when, you know, an accident happens on foreign soil. So yeah, it was just an added, I think, surrealism to the entire thing.

BALDONADO: Yeah, it even took them a couple of days to find you. And they called you, Corin, because that was a number that they had on file for Carrie's passport.

TUCKER: Yes. Yeah. I've had the same phone number since the '90s, so it was the one...

BALDONADO: (Laughter) Good for you. You may be, like, the only person.

TUCKER: Yeah, I know, I know. It was the one working phone number. And, you know, it just - it was the strangest phone call I've ever had, and I didn't. I couldn't process it at the time. I was driving my daughter to school and it came over, you know, the car and I was like, I'm not going to give you Carrie's number. Like, you can text me your details. Like, it just - it seemed unreal, seemed - you know, they weren't saying. They didn't say what was going on. They just said, we need to talk to Carrie Brownstein. I was like, I'm sure you do. You know, like, it just - it seemed unreal. And I had a bad feeling once the text came through and it seemed like a legitimate member of the U.S. embassy in Italy, you know? It just - then it was like, well, this seems - I didn't even really know, but I had a bad feeling when I saw that text. Yeah.

BALDONADO: I want to ask you about another song off the new album, "Little Rope." It's the song "Dress Yourself," which has that great line, get up, girl, and dress yourself in clothes you love for a world you hate, which I feel like many people can relate to. Can you talk about writing this song?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. There was a line that I read. It started out like, get up, girl, and something about meeting the day. I think it was that author, Jean Rhys. And so I was thinking of, OK, yeah, you're getting up. You're meeting the day. And I sort of - I wrote it down, and I was thinking about it and just the sort of modern conundrum of - I guess just the kind of cognitive dissonance that we all have to live with in order to both be cognizant of the woes of the world and our own, you know, pain. And yet we still sort of have to conform to just the task of being human and presentable. Sometimes that is a really difficult task.

And so, yeah, I started out, you know, thinking about, yeah, putting on your sort of your favorite clothes to put yourself into a world that you either momentarily or maybe loathe - I guess weekly loathe on a weekly or yearly basis. We somehow do it. I mean, I feel like that's just - you can't think about it for too long. It's so mind-boggling what we're able to juggle and what we're sort of forced to tune out. You can't engage with it all 24/7, but then you sort of - there's kind of a self-loathing and knowing that you can't and a desperation and a feeling of inadequacy that that you can't. So, you know, it's a conundrum that we all live with, I think.

BALDONADO: Now, you worked on this song before your mother passed away, but then you say it sort of took on a different meaning afterwards when you recorded it.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I mean mostly the chorus. I mean, it really is a song about depression and sort of deep perennial sadness, I think, very entrenched. And the part in the chorus - you know, give me a reason; give me a remedy; give me a new word for the old pain inside of me - was really about my family and, you know, just sort of a longstanding, I guess, yeah, sadness around some of those relationships. And it was strange to me that after my mom died, it was like I had gifted myself the song to help me deal with it.

BALDONADO: Well, let's listen to the song. Here is "Dress Yourself" from the new Sleater-Kinney album "Little Rope."


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Get up, girl, and dress yourself in clothes you love for a world you hate. Stand up straight, and comb your hair, a style you're told looks half-deranged. Give me a reason. Give me a remedy. Give me a new word for the old pain inside of me. Give me the madness. Give me the memory. Give me a new word for the old pain inside of me.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, co-founders of the band Sleater-Kinney. Their new album, their 11th, is called "Little Rope" - more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Step outside, and show yourself. The wreck of you is on display. Get out now while you still can. I hope you're saved. This is that rainy dance. (Vocalizing). Give me a reason. Give me a remedy. Give me a new word for the old pain inside of me. Give me the madness. Give me the memory. Give me a new word for the old pain inside of me.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney. They formed the band 30 years ago in Olympia, Wash., and it became an important part of the feminist punk movement of the '90s. They both sing and play guitar, with Corin Tucker doing most of the singing on their new album, "Little Rope." It's their 11th. While they were working on the album, Brownstein's mother died in a car accident. Although a lot of the tracks on "Little Rope" had already been written, they both say that dealing with grief transformed the album.

BALDONADO: I want to play another song from "Little Rope," "Hunt You Down." Can you talk about writing it?

BROWNSTEIN: "Hunt You Down" was a song that we really worked on for a long time. We had so many iterations of the chorus, and it was probably the trickiest song to finish because we had a lot of faith in it. It was catchy, it was slightly dancey. We needed a song like that on the album. But the lyrics, the theme of the song just was not really coalescing. It wasn't until I was listening to an interview with an undertaker and poet named Thomas Lynch out of Michigan, and he was talking about meeting with a bereaved father who had lost a young child. And the father said to him, the thing you fear the most will hunt you down. And Thomas Lynch was struck by it, and I was struck by it, too, and I wrote it down. And as I was still wrestling with that chorus, I tried singing that over a melody and everything kind of clicked together. And then I wrote the verses around that idea.

BALDONADO: That idea, like what you fear most happening will find you, I think that's something that those of us with anxiety think about so much, like, on loop. It's such a true, difficult line.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. Whether it's, you know, existential or a much more real threat, I think there are a lot of us deep in that all the time.

BALDONADO: Well, let's hear the song. This is "Hunt You Down" from the new album "Little Rope."


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Hey. Get ready. I've been down so long I pay rent to the floor. I'm reeling out of sorts. I'm unsteady. Been crawling round here for days in hopes the walls open up and give way. Call me home. I forgive you, I wish I'd told you so. Nowhere for the words to go, with what's left of me. I'll send you ashes, my love. The thing you fear the most will hunt you down. The thing you fear the most will hunt you down. Down, down, down. Down, down, down. I'm locking the room. I'm not ready.

BALDONADO: That's Sleater-Kinney with the song "Hunt You Down" off the new album "Little Rope." My guests are singer-songwriters and guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein.

I'm hoping you can talk about meeting each other and forming the band. You met in Olympia, Wash. You guys were in college there. What was it like starting out - the music scene there?

TUCKER: Well, just for clarity's sake, we actually met in Bellingham, Wash.


TUCKER: We met at a punk rock show that my first band, Heavens To Betsy, was playing, and Carrie was in the audience. And she came up to me after the show and she said, I'd like to get more information about this riot girl business. I took her address and wrote it down, and we talked about Olympia because I was going to school there and she expressed interest in going to school there. You know, the music scene in Olympia was extraordinary. It was wild. I mean, I went there as a college student, and as a freshman in college, I went to every punk rock show downtown that I could get into and just thought, you know, I saw a show that year, I saw Bikini Kill and Bratmobile play a show, and I said, I want to do this. And I formed a band, or I told people I was in a band. And then that summer I got asked to play a show. And, you know, I suddenly was, like, making records.

BROWNSTEIN: So I did - transferred, then, to the Evergreen State College and formed my first band, called Excuse 17. And then eventually Corin and I started playing together sort of as a side project. And that's sort of how Sleater-Kinney got its name because we thought, well, this is not going to be very serious or probably long lasting, so we'll just name it after a road that our rehearsal space was near called Sleater-Kinney, which is a town outside of Olympia called Lacey, Wash. And Corin just left it on my answering machine one day. I came home from classes and Corin said, let's call the band Sleater-Kinney. And we thought, sure. It'll last about a year. And that's how that all began.

BALDONADO: You guys had a short-lived romance when you were first starting out. I'm not sure if it's still - if it's OK to ask about it. But it was 30 years ago, and you continue to be a band and write music together and be in each other's lives. I think that's, like, life goals - keeping people important to you in your life like that.

BROWNSTEIN: We were really just ahead of the curve with the conscious uncoupling. You know, we - I feel like now there's so much more discourse around, you know, maintaining relationships and having things be copasetic and, you know, like, you know, communication is key and, you know, trying to prevent things getting acrimonious or too toxic. And not that there wasn't a lot of drama and acrimony and heartache and bad behavior. There definitely was. But we had the band to keep us together while we behaved poorly. And eventually we talked it out and worked through it.

TUCKER: We were just kids when we started out. You know, we were so young that sometimes we didn't - you know, we didn't really know how to handle all of those big emotions. But I think because we were able to write the music and do the songs, it's like that was always there for us. It did sort of help us grow as people, and I think that, like, those kind of more mature behaviors caught up with us eventually, hopefully.

BROWNSTEIN: Like this week.


BROWNSTEIN: They just did during this interview.

BALDONADO: Now, you write about breakup at various times over the course of those 30 years. And one example is the song "One More Hour." I think Pitchfork called it one of the most devastating breakup songs in all of rock music. Can you talk about writing that song?

TUCKER: Yeah. I mean, I think that kind of the language that we had to handle what was happening - at the time, I was really sad. And I - you know, I think that just being in that moment and writing about how something that you think is so special will end - I think that's just - that's kind of the nature of love songs. And that whole idea of impermanence and just trying to capture some of those images as that relationship is fading away is something that just sort of tumbled into that song.

BALDONADO: Well, let's hear the song "One More Hour" by Sleater-Kinney.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) In one more hour, I will be gone. In one more hour, I'll leave this room. The dress you wore, the pretty shoes are things I left behind for you. Oh, you've got the darkest eyes. Oh, you've got the darkest eyes. I needed it. I know, I know, I know. Oh, I needed it. It's so hard for you to let it go. I needed it. I know, I know, I know. Oh, I needed it. You never wanted to let it, let it go. If you could talk, what would you say?

BALDONADO: That's Sleater-Kinney with "One More Hour" - Corin Tucker on vocals and guitar, Carrie Brownstein on guitar. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. My guests are Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, co-founders of the band Sleater-Kinney. They just released their new album, their 11th. It's called "Little Rope." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado, back with the band Sleater-Kinney, which is Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. They've just released their 11th album. It's called "Little Rope." Carrie Brownstein is also an actor and comedian. She co-created the TV series "Portlandia" with "SNL" alum Fred Armisen.

I want to talk to you about your guitar playing. The band doesn't have a bass player. You both play guitar. Can you describe how you approach your sound and if it's changed over time?

BROWNSTEIN: Sure. So Corin and I are both self-taught guitar players, and Corin's previous band was just guitar and drums. So she was just tuning her guitar to her voice, just tuning by ear. It was never codified, you know, via a tuner. So she was not in standard E, which is, you know, what most people start out with. So when we formed Sleater-Kinney, obviously, we needed to tune to each other so that the songs didn't sound awful. And she happened to plug into a tuner one day, and it was - her guitar was in C sharp. So, I mean, honestly, that was by accident. And stories of bands often involve these kind of happy accidents. It could have just as easily been, you know, drop D that day or standard E tuning, but it was C sharp, which is a step and a half lower. So I also tuned to C sharp, and that became the tuning of Sleater-Kinney.

Now, two guitars in C sharp - you know, they - as you go farther up on the neck, the intonation - it's not - you're not always in tune. And so there is - you know, we veer into this sourness, and I think what that sourness evokes is something that's melancholy. It's that - it's the sound of heartache. It's the sound of bittersweetness. And I think that became part of the lexicon of - you know, the sonic lexicon of our band. We also play very interlocking guitar parts. So we never really followed the convention of, OK, you're going to be rhythm guitar, and I'll be lead. We do sometimes, you know, occupy those places as guitarists, but often, we're both playing a semblance of a lead. You play a lot of inverted chords, half-chords. It's kind of a strange vernacular. And I think that's why Sleater-Kinney - it's part of the reason why we sound quite different from other bands.

BALDONADO: I love that you detune to C sharp, which is something - I'm not a guitar player, so I don't completely understand, but I always wondered what that kind of tension was. So I'm glad that there are - you know, to sort of find out what that kind of unspoken thing is - that I can't put my finger on is.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, it's that inaccessibility that our band has had for many years. People are like, why can't I get into this band? That's one of the reasons.

BALDONADO: (Laughter) Well, before I let you go, I want to ask you about another song. This is called "Untidy Creature." And I believe it's the first song you started writing for the album, but it's the last track on the album. Can you talk about writing it?

TUCKER: Yeah, this song is one that we - I think we started writing maybe in 2021. And it came together so quickly, just the melody and the guitar, that we were a little suspicious of the song. Like, is this - you know, maybe this sounds too much like other things we've done or it's - you know, it's not covering enough new ground for us. We just - we didn't know. So we kind of put it on the back burner and wrote the other music. But while we were writing the rest of the record, a lot of things happened, and one of them was Roe v. Wade being overturned and a sense of just anger and frustration and bitterness and betrayal and feeling trapped. And as we worked on that song, those feelings came up. And they came up in a way that looked at the idea of relationship and personal relationship, but also the relationship of being viewed or seen or evaluated in your own country as, you know, not being worthy of being in charge of your own bodily autonomy. All of those feelings went into that song and they came out very raw during the recording.

BALDONADO: Well, here's the song "Untidy Creature" from the Sleater-Kinney album "Little Rope." Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

TUCKER: Thanks so much for having us.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) I heard the click of a tiny catch. I closed my eyes and you found the latch. I looked up and saw the bars intact - locked up tight, the perfect trap. I rattle and shake inside, but I can't escape tonight. There was a time when I saw it outside, followed the air, turn left, turn right. Now with a move, you close the lock. The world outside, it's what I want. I rattle and shake inside. I push against your arms tonight. And it feels like we were broken, and I'm holding the pieces so tight. You can try to tell me I'm nothing and I don't have the wings to fly. But there's too much here that's unspoken and there's no tomorrow in sight. Could you love me if I was broken? And there's no going back tonight. Looking at me...

GROSS: Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Their band Sleater-Kinney has a new album called "Little Rope." They're currently touring the U.S. and will play abroad later this year. They spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review a new science fiction series from some of the creative forces behind "Game Of Thrones" and "True Blood." This is FRESH AIR.


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Ann Marie Baldonado
Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.