A Sleater-Kinney Album Mutated by Grief

Like many great recording studios, Flora Recording & Playback, in Portland, Oregon, is unspectacular from the outside. A brick building situated on a moderately busy street in between two residential neighborhoods, it has a set of heavy, grayish doors that look like they lead to the kind of place where people spend their time sorting files and making spreadsheets. But, when you open the doors, you find another, single door, adorned with small colorful paintings of musical notes. And through that door: the magic of noise.

On a recent weekend afternoon, Carrie Brownstein, the co-guitarist and co-vocalist of the rock band Sleater-Kinney, was inside, tilting her head at a row of guitars on the wall. The studio around her was cluttered with gear—vintage pianos, pedalboards with incoherent scribbles on strips of masking tape—belonging to the Decemberists, who had been there for months, working on a forthcoming album. “Tucker!” Brownstein shouted, calling not for her Sleater-Kinney bandmate, Corin Tucker, who was standing next to her, but for Tucker Martine, the studio’s owner, who was tinkering nearby in a soundproof booth. “Tucker!!” Brownstein called again, in a tone of rising excitement. Martine poked his head out.

“Is that my guitar?” Brownstein asked, pointing at a white custom model that resembled a Fender. She and Tucker hadn’t been back to the studio since recording an album there almost a year before.

“I decided to put it up on the wall because I figured someone would come in and claim it eventually,” Martine replied.

Brownstein is forty-nine years old, with brown hair that sometimes falls into her expressive face. She pulled the guitar down and ran her hands along its strings, as if she were touching a ghost. Tucker, who is blond with wide eyes, explained, “We had a lot of our gear stolen from our storage unit shortly after recording the album. We just assumed the guitar was gone.”

Brownstein and Tucker have been playing together in Sleater-Kinney for three decades, since the band burst out of riot grrrl, the feminist punk scene in Olympia, Washington, in the early nineties. They made a run of seven albums, between 1995 and 2005, before taking a hiatus that ended up lasting eight years. Since 2019, when their longtime drummer, Janet Weiss, departed the band, Brownstein and Tucker have been operating as a duo. They completed “Little Rope,” which is out this month, while navigating sudden tragedy. In the fall of 2022, Brownstein learned that her mother and stepfather had been killed in a car accident while on vacation in Italy. Most of the tracks for “Little Rope” were already written at the time, and at least one was already recorded. But Brownstein’s grief twisted the music into new shapes.

“Finishing the record was basically my way of praying every day,” she told me, after we’d settled around a table in the studio’s kitchenette. “I am not a religious person, but I had to ask. I had to wonder, I had to talk and commune with something that was beyond what I could see in front of me.”

Sleater-Kinney has always been a band of communion, the engine of their songmaking found in the restless interplay between Tucker and Brownstein. The women developed a deep friendship as students at Evergreen State College when both were playing in other groups. The early riot-grrrl scene was characterized by a matriarchal spirit of creative collaboration. Bands would be formed on Monday and have their first show on Friday. They would watch one another, learn how to idiosyncratically tune and detune guitars, how to bend notes into the sweet spot of distortion. Playing music was an exchange of information, operating against the hoarding of brilliance, against the idea of scarcity. Tucker’s band, Heavens to Betsy, and Brownstein’s, Excuse 17, toured together, and the two women developed a fascination with each other’s playing. “I was, like, She’s a shredder,” Tucker said. The two briefly became a romantic couple and fled the scene to Australia, where they began working on what would become their first, self-titled record. When they reëmerged back in the States, they were a fully formed band. “It seemed like the beginning of a love story,” Brownstein said, “except the love story became about the band.”

Sleater-Kinney’s music is constructed out of precise collisions. Brownstein’s guitar distortion sounds like a person howling out a loud, final breath. Tucker’s voice, one of the most distinctive in music, is siren-like, loud as if out of necessity, but underpinned with a sneering sweetness. Sometimes their songs sound like the women are having two entirely separate conversations that erupt outward, other times like they’re having a string of enticing arguments. When Weiss joined the band, in 1996, after the release of “Call the Doctor,” the intensity was heightened, with Weiss’s relentless, versatile percussion forming a kind of container for the songs to dwell in. Tucker recalled, “I was a huge fan of singers that could really do something big. And I think that because of the chemistry of our guitars together and what we could do together, I could see that and I could see that happening in this band. And I feel like some of that stuff only happens in this band.”

“Little Rope,” the band’s fourth album since reuniting—and their second since Weiss left —has fortified the bond between Brownstein and Tucker in new ways. When the accident in Italy occurred, Tucker, whom Brownstein had listed on her passport form as an emergency contact, was the one who received a call from the Italian Embassy. The person on the other end of the line asked to speak with Brownstein, and Tucker assumed at first that it was a scam. In Sleater-Kinney’s down years, Brownstein embarked on a second career as a comedian, most notably on the satirical sketch show “Portlandia,” opposite Fred Armisen, in a role that brought her a level of fame beyond the indie-music world. “Carrie is a TV person, and people are always trying to get her phone number,” Tucker said. “But once I digested the legitimacy from the Embassy, and the tone of it, it made me very concerned.”

“You didn’t think they were calling to give me diplomatic status?” Brownstein replied.

When Tucker called Brownstein to relay the message, Brownstein was heading into the studio, so she asked her sister, Stacey, to return the Embassy’s call. A few hours later, Stacey called her to break the news: there’d been an accident four days earlier. Their mother and stepfather were both dead.

Afterward, Brownstein recalled, she retreated into music, and she found herself tinkering with “Little Rope” ’s existing songs, adding new riffs and “sinister melodies.” “I hadn’t played that much guitar since I was in high school or college—hours, just hours, playing riff after riff, changing parts,” she said. “It was a choreography that I understood because things like eating or being in public, seeing friends, that was harder for me. Because I was scared—I felt so misshapen, I think, but not with music.” The track “Six Mistakes” was originally recorded in the band’s first session, with no lead guitar, foregrounding voices and drums. Now it grew layers of muddy, heavy distortion that made the song feel like walking through a fog, until it opened up, about halfway through, with Brownstein’s screeching guitar now wrestling with Tucker’s voice. “Everything got spikier. Or sicker. Or prettier,” Brownstein said. “Everything had to take on its final form. Nothing could have been stuck in the middle. Everything had to rear its head.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *