Sleater-Kinney co-founder Brownstein's mother and stepfather were killed in a 2022 car accident as the band was working on its 11th record
For the last 30 years, Sleater-Kinney has been a model of consistency in delivering passionate and incendiary rock. Fronted by singer-guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, the beloved Portland, Oregon-based group emerged from the post-Riot Grrrl era to release several acclaimed albums of punk-influenced rock with feminist- and politically-minded overtones while garnering a loyal fanbase.
Sleater-Kinney's new and 11th album, Little Rope, out Friday, continues the band's mission of addressing the state of society. But it is also a personal work, especially on the subject of grief.
In the fall of 2022, as the band was working on the album, Brownstein's mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident while they were vacationing in Italy. The U.S. embassy tried to contact Brownstein about the accident but only had an outdated phone number that she had written down on a passport form years earlier. So, they reached out to Tucker, who was listed as Brownstein's emergency contact. Naturally, the incident informed the tone of Little Rope.
“I think that Sleater-Kinney has always pulled off both the reality [and] illusion that songwriters do of couching things in the personal,” Brownstein, 49, tells PEOPLE, “but also drawing from broader stories and making them seem personal so that they are perennial and timeless."
She continues, "This album does conjure that essential quality to Sleater-Kinney, which is that it feels very personal. It certainly wrestles with things that are drawn from our lives. For sure, my personal story, which then by proximity becomes part of Corin's life, informed the way we approached the stakes of this album. But the stakes globally are personal for all of us, too.”
Tucker, 51, adds that Sleater-Kinney wanted to dive into the emotions of sadness and failure through Little Rope. “One of the things you feel in middle age is the kind of lack of accomplishments on a global scale that you feel like maybe have touched your generation,” she says. “This is definitely an album that touches on that. But at the same time, the music's pretty catchy. That's just kind of how you get through life: 'Well, yeah, this thing that's going on is really crummy, and yet I've got a good little tune that's just going to get me through the next few hours.' We wanted to do that with the songs on this album.”
Brownstein often found catharsis through guitar. “I think ritual is important and routine is important,” she says. “And grief is a very confounding state. The choreography of playing guitar was a familiar one to me. The act of playing hour after hour, day after day, was something I hadn't done in a long time. I just really poured myself into the playing."
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The emotional tumult in the gritty “Hunt You Down” and the poppy, New Wave-influenced “Don't Feel Right” appear to allude to Brownstein's feelings after the deaths of her mother and stepfather, as well as the dark “Dress Yourself.” The latter track, however, was written before the accident.
“I think that speaks to the sad ordinary nature of death,” Brownstein says. “It is a depression. Those things are not unique. You can write a song today and have it mean about death or despair. And unfortunately, it will always hit someone. It will always find somebody in that emotional state.”
The album's first single, the ominous and frenzied “Hell,” reflects a sense of chaos happening not only in someone's life but also in the world. Tucker describes it as a metaphor for the culture of violence happening in America. “I think that it's built from that moment of realization where you're sort of stunned by what we've gotten used to, what human nature can talk ourselves into as our normalcy," she says.
"That's what the song is trying to do, set [off] an alarm bell that what we've built for ourselves is kind of a weird prison that's tied into this idea of violence and guns as just being part of how we live our lives," adds Tucker of "Hell."
Meanwhile, the subject matter in the driving rock song “Say It Like You Mean It” focuses on the unraveling of a personal relationship. Its stark black-and-white music video stars Succession actress J. Smith-Cameron. “It was a real pleasure to work with J.,” says Brownstein, who directed the video. “She was very game. She's a very accomplished actress in theater and film and television, but the music video world was not one she had dipped her toe into. So, we were very lucky that she was willing to go there with this song, and we had a wonderful time with her in Portland.”
Little Rope closes with the anthemic “Untidy Creature,” showcasing the angst and defiance that are emblematic of the band's sound and philosophy. “We were kind of playing with it and toying with it for a while. And we changed the lyrics definitely over the time when we were recording," says Tucker of the song. "We made ourselves really vulnerable on this album, more so than we have maybe in a while. That [track] kind of does fit in with these songs and the story of where the band is at right now.”
The arrival of the Little Rope comes as this year marks the 30th anniversary of the band's formation. From 1997 to 2006, Sleater-Kinney (also featuring drummer Janet Weiss, who left the band in 2019, at the time) issued a string of well-received albums including Dig Me Out, The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat and The Woods. After a hiatus, during which Brownstein pursued a career on screen with the sitcom Portlandia and Tucker working on solo music, Sleater-Kinney reformed in 2014 and released three more records: No Cities to Love, The Center Won't Hold and Path to Wellness. Yet Sleater-Kinney's music has also evolved along with the times — indicative of a band willing to explore new directions while retaining its core indie rock roots.
“When you start out in your 20s, you don't necessarily think you'll be making music decades later,” says Brownstein. “I really appreciate other artists who continue, who persevere, who give us stories from all spectrums of life. Life is full of a myriad of experiences, and I want the narratives to be pulled from all of them. Our goal always is to be considered in the moment and to feel relevant. And Little Rope feels very vital to us."
Beyond the music, however, the longevity of Sleater-Kinney mirrors the friendship between Brownstein and Tucker that goes back to before the band formed in 1994. “Underlying our collaboration,” says Tucker, “is that kind of respect and the enjoyment we get from hanging out and doing the project together."
“We don't just meet up on stage or in the studio or when we write," says Brownstein. "We spend a lot of our days together. I think that translates into a seamlessness that we have."
She continues, "In the process of writing and playing with Sleater-Kinney, Corin and I developed our own lexicon. Sometimes feels like it transcends words in everyday conversation. That kind of seeps into our friendship where we just have a very sort of emotional, visceral understanding of the other person. And then, of course, that goes back into the band.”
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