Politics, Music And David Bowie: A Chat With Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker

Washington-bred punk band Sleater-Kinney first came into my life back in 2004. One of the most important acts to come out of that time and place (musically and geographically,) the band paved the way for countless punk acts – and female-fronted bands in general – that followed. Their wildly energetic, at times viciously political and endlessly exciting music was the soundtrack to much of my later teenage years, and last year, the trio of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss returned, following a decade-long hiatus, with their phenomenal eighth album No Cities To Love. 

Sleater-Kinney will be visiting Australia to perform at Golden Plains Festival alongside a string of headline shows in March this year. I was lucky and incredibly honoured to speak with frontwoman Corin Tucker about David Bowie, the marriage of music and politics, and the ways in which the industry has changed over the past two decades.

I read an album review when No Cities To Love came out, which said, “The break that Sleater-Kinney are returning from isn’t as important as what they’re returning to: a world full of Sleater-Kinneys.” As in, you were a pioneer band in so many ways. Since returning, can you feel that change, and if so, how does it feel to be in a world that’s different directly because of you?

I don’t know if I see it that way, I feel it’s more of a connection than a black and white action and result. That drives what we do more than anything else, wanting to connect with people. I feel really grateful that other people feel that connection too, and I feel like we’re a part of a much longer tradition or trajectory of musicians, that we looked up to, that we felt connected to. I do feel very grateful that we still feel the same way about our band.

That connection and tradition of musicians that you talk about leads right into my next question, which is about a more recent topic: David Bowie. I watched your tribute performance of Rebel Rebel, it was so touching and it’s incredible to see how the world has responded to his death. Having watched you perform that, what did he and his music mean to you? Do you have any particular memories?

There’s so many memories, and that’s what I wasn’t prepared for. I was born in 1972, and his music shaped my whole life. I mean, from the time I was five years old, his music was extremely popular. He was pushing boundaries about what gender means, what sexuality means, and he was so open and amazing, glamorous, interesting! I have so many memories, I was really taken by surprise when he passed away, by how incredibly sad I felt. But at the same time, he really could not have set the bar higher in terms of dealing with the end of your life. And the fact that he chose to pursue art, to pursue one last album and a play in New York City, I find that incredibly inspiring. At the very end, he really found the work to be very meaningful. I couldn’t be more inspired by how he lived his life and how he died.

I think one of the most amazing things we’ve seen in the past couple weeks is how many people feel exactly that way – myself included. As an artist, it must be so amazing to see how deeply you can affect people by your own creation.

Absolutely. I think that when you’re young you have this wonderful idealism, you think about music as being inspiring, you’re gonna change everything, when you’re 20 years old, it’s a really natural way to be. Starting a band at that age, that’s exactly who I was. But as you get older, you get wrapped up in the idea of a career of music, you care about what people think and how successful things are. I feel so inspired by the fact that David Bowie really held on to this idea of what art and music really means. That they are incredibly important to us, for reasons that have nothing to do with commercial success or a career. It’s more about truly being able to explore why we‘re here, why our lives matter.

And having had such a long break before returning with No Cities To Love, did you feel revived in the way you’ve just described – of forgetting the commercial side and doing it for the music?

Yeah, we definitely felt that way. We had to bring our band back from the band. We were completely not a band, we had essentially destroyed our career. Thinking about why should we do this? Why would it matter? Who would care? All these big questions came into play in terms of writing the album, and having the courage to think about what does matter.

As someone who has not only been so pointed in your lyrics but an activist for much of your life, have you ever considered entering politics or taking that activism further?

I’d like to be involved on a community level, if there’s something going on that I might be able to help out with. But I’m not sure that I would want to go through with what politicians go through with in the United States *laughs*. I’m not sure it would be the best use of my talents, or that I would have the stomach for most of it.

I think that’s fair enough! And speaking of that musical output, for instance, I feel like the lyrics to an older track like Combat Rock could’ve easily been recorded on No Cities To Love and it would have been just as relevant today, even though it was written almost 15 years ago. Does it feel as though politics and activism through music has changed now, or is more or less necessary now?

I would love to hear bands that are more political, that are more vocal about politics in music. I think that it’s really scarce in today’s music. A lot of the music I have been inspired by is blatantly political, I wish more people were willing to go there and take those risks.

Are there any other artists around now that you think are taking those risks?

I think Run The Jewels are amazing. There are some really outspoken artists, I think Beyonce is great! Not that her music is necessarily political, but it’s culturally aware. I’m just inspired by people who touch on larger themes outside of the tiny windows in their world.

You’ve said that one of the big differences between when Sleater-Kinney began and now, is obviously the way that the Internet has allowed us to access everything. Whereas back then, people would discover a band at a show, most likely in their hometown. Has that affected the way you write music?

I think people are more aware that people from around the world can access their music. I’m not sure how it’s influenced how people write, but I think that it’s just a really different cycle of writing now. before the Internet, you would write songs and perform them a lot before you recorded them. it was this long process. Now, the cycle is, when you record something, you wouldn’t wanna perform it live if you aren’t ready to release it to the world – because it could be up on YouTube that night.

You’ve also spoken about how internal the scene was, and of course your audience was quite specific as a result. Is there something to be said about geographically specific music today? Is it a positive or negative change that it’s not necessarily a factor anymore?

I think it can tend to make things less unique. If we are able to have a global audience right away, it might make certain themes sound more like each other, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing, because you might get influenced by something on the other side of the world that could be really cool. It might just a part of the change with having the Internet and access to music.

I think the really negative part would be that it’s mostly wealthier people that have that access, they are gonna be blocking a lot of the less fortunate people who lack that access. I think that excludes people in a way that’s sad, and that we should work towards including as many people with Internet access as we can.

What are some ways we could change that in the future to make it accessible to everyone?

I think having good infrastructure like libraries and schools with computers can help, so that kids who might not come from a home that has computer access, might be able to find it that way. Also, I suppose mobile phones would be an easier answer.

We’ve run out of time, so I’ve got one more question. You’re coming back to Australia soon! You recorded your debut album here, does those memories still hold a special place in your heart?

Oh, definitely. We were so fortunate to have that Australian community of underground musicians, the people in Melbourne that we played with. They let us sleep in their houses, they fed us, took care of us, played shows with us, and I don’t think we would’ve made it without them.

Sleater-Kinney tour dates

Fri March 4: HQ, Adelaide

Sat March 5: The Triffid, Brisbane

Sun March 6: Sydney Opera House, Sydney

Wed March 9: The Croxton, Melbourne (SOLD OUT)

Thurs March 10: The Croxton, Melbourne (SOLD OUT)

Sat March 12 – 14: Golden Plains Festival

Image: The Independent