Riot Girls: Sleater-Kinney Brings Politics Back to Punk

Despite the sudden departure of their drummer, the goth-rock godmothers are standing tall, back with a St. Vincent-helmed album.

Almost as soon as they had thunderously announced their return to music, the alt-rockers Sleater-Kinney radically changed course, with one-third of the longtime three-piece departing mid comeback. Fans experienced whiplash not because of the timing, but more from the shared assumption of Sleater Kinney’s rigorously tested endurance; rarely do bands make it 30 years, especially when one member becomes independently famous, as Carrie Brownstein had on Portlandia. In fact it was not Brownstein, who co-founded the band with fellow hold-out Corin Tucker in 1994, who left, but drummer Janet Weiss. “We were surprised and sad that Janet decided to leave,” says Brownstein. “We wanted her to stay but I think our goal is just to think of it as a new chapter with its own sort of challenges but also possibilities. We don’t spend much time looking back.”

Sleater-Kinney Maripol Carrie Brownstein Corin Tucker
Sleater-Kinney (left: Carrie Brownstein, right: Corin Tucker) photographed by Maripol for V Magazine.

Indeed, doubting the band’s willingness to reckon with seismic losses would miss the thrust of their new album, The Center Won’t Hold. “It speaks to an era of fractiousness and vulnerability… We wanted to write about despair, corruption, and chaos, but [place] them in personal narratives,” guitarist Corin Tucker says of the album title, a literary reference to proto-goth W.B. Yeats. In his poem “The Second Coming,” Yeats deadpans, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”—a suggestion of rational acceptance of loss that, especially in light of the band’s recent evolution, resonates on both macro and micro levels.

As Sleater Kinney’s legend has grown, so has the popular discourse around feminism, set in motion by the Riot Grrrl batallions of the late ’90s, including Sleater Kinney, L7 and Bikini Kill (all of whom have resurfaced in 2019). Despite the Riot Grrrls’ prescience, Tucker and Brownstein regard the movement, to which they are reflexively linked, with characteristic disinterest, focusing instead on the work that’s yet to be done—whether that be live performance or political activism. “Our goal as performers is just to do something kinetic, exhilarating and powerful to form a connection with the audience,” says Tucker.

Sleater-Kinney Corin Tucker Carrie Brownstein Maripol
Sleater-Kinney (left: Corin Tucker, right: Carrie Brownstein) photographed by Maripol for V Magazine.

“We actually weren’t really a Riot Grrrl band; we came out at the tail end of that scene,” echoes Brownstein. “I think our focus, while never shying away from politics, is the art. The thing that lasts is the music. More than pressing [feminism] into commercialism or pat phrases, I’m interested in the real political activism and discourse of feminism. And at the same time, I want to make great music. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Sleater-Kinney’s North American tour kicks off in Raleigh, NC, Sept. 13.

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