Albums of 2015 (#1): Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Sleater-Kinney's long-awaited return re-cast an often grubby exercise as something dignified and heroic. Carrie Brownstein reflects on a special year and sets her sights on the band's future.
Carrie Brownstein laughs as we discuss the hush-hush release of No Cities to Love, the Sleater-Kinney comeback album that ended the 'indefinite hiatus' announced by the band as they completed their 2006 world tour, in support of the opinion-dividing (but audience-expanding) The Woods. How they kept a lid on it in the interim is almost an artistic statement in itself.
"Well…" begins Brownstein, and laughs again. "It's still mysterious to me that we did, because we were not as tight-lipped about it as you might have thought. No-one was signing non-disclosure agreements or contracts, you know? We didn't do any of the formalities that people sometimes do when they want to release these secret albums without anyone knowing about it. We didn’t go through any of the legal channels or anything too restrictive. I think there was just a sense of trust amongst our friends and colleagues."
"I was very surprised, actually, that nothing about it leaked because… I wouldn't call it careless, but we were certainly not strict – we weren't strict about it at all. But I'm relieved that it remained a surprise because I think people, including myself, are so fond of being surprised or having their expectations surpassed and exceeded, or even just not having those expectations met in a certain way, and so when we put the unmarked single in the box set and people started to realise that it was a new song, that sense of unveiling and revealing – that's a really beautiful part of art to me, this element of awe and wonder."
"Our worst fear was that we would return and would be viewed only through a lens of nostalgia" – Carrie Brownstein
For the fan base, it added something special: the sense that this much-anticipated return deserved a presentation outside the workaday norm. "Well, yes – I like to appreciate that as much as a fan as I do as someone who performs it, so I was really glad I was able to do that because it did feel like there was an element of magic to it, and that was really special."
The clue that somehow Sleater-Kinney were back emerged last October as fans tore open the vinyl box set retrospective Start Together // 1996-2004, only to find an unexpected addition: that one-sided 7" etched with "1/20/2015". It contained Bury Our Friends, the band's first new material in a decade. It was a clue, but to what? The official announcement came shortly afterwards. Cue rave reviews across the board and a tour requiring extra dates and larger venues. No surprise then that, in a year enlivened by new and emerging artists but also by established voices testing their energy and creativity, No Cities to Love is The Skinny's album of 2015. Speaking from her hotel room in Glasgow, where she's completing a short reading tour of her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Brownstein is genuinely surprised: "Oh wow. Well that's so flattering. Thank you. That's very flattering."
In the book, Brownstein talks of her love of performance in its various forms, of gaining validation through that performance. With the 2015 version of her band attracting a new and larger audience – roughly one half old guard, one half clued-up youth – surely that sense of validation has only been confirmed? "Yeah. For sure," she agrees. "And more than anything, I'm grateful for it because I think our worst fear was that we would return and would be viewed only through a lens of nostalgia. You know, I wrote about nostalgia in the book as something that I'm sceptical of, despite knowing how warm and comfortable nostalgia can be. I think, certainly as a creator of music, you want to feel a sense of relevance and to be judged in the present tense, and so I think we felt overwhelming gratitude and relief when we realised that many people who came to our shows had discovered us through No Cities to Love. That just breathes life into the audience. We, as artists, felt very alive and very driven and I wanted the audience to not be peering backwards; I wanted them viewing us in the here and now and we found it very exhilarating to have, as you said, the older fans bolstered and buoyed by younger fans. It made for really wonderful shows, I think, and it felt like such a shared experience."
Brownstein talks in the book of how the dismantling of their established sound with The Woods confused sections of their fanbase but not in the UK, where their audiences grew. Sleater-Kinney's return to these shores this year saw them play just a three-date tour but to even bigger crowds; comprising sell-out dates at Glasgow's ABC, London's Roundhouse and Manchester's current venue of choice, the 2,000 capacity Albert Hall. She recalls her last visit with no prompting and real fondness: "Manchester, actually, was one of our favourite shows of the entire touring cycle. Our manager, from the US, was there for that show and he said to us afterwards, 'That's one of the best rock shows I've ever seen.' That was really pleasing to hear. You feel like, if only for one night, you've delivered on a promise."
Brownstein is once more due onstage in Glasgow, so it's time to end the call and revisit a theme: two years ago, when drummer Janet Weiss talked to The Skinny as she toured the latest Quasi album, it seemed right to – whisper it – ask The Question. She laughs at the notion: "What did she say?" Weiss's response was, of course, true to the band's collective silence (“Oh, you know, yeah, I wouldn’t rule it out. I don’t think we’ll be able to stay away from each other forever!”) but only after the fact does it take on a deeper resonance: Weiss, Brownstein and singer Corin Tucker had been playing together in secret for over a year at that point.
With Brownstein still in the promotion cycle for her book, the band due to play in Australia in January, and filming for the next series of Portlandia starting in May, it's perhaps a little previous to roll out The Next Question. But, you don’t ask, you really don't get. Brownstein's answer is, in its own way, as generous and honourable as that of her band mate's. "I certainly think so," she says. "I feel like there will be a continuation of what we reignited with this album. I would like to do more writing and I have a feeling that Janet and Corin would too. So, even though everything feels logistically tenuous, I still manage to do everything else, so I assume that I'll still be able to do Sleater-Kinney as well."
The Skinny's Albums of 2015:
#1: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
#2: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
#3: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
#4: Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh
#5: Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
#6: Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl
#7: Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too
#8: Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
#9: Kurt Vile – b’lieve, i’m goin down
#10: Bjork – Vulnicura