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Sleater-Kinney on their new album 'Little Rope'


In the mid-1990s, two young guitarists in Washington state began to play together in their time off from other bands.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Hell don't have no worries. Hell don't have no past. Hell is just a signpost when you take a certain path.

SIMON: They took a name that was right in front of them, Sleater-Kinney, from the interstate exit closest to their practice space. Thirty years later, Sleater-Kinney is out with its 11th album, "Little Rope."


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) You ask why like there's no tomorrow.

SIMON: And we're joined now by those two musicians, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, both in Portland. Thanks so much for being with us.

CORIN TUCKER: Thank you.

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having us, Scott.

SIMON: I've got to begin with that song. You don't hear a lot of songs about hell. I mean, there are more songs about, you know, New York, Chicago, heaven for that matter. Why did you want to do a song about hell? Corin Tucker? Yeah, please.

TUCKER: I think that song kind of came from a moment of revelation about the kind of culture of violence that we live with in the United States and how we've come to sort of normalize it as something that is an everyday occurrence. And so it's really meant to be a metaphor about living with that and feeling like it's - you know, it's taking up space in our everyday life and just, you know, having a moment to sort of reckon with that.

SIMON: And, Carrie Brownstein, how are you dealing with it emotionally? I mean, the - some of the lyrics are just overwhelming.

BROWNSTEIN: For me, the song "Hell" is about embracing the mess, reconstituting and kind of reclaiming it, you know, not thinking of it as a place to banish oneself but a place to to reform ourselves, a place to just come to terms with, I think, some of the realities and, and the ugliness and maybe transform that into something that's powerful.

SIMON: Carrie Brownstein, hope you don't mind - I have to ask you about a tough period you went through just a couple years ago, even less. Your mother and stepfather died in a car accident. First, how are you doing? And was music a kind of light that helped guide you out of darkness?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I'm OK as, you know, anyone is or can be after sort of the structure of your life is dismantled in a really sudden way. As everything around me was misshapen, music - it was a form that I knew. Playing guitar is something I've done since I was in my teenage years. And the ritual of placing my hands on the guitar neck and the fretboard - that was a solidity. That was a constant. And I think when you are thrust into a place that is incoherent, music - it's words. It's language. It's something to repeat and a ritual that I really understood. So I really needed it. I needed to hear Corin's voice. She has a voice that's bigger than me. And I felt quite diminished. And this band is bigger than me.


SIMON: Let me ask you about another track, "Say It Like You Mean It."


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Go softly with me. My heart is raw. Too many losses have left me down. You have your story, your hidden scars. Just tell me one thing. Just say the words.

TUCKER: We all have to say goodbye at some point. And, you know, it kind of is meant to take the listener on a journey. And some of it is sad, and some of it is angry because that's kind of the price you pay for loving someone.


SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Say it like you mean it. This goodbye hurts when you go.

TUCKER: You know, that goodbye is coming at some point. And I know it sounds like it's a downer, but it's meant to actually be sort of, live life while you have it. Say the things you need to actually say to that person while you have the time together.

BROWNSTEIN: The counterpart to me to that sense of restlessness and urgency is that you also hit, like, the high points, too. You know, even in "Say It Like You Mean It," like, there's a freedom in having someone say it. What is it? Love me like you mean it. Leave me like you mean it. Live like you mean it. Like, to me that it has such a weight to it. You just want someone to step forth with honesty.

SIMON: Carrie Brownstein, while we have you, I'm a big fan of "Portlandia."

BROWNSTEIN: I'm not surprised, Scott, because to me, like, this is "Portlandia" and NPR. We've been holding hands for years, haven't we? We're, like - we're cousins.

SIMON: Alas, yes.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The air is humid in Portland, Ore.

BROWNSTEIN: (As character) I close my eyes and try to imagine growing up in a place like this, living with the feeling that I'll never be able to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) This is a closed briefing. There's no press.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) No, they're good. We had the option between body cameras and podcasters. I went with the podcasters. My kids love them.

SIMON: But I love the way "Portlandia" makes fun of all that.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. I think ultimately, I look through life and phenomena with a very absurdist lens. And I really prefer, ultimately, to see it with humor and to be able to make fun of ourselves, to sort of know our failings...

SIMON: Yeah.

BROWNSTEIN: ...Know the ways we're silly and be able to acknowledge it. That's a shared language where all of us have our flaws out in the open. And we sort of examine them and laugh at ourselves and at each other. That, to me, is a real joy.

SIMON: How do you two write a song together?

TUCKER: Yeah. I mean, I think we use multiple ways. Sometimes, we just sit in a room and play guitar together and see what happens and jam on something. Sometimes, Carrie will start a song and ask me to come in and sing on a part with her. Sometimes, I'll start a song, and Carrie will completely rewrite some of the music underneath it and write guitar over it. So I think we use a lot of different strategies. But it's all about making the song what we build together for Sleater-Kinney, kind of the world that we have that we think is this Sleater-Kinney world, if that makes sense.

SIMON: Yeah.



SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Forever rings a life lived out loud. The shock, the peal, the sound.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, almost 30 years ago, we came up with a sonic vernacular, mostly because we were self-taught. These detuned guitars playing these kind of half-formed inverted guitar chords. And that became the lexicon with which we wrote. And I think we still return to that. But there is just something about the two of us in a room together, you know, speaking this sort of esoteric language. And there's always a little sourness there. When you're in C sharp, occasionally, there's some dissonance. And I think we like playing with that dissonance because then it allows moments that are melodious to really, really shine.

SIMON: How do you keep a creative partnership going for 30 years?

TUCKER: I think we're grateful for each other's talent and ideas. You know, we've done other things in our lives that are great. I'm a fan of "Portlandia," too. But, you know, I acknowledge that I think what we do together is unique.

BROWNSTEIN: I realized this recently - that she's kind of an ongoing mystery to me. That, to me, seems like a good basis for any relationship, creative or otherwise, just having something ineffable about the other person that you're always trying to uncover. And I think that really helps with the creativity because I just want to figure her out. So we have to keep returning to the writing.

SIMON: Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney. Their new album, "Little Rope," out now - on tour soon. Thank you both for joining us.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you so much.

TUCKER: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEATER-KINNEY SONG, "CRUSADER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.