PORTLAND, Ore. Though the political punch of Sleater-Kinney's new album, All Hands on the Bad One, has direct ties to the band's early '90s riot grrrl roots, the disc is anything but a nostalgia trip for singer/guitarist Corin Tucker.
"1999 was a really nasty year, and a lot of really sexist things happened in rock, and that's the area where we work," she said recently during a sushi lunch.
"The most popular bands have really misogynous lyrics and a lot of women were raped at the Woodstock concerts. So, to me, it was a reminder that ... even if we're older and we're successful and we've made this niche for ourselves as musicians, we can't give up."
Though the Pacific Northwest trio has found critical acclaim and moderate success with albums such as Dig Me Out (1997) and The Hot Rock (1999), their fifth album, due in stores Tuesday (May 2), finds them questioning the roles and expectations for women in the rock world on songs such as "The Professional" and "Male Model."
"We felt like in the past [that] we were being labeled as having arisen from the riot grrrl ghetto, or out of this sort of political yet immature sort of hub of politics that didn't make any sense," singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein, 25, said. "Like the only way we could be accepted was to leave that at the door. So, I think this is just saying, 'Well that's not really true.' "
Although the personal and political rarely are mutually exclusive for Sleater-Kinney, with All Hands on the Bad One (RealAudio excerpt of title track), their return to activism is explicit. In "#1 Must Have" (RealAudio excerpt), the band addresses the Woodstock '99 festival in particular, where two men were arrested on suspicion of sexual assault. Police continue to investigate eight other cases.
"Will there always be concerts where women are raped?/ Watch me make up my mind instead of my face," Tucker sings in "#1 Must Have" over the band's trademark intertwined guitars. "The number one must have is that we are safe."
Riot Grrrl Resurgence
Sleater-Kinney are on the forefront of what might well be a resurgence for riot grrrl, the post-feminist punk movement that caught fire around 1991.
One of the ideas in "#1 Must Have" is that riot grrrl's
self-empowerment ethics have in recent years been co-opted by beauty magazines and bands such as the Spice Girls. Last year, on "Deceptacon" (RealAudio excerpt), ex-Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna and her new band, Le Tigre, explored similar themes.
In addition, numerous bands with roots in riot grrrl, including Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, the Butchies and the Need, will gather in August in Olympia, Wash., for the six-day Ladyfest arts and activism conference.
"To me, the commercialization of riot grrrl ... that kind of marketing that happened with that image and that look was so depressing," Tucker, 27, said. "It's really easy to just get depressed and just feel like, 'Oh well, we tried something that failed, and now they're marketing it and there's nothing we can do.'
"I think that it's much more difficult to say, 'This really makes me angry. I can do something about that.' "
While Brownstein said Sleater-Kinney have no interest in re-making the relatively straightforward rock of Dig Me Out, they also have backed off from the intricacies of The Hot Rock, on which their guitar and vocal interplay became especially complex.
All Hands on the Bad One plays with the urgency that has marked all Sleater-Kinney discs, but it also may be the most pop-influenced record the band has written since forming in 1995. "You're No Rock 'n' Roll Fun," for instance, includes enough layered harmonies to please Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson.
Myriad side projects drummer Janet Weiss' Quasi, Tucker's Cadallaca and Brownstein's the Spells keep Sleater-Kinney active in fans' eyes even when members aren't working together. That regular flow of releases, along with a consistent touring regimen after each album, has helped to build Sleater-Kinney a devoted fanbase without the help of radio hits.
"For us, it's not about the rock star life," Weiss, 34, said. "It's not interesting to us. Expressing our ideas and projecting an image of strength is really important to us."
(Don't miss sonicnet.com's interview with Sleater-Kinney.)
(Editor in Chief Michael Goldberg contributed to this report.)