It’s just a basement. Half a basement, actually, in Carrie Brownstein’s house in a quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood here in the city that is fast becoming known as “Portlandia,” after the cable-TV series she writes and stars in.
The narrow space has industrial gray carpeting and exposed pipes. There’s room for a drum kit, a couple of amps, a table holding a mixer and keyboard, a couch. A few guitars sit on an overhead rack. Names of songs are written in erasable marker on a beige wall panel. It’s more workspace than hangout, and not particularly cozy — just another rehearsal room.
But this happens to be the one that secretly incubated the reunion of a band that had been sorely missed in indie-rock since 2006: Sleater-Kinney.
“In here,” Brownstein said, “it always seemed dark and insular, like we were assembling explosive devices and then wondering how and where they'll detonate, and how big the explosion will be.”
With the seven albums it released from 1995 to 2005, Sleater-Kinney — Brownstein and Corin Tucker on guitars and, since 1996, Janet Weiss on drums — defined indie-rock principle, musical innovation and ferocious passion. They were grounded in a bold, undogmatic feminism; they wielded the power of rock to lash out at abuses of power and to look inward at desire, confusion, desperation and defiance. On Jan. 20, the band releases its first album since 2005: “No Cities to Love” (Sub Pop): 10 hurtling, bristling, densely packed, white-knuckled songs that are all taut construction and raw nerve. Unlike some reunion albums, it’s not a safe reprise of past successes; it pushes past them, more melodic and more turbulent at the same time. It’s the first great album of 2015.
The album emerged from almost a year of nearly clandestine songwriting followed by brief, productive stints of recording from January to March of 2014. For the first time in its career, the band didn’t perform any of its new songs live before recording them. Sleater-Kinney didn’t even announce its reunion until long after the album was complete.
“For the life of me, I don’t know how they kept it so quiet,” said John Goodmanson, who produced the new album along with much of Sleater-Kinney’s catalog, speaking from his studio in Seattle.
“It was good that we wrote it in secret and that we didn’t have to worry about what other people thought,” Tucker said. “But we also didn’t have anyone else’s input. We just knew what we wanted to make ourselves happy. There are no slow songs on the record, and we didn’t plan that. But we were like a horse that was in its stable, ready to go — ‘We’re in this band again, Oh my God!’”
In the 1990s Brownstein and Tucker were students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., amid the punk-feminist ferment of the riot grrrl movement. They both had other bands, but they found synergy when they started writing songs together in 1994. (They used a rehearsal studio on Sleater Kinney Road in nearby Lacey, Wash.) Their music grew more and more unorthodox, moving from the brute-force stomp and blare of punk toward a fiercely convoluted three-way counterpoint of guitars and drums, simultaneously combative and interlocking, full of what Goodmanson called, admiringly, “crazy tangle-note guitar stuff.”
The band built a devoted audience on college radio and the indie-rock circuit; it toured arenas with Pearl Jam in 2003. Its last two albums, “One Beat” in 2002 and “The Woods” in 2005, each topped the college-radio charts compiled by CMJ for a full four weeks.
“It has been 10 years since ‘The Woods,' and a lot has changed on the college radio front since then,” Lisa Hrekso, editor-in-chief of CMJ, wrote in an email. “Some of the students staffing college stations were barely in diapers when riot grrrl was smashing glass ceilings. But anyone who hasn’t been eager for Sleater-Kinney’s return just doesn’t realize how much indie rock needs them right now.”
Sleater-Kinney songs often have the two guitars chasing each other along jagged trajectories, wrangling back and forth, racing in contrary motion or blitzing with bursts of noise. On the new album, additional layers of guitar and effects bring more barbs. Tucker’s lead vocals can sound like a banshee wielding a flamethrower. The women’s voices also harmonize, overlap or converge from different directions; the drums kick from below and sometimes erupt. On the new album, as usual, the lyrics have plenty on their mind: love, desire, power, culture, politics, economics, the band itself. “No outline will ever hold us/It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me,” the women sing in “A New Wave.”
An accidental choice cemented Sleater-Kinney’s sound. In her previous band, the guitar-and-drums duo Heavens to Betsy, Tucker had only tuned her guitar to itself. When she joined Brownstein in Sleater-Kinney, they ascertained that Tucker’s guitar was tuned with its lowest string at C-sharp, not the standard E. They decided to both keep that tuning, which happens to push Tucker toward the topmost part of her voice.
They are a disparate trio visually and temperamentally. Brownstein is dark and lean, while Tucker is fairer and more cherubic-looking than her vocals would suggest. Weiss doesn’t hide a drummer’s muscles. Brownstein describes her writing style, not incorrectly, as “loquacious”; Tucker is more succinct, the one who distills songs into titles like “Gimme Love,” on the new album.
Weiss spoke with fond objectivity of her bandmates. “I definitely try to bridge a gap between them,” she said. “Look at their personalities — they play like that. Corin is so solid and steady, and she does have pretty good timing, and Carrie is all over the place, chomping at the bit. It’s not one of them by themselves, it’s the two of them together that’s making the spark. And I have to somehow find out how to accentuate that spark and make it a fire, to ignite it.
“I feel like I’m on edge, and I think that’s a good thing, really. I’m not looking to have a hug.”
The three women remained friends after Sleater-Kinney played its last tour in 2006, which was incendiary onstage and arduous backstage. Tucker was weary of the road and missing her young son, and Brownstein was suffering depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
“I felt like I was touring emergency rooms,” she recalled.
In “Hey Darling,” a new song that speaks to fans about Sleater-Kinney’s “disappearing act,” one verse confesses, “Sometimes the shout of the room/Makes me feel so alone.” The women moved on to other bands, other jobs and raising children.
Reuniting Sleater-Kinney is “not a particularly sensible thing to do,” Tucker said. “It’s not a sensible job to have. But it’s the job I’ve loved the most in my life.”
Since 2011, Brownstein has been making “Portlandia,” the IFC sketch comedy series that she created with Fred Armisen, a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus. (The new season will have its premiere Thursday.) Who would have known, from hearing Sleater-Kinney, that she had a sense of humor? “No one,” Brownstein deadpanned.
Tucker and her husband, filmmaker Lance Bangs, had their second child, now 6, and she began leading the Corin Tucker Band, which has released two albums. Weiss recorded and toured with bands including Bright Eyes and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, produced her own long-running band Quasi, and managed the locations department for “Portlandia.” She was also the drummer in Wild Flag, a band Brownstein formed with another indie-rock stalwart, Mary Timony; it released its lone album in 2011.
The reunion started, Tucker recalled, with a conversation in late 2012 at her house, when Armisen and Brownstein were visiting.
“I think I said, ‘Are we ever going to do that again?’ And Carrie said, ‘Well, I would love to do that again. But it’s complicated because we have these busy lives now.’”
Months passed as Weiss was re-enlisted and the women aligned their schedules. None of them took Sleater-Kinney lightly.
“After we stopped playing, I was more aware that we did not have clear predecessors or successors,” Brownstein said. “Which is probably the thing I’m most proud of. There was really no one like this band. It’s like a language that was going extinct.”
Their first new songwriting efforts felt familiar; fans might have been content with reminders of the past, but the band wasn’t. They scrapped dozens of potential songs.
As the album began to coalesce, Brownstein said, they wanted to be sure “that it had a life force to it, and had blood and guts in it, and wasn’t enervated in any way, and didn’t feel dragging, and didn’t feel like a victory lap. I didn’t want it to feel casual, I didn’t want it to feel like a weekend expedition. The stakes had to feel high.”
Sleater-Kinney also had its entire catalog remastered and rereleased by its current label, Sub Pop. “Start Together,” a limited-edition vinyl boxed set of all the band’s albums, appeared in October, and it quietly included a white 7-inch single that read only “1/20/15” on its label. That was the first song Sleater-Kinney has released since 2005: “Bury Our Friends,” which punches out guitar chords as Brownstein and Tucker sing, “We’re wild and weary/But we won’t give in/We’re sick with worry/These nerveless days/We live on dread/In our own Gilded Age.”
It’s a representative song from “No Cities to Love,” an album that’s full of people buffeted by private demons and political forces, and fighting back. The galloping, clawing “Price Tag” opens the album with a portrait of a minimum-wage mom facing America’s postindustrial economy: “We love our bargains, we love the prices so low/With the good jobs gone it’s gonna be rough!”
Other songs, like “Surface Envy,” could be about restarting the band or any other daunting, life-affirming struggle: “I'll push twice as hard towards it you see/And the past falls away to the bottom of the deep,” Tucker wails in full, shattering cry, defying all the scrabbling guitar and clobbering beats the band hurls at her.
“I just don’t know anyone that can sing like that. And I know a lot of people that won’t even want to sing like that,” Brownstein said. “The deal-breaker element of art, that’s really important to me. I like that there can be something that might be unpalatable for a lot of people. Because it makes fans that love it that much more fervent, that much more committed to it, committed to its strangeness, committed to its outsiderness.”
Sleater-Kinney goes on tour in February, playing large clubs (including the Uptown Theater in KC on April 26) in the United States and Europe, along with a handful of theaters. Brownstein then devotes the summer to shooting “Portlandia,” with more touring afterward. And then, Weiss said, the band will “play it by ear.”
What happens next could depend, paradoxically, on the band’s discomfort level. “Discomfort has always served this band well, but it’s thorny,” Brownstein said. “But then when you hear the music, all the parts that were difficult serve the songs. It always sounds like you’re fighting against something. But if we’re doing it right, we’re fighting together against the same thing.”
On the way
▪ Sleater-Kinney is scheduled to perform Sunday, April 26, at the Uptown Theater. Tickets are $39.50 through Ticketmaster.
▪ “Portlandia” returns for its fifth season at 9 p.m. Thursday on IFC.