Goodbye 2016, Hello Sleater-Kinney

Guitar hero Carrie Brownstein discusses her band's New Year's Eve show and the end of a wretched year.

Sleater-Kinney (Photo by Brigitte Sire)

In Carrie Brownstein’s opinion, Dec. 31 sucks.

“I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan of New Year’s,” the Portlandia star and Sleater-Kinney guitarist confesses. “I guess what I don’t like about it is that it’s a night that’s supposed to somehow be a summation of the entire previous year and yet also send you fortuitously into the following year. That is a lot of pressure on a single night, so I tend to stay home.”

But Brownstein isn’t staying home this year because Sleater-Kinney, the indie-rock trio she sings and strums guitar for, is scheduled to perform at the Masonic on New Year’s Eve. And though this means trading her couch for a Stratocaster, there is perhaps no group more suited to putting the final nails in the coffin of 2016 than Sleater-Kinney.

For proof, just listen to the 22-year-old punk outfit’s latest album, No Cities to Love.

The album opener “Price Tag” tells the story of a working-class family in the midst of financial crisis, while “Bury Our Friends” includes ominous — and, at the time of its release in 2015, prescient — lines, like “We’re sick with worry / These nerve less days / We live on dread in our own gilded age.”

 

Recorded largely in secret at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studios in San Francisco, No Cities to Love represented a reunion of sorts for Sleater-Kinney, who had announced an “indefinite hiatus” after a 2006 show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom. “Fade,” the record’s raspy, guitar-filled closing track, seems to address the band’s temporary break-up, especially in its harmonized wail of a chorus: “All of the roles that we played / Hit your mark, push the walls, stretch the stage / Oh, what a price that we paid.”

In her incisive memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, which was released last fall, Brownstein gave fans a glimpse of all the drama that the Olympia, Washington, band — which also includes singer and guitarist Corine Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss — has gone through since its formation in 1995. In its first decade, Sleater-Kinney made a name for itself as a feminist and left-leaning act, releasing seven albums and making appearances at a number of festivals, before their sudden hiatus in 2006.

During the band’s limbo phase, Brownstein delved into comedy and acting, appearing in a number of films, like Miranda July’s Getting Stronger Everyday, before unveiling Portlandia, a sketch comedy TV series that she created along with Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen in 2011.

In a trailer for the series’ upcoming seventh season, men’s rights activists are the targets of Brownstein and Armisen’s mirthful ire as the pair portray male cyclists who worry that men are becoming a minority group.

“Notions of masculinity were one of the themes we wanted to explore this season,” Brownstein says. “We felt this cultural shift and this fear among certain people who had become very accustomed to their place in the world. In our absurdist way, [we] wanted to address some of those things. A lot of the season will feel timely, even though we wrote it not knowing who the president would be.”

Given Sleater-Kinney’s prominent place in the trajectory of ’90s riot grrrl feminist punk acts from the Pacific Northwest, it comes as no surprise that Brownstein has had to find a way to cope with the recent onslaught of political bad news. Interestingly, she says the election inspired her not necessarily to create art, but to consume it.

“Talking among my friends and colleagues, I think many of us have immersed ourselves in witnessing art,” she says. “I’ve probably been to more films and art shows in the last two weeks then in the whole first 10 months of 2016.”

In fact, for much of 2016, Brownstein dedicated her time to memorizing Sleater-Kinney’s discography, because both she and her bandmates had forgotten much during their 10-year lapse.

“It wasn’t like the first iteration of Sleater-Kinney, where we were making albums on a more consistent cycle and anything old had been played ad infinitum and felt very much under our skin,” she says.

“We were re-learning all of the songs,” she adds. “[But] this time around, there was a sense of renewal and rediscovery with all of the material. … I think, in some ways, we’re a better live band now.”

Those in attendance on Dec. 31 will have the privilege of witnessing Sleater-Kinney’s live talents firsthand. And, as Brownstein suggests, they may also get a taste of what’s next from a band we can only hope will be taking no more breaks in the near future.

Sleater-Kinney plays at 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 31, at the Masonic. $40-$75; sfmasonic.com

Zack Ruskin has covered news and culture for SF Weekly since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @zackruskin.

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