Like many a great band, Sleater-Kinney inhabited their time so thoroughly it took an extended hiatus to realize the extent of their legacy. In many respects, they were the defining American indie rock band of the second half of the '90s, the group that harnessed all the upheaval of the alt-rock explosion of the first part of the decade and channeled it into a vigorous mission statement. It was not incidental that Sleater-Kinney were an all-female band -- prior to S-K, co-leaders Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein both started playing music in Northern Pacific riot grrrl bands and their feminism and queercore roots were deeply embedded in their rock & roll -- but calling them the best female rock band of their generation is too confining. By every measure, Sleater-Kinney were one of the best bands of their time, capturing the tenor of their times and then expanding at a rapid clip, delivering record after record that redefined their music without abandoning their punk rock (or political) ideals. Their hot streak began once drummer Janet Weiss joined for 1997's Dig Me Out and it ran until 2005's The Woods, after which they entered an "indefinite hiatus" that lasted nearly a decade. During those ten years of silence, Tucker pursued a solo career, Weiss drummed with ex-Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus' new-millennial band the Jicks, and, most surprisingly, Brownstein turned into a mainstream star due to her starring role on Portlandia, the comedy sketch show she created with fellow indie rock refugee Fred Armisen in 2011. Portlandia helped push Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney into a mainstream they had never known, so when they returned in 2015 with No Cities to Love, it was welcomed by their largest audience yet. No Cities to Love turned out to be as much a conclusion as a comeback. Janet Weiss left the band just prior to the 2019 release of the St. Vincent-produced The Center Won't Hold, an album that brought Tucker and Brownstein into new, adventurous territory they continued to explore on 2021's self-produced Path of Wellness.
Such a large audience was unthinkable back in 1992, when Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein first met. Tucker was then half of Heavens to Betsy, and Brownstein played in Excuse 17. The pair formed a strong bond, one that was for a time romantic, but more notably led to the formation of Sleater-Kinney in 1993. Named after an Interstate 5 intersection in Lacey, Washington, the band was initially planned as a side project, but the recording of their debut album in an all-night session in Melbourne, Australia, with drummer Lora MacFarlane in early 1994 turned the group into a full-time endeavor. A year after its recording, Sleater-Kinney saw release on Chainsaw, a label run by Team Dresch bassist Donna Dresch. The debut gained acclaim but its speedily released 1996 sequel, Call the Doctor, is where the group gained momentum. Aided by rave reviews, the record spread like wildfire throughout the American underground and placed at number three on The Village Voice's yearly Pazz & Jop critics poll. By that point, former Quasi drummer Janet Weiss had replaced Lora MacFarlane and the band signed to Kill Rock Stars, which released Dig Me Out in the spring of 1997. Dig Me Out followed a similar trajectory, earning great reviews, and the group was slowly adopted by a wider audience.
With Weiss aboard, Sleater-Kinney began to make rapid musical advances, something that was quite evident by 1999's The Hot Rock. Simultaneously darker and less raw than its predecessor, it was no less visceral, and it heralded a streak of successively more ambitious albums. All Hands on the Bad One showed up quickly, appearing in the spring of 2000, and it showed an increasing facility with pop and musical complexity. The band didn't abandon this layered musicality when it went deliberately political on 2002's One Beat, a record partially written in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Sleater-Kinney's exposure increased once they accepted an opening slot for Pearl Jam in 2003.
After nearly eight years, Sleater-Kinney departed Kill Rock Stars for Sub Pop in 2005. This wasn't the only departure that year. They teamed with Dave Fridmann, the former Mercury Rev member who gained fame as the producer of the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin, to create the dense, thorny The Woods, their heaviest record and most sonically ambitious. During the record's supporting tour, the group members announced they'd be going on an "indefinite hiatus" upon the completion of their scheduled dates.
Weiss was the quickest of the trio to resurface after the disbandment, popping up in Stephen Malkmus' post-Pavement group the Jicks in 2007. Corin Tucker was next, launching the Corin Tucker Band in 2010. The next year, Carrie Brownstein unexpectedly teamed with Saturday Night Live veteran Fred Armisen in 2011 for the IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia. This television show, more than any of the recordings in the Sleater-Kinney universe, helped push the band toward the mainstream, as the series became a cult sensation. After its second season, Brownstein re-teamed with Weiss in Wild Flag, a pseudo-supergroup that also featured Mary Timony of Helium, and around the time of Wild Flag's release the pair and Tucker started to play together as Sleater-Kinney once again. A few dates in 2013 were followed by two years of writing and rehearsal. It was an open secret: they didn't publicize the reunion nor did they deny it, so when the first evidence of it surfaced via a 7" of "Bury Our Friends" included as part of the limited-edition career-encompassing box set Start Together, it came as a genuine surprise. Soon, Sleater-Kinney announced the reunion and a full-length called No Cities to Love that would appear in January 2015, followed by a supporting tour. A souvenir from that tour, Live in Paris, was released in January 2017.
Sleater-Kinney returned in May 2019 with "Hurry on Home," the first single from The Center Won't Hold, the group's ninth album. Produced by St. Vincent, The Center Won't Hold appeared on Mom + Pop in August 2019, but the month before its release, Janet Weiss left the group. Brownstein and Tucker continued with the release of the album and its supporting tour.
Once again a duo, Sleater-Kinney returned in 2021 with the self-produced Path of Wellness. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine