Sleater-Kinney Return to Their Roots as a Duo on 'The Center Won't Hold'
Published Aug 20, 2019In the second week of June this year, Sleater-Kinney announced their tenth album, The Center Won't Hold. Produced by Annie Clark, the Grammy-winning musician better known as St. Vincent, and issued by new label Mom + Pop, the album set the stage for the Portland-based trio to enter a new phase, a quarter-century into their career.
But just as this good news was sinking in, bad news struck on July 1: Sleater-Kinney were no longer a trio. Drummer Janet Weiss tweeted a statement explaining that she was leaving the band after 23 years. "The band [are] heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on," she wrote to fans.
Just like that, the "greatest rock drummer on Earth," as Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield memorialized Weiss two days later, was no longer bolstering the guitars-and-vocals tandem of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker.
And while fans will likely forever mourn Weiss's decision to leave the band, the timing may turn out to be right for Sleater-Kinney. Once the cycle for their last album, 2015's No Cities to Love, had ended, the focus, as far as Brownstein and Tucker were concerned, was on this new direction.
"We wanted to do something different with this record," explains Tucker by phone. "We felt No Cities was so strong, and was a cultural return to form for the band, which we were really happy with."
"Obviously [Janet leaving] came as a surprise for us," Brownstein adds. "By all metrics we were happy with the album and the change. This is our tenth album, and we really have nothing to prove but to ourselves. You either evolve or you die — that's how I feel artistically. I also think that change is not necessarily linear. It's not like you keep moving in one direction and keep doubling down on certain sounds. An album is a reflection of time and place and lives. This is that record for now. The next record could be two angular guitars or just acoustic. Who knows?"
Sleater-Kinney began in 1994 as the duo they are now. Formed by Brownstein and Tucker in the wake of Olympia, WA's revolutionary DIY punk movement known as riot grrrl, Sleater-Kinney spent their first decade proving that they could survive and create as well as any band in the white, male-dominated world of indie rock. Between the years of 1995 and 2002 (Weiss joined in 1996 and first appeared on 1997's breakthrough Dig Me Out) they released six full-length albums — the first two on queercore label Chainsaw, the next four on Kill Rock Stars — that continuously pushed their minimal setup of two guitars and a drum kit, breaking new ground each time out.
What they achieved in the studio — most of the time with famed engineer John Goodmanson, who recorded five of the band's albums — only teased the explosive force they could be on stage. Between Tucker's caterwauling calls, Brownstein's scissoring leg kicks and Weiss's thundering rhythms, Sleater-Kinney were an anomaly that inspired generations of bands after them.
For 2005's Dave Fridmann-produced The Woods, they signed with Sub Pop, maxed out their fuzz pedals and sent a sonic boom through the speakers, only to announce a hiatus the following year.
Between 2007 and 2013, Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss all focused on other interests. Tucker raised a family with her husband, filmmaker Lance Bangs, and released a couple of self-proclaimed "middle-aged mom records" as the Corin Tucker Band on Kill Rock Stars. Weiss played drums with her pre-S-K band Quasi, as well as in Wild Flag, a supergroup she formed with Brownstein, Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole, in addition to work with Stephen Malkmus, Conor Oberst and the Shins. Brownstein, meanwhile, focused on writing and acting, launching the Emmy-winning IFC comedy Portlandia with Fred Armisen, co-starring in Todd Haynes' Oscar-nominated film, Carol, and playing series regular Syd on Amazon's Emmy-winning Transparent.
When Sleater-Kinney resurfaced at the end of 2014 to compile all of their albums for the Start Together box set, they had also secretly recorded a new album, set to drop in January 2015. The rollicking No Cities to Love picked up where they left off ten years earlier, announcing the band's return to full-time action. A concert album, Live in Paris, followed two years later, which closed the door on the band's dealings with Sub Pop — but also, as it turns out, on Sleater-Kinney as we knew them.
Shaking the foundations is nothing new for this band. Over the years, they've often heard from fans and critics uncertain about their new direction. The Center Won't Hold, however, is the most intrepid album of their career, and will probably divide or even alienate some fans. But for Brownstein and Tucker, growing as a band and testing fans is part of the process.
"It's weird for us to see people so surprised at this point, because we've lived so long in that world," Tucker says. "I think Carrie and I have always wanted to do something as big and as exciting as we can. We want to challenge people."
"It seems like every time we work with a producer, people have to take a moment to figure out what we're doing," says Brownstein. "We did The Hot Rock with Roger Moutenot, and that was an album that people found shockingly different. For The Woods, we worked with Dave Fridmann, and people were so overwhelmed by how different that record was. I think this is actually a more accessible record, in a way, compared to some of our other records."
Before they entered any studio, the band had a short list of producers in mind. Knowing they wanted to make a different record, they first bounced around the idea of working with a team of producers. Weiss, it turns out, was actually the one to suggest a session with Annie Clark.
"We all thought it was a good idea," says Brownstein, who had previously collaborated with Clark on various projects. "Annie is a very creative, innovative person who's a fan of the band, but we also thought she was someone who could reconstitute the tools in our band. Sometimes you start to think that you're only capable of certain things, or that it's always going to be this type of dynamic. It's one of the same reasons we worked with Dave Fridmann — it's these people that are very maximalist, with expansive ideas."
The original plan was to just meet with Clark and see what they could come up with in a few days. Needless to say, the chemistry between band and producer was immediate.
"We just dove right into it. Once we were there in the studio and felt comfortable, we started having so much fun," Tucker says. "We did it more as an experiment, but she had so many ideas. She was really prepared. We got four songs done in five days — like, core songs of the album."
From that point on, Clark was the album's sole producer. (A report that Wilco's Jeff Tweedy was offered the job was "blown out of proportion," according to Brownstein.) One thing that was not lost on the band was that this would mark the first time they had worked with a woman in the producer's chair. The timing couldn't have been better for a feminist powerhouse team like this to unite.
"To have the four of us together in the studio felt very empowering and quite a statement," says Brownstein. "It was a seamless collaboration."
"I really felt like she was partnering with us, and she could challenge us in a supportive way," adds Tucker. "Because there wasn't that male-female power dynamic, I don't think she was shy about saying, 'I think we can make this part better.' She is a songwriter and a performer, so she knows what it can take to get the best take, best lyric, best vocal. For me, it was great to be pushed like that. I feel like it made the record that much better."
Those familiar with St. Vincent's whimsical avant-pop will hear traces of Clark's signature touches sprinkled throughout The Center Won't Hold. Whether it's the stylish drops of synthesizer and drum machine on the new wave-inspired "Love" or the dirty squelches of key bass (yes, bass on a Sleater-Kinney record) on the snaking "Ruins," these songs are bursting with creative juices that were missing on the more spacious arrangements of their earlier work.
"[Annie] has all of this knowledge about synthesizers and has made music in different ways," Tucker explains. "And she's also a writer and a singer, so she brings a lot of different skills to producing that were fruitful and brought out new ideas from the band. [For example] her sensibility is very melodic and she definitely wanted to have a sense of bright pop to counter some of the darkness on the album, so there was a contrast happening. I think it was a deliberate choice to have brighter melodies against darker themes."
A Sleater-Kinney album in 2019 can't really exist without confronting the never-ending political and social horrors threatening anyone who's not a white, straight, cis male. For a band that has always fought for human rights, Sleater-Kinney felt it was important not to hold back any feelings on The Center Won't Hold.
"So much of the record is serving the political and cultural landscape that is very fractious, very tumultuous, very chaotic and touting that within personal narrative," explains Brownstein. "It's impossible to tune that out. We've always been a band that mixes the personal and the political. This is probably the most personal record we've put out since maybe [1999's] The Hot Rock, and definitely one of the more vulnerable records that we've put out in 20 years."
"I think we purposely created a juxtaposition between songs that speak out of vulnerability and pain, but pair them with big melodies and group choruses," says Tucker. "We wanted to sonically create something that felt uplifting, even if the content was a little darker. The album's title comes from a William Yeats poem ['The Second Coming'], and I think the main theme is change and how intense that is, how many things can happen so quickly in such a short time. What that can mean culturally, politically, socially and personally, all of those things can culminate in a way that feels overwhelming, and I think that we're reflecting that on this album."
The Center Won't Hold is many things to Brownstein and Tucker. Creatively, it's the biggest left turn they've made yet. It's also the moment they gained a new collaborator in Clark, and lost another in Weiss. But it also marks some milestones for Sleater-Kinney. Not only is it their tenth album (they count Live in Paris), but it also marks 25 years together as a band. The two downplay any plans to throw a big celebration to commemorate the occasion. Instead they'd rather just play these new songs for their fans and keep moving forward.
"I think the way to celebrate it is to keep going and keep being grateful for the fans. That's the way we will acknowledge it, by going out and playing shows for people," says Brownstein. "People get stuck on this singular notion of what a band is. I think in other art forms there is more of an allowance for early period, middle period, late period, whether it's film directors, novelists or painters. To sort of be entering this middle period, which I think began with No Cities, is just a very proud moment for us."
"I think it's pretty special to have a collaboration that's lasted so long and has provided such good music," adds Tucker. "For me the celebration is making a new record that is unique and a new chapter for the band. That's just kind of where we're at right now."