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Sleater-Kinney Is Still Breaking New Ground

With their new album ‘The Center Won’t Hold,’ the departure of their longtime drummer, and the addition of a new collaborator, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker are in transition, but as formidable as ever

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Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are sitting across from each other, gazing along the charged space that exists between them. That precise alchemy has spawned some of the most formidable rock music of the past few decades: When they’re on stage, as the founding members of Sleater-Kinney, the air between them seems to spark with anarchic electricity, as their dueling guitar lines appear to take cues from invisible information in each other’s eyes. On their records, whether the breakneck breakout Dig Me Out or the more narrative-oriented All Hands on the Bad One, their riffs braid together like frayed but sturdy ropes. On this particular Wednesday in August, they’re not doing anything quite so grand—they’re just talking to me on the phone, from Brownstein’s home in Los Angeles. Still, even in casual conversation they speak of their band, and their bond, as something almost sacred. “I feel like, despite our disparate paths, Sleater-Kinney is a common vernacular for the both of us,” Brownstein tells me. “No matter how much we deviate in terms of life choices, Sleater-Kinney is a choice and an entity on which we agree to come together. I think we share a language within the band that transcends individuation.”

In the past decade and a half in particular, since the band decided to take an extended hiatus after the release of their monumental 2005 album The Woods, Tucker and Brownstein’s lives have followed especially divergent paths. Tucker, 46, has raised two children with her husband, the filmmaker Lance Bangs, and—aside from two records with her side project Corin Tucker Band and two more with the indie supergroup Filthy Friends—has maintained a relatively low profile living and working in Portland. Brownstein, 44, on the other hand, has become a bona fide hipster celebrity, thanks to her beloved sketch comedy show Portlandia, small parts in movies like Carol and The Oath, and a well-received 2015 memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. When Sleater-Kinney ended their hiatus in 2015, though, to release their triumphant comeback record No Cities to Love, that gulf between them seemed to have closed. “No outline will ever hold us,” they sang together on the antsy “A New Wave,” a kind of tribute to the band itself. “It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me.”

Still, when they first started working on demos for the band’s new album, The Center Won’t Hold, Tucker and Brownstein began writing demos separately, each in her own home city—the first time in the band’s history this work had been done apart. You can hear it on the record: Their sonic personalities have never been in such stark contrast. Brownstein’s songs are among the poppiest, most buoyant-sounding she’s written for Sleater-Kinney, even though that lightness is often undercut with strikingly brooding lyrics: “Maybe I’m not sure / I wanna go on at all,” she sings on the catchy, piano-driven “Can I Go On.” Tucker’s lyrics are also bleak, but her songs have a churning, industrial heaviness about them. “Reach out, darkness is winning again,” she sings on “Reach Out,” her voice as fiery and urgent as a signal flare.

Each Sleater-Kinney album feels markedly different from the last, but if The Center Won’t Hold has a spiritual sibling in the band’s back catalog, it’s 2002’s One Beat—a primal scream at the ordinary indignities of American life during the George W. Bush administration. One of its most powerful songs was “Far Away,” on which Tucker sings vividly about watching the news on the morning of 9/11 while nursing her baby. It was a moving conflation of the personal and the political, the domestic and the wider world: “Watch the world explode in flames, / And don’t leave the house.”

The Center Won’t Hold captures the mood of life during a presidency that has made some people, quite myopically, nostalgic for the W. Bush years. These new songs tackle the dehumanizing effects of technology, the collective trauma made public by the #MeToo movement and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, and—though he’s never mentioned by name—the daily despair wrought by a president who has incited hatred and division. Sleater-Kinney have always been wailing battle cries against these sorts of systemic oppressions, though, and listening to this new record alongside One Beat could make a listener despair at how little has changed. At least in the world outside the band.

“Well … we are in transition right now,” Tucker tells me, choosing her words slowly and deliberately. Brownstein jumps in to elaborate. “The thing that’s uncertain is whether this will be a permanent thing, or if it will be more that we allow ourselves to play with different people going forward.” The two-ton “this” in that sentence is the recent departure of Sleater-Kinney’s third member, Janet Weiss, who had played drums in the band since 1996. That decision was Weiss’s alone; “What am I supposed to say? She left. We asked her to stay. We tried. It’s hard and sad,” Brownstein wrote last month in a poignantly candid Instagram comment. The release of a new record is usually the time when a band presents itself as a united front. Instead, the title The Center Won’t Hold—as well as their own description of the album as having “a lot to do with fragility, fractiousness, unrest, structures upon which we rely, being unstable”—has become oddly prophetic.

And so a band that made a name for itself fighting larger oppressions has had to field questions about potentially tumultuous dynamics within the group itself, which was indeed rocky terrain on which to promote a new record. “After intense deliberation and with heavy sadness, I have decided to leave Sleater-Kinney,” Weiss wrote in a statement on July 1. “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.”

The morning of my scheduled conversation with Tucker and Brownstein, though, the story took another dramatic turn: News broke that, over the weekend, Weiss had been in a serious car accident and had broken her left collar bone and right leg. She is expected to make a full recovery within about 12 weeks, but she was forced to drop off a tour she had planned with her other band, Quasi. “As thoroughly bummed as I am about canceling the shows, I’m also incredibly thankful the accident wasn’t worse and so happy to be alive!” she wrote. “I am lucky my injuries will heal and I’ll be back at it in a couple months.”

Tucker and Brownstein told me they have spoken with Weiss since the accident. “We have been in touch with Janet and expressed our concern for her,” Tucker tells me. “We care a lot about her and want her to get well soon.”

“We love her, and I think that she should be proud of her playing on this record,” Brownstein tells me. “I think it’s really amazing. Obviously we didn’t want her to leave the band, but at this point, I just want her to be OK, in terms of the accident. Everything aside, we’re hoping for a quick recovery. She’s one of our oldest friends, so that transcends everything else.”

Weiss’s departure stunned many of the band’s fans, some of whom went looking for a scapegoat. The easiest approach was to blame Annie Clark (also known as St. Vincent), a longtime Sleater-Kinney fan and first-time collaborator who produced the entire new record. That narrative was a bit too convenient, if not subtly sexist—as the band pointed out in a recent Guardian profile, bringing Clark on to produce the record actually had been Weiss’s idea.

Still, when listening to the new album it’s hard to shake the feeling that, sonically as well as aesthetically, Brownstein is more compatible with Clark’s overall vision. (The two dated previously and remain friends.) “Can I Go On” in particular has the stark, latex sheen of St. Vincent’s more recent music, and its verses are punctuated by a few lightning-bolt riffs that sound zapped from her very fingers. On songs like “The Dog/The Body” and the excellent “Restless,” Brownstein seems invigorated in her attempts to craft big, memorable choruses, the kinds Sleater-Kinney might have obscured with distortion or complex countermelodies on previous records. “My heart wants the ugliest things,” she sings on one of them, as if she’s initially resisting her desires and, finally, by the end of the song, accepting them in all their imperfect glory.

“I think that’s what people forget, we’re not all capable in our teens or 20s or even 30s of embracing who we are,” she tells me. “Early on in the band, I felt much more reticent to have modifiers in front of the band or myself that took away from the music. Like ‘female band,’ ‘queer band.’” Brownstein admits she’s something of a late bloomer, and that she’s become more comfortable in her body and her sexuality as she’s become older—even though the inverse seems to be true of how women are viewed within a larger culture. Brownstein realized, when thinking about the visual aesthetic of the new record, that the band hadn’t appeared on one of their album covers in 20 years, since 1999’s The Hot Rock. Ever the feminist firebrand, she saw this as another way to challenge social norms. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if now, when we’re supposed to start covering up our bodies, and no one’s interested in looking at them anymore, ostensibly, that we would make ourselves seen and sort of force that imagery onto the landscape?”

Her initial idea, though, was a bit too out-there for the rest of the group: What if they all posed nude? Tucker, whose teenage daughter was with her when she received Brownstein’s suggestion via text, replied, “Hard pass.” Weiss agreed. Brownstein still wanted to dare herself, so she agreed to wear a see-through coat on the cover of their single “Hurry on Home.” The resulting image, though, is more disorienting than traditionally “sexy,” since it has been manipulated so that her head is facing the opposite direction of her body. Brownstein sounds more amused than disappointed by what she calls the “mixed feelings” the photo generated online. “There was sort of that critique, that it was inappropriate or ugly,” she says. “We were fine with it being ugly. The point was that it was supposed to be a little grotesque and about depicting the pictorial representation of a song that is about betrayal and a sort of discomfort.”

Still, for a band that was always keen to represent itself as a tri-cornered, checked-and-balanced democracy, Brownstein jumped out of that image, as she often does on this record. Annie Clark can be an excellent conduit of corrosive, industrial noise (one of my favorite things she’s ever done is her cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene”), but her production can’t make Tucker’s darker and more steely songs pop quite like Brownstein’s do. Whereas the sharp observations of One Beat’s “Far Away” felt lived-in and specific, songs like “The Future Is Here” and “Ruins” are cloaked in a generalized malaise, as opaque and shapeless as the trench coats Tucker and Weiss wear on the cover of that single.

For the first two decades of their career, Sleater-Kinney had the cursed blessing of being ahead of their time: They were perpetual underdogs, formidable musicians in an industry where “female” (let alone “feminism”) was still a dirty word. The culture has now caught up to them in some, though certainly not every, sense. “I definitely think there have been improvements for women in the music industry, and there are more women doing it,” Tucker says. “But I do still think we have a ways to go in terms of women having the same economic and cultural power as men.”

“Sure, as this totemic band, Sleater-Kinney, we take up a certain amount of cultural space,” Brownstein admits. “But the way that people talk about us, or confront changes in the band, I still see and feel a confluence of sexism and ageism. And I think that takes a more nuanced conversation.” Brownstein has referred to The Center Won’t Hold as a representation of Sleater-Kinney’s “mid period.” That certainly implies more records in the future, I point out. “I mean, we’re not writing new songs now because we’re rehearsing, but I feel like we will eventually,” she says. “And probably in a different way than we did last time.”

But she still believes it’s important for her and Tucker to break new ground and lay the tracks for future artists, even if they’re now doing so as a duo. “We need women—all kinds of women—to tell us what it feels like to be on the other side of a year, or a decade, or a struggle,” she recently told The New York Times. “What about my story as a nearly 45-year-old, that’s in an all-female band? There are hardly any all-female bands that have even made it this long.”

A fervent music fan herself, Brownstein admits it can be tough to watch a favorite band transition into so-called “middle age.” And even though they don’t have a lot of three-decade-old all-female rock bands to guide their way, Brownstein says they still have creative forebears they’re looking to. “Whether it’s Nick Cave, or Wilco, the National, Patti Smith, David Byrne, you just get to this place where, you’re just putting out something that is personal and honest and usually different from the last thing you’ve done,” she tells me. “People either get it or they don’t. But you’re just expanding the canvas on which you can create. To me, that’s a very exhilarating feeling. I think the transition is a little difficult, though. I think more so for other people than it is for us.”

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