Photo courtesy of Mom + Pop
Sleater-Kinney Are Embracing Whatever Comes Next
When Yeats famously wrote, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," he was specifically referring to the chaos of post-WWI Europe, but with daily mass shootings, white nationalism on the rise and a president who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 22 women, it's a sentiment that, sadly, feels particularly relevant to 2019.
It makes sense, then, that The Center Won't Hold, Sleater-Kinney's first album of the Trump presidency (out Aug. 16 via Mom + Pop)—their follow-up to their 2015 comeback, No Cities To Love—would be rooted in that tumultuousness. But to assume that it's all despair is an oversimplification.
"It's not really the job of the songwriter or the artist to make sweeping statements that are a summation of phenomena or moments but to grapple with opposing or contradictory truths or multiple ideas or multitudes, and I think that this record is an exploration of a time of chaos, a time of brokenness, fragility, and it acknowledges that within that sort of mode of despondency that there are glimmers that feel hopeful that I think we speak to—collaboration and community and friendship as the fulcrum for resistance," Carrie Brownstein tells the Recording Academy over the phone. "I think if anything it speaks to the idea that many people right now have to withstand various forms of trespass and discrimination and trauma, and it's kind of seeking like how do we do that, and what are the moments in that journey where there is an allowance for happiness. And so it veers into happiness and hopefulness at times, but I wouldn't say that overall it's a hopeful record.
"I think it's a contemplative record, it's a very personal record, and I think we always hope to connect to people and for people to feel seen and heard by our music, but I think we'd rather share all of the feelings than just 'here's one,' you know?" she continues. "I think we're not afraid to have there be moments of discomfort or anger or sadness, but the counter to that is there are instances of levity. So is it hopeful? Maybe not. But I think connection is a form of hope."
Those contradictory truths can be heard throughout the album, perhaps most obviously on the deceptively catchy "Can I Go On," which juxtaposes its danceable melody with grim lyrics from a narrator who admits that "maybe I'm not sure I wanna go on at all," and, as Brownstein puts it, is "kind of stunned by the ways people feel necessary to sort of perform outward modes of joy when really inside they feel awful." In addition to that variety of moods and feelings, The Center Won't Hold features an expanded sonic palette from the band, thanks in part to their decision to have St. Vincent (also known as Annie Clark) produce the record.
"I think that we originally had thought that we might work with more than one producer on the album to kind of break it up a little bit and do something really different, but we've all known Annie for a long time and are friends with her, and she offered to go into the studio with us and try producing, and so it was really on a kind of 'let's see how this goes' basis that we went into the studio with Annie," Corin Tucker says. "In the summer of 2018, we just had a few days and we were gonna get a few songs done, but she was so full of ideas and energy and so productive that we were kind of blown away with how it sounded, and we were definitely like, 'Oh, we should make the whole record with Annie.'"
"After No Cities, I think we felt a sense of accomplishment in setting out what we'd hoped to do, which was to return to playing music in a way that wasn't nostalgia-based or playing into any sort of sentimentality, but that we knew there was sort of this next chapter of the band and that we wanted to focus on new music and moving forward," Brownstein adds.
Of course, it's impossible to talk about next chapters for Sleater-Kinney without addressing the recent, unexpected departure of Janet Weiss. After 23 years with the band, the drummer took to social media on July 1 to announce that "the band is moving in a new direction and it is time for me to move on," shocking fans and leading to speculation over why she left. (Two days before we speak, Brownstein responds to a fan's joke about Weiss leaving on Instagram, writing, "What am I supposed to say? She left. We asked her to stay. We tried. It’s hard and sad. Most people would ask me, 'hey are you ok?' That’s the human response.")
"I think the conversation has shifted," she explains. "I think obviously people feel a real connection with this band, and I think originally [the fan response] was sort of the same way we felt, which was surprise and sadness and questions, but I think with time there's a more holistic response, which is to realize that a band is a relationship, and relationships change over time, and it's just as hard if not harder for Corin and I to lose a collaborator. It's just as hard for us as it is for the fans. And I think Corin and I feel very strongly that we have an obligation to our fans, and also it's a privilege to get to keep playing and keep going. I think all that stuff becomes part of a bigger conversation about change and transformation and art, and I like those bigger conversations. I think those are interesting. I think some of the more knee-jerk, very reactionary kind of comments are less useful, and I think with more time people start to realize like, 'Oh, almost nothing upon which we rely has been static, and change and evolution are kind of the only things that we can count on, and bands are no different.'"
"And even though this was not what we wanted, obviously we wanted Janet to stay, she didn't feel like it was something she wanted to do anymore," she adds. "So we have to respect that and we have to embrace whatever comes next. And also, her playing on this record is amazing and I'm really, really excited for people to hear it. We all worked really hard on it."
For all the changes, The Center Won't Hold is still very much a Sleater-Kinney record—bold and feminist and unrelenting. It ends with a gut-punch, the piano ballad "Broken," where Tucker sings, "Me, me too / My body cried out," inspired in part by the #MeToo movement and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. It's a bleak way to leave listeners, but it's an important one.
"Even though we're one of the first all-female bands to be at this precipice, I hope we're not the last."
"We wrestled with the sequencing of the album a lot," Tucker says. "And you know, I think we thought about that and I think we really gave ourselves permission to just be on this album and not have to be optimistic in every song or present like a solution to any of our problems. This album is much more about just noticing where we're at and speaking out and commenting on it and speaking our feelings without any kind of prescription of how we're going to make it better. I feel like that was a really freeing sensibility in terms of writing. We were just gonna write for ourselves, first and foremost...I think that in this cultural moment it's hard not to feel reduced by the kind of language around women and around people of color. It's hard not to feel constricted and reduced and silenced by that, and the band has always been a place of exploration of self and a place to expand identity and to explore that, and so I think that this album, the writing process was a really natural place to do that in."
Ultimately, that place to explore and expand and connect with listeners who may be experiencing similar things in their own lives is essential—and it's why, after 25 years, Brownstein and Tucker have no intentions of stopping.
"I think that it's so important to have a multitude of stories in the world, and I'm so grateful to hear younger women's stories and stories by young people in general. But I think in music, especially within more heavy rock vernacular, there's sort of less stories being told by older women," Brownstein says. "And I just want that spectrum to exist. So I also hope, you know, even though we're one of the first all-female bands to be at this precipice, I hope we're not the last. Because I feel like what's wonderful about music is that you get a sense of life from beginning to end, but you need those voices from the middle. You need those voices from the later years to really understand the whole human experience. So I'm glad that we're putting something out in the world that's a very honest assessment of bodies and life and growth in a slightly later stage."