Sleater-Kinney: Come out fighting
For many women, it became less clear where their body ended and another woman’s body began. Violence from your own past resurfaced and was felt alongside empathy for others. The movement itself became convoluted and seemingly without direction. There were no solutions. It felt like there were only stories.
At the same time as the broader #MeToo movement was gaining momentum in the autumn of 2017, Sleater-Kinney were in conversation with themselves. Janet Weiss was working locations for films, Carrie Brownstein was writing and directing for TV in LA where she lives, and Corin Tucker was occupied with work and family life. One thousand miles apart, throughout 2018, Brownstein and Tucker wrote separately, sending each other fully-fledged demos from across the country. “Corin would send something dark and moody and instead of necessarily writing on top of that, I thought I’ll write a song that has a relationship to this sound,” says Brownstein. They’d never written like this before, from afar. There was an urgency to the collaboration, the songs came together rapidly.
Two days after dropping one of these, the first single from their new album The Center Won’t Hold, all three members of Sleater-Kinney – Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss, the group’s longtime drummer who, a month before the album is released, will announce she’s leaving the band – are sat in the fresh morning air in Shoreditch, wrapped in layers. Come On Home is a song about insecurities, lust and modern relationships, a plea to be engaged in the work of dissociation (“disconnect me from my bones”) and like the rest of the record, deals with the bodily. “We’ve always related to ‘the personal is political,’” says Tucker, taking a moment to think before speaking, as they all do, before proceeding with marked intention and clarity. She adds that it’s been hard not to take the misogyny since the election personally, before Brownstein steps in: “The female body – the body in general – is a place of resistance and so much of this album is about what the body can withstand in this era. I think people feel a collective resistance, but you also feel it in a way that permeates yourself so you can’t really exist separately from politics.”
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Sleater-Kinney might be the most important indie rock band working today. Influenced by and born from riot grrrl, their first incarnation formed in 1994 in Olympia, Washington. But they almost immediately withdrew from the tight-knit Olympia scene, insulating themselves to create their sound. It was a sound like nobody else’s, with Tucker’s unsettling vocals and the those challenging choruses, which seem to threaten to break just as they start to climax. Weiss, who joined the band in 1996, elevated them further with her intense, explosive style. By the end of the 90s they’d broken through to mainstream listenership but critically acclaimed seventh album The Woods, released in 2005 cemented them unequivocally as seriously pioneering and surprising in their output.
The following year the band went on hiatus, an unavoidable decision when Brownstein’s anxiety-related physical ailments worsened on their tour in 2006. The fact remained that Sleater-Kinney had always been a group of women who directly tackle feminism, capitalism and lived life in a way that gets under your skin. When they came back in 2015, they did so with No Cities to Love, an accessible and political record that critics and fans hailed as vital.
Still, there was a brief moment, before the release of No Cities to Love, when Sleater-Kinney’s contributions could’ve been swept aside, washed away as a tide of laddish, NME-approved indie swept through the 2000s. Riot grrrl – the movement Sleater-Kinney will forever be associated with, rightly or wrongly – had long since imploded, making Sleater-Kinney a curious proposition. “We were really aware of that when we came back with No Cities,” says Tucker. “We had no idea if people were going to remember us.”
“The female body – the body in general – is a place of resistance and so much of this album is about what the body can withstand in this era”
– Carrie Brownstein
But for Brownstein, legacy is a tenuous idea. “You can’t dictate someone else’s assessment of you, but we can continually try to defy expectations. There are very few bands that last 25 years or make 10 albums. You stop caring what people think at a certain point. [But] I feel more confident in the fact we’ve left a mark.”
Unlike pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, who returned this year to reaffirm their legacy, Sleater-Kinney are still actively writing theirs. Sleater-Kinney went to watch the Bikini Kill gig in LA, part of a run of sold-out reformation shows, and were delighted by the joy on people’s faces to have their expectations met. Of these returning feminist groups, Brownstein says: “We want to be artists that continue to evolve, so I’m glad they’re coming back to join in the chorus, but musically and artistically for us it’s about recreation and transformation every time, innovating and being steeped in the present and the future.”
True to their word, The Center Won’t Hold is a record written in the wreckage of #MeToo and Trump’s presidency: a response that shows how crucial their work is in the present moment. In retrospect they were the obvious bet for making arguably the first and most intellectually and emotionally embodied piece of music about the #MeToo movement. As Brownstein puts it: “We wrote from a place where the stakes were high and we are releasing this album into a world where the stakes are very high.”
The album opens with the eerie call of women repeating that “the centre won’t hold”. The phrase, coined by WB Yeats in his 1919 poem The Second Coming, has been repeated tens of times throughout literature, non-fiction and art to refer to the apocalyptic, to political unrest and violence. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer” wrote Yeats in his much-cited work, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” The sentiment feels apt in 2019. “If you’re looking out on the landscape right now it’s obviously very fractious and everything feels on the verge of breakage,” says Brownstein. “We wanted to start with something that was the thematic fulcrum to the whole record.”
Some voices on the album internalise the violence and toxicity, while others writhe through moments of despair, and others still, like those on Ruins or Bad Dance, embrace the corruption, make raucous displays of it. Still, this is an album that grounds you. There is a feeling that the bass brings the listener back into their body only to realise their body is on the operating table. I wondered what the record was meant to leave people with. Hope? A partial understanding of the situation? Collective despair? Tucker wants it to be all of those things. “Different narrators look at the world right now and take stock of it, commenting on everything that’s happened. It’s a comedy of errors. But I don’t think it’s meant to be [a] prescription or full of solutions.” Weiss adds: “I think it gives the listener an opportunity to share troubles, traumas, joys.”
An inescapable presence on the record is that of St. Vincent. All three members light up when the conversation comes around to working with producer Annie Clarke. For some, this might be notable when viewed in light of Weiss’ departure. Her brief statement, posted online on 1 July – much to the distress of fans – would, after all, attribute her exit purely to the band’s “new direction”. Rumours would fly that this fourth member could’ve been what drove Weiss away. By all accounts, this was a positive experience that was like nothing they’d had before. All describe an environment in which Clarke pushed them pointedly, down to justifying specific noun and syntax choices, asking how songs could be more personal or visual, and getting them to repeat singing the same songs on different days. It elicited a special vulnerability. “She’s a perfectionist and I think that level of emotional intimacy was on account of the fact we’re friends but also it was all women, coming from a place of understanding of what we were trying to say,” says Brownstein.
Weiss enjoyed it immensely. “So many times we’ve worked with producers or engineers and they don’t want to touch what we’re doing, they’re afraid to break it apart,” she says. “Annie was the first person to break it apart in a creative way, just shoot it off in a different direction. Maybe because of the friendship, maybe because she’s courageous as a musician and a producer. But that risk taking was a really important part of how the album turned out.”
For fans, the coming together of Sleater-Kinney and St. Vincent, two intelligent and thoughtful contributors to guitar music, represented a queer dream rock partnership that felt significant in the current political moment. Considering the subject matter of this album, it’d make sense if the band decided early on that it was vital to work with a woman, but Brownstein says that, while it ended up being important, they never approached the choice with that in mind. “It was surprising to think this is our tenth album and we’ve never worked with a female producer before.”
– Corin Tucker
There’s one track mid-way through the record which encapsulates that spirit of collaboration. LOVE is about the romance of the band and a necessary medicine for the rest of the album’s discomfort. Tucker laughs for the first time during our interview when we come onto this topic: “When the three of us make music together, it’s really joyful, even if the song is dark. It’s our outlet, it’s our voice. It is empowering to be the centre of attention and the centre of power in that recording studio.” For Brownstein the song is a reminder of where their power and the potential power for other people comes from. “Without that connection and collaboration it’s not really worth it. We wanted those glimmers of hope to infiltrate the other songs, but that one was this statement to ourselves. An example of the way that optimism isn’t a completely hopeless idea.”
And that optimism has to infiltrate a whole album campaign post-Weiss. During a follow up phone call made after Weiss’ announcement, Brownstein and Tucker insist they have little more information than the distraught fans. “It’s hard to parse exactly what she meant by that statement. Really we just have her statement,” Brownstein said. When we met in Shoreditch in May, the two remaining members had no idea what was to come, and tell me now that by all litmus tests Weiss loved the album and was fully involved with every stage of creating and planning the next steps. How are the pair of them making peace with it now, ahead of touring? “Finding peace with it is a very apt phrase to use because I think that’s what happens when people make decisions in life that affect you. You have to respect it and find a new way of moving through the world and through the situation.” That includes how to tour now, what to do on a stage in front of fans who will be sadly prepared to not see Weiss there.
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The core message of LOVE isn’t nullified despite disappointment to all involved. Band line-ups change, touring configurations switch up, and to visit a legacy band’s back catalogue is to see it split into defined chapters. If anything, the loss of Weiss has strengthened the core relationship between Tucker and Brownstein.
“I want to be compassionate towards the other people in my life and that’s why I respect Janet’s decision to leave but also feel very committed to my friendship and collaboration with Corin, and that we owe it to each other,” Brownstein shares over the phone. “I want to continue to have this outlet for Tucker. Sleater-Kinney is something Corin and I have been doing even before Janet joined the band. It’s a context that we can put our anger into, our sense of urgency and sense of sadness and our sense of joy, and I wouldn’t want to destroy that.”
After a beat, Brownstein adds, “We have to protect and nurture that and we’ll do that together.”
All clothing: Edward Crutchley
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Styling: Sophie Gaten
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The Center Won’t Hold is out now via Mom + Pop Music