Ahead of Sleater-Kinney’s pre-apocalyptic ninth album, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein talks about their dedication to progress, their embracing of the grotesque with St Vincent on the new record, and why no other bands will ever sound like her band.
In the early ‘90s, in a Washington alive with riot grrrl bands, 20-year-old Carrie Brownstein first saw Corin Tucker singing in the punk rock duo Heavens To Betsy, and felt a kindred desperation to communicate the uncommunicatable. Tucker’s voice—a powerfully delicate balance between beautiful and ugly—signified everything Brownstein wanted from art: a needle scratch, a fire alarm, a police siren. Urgent and ugly, and gorgeous enough to make ears prick.
Brownstein’s queercore band Excuse 17 began playing shows with Heavens To Betsy, which led to her and Tucker forming a friendship, and then forming Sleater-Kinney as a side project. Around the time of Kurt Cobain’s death in April ‘94, Brownstein and Tucker’s bands disbanded and Sleater-Kinney became the focal point of their lives. They burned through a few drummers before finding Janet Weiss—a woman who could make a drum fill sound like a cannonade — who became the extraordinary backbone of the band. Together, the trio created a frantic, gnashing sound that defied passive listening. From 1997’s ‘Call The Doctor’ onwards, they displayed peerless and meticulous technique, all while sounding brutal and ungovernable. Their music became a baleful statement, even in its tender moments, as on the Roger Moutenot produced 1999 album ‘The Hot Rock’.
After the release of their 2005 masterpiece and seventh album, ‘The Woods’—and at the apex of the band’s career—Sleater-Kinney went on an almost decade long hiatus. During that time, Brownstein channelled the absurdity she experienced as a musician into what she might have considered a slightly less sacred form: television. From 2011 until 2018, her and actor/writer Fred Armisen’s award winning comedy Portlandia poked fun at the self-seriousness, hypocrisies and performativity they’d encountered both in the sphere of celebrity, and in the city of Portland.
Then, in one of rock music’s greatest and least tacky reunions ever, Sleater-Kinney reemerged in 2015 with eighth album ‘No Cities To Love’, which brought in new fans thanks to intergenerational listening and Brownstein’s new-found celebrity status. While it didn’t deviate too significantly from their previous output, their ninth album ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ (out: August 16) stays truer to the band’s ethos than ever, while sounding unlike any Sleater-Kinney record you’ve heard before.
Produced by St Vincent, it is a grotesquely poppy pre-apocalyptic call to action. It leaves room for image and performance, and obliterates any expectations you might have going into a Sleater-Kinney album.
It’s their greatest risk yet.
We spoke to Brownstein in May about the record, her career, and what Sleater-Kinney mean to people. Since then, in July, Weiss announced she would be leaving the band after 22 years. “The band is moving in a new direction and it’s time for me to move on,” she wrote in a statement.
So this chat is from when the centre still held.
This album feels like Sleater-Kinney’s most personal yet. Why not just come out with a ‘Trump sucks’ album instead?
“Because I think to me, terror is all around us and there is a kind of loudness and a volume and protestation right now, but I think at the core of that is people who are depressed and despairing and worried. I think we wanted the politics on the record to take the form of a quiet rage and a reminder of the ability to heal. I just think that at the centre of all that’s going on right now is a human body and to me that is sometimes forgotten as we sort of look out broadly. You kind of have to start with your own body as an act of resistance. That to me felt like more the kind of record I wanted to make right now. That’s the kind of record I would want to hear, I think.”
‘Restless’: That’s a song on the album which stands out. It sounds so lackadaisical and gorgeous.
“Thanks. That was actually the only song on the record that I wrote on my guitar. Since Corin [Tucker] and I live in separate places, we wrote most of the album on a keyboard.”
Have you used the keyboard as a starting point before?
“Not really, a little bit in the past for some simpler songs. But we were required to send demos to one another, just because… I think when you’re not able to be in the same room collaborating and hearing one another explain an idea, you kind of have to present a proof of concept, not only for each song, but what we could be doing for the whole album. We kind of had to send fully formed worlds back and forth. But for the rest of this album I was aiming to use new tools, but with that song I thought, ‘Wait, I could just go write on guitar. It’s an instrument I know very well.’ That’s the first song I’ve written on acoustic guitar. It felt very freeing, when you’ve been doing one thing for a while in a project, and you suddenly change course, there was something about it that felt very fresh in that moment.”
Tell me the story of how you came to play guitar
“I was 15 and I was living in the suburbs of Seattle, and I had gone through—as many kids do—lots of phases. I loved sports, theatre, and my parents were very supportive, but there’s only so much they can invest. I came to guitar in high school because I’d just surveyed the landscape and realised, well, I’m definitely not gonna be one of those popular kids, I’m not gonna fit in, I’m not gonna be a cheerleader. I started listening to mostly early punk music from England, and realised that’s what I wanted to play. So when I told my parents I wanted to play guitar they told me, ‘well, that’s really great. We support you, but you’ll need to pay for this yourself. We’re not gonna pay for a hobby that might be fleeting.’ So, I worked at a movie theatre on the weekends, and I bought a guitar. It was just a cheap copy of a Stratocaster. I got an amplifier—not great sounding—but I didn’t care, or really know. I mostly taught myself how to play but I had a friend from high school, Jeremy Enigk, who used to play in Sunny Day Real Estate. So I’d just walk to his house, and he’d show me chords. Maybe just five or six, the most rudimentary, open chords. I maybe only went over there three or four times before I started writing my own three-chord songs.”
Have you ever had formal guitar lessons?
“No, I haven’t. I kind of wish I had. It’s interesting because the music world is split into the self-taught and the formally trained. Like Annie Clark of St. Vincent, she went to Berklee, and she’s definitely more of a formally trained guitarist. There are certainly elements of her skillset that I’m envious of. But I think sometimes if you learn on your own, you don’t know that you’re doing things wrong, and when you’re doing things wrong, you sometimes come out with a sound that’s unique. There’s benefits to both.”
How did you first meet Annie?
“I met Annie in 2006 at SXSW. Sleater-Kinney were playing the final night of the film festival, like the closing party, and then we all went out after and she actually still lived in Texas, she was playing in The Polyphonic Spree, and one of our friends was like, ‘this is Annie Clark, she plays in Polyphonic Spree, she’s an upcoming singer songwriter’, and I was like yeah she seems nice. I asked her a lot about her guitar playing, she told me about going to Berkley, she told me she had tons of siblings, and I was like, ‘really?’ And then five years later in Portland she was on tour and I saw her again there, and that’s when we became friends, in like 2011.”
How do yours and Annie’s artistic visions align?
“I think we really both embrace the ugliness and the grotesque. We really love, both of us love that playground of where things become distorted, I mean not literally like guitar distortion but where there’s kind of a warped and distorted lens. I think to us, the grotesque is as beautiful as anything and to get to explore that is something that we both like to do in our writing and our art, like we’re both unafraid of that so it’s fun to work with her ‘cause we both have a very dark sense of humour.”
What comes to mind when you think of the word “centre?”
“I was thinking a lot about where we all are in the world right now. It’s a time that is very fractious and tumultuous and there’s a toxicity there. It feels like we’re right at the point of breakage and as frightening as that is, when something falls apart there’s always the possibility that in its place something new will begin and so it has notions I guess of direness but also a small glimmer of hope. We wanted to take the broader political climate and couch it in with the personal. It’s a very personal record and each of the songs is sort of an individual’s singing it from a place of despair or despondency. A lot of the songs are about how a female body withstands danger and terror, and one resists. What is the effect on the body to resist and to have to resist and to be a place of resistance over and over again? We explore that theme from different perspectives.”
I’ve read about the first song you ever wrote, ‘You Annoy Me’, and I can see some stylistic and structural consistencies there with how you write today
I don’t think that’s a bad thing!
“Yeah. I mean, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. We all change and evolve, as does the world we live in, but I think what’s interesting are the things in us that are innate and essential, that have existed in such a natural way from when we were kids—a way of being in the world, a way of looking at the world, and I think I’ve always had that feistiness, and a little bit of manic energy that permeates a lot of what I do. That perennial dissatisfaction and skepticism has always existed, even as I try to search for more positivity and hope, and certainly find it every once in a while.”
Has your adulthood so far legitimised the angst you felt as a teenager?
“Yeah, I think that sense of despair and searching, and a tinge of sadness, I feel that as an adult. And I feel that the world meets me there. It’s hard not to look out and be met with that same sense of dissatisfaction. There’s a lot of things that feel very disruptive and traumatic and unjust, and I think the fact that I don’t just accept things, or take things at face value has kept me curious and seeking as an adult. That’s the positive aspect of it. It keeps me endlessly curious, and wanting, and striving.”
Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill, and the whole Riot Grrrl scene of the 90s seem to have carved out a space for your band. Why hasn’t anyone followed in Sleater-Kinney’s footsteps?
“I think we’re a hard act to follow. We certainly have predecessors in terms of influence and inspiration, but I think one thing that’s special about us is that it is hard to emulate the alchemy. There’s something ineffable about the three of us. The way Corin sings, the way our voices meld together, the way we build up a musical language around each other. It’s one thing I really noticed when we went on hiatus for eight or so years. When you create something you think that someone will come up and overtake us, and in some ways you want that. You want to seed inspiration. But then I thought that no one came along and sounded like us, so I guess we should keep going. That was one of the main impetuses of moving on and forward.”
I feel that the conversation that’s surrounded Sleater-Kinney has simplified you to such a degree — you know, you’re an all female Riot Grrrl band — that if people were listening to your music for the first time, they’d be surprised by the uniqueness and alchemy you just described
“Yeah, there is such a paucity of imagination sometimes in the ways that artists are described or even that phenomena is described. Language can be reductive and I think things that are nuanced are difficult to assess, especially in brief sentences or explanations. But also, I think with anything you have to immerse yourself in it. But I agree that I always feel like we have more dimension than is ascribed to us in writing. And I think that it’s easy to dismiss something based on a description. We all do that, and we don’t have time, it’s a shorthand, it’s a survival mechanism to use filters. Which is always why I hope that when we put out records it will reach new people, that it’ll do something that surprises them, that they’ll hear something on the radio or someone will play them something and they’ll besurprised. Oh, this is that band, I thought that they sounded like this. To me, that element of defying expectations is really important.”
Has having a variety of creative outlets—acting in and writing Portlandia, for example—made you feel more supported?
“I think so, I like having a variety of outlets for my energy and interests. It allows me to learn about the nature of collaboration because most of these projects aside from writing are in relation to others and I think that that is a way of learning compromise and becoming more compassionate and less precious about your ideas but also clarifying when you know your idea is the best idea. It helps justify your thesis in some ways, in any given situation. So yeah, I think I appreciate that and I also like vacillating between multiple things, not simultaneously, because I find that that can be very enervating and make me spread myself too thin. I mean I do like to relax but I think also, there’s certain lenses through which I like to interpret phenomena, and absurdism is one of them. With directing or Portlandia, there’s a way of using humor which I wouldn’t really use in the band as much because music is a little more sacred to me.”
Can you draw strength from your performer self?
“That’s very tricky, and I think a lot of performers suffer depression when they pass through that door where you sort of exit the tour and return to a more staid and normal existence. And you see people graciously trying to recreate that high with things that are self-destructive or adventure seeking. I guess I try to just use that energy towards making new things or creating something. It’s very different, I try to just be grateful for it but I don’t know if I can maintain something that is so specific to a moment. Not without driving everyone I know crazy, anyway.”
Are you nervous for this next tour?
“No, I’m so excited. Not to say that touring still doesn’t feel fragmentary and jarring and disorienting at times, but at this point I just feel lucky to do it. We live in a world right now that is so obsessed with nativism and isolationism and boundaries and putting up restrictions for people, removing rights from people, to be able to traverse boundaries in order to see people face to face and play for them feels more important than ever, so I can’t wait to get on the road.”
What’s your greatest extravagance? Does Sleater Kinney have anything like a masseuse on tour?
“You know what, we don’t. I think we try to put all the money into the show, it’s going to be slightly more theatrical. There’s something about this record I think that will lend itself to something heightened and so we’re very excited to build a set and have lighting design that really showcases some of the drama of this record.
‘No Cities To Love’ followed a Sleater-Kinney box set, as well as your memoir ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl’. The new album ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ comes after your work on the TV adaption of your memoir. Has having to look back impacted either of these records?
“We try not to of course, but the reason to look back, I think, is to deviate from that as much as we can. To draw strength and influence from things that worked but also to try to avoid repetition or redundancy. So it’s definitely useful artistically to say, as we write, to editorially say okay well this sounds familiar, we’ve done this before, how can we push this in a different direction? And I think looking back is also useful for not taking the present for granted, sort of taking stock of how hard we’ve worked and know that it’s worth protecting I think.”
“Oh, so the show did not get picked up. So, I made the pilot like last summer and then turned it in and kind of waited, and then [Hulu] didn’t pick it up. And it was just disappointing at first because I had just put so much work into it, but then if the show had gone forward I wouldn’t have made this record. I realised when the show didn’t get picked up, and Corin and I started really focusing on writing the next record, that I’m not ready to put my relationship with music in the past tense, and it was a show very much about—I wasn’t in it—but it was a younger version of myself in the ‘90s. I’m not ready to put that in the past tense, it feels more crucial for me to be making music now, not assessing or writing or filming about it from 25 years ago. So in the way that I hope and think everything happens for a reason, I think if the show had gotten picked up, we wouldn’t have ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, and I’m so much happier to have ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ because that feels relevant and necessary and I’d rather bring that into the world than something encased in, not nostalgia, but historical replication.”
‘The Center Won’t Hold’ is out on August 16