Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker sound like they’re completely fine. There’s no underlying tone of defeat or dejection during a recent phone call with the Sleater-Kinney leaders, only self-assuredness, despite learning roughly one month ago that their longtime drummer, Janet Weiss, was departing the band right as the trio was about to release its ninth album, The Center Won’t Hold, and head out on tour.
The two find themselves in a very different situation from the one in which they started the year. In January, Sleater-Kinney announced that Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, would produce their upcoming album. The news felt like a victory for a band that has broken down gender barriers in rock after forming in 1994, when being a woman “was a minus,” says Tucker.
Now, Weiss’ departure has clouded the narrative surrounding the new album, and punctured what would have likely been a routine promo cycle. Meanwhile, Weiss’ signature brash drumming remains a vital component to The Center Won’t Hold.
Brownstein says the album was recorded by “a band consisting of three really powerful women and made by a fourth very powerful woman, and that collaboration to me is more interesting and says more about this record than the fact that Janet left. The music on its own will survive and transcend the departure.”
Back in 2015, Sleater-Kinney reunited after a 10-year hiatus with the rollicking No Cities To Love, which hit No. 4 on the Top Rock and Alternative Albums charts. The band seamlessly fell back into touring, playing their biggest venues to date and headlining Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival. “We wanted to make sure that people knew we were back, and that there was an intention to keep going,” says Brownstein. “We never wanted to take a decade in between albums, but it allowed us to break the pattern of writing, recording and touring every year. It gave us more leeway” this time around, she adds.
After the No Cities tour wrapped, the trio talked about playing around with the format of their next release, whether it be a single or an EP, but Tucker says once they started working with Clark, they felt confident about knocking out an entire album with her at the helm. “There’s really nothing in the realm of music that [Annie] is not capable of,” says Brownstein. Producing “is a very natural extension of her musicianship and sense of innovation.”
The Center Won’t Hold, out Friday (Aug. 16), is the band’s most urgent to date. It’s also their first on the New York indie label Mom + Pop, a move inspired by collaborator and friend Courtney Barnett. (In Australia, Sleater-Kinney is signed to Barnett’s label Milk! Records.) Brownstein describes the new album as “corrosive,” which she credits to the use of low end — bass-frequency signals below 250 Hz — meant to capture the current sense of unease in the country.
As for Clark’s contributions, Brownstein and Tucker say she encouraged the three to consider their audience — they gained a ton of younger fans from No Cities To Love, which was, for many, an introduction to the band. Because Clark is a longtime Sleater-Kinney fan, Brownstein says she would think aloud, “What would I want to sing along to?” It pushed Brownstein and Tucker, the principal songwriters, to be less conceptual with some of their lyrics. Lead single “Hurry On Home” best finds that balance, with lines like “Disconnect me from my bones/So I can float, so I can roam” and “Hurry on home to me/I’ve been in bed since noon.”
Clark’s synth-rock handprint is on many of the songs, especially single “The Future Is Here” and “Love,” but despite the implication from Weiss’ departure that the new album is a radical change in Sleater-Kinney’s sound — “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on,” the drummer wrote in her farewell note on social media — Brownstein believes The Center Won’t Hold is a natural successor to No Cities, and at times even recalls The Hot Rock, released in 1999.
“It’s in conversation with our other records,” Brownstein says. “It has a precedent, but also feels new.” Sleater-Kinney’s upcoming tour — which starts on September 25 and runs through next March — will proceed as planned with a new, still-unannounced drummer, and Brownstein is excited about playing the album live to further remind fans that “ it’s all under the common umbrella of this band. For us, the live show is the great equalizer.”
With 25 years behind them, it’s clear that Brownstein and Tucker are dedicated to keeping Sleater-Kinney going. “It’s a band that requires a lot of passion and a relationship that is intense, because the music is intense — and you can’t really do it halfway,” says Brownstein. “As much as people might think they want the same things, it really requires a certain amount of pushing forward in order to keep going, and that’s one reason we’ve lasted as long.”
Tucker credits the band’s longevity to its resilience and inability to be bogged down by gender inequality. She says when Sleater-Kinney first started playing, they soon realized they’d have to work twice as hard to get taken seriously. Now, Tucker says that women playing music no longer comes as an surprise, and that when women play music together, there are fewer questions about whether or not they are dating.
But despite the progress being made, Brownstein still sees reminders of internalized sexism. “Look at the way that, for instance, Janet leaving has become a very gendered conversation, with people talking about Annie like she’s Yoko Ono, or treating it like this catfight or feud in a way that I feel like if it were an all-male band with a male producer, that cattiness and gracious gossip would be toned down,” she says. Such a “perennial dissatisfaction,” as Brownstein puts it, is what drives Sleater-Kinney today.
“Early on, there was a lot to prove — and we did it,” Brownstein continues. “Once [Sleater-Kinney’s acclaimed 2005 album] The Woods came out, we obliterated anyone’s ability to think of us as this post-riot grrrl band. It was like, ‘Holy shit.’ It took a long time, but we got to the point of, ‘Well, we don’t have to prove anything to you anymore.’ There is a freedom in that.”