Sleater-Kinney: ‘Music has always been the playground of men’s sexuality’

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The feminist punks new album, produced by St Vincent and inspired in part by a Rihanna song, is their most expansive yet. So why did their drummer just quit the band?

By now, we know reunion culture is a con. The brief excitement of seeing a favourite band re-form is swiftly tempered by watching them resentfully trot out the hits and confront their mortality. Plus, the past is no longer a novelty but our perpetual groundhog day of recycled franchises and rebooted brands.

Which is why Sleater-Kinney’s surprise return, in 2015, nine years after they went on hiatus, was so refreshing. Not content to rehash old glories, the feminist punks had a brilliant new album, the riotous, new wavy No Cities to Love, and singer-guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss were unabashedly vocal about ending the dearth of fortysomething women in rock.

Even better, it turned out not to be a one-off. This January, news that St Vincent, AKA Annie Clark, had produced their new album “broke the internet”, said US indie bible Pitchfork, sounding slightly awed by the “endless possibilities of what this collaboration might sound like”. “Endless possibilities” was on the money: The Center Won’t Hold is Sleater-Kinney’s most diverse album, bursting with vaudevillian romps about how women are naturals at handling chaos, industrial demands for carnal and spiritual satisfaction, Tom Petty-indebted balladry couching admissions of betrayal and rousing choruses made to yell at last orders.

In mid-June, I am due to meet the trio to discuss their second second coming over lunch in Portland, Oregon, but I get an email hours beforehand saying Weiss is ill. Tucker arrives at the neighbourhood spot first, her striped earrings matching her monochrome T-shirt. It’s a shame about Weiss, I say. “Yeah,” Tucker says with a sigh, looking at the sky. “It is.” Brownstein appears, tiny and shaggily glam in a grey felted jacket. We head into the restaurant, which is straight out of Portlandia, the now concluded Emmy-winning satire of life in the zealously artisanal city that Brownstein wrote and starred in. She orders fish stew, while Tucker orders cornbread and asks the waiter what their “zero food print” certification means. It’s a programme funding climate-friendly farming, we learn, as Michael Jackson plays over the stereo.

They laugh at the ethical absurdity. Tucker and Brownstein are Sleater-Kinney’s songwriters and their 25-year friendship is seductive. They’re as goofy as they are deferential, less serious than you might imagine – Brownstein’s grin occupies half her face and Tucker frequently detonates an explosive laugh. This new album is a bit of a fluke, they explain. Last spring, Brownstein was developing an adaptation of her 2015 memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl for TV, a potential post-Portlandia project. The lightly fictionalised show would trace her and Tucker’s search for a drummer in Olympia, Washington, where they met as students who moved to the city to join the early 90s riot grrrl scene.

Back then, in real life, the pair flew to Melbourne to meet their first drummer without hearing a beat of her playing. They made two albums with Laura Macfarlane, until the geographical logistics became annoying. Then they found Weiss, who was “the best decision we ever made”, Brownstein wrote in her memoir. Weiss joined for their third (and first great) album, 1997’s poppy, punchy Dig Me Out. They eclipsed the DIY Olympia scene and became one of America’s most innovative rock bands, subverting girl-group convention and classic rock excess, while Tucker’s astonishing gospel wail gave their work a powerful spiritual urgency. Once fans found out that Tucker and Brownstein had briefly dated, they became queer icons of a sort, too.

Sleater-Kinney
‘Subverting girl-group convention’… Sleater-Kinney in 2000 (l-r): Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker.

Brownstein’s pilot for the show about their early days wasn’t picked up. But if it had succeeded, she says, who knows when they would have had time to make a new album. “I was like, why am I examining music through a historical lens? My relationship to music is right now. That’s more important to me.”

That relationship was reinvigorated when they saw young people who missed them first time at their incendiary reunion shows. I went to five of those to make up for lost time; aged 16, I’d bought their single Jumpers on sight. It was on green vinyl and the credits billed three women, which was enough of a USP in the laddy 00s. I was too late – it turned out to be their last single.

Brownstein recently started to think the bar around their 2015 comeback was too low. “There’s this leeway: oh, it’s not terrible! And it was nothing even close to terrible, but you can sail on the momentum of relieved enthusiasm for a while.” Deciding to continue raises the stakes: the only point, says Tucker, is to do something different. “Wanting to play with what we’ve done before, wanting to take risks.”

Taking risks can prove, well, risky. Nine days after I meet Tucker and Brownstein, Weiss quits Sleater-Kinney. “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on,” she says in a statement. I track her down and ask if she wants to talk; she considers it, but declines.

Tucker and Brownstein sound crushed when we speak the day after Weiss’s news. They admit that she wasn’t unwell the day we met in Portland – this happened very recently and suddenly and they didn’t know what was going on. They tried band therapy. They won’t speculate on Weiss’s reasoning, although Brownstein says they thought “everyone was really happy about the record”.

But the show will go on. Brownstein says they are as determined to evolve as ever. “After these years, it might feel harder to take those risks, but that’s what I’m invested in. Corin and I took ourselves to the opposite side of the world to start Sleater-Kinney. There’s always been something impulsive and scrappy about this band and I don’t feel there’s another way to be in it except to adapt and evolve.”

Appropriately, The Center Won’t Hold takes inspiration from an unlikely source – at least for a punk band. They were driving around listening to Rihanna’s ballad Stay when Brownstein said she wanted to write a song like it. When they started writing in earnest, she was living in Los Angeles, Tucker in Portland (Brownstein later moved back), so they had to work remotely for the first time, giving them space to expand their individual visions.

Tucker’s songs are bleaker than Brownstein’s, full of searching and isolation: “Darkness winning again,” she sings on the stormy Reach Out. She was depressed. Tucker had worked for her dad for years, in marketing and web design. When his company was bought by a big corporation, she was let go. “My brain went: argh, too much,” she says. She sought medication, which helped. She laughs: “It also gave me the freedom to be like: you’re 100% supposed to be being an artist right now.”

Watch the video for The Center Won’t Hold by Sleater-Kinney.

Brownstein apologetically ventures a “super-psychoanalytical” theory. Tucker became a parent before Sleater-Kinney made 2002’s One Beat, one of the period’s few explicitly anti-Bush albums – Far Away depicted her breastfeeding while watching televised warfare. “Remember your awareness of being a mother and having to be protective of your kids?” Brownstein asks. “Your son is 18, he’s going to college. Not like, ‘You’re done!’, but it seems like you feel so much more freedom to express anxieties. That’s maybe harder when you’re holding so tight to notions of family.”

Tucker agrees. She had worried that being a musician would mess up her kids – her second was born after the band’s 2006 break – but with one kid out the door, she feels relief. “It is really freeing to rage a bit more in my songs.”

Not that she’s been sanguine in the interim – she raged loudly on the last album. Also, what about her 11-year-old daughter? “She’s raising herself,” Brownstein deadpans.

Their relationships have registered the change. Now 46, Tucker says she used to be the care-giver while Brownstein, 44, was needier. (Brownstein describes Weiss, 53, as consistently “no-nonsense”.)

“Carrie has really worked on being a very nurturing person,” says Tucker, with comedy largesse. “She’s very caring.”

Carrie
Carrie Brownstein performing at the Sasquatch! festival in George, Washington, May 2015. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

“Speak louder!” Brownstein demands, laughing.

Tucker says she has become less nice, although she still insists on sharing her lunch. “I’ve raised two kids, done that, and now I’m more in touch with what I need, what I deserve.”

That need rages through Broken, the bluesy piano ballad that took the Rihanna inspiration somewhere very different. It’s a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged that supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her in 1982. “She stood up for us when she testified me, me too,” Tucker sings, ruefully: “My body cried out when she spoke those lines.”

Kavanaugh was appointed anyway. But one outcome, says Tucker, was positive. “To say ‘me too’ means this matters, that you have ownership over what happened to you. It’s OK to say it impacted your life at any age. Men lost their jobs. That’s a big deal. Harvey Weinstein walking to court in handcuffs – that’s a win.” Still: “It’s not enough and the legal part is mind-numbingly slow to change.”

Meanwhile, the backlash is swift. “Straight, white men are in a state of disinheritance from positions of power that they assumed were their inalienable right,” says Brownstein, who gets academic when drawn on intellectual topics. “When you have so many people fearful of losing power, what they do to keep it is the brutality we’re living in. Take anti-abortion legislation – there’s such pushback when there is progress. It is not inevitable.” She sighs. “Those reminders are very desolate.”

But Broken aside, The Center Won’t Hold isn’t explicitly political. “If people thought Sleater-Kinney was gonna put out some loud, anti-Trump record, they would be misguided,” says Brownstein. The restaurant has closed, so we perch outside. Sleater-Kinney have already written those songs, she laughs. “We’ve been addressing the #MeToo movement and shitty patriarchal systems of injustice and subjugation since 1995!”

Listen to Sleater-Kinney’s Hurry on Home.

If anything, Trump’s presidency has forced a reconsideration of what makes art “political”. Performing rage was the preserve of punk. Now it’s mainstream discourse. “It’s really hard to want to match that level of hyperbole,” says Brownstein. “Even though I appreciate the spirit of anger, that volume has been claimed by some really terrible people.” Made by four women, the album is inherently “its own political statement”, she says. Tucker brings up Hillary Clinton: “This squashing of older women is such a part of our patriarchal culture, but it got turned up. We thought, let’s not mellow out at all, let’s take our music and see how much we can expand it, change it.”

Hang on – from singing about rape culture in 1995 to the violence of capitalism on No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney have never been mellow. Brownstein half-agrees: “That was the whole creed we came out of – 90s punk-rock feminism – but the older you get, the scarier it is to actually say you still want to be doing this because there are fewer stories in popular music by women of a certain age. Doing that when we were younger was almost taken for granted. Now you actually have to grab for it, be a little bit greedy and voracious.”

Expansive and adventurous, The Center Won’t Hold makes that statement boldly. There’s also the matter of Brownstein’s bare bum being on the cover of single Hurry on Home. She had wanted the whole band to be naked. “That was a bad idea!” Brownstein admits.

Tucker – and her daughter – agreed. “I was reading her texts aloud and she was like, ‘MOM! You’re not DOING THAT!’”

They cackle. They say they were too shy to celebrate their sexuality in their 20s. Brownstein claims someone once wrote an angry dissertation about a photo where her pants were visible. Plus, says Tucker, “music has always been the playground of men’s sexuality. Women have really struggled to claim their own space.” (That’s also why they think #MeToo has barely touched the music industry.)

Sexual empowerment is in a state of hyper-evolution: now it would be the writer decrying Brownstein’s knickers who would be considered a traitor. “Gender as a construct is now like a mesh bag,” says Tucker, with relief. “It used to be so rigid,” says Brownstein. “The queering of the culture and the deconstruction of gender identity has freed up a lot of things for women.” She thinks her queerness challenges the idea that middle age is a sexual wasteland.

It’s all in the album’s best lyric: “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene than a well-worn body demanding to be seen,” Brownstein yelps on the euphoric Love, a love letter written by Sleater-Kinney to themselves, and to resistance through collaboration. It sounds a bit different now that Weiss has left – rallying cry turned eulogy.

When Weiss quit, it added to a wave of growing scepticism among the band’s hardcore fans who, it turned out, don’t really want Sleater-Kinney to change. They criticised the band’s new singles, saying that Clark’s production made them sound too much like St Vincent. They criticised Brownstein for having her bum out, concluding that she and Clark (who she once dated) must be trying to dominate the band. They accused the band of selling out for leaving indie label Sub Pop for indie label Mom + Pop. Weiss leaving was taken as proof of all this. In the comments beneath her departing statement, people called Clark “Yoko Ono”.

It’s been strange to watch – indicative of a pretty limited imagination about female collaboration and ambition. Perhaps you can understand why fans would want a reliable constant during a period of political chaos that has shown, as Brownstein has said, that progress is not inevitable. And when someone leaves a totemic feminist band – ideally a crucible of shared politics – people inevitably question how they can believe in their mission if one of their members apparently didn’t. Scarier, perhaps, is the senseless way that old friendships can just end.

But the criticism was misplaced. It had, in fact, been Weiss’s idea to work with Clark, who says she felt no fear about pushing Sleater-Kinney even though she was once a teenage worshipper of the band, whose posters were on her bedroom wall. After their 2006 farewell gig in New York, Clark was “so amped up that I kicked over a newsstand in excitement”. “Now,” she thinks, “there’s a lot of ways to move people’s hearts and make them wanna kick things over and scream.”

The group abandoned their original plan to work with multiple producers after their trial week with Clark in Los Angeles really took off. After that, Weiss didn’t return until the last two days of recording. She was busy, Brownstein laments in Portland. (Weiss works as a film and TV location manager, a career that started on Brownstein’s Portlandia.) There is a personal cost of being in a band, especially when each member has a very different economic reality: Brownstein a celebrity, Tucker a working mum, Weiss developing a new career.

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2019. @sleater_kinney produced by St. Vincent.

A post shared by St. Vincent (@st_vincent) on Jan 8, 2019 at 8:02am PST

Those disparities inevitably affect what Sleater-Kinney means to everybody. “It’s tricky when it’s not the life raft you’re all on,” Brownstein says, sadly. “Not that the band needs to be a life raft the same way it might have in 1997, but it requires an urgency mixed with joy and appreciation from each of us. If it’s not there equally, it can be really hard.”

As for fans’ scepticism, this wasn’t new. In 1997, Sleater-Kinney were accused of selling out when they left tiny queercore label Chainsaw for almost-as-tiny Kill Rock Stars. “From the beginning, people have knocked our ideas of ambition,” says Tucker. The point of changing label, producer and sound was change itself. “I just don’t have that relationship to what we do where I think, if we do the same thing, people will love us,” says Brownstein. “Then you’re making work by consensus, which is the worst way to make art. It lacks a point of view.” She’s steadfast: “Corin and I feel very confident that whatever we’re doing in Sleater-Kinney is Sleater-Kinney.”

Weiss’s departure will affect how people hear The Center Won’t Hold. But practically speaking, Tucker and Brownstein write the songs. In our bleak postmortem interview, Brownstein shows a flash of optimism. “Corin and I started this band and we’ll end it. It was a long and really special journey with Janet, but there’s also something about it being Corin and I that feels familiar and very normal.”

Tucker lights up. “I’m not going anywhere!”

Brownstein laughs. “Thanks for letting me know.”

They say the split isn’t acrimonious – just bad timing from someone famed for good timing. “We want Janet to be happy and healthy,” says Tucker. “If someone’s not happy doing that job, it wouldn’t be good for any of us.” And so this summer, Sleater-Kinney will be back searching for a drummer to help them smash through new ground: just the same but brand new.

The Center Won’t Hold is released by Mom + Pop on 16 August. The band play London, Manchester and Glasgow in February 2020

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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