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Interview: Sleater-Kinney are still crafting their center after 25 years

Photo Credit: Nikko LaMere
 
 

Carrie Brownstein on collaborating with St. Vincent, exploring ‘the broader vocabulary of anger,’ and balancing cynicism with optimism

Nota bene: Sleater-Kinney’s newest album isn’t so much as a collection of songs as it is a portrait of a jagged, modern landscape.

Stuck in the technological terror of 2019 but cushioned with what singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein calls “pockets of grace,” August’s The Center Won’t Hold is a feat for two reasons: One, it marks 25 years since the founding of the momentous group, and two, it’s a miraculous balancing act of acute emotions that’s highly reflective of a day in the life for the average American.

A reference to the unstoppable inertia of our world, The Center Won’t Hold could have easily been named The Center Has Held. Despite the recent departure of longtime drummer Janet Weiss, the original core of the band — Brownstein and Corin Tucker — remain inextricably bound, even creating and collaborating from different states for a chunk of this album cycle. Albeit embracing a touch more industrial style (in part courtesy of producer St. Vincent), the center of Sleater-Kinney is as adhesive as ever.

Ahead of Sleater-Kinney’s show at the Boston’s House of Blues on October 29, Brownstein chatted with Vanyaland about the band’s immaculate collaboration with St. Vincent, exploring “the broader vocabulary of anger,” and the art of balancing cynicism with optimism in 2019.

Victoria Wasylak: When you were putting together your new record, The Center Won’t Hold, you had talked about how the band and you were really conscious of the fact that there are not a lot of contemporaries, or bands similar to you folks, who have put out this many albums. With that in mind, did that affect your songwriting, or your attitude, going into putting this record together? 

Carrie Brownstein: Mostly, I think, there was just a freedom in knowing that we could do whatever we wanted, that we had a lot of records behind us, and we had covered a lot of ground, and that was it was really just up to us to keep pushing ourselves and experimenting and challenging each other. But yeah, I would say it felt freeing to be able to let go of people’s expectations.

And you talk about challenging each other — I think that’s interesting to hear, especially because for this album, you started writing songs in different places and putting together songs when you were not together, which was new for you folks. How do you make music flow, or collaborations flow, between you folks when you’re in different states?

Well, I think Corin and I had developed enough of a shared musical vernacular that it transcends distance, and it was the same, but different I guess. It’s still the exchanging of ideas and wanting the other person to be additive to the process and to push back on something, or to change something. So there was still the sense of leaving space for each of the band members to contribute.

But yeah, it seems like it also allowed us to share a more holistic vision of what we wanted for a song. So Corin would send something that seemed more fully-fledged than if we had been writing together, because sometimes she would bring in something, and I would start playing over it, and the song might transform at an earlier stage. Whereas this allowed it to take a more solid shape before my contribution. And I think giving each other that space was really important.

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I think it’s really interesting that you named the album The Center Won’t Hold, which you had said refers to change and things falling apart. But at the end of the day, the core of the band, you and Corin, have held up. It’s been 25 years and the center has stuck together. What do you think is the key to lasting that long?

I think kindness and compassion and the ability to allow the other person to grow and change. I think mutual respect and challenging one another, but also taking care of one another. I think we have really good communication. I mean, I think even in the title of the album, we were suggesting that, so it feels very fractious right now, as you survey the landscape. But there is always a chance that by the center not holding, something positive could appear in its place. So I think it wasn’t a totally dire, cryptic title.

St. Vincent produced the album, but you started working with her on a trial basis. She did a couple songs, and then you decided from there if that was going to work. Was there a moment when you or the band thought to yourselves, “Yeah, this is it!”? Like, it clicked, it fell into place, and you thought, “This is absolutely what we want for this record”?

Yeah, I mean, I think we knew in the first recording session, which I believe was July of 2018. We did the first couple of songs with Annie. It was “Hurry On Home,” “RUINS,” “The Center Won’t Hold,” and “The Dog/ The Body.” All pretty central songs to the album.

And Annie just came in with a lot of ideas, a lot of energy and enthusiasm. And I think when we left that session, I just remember Janet and Corin saying, “Why would we work with anyone else?” Everyone felt a real freedom, I think, in that session, just realizing that we were going to approach something differently and the fact that there was a very galvanic quality to it, because we’ve made a lot of records, and records that we’re proud of, and [with] people that we love working with. But most people have approached the process and the methodology in a similar way, and I think Annie wasn’t necessarily adherent to that, and we were appreciative of that.

Well, it’s definitely a Sleater-Kinney album through and through, but I think it’s great that it feels like her fingerprints are all over it. Obviously, the way it’s produced, it sounds like, “Oh, this is a rhythm I could hear on a St. Vincent album.” Which I think it was almost cool, like the [creative] vision was shared there. Do you feel the same way?

Yeah, I think it’s really similar to The Woods record. When we did that people were like, “Oh, my gosh, this is a Dave Fridmann record.” Yeah, I mean, I think when you work with a producer like Dave Fridmann, or St. Vincent, you’re going to get a Fridmann thumbprint, and you’re going to get a St. Vincent thumbprint. That’s why we worked with them, because we thought the material lent itself to their style.

It’s definitely something that’s unavoidable when you work with a producer, but it’s surprising that I feel sometimes when you talk to bands, they don’t want other people’s fingerprints on it, or they want them to be as minimal as possible. And I think it really rejuvenates bands when they allow themselves to share a vision like that.

I remember, yeah, when we were working The Woods, it was the first time, I think, we were open to letting someone come on and put their imprint on it. And I remember in the conversation with Fridmann, he said, “I only want to do this if you’ll let me produce it. I’m not just going to be an engineer for you.”

And we said “okay.” I think, the same with Annie, we wanted her ideas. I think we’ve made records that feel more like a document than a discovery, where we’re just getting into the studio, and we’re laying down tracks as-is. And for this, we wanted something that was more exploratory and immersive. So yeah, I think each album should feel like its own world, and I think we’ve always wanted that.

Yeah, I think it is reinvigorating in some ways. And even it’s reinvigorating in the sense that you deviate and then return, although I just never feel like I’m that interested in a whole circle back. I just think we don’t want to make Dig Me Out again, we don’t want make The Hot Rock again, but it’s a way of expanding the vocabulary, and then you get to use those words on the next record, those new ideas on the next record, kind of reshaped into something else. So it’s really just finding new ways to play, and then applying that to the next thing you do, which is I think really important to longevity.

Right, it’s how you learn, even 25 years into things.

Exactly.

When I listen to the album, I hear a lot of chaos, and I hear a lot of isolation with the themes of modern technology and being wired and tired, and then napping all day. What was your mind, or your life, like when you were piecing this record together?

Yeah, I mean, I think that theme comes up I guess, sort of twice. “The Future Is Here” has references to the sense of isolation and obviously, “Can I Go On,” too.

I think we were more broadly thinking of the modes of despair and loneliness and trying to make sense of the fragility and a brokenness at-large, and couch them in more personal narratives. And I think there was also a sense of the kind of disparity – a sense that one needed to perform and convey joy outwardly, when inside there is a sense of despondency.

So I think some of the songs speak to that. And I think also, the album explores ways that grief and anger, and trauma take a toll on a body and on one metaphysically. So yeah, each song traverses that in a different way.

You had talked about wanting to make listeners feel seen and feel heard, but this album isn’t necessarily a loud, angry, in-your-face album. You talked about finding hope instead. With the lens of this album specifically, how did you try to make people feel seen and heard — in what themes, or which songs?

Well, I think so much of this record was about connection as a form of hope, and so many of the narrators in these songs feel in the shadows, or are marginalized, or just living with a sense of partiality and kind of speaking.

So I think specifically, even though there is anger on this record, it’s more about “what happens when anger festers? What’s the broader vocabulary of anger?” There’s despair, there’s pain. So I think thematically and even sonically, what we wanted to create [are] these verses that spoke to the darkness, and the chaos, and the depression. And then in the core, it’s met with a sense of unity and potentiality and possibility, so that we were oscillating between those of sadness and joy, I think.

We didn’t want to make a cynical record, but I think it would be unfair, or maybe too optimistic, to say that it’s a hopeful record. But I think it’s an exploration of possibility.

Right, because a lot of these things, they don’t exist alone. It’s a little bit of both, right?

Yeah, yeah, I think it’s definitely a record that deals with that pluralism and dualism and trying to make sense of, I guess, these inherent paradoxes and contradictions. I think it’s hard not to look out into the world and feel hopeless right now, but I think there are these little pockets of grace that keep occurring, that help us move on and go on. So yeah, we tried to make a record people could sing along to, I think.

SLEATER-KINNEY + JOSEPH KECKLER :: Tuesday, October 29 at The House of Blues, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., all ages, $37.50 to $57.50 :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page