Cover Feature

Sleater-Kinney: Things Fall Apart

We meet Sleater-Kinney as a trio and leave them as a duo. With their inner workings altered, but their most progressive work at their fingertips, we find a band stepping into an unexpected new dawn.

As far as apocalyptic images go, the sight of an abandoned falcon circling frantically around a crumbling planet earth must rank fairly high-up on the end-of-the-world scale. It’s the dystopian image that the Irish poet William Butler Yeats famously painted in his 1919 text ‘The Second Coming’, written following the devastation of World War I. Perhaps strangely, the poem has been enjoying a resurgence of late. Artists have been rightfully pilfering Yeats’ words ever since he wrote them, but in recent years these same lines have been widely quoted, like choice lyrics from a number one pop smash - often as a way of making sense of how absurdly cruel the world has become.

In the run-up to Donald Trump’s eventual election in the United States in 2016, certain lines from this poem were quoted more times within seven months than the previous thirty years combined. “The centre cannot hold” has become shorthand for the dangerous, hateful and fractured political climate of the present; switch “cannot” to a slightly more hopeful “won’t” and it’s also a phrase that titles Sleater-Kinney’s ninth album.

A record on the run from chaos, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ hungers after forming a meaningful connection in this modern void, and often gets nowhere. Ferocious lead single ‘Hurry On Home’ makes itself malleable, offering itself up as a “hair grabbable, grand-slammable” booty call secretly longing for escape: “disconnect me from my bones / So I can float, so I can roam” it pleads. If the beast hunched at the centre of the group’s previous record ‘No Cities To Love’ ached with anger and fury, this new iteration is lonely, adrift, and after something far less rebellious than anarchy or revolution. Instead, it craves warmth.

“There have been moments of total despair,” starts Corin Tucker, taking stock of the last few years, gathered together in London with bandmates Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein.

“Right before we went in to record [‘The Center Won’t Hold], Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed,” she continues, referring to Trump’s pick for the American Supreme Court. Neither the fact that he faced three separate allegations of sexual abuse, nor the brave testimony from Dr Christine Blasey Ford, who spoke publically about being assaulted, could stop Kavanaugh’s nomination being approved. Like the US President, who also faces multiple sexual abuse allegations, he has now been admitted to a position of immense political power. “It was such a knife in the heart, “ Corin continues. “Of course it makes you feel so raw. Thank god we have this band to put those feelings somewhere.”

Sleater-Kinney: Things Fall Apart
Right before we went in to record [‘The Center Won’t Hold], Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed. It was such a knife in the heart. Thank god we have this band to put those feelings somewhere. Corin Tucker

Since Sleater-Kinney formed in Olympia, WA back in 1994, bodies have been a primary focus of the band. “Dig me out, dig me in / Out of my body, out of my skin,” rallies Corin on the title track of 1997’s ‘Dig Me Out’, with gripping urgency. It’s the perfect mantra for the band - one of raging against a feeling of smallness, of being held back. And from the despairing figure of ‘Broken’, which reflects on the pain of weathering the #MeToo movement as a woman, to ‘Reach Out’’s grapple for connection, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ makes a point of taking up as much space as possible, wielding huge choruses and grinding unease as weapon of choice.

“It’s about thinking about the body as a place of resistance, too,” agrees Carrie. “How much a body can withstand; trauma, trespass. Most of the narrators on ‘The Center Won’t Hold’,” she says, “are on the precipice of not being able to carry that burden anymore.”

“Ever since you’re a little girl you learn: be polite, don’t speak out, be docile, be pretty, all of that stuff,” observes Janet. “Our band has been grappling with those societal norms since the beginning. Be loud, be brash, be angry, and all these things that are frowned upon. Be powerful,” she urges.

Sleater-Kinney: Things Fall Apart
I yelped more for St. Vincent than I’ve ever yelped in my life. Corin Tucker

On ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, a substantial portion of that weighty, guttural power comes from its swamp of squelching, low register synths: a possibility that was fully unlocked by the record’s producer, St Vincent. A long-standing friend of the band (Annie Clark previously made a guest cameo in Carrie’s comedy show Portlandia, and the pair are now collaborating on a mockumentary starring “heightened versions of themselves”), they originally demoed with “St Vince” on a trial basis. “She knocked it out of the park so hard,” enthuses Corin. In their first studio session alone, the band nailed ’The Center Won’t Hold’, ‘Ruins’ and ‘The Dog / The Body’.

“She’s very prepared,” Janet says. “Very present.”

“St Vincent really has a dark sense of humour, and an almost Dadaist approach to adding a sense of absurdism,” picks up Carrie. “I think she did that a couple of times purposefully in the record with us, on songs that are as dark as anything. Like, in ‘Can I Go On’, you,” she laughs, indicating Corin, “just suddenly say ‘it’s sticky!’ in the middle of a song.”

“I yelped more for that lady than I’ve ever yelped in my life,” Corin laughs. “Like a psychotic porpoise,” agrees Carrie.

“Metaphorically we started thinking about the ways that the tools that we have - in terms of governments and societies - aren’t as effective anymore,” she goes on, expanding on the shifting palette of ‘The Center Won’t Hold’. “Usually we get to a guttural place with vocals, but this was like, how can we get down to the most base level of human emotion? Really scraping at the bottom of something: of a soul, of a being, of a society. You start getting drawn to the lower end in that way.

“One thing I like about this record is that often the narrator is singing from a line of solitude,” she concludes. “There’s a path of solitude on the verse, they’re singing alone. They’re speaking to despondency, or an isolation - and then in the chorus, that’s often met by multiple voices.”

Likewise, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ was created from a similar position of separation and then unity. For the first time, the band ditched their usual writing approach in favour of slinging ideas between Los Angeles and Portland. Instead of hashing things out together in the same room, the separate members of Sleater-Kinney downloaded each other’s partly-formed sketches while based a thousand miles apart. Centrepiece ‘Love’ is something of a dedication to the magic of their band: in Carrie’s words, “it’s a reminder that the music we share truly connects us; a meta song in the middle of an album that had been written that way.”

Sleater-Kinney: Things Fall Apart
It’s about taking the work of not just three strong women in this band, but a fourth strong woman in St. Vincent, and combining those forces. I hope that when people listen to this record, that’s what they’re thinking about. Carrie Brownstein
Sleater-Kinney: Things Fall Apart Sleater-Kinney: Things Fall Apart Sleater-Kinney: Things Fall Apart

Just a couple of weeks after our first meeting, however, and the reality of that connection is an altogether different one. Sleater-Kinney are back in the US and, rather than rehearsing for their upcoming album tour, they’re instead unexpectedly turning and turning in the widening gyre. It came as a shock to Corin and Carrie when Janet - out of the blue, to their knowledge anyway - decided that she wanted out from the band. The group held several crisis talks behind the scenes. “We really tried to talk her into staying,” says Corin, speaking on the phone from Los Angeles. “We just weren’t successful.”

In a statement released at the beginning of July, Janet confirmed that she was leaving Sleater-Kinney after 24 years, in a short note simply signed off: ‘The Drummer’. The band was “heading in a new direction,” she wrote, and it was time for her to move on. Did she ever elaborate on what she meant by that, privately?

“Not really,” replies Carrie.

“By every metric, Janet was very enthusiastic about the recording, and the outcome of everything we’d been working on,” she continues. “We’d all weighed in on all of the decisions, and had a lot of shared enthusiasm. She let us know that she was ready to move on, and we asked her to stay. We really wanted her to do all the rest of the work with us. She’s so amazing on this record; it’s some of her best drumming. We were really excited to bring that into the world with the live shows, but… she was not up for that.”

“We had ALL been part of the changes in the band,” Carrie adds. “Janet suggested Annie [Clark] produce the record.” Learning that the new direction of ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ was a major factor in Janet’s departure, she admits, “was a surprise”. “It just felt like at the live shows everything was going to come together,” she trails off. “So… um, yeah. Not sure.”

“The amount of raving about the mixes of the songs, the whole endeavour, has been shared by the three of us,” Corin says, “it definitely felt like a surprise to us.” “This was a very joyful recording process,” adds Carrie. “We ALL,” she adds, emphasising, “talked about that in the other part of the interview.”

And it’s true that, just last month, Janet seemed enthusiastic about the record. If the drummer was having any doubts, she certainly didn’t let on. “It’s really different, and arresting,” she previously enthused about lead single ‘Hurry On Home’. “It just grabs you. The idea of contrast in music - dark lyrics contrasting with a playful sound - there’s a depth to it which is fun to play with. You’re asking this existential, serious question with everyone singing along. It adds a complexity that I find interesting.”

We really tried to talk her into staying, we just weren’t successful. Corin Tucker

While it might be tempting to pick apart various remarks with the power of hindsight - a throwaway comment about St Vincent’s “present” production style, or a notable silence - when it’s put directly to the band, they dismiss any suggestion of a fall-out behind the scenes. Carrie and Corin are quick to dismiss any speculation that there were furious sparks or dramatic alterations taking place in the background of this record; instead Janet’s departure seems a sad but amicable parting. Was there any conflict? “Absolutely not,” Carrie says, resolutely. “It was Janet letting us know how she felt, us really working as much as we could to get her to stay, and her making her decision. It was in the spirit of her saying: ‘I want to make sure we’re always gonna be friends, and that I love you guys’. That was literally the last conversation we had about it.”

“It’s a long time to be in any relationship,” she shrugs. “I don’t think it’s that unusual after that many years for someone to say, ‘hey, I want to do something different’.”

Though Sleater-Kinney existed for several years before Janet joined the band - the group’s self-titled debut and the ferocious ‘Call the Doctor’ were both recorded with previous drummers - everything changed, the remaining pair have previously said, after she walked into their Portland rehearsal basement in 1996 and sat behind the kit for the first time. Thrashing through the song which would later become ‘Dig Me Out’ together, Sleater-Kinney immediately became a trio. In Janet, they had found a true collaborator.

“Corin and I were used to having drummers follow along and defer to us; they were percussive cheerleaders or meandering, interpretive artists, serving as more of an augmentation than an equal component,” wrote Carrie in her 2015 memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, recalling the electricity of their first meeting. “Forget drummer jokes, Janet is one of the most musically intelligent people I know. And she was certainly the most musically gifted member of the band, the one with the largest musical lexicon and sphere from which to draw influence.”

Despite her still perplexing departure, Sleater-Kinney’s two remaining band members still talk warmly about Janet’s monumental contributions to the band today. “She brought a sense of creativity, and a real optic connection with rhythm, that contributed a lot to the records,” Corin says. “In this record in particular, she’s so great at just breathing an unexpected kind of energy or life into a moment or a song,” Carrie adds.

Sleater-Kinney: Things Fall Apart
We’re right in the chaos. And ironically, in some ways, this album addresses all of that chaos and fractiousness and fragility. Carrie Brownstein

Today, Corin and Carrie sandwich every mention of sadness in between positives; perhaps understandably, they’re eager to avoid wallowing around their recent jolt. Though they won’t yet reveal who will be playing drums on their upcoming tour, they’re audibly excited about their potential. “I think we are looking forward to the person that we will get to collaborate with,” Carrie says, cryptically. The pair speak of Janet’s departure as signalling a “new chapter” for the band, and a new challenge to embrace, however they both keep returning to the observation that ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ features some of Janet’s finest drumming. “I’m very much looking forward to people hearing a record that she is an integral part of,” says Carrie. Though they’re not wallowing, they also seem keen not to write Janet out of their present just yet.

“It’s about taking the work of not just three strong women in this band, but a fourth strong woman in St Vincent, and combining those forces,” she continues. “I hope that when people listen to this record, that’s what they’re thinking about. It’s a record that we’re very proud of.”

“I think with time, people will just look back like, ‘OK, this was just that era of the band, and here’s the next era’,” Carrie posits. “It’s all part of that journey. To conscript anyone to that role - of representing stability, and constancy - is to deny us our own humanity, and to ask us to withdraw from the vicissitudes of life,” she says. “We just can’t.”

“We’re right in the chaos. And ironically, in some ways,” she concludes, finally cracking a laugh, “this album addresses all of that chaos and fractiousness and fragility.” A complicated final twist to a dynamic and blazing album, the center did not hold after all, but Sleater-Kinney are still standing strong.

‘The Center Won’t Hold’ is out 16th August via Mom + Pop.

As featured in the August 2019 issue of DIY, out now. Scroll down to get your copy.

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