Speaking to Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of the pioneering feminist punk band, both before and after the departure of the group’s drummer Janet Weiss
“Damn you,” are the first words hurled from Corin Tucker’s throat in Sleater-Kinney’s 1996 guitar-punk assault, “Little Mouth”. A few beats later, she recalibreates the volume, unleashing the full fury of her voice: “DAMN YOU!”
The song upends the extremely gross characterisation of a woman’s oral orifice as a tool to sexually stimulate and musically entertain men. That notion of gendered subservience has, in a 20-plus year career, had no place in Sleater-Kinney’s music. Virginia Woolf may have cautioned against the hot-headed potential of writing “in the red light of anger”, but the music of Tucker, Carrie Brownstein (both vocals/guitar) and Janet Weiss (drums) has, like so many of their forebears, harnessed righteous fury to ignite a creative spark.
Sleater-Kinney nurtured their itchy antagonism like a sapling; it could dart to anti-Bush battle cries as well as sprawling into a libidinous 11-minute display of guitar heroism. But power-pop anthems and a long–running collaboration with the performance art absurdist Miranda July also showed that they could be gloriously flip, and fun. They have aimed their discontent at each other, too; the devastating “One More Hour” is a coda to the brief romantic relationship between Brownstein and Tucker, where intertwining lead vocals allow them both to have their say. It’s a landmark queer love song that’s still astonishing thanks to the emotional generosity of its players – listening to it 22 years on feels like reading both sides of a break-up text. If riot grrrl music heroically exposed patriarchy’s ability to inflict wounds, then Sleater-Kinney – graduates of that scene – suggested a way to patch over them and to find a personal pathway forward. Often, it led to glimmers of transcendence.
The band’s new, tenth album, The Center Won’t Hold, renders survival mechanisms in eardrum-blasting HD. Produced by St. Vincent and recorded in LA, it’s a whirligig of busted modular synths, crushing riffs, and curious carnivalesque flourishes (including something that sounds like a wobble board). The tempestuous “Restless” is Sleater-Kinney’s strongest ballad since “Modern Girl”, while “Bad Dance” could soundtrack a rave on the scorched earth of our destroyed world. Meanwhile, their familiar trick of using sexist language to upend its meaning finds urgent new focus on lead single “Hurry On Home”.
The Center Won’t Hold’s release day will be the first that Sleater-Kinney experience as a duo. In July 2019, Janet Weiss issued a statement saying “the band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on”. Some social media users pointed fingers at The Center Won’t Hold’s producer, St Vincent. But seeing as the band have often drastically switched up their sound (think of the sonic gulf between party-starting All Hands On The Bad One and the exposed-wire polemic of One Beat), that theory was never entirely convincing. And anyway, the band have since told The Observer that a St. Vincent collaboration was Weiss’s idea to begin with.
Weiss leaving was a surprise to me. Meeting in east London this May, the trio had seemed chipper, despite being squeezed for time and Tucker needing to slip out part way through our chat. We laughed at the bar staff’s odd decision to noisily rearrange the furniture, an interruption from a pink-haired hair stylist, and the arrival of a boisterous gang of city boys (Brownstein zeros in on one of my passing remarks: “I love that English term for men – ‘lads’”). Weiss was a little quiet; though she warmly reflected on the band’s past, she seemed detached when we discussed The Center Won’t Hold.
Had the band known in London that Weiss was unhappy? “Uh, no,” says Brownstein, speaking on the phone from Portland in July. “It definitely came as a surprise. By all witness tests, everyone was really on the same page.”
Weiss did not respond to a request for additional comment, but it would be callous to cut her contributions from our interview. Below are edited and condensed versions of two wide-ranging conversations with Sleater-Kinney, spanning the band’s evolving musical canon, the future of gender politics, and their favourite fan tattoos. In the first Q&A, they speak as a three-piece; in the second, as a duo.
LONDON, MAY 31
Carrie Brownstein: The album speaks to a time where what is now normal should really be abnormal. So we wanted something a little disjointed. The song is kind of a choreography of grief and sadness. It’s couched in a domestic setting, so a feeling of despair and betrayal by someone you love, but in my mind, “you got me used to loving you” – it can be (that) you start to trust in people, systems, government, a country. Like, “Oh wow, you got me used to loving you, America.” All of us have realised that the things you have faith in are letting us down.
That image also came to mind when listening to your new song “Love”, which goes, “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene, than a well-worn body demanding to be seen.”
Corin Tucker: Part of that is reclaiming ageing for yourself, and redefining the societal norms of how you’re supposed to be seen when you’re an older woman, or middle-aged. With the words “Unfuckable, unloveable, unlistenable”, we’re taking them on ourselves. It’s almost like, “There’s nothing that you can say to us that we’re not gonna say to ourselves. We’re gonna own that.”
It falls into a tradition of what women and queer people have always done, which is to take what’s levelled against us and turn it into armour.
Is the record title based on the WB Yeats poem? “Things fall apart / The centre cannot hold.”
Carrie Brownstein: Yeah. It’s from that poem, which was of course written in post-wartime, about the fact that world was a fractious, tumultuous place. Certainly that felt à propos to this current time. We wanted to take that broader idea of breakage and posit them in personal narratives.
And to your point about “Love”, and to where the body is a place of resistance: there’s only so much that a body can withstand. (On the album) there’s a lot of moments of despair, but also people embracing the corruption of the times. People take advantage of times of disinheritance, of times of tumult. There are people grasping at the grotesqueness. But there’s so many ways right now that bodies are under attack. Trans bodies, brown bodies, queer bodies, female bodies. There’s a lot to hold steady against. But you don’t always feel like you can.
“There’s not a lot of precedent for three women to make the kind of music that we make, this far along” – Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney
Corin Tucker: I feel so much more loving towards my body now than I did when I was young. I’ve lived a really good life in here, no matter everything that the world has levelled against it. I feel like I’ve been a warrior in it. And I’ve produced two human beings out of it that are perfect and amazing. My fear though, is that now I have a daughter I’m so worried about her. I’m so angry and sad that she is going to have to fight all the battles all over again.
There’s a fearlessness to your recent imagery. Why did you want to show that?
Carrie Brownstein: We’ve been a band for 25 years; this is our tenth album. There’s not a lot of precedent for three women to make the kind of music that we make, this far along. Shonen Knife, that’s the only other female band that’s put out this many records. There’s not a lot of precedent! So we have to lay down tracks behind us, to say, “Come join us! You don’t have to stop!” There’s plenty of outrage, as a vernacular. We need to be vulnerable – vulnerability is its own language. So we had to approach it with fearlessness.
Corin and Carrie, you wrote “One More Hour” after your break-up. How have your feelings about playing it changed over the years?
Corin Tucker: The Sleater-Kinney world… it’s kind of multifaceted. There was a romantic relationship. There’s a friendship which is really strong. There’s a whole community of people, and there’s all this music that we’ve done. Although the song itself is still is a bittersweet memory, it’s surrounded by this whole garden of other things that are really beautiful.
At this point, Tucker leaves – she has a gig with her other band, Filthy Friends, tonight – and I continue the conversation with Brownstein and Weiss.
This summer you guys are coming back, and so are Team Dresch and Bikini Kill. Do you think there’s something about our current moment that creates a hunger for these voices?
Janet Weiss: I think that people are looking for a way to do something, to somehow rebel against what’s happening. For us, it’s music. I can’t speak for Team Dresch, but I imagine they’re feeling despondent and desperate about what’s happening in America as well. And you’re like, “What can I do?” And then you think, “What am I the most powerful at?” And for a lot of us, it’s music.
Do you think Sleater-Kinney would have been the same band without riot grrrl?
Carrie Brownstein: Probably not. I came up under the tutelage of Bikini Kill, their sound, I was a big fan of Heavens to Betsy – that’s how I met Corin, at their show. It gave us something to embrace, but also something to deviate from. You know: “Here’s what riot grrrl gave us, and how can we expand on that?”
Carrie, I didn’t know that The Hot Rock was about your relationship with a woman until I read your book. Why did you choose to keep the album’s lyrics vague?
Carrie Brownstein: I don’t think I’ve consciously denied pronouns. In the aftermath of heartbreak or a relationship, to me it becomes a story that’s more universal. I’m only myself, and, especially in the last five or so years, I’m very open about my sexuality. I like songs that anyone can see themselves in. I love that we have a lot of queer fans, trans fans, and non-binary fans. We always have, so I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. We’ve only wanted people to feel seen and heard by our music, so I think that’s more important to me than hitting the nail on the head too hard.
I heard that when The Gossip supported you on tour in 2000, Beth Ditto would do your hair in bouffants?
Carrie Brownstein: We were just talking about this! Corin was talking about Beth doing her bouffant somewhere in the Midwest.
Janet Weiss: We have a lot of funny stories from that tour. We would do dares. One of ours was that we had to wear Cats makeup. We had to dress up as characters from Cats and wear it onstage. But no explanation at all to the crowd! We just had that make-up.
Carrie Brownstein: It was amazing watching Beth explode onto the scene, from the first night. There’s still no one like her.
With One Beat, you guys started to do social commentary in a more direct way than before. Looking back, does that record feel like an inflection point?
Carrie Brownstein: I don’t think we set out with a mission statement. What was really intense was that (One Beat) was one of the first albums that came out that was critical of the Bush administration. It was us, and Springsteen with The Rising. We were in a very jingoistic time. That changed the weather in the US. That was a huge cultural shift.
For us, personal and political are totally intertwined. It’s interesting that (The Center Won’t Hold) couches the political in the much more personal. Obviously Trump is totally a toxic human, and deleterious for not just us, but the whole world. There’s a chorus of protests against Trump: we’re part of that. But at the time of One Beat, there was not much of a chorus against Bush. I think people needed to hear a song like “Combat Rock” or “Far Away”, or “One Beat” – things that really weren’t being said at the time.
Your early music made space for different perspectives with duelling guitar lines and conflicting points of view in the lyrics. Was that a natural byproduct of your relationship, or a considered alternative to didactic, dick-swinging rock music?
Carrie Brownstein: Maybe a little of both. There are a lot of things that happen by accident in Sleater-Kinney. When Corin and I first started… We’re not trained musicians. The way that we tune down (our guitars to) C# was a lucky accident. How we structured songs early on without harmony, or with two melodies intertwining, was accidental. We discovered that on “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”, and then took it further on Dig Me Out. We liked the way that we were able to bring two different perspectives, or, a conscious and subconscious to a song. I think also, it speaks to collaboration. It’s a very communal idea to say, “Well, this is my opinion of this subject, and this is your opinion.”
I think as we got more interested in melody, we liked the way that we sang together. Then that felt powerful. We didn’t want to be working against each other in the chorus, we wanted to be coming together. I also think there’s a generosity in giving someone the stage. Just being like, “What a pleasure to hear Corin sing ‘Broken’ or ‘Ruins’ or ‘Reach Out’.” Or when Janet plays harmonica on “Modern Girl”. I think that’s also a way of collaborating that demystifies the idea of a ‘lone genius’, and saying that we all have the ability to shine.
You’ve been called “America’s last truly great punk band”. How do you feel about that?
Janet Weiss: I can’t imagine we’re the last great punk band.
Carrie Brownstein: First of all, punk would deny any essentialist pedagogy. And second, it’s never the last great punk band, it’s always the next great punk band. That’s the nature of punk: it’s someone you’ve never heard of, someone that’s fucking hungry to overtake. We appreciate the sentiment, but we’re excited when someone else comes along and tears shit up.
PORTLAND, JULY 17
Did you guys feel betrayed when Janet left?
Corin Tucker: That’s a pretty heavy word to use. There’s certainly a lot of feelings around it. But also, when someone has told you that they really don’t want to be there, what else can you do but let them go?
Does the new lineup change the way you plan to performing live?
Carrie Brownstein: Not really. Obviously the lineup will be different, but historically, no matter what the sonic world of one of our albums was, it always coalesced in the live show. You take an album like The Hot Rock which was a little more understated, and that record grows fangs in the live setting. Or you take something as bombastic as The Woods, and you find more melody. The songs change, and become their own new beast.
Corin, you’ve spoken before about using your singing voice to unsettle. Did that technique develop while recording The Center Won’t Hold?
Corin Tucker: Absolutely. As I’ve gotten older, there’s a different range that I have. My voice has deepened a little bit. So doing the song “The Future’s Here” and singing with two different octaves together was something different. It was almost an exploration of masculine and feminine characters, gender roles and androgyny, in a way that was really freeing.
Corin, “Lions and Tigers” was inspired by your son, with lyrics like, “Please learn to rule with your head, not your fist.” What have you made of the recent discussions about how to raise feminist boys?
Corin Tucker: I was a parent at the beginning of a new debate on the specificity of raising a boy, and calling into question the toxic masculinity culture that we have. I think that debate has got a lot stronger in recent years. We have a better allowance, now, to have boys and men express their feelings. But to me it feels like the tip of an iceberg. We still have a really long way to go in terms of understanding how stereotypical gender roles have impacted us. I really think it’s possible that we’ll just evolve into a society that doesn’t need those positional (gender) roles any more, and they’ll kind of become obsolete.
Carrie, I loved your role in Carol. Is it true that you filmed more scenes which were cut?
Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, I think there’s maybe two more very small scenes. They were similar to the book in that Genevieve has an interaction with Therese (Rooney Mara), and tries to lure her over to an afterparty. It was a flirtatious, “Come hang out with me” kind of scene. In the end, of course, Therese goes and finds Carol. I mean, as someone who also directs now – the scenes that you cut out in any project can be pretty prodigious. Overall it was a really fun experience, no matter what ended up on screen.
“When someone has told you that they really don’t want to be there, what else can you do but let them go?” – Corin Tucker, Sleater-Kinney
Have you ever met one of your musical heroes?
Carrie Brownstein: We were so close to meeting Madonna a couple of weeks ago! We were backstage at Fallon. But Madonna is someone that I’m a little bit afraid to meet, so I’m kind of glad it didn’t happen. I think all fans feel this way. You know, like no matter where you get in your own life, you’re still a fan of them. And recently I just met Phoebe Waller-Bridge! She brought Fleabag play to New York. I met her after, and I was very much a fool.
Carrie Brownstein: That second season of Fleabag is, to me, the most brilliant… I don’t even want to call it just a television show. It’s some of the most brilliant writing and storytelling I’ve seen in a really long time.
Did Phoebe know your work?
Carrie Brownstein: I do not believe she did. (laughs)
Have you seen any of your fans’ Sleater-Kinney tattoos that stick in your mind?
Carrie Brownstein: They kind of all do! I remember a couple of “Get Up” lyrics: “Goodbye small hands, goodbye small heart.” It feels like an honour to realise that someone has taken what you have done to heart, and it feels intrinsic to who they are.
Going forward, are you as determined as ever to make new music and to keep Sleater-Kinney alive?
Corin Tucker: For us it’s really important. Personally, I’ve written some of my best songs on (The Center Won’t Hold). It’s a privilege to get to do this. I love collaborating with Carrie, and I would love to keep doing that.
Carrie Brownstein: I feel the same way. In other art forms, there are these periods that the artists get to have the early period, a mid period, and a late period. And if you’re doing your job and pushing yourself, those eras of your artistic output are different. I think we have to embrace this as the middle period of the band, and figure out how to keep taking risks and writing songs that we love. The music will resonate, or it won’t. But I have a feeling it will. Sleater-Kinney is a very sacred collaboration for me, and always has been. And no matter who is in that with me – Corin and Janet, or just Corin and I with other people – to have this platform to reach out to people and have people reach back, is one of the greatest joys of my life.
Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold is out August 16 via Mom + Pop Music