Anatomy of a Song: Sleater-Kinney
Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker break down The Center Won't Hold and the origins of its Phil Collins-inspired single "Can I Go On"
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This month, Sleater-Kinney reassemble for their long-awaited but never quite guaranteed 10th album, The Center Won’t Hold. The follow-up to 2015’s hiatus-squashing No Cities To Love is both a return to form and a complete rewriting of the rulebook for founding members Carrie Brownstein and Corrin Tucker, who first met as college students 25 years ago, and toured together relentlessly before hitting the breaks in 2006.
“There’s little you can coast on by just coming back,” says Brownstein about the band’s re-rebirth. “Now we’re saying there is going to be a middle period of Sleater-Kinney and it’s not going to be like the first.”
While their feminist punk ethos and electric, nervy tension are still well intact, Center pushes Sleater-Kinney into all sorts of new sonic territory. Spearheaded by fan-turned-producer Annie Clark (of St. Vincent fame), the album finds Brownstein, Tucker, and now-former drummer Janet Weiss relishing in moments of New Wave euphoria, experimenting with industrial heft, and exploring an almost vaudevillian playfulness. The album also features some of the most fragile, expansive songwriting of the band’s career.
In some ways, change laid the foundation for Center’s creation. For the first time since they started jamming in 1994, Brownstein and Tucker wrote and demoed songs on their own, mostly out of necessity. (At the time Brownstein was living and working in Los Angeles; Tucker and her family live in Portland.) There were changes behind the scenes, too. Earlier this year, the band changed management and signed with a new label. And last month, not long after the album was completed, Weiss announced her departure, simply stating that Sleater-Kinney was “heading in a new direction” and that it was time for her to move on. It was a twist that no one, including Brownstein and Tucker, saw coming.
“We did ask her to stay. We wanted her to stay. But she was really clearly like, ‘This is my decision,’” says Tucker. “We fought for it,” adds Brownstein. While both bandmates emphasize that Weiss’ kinetic energy can never be replaced, this fall Sleater-Kinney will tour with a new drummer for the first time in 20 years.
“Things change,” says Brownstein. “I understand people wanting to hold on to an idea of something that they thought was static, but humans aren’t. I guess one relief I have is just knowing, well, there are going to be differences, and I think we just have to embrace it.”
Leading up to the release of The Center Won’t Hold, EW sat down with Brownstein and Tucker to talk new beginnings, internet-fueled anxiety, and the story behind their new, Phil Collins-inspired track, “Can I Go On,” which explores female desire and existential dread.
A Fresh Approach
The foundation for Center was laid mostly via email, something Brownstein and Tucker had never done before. “It forced us to express our proof of concept, and that’s hard when you’re so reliant on the other person to finish your sentences,” says Tucker. Adds fellow guitarist-vocalist Brownstein, “When you’re dealing with people who are living far away, there’s a vulnerability there because it makes them the audience, not just a bandmate, so there has to be something a little presentational about it. You can’t just send a voice memo with a melody that you’re singing while you’re on a walk and expect someone to be like, ‘Yeah, we should work on this song. It’s a good idea.'”
It’s rare any band makes it past 10 years, let alone 20, Brownstein points out. “In other mediums, there’s a greater allowance for an early period, a mid period, and a late period in an artist’s career. A director can make their best movie when they are 60 or 70. Painters and novelists, it’s the same thing. But for a band, there’s so much premium on the early years, and people tend to be purists about that. There’s so much premium on the now, but often with records that I love, I didn’t like them when they first came out.”
As an all-female punk band, everything Sleater-Kinney does feels political. Still, Brownstein says, there’s no denying that the current presidential administration impacted the writing on The Center Won’t Hold. “We’re living in a time that feels fraught and fractious, and there’s just a mode of resistance that is constant. We know that we’re putting out something in an environment where people are hungry to feel seen and heard, and even though we’ve always felt that way, it’s definitely there. It’s present.”
Happy and Sad
Before she started writing “Can I Go On,” Brownstein was hooked on “a weird song”: Genesis’ “Misunderstanding,” which she says helped inspire the track’s circus-y chorus. “It’s one of those sneaky songs,” says Tucker. “One of the things that I think Carrie is particularly good at is she takes an idea that’s very catchy so you don’t even realize how sad the song is. She’s very good at disguising melancholy with an uplifting melody.”
The Future Is Here
“Can I Go On”’s opening lines place the band firmly in the present: “Everyone I know is tired/ Everyone I know is wired/ To machines — it’s obscene,” Brownstein sings. “My relationship to technology is one of skepticism,” she explains. “I love that the internet is a democratizing force, but I also think it created a lot of disparities. The internal acceptance of ourselves as product, as content for other people, for people to make money off of, for people to glean very private information off of, and that acquiescence to me is a little strange. I think it conflates a lot of things that used to not be conflated, whether that’s high and low or good and bad — all these things are mediated through a single screen and I find that that has a flattening effect on experience in general. It’s hard to talk about it without people just being like, ‘Oh you’re anti this.’ I’m actually not. I embrace it, but I just like everything, I question it. I don’t feel like I can just love it without having some problems with it.”
“You want to give the listener a place to sit inside of a song,” says Brownstein. “When you’re just stacking and building, it can start feeling like you’re suffocating. Sometimes that’s good for a song that speaks to anxiety — you want the feeling of chaos and something that’s frenetic — but you also don’t want to be pummeling. We had a hard time finding that balance between wanting the song to sort of move, shake, and vibrate, but also not just making it airless. It kind of worked that we struggled with it like that, because it really was about being overstimulated.”
Into the Studio
There’s a moment in between lyrics on “Can I Go On” where a voice creeps in. “Too sticky,” it remarks, almost jokingly. “Annie was always recording us talking or laughing,” Tucker recalls of the line. “She is particularly good at taking that atmospheric carnival element and just coming up with ideas. … I always felt on the edge of my seat. And to have someone come in and challenge you like that on your 10th record is, I think, really exciting. It makes the song feel a little bit on the edge of its seat as well.”
It’s The End of the World
Sleater-Kinney are masters at turning hopelessness into a rally cry. “Can I Go On,” Brownstein says, was about couching the current political landscape in a story that felt personal. “A lot of the verses are sung with a sense of desolation or loneliness. It’s one singer, and then you get to the chorus and you’re sort of joined by a group of people who get you out of that mess, where you feel like it’s the end of a night at a bar and everyone’s singing along. There’s something that’s kind of ramshackle about the chorus, especially at the end, and that’s very purposeful. Whatever sort of isolation you feel, you’ll be met by people who understand you.”