Janet Weiss lives a few minutes on foot from a cemetery deep in Portland, Oregon’s picturesque, sleepy Northeast region. She has a one-and-a-half-year-old Texas Heeler named Dizzy who’s so excited to see Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker — Weiss’s bandmates in Sleater-Kinney for a quarter-century — that he falls onto his back, paws in the air, the moment they walk through the front door.
Weiss walks to the kitchen to turn on the kettle and motions towards a paw print preserved on the mantle. “My soulmate,” she says of her late canine companion, Mac, before turning back towards Dizzy. "No offense, Diz. He hasn't been around long enough to be the soulmate." Dizzy lowers his head towards the carpet, suddenly depressed, and Weiss stares at him in quiet awe: “He’s just that kind of dog. They’re paying such close attention.”
On a typically rainy afternoon in the Pacific Northwest, Sleater-Kinney are sharing stories about their pets. They’re excited about going for dinner tonight at a fancy restaurant; Corin Tucker has to pick her daughter up from soccer practice soon. They’re figuring out if they’ll have time to rehearse tomorrow. The band’s a little anxious about a trip to New York next week, where they’ll play Fallon and officially announce their new album, The Center Won’t Hold.
Sleater-Kinney are a band no longer on what they call the “hamster wheel” of constantly writing, recording, and touring. “That's just brutal,” Weiss says. “It's why bands break up — it creates so much pressure.” For a decade, it was their entire existence. After Weiss joined the band in 1996 for their third album, Dig Me Out, they released six albums in nine years, eventually growing into one of the world’s most formidable rock bands — and it shattered them. “All you want is entertainment,” Brownstein growled on “Entertain,” a polemical highpoint from 2005’s The Woods, their final album before splitting up a year later. “Rip me open, it's freeing.”
The breakup was never publicly discussed until their reunion almost a decade later. In her 2015 memoir Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl, Brownstein detailed a punishing tour for The Woods punctuated by sickness and turmoil. Moments before walking on stage in Brussels, Brownstein started punching herself in the face and wouldn't stop. “I boxed myself into oblivion,” she wrote. “I was going to make myself extinct.”
“The story I was attempting to tell was of finding myself through community and creativity,” she says of the memoir while sipping on black coffee. “It seemed important to speak to the power that exists within a creative collaboration — it can make you and destroy you. If you give yourself over to it, there's a risk there.”
As the years passed, Brownstein wrote, produced, and starred in Portlandia alongside Fred Armisen and released an album with Wild Flag, a supergroup that included Weiss, Helium’s Mary Timony, and The Minders’ Rebecca Cole. Weiss split her time between Wild Flag, her old band Quasi, and stints with Bright Eyes and Steven Malkmus and the Jicks, while Tucker released two solo records. Life went on, and Sleater-Kinney was dead.
And then they came back to life. Twenty-five years after Brownstein and Tucker first played together in a basement in Olympia, Washington, and four years on from their comeback album No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney are off the hamster wheel — and they’ve created one of the most furious, dynamic records of their career.
When Corin Tucker says the word unacceptable, you feel it at the tip of your spine. The consonants dig into you like needles; the vowels draw blood. “Unacceptable,” she says over lunch at an Italian restaurant on Portland’s East Burnside Street. Brownstein and Weiss have been talking about election night 2016 — a champagne-fueled party that ended in tears and a night spent on the couch in misery with the realization that, in Brownstein’s words, the President is “America’s terrible, stalker boyfriend.” With the same incisive force that she deploys on record, Tucker locates a vein: “It is unacceptable that I'm supposed to now quiet down and settle down and ask for less.”
The Center Won’t Hold — Sleater-Kinney's ninth album, due out via Mom + Pop Music on August 16 — calls back to the angst and terror of 2002’s One Beat, the gargantuan freak-out of The Woods, and the jittery cultural commentary of No Cities to Love. But it’s a beastlier-sounding record than any of those, with wide-open expanses full of slime and bile and some of the band’s most vicious lyrics, blown up to occupy every part of the mix. It’s also full of major chords, inviting choruses, and howl-along melodies that draw the listener into their dystopia of chaos and obsession.
“That was our power-grab for this record,” Tucker says. “How can we become larger than we are? How can we take up more space? How can we expand ourselves and our sound?” They turned to synths and effects and Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, who produced the record in full. They also foregrounded their foundational principles.
“In terms of the culture around us, we were being told in 16 different ways to take up less space,” Tucker says. “We'd watched this older woman who was super accomplished run for President and just be ground down in the most misogynist ways possible — told that her accomplishments didn't matter, that she wasn't qualified enough. I'm not saying that Hillary Clinton was a flawless candidate — she was completely not. But it felt awful to watch that.” The world told Sleater-Kinney to take up less space, and they responded by covering every inch of ground they could see before them.
Tucker and Weiss have lived in Portland for the better part of two decades, but Brownstein just moved back from Los Angeles. Portland is home again — at least, until the winter, when she knows she’ll be tempted away from the rain and back to L.A. It was over that thousand-mile distance that The Center Won’t Hold started to take shape.
The No Cities tour had wound down before the election, and they only had one more show scheduled — a New Year’s Eve performance at The Masonic in San Francisco. “It was an understated New Year’s,” Brownstein says over pasta. “We were still living in a state of suspended reality.” They made no concrete plans for a new record, but they knew that they couldn’t tour again with the same material.
Three weeks later, they attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., playing a benefit concert later that night with The National and then-Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who joined Sleater-Kinney on stage for a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son.” Over lunch, I suggest that it might have been a moment of optimism. “Well, it hadn't really kicked in yet,” Brownstein says. “The policies and the stark reality of just, like... Oh, this is the President.”
Weiss joined Brownstein to work on the new season of Portlandia, and Tucker started writing a new record with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck for her other band, Filthy Friends. After Portlandia came to an end, Tucker went to visit Brownstein at her cabin-like home in Laurel Canyon, but they didn't lay down anything concrete. The meat of the album came together as they shared ideas in a Dropbox folder.
Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss had spent most of their careers writing in close quarters, relying on kinetic energy to fill out their songs. This time, they wanted to change the process. “There has to be a little more proof of concept” when writing apart, Brownstein says. “If we're in the same room on guitar, we can explain to each other what we mean. But when you're not in the same room as someone, you have to be more specific about your vision.”
They floated the idea of recording with a host of different producers; after Brownstein spent Christmas Day in 2017 with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his family, she suggested he produce a couple of songs, and he was thrilled by the idea. Clark just happened to be the first producer they worked with. “We were like, Why would we work with anyone else?” Clark was still touring behind 2017’s Masseduction, but they managed to cram in some sessions while sharing ideas in between studio time in L.A.
The remote process changed Sleater-Kinney’s sound in ways that would have seemed impossible two decades ago. Listen back to those first-phase Sleater-Kinney albums — 1999’s spacey, existentially troubled The Hot Rock in particular — and you’ll hear three frantic musicians sitting on the edge of the beat. Tucker’s rhythm was fidgety, Brownstein’s lead lines careened off and then pulled back and then flew off again into the stratosphere, and Weiss had to play at an impossible pace to keep up. Above the frenzy, Tucker and Brownstein sang with, at, and on top of one another. “It's so frenetic,” Weiss says now. “I tried for two records to sing. There just weren't any notes left.”
For all the sonic maximalism on The Center Won’t Hold, there are still plenty of notes left. The first two songs on the album are also the first two the band demoed when they finally got together in Portland; the opening title track is all echoing, metallic clanks and guttural low end, as Brownstein brays: “I need something pretty / To help me ease my pain / I need something ugly / To put my in my place.” On the incandescent first single “Hurry on Home,” she snarls, “You know I’m unfuckable, unlovable, unlistenable, unwatchable.” Its foreboding vibe is thanks in part to Brownstein’s familiar, near-atonal lead guitar, but there’s tension applied from all angles, a series of yelps and shrieks accentuating every bad thought that Brownstein can conjure.
It seems like the sort of thing that Clark, whose highly stylized albums often glitch and crackle, might have pushed for — but she actually nudged the band towards the record’s brightest sonic moments. “She loves a major key,” Brownstein says. ”There are still things that are very grounded, disgusting, and right in the dirt of it. We used to find that prettiness in other ways, whether it was horns screaming or whatever. But we were able to find that realm — the grit and the guttural — in a different way.”
Where Sleater-Kinney’s past records have relied on the friction between Brownstein and Tucker’s guitars and voices, The Center Won’t Hold frequently relies on the friction between sweet melodies and bitter words. “Restless,” the only song that Brownstein’s ever written on an acoustic guitar, comes off so innocent that it might as well be a nursery rhyme — but the chorus has a sharp edge: “My heart wants the ugliest things / My heart is the ugliest thing.” “The Dog, The Body” includes Sleater-Kinney’s poppiest chorus ever, on which Brownstein sings, “I'm just the fist without the will to fight.” Then there’s “Can I Go On,” which rivals The Woods' “Modern Girl” as a stress dream dressed up as a pop song. “Everyone I know is funny / But jokes don’t make us money / Sell our rage, buy and trade / But we still cry for free every day,” Brownstein sings. The chorus is sweet and borderline suicidal: “Maybe I’m not sure I wanna go on.”
In these major-key moments, when Tucker and Brownstein articulate their darkest fears, gravity seems to dissipate. “That's what I feel like the whole record is about,” Tucker says. “We all have these terrible feelings. When you have them alone, they're insurmountable. But when you have them together, it turns into a funny rock song. Its power is diminished. You have them together and you commiserate. Even if there's nothing we can do, even if Trump is President for four years—”
“Anoints himself king and there's a dynasty,” Brownstein interjects, before Tucker cuts back in as quickly as she used to on Sleater-Kinney’s most barbed songs. “Yeah. If we can stay together and have some moments together and commiserate together as people, it's much more bearable.”
“We always wanted people to feel seen and heard in our music — a sense of belonging,” Brownstein surmises. “It's a band that revolves around need and necessity, for us too. I think the audience senses that.”
In the midst of all the anger and angst on The Center Won’t Hold — major key and minor — there’s “Love,” which, Brownstein says chuckling, “is the only one that isn’t dark.” The song is a history of Sleater-Kinney in miniature, told by Brownstein over skittish drums and arpeggiated staccato guitars. It runs through their formation in Olympia — their punk instincts and desire to raze everything including themselves through music, and their deep-rooted anger. It leads to a mission statement: “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene / Than a well-worn body, demanding to be seen.”
Sleater-Kinney were heralded almost universally as the greatest rock band on earth when they returned with the career-spanning box set Start Together in 2014. Greil Marcus had been saying it forever, Time had jumped on in the early years, and Rolling Stone had declared them “the best American punk band ever” in 2006. Still, the acclaim that greeted their return was startling. A band that had been forced to absorb the rank misogyny of the music press in the mid-90s — who had pushed their sound to extremes to confound the critics who saw them as riot grrrl upstarts, who had then disappeared for the better part of a decade — were suddenly superheroes.
“There were tons of young people there, which I think surprised us the most.” Weiss says of the No Cities tour as she reaches into the fridge for almond milk. “Kids in the front, you know? It wasn’t a nostalgia trip at all. It felt like kids knew the new record. If we had played ‘Be Yr Mama,’ they wouldn’t have had any idea what that song was. That feels good.”
When I saw Sleater-Kinney in London on the No Cities tour, Brownstein didn’t talk much on stage, but she did say something that seemed key: “We know things have changed since we've been gone, but we find that things haven't changed enough." I remind her of that now. Was that not the whole point of No Cities to Love — to inspire a new generation of kids? “Not really,” she says softly. “It’s a nice byproduct — it made it more rewarding and sustaining. If we had just come back and it had been people that were excited to dip into that syrupy, sentimental feeling, we would have just done that tour and said, Okay.”
That’s difficult to imagine. Brownstein wrote about the band as a compulsion in Hunger, and the idea behind “Love” is that they’d be lost without each other: “We can be young / We can be old / As long as we have / Each other to hold.” Maybe they’d have taken more time off between records, but surely they’d have played together again, eventually. They’ve got arguments to make, crises to articulate, dust to kick up. They can’t do all that alone.
The last song on The Center Won’t Hold is a ballad called “Broken.” The music was written on a piano by Brownstein, who asked if Tucker might want to sing the melody and write some lyrics. The result is a song about #MeToo, empathy, and the wave of testimonials that have surfaced since Sleater-Kinney recorded their last album. Its message doesn’t become clear until the second verse, when Tucker sings: “Me, me too / My body cried out.” She sings the chorus through a desolate warble: “But I’m breaking in two / But I’m breaking inside.”
There are parallels there with “Sympathy,” a beautiful song that closes out One Beat, the album that was, until now, Sleater-Kinney’s most politically fraught. “Sympathy” was about her son, Marshall, who was born prematurely and had to fight for his life. He just graduated high school. He’s going to college to study engineering at the end of the summer.
“Corin just gets you sometimes,” Weiss says. “It’s otherworldly.”
“It’s a distillation of our growth as songwriters,” Brownstein continues. “Just a shared vulnerability — just us in that room playing.”
Tucker doesn’t say much about “Broken” herself, but what she does say — her consonants still sharp, her vowels now softer — is enough to make a cut. “It’s just the ability to not have any filter, to make a total connection with emotion: I’m going to say this all right now, because I need to.”