Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #135. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Fuelled by catharsis and a drive to push themselves in a bold new direction, feminist punk luminaries Sleater-Kinney make LP9 their biggest head-turner yet.
Words by Matt Doria.
A quarter-century since they first kicked down the barriers of a male-dominated rock scene and cemented themselves as a force of blunt, unwavering fury, Sleater-Kinney are still fighting the good fight – with, by way of necessity, more incandescent fervour than ever. And despite losing their drummer mere weeks before album #9’s release, and wading through a political landscape that would revel in their atrophy, the Pacific Northwest punks have never been in such bright spirits.
It stands to reason The Center Won’t Hold would be an especially poignant Sleater-Kinney record. And it is: across its kaleidoscopic 11 tracks, the shredder-singer combo of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker wrestle uncomfortable feelings and reckon with unsavoury times – but inspired by the wonderfully left-field Weirdo Night in LA, and with the decidedly eccentric mind of Annie Clark (a.k.a. AG cover star St. Vincent) wreaking havoc from the producer’s chair, album #9 is a far cry from the crunchy, grime-slicked indie vibes their first LPs savoured.
Instead, The Center Won’t Hold is bright and bombastic, terrifically theatrical and slicked all over with globs of gaudy, colourful sonic fingerpaint. At the end of the day, as Tucker fills us in, it was a powerfully gratifying record to make.
How was this record shaped by the world around you and what was happening in it?
For us, it was a period of artistic growth. It’s felt like such a difficult time to be living in, with the administration that we’re under in the United States – the election felt like such a gut-punch for so long. But making music feels really cathartic and vital, and it’s something that we just enjoy doing, so it seemed like a really good idea to use those feelings as a jumping-off point for this record. But we needed to do it differently because Carrie and I live in different places now. The way that we approached [writing] was out of necessity, but I also think it provided a lot of freedom to explore ideas and techniques that we hadn’t before, which I really enjoyed doing.
What was that dynamic like, being so far apart and trying to write an album together?
We ended up trading files of demos. We’d done some of that before, but not as completely as we did for this album, where we were writing whole songs, or whole parts for songs. It was almost like we were providing each other with a proof-of-concept for each song idea we had, like, “This is my vision for the song,” and sending those files band forth.
How did that impact your creative relationship?
I mean, it was still a very collaborative process. We were always adding different parts to each other’s songs, and adding our voices in with every idea that we sent back and forth. But it kind of gave us this license to almost engage with the other writer and – like I said – go, “This is my vision for the song.” We’d give an idea its own face, and then we could look at it and go, “Okay, well how can I help serve this vision? How can I complete what the other writer is trying to do?” I think that’s a really good challenge to have – especially after writing together for 25 years.
Do you find it imperative to keep pushing the boundaries of your own creativity?
Yeah, definitely. I think as a writer, asking different things of yourself each time helps you to grow and create something different. I mean, for us, it was almost hard to change a Sleater-Kinney song – for so long, it was like, “Two guitars and two vocals intertwining – that’s us!” So it was really rewarding to actually let ourselves go and try something different this time. It forced us to come up with new ideas, and I think it loosed up our songwriting.
What were some of those ideas you wanted to explore on album #9?
I think we were going for more of a theatrical style, with different narrators and characters. We were inspired by a lot of different industrial sounds, and groups like Nine Inch Nails, but also artists like Nick Cave. He’s all about character and he’s such a great writer, and he’s been doing it for so long, but it’s never boring because he’s just 110 percent committed to those characters. He’s one of the artists we found in the time between [2015’s] No Cities To Love and The Center Won’t Hold that we were all just floored by. Because he is the character in his songs, y’know? He writes these incredible stories for each song, and it was that kind of writing that I think we were inspired by, heading into this record.
So is The Center Won’t Hold a concept album?
In some ways, it’s a comment on a very specific cultural moment that we’re in right now. I think we wanted to do that a little differently than we have in the past, and make it a little more theatrical than other records we’ve done, in a way that was really fun and really engaging as a writer. I felt loosed up and like I was free to try these different things that I never would have before. We were also inspired by this really cool performance night in LA called Weirdo Night, where all these different performers from the LGBTQ+ community come together and do comedy and stand-up, but also sing and perform these really-far-out-there characters. We all loved that, and I do think it inspired us to get a little further out of our comfort zones and do something a little more daring.
Weirdo Night sounds like something I would be extremely into.
There’s lots of videos of it on the internet! We went a couple of times when I was down there, but there was one night where we saw this amazing opera singer named Joseph Keckler, who I was particularly inspired by. I loved his voice, and seeing him perform was kind of what helped me write “The Future Is Here”. That’s where that kind of ‘lower octave meeting the higher octave’ thing was inspired by. I was thinking, “What would it be like to be able to sing like that? Could we have him sing on the song?” But Annie was like, “No, no, no – you’re going to sing the whole thing!” So I ended up singing that on the album in a way that I think is really cool, and really stretched me as a singer and a songwriter.
What was it like bringing Annie onboard to produce this album?
She was so incredible to work with. She was completely fired up, and brought a tonne of ideas to the table. When she heard the demos, most of them were already fully formed songs – but she was able to just completely blow a song up. A song like “RUINS” – I had the melody for that song ready, but whe was able to make it into this huge, dark, terrible, gross sounding catastrophe, which is exactly what we were hoping for. She’s so great at coming up with different sounds and ideas that we never would’ve thought of.
St. Vincent records are typically very theatrically intoned and have a distinct ‘weird and wonderful’ quality to them. Was it just a no-brainer to bring her onboard for that skill?
We actually talked about working with a bunch of different artists and different producers, not knowing what we were going to do with this album or how long it was going to take us to make it. But once we started working with Annie, she was so full of ideas that we were like, “Oh, this is such a great opportunity! We should definitely make the whole record this way.”