There are reunions, and then there are reunions. Just this week, we’ve learned that emo-punk darlings My Chemical Romance will be getting back together to march the Black Parade once again, while Los Angeles rap-rock pioneers Rage Against the Machine will return in 2020 for a handful of shows, including Coachella. And there’s no doubt that, right now, the machine needs some raging against.
However, when Sleater-Kinney announced that they would be reuniting again back in 2014, it really meant something. And shit, two years later when the presidential election happened, ultimately contributing to the rise of the #MeToo movement, there was a feeling of relief that Sleater-Kinney was around to help people through it all.
No Cities to Love, the band’s eighth studio album, came out in January 2015, a decade after their The Woods seventh effort. Four years later, they put out The Center Won’t Hold, in August of this year.
“We knew putting it out that it would be an album that would take some people by surprise, and I think that generally that’s what happened,” says singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein. “We’re just excited to play the songs live. We have a history of putting out records that sound different to the previous ones, and where they all coalesce is in the live setting. There’s this broader umbrella of Sleater-Kinney and a quieter album like The Hot Rock has more teeth in the live setting. A really bombastic record like The Woods, we’re able to drop the melodies from it. It all gets mixed into this larger picture and I think we all look forward to that process.”
There was already a lot of interest in a new Sleater-Kinney album, but the buzz was amped up when it was announced that they would be working with one of the greatest minds in contemporary music: St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark.
“She was amazing,” says Brownstein. “I think for us in the past, one thing that the studio has been is more of an act of documentation, in the sense that it was an act of discovery, and I think the studio became an instrument. That happened a little bit with Dave Fridmann on The Woods, but it’s rare for us to be able to go in at different times — we went in over the course of a few months and so that allowed us to step away and have introspective, retool things. She just has this very prodigious imagination, and she’s clever and sensitive. We just felt like she’s the real deal. She’s such a natural producer.”
The album is phenomenal, and it helped cement the feeling that Sleater-Kinney was settled and in a hot spot following the reunion. Then drummer Janet Weiss quit, out of the blue. Maybe The Center Won’t Hold is a fitting farewell — Brownstein isn’t sure.
“When we went in to record the record and were finishing it up, Janet’s enthusiasm was really strong, so I think only in retrospect can you look back and think, maybe this is a fitting last record, but also not necessarily,” she says. “It is what it is, I guess.”
Brownstein says that the new album deals with the state of the world in a very personal way. It’s not overtly political, but the themes are there.
“I think so much of this record is about how trauma and toxicity affect the body, especially the woman’s body, and how the body is a place of resistance,” she says. “I think there are a lot of songs about despair, about aging and obsolescence, depression and corruption. To me, it feels like a lot of the songs surveyed the landscape and took it in, but couched it in an intimate narrative. ‘Broken’ or ‘Ruins’ is definitely a song about a collective monster that we’ve all built up and is now destroying everything. ‘Reach Out’ is a song certainly about despondency. ‘Love’ is about connection as a fulcrum for survival. So yeah, to me it’s the most personal record we’ve done since The Hot Rock I guess.”
The record is exactly that, and that’s why it’s so effective. There are sentiments here that everyone can relate to or at least empathize with, though it’s written from the female perspective.
“In the moment, it can feel good to have a soundtrack to one’s feelings,” Brownstein says. “But in terms of the bigger picture, not everything is in the present moment. Everybody approaches music from their own context and personhood. Our responsibility is to write songs that will appeal and connect to someone a year from now or two years from now. That connection is one of the reasons we play music and our desire is for people to feel seen and heard. It’s one of the reasons we go on tour, to be in that dialogue, both with ourselves and the audience. I don’t know if we feel a sense of responsibility but we feel gratitude and I think our responsibility is to push ourselves. To make good records and hope that in doing that, people will enjoy it.”
That desire to connect to their audience will be evident when they hit L.A. this week, a city that Brownstein calls home for at least part of the time.
“I think L.A. is pretty great these days,” she says. “There are a lot of great artists there, and I think it’s one of the great cities. I live part time in Portland and I prefer the clean air of the Pacific Northwest. And the rain. But I think L.A. is a wonderful city, so I am excited to play there because after basically seven weeks on tour I’ll get to see some of my friends.”
As for the set, the band will be drawing from all of their nine albums.
“One of the best things about playing live is being able to create a sonic throughline between the past and the present, and to elevate and transform songs, to create an aural narrative,” Brownstein says. “We have five people on stage with us, sometimes we will play in a contracted way and it’ll just be a three piece with a fiery core, then we’ll expand and play with a full band. That allows us to reach to the further edges of the palate and play some of these songs the way they were intended to be heard with all the instruments and nuance that they have on the record. So it’ll draw from all the records, but we’re always excited to play the new stuff when we get out on the road.”
Sleater-Kinney plays at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 14 at the Hollywood Palladium.
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