By Connor Dziawura
With its new LP, indie rock outfit Sleater-Kinney was looking to do something different.
While 2015’s “No Cities to Love” could be considered the influential feminist band picking up where it left when it took a near-decade hiatus, August’s “The Center Won’t Hold” sees the band treading expanded sonic territory.
“I think with each album we want to make something that sounds different from the last,” vocalist/guitarist Carrie Brownstein says over the phone during a day off from touring in Chicago. “I think with ‘No Cities’ it was a little easier because we’d been gone for nine years. So, in some ways that album felt like it borrowed from the sonic lexicon of the previous seven records. And with this one it really felt like we don’t have to adhere to any preconceived idea of who we are. We’re not really interested in that. We just want to push ourselves and write songs from a place of honesty and urgency.”
During the writing process for “The Center Won’t Hold,” Sleater-Kinney’s ninth album, the band also resorted to something different—writing separately and trading files via computer, because Brownstein and fellow vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker lived in different cities. And while Brownstein says the two of them are most comfortable playing guitar, they traded their instrument of choice for keyboards and synthesizers, sometimes even transposing them back to guitar at the request of St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, who produced the album.
“‘You guys are a guitar band,’” Brownstein recalls Clark telling them.
But the band—Brownstein, Tucker and former drummer Janet Weiss, who announced her departure in July—had mostly established the “sonic palette” of the record prior to Clark’s involvement, Brownstein says. Still, the musician challenged their ideas, inspiring them to rearrange and alter musical elements, continue to try to top themselves and let the best ideas win.
Calling her “ingenious” and a “maximalist” and “perfectionist,” Brownstein says Clark would also encourage the band to record different takes on different days and in different moods and mindsets to get the best possible recording, putting emotion over technicality.
“What we loved about working with St. Vincent—similar to when we worked with Dave Fridmann on ‘The Woods’—is just having someone at the helm with a prodigious imagination, who really sees the studio as an instrument in and of itself and can do lot of kind of flexing of that muscle,” Brownstein says. “That is something that we like to leave in the hands of someone else. I think we were excited to bring in somebody to really collaborate with in that final stage of the process.”
Just over a month after the release of the album, and only a week prior to the band’s tour kickoff, however, Brownstein and Tucker released more music. “Animal,” an additional, standalone single, serves as an extra treat for fans before the shows, and as an opportunity for Tucker—known for her powerful vibrato—to vocally let loose, Brownstein describes.
“I’m such an admirer of Corin’s voice, and one thing that we have a lot of fun with on tour—we did this on the ‘No Cities’ tour—is when there are songs that she can just sing,” Brownstein explains. “I mean on the record she plays guitar on it, but I think we wanted to put something out right before tour that was very specific to the performance of the song and at the shows. She just takes front-and-center stage and is sort of the much more traditional lead singer in that moment.”
Fans can catch Sleater-Kinney’s tour at The Van Buren in Phoenix on Monday, November 11. The band’s newly expanded setlist has in recent shows featured nearly 30 songs including the entire new album, “Animal” and plenty of older cuts.
Reflecting on the past 25 years of the band, Brownstein notes that “The Center Won’t Hold” may not be as different from past works as some have made it out to be, however. For 1999’s “The Hot Rock,” Sleater-Kinney toned things down compared to 1997’s “Dig Me Out,” and 2005’s “The Woods” was far heavier than its previous six records, she says. But at the end of the day, it’s all Sleater-Kinney.
“People have always taken certain albums—specifically ‘Hot Rock’ and ‘The Woods’ and then this one—as if it’s these major departures, but in a live setting it all falls under the umbrella of Sleater-Kinney,” Brownstein says. “Quieter songs from ‘The Hot Rock’ have more teeth, more bombastic songs from ‘The Woods’ become more melodious, and the new record, too—it all falls under the same sort of beast of this band.”
Sleater-Kinney w/Kaina, The Van Buren, 401 W. Van Buren Street, Phoenix, 480.659.1641, thevanburenphx.com, 8 p.m. Monday, November 11, $32.