Carrie Brownstein: ‘She left. We asked her to stay. We tried’
Sleater-Kinney have new album, produced by St Vincent, and are going back on the road, but without drummer Janet Weiss. Brownstein reflects on the Washington band’s ever-evolving story
Sleater-Kinney: ‘There are other women playing music who are older, but they’re not a three-piece, all-female band who write their own songs’
With Sleater-Kinney’s first album in four years ready for release, I arrive at their record company offices in London to meet Carrie Brownstein the musician, but it’s Carrie Brownstein the fashionista who greets me. She’s slender, perfect in hair and stature, and confidently breaks a cardinal rule by wearing both navy blue and black in sharp-cut blazer and trousers.
When the band formed in Washington, they helped continue the momentum of the Riot Grrl movement along with L7 and Bikini Kill, who, coincidentally, have both reassembled this year. But since Sleater-Kinney’s own reformation in 2014, Brownstein has become just as well known for heading up the group as being a celebrity creative more broadly. She and Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen created and starred in the Emmy-winning alternative sketch series Portlandia, she dabbled in acting roles outside of that (Transparent and Carol for starters), penned a column with NPR Music and a couple of books, and – to counter the positives of the rising profile – prompted many a clickbait headline with speculation of relationships with Orange Is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling, Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Annie Clark, better known as St Vincent. Most recently, she’s stepped into the world of directing; she was in the chair for an episode of Aidy Bryant’s Shrill, and will take on HBO’s Mrs Fletcher next.
“I feel like directing is a melding of my skill set: it’s very imaginative, but it’s also so very structured and that is a perfect combination for where I thrive,” she says of her newest outlet. “You kind of move through the set with a lot of alacrity. It’s kind of a kinetic experience, but also very exacting.”
We’re investing in the attention economy, and it is dumbing us the f**k down
Her stylish look today reminds me of her short film on behalf of Kenzo (starring Natasha Lyonne of Russian Doll fame and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, no less), in which she digs into the throwaway comments we make on social media.
“I don’t judge people for being on it,” Brownstein says about Twitter et al. “I just think there’s been studies that it actually makes people feel worse the longer they’re on. We’re investing in the attention economy, and it is dumbing us the f**k down. And social media platforms are not agnostic – they are run by technocrats who make more money than most people in this world. It’s neoliberalism and capitalism at its peak form. So I would rather be out in nature, or with friends. Almost anything else.”
It’s easy to see why Brownstein is well-regarded; she’s enlightening and strong of opinion and, while her mind moves at a brisk pace, she’s patient too.
But this isn’t her first rodeo; as documented in her pre-Portlandia memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, when Sleater-Kinney first came into existence in Washington within an expressly male-dominated industry, assertiveness was key. Twenty-five years on, the landscape is wildly different, but the group – also featuring co-singer/guitarist Corin Tucker and, until May, drummer Janet Weiss – are still trailblazing with new release The Center Won’t Hold, particularly when it comes to defining mature female rock acts.
“There are other women playing music who are older, but they’re not a three-piece, all-female band who write their own songs,” she says. “I don’t know what that music sounds like. Literally, I don’t. It’s odd not to have a vocabulary for that experience. You just have to make something up. Now, we only have this as evidence.”
How was the experience of setting that standard?
“Very freeing,” she says, without hesitation. “We could do whatever the f**k we wanted.”
The lack of boundaries is audible throughout this album, whether it stems from this point, or Sleater-Kinney’s modus operandi more generally – they’ve never been one to miss an opportunity for sonic explorations.
This age is very fractious and tumultuous, so we’re taking that and placing it within a narrative context
Written between Brownstein in LA and Tucker in Portland, their 10th album is more textured than ever, veering from the fizzing Hurry on Home to the anti-ballad of A Restless Life, all underpinned by Corin and Carrie’s spiky punk sentiment.
Thematically, it’s a mediation on the divisive times we’re in.
“This age is very fractious and tumultuous, so we’re taking that and placing it within a narrative context, where certain narrators are moving through that environment with notions of despair, while others are embracing its corrupt nature, like on Bad Dance or Ruins,” explains Brownstein. “It’s merging a broader political context, but placing it in an embodied narrative.”
Behind the scenes
Afterwards, Riordan explains how the studio sessions progressed.
“Once Corin or Carrie would have an idea for a part or a melody, it would get workshopped in the room, and put down to tape very quickly,” he says. “Everything was always changing and nothing was precious. I had never worked that quickly and gotten such interesting and timeless results before.
“Even though Annie is new to the production game, I really learned a lot from her, especially about trusting your instincts and not getting bogged down in the technical minutiae. I wish every record came together like this one.”
Originally, the group envisaged a number of producers working on the album, but decided to stick with Clark after hearing the results of the first three songs.
“She’s a perfectionist in some ways, and she pushed us to make it more personal,” says Brownstein. “When things got too broad, too esoteric or too cerebral, she’d check, ‘what is the noun, what’s the visual here?’
“She’s been a fan of the band since she was young, so her intention was to bring something new to it, but there was also something protectionist about it.”
Any history between Brownstein and Clark (of course, she doesn’t want to go into detail) was left at the studio door.
“Annie and I have known each other since 2011 and just have been friends for a really long time,” Brownstein says. “But that’s not the dynamic between her and the band, you know what I mean? She just got along with everyone. With Janet, she’s like, ‘get in there and just play’. That gave us a sense of freedom. We don’t usually see the studio as a playground.”
I wish there were more time to play multiple cities in Ireland – it seems like everyone just goes to Dublin
Perhaps the studio sessions didn’t suit Weiss as much – the interview takes place just before she unexpectedly left the group. She explained to fans that “the band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on”. (“What am I supposed to say?” Brownstein responded on Instagram afterwards. “She left. We asked her to stay. We tried.”)
As it stands, the departure raises a question of who will pick up the drumsticks for their forthcoming tour, which comes to Dublin in March 2020. They play Vicar Street, the same venue of their 2015 visit.
“The last time we were there, we had a really, really great show,” Brownstein says. “It’s a beautiful city. I wish there were more time to play multiple cities in Ireland – it seems like everyone just goes to Dublin.”
With US and European dates announced, how does she feel about hitting the road again?
“Touring is a fragmentary, jarring existence, but you do what you can to make the best of it,” she says. “In the first iteration of Sleater-Kinney, we didn’t have as much help. We didn’t have a big crew. Sometimes we were loading our own gear. By the time of The Woods [in 2005], we had a bus, and now we tour in a way that’s a little more civilised.
“Now I’m really grateful that I’ve visited so many places. I’m always really surprised that there are other Americans who’ve not travelled outside their own state. It’s a privilege to see the world.”
The Center Won’t Hold is out on Friday August 16th. Sleater-Kinney play Vicar Street, Dublin, on Sunday March 1st, 2020