But those words “middle period”, which Brownstein refers to repeatedly, are telling. After a decade-long break between 2005’s The Woods and 2015’s No Cities To Love, Sleater-Kinney are back to stay – good news for fans of one of the most celebrated indie-rock bands of the last quarter century.
From inside of it, my goal is to keep it alive and relevant and scrappy and kind of hungry…
Produced by Annie Clark, better known as St Vincent, The Centre Won’t Hold represents a slight change in direction for the band. The band’s longevity and stature, Brownstein says, had given them the freedom to stretch themselves creatively. “We wanted to defy people’s expectations and also surprise ourselves.”
That change resulted in straightforward musical differences that were cited as the reasons for Weiss’ departure. But Brownstein says Sleater-Kinney had the equivalent of a “free pass” with No Cities To Love, with the band coasting on the enthusiasm generated by their reformation. To remain relevant, they needed to reinvent themselves.
That increased the pressure on the band. “I think [No Cities] delivered in all the ways it needed to, but whatever we did next kind of needed to cement the middle period of this band” – those words again – “to actually say, this is not just for the sake of touring or for the sake of nostalgia, but really to re-enter the cultural conversation.”
Sleater-Kinney, which emerged from the riot grrrl movement centred in their hometown of Olympia, Washington, have always been a vital part of that conversation. “I think it’s hard to make music or any art right now that isn’t a reflection of the time we live in,” Brownstein says.
The Centre Won’t Hold is the deeply personal reaction of a deeply political band to Trump’s America. Brownstein says “we wanted there to be a real personal core to it, to feel like the songs were not just bombastic but [that] they were exploring an interiority, a feeling about what’s going on right now.”
Yet, she says, there is a lot of melody on the record: The Centre Won’t Hold might deal with interiors, but that doesn’t mean it fails to look out. “I think we wanted to provide a fulcrum for people to feel seen and heard within this broader context of despair and uncertainty, that there was something to stand on, even when the songs are dealing with pain.”
Brownstein says this was deliberate, and true to the band’s anthemic spirit. While the songs might deal with the daily struggle just to get up in the morning, “they get to the chorus and they’re joined by other people, and we set this up very purposely, knowing that we didn’t just want to spiral downwards. We wanted to find rungs on the ladder that uplifted.”
And Sleater-Kinney have always been a band to uplift. “We always worked so hard to make the music the message,” Brownstein says. “We don’t shy away from politics or earnestness or integrity, but the music is always the thing that lasts, you have to have good songs, that’s what people will remember.
“I always think that it’s up to other people to assess the legacy of this band. From inside of it, my goal is to keep it alive and relevant and scrappy and kind of hungry, and you know, Janet or no Janet, there’s been plenty of other detours. It’s been a really wonderful and exhilarating journey.”
The Centre Won’t Hold is now available.