Expectations can be an artist’s enemy. For a veteran band as consistently potent as Sleater-Kinney, they’re high by default.
Anticipation for “The Center Won’t Hold,” the Northwest punk greats’ second studio effort since returning from a nearly 10-year hiatus in 2014, surged earlier this year when the band revealed the new record was being produced by Annie Clark, better known as art-rock auteur St. Vincent. Arriving in August, the record pushed Sleater-Kinney into new territory; heavily armed with synthesizers, the band tactfully deploys pop-leaning melodies and danceable grooves amid its rock ‘n’ roll offensive.
It’s as restless and fearless as the band has ever sounded, and, while largely met with favorable reviews, the album has spurred mixed reactions from fans, some put off by the shift in sound.
“If you’re so worried about what people think, you’re gonna have really boring records,” said singer/guitarist Corin Tucker, laughing, amid a mid-tour phone interview earlier this month. “I think part of being an artist is taking risks and giving voice to different things you might want to try during your career. We had the faith that we were making something that was interesting and that would add to our catalog in a way that we would enjoy playing.”
Seattle fans will get their first live taste of the new material when the band closes its U.S. tour with two shows at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 23-24. While the first show is sold out, Sunday tickets were available at the time of publication.
“The Center Won’t Hold” is more of a timely evolution than an unrecognizable reinvention for the Washington band, formed by The Evergreen State College alumnae Tucker and Carrie Brownstein during Olympia’s influential riot grrrl movement in the ’90s. The titular opening track — which paraphrases a line from W.B. Yeats’ “Second Coming” — ominously churns with a mechanical lurch before erupting in a familiar burst of guitar fuzz, setting the tone for what’s to come.
From the jump, Tucker says the band knew it wanted to do something different and expand “our instrumental vocabulary” on its ninth studio album. While the album is undoubtedly the starkest shake-up of the band’s career, it’s not exactly the first to trigger varied reactions among Sleater-Kinney’s fan base. “Certainly with an album like ‘The Woods,’ people were like, ‘What is this?’ We took a lot of risks and there were a lot of people that didn’t like that album. It wasn’t very popular in the United States when it first came out, but it really stretched us as a band and it’s something we’re still proud of so many years later.”
On the newest album, the heavy use of synthesizers has often been chalked up to the influence of Clark, a friend and fan of the band whose fingerprints are indeed all over the album. But the synth usage was partially rooted in Tucker and Brownstein’s writing methods. More than they had previously, the two sketched out many demos independently — a result of Tucker living in Portland while Brownstein was in Los Angeles — using digital-audio programs GarageBand and Logic.
Once in the studio, Clark had the know-how to pull off and elevate the band’s initial ideas, executing the “corrosive, eerie and disturbing synth sounds” that Tucker says the band sought on songs like “RUINS,” a creepy-crawly track with angular guitar scribbles that would feel at home on any Sleater-Kinney record.
While the mood of the record isn’t all doom and gloom (see the nostalgic “LOVE,” a synth-punk celebration of Tucker and Brownstein’s friendship and Sleater-Kinney’s basement beginnings), it is as weighty and topical as we’ve come to expect from songwriters who have long stood at the intersection of the personal and the political. The most sonically surprising track, “Broken,” is a sparse piano ballad that references the #MeToo movement and Christine Blasey Ford, who brought forward allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“We wanted the record to be an acknowledgment of where we are culturally and politically,” says Tucker, noting the use of various characters narrating their own experiences on the new record. “We wanted all of those to touch on where we’re at as a country. We chose to do that through different storytelling, but all of the stories are set in a very catastrophic, doomsday kind of setting, which is what we were feeling after the election.”
Truly, in more way than one, this year has marked the beginning of a new chapter for Sleater-Kinney.
With “The Center Won’t Hold,” the band left their former label, Sub Pop, after a three-album run. With a new sound, a new strategy, and looking to boost their streaming numbers, Sleater-Kinney landed with New York-based Mom + Pop.
More significantly, though, longtime drummer Janet Weiss announced she was leaving the band just as it was ramping up promotion around the new record. Weiss, who declined to be interviewed for this story, cited the band’s “new direction” as the reason for her departure. The one-woman rhythm section had anchored Tucker and Brownstein’s twin-guitar attack since the making of Sleater-Kinney’s seminal 1997 album, “Dig Me Out.”
Announced just two months before the album’s release date, Weiss’ decision seemed to catch her bandmates by surprise. In subsequent interviews, Brownstein has said working with Clark was initially Weiss’ idea.
“I mean, I was surprised and definitely sad to lose a collaborator that we worked with for so long,” Tucker says. “But you know, ultimately, it was her decision, so we ended up having to respect her wishes.”
(Weiss, meanwhile, was forced to cancel plans for a West Coast tour with her other bands, Quasi and Slang, after breaking her leg and collarbone in a car accident. A GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $63,000 to help Weiss during her recovery.)
With scheduled tour dates looming, Tucker and Brownstein flew veteran NYC drummer Angie Boylan out to Portland for an audition on the recommendation of Tucker’s husband. The three clicked — Boylan, who once played in a Sleater-Kinney cover band, earned the job on the spot.
“I think she was a little shocked,” Tucker says. “We were like, ‘Don’t fly home! Let’s do this.’ … God bless her, she stayed. She canceled her flight and we worked really hard in Carrie’s basement.”
It might be a new era for Sleater-Kinney, but from the sound of it, they’re still three punks in a basement.
Sleater-Kinney with Kaina, 8 p.m. Nov. 23-24; Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $33.50-$38.50; stgpresents.org