Interview: Carrie Brownstein on Sleater-Kinney's Sonic Evolution

As a group started by two guitarists, Sleater-Kinney's sonic foundation was, from the beginning, limited by design—at least as far as the rhythm section was concerned. While they'd add a drummer to solidify the lineup, they never did get around to adding a bassist.

But even on the band's debut, the interplay between Carrie Brownstein's quick riffs and Corin Tucker's lower-fret guitar work never sounded lacking. Recorded in a night in 1994 while the Pacific Northwest pair was traveling in Melbourne, Australia, Sleater-Kinney had drummer Laura (aka Lora) MacFarlane, a Scotland native that had grown up in Australia, providing the rhythms. The sonic template of the band's future was set.

"Don't Think You Wanna" opens with the type of spindly, pointillist dual guitars Brownstein and Tucker would only make more complex with time. And when the great, crashing barre chords enter for the hook, Tucker introduces the powerful voice that would become one of the group's signature instruments. On other tracks, you can hear the beginnings of the songcraft that followed on classics like Dig Me Out or All Hands on the Bad One, and you can hear on other songs the later rock ambitions of The Woods.

Over the years, Corin filled out the bass register with a number of octave-down effect pedals, most notably the Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth. But never before has the group focused as much on low-end as they have with their latest record, which was produced by Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent.

The Center Won't Hold takes Sleater-Kinney's dual guitar attack and adds thick synths, sub-bass, and other textures normally outside the bounds of their power trio. The result is not just a record with more low-end, but one that stretches out, slows down, and, in its restraint, allows Carrie and Corin to dig into the songs in a brand-new way.

Making The Center Won't Hold

Brownstein highlights this restrained approach when discussing the creation of the album's guitar parts with Reverb.

"I have a lot of impulses for melody," Brownstein says. "If I had a bridge in a song or chords in a song, I can write 10 melodies for that on guitar. And if it's up to me [laughs], I'll just start layering. If you listen to older Sleater-Kinney records like The Hot Rock, it's just these intertwining melodies."

By the 2015 reunion record No Cities to Love, the band's triumphant return after going on hiatus in 2006, Brownstein says they had already begun to take a step back from the guitars' "dualistic conversation," instead "having things coalesce a little more copacetically on the chorus."

While working on The Center Won't Hold, they focused even more on culling back the guitar-work in order to make room for everything else.

"I think what I learned a lot from Annie was restraint. And I think Corin and I both—all three of us really, including Janet [Weiss]—it was a conversation about restraint," Brownstein says. "How can we highlight vocals? Or, how can we create dynamics not just by being additive? Like, now we have vocal melodies, and we have two guitar melodies—that competition for room was very critical, I think, to Annie's perfection skills. Her ideas were often 'don't play there,' but then let's have something that is meaningful because it did not exist in the previous section."

It's an approach that fans of St. Vincent's music will already recognize. There's no lack of inventive sounds coming in and out of her albums' soundscapes, but, then again, they're not bogged down by extraneous detail. "Annie is such a maximalist as a producer, and she has prodigious imagination, she's obviously very ingenious, but I think she does think about what serves the song," Brownstein says.

Underpinning so many of the songs on The Center Won't Hold are another sonic trait common to St. Vincent record—big synth textures, created with an old Rheem organ, a Moog Grandmother, and others.

Sleater-Kinney - "Ruins"

In a track like "Ruins," you can hear the group's new sounds and the new sense of restraint—all while being pummeled by the result.

"There's a couple things," Brownstein explains when asked about all that's going on in the song. "There's a brokedown little synthesizer that we were using where a couple of the keys—it was one of those synthesizers where it doesn't actually have any piano keys, it's more like a little trigger, like a little pad. And a couple of the notes we needed didn't work, they would sort of corrode and disintegrate when we touched them. So we just used that as one of the sounds. I think the second verse where, really, most of the underpinnings of the song drop out—and it's [just] Corin's voice and this sort of crackling sound—is that sound."

Like the song's title (and the implication of the album's title), Brownstein says these corrosive textures were very much an aesthetic they wanted to bring to the forefront. "Once we realized that we could embrace something ruinous, which, again, was where we were headed thematically, then we created the sonic landscape around that—more low-end, sub-bass, and [direct-recorded, metallic] guitars."

Annie Clark mentions this "corrosive" theme in a November Tape Op interview with Cian Riordan, the album's engineer. She says that on "Ruins," it was helped by an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth pedal:

"The band kept saying words like 'corroded' or 'corrosive.' A couple of times I had to pull Carrie back and say, 'No, no. This is a beautiful moment. Let there be beauty for half a second without "corroded." Yes "corroded," 100 percent, but just not here for a second.' Luckily we have that kind of relationship where I can tell her anything. But you pulled out that Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth, which is that sound on 'Ruins,' which is just so gross. One of my favorite moments on the record is in the second verse where it breaks up. 'Okay, magic!'"

Bringing the New Sound to the Stage

Sleater-Kinney's longtime drummer Janet Weiss, who had been with the group since 1997, left during the recording of The Center Won't Hold.

To bring the new songs to life on stage, then, Brownstein and Tucker not only had to find a new drummer—which they did, in Angie Boylan—but also enough auxiliary members to do justice to the album's expanded sonics.

"We've been a band for a long time, over 20 years, and we know the intensity that springs forth from a three-piece, but also we're interested in having a different dynamic on stage, where it does free us up to not be playing the really tricky, lab-designed guitar part while trying to sing, it allows us to focus on different things," Brownstein says. "For this record, it felt like, if we only have one extra person, that person may literally not have any fun [laughs]. They'll just be doing so many things."

Sleater-Kinney - "Can I Go On," live on The Late Late Show

Katie Harkin, who had played guitar and some keyboards on the No Cities to Love tour in 2015, is back with a larger rig in tow. Joining her is Toko Yasuda, a synthesist and keyboardist that has also toured extensively with St. Vincent.

While the new lineup was needed to play the new songs, Brownstein says they're not limited to recreating the album, nor are they reserving the full-band treatment to just the latest tracks.

"We're not really purists in terms of the recreation of the album, because I think there's ways that live [songs] have their own life and they breathe in different ways. But we wanted to be able to explore that, so that we weren't limited, so that we could still get to a place where the songs have their own identity as a live song, but that we could still paint with those colors we had used on the record," Brownstein says.

"It's been a real joy to have all of us on stage together and be able to count on them for really creating something that feels very expressive and additive," Brownstein says. "We're adding instruments to some of the old songs too, things that we had done in the recording sessions—going way back to All Hands on the Bad One or The Hot Rock—that we just weren't able to implement live. After you've been in a band for a while, you just want to create a different viewing on stage."

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