Not long ago, Corin Tucker, who plays guitar in a roaring rock ’n’ roll band called Sleater-Kinney, went with her bandmate Carrie Brownstein to a Los Angeles poetry, music, comedy and art performance known as Weirdo Night. One act on the bill was so loud that, as Tucker later told Pitchfork, she declared: “Oh my God, we have to walk out before we lose our hearing.”
Brownstein had to laugh. “Coming from someone like Corin, who turns her amp up really loud, and who even I have to ask to turn down — it is pretty funny that she noticed that,” says the singer, guitarist, songwriter and actress, by phone from her Portland home. “We were in a space where you went from watching someone speak, do comedy or playing video to a band playing at top volume. Corin’s expectations were that we weren’t going to see a loud rock show.”
In a way, Tucker’s Weirdo Night experience represents Sleater-Kinney’s approach to almost each of their albums over the last 15 years — instead of rolling out the shrieking harmonies and interlocking guitar noise they mastered on 1996’s “Call the Doctor” and 1997’s “Dig Me Out,” the band moves in unexpected, sometimes jarring directions. (They play Toronto’s Rebel on Nov. 3 as part of their current tour.) For this year’s “The Center Won’t Hold,” they de-emphasized guitars, delivering a tense, Depeche Mode-inspired album layered with keyboards and emphasizing individual singing performances such as Tucker’s “Broken.”
Where Sleater-Kinney’s best-known work and steamrolling live shows are visceral and immediate, “The Center Won’t Hold” is the kind of album that reveals nuances over time, like the Tucker-Brownstein harmonies in “Love” or the combination of comfort and sadness in “Hurry On Home.” It was apparently too much of a departure for drummer Janet Weiss, who quit in July, declaring: “The band is moving in a new direction and it’s time for me to move on.”
“‘Oh, this doesn’t sound like Sleater-Kinney’ — I mean, people said that on about four of our records, until you realize, ‘No, this is all Sleater-Kinney,’” Brownstein says. “I’m OK with things that feel very signature about the band, but also things that feel like ‘They have this kind of song, and they have this other kind of song.’
“People talk about the radical sound of this record, (but) in some ways it’s much less of a departure than (2005’s) ‘The Woods’ was, from our sonic palette,” she continues. “There’s a sonic vernacular that Corin and I have become very accustomed to, where there’s this dualistic conversation, with each of us playing guitar over each other — lots of intertwining parts. On this record, we wanted to make room for each other, and to give space to the other person.”
The new album’s producer, Annie Clark of experimental indie-rockers St. Vincent, encouraged her longtime friends Brownstein and Tucker to push themselves in different directions. One was to put even more personal sentiments in their lyrics than usual — “deep, deep, deep run the feelings/rolling inside my mind” is how “Broken” begins.
Clark also drew out what Brownstein calls “the emotionality of a song,” pushing Tucker, in particular, to sing when she was in different kinds of mood. “Annie would have us record (vocals) at different times of day, and then re-do them a couple days later, just trying to find the essence of a song — something that wasn’t just technically good but whether the vocals matched the world that we were trying to create,” Brownstein says.
Tucker, 46, who is from Eugene, Ore., played in an Olympia, Wash., band called Heavens to Betsy in the early ’90s — their love-is-hell song “Me & Her” helped define the riot-grrrl movement in the Pacific Northwest. Brownstein, 45, who started playing guitar at 15 in the Seattle suburbs, was in a lesser-known but also influential band called Excuse 17. They came together in 1994 and made a couple of excellent albums, then added Weiss and created a signature sound that ought to take them someday into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The band came up with this sound while writing “Call the Doctor,” particularly the title track and “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.”
“We got to the chorus, and Corin does her vocal part, and I do those yelps, and it just felt additive in a way that was unique,” Brownstein says.
Sleater-Kinney has withstood personal storms in the past, disbanding in the mid-2000s — Tucker formed her own band and Brownstein established herself as a comic actress on IFC’s deadpan “Portlandia” with Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live.”
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The band reunited for 2015’s “No Cities to Love.”; post-Weiss, they’re regrouping on stage with drummer Angie Boylan, as well as multi-instrumentalists Katie Harkin and Toko Yasuda.
“You can shrink down to something that feels very much like the fiery core of the band, but you can also feel very maximalist up there and just convey a certain amount of sonic presence,” Brownstein says. “I was relieved to realize (the band) still has so much heart to it, and it opened up new doors. And that’s all you can ask for.”