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A Quietus Interview

Rejoin The Tribe: Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss Interviewed
Emily Mackay , January 22nd, 2015 11:59

This week, the seminal Washington trio released their first album in a decade. In an in-depth interview, drummer Janet Weiss tells Emily Mackay about No Cities To Love's genesis, being figureheads to a new generation of riot grrrl-inspired bands and being a part of the feminist conversation. Photographs courtesy of Brigitte Sire

It would have been brilliant news at any time, but Sleater-Kinney really couldn't have rejoined us at a more perfect moment. Interest in the 90s US punk scene that birthed this ever-evolving jewel of a band has been revived all over the place in recent years. There was the return of Kathleen Hanna in The Julie Ruin, and also the Hanna documentary The Punk Singer, not to mention the glorious debut of Wild Flag, the band formed by SK members Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole. Then of course there's the wave of young bands who've found, in the riot grrrl movement, a lost fork in the road in musical history and reignited its feminist fire, the likes of Perfect Pussy and Joanna Gruesome. And there's the current strength of young feminism itself, louder and prouder and more up in the mainstream's face than it's been for years.

So the time couldn't be riper for the return of this band, who were a life-changer for so many; riot grrrl was their jump-off point, but they took its musical potential further than any other alumni, across seven fierce, fun, totally vital albums.

And now we have, deliriously, number eight. The news of the band's reunion last October marked with the release of the career-spanning box set Start Together, and in that box was a white 7" of new song 'Bury Our Friends', marked only "1/20/15", the release date of the new Sleater-Kinney record, with a tour to follow in February (hitting the UK in March). If you haven't already heard the new album, No Cities To Love, get thee to a record shop immediately. Because it's understandable, given all of the above, that Sleater-Kinney are met, ten years after the formidable The Woods, with fervent devotion. But this record isn't just reunion good, or thank-god-they're-back-good. It's buy-one-for-everyone-you-know good. Drummer Janet Weiss tells us why it had to be perfect.

I've listened to the album loads and I'm so invigorated by it… it couldn't sound less like a reunion album. I was listening to the interview you did with NPR, talking about how you wanted to try and find a way in that didn't make it a nostalgic exercise. Did that come quite easily, or did it take a few goes?

Janet Weiss: Oh yeah. I mean, it took almost two years to write; we were very tough on ourselves on this one and really pushed ourselves to go beyond. The first thing that comes out of us doesn't sound bad, but sometimes it just sounds too much like Sleater-Kinney; the familiarity leads us to a sound which, for a new record, would not have been satisfying enough for us. We did a lot of editing, a lot of keeping songs around for weeks and months unfinished and then getting ideas and trying to hone them to this really tight and concise expression. So it's a trim album: everything is very concise and very specific, I think. And we were trying to do that, for sure. The Woods was so much of an expansive record, and we really wanted to explore this tight sound for this record.

There's definitely nothing in the way of fat on it.

JW: Not really!

Just to get the timings clear, when did you start the writing process?

JW: Um… 2012, we got together, played some old songs and kind of felt it out. There's so many different ways we write; sometimes we improvise, sometimes we work on the music first, sometimes someone brings in the song. So we just kind of felt out what it was going to take to make a record, and a group of songs that were good enough to put out into the world. Sort of early on we realised that Carrie and Corin [Tucker, singer and guitarist] needed to be on their own for a while to relearn the language; their writing is so intricate and so connected that I felt before I could even understand what was happening, they needed to reacquaint. So they worked on stuff and developed parts of songs. It seemed like it made a lot of sense on this record. It just seemed like it made a lot of sense for this record. It's kind of the way we made Dig Me Out, it's more similar to that than to reference The Woods or All Hands On The Bad One which we pretty much wrote all together just jamming in a room.

I know it was mentioned in the NPR interview that they'd work on stuff together and then bring it to you. Not being a musician myself, I was quite surprised by that - because this album is so arresting rhythmically, I thought it might be the result of something done in a jammy, spontaneous way.

JW: No, not really. It seems like it's an unusual sort of challenge for me to, like, find my place there. They are so close; the vocals are so connected and the guitars are so connected that it takes me sometimes several practices or many practices, sometimes, to figure it out. It's like a sculpture or something, like a big mound of clay, and there's some beautiful sculpture under there but I have to figure out how to chip away to find - or hear - what I need to be hearing. It doesn't always just pop into my head. It still takes a lot of working and trying things, and I really appreciate the way they play and the way they are as people. We throw away a lot of stuff, and once I start putting the rhythm on something they'll change what they're doing and adapt. Things mutate. Like, a song like 'Bury Our Friends' - that was a really difficult song to finish. Carrie had the guitar riff, but we couldn't quite figure out how to make that song really go until the very end. Even after recording we came back and we-recorded some things and re-recorded the drums, and even the ideas were evolving. I think that's a part of Sleater-Kinney that I really love, and I really miss when I'm not in this band - being able to evolve with a song and really push it until it's at its finest form. We throw a lot of stuff away; we're not precious about parts and I think with even more songs on this record we were willing to throw away parts which were really good but just not good enough. I really enjoy that process.

Do you think that way of working tends to produce spikier, stranger rhythms?

JW: Hmmm. Not really. We just felt like we wanted it to be daunting, you know? We wanted it to be undeniable, like it would drop like a bomb, so you couldn't deny it. For us, a lot of times that means fast. But we do have some slow songs, but for the most part we all run pretty hot and write pretty aggressively.

It must be nice to come back and almost be figureheads of that younger wave of women who were so inspired by what you did originally.

JW: Yeah. I think it's been weird trying to find a place for ourselves, and we're trying to create a place where women can feel empowered; an alternative to the mainstream model of how you're supposed to be or how you're expected to be. And we're still chipping away at that, like many before us and many will after us. The conversation of feminism and equality is growing and we're just speaking up.

That increased influence of feminism, in more mainstream discussions than it had been for a while… was that anything to do with the reasons you decided to come back? Or was it more personal?

JW: No, it was more personal. I mean, that conversation is a part of our lives, so it's always there; it's always present, it doesn't float in and out. So of course it would always be a part of what we do individually and together as a group.

I wondered if 'A New Wave', in particular, is about asserting a continuity of those ideas; grabbing the agenda and saying, like, "This is what we do; this is what we've always done."

JW: Yeah. I look at it more… it's not as much agenda. It's finding a space for ourselves and learning about ourselves and having that translate into something that other people can draw from. The great thing about playing shows is that people become part of the conversation of your music, and we make it in a vacuum, really, just the three of us in a tiny room with no windows. And then you go to a recording studio - another small room with no windows - and then when you finally play the songs live, it's like the conversation of what the song is continues on. And it's funny, even, after playing a song live for like a year and going back and listening to the recorded version, and realising what new life the song takes on because of the people who hear them and how they react to them... it's almost like they're living. Music that I listen to can be 40 years old, 60 years old, but it's still vital and alive to me. And it changes with the times.

Although you said you work in a vacuum, if you started thinking about it in 2012… it must have come off the back of or during other things you were doing at the same time? LIke Quasi's Mole City and Drumgasm with Zach Hill and Matt Cameron; you must have gone into recording this feeling on top form, I imagine.

JW: Well, it's not really like that. No one had heard the songs, we didn't play any shows. It's rare for us; we hadn't done that before. There was a lot of questioning, you know? Are the songs ready? Are the songs good enough? The place where we play in Carrie's basement is so tight and hard to even enjoy it. There's no reverberation at all. It's a really interesting place to write, and it definitely… when we got in the studio, and once we got the sound, once I heard the drums through my headphones sounding the way I had imagined them, I definitely felt an absolute liberation, like someone had taken the shackles off me and I could really deliver the songs. I feel very inspired by this sound, because we had them playing in this really tight, uncomfortable space for over a year and I think it actually… I can hear it in my playing on the record and all those takes. I can just tell I feel absolutely free and very excited.

So it's almost like you're exploding out of this tight box?

JW: It really did feel like that! And it's kind of true. We kind of were in a tight box for a year and a half and then… it's funny, because the studio isn't always the easiest place to feel that way, but because of the constraints we put on ourselves, it was like a racehorse out of the gate. Just, you know: 'Let me go.'

It definitely sounds like that. How does the songs not having been played live change the process of working on them?

JW: It's a little more challenging, as far as understanding the songs goes. There's a lot about music that is very spatial and related to air and how the notes flow through the air… and I'm talking about writing in a room with no air and reverberation. It informs the music and the songwriting; there have been a lot of books written about how music in a cathedral sounds the way it does because of the space, and the way the organ sounds… it's written specifically for the space where you play it. And I think not played live, and not feeling the music in a room full of people, is a challenge that we had to really work things over and make sure… a lot of times we would just go on tour and play new songs and sort of work them out at the shows. But this was not that. But it turned out… it's not like it suffered because of it. It just was a different process.

It sounds like it was a massively fun album to record, but was it quite physically tiring, because it's so full-on?

JW: No, I just felt great. I couldn't believe… John [Goodmanson, producer] got the drums dialled in and I was like 'Let's go! Let's go! Let's go! MORE!' I don't do a lot of takes; we're not The Beatles. If we don't have it in four or five takes then it's probably not going to happen. My second take is normally my best, and John knows it, so he's very ready… sometimes the first take is the best. And sometimes it takes a while to get something. I think the energy was definitely a big part of the music. You have to have someone working behind the board - someone like John - who knows when the energy is right and can tell you: 'That was it. You got it.' And I'll usually say, 'Let me try it one more time and see if I can beat it.' And usually I don't; and so usually, when he says, 'That's the one,' that's the one.'

I remember when David Bowie sprang his surprise album and Tony Visconti said he'd just be walking around New York listening to the in-process Bowie album and thinking, "If people could know what I was listening to", the pleasure of keeping that secret. Did you find that hard keeping it secret for so long?

JW: Um, it was kind of hard. People would say, 'Oh, what are you up to?' Like, everyone you see. And you're excited about it, and it's taking up a lot of your time, you don't want to just say, 'Oh, nothing. You know...' So I think… I really tried to keep it a secret. I told my friends and after we got a little bit closer I'd tell other musician friends 'Sleater-Kinney are playing again'. I didn't go into a lot of detail. Carrie and Corin say that they told a lot of people, so we're lucky that the secret stayed safe. I think it's fun to have a secret, you know? As long as we didn't come out on social media or somewhere public and say that it was actually happening, I think people could theorise, but nothing was really confirmed. I mean, Carrie hinted at it in some interviews. She came the closest to blowing it. People didn't expect us to make a new record; I think that was the surprise. People wouldn't be that surprised by, like, a reunion tour, which to us was not very interesting. It was always about new material for us.

Reunion tours have become such a thing, it's very hard to really take people by surprise that way. But it was such a nice way to do it… the teaser of the 7" in the Start Together box set.

JW: Yeah, we really loved that. Tony [Kiewel] at Sub Pop had that idea and I think it was just so perfect for us. We wanted to find a way to tell the fans first, you know? Not have it be on one of the big news sites or Pitchfork. We wanted to really have a way to unveil this thing so that people could find it. There's not a lot of stuff that's mysterious anymore; everything's very explained and very up-front. So to have that in the box as a little discovery, for the real fans, I think that was just perfect for us.

How did the timing work out of putting together the box set and remastering it, with working on the new album? Did going through your old stuff inform the way you were moving forward?

JW: Not really. Corin really took charge on the box set, and she put in a lot of time and I think she's definitely the most nostalgic of the three of us - in a good way. She saves a lot of the artefacts from our past and has a basement full of really great stuff. I think Carrie and I are just not that way; we don't save all that stuff. But she really spearheaded the reissues and listened to the remasters and she was so adamant about having them all in one place and having them available. Carrie and I were working on Portlandia in the summer, we were just really busy and just didn't have time to go through all the old stuff. So it didn't really inform the new material that much. I think when I held that box set in my hand it was really moving, you know? There's so much music there. And good records, too; I was really proud of it.

I was reading an interview you did around the last Quasi album talking about how bands tend to be more comfortable today working with companies and brands. And I wondered if the song 'Price Tag' was about that, music's relationship with commerce?

JW: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I think it's definitely about being able to work and make a decent wage to support your family, and that is not the case in many places. Many people are taken advantage of and disenfranchised, and corporations taking advantage. That idea can translate to a lot of different things. Equality for people is a theme you could write a 100 records about. So yeah, I think that comes out in our music: personal things and also specific things.

Can you see No Cities To Love having as much of an impact on people as your earlier albums did?

JW: I don't know! I hope so. I don't really… you always hope so when you put a record out. We don't do it for that reason, but when people respond to it it's better! When something feels like it has momentum and it's part of something and people are responding to it in a human way, then it's really great. And Sleater-Kinney is a band that, fortunately, has had a lot of that in our history. So I think we would hope for that, but it's not the reason we make the music.

It definitely feels like an album that isn't afraid to grab people by the scruff of the neck…

JW: We demand some attention on this record. You either turn it off or you pay attention!

Were you aware, before the announcement was made, how many new fans you'd gained?

JW: Yeah. Like I say, songs have a life; they don't just go away. They can be really timeless. They can translate throughout years and decades, and hopefully that happens, and hopefully people today can draw things from them. I'd listen to a lot of music that was made 50 years ago, 60 years ago, and it still means something to me now, and I can apply it to my life. I think we're lucky that the music stays with people and it grew and gained new listeners. I think Carrie's work in these other fields really got her some fans who maybe wouldn't have heard Sleater-Kinney but watch the TV show. And now they can come to the band, and it's like a new thing - there's a rich history there that they can delve into and become a part of. Hopefully new people join in; we've always been interested in reaching out to new people and having an inclusive listenership where we find different ways of finding new listeners. We've always wanted to do that. We always want to not just be, like, a niche band. Kids in the middle of the country who don't have access to certain things; maybe they've only heard mainstream stuff and would really respond to music that isn't quite as mainstream and has more of an angular bent to it.

With that in mind, are you just as excited about getting out to play these songs live as you were in the studio? Or are you more apprehensive about it?

JW: Now that they're done, I really love to play. The moments onstage are some of the best. I think we're just really looking forward to reconnecting with the fans, and I think we have more resources this time around. Hopefully the shows are more theatrical; we're going to have a lighting person which we rarely had. We have more help to translate the songs into an event.

When you say theatrical, are we talking, like … I dunno, Lady Gaga?

JW: I just mean like, a light show [laughs]. We really… it was very bare bones, all the touring we did. You know, we might have a backdrop! We're going to have a fourth musician, who's going to be playing with us - this woman, Katie Harkin, is going to be playing on some songs.

From Sky Larkin?

JW: Yeah. She'll be with us and helping us out on songs, and that's been really fun. I think Corin said - and she really put it well and it made a lot of sense to me - when she said, 'It's like the tribe of Sleater-Kinney.' It's inclusive. Like, 'Let's have Katie play. Let's try some new things. Let's have lights and bring a few extra people.' It's a lot of fun, you know? It's a lot of fun to not have to do the same thing.

And in the future, will there be new Quasi material? Do you think you might work with The Jicks again?

JW: I probably won't work with The Jicks again. They have a new drummer and he played on the last record. But you know, Joanna [Bolme, of the Jicks and formerly of Quasi] is one of my oldest friends and I still went to Steve's house at Christmas. We're all still friends; it's a small community in Portland. And I'm sure I'll play in some kind of cover band with Steve again at some point [laughs]. Quasi, that's like a lifelong project. It ebbs and flows and when Sleater-Kinney is happening we take time off, but that'll always… as long as we still have something to say together, we'll still be doing that. We both really love it and cherish it so much.

And there'll be another season of Portlandia that we filmed in the summer. So that's full-on; it's season six, and it's amazing we made it to that. Not a whole lot of series make it to the sixth season. I think what I've learned about getting older is that you have to be more in the moment and not looking so far ahead all the time. You'll just take more chances with what you create if you keep your focus close, you know? Don't start planning out five years ahead, because you may never get there. Sports are that way: they always say don't look past this game, because you'll be thinking about the next game and you'll lose the game you're playing. Life is very much like that, and I've learned that more as I get older. Focus on the game you're playing, because it can be the best game, and it can be your best work.

Did you see when Stephen Malkmus did Rookie's Ask A Grown Man feature? What did you think of his advice?

JW: I did! He's great, you know? There is only one Steve. There's only one Stephen Malkmus. He's such a unique thinker and so creative and really brilliant. But it was pretty funny; I'm not sure how many people ask him for advice, so it was cute. But he's a dad, he's got two daughters - he better get used to it! I thought he did a good job.

And finally: the first thing I thought when I saw the sleeve of No Cities To Love was Power, Corruption & Lies, and I wonder if that had crossed your mind as well?

JW: Well, we thought about it. Mike Mills was the designer of the album cover, and we thought it was strong enough to stand on its own, and it was emotional enough. We weren't sure but we kept coming back to this image, and coming back to it, and coming back to it, and we had a visceral reaction to it that I think was necessary for these songs and it just fit. But yeah, it did cross our minds...

No Cities To Love is out now via Sub Pop. Sleater-Kinney begin a world tour next month, heading to the UK to play the Roundhouse in London on March 23, Manchester's Albert Hall, 24, Glasgow's O2 ABC, 25, and Vicar Street in Dublin, 26; head to their website for full details and tickets