Published Aug 01, 2019Just one week into 2019, Sleater-Kinney teased a surprise collaboration from the studio on Twitter, one that would have critical bearing on their new album, The Center Won't Hold — the beloved indie band posted a photo of themselves alongside St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), listing her as their producer. The potential for such a powerhouse partnership had fans of both acts excited to hear what could come.
Of course, since that reveal and the announcement of their 10th album (out August 16), most of the attention has been placed on long-time drummer Janet Weiss leaving the band after 23 years. Despite Weiss hinting that her departure had to do with Sleater-Kinney "heading in a new direction," according to her bandmates, the decision to work with Clark was suggested by their now-former drummer.
"I think Janet suggested it," Carrie Brownstein tells Exclaim! in an interview. "Annie is a very creative, innovative person who's a fan of the band, but we also thought she was someone who could reconstitute the tools in our band."
After returning in 2015, following a nearly decade-long hiatus, Sleater-Kinney reminded the world of their prowess by releasing a comeback album, No Cities to Love. That album solidified their title as one of the greatest rock bands on Earth, but for its follow-up, the trio wanted to shake things up. They wanted to evolve.
"We wanted to do something different with this record," explains Corin Tucker. "We felt No Cities was so strong and was a cultural return to form for the band, which we were really happy with. We didn't feel the need to do the same thing twice, so we thought we'd work with a bunch of different producers — and Annie's name was definitely one of them."
Although Wilco's Jeff Tweedy was a producer they wanted to record with, Brownstein downplays that they had serious discussions with him to produce.
"That actually got blown out of proportion," she says. "Jeff and I are friends and we had a very casual, casual conversation. Just like, 'Hey, maybe we should come to Chicago and work on some songs.' It was literally that. As many things are not headline news, this was not headline news."
Working with Annie Clark made a lot of sense for Sleater-Kinney. There was already a collaborative history between the two parties: Clark was a guest multiple times on Brownstein's IFC series Portlandia, Brownstein directed some vignettes for St. Vincent's 2017 album, Masseduction, and the two have been working on a satirical concert film.
Originally, the idea was to work with multiple producers, but once they entered the studio with Clark, it quickly became obvious that they'd found the one and only producer they needed.
"We originally thought we would just go into the studio with her for a few days to see what happens," says Tucker. "We did it more as an experiment, but she was really amazing. She had so many ideas. She was really prepared. We got four songs done in five days — like, core songs of the album. She has a really different skillset from Carrie and I. She has all of this knowledge about synthesizers and has made music in different ways. And she's also a writer and a singer, so she brings a lot of different skills to producing that was fruitful and brought out new ideas from the band."
Clark encouraged the band to reach outside of their comfort zone, something they admittedly tried on albums like 1999's The Hot Rock and 2005's The Woods.
"Sometimes you start to think that you're only capable of certain things or that it's always going to be this type of dynamic," admits Brownstein. "It's one of the same reasons we worked with Dave Fridmann [on The Woods]. It's these people that are very maximalist with expansive ideas."
The Center Won't Hold is packed with the kind of emotional fortitude Sleater-Kinney have built a career on, but it's presented as a big, bold, futuristic rock record unlike any other they've made. It's exactly the kind of album their fans need in 2019.
Brownstein calls it "probably the most personal record we've put out since maybe The Hot Rock," but it's hard not to be fascinated by how Clark has helped them reach the next level.
"It's really the first time we've worked with another musician or performer as a producer," Tucker says. "I think it's pretty exciting that in the 20-plus years we've been a band we've never worked with a female producer, and to have the four of us together in the studio felt very empowering and quite a statement. It was definitely a lot of teamwork and collaboration."
Adds Brownstein, "I really felt like she was partnering with us and she could challenge us in a supportive way. Because there wasn't that male-female power dynamic, I don't think she was shy about saying, 'I think we can make this part better.' She is a songwriter and a performer, so she knows what it can take to get the best take, best lyric, best vocal. For me it was great to be pushed like that. I feel like it made the record that much better."
The Center Won't Hold is out August 16 courtesy of Mom+Pop Records.