Overcoming adversity, Sleater-Kinney takes a brave step forward on the ‘Path Of Wellness’
Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are used to shaking things up. For three decades now, their band Sleater-Kinney has reshaped the tone of Pacific Northwest rock with an ever-evolving sound.
But with their new album, “Path Of Wellness,” the musicians found themselves dealing with some significant change, even by their standards.
The biggest and most publicized change came with the jarring departure of long-time drummer Janet Weiss in 2019. As a result, the band entered the studio to record as a duo for the very first time during the sessions that would become “Path Of Wellness.”
“I think Corin and I had to sit back and think about who we were as a band,” Brownstein said. “We just wanted to kind of embrace the entire process from beginning to end.”
That hands-on approach manifested itself in a very literal way. Unlike their previous album “The Center Won’t Hold,” which was helmed by a high-profile producer in Annie Clark of St. Vincent, Tucker and Brownstein elected to produce the new material themselves (another first for Sleater-Kinney).
That period also marked a return to Oregon for Brownstein, who had been based in Los Angeles in recent years. There, the guitarist and singer has built a prominent side-career as an actor, writer, and director in television and film productions. But as the pandemic approached, she opted to be closer to family and friends.
“I was happy to be back here and it’s hard for me to stay away from the Pacific Northwest. I’ve tried in my 40 something years to get out and I always seem to end up back here,” she joked.
It was a fateful decision, as “Path Of Wellness” has a very real sense of place in Portland.
“There were layers of crisis happening as we were making this album,” Tucker said while citing the pandemic, racial justice protests and wildfires that swept through the region in 2019.
“It felt like the city of Portland was changed by the experience and we were all changed by the experience, too.”
Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein joined OPB’s Jerad Walker to unpack how those changes pushed their music forward. Read the full interview below.
Jerad Walker: I love the lead single “Worry With You.” It showcases something that you do so incredibly well, which is this sort of complex, dancy back and forth with the guitars and vocals. It almost sounds like improv at times. Do you write those parts in jam sessions?
Carrie Brownstein: We do sometimes write as a jam or something coming out of improvisation. That was not the case with “Worry With You.”
But I do think it has that spirit to it and particularly in the verses. And a lot of this record when we started writing it was pre-pandemic and we were still planning on going on tour with Wilco, which we’re doing this summer. But it was originally scheduled for last summer. So there was kind of this intention of crafting songs that would sound good outdoors in amphitheaters with a bunch of people listening. So I think “Worry With You” does start with that kind of groove that we imagined would be well suited for that.
And I think we ended up keeping that as part of the sort of musical vernacular of the record. [It] was kind of a return to this kind of carefree groove that we could settle into.
JW: It does kind of shine through as a theme. It’s a bit of a return to some of your earlier work, I think with regards to the interplay. Has that always come naturally for you two?
Corin Tucker: I think we were lucky right at the beginning. I think we felt a chemistry with our guitar playing where we have different strengths and skills and sort of a yin and yang that happens with our guitars. So, we were able to kind of go back and forth or talk to each other with our guitars from the beginning and I think it comes through pretty strongly on this record.
JW: You self-produced “Path Of Wellness.” That’s a first for you. Was this something that you always wanted to do or was this a necessity due to the pandemic?
CB: Definitely a mix of both. We love working with outside producers and it is nice when you have a band to have kind of an interlocutor or someone who’s sort of there as the peacekeeper, even though recording is not a contentious process. But just someone there that has sort of an outside perspective. But obviously, we were recording last summer at a time of intense insularity by necessity with the pandemic. So that was one factor.
And it felt like the right time. The makeup of the band had changed for the first time in many years. I think Corin and I had to sit back and think about who we were as a band. And I think we just wanted to kind of embrace the entire process from beginning to end. We had already done a lot of arranging in terms of the demos and the song structure was there. We had already put in temp baselines and keyboard parts. So we felt like to bring in an outside producer from outside Portland would not only be logistically difficult but was potentially unnecessary. It felt like the right time to try to produce something ourselves.
JW: You hinted at it, but this is the first time in many years that you worked without drummer Janet Weiss, who departed the band in 2019. Was it weird going into this without her?
CT: Yeah, I mean, I think that there were so many aspects that were hard and it definitely-- you know, being without a member and a friend that we’ve had for a long time was hard. But we were also in the middle of a pandemic and wildfire smoke made it impossible to be outside. There were so many layers of difficult crises happening during the recording process, that we just kind of had to power through and focus on what we really wanted to do.
JW: From a functional standpoint, I imagine it presented a new challenge. There’s a rotating cast of percussionists on this recording. Did that change the way you tackled these songs?
CB: Yeah. From the very beginning of the band, which is all the way back almost 30 years ago in 1994 and 1995, we went through a series of drummers. And the first person we really made a record with was a woman named Laura Macfarlane who was an Australian and who we met in Melbourne, Australia and she had a very distinct style. It was a little avant-garde. She definitely was coming [to the drums] as a guitar player. And it really made those songs on the first two records have a certain kind of characteristic. And then, of course, Janet had her own immense style.
For us, thinking of ourselves as songwriters and looking for people to implement, augment and further our ideas, it was a welcome challenge and also exciting to work with people who had a different viewpoint than some of our previous drummers. And I think it helped us kind of shape the songs in ways that were new and exciting to us. So yeah, I think we always are looking to push ourselves or to make changes. And we tried to look at it as something as a means of growth.
JW: What was your favorite contribution on the record from a percussionist?
CT: We were fortunate enough to meet Vince LiRocchi and work with him on this record. When we did the song “Path of Wellness,” we did kind of the more straight take and then Carrie had this idea of doing a take that was just crazy, funky can percussion that was on weird tin things and all kinds of different woodblocks. And I was like, “Okay, well we can try this...” in my head. But when Vince went in with all that different percussion, he just killed it. He just had this really cool, mind-blowing percussion take that I think really makes that song.
JW: You were just coming off of a tour in Europe last year when the pandemic really started to take off. Carrie, I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles in recent years [working on film and television projects], but you came back to Oregon during that period and you stayed. I think we all had the moment where we realized just how serious things were getting back then, but why was Portland sort of the panic room for you?
CB: We [had] been rehearsing for the “The Center Won’t Hold” tour here in Portland. And so I was already splitting my time between the two cities.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest outside of Seattle and have lived in Portland since 2001. The Northwest is sort of my spiritual home for lack of a better term. My family is nearby. I have lifelong friends like Corin and a handful of other people who are just basically like family. So yeah, it felt like a place, unlike LA, where we were lucky enough to still be able to walk around. If you live in a city with a more dense population or a less walkable city like Los Angeles-- you know when we were on lockdown save for the ability to maybe get out in nature, you can’t do that in other cities. But you certainly could in Portland. And it was, I think for many of us a saving grace just to be able to stroll through our neighborhoods and get out into the air. This is of course before the wildfires hit. But you know, just a sense of a little bit of solace, a little light peeking out from the curtain.
So yeah, I was happy to be back here and it’s hard for me to stay away from the Pacific Northwest. I’ve tried in my 40 something years to get out and I always seem to end up back here.
JW: Well, this record does have a sense of place in Portland. You recorded it here and then there are songs like “Shadow Town”-- Corin I think it really captures a moment in time here from last year.
CT: Yeah, there were layers of crisis happening as we were making this album. We first had the pandemic and this feeling of isolation. And then, on top of it, we had the murder of George Floyd and the protest for racial justice that happened very intensely in Portland. It really changed the makeup of the city. The city became a place where conflict was happening on our streets every night. And my husband Lance Bangs is a journalist and he was down there every night while that was happening, which was stressful, to be honest. And then the next layer was the smoke, the wildfires that happened on top of that.
And so it felt like the city of Portland was changed by the experience and we were all changed by the experience, too. I was sad and it highlighted a lot of problems that we have, but it also was an opportunity for us to see what we need to do as a city to really move towards true equity and justice. [”Shadow Town” was the result of] a lot of different things at once and all those feelings that we had about our city, our place, our home all went into that song.
JW: “Favorite Neighbor” might be my favorite song from the record. It’s got this unstoppable tempo that rides this thumping bassline-- it’s like doom dance rock. But lyrically, can you unpack what’s going on there? Who is the favorite neighbor [mentioned in the song]?
Favorite Neighbor, it was inspired by an actual neighbor-- someone in my neighborhood. But I would say that on a more figurative level “Favorite Neighbor” is about performative allyship and virtue signaling and denying one’s own culpability through glibness that obfuscates and misdirects. Someone with a megaphone with no ability to listen. All output, no input. So yeah, it is kind of a doomsday dance song, I guess in that sense.
But you know the chorus puts us all as culpable. You know, it’s not finger-pointing, it’s sort of you know saying “Oh, we all have been soaking in this honey. We’ve all been part of this dance.”
JW: Yeah, you turn it on yourself as well. There’s this incredible bridge where you repeat the line “Were we hoping to find it in a song? over and over again.
CB: Yeah. I think in that kind of song, if it’s just a finger pointing at someone else, it kind of lacks the layers to go deeper. So I think we always have turned that intense glare on ourselves as well… We don’t leave ourselves out of the equation in there.
JW: Can we talk about “High In The Grass”? It has that classic Sleater-Kinney dueling guitar sound. It’s so original and I think it’s one of the most instantly recognizable sounds in music. I’m curious though, who are your guitar heroes?
CT: I think that song, in particular, really relies on Heart. Right? Pacific Northwest heroes Ann and Nancy Wilson, who I definitely grew up listening to. They had so many great guitar lines, but they always traded back and forth and the vocals were always part of the equation in a way that I really appreciated. So that song definitely is like a love letter to Heart.
CB: For me, it’s people like Tom Verlaine from Television. I love the way he and Richard Lloyd’s guitars intertwined and were sort of in conversation with one another. Ricky Wilson from the B-52s. Bo Diddley came before. And then, I also have more classic rock influences, whether it’s Walter Becker from Steely Dan or Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac. On “High In The Grass” I was trying to combine sort of a handful of those styles where it has a more laid-back feeling than some of the kind of terse, pointed, angular guitar playing that I’ve done on some of our other records.
I guess I like a broad range of guitarists, but it’s always people who really have a penchant for melody.
JW: Carrie, your lead guitar playing is so incredibly slinky at times. It’s striking. Is that just dexterity or is there an extra secret to that? Is it tuning? What are you doing to make it sound that way?
CB: Well, we do tune to C sharp, which was a lucky accident in the early days of Sleater-Kinney. Corin had been in a band called Heaven’s to Betsy and she was the only string player in that band. It was just her on guitar and vocals and a drummer. She tuned to her own voice. So when we needed to codify our tuning [later in Sleater-Kinney], she plugged in a tuner and her guitar happened to be in C sharp. So we tuned to C sharp.
I think that does emphasize the kind of gritty, slinky noise of some of the playing. The notes kind of slide around in weird ways, but I think it’s just also my style. It’s influenced by some of that labyrinthine surfy-ess that you get in some of those early punk and post-punk players. But yeah, I’m not the most dexterous player. I watch people that can just fly across that [guitar] neck and I kind of compensate, I think, with melody because I’m not the fastest. But I definitely can write a riff
JW: Sleater-Kinney belongs to an incredibly small pool of musical acts that have taken a significant hiatus-- in your case you took off a full decade-- and then returned to find real success in the second act of your career.
Are you surprised by that?
CT: Yes. When we came back with “No Cities To Love” in 2015 I had so many anxiety dreams about that first show of coming back together where I wasn’t wearing pants or couldn’t find my amp or whatever. It was a big deal to do that after so long. But I remember that first night being pretty magical to be in this band and to be in front of an audience that was really excited to see us again.
I think when you’re older you can come back to the band with a sense of gratitude that is just not as available to you as a young person.
JW: How do you keep it fresh? You’ve been in the same band off-and-on for going on three decades now. How do you keep things fresh after weathering a gap like that or a significant lineup change like you’ve had in recent years?
CB: I think we’ve always approached each album, even thinking back to the difference between “Dig Me Out” and “The Hot Rock” which were albums that came out in 1997 and 1999 respectively. We even back then wanted to push ourselves and not repeat the exact same sentence we’ve written before. So I think if you allow yourselves a blank and wide canvas each time, then there are new things to explore. I think if you’re willing to meet yourself and your collaborators where they are now and not force something retrospective with each project, then there’s a lot that is possible with each venture.
So I guess that’s how we keep it fresh-- just knowing that as humans, we are constantly evolving and the world around us is, too. So if we can have the patience and the curiosity to sit back and be porous and take things in, then hopefully we’ll have something to say as well. And what we have to say is constantly changing and shifting and it’s about finding new ways to say it.
JW: Final question. And this is the most important one of all. When are you playing a hometown gig? I noticed that your tour dates came out and you had skipped over Portland, Oregon. You are even going to Portland, Maine. So when is that gig occurring?
CT: I promise. We’re working on it. We feel it too. We really want to play here. We are working on it. Because of COVID, the scramble for venues is pretty intense…
CB: Yeah and logistically we should point out that that tour with Wilco, which is the one that you’re referring to, where we don’t where we play Portland, Maine and not Portland Oregon, was supposed to happen last year at the tail end of our touring for “The Center Won’t Hold.” So we had already played Portland, we’d already played Los Angeles and San Francisco. So [these new tour dates are] technically make-up dates. But we definitely feel the imperative to play the West Coast, including Portland.
It’s going to happen.
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