Carrie Brownstein talks restraint and the freedom in not caring what others think

Hours after tiny ghouls and witches roam their neighborhoods in search of gummy worms and chocolate candy bars, Sleater-Kinney will haunt Newport Music Hall with songs filled with man-made monsters. 

The Center Won’t Hold, the Portland, Oregon band’s ninth album, is a slick, synth-y departure from the punk ethos marking the group’s previous music. Still, in typical Sleater-Kinney style, the messages underlying the music swing from societal anxieties (“Reach Out”) to despairing musings on interpersonal relationships (“Hurry on Home”). 

Any changes in style are mostly attributed to album producer Annie Clark — aka St. Vincent — who pushed the band to explore new vocal styles (see singer-guitarist Corin Tucker's soprano on the bridge of “Ruins”) or rewrite lyrics to better fit the song. 

While Sleater-Kinney’s members were reinvigorated by Clark’s partnership and the resulting record, the updated sound upset some Sleater-Kinney purists. Guitarist and vocalist Carrie Brownstein said she doesn’t care all that much. 

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“You have to expand the canvas on which you work, otherwise the parameters are too small,” she said. “Listening to Nick Cave’s Ghosteen or Skeleton Tree, who would have thought those would be Nick Cave records 25 years ago? … I would rather defy someone’s expectations than meet them head on. By adding to the lexicon it means by the next record we have new tools to draw on. It’s a way of extending longevity.”

On apocalyptic rager “Ruins,” Clark used a stuttering synthesizer — specifically, a beat-up instrument she selected for its less-than-perfect quality — where Brownstein and Tucker might have previously turned up their guitars. 

The track skitters into the staccato “LOVE,” during which Brownstein outlines Sleater-Kinney’s early history. Formed in 1994 as a side project, the band quickly became the primary focus, becoming fully cemented with the addition of drummer Janet Weiss in 1996. 

On July 1, a month before The Center Won’t Hold was scheduled for release, Weiss — known as one of the best drummers in modern rock — abruptly announced her departure from the band. She offered little explanation other than a brief statement that the band had moved in a new direction and it was time for her to move on, as well.

Brownstein hasn’t heard much from the drummer since Sleater-Kinney’s tour started. She does know, however, that Weiss showed up to Portland’s edition of the March on Climate Change in a wheelchair soon after breaking her collarbone and left leg in a car crash. “Nothing’s going to hold Janet back; she’s a very strong person,” Brownstein said. 

She and Tucker haven’t commented much on Weiss’ absence, choosing instead to quietly move forward. (They have since hired Angie Boylan as the new touring drummer.) The pair has always been at the forefront, anyway, writing all songs and working in tandem on arrangements. Center marked the first time in 25 years that they didn’t live in the same place during an album’s creation (Brownstein was in Los Angeles, Tucker in Portland). They shared files back and forth, critiquing and editing from afar.

Brownstein said the distance forced them to pay greater attention. “Restraint was something both of us saw as an actual tool that we had not necessarily used as judicially before,” she said. “You’re always trying to find ways of unsettling the creative entity, and the longer you’ve been doing something, it’s harder to find means of undermining yourself.” 

As eyes have turned toward the band for reasons both good and bad, Brownstein, 45, is choosing to lean into outside mediums — friends, good books and, until recently, her sketch comedy television series “Portlandia” — to better lead a well-rounded life. 

“There is a real freedom in not caring that comes with age,” she said. “The things you care about are different. It’s not important to me what someone says if it’s not a well-thought-out critique or if it’s something that’s underhanded or lacks imagination. I care more about putting work out into the world that makes people feel seen and heard and feel some form of connection. The rest of it I’m not so worried about.”