Sleater-Kinney’s break was almost as long as their time together, but you’d be forgiven for not feeling their absence too sharply in the time between 2005’s The Woods and 2015’s No Cities to Love.
Drummer Janet Weiss sat in on sessions and/or tours with Steven Malkmus and The Jicks, The Shins, Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith, plus continued playing with Quasi with Sam Coomes. Corin Tucker released two LPS with her solo project The Corin Tucker Band. And Carrie Brownstein lampooned West Coast hipsters on her HBO show Portlandia with Fred Armisen. Weiss and Brownstein appeared together in Wild Flag with Mary Timony (Ex Hex, Helium, Autoclave) and Rebecca Cole (The Minders).
But, damn, even though the trio was around and working, we missed them as Sleater-Kinney. For a certain set of ‘90s riot grrls, nothing will ever be better than the magic rock jams Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss whipped up in the Pacific Northwest. Their January 2015 reunion record No Cities To Love showed that magic was still there; the following live dates proved it beyond all doubt.
Sleater-Kinney comes to Indy Friday for a show at Old National Centre. Before the date, we got Weiss on the phone. Note: This interview is the first in a series of interviews with female musicians questions contributed by the women and girls from Girls Rock Indy. Upcoming interviews include Rosanne Cash and Mitski.
NUVO: I’m currently putting together a project with Girls Rock Indy. I had some of the campers and counselors there send questions my way to ask different female musicians I’m interviewing this winter. Here’s one of the questions: Because Girls Rock is a nonprofit that focuses on building self esteem through music education, in what ways do you think music and the act of creating helps girls as individuals and women?
Janet Weiss: I think expression is very important in the process of building your voice. Being isolated with your thoughts for too long tends to make people less confident. Being able to integrate your ideas and your expressions with other people who sometimes feel the same way, who appreciate what you’re doing, that kind of feedback builds confidence and allows you to learn who you are. You bounce your ideas off people, musical and non-musical. You collaborate with other people. It helps to build your language of expression, and build your confidence.
NUVO: I was looking through the records that you were a part of in the 10 year break between the last Sleater-Kinney record and No Cities To Love. Some of these records I love so much – Real Emotional Trash, Cassadaga. What influences and tastes did you pick up in the last 10 years that you brought back to No Cities to Love?
Weiss: Sleater-Kinney is so personal. It doesn’t feel like there’s that much of the outside world seeping into it. It’s very specific. The energy between the three of us and the chemistry between the three of us is very unique. So when we’re together, it sort of feels like something bigger than us is happening. The things that I learn playing with different people is how to sort of get inside someone else’s head, how best to deliver their songs. It allows me to expand my knowledge, expand my ability to interpret what’s happening, to interpret the music. Nothing can be the same with Sleater-Kinney. Nothing is even very similar. [laughs]
So I just try to stay sharp and be the best musician and the best interpreter that I can be, so that when I’m playing music with different people, and when I come back to Sleater-Kinney, I feel confident and I feel like I have things to say. Staying active and especially collaborating with such interesting, complex people keeps me sharp, makes me a better collaborator for Carrie and Corin.
NUVO: The thing about drumming, or preparing to drum that feels different is how physical it is; how it can be a real stress on the body. Could you tell me a little bit about your routine, how you keep limber and loose, any difficulties you ward off?
Weiss: With Sleater-Kinney, it’s a lot of driving, fast music. Not fast like metal, but on the fast side. So I feel like touring with this band does require building up my stamina, practicing on a regular basis. I try to practice every day if possible. If not possible, at least four, five times a week. In preparation for a tour, I try to practice every day for sure, just for stamina’s sake. Also, for me, some of what I play is unscripted. Fills are usually unscripted. There are parts of the show that are improvisational. We do some segues from songs that we’re just making up on the spot. It’s important for me to be able to access different shadings, different kinds of playing for those moments. Depending on how we’re all feeling in the moment, I need to be able to access different kinds of playing. In practice, I don’t want to be frustrated by not being able to play something I think of. I try to practice more before we play shows just so my language becomes broader.
NUVO: This a question I always like to ask women in music who are outspoken about feminism and treatment of women in music; What can music journalists do to stand on the side of women in music and to improve as collective outlets when we’re featuring the work of women?
Weiss: I think it’s important to create a safe space for discussion, and a safe space for opinions and for ideas, and to have that space provide a sense of equality. Eventually, when the young generation comes up, it won’t be unusual to see women and men treated as equals within the stage of music. I think that’s the goal – equality. And not having it be this strange ghetto that we exist in, where there’s “music” and “women in music” in a separate place. We’re asking for equality. We’re asking for a safe place for that to happen.
NUVO: When you guys sat down to make set lists for the tours that would follow this album release, how did you bring the music together? What was important for you to do with the new album and your fairly extensive body of work?
Weiss: It’s actually something I think a lot about. The important things are the new songs, and finding another group of songs that tell a story next to the new songs. We’ve always been a band that really loves playing our new material the most. That’s been the case with every record, that we’re always so excited to play the new songs, and this time even more so because we hadn’t played them live before recording. So thinking about the shows meant thinking about how we make a show that’s going to be arresting and gripping, sort of abrasive at times – how do we do that using our body of work? We just go through, and first we weed out the songs that we don’t want to play. Then we go through the songs we do want to play and figure out which ones sit with the new songs and elevate the new songs, make them more rich, make the experience a journey. You want the show for an hour to take over people’s minds.
NUVO: I just read a New York Magazine piece [“Sleater-Kinney on Riot Grrl, Reuniting and Portlandia”] that came out a month or so ago. There was an interesting anecdote about how you keep your hair back with a fan [from a crowdsourced Twitter question] –
Weiss: They asked me like, how do you keep your hair out of your [face]. 30 years I’ve been playing drums and I get asked about my hair. But that’s okay!
NUVO: Yes! I didn’t exactly know what the question was, but you were describing the fan setup you had on stage. That brought to mind an interview that I read with Carrie that was comparing touring now vs. touring in the 2005/2006 tour. She said that touring then was really punishing, and that you guys really prioritized self-care in this current tour. I was wondering what other things you guys have done to make the punishing tour experience more workable for people who have done the punishing tour thing for a long time.
Weiss: It is true that we have a bigger crew this time, that we have more help. We toured very bare bones back in the old days. We prioritized coming home with money and being thrifty on tour, just kind of working hard on tour and having a little bit more money when we came home. We always really focused on making sure we had new shirts and good shirts, that the merchandise was really quality stuff that people would enjoy. We’d go out there and help sell it, really connect with the fans, and work hard.
I think what she’s referring to mostly is that we’re not touring nonstop. There are breaks. We’re not doing long tours. These are the things you kind of have to do if you want to come home with any money. You have to work hard, you have to do long tours. Back then, you had to tour more often. Now, it’s hard to tour more, because people just kind of want to see you once, and then you need to work on something new. I think when she’s talking about self-care, it’s about figuring out what your limits are physically, mentally and emotionally. If it’s breaking you emotionally being away from your home, your dog, your kid, whatever you have waiting for you at home – if six weeks away from home is crushing you, then you need to figure that out, do shorter tours, and take care of yourself.
If you want to be in this for the long haul, don’t just suppress what’s good for you for the good of the band. You need to take care of yourself, and have the band reflect who you are. When things start going well, you really get offered a lot of stuff. It’s overwhelming, when things are going well. You don’t want to turn down opportunities, but at the same time you need to keep in mind, “Is this too much for me? Am I going to hurt the show? Am I going to do too many interviews before the show to where I can’t sing right, or I’m too tired to play, or I get sick?” There’s self-preservation, especially as you get older that you need to take into consideration when you decide to do this difficult endeavor. Really, for us, the show is the most important. Whatever we can do to make the show better, whether that’s limiting interviews to 15 minutes so Corin’s voice doesn’t get trashed, whether that’s making sure we have a good hour before the show to be in the dressing room together connecting, just being goofy, warming up, making sure we’re all there and all on the same page, that’s important. We learned over the years what we need to do to make sure the show goes off. Taking care of ourselves is a big part of that.