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Some of the best ever to do it
I got the e-mail two days ago by now, and chances are you’ve also heard about it by now: Sleater-Kinney, the best rock band in the world, is breaking up. A few months ago, they announced a few summer shows, including a New York show on August 2 at Webster Hall that sold out long before the breakup announcement. Here’s the statement they put up on their website: “After eleven years as a band, Sleater-Kinney has decided to go on indefinite hiatus. The upcoming summer shows will be our last. As of now, there are no future plans for future tours or recordings.” They’re also probably going to do a farewell show in Portland, where all three of them live, but then that’s it. They aren’t doing any interviews on the breakup, so it’ll probably be a while before we’re allowed to understand why.
I can’t claim any real insight on this thing, but it’s a sad surprise, to say the least. From what I’ve seen, the three women in Sleater-Kinney seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. A year and a half ago, I flew out to Portland to write a D.I.W. cover story about the band; it’s still the only time I’ve gone out of town for an article, and it was the first time I’d ever sat down face-to-face with a group of musicians I’d been idolizing for years. Sleater-Kinney was and is my favorite band, and I was nervous as all hell about it. The first night I was in town, the band and Sub Pop’s publicist picked me up at my hotel and took me out to a Japanese restaurant, and I had to drink like three cups of sake before my hands would stop shaking. But they were all totally welcoming and natural and fun to talk to, some of the best interview subjects I’ve ever had. The next day, I met up with all of them individually at different spots around Portland: Carrie Brownstein at a downtown coffee shop, Corin Tucker at this weird restaurant/bar that was made up to look like a log cabin, Janet Weiss at her house. Before going out to talk to them, I had this image of the women in the band as busy professionals who got together to record or tour only when it was convenient; I thought that was why they’d gone three years without releasing an album. But that wasn’t the case at all; they’re friends. They go over to each other’s houses to watch the Super Bowl or the Oscars or whatever. Tucker’s kid plays with Weiss’s dog. All three of them own station wagons. They’re likable people who like each other, and that probably has something to do with the inhuman levels of chemistry they’ve had on every album they’ve released as a trio. I only spent two days talking to them, so I could be wrong here, but I don’t think they’re breaking up because they don’t like being around each other. It’s more likely that they’re tired of the grind of being in an actively touring indie-rock band, which is pretty sane when you sit down and think about it.
And maybe they don’t feel like the three of them have any new places to go musically. The Woods, the huge, wooly, sprawling, stomping psychedelic record they released last year, was a huge departure from all the tight, tense, compact punk songs they’d been perfecting for the previous two albums. Instead of pristine production they’d always used, this time they hired the Flaming Lips guy to make all their stuff sound fuzzed-out and distended and wrong. When I talked to them, the album was still a few months away from release, and they didn’t know whether people would get it or not. It turned out to be a whole lot of people’s favorite Sleater-Kinney album, though it wasn’t mine. They’d become so absurdly good at bright, intricate bob-and-weave interplay and gorgeously harmonic exuberance that I wasn’t all that amped to hear them ditch that stuff so that Brownstein could get all Jimmy Page and play two-minute fuzzbomb guitar-solos. But it was still a strong and ballsy album and a commendable risk, and it’s not like I don’t still have The Woods on my iPod. Even if it wasn’t my favorite album, it showed that they were still capable of completely throwing themselves into a new idea and just tearing it to shreds.
So it’s tough to find a bright side to this breakup. Of course, an “indefinite hiatus” isn’t necessarily the same thing as a breakup, and I suppose there’s still some slim possibility of another Sleater-Kinney album somewhere down the line. And it’s not like any of them has died or anything; they’ll all probably move on to new projects, and maybe we’ll even get another Spells EP out of it. But I don’t much like the idea that the best drummer in the world is only in one band now and that that band is Quasi. And I don’t know whether any of them will ever recapture the perfect chemistry they had in Sleater-Kinney. They’ve done a whole lot of incredible work, and I’ll miss them.