On the morning of November 9, Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss and her ex-husband, Sam Coomes, got together for a coffee. Their band, Quasi, has lamented and lampooned the withering quality of life for the working class since the late Nineties, but this election’s result represented a new level of exhaustion. “We decided we have to get to work,” Weiss told the Voice. “Just really out of necessity. When you have something specific to work toward — that benefits someone other than yourself — it helps you feel empowered.”
That conversation became Battle Hymns, a pay-what-you-want-but-they-suggest-$20 benefit compilation featuring Stephen Malkmus, Doug Martsch, and a dozen more of Quasi’s indie-rock elder-statesmen colleagues performing what Weiss calls “oppositional” songs. All proceeds go to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and 350.org.
Rather than wait for full-group contributions, Weiss and Coomes approached collaborators as individuals, prioritizing the essence of time over band recognition. “We were trying to stay away from, like, band contributions, mostly because those take a lot longer, and then you have the weight and history of your band” attached to the song, Weiss explained. “If it was gonna be a Built to Spill track or a Superchunk track, it wouldn’t have gotten done.” But getting just those bands’ leaders — respectively, Martsch and Mac McCaughan — on board? That was easy.
In a few cases, Quasi helped to flesh out tracks with overdubs; for Martsch they traveled to Boise and recorded live in the studio. McCaughan’s tune was an acoustic one-off, originally laid down for a radio show, that Weiss and Coomes downloaded straight from Bandcamp. “When they sent it back, it was amazing, but it had no harmonies on it,” McCaughan said. “I love the way they sing and I love Quasi records, so I was a little disappointed.” He asked them to add backing vocals, to which they happily agreed. “I was psyched about that, because it’s a little bit like getting to be in Quasi,” he added.
That track’s gallows-humor title is “Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again),” which McCaughan described as “literally the worst silver lining you can think of.” Like many contributors to Battle Hymns, he chose not to focus directly on the prolapsed turkey neck currently occupying the Oval Office. “It’s hard to not just walk around completely angry with who voted for him or who didn’t vote at all,” he said. “I try to think of other things occasionally, but it’s hard not to, you know?”
Recapturing an overtly political tone challenged these veteran artists anew; Weiss admitted most “are very out of practice writing this type of material. I think a lot of people on the comp were like, ‘How am I gonna bottle this unbelievable amount of material into a song?’ ”
By and large, they figured it out. Battle Hymns opens with “We Won’t Go Back,” a fortitudinous antifascist anthem from Thermals bassist Kathy Foster. It’s followed by McCaughan’s deceptively chipper 2016 send-off, then more abstract stuff from Boss Hog, the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman, and others. The common thread is Quasi’s squelchy, garage-y, keyboard-friendly production, although several of the fourteen tracks are fuzzier, harsher, or more haunting. It’s a heavy dose of good, buzzing carbon monoxide (though sometimes this frayed aural approach obscures the defiant lyrics that are the compilation’s reason for being in the first place).
Of course, Weiss’s stupendously talented bandmates in Sleater-Kinney are here, and their offerings couldn’t be more disparate. “No More Fizz,” by MEDS, lays Carrie Brownstein’s list of banned pleasures (“No more napping/No more fine points”) over Katie Harkin’s guitar and myriad self-programmed dissonances. Filthy Friends’ “Love in the Time of Resistance” gives Peter Buck a choppy, Hot Rock–styled riff to run with, and Corin Tucker grabs it: “We can’t go back, we must move on.” Quasi’s own inclusion, “Ballad of Donald Duck & Elmer Fudd,” imagines an ominous alliance of cartoon villains as an allegory for, well, the ominous alliance of cartoon villains now running the country.
“In some ways this is the kind of thing we would normally do anyway, especially living in North Carolina,” said Superchunk’s McCaughan, who marched with his wife and children in D.C. over the inauguration weekend. “There’s plenty of things to try and resist here. Now it just seems a little more urgent.”
Weiss is optimistic about the empowerment that comes with creating community fundraising projects like this one. “Mostly it’s to battle the cynicism, really, and to give people encouragement to act, to really, truly start to believe that the people are much more powerful than the people in power,” she said. “We need to make people feel more invested. We can’t wait anymore.”
And when confronted with the (jaded) question of whether the art itself can actually make a difference, McCaughan effectively volleys it back: “It doesn’t seem like it would help to stop making music,” he said, with not a little cheek. “So I guess if that’s what you know how to do, then keep doing it.”