Janet Weiss: Why the Drum Goddess Was the Heartbeat of Sleater-Kinney
Drum goddess Janet Weiss announced she’s leaving Sleater-Kinney on Monday — surprising news for fans, given that the band is on the verge of releasing their excellent new album and tickets have already gone on sale for their upcoming tour. “After intense deliberation and heavy sadness, I have decided to leave Sleater-Kinney,” Weiss wrote in her statement. “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.”
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It’s a sad moment because for some of us, Janet Weiss is the greatest rock drummer on Earth. She’s elevated all the bands she’s played with — but her long-running musical bond with Sleater-Kinney over the years has been the stuff of legend. She’s been the heartbeat that makes the Portland trio the greatest of American punk bands. “I’m a pretty individual drummer,” Weiss told me in 2003, for a Rolling Stone profile of Sleater-Kinney. “I like to kind of make things sound like me.” She played off the guitars and vocals of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, driving them to hit the emotional heights of “One More Hour” or “Get Up” or “A New Wave.” And if you love watching a drummer rip it up live, there’s nothing like witnessing Weiss’ intensity on “Entertain” or “Youth Decay.”
“I will never forget the heights we reached or the magnificent times Corin, Carrie and I shared,” Weiss says in her statement. “We were a force of nature. To the dearest SK fans — you’re the raddest fans in the universe and I love you. Experiencing the music together has been the honor of a lifetime. Thank you sustaining me the past 24 years and proving without a doubt that love and connection are what saves us.”
Sleater-Kinney’s new album The Center Cannot Hold, produced by St. Vincent, drops on August 16th. They just played their new “Hurry On Home” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon a couple of weeks ago. The band said in a statement, “We are saddened by Janet’s decision to leave Sleater-Kinney. It has been an incredible privilege to work with such a talented musician and drummer over the course of so many albums, including The Center Won’t Hold. We thank her for joining us on this journey many years ago; we will always cherish our friendship and our time together. We wish Janet all the best as she starts a new chapter in life.”
Janet Weiss always had the vibe of the band’s no-bullshit big sister — older and worldlier than the other two, repping Portland rather than Olympia, the most intimidating member of an impeccably intimidating threesome. She grew up in Hollywood and discovered punk rock in college in San Francisco, going to see bands like the Replacements and the Minutemen. She drummed in the acclaimed (and still ongoing) band Quasi with ex-husband Sam Coomes. Before she hooked up with Sleater-Kinney, she had a job at an ad agency. “It takes a lot of tenacity to stick around for ten years or so,” Weiss said. “It also takes some serious chemistry with your bandmates, to be able to keep it vital. The connection has to be worthwhile to go through all the irritations that are inevitably included in this lifestyle.”
Sleater-Kinney were already a great band before Weiss joined, but she pushed them to a new level. Tucker and Brownstein dropped their riot grrrl eruption Call The Doctor in the spring of 1996, with Australian drummer Lora MacFarlane. When she left, a friend passed Weiss’ number on to Tucker. She was a fan, but had her doubts about whether she fit in. “I had Call the Doctor and I listened to that frequently. It was weird — I remember listening to the record and thinking, ‘I can totally be in this band.’ It’s not like we were from the same community — they were in Olympia, and I’m a lot older than them.”
“I was intimidated to play with her,” Corin Tucker told me in 2003. “She wasn’t in that Olympia crowd. But the first time we played with Janet, she was so powerful. Carrie and I looked at each other and went, ‘Oh, my God, we totally got lucky.’ Janet had a real job, but we were like, ‘Come on, hit the road! Join our slacker world!’”
The first song they tried together at practice was “Dig Me Out.” “They were like, ‘See what you can come up with.’ That was an amazing first song to play together. It was a total blind date. We didn’t know if we would get along. With certain people, you can just sense there’s something lurking there that’s simpatico. It’s funny — it was so long ago, but I can remember the shoes Carrie was wearing that first practice. Right from the beginning, it was explosive.” From the opening seconds of Dig Me Out, their 1997 album, it was clear this was a new band, driven by Weiss’ aggressive thump and back-up vocals. Their run over the next decade was historic—The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat and their most monstrously loud statement, The Woods. Listen to that percussive blast that kicks off “Entertain” — it sums up why Weiss’ beat was the “fuck you” in the music as well as the “black and blue.”
After Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus in 2006, she joined her Portland neighbors Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks for a few years, on their albums Real Emotional Trash and (their best) the 2011 Beck-produced Mirror Traffic. (“We Can’t Help You” and “Share The Red” are examples of how her light touch could lift a ballad.) She played in Wild Flag alongside Brownstein, Mary Timony of Helium and Ex Hex, and keyboardist Rebecca Cole. They made only one fantastic album, their self-titled 2011 debut with the overpowering “Romance.” Like the rest of Sleater-Kinney, she backed up the Go-Betweens on their 2000 reunion The Friends of Rachel Worth. Along the way, she has played with Bright Eyes and the Shins, along with the enduring Quasi. (Their latest album was Mole City, in 2013; fans tend to like Featuring “Birds” best, but my fave Quasi record is Field Studies, with the gorgeous “The Star You Left Behind.”) She also made the 2013 album Drumgasm with Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron and Death Grips’ Zach Hill.
She sounded tougher than ever when Sleater-Kinney came back strong in 2015 with No Cities to Love. One of Weiss’ roles in the band was to assemble the set lists, and every night, even she was surprised at the fervor of the crowds, many of whom were far too young to have seen the band in the Nineties. Sleater-Kinney has definitely gone in a gothier, more high-tech direction in the first two songs released from the new album, “Hurry On Home” and “The Future Is Here” — although their evolution shouldn’t be any surprise in itself, since this band always refused to repeat itself. For fans of the band, it’s undeniably a moment of mourning — but mostly a moment of gratitude for the music these three have made together. Wherever Janet Weiss goes musically after Sleater-Kinney, it will be loud — and it will be worth hearing, because of her.
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