Janet Weiss Is Irreplaceable, But Sleater-Kinney’s New Chapter Will Be Fascinating Even Without Her

On Monday (July 1), drummer Janet Weiss announced she was leaving Sleater-Kinney, for whom she has drummed since 1996. "The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on," Weiss wrote in a statement shared to Twitter, adding that her decision to depart came after "intense deliberation and with heavy sadness."

In response to the news, Sleater-Kinney posted a note on Instagram noting they too are "saddened by Janet's decision to leave" the band, and added, "We thank her for joining us on this journey many years ago; we will always cherish our friendship and our time together." The departure came as a shock to fans — Sleater-Kinney is in the midst of promoting a new album, the St. Vincent-produced The Center Won't Hold, on which Weiss plays, due in August — and reverberated so widely that the drummer's name even trended nationally on Twitter.

The strong reaction stems from the fact that Weiss is universally beloved, and not just because of her tenure with Sleater-Kinney. In the early '90s, she formed the indie rock act Quasi with Sam Coomes; later, during Sleater-Kinney's mid-'00s hiatus, she toured and recorded with Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. At other times, she's drummed on albums from underground heroes The Go-Betweens, Bright Eyes and the Shins.

But Weiss meshed so seamlessly — and immediately — with guitarist/vocalists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker in Sleater-Kinney because she shared the pair's constant hunger for sonic evolution. In fact, her versatility as a drummer was immediately an asset on 1997's Dig Me Out, her debut album with them. Weiss added subtle precision to the band's spiky, flailing punk riffs, but also provided a steadying presence as Sleater-Kinney slowed down with their anguish on the fuzzy indie-rocker "Turn It On" and on the haunting, churning final song, "Jenny."

Over the decades, the members of Sleater-Kinney grew as musicians together in remarkable lockstep, even as their shared songwriting evolved and embraced more styles — as heard in the band's turn-of-the-century output on the strident pogo-pop anthem "Oh!," choppy new wave gem "You're No Rock & Roll Fun" and hollering psychedelic blues of "Combat Rock." Weiss' ability to combine hard-hitting aggression and droning grooves also made her especially suited for Sleater-Kinney's forays into more straightforward rock, such as the simmering thrash of One Beat's "Light Rail Coyote" and the scuzzy '70s rock and heavy metal riffage driving 2005's fan-favorite The Woods.

Sleater-Kinney's successful growth and evolution can also be credited to Weiss' creative balance. "I definitely try to bridge a gap between them," she told The New York Times in 2015, referring to her bandmates. "Look at their personalities — they play like that. Corin is so solid and steady, and she does have pretty good timing, and Carrie is all over the place, chomping at the bit. It’s not one of them by themselves, it’s the two of them together that’s making the spark. And I have to somehow find out how to accentuate that spark and make it a fire, to ignite it."

Perhaps it's no surprise the biggest question mark following Weiss' departure is how it will impact Sleater-Kinney's concerts. Speaking of balance, Weiss was — literally and figuratively — the centerpiece of the band's live shows. Her drumkit was situated square in the middle of the stage, positioned so Tucker and Brownstein flanked her, which had the effect of making her a third focal point. Tucker and Brownstein often turned toward her when shredding or jamming, as if Weiss' playing exuded irresistible magnetism. For fans, Weiss was also pure joy to watch onstage: Her surging rhythms generated immense power, and reinforced the urgency and empowerment of Sleater-Kinney's music and messages. Yet her dynamics prowess was also a plus, as she frequently added subtle (but meaningful) backing vocals, and could turn on a dime and dial back the ferocity when the song called for it.

Without knowing who (if anybody) might replace Weiss in the band, live or permanently, it's tough to predict Sleater-Kinney's future. However, in hindishgt, a recent performance of "Hurry on Home" from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon might offer clues to the "new direction" Weiss hinted at. With auxiliary players Toko Yasuda and Katie Harkin in tow, the performance emphasized needling guitar textures and keyboard atmosphere, and smoothed out the drums like someone ironing out creases — at least until the end, when the three principal members let loose and unfurled chaos. The performance was less a snarling burst, and more like a prolonged, simmering seethe.

It's too early to say how this approach might play out across a full concert, although it's clear that Sleater-Kinney are embracing new sounds and influences — a very in-character move for a group that's never been afraid to challenge expectations. (Plus, the band has navigated drummer shifts before — after all, Weiss added permanence after they cycled through several instrumentalist in the '90s.)

As many have noted, there's no possible way to replace Weiss in the lineup, and she'll no doubt continue to drum elsewhere. Yet it's also patently unfair to write off Sleater-Kinney without her, since Brownstein and Tucker have consistently changed directions in their career — the latter as a solo artist and with the raucous Filthy Friends, and the former as an actress and author — and still produced compelling work. Call the Weiss-less lineup a new chapter for Sleater-Kinney, with the plot structure still to be planned out and written.   

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