SXSW interview: Wild Flag (Carrie Brownstein)
The three faces of Carrie Brownstein
"Everyone in Portland is living a minimum of three lives," author Katherine Dunn told Chuck Palahniuk in his Portland, Ore., travelogue "Fugitives and Refugees." " ... They're a grocery store check, an archaeologist and a biker guy. Or they're a poet, a drag queen and a bookstore clerk."
By that rubric, Carrie Brownstein — resident of the Rose City since 2000 — is a Portlander through-and-through. Brownstein might be most famous for her long stint — 12 years and seven albums — as a guitarist and vocalist for the acclaimed all-woman rock trio Sleater-Kinney. But she's also logged time as a writer and commentator, as well as the creator, writer and star of IFC's snarky-yet-loving sketch comedy hit "Portlandia."
Almost five years after hanging up her guitar, Brownstein is returning to music with Wild Flag, an indie rock quartet that also includes Mary Timony of Autoclave and Helium, Rebecca Cole of the Minders, and Janet Weiss, Brownstein's former bandmate in Sleater-Kinney and a powerhouse drummer who's manned the sticks for Bright Eyes, Quasi and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Wild Flag has no release to promote — the band, signed to Merge Records, will put out a Britt Daniel-produced single for Record Store Day in April, followed by a full-length in the fall — but that's not stopped them from assembling a staggeringly full South by Southwest dance card. Brownstein called from Wild Flag's Washington, D.C., rehearsal space to discuss her overlapping three identities.
Brownstein's side pursuit as an actress and improvisational comedian — she's had roles in short films and Miranda July's "Getting Stronger Everyday," as well as co-starring with Shins and Broken Bells frontman James Mercer in "Some Days Are Better Than Others" — blossomed into a more regular gig this year with "Portlandia." The IFC sketch comedy show, developed with Fred Armisen of "Saturday Night Live" and spun out of the duo's "ThunderAnt" online videos, was recently renewed for a second season.
American-Statesman: How much shared DNA is there in the role of performing musician and improvisational actress?
Carrie Brownstein: I think quite a bit. A lot of it is capitalizing on and knowing what to do with a moment, not being afraid of the unexpected. Both of them are about finding something cohesive, something magical and something surprising when the parts come together just right. That, and maintaining a constant energy. I think that's especially true for me because Sleater-Kinney became a fairly improvisational live band, especially at the end. We had even gotten pretty jammy in the practice space, and we found a lot of the songs on (final album) "The Woods" out of the chaos.
‘Portlandia' has been fairly well-received critically, but a lot of the local, Portland-based critics seem more hesitant, almost as though they're somewhat wounded by some of the show's satirical barbs. How has the local reaction to the show compared with what you expected?
It's about in line with what I thought. Portland is a city that is very earnest, very self-reflective and very self-analytical. It's defensive about its way of life and protective of it. Fred and I feel like it's a love letter to Portland. In all ways we're really only making fun of ourselves. But I think some people don't get it, and that's fine. I've never been interested in making art of any kind that is just universally liked. Sleater-Kinney was not that band, and I tend to not like art or music that isn't a little divisive. But I think people outside of Portland, even though they're living in communities akin to Portland, like Austin, seem less sensitive to it.
Brownstein tackled interviews with Eddie Vedder, Karen O and others for the Believer, and penned a review of the "Rock Band" video game series for Slate. NPR snapped her up in 2007, and for three years she wrote the "Monitor Mix" blog for NPR and contributed to "All Songs Considered." Though she concluded "Monitor Mix" last year, Brownstein still plans to publish a book, "The Sound of Where You Are," on the shifting relationship between fan and performer.
What aspect of taking on the role of music critic and commentator came as the biggest surprise to you?
I guess just how big a fan I became of contemporary music. When you're playing music, it can get very insular — you know the bands you tour with, but your world is so much about music that whatever you turn to listen to at home or on the road is comfort food. I didn't necessarily have the energy to seek out new music. Writing for NPR, I found all these pockets of contemporary music that were really inspiring.
Did you approach writing about music as someone who had been in the trenches of touring and recording?
Definitely not. There's this hierarchy between performer and fan, but when you're writing there is no hierarchy, especially on blogs, which are very communally based. I felt very much like a fellow fan voicing my opinion, and I was able to connect with a fairly dynamic community of fans and listeners. I didn't care if people started reading because they were fans of Sleater-Kinney, and I never really wrote about that band, or from the perspective of someone who had been in a band. I really loved it. In some ways it reminded me that there's a lot of interesting conversations that go on about music. I think it's the thing that really made me want to play again.
Brownstein's musical career began with seminal riot grrl — an underground feminist punk movement — band Excuse 17 in 1993, but she found her greatest success with Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss in Sleater-Kinney. Time Magazine called the propulsive, politically minded trio the greatest rock band In America in 2001. They disbanded in 2006, and Wild Flag performed its first show in Olympia, Wash., in November 2010.
When Sleater-Kinney disbanded, did you have any intention of returning to music?
Actually, no. You would think after something with the longevity and the importance of Sleater-Kinney that I wouldn't ever really take a break from music, that it'd just be a part of my life. But I dove so quickly into other things. That helped crush the panic I might have felt otherwise. I very self-consciously didn't want to be the person that used to be in this one band. I wanted to do other things to help me make sense of who I was and to not be defined by this thing that started in my 20s. I didn't know if I would ever play in a real touring and recording band again. I'm ready for it now, but I certainly wasn't in 2007.
Sleater-Kinney is always the first band one sees name-checked when Wild Flag is brought up. Are you comfortable with that?
Yeah. It's inevitable. It would be an act of insanity to try separate myself from 12 years of my life and my creative output. It's not offending or surprising that people are going to discuss Sleater-Kinney, especially without an album being out. But my hope is that people begin to like Wild Flag for who we are and what we sound like — I think it's a more pop, more dance band than any of us have ever been in, with some warped, psychedelic tendencies. I think that's part of the reason we're touring before our record comes out. We're still figuring out who we are, and that's scary and exciting. This way, people who are just showing up to see what we're up to but don't end up liking us, we're getting those people out of the way early. I'm very grateful for Sleater-Kinney, and I'm really proud of it and really care about it, but hopefully the longer we pursue this band people like it as much. I like it as much.
Wild Flag at SXSW
12:45 a.m. Friday at the Parish, 214 E. Sixth St.