PHILADELPHIA — Let’s refrain from labeling Wild Flag a “supergroup.” There’s no denying, though, the impressive indie-rock pedigree of the female foursome whose self-titled debut delivers more kinetic rock ‘n’ roll kicks than any of the competition this season.
Guitarist-songwriter Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss were two-thirds of the justly celebrated Pacific Northwest trio Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein’s co-frontwoman, Mary Timony, formerly of Helium, is also a formidable ax-woman who specializes in compositions that are dreamier than Brownstein’s riff-slinging locomotives, such as “Racehorse.” And keyboard player Rebecca Cole is a veteran of the Elephant Six collective psychedelicists the Minders.
Since Sleater-Kinney stopped making music half a decade ago, Brownstein has branched out, writing the perspicacious “Monitor Mix” blog for NPR Music, and starring with “Saturday Night Live’s” Fred Armisen in the sketch comedy show “Portlandia.” The IFC show (its second season starts in January) lovingly and hilariously skewers life in the Oregon urban bohemia where all of Wild Flag’s members live but Timony, who resides in Washington, D.C.
Brownstein spoke by phone last week from a tour stop in Massachusetts.
Q: When Sleater-Kinney stopped playing in 2006, did you have a plan?
A: I think deep down the unofficial plan was to write. I didn’t have any musical goals in mind. But I always had other interests that I enjoyed — acting, writing — that I knew I was going to pursue. It took me a while to reorient myself towards the world as not being the person from Sleater-Kinney. And I was very deliberate about not wanting to leave my best years behind me. . . . For me, the only underlying goal — and this is completely fear-driven — I just didn’t want that to have been ... everything, everything that’s important to me, everything that was creative, everything that was artistic.
Q: So what did you do?
A: I worked in an ad agency for about six months. And that was really the only 9-to-5 job I’ve ever had. I was completely unworthy of working there, and incapable.
Q: Then you started to write for NPR?
A: Luckily they liked my writing style and it wound up being the way I got back into music, from writing about it and creating a space where I was a fan.
Q: How did your perspective shift, from making music to approaching it as an observer?
A: You know, it really is different. There’s a competitiveness, of course, inherent in a culture where there’s a lot of other people doing what you’re doing. But you stay in your own little world. You’re living and breathing your own music. When you come home you want to put on your favorite Replacements album, or listen to jazz.
Working for NPR helped me posit myself as not somebody who used to do something, but somebody who was breathing the currency of what’s going on now. ... In Wild Flag, I’m the main person in the van who says, “Let’s listen to the new Crystal Stilts album.” I refuse to fall into the trap of believing everything was better 10 years ago. The nostalgia trap. That’s a dark rabbit hole to go down into. It’s a very defeating mind-set.
Q: Did you get antsy to play music again?
A: A lot of the writing on NPR was about what it meant to be a listener, what it meant to be a fan. A lot of the underlying themes were about participating and passivity. And I just got to the point where I realized that ultimately the happiest and probably the healthiest I am is as a performer.
Q: So how did Wild Flag come together?
A: This director Lynn Hershman Leeson asked me to do some songs for her film “!Women Art Revolution.” And I was finally ready to pick up my guitar again, because I really hadn’t. I did not play guitar for years. I sold my amplifiers. I wanted that space in my life cleared.
Q: Were you that burnt out?
A: Yes. I did feel burnt out. I can say that unequivocally. I was probably the most relieved person in the band. I felt like I had been set down on the planet anew.
Q: Was it a weighty decision to start a new band? Like, this better be the right band?
A: I think partly the point was to not feel that. To get to the point of waiting and seeing and testing it out. It didn’t have to be perfect from the first note. ... But there was a sense that we need to make this band necessary. I think a lot of time when people kind of cobble together a band it immediately feels so obsolete because they feel so entitled. That’s a toxic place to be.
Q: You’re very funny with Fred Armisen on “Portlandia.” Do you have a theater background? Did you study Red Skelton as well as Noam Chomsky when you got your degree in sociolinguistics at the Evergreen State College?
A: (Laughs.) As a kid, growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, I was very obsessed with acting and performing. I went to theater camp and I did drama, and I really thought that’s what I was going to do.
But when I discovered music, it was like a wrecking ball that just obliterated every other interest I had. It was so immediate, and so instantly gratifying. I got a guitar, and not literally, but figuratively, it was “I own this now.” Music just took over.
Q: How did “Portlandia” happen?
A: Fred and I would get together and do these little (comedy sketch) “ThunderAnt” videos, just for ourselves, really. After about five years that helped Fred and I build up our chemistry, just like a band would.
For me, it’s not two separate parts of my personality. It’s two different intentions, still coming from the same place in me. Which is this desperation to connect with people, this way of getting out of my head. The intention with “Portlandia” is to be absurd or silly or satirical, and the intention with music is to be more ferocious or serious. But there’s an earnestness to both. So there’s not a huge disparity between them.
// Notes from the Road
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