Carrie Brownstein, Renaissance Grrl
It's understandable if you're still not over Sleater-Kinney. Those jagged guitar riffs that interlocked like checkerboard squares . . . those drum fills that reject any description other than "awesome" . . . those impassioned dual vocals that aroused your ire against a callous world . . . it's only natural that we all got so attached. A nation of punk connoisseurs openly wept in 2006 upon news of the trio's extended hiatus. But imagine how singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein felt.
She found other pursuits, of course—she spent several years doing anything but playing music. She worked for an advertising agency. She taught obedience at the Humane Society. She started a book, which she doesn't want to talk about, "because it just starts to make me feel guilty about not working on it." (Suffice it to say it's a musical treatise on "technology, community, and the notion of fandom.") She wrote the blog "Monitor Mix" for NPR, in which she heroically attempted to enjoy Phish and mused about working in an office where people say things like, "Let's rock" before heading to meetings. (She's always been a bit of a rock critic. "Entertain," from Sleater-Kinney's swan song The Woods, was basically four crushing-riff minutes of Brownstein yelling at all other bands to try harder.)
She also joined forces with Saturday Night Live comedian Fred Armisen, a former drummer in Chicago punk band Trenchmouth. Being a fan, he invited Sleater-Kinney to an SNL after-party in 2002; years later, they concocted a series of Web videos based in a feminist bookstore (Brownstein was a bit of a drama nerd before she discovered punk) and recently debuted the affectionate hipster-lampooning series Portlandia on IFC. It's entirely possible that "Put a bird on it" has already entered your daily lexicon.
(Those surprised by Brownstein's comedy chops just didn't see the right Sleater-Kinney show: say, when she debated the relative merits of Tool versus Madonna onstage at Coachella 2006. Singer-guitarist bandmate Corin Tucker looked appalled that Brownstein went with Tool. Then again, "Corin was always appalled by something I would say onstage. In a jokey way.")
All of this may leave you worried that she has abandoned music for good. Not so. "I don't think I could ever be done with music, because it's informed so much of my life—it's really the lens with which I view the world," she says by phone from her home in Portland, occasionally interrupted by the sound of her dog playing with a squeak toy. "But to me, music has to have an urgency, and it has to come from a place of desire and want and passion, and if I'm not in that place with music, then I have no desire to play it."
Two years ago, director Lynn Hersh-man Leeson asked Brownstein to write instrumental songs for her feminist artists documentary !Women Art Revolution. So she called Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, along with her friend Rebecca Cole, a bassist and classically trained pianist, formerly of S-K opening acts the Minders. As soon as the new songs were recorded, Hershman asked for vocals. Which was problematic. "Originally, she had not wanted vocals on the songs," Brownstein explains, "so I wrote them in a way that I could not sing over."
Enter her friend Mary Timony: solo artist, perpetually underrated guitar-slinger, and former leader of '90s haze-rockers Helium. "The first time I met Carrie was in 1994 or -5, at the Mercury Lounge in New York," Timony recalls. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone who's as good a performer as her. It really blows my mind." In 1997, their bands toured the U.K. together, and "we really hit it off. I think we would go dancing after every show." The pair stayed friends, and even collaborated on a studio-only project called the Spells, which released one EP, Age of Backwards, in 1999.
Now they had a new project. "So all of a sudden, it was this band, and all of a sudden, it dawned on us, like, 'Oh, we could actually do this. This could be an interesting band,' " Brownstein says. "So we started writing. But it was always an audition in the beginning."
Justifiably, she worried about Supergroup Syndrome, wherein the members are "friends, or they're great musicians in their other bands, and they come together, and it's just not greater than the sum of their parts." It took many "auditions" to assuage her fears, fears that only subsided when the band dubbed WILD FLAG played their first live show in Olympia last November. "I think we all come from a place where just because you have credentials or it looks good on paper, that doesn't mean that you're a good band," she says. "It's still about chemistry, it's still about learning how to play together. You really should try to earn the things you get, and to feel like you have to prove something."
So Timony, who'd grown tired of making solo albums, would fly out from D.C. for a week at a time for the intense, hours-long writing sessions. The group got rid of amps and pedals from their old gigs and discarded early songs that sounded too much like "this formula of one part Mary Timony, one part Sleater-Kinney," Brownstein explains, acknowledging the difficulty of avoiding that with S-K's actual drummer involved, but then again, "it's hard to play in a band with Janet Weiss and then not play in a band with Janet Weiss."
It would be unfair to go into deep critical analysis of a new band based on shaky YouTube bootlegs, so let's just briefly note that WILD FLAG songs like "Future Crime" and "Arabesque" showcase an appealing blend of hard-driving rhythms, Mysterian keyboard wooshes, and overlapping gang vocals. After a run of shows this spring, they plan to record their debut album live in the studio ("We're not going to obsess over overdubs or anything like that") with producer Chris Woodhouse, with an eye toward releasing it this August on Merge Records. Sleater-Kinney remain close friends, by the way, but Corin Tucker's appearance on Portlandia is the closest that fans will get to a reunion for a while. "I definitely feel like that is in our future," Brownstein says. "But it's not even in the realm of possibility right now."
She's moved on. You should, too. "We're touring a bunch, and if people show up because they like Sleater-Kinney, we'll weed them out," Brownstein concludes. "We want people to come to our shows because they like WILD FLAG."
WILD FLAG play the Rock Shop on March 5, and Radio City Music Hall, along with Superchunk and Bright Eyes, on March 8 and 9
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.