Carrie Brownstein helped start Sleater-Kinney, the celebrated punk trio, when she was still in college. That band split in 2006, and though Brownstein kept busy — as a blogger and commentator for NPR Music, among other things — she says that by the end of 2010, she was feeling antsy.
"You think that tradition will grab hold of you at some point, and it just didn't. I see my friends going off and claiming these lives that we all thought we would have," she tells Guy Raz, host of NPR's weekends on All Things Considered. "I haven't settled down — I'm so much more restless than I've ever been. I find stillness to be very unsettling. So I think a lot of the songs on this record are grappling with that chaos and trying to figure out how to make it useful and powerful."
Wild Flag, released earlier this month, is the debut album from Brownstein's newly formed band of the same name. The lineup includes her old Sleater-Kinney bandmate Janet Weiss, as well as longtime friends and collaborators Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole. Brownstein says that, though the members all respected each other as musicians, they entered their new partnership with extreme caution.
"Music is not math. You can't just put all these good elements together," she says. "You realize it's chemistry: It's about this coalescence of disparate parts that makes something greater."
GUY RAZ, Host:
Time now for music. Today, the Riot Grrl revival.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMANCE")
RAZ: Four indie rock icons have teamed up to form the band Wild Flag. Spin magazine says their new record sounds like a group of old friends coming together to make a racket and rock really hard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMANCE")
WILD FLAG: (Singing) Hey, hey, can you feel it? The way it squeeze you, the hum in your chest. You make my feet move, you turn my head loose. That's why I love you the best.
RAZ: That voice belongs to Carrie Brownstein. She was in the all-woman band Sleater-Kinney in the '90s. They split up in 2006. And last year, Brownstein, her old band mate Janet Weiss and two other friends all met at a recording studio to make a new album. The result is Wild Flag's self-titled debut.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: There's only one chance that you have to make a first record, and this band is comprised of people that have made many records. So I think that there is almost an adolescent sort of joyousness and ferocity to this album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELECTRIC BAND"))
FLAG: (Singing) All night, say my name. Say it again and I'll make it rain in your mind.
RAZ: It's been called like the indie supergroup. You've got you, Janet Weiss - of course, you guys were together in Sleater-Kinney - Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole. You've got bands from Quasi to Helium - all these bands represented in this super group.
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I'm wary of the term supergroup because I don't want to water down any other supergroups by calling us one. I mean, let's recall Asia.
RAZ: That's true.
RAZ: Or "We are the World."
BROWNSTEIN: "We are the World."
RAZ: That was kind of a supergroup.
BROWNSTEIN: That's the ultimate supergroup.
BROWNSTEIN: So, I don't know. I find that term - I bristle at it a little bit because, of course, you know, we want to be just a real band. We happen to have been in other things. But if that's the shorthand that people need to use in order to write about us, that's OK.
RAZ: Embrace it.
BROWNSTEIN: I will try.
RAZ: All right. Wild Flag. Tell me how the band came together.
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I didn't play music for many years after my other band broke up. And I think it just - it got to the point where all of us were kind of in the same place. We sort of needed music again in a certain way and thought that it seemed like a good combination. At the same time, we didn't want to assume that it would be good. I mean, you know how fans - like, if I asked you, like, what would be your ultimate band, and you would like, cobble together this, like, fan fiction. Like, oh, I'd put Jimi Hendrix on guitar and John Bonham on drums and Patti Smith on vocals...
RAZ: Flea on bass.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, and Flea on bass, exactly. And you'd put together this band, and it's like, oh my God. That's the worst sound I've ever heard in my life.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER))
BROWNSTEIN: So, you know, music is not math. You can't just put all these good elements together separately.
RAZ: Right. Look at the NBA all-star teams. Sometimes they suck.
BROWNSTEIN: Exactly. And you just realize it's chemistry. And so we were very cautious to not have any assumptions that this would even work. We were very slow out of the gate because of that.
RAZ: Carrie, I want to ask you about a song on this record called "Romance." We heard a bit of it earlier. The song has this lyric: we love the sound, the sound is what found us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMANCE"))
FLAG: (Singing) We love the sound, the sound is what found us. Sound is the love between me and you.
RAZ: And I wonder if that is actually about the four of you in this band because obviously, that - I would assume that's an element that brings you together.
BROWNSTEIN: I think that's one interpretation, certainly. And I do think that the song "Romance" is about the realization that as a fan of music, as some of that is a creative participant in music, that sometimes that is the only real connection that I feel with somebody else. You know, this one relationship to sound and to music has been very consistent for me.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Carrie Brownstein. She is the guitarist and singer for the band Wild Flag. Their new album is a self-titled debut. It's just out now. Do you - when you hear this record and when you were recording it, are there specific things that you were sort of imagining it to be about?
BROWNSTEIN: For me, it's both a breakup record, and it's also a record about coming to terms with the ways that certain lives, particularly my own, has veered away from tradition and convention. I think as you get older and you're in your 30s and you're still sort of married to your music or your art, you know, I see my friends sort of going off and kind of claiming these lives that we all thought we would have. You know, oh well, I'll sort of settle down. I haven't settled down. I'm so much more restless than I've ever been. I find stillness to be very unsettling, and so I think a lot of the songs, in different ways, sort of deal with that.
RAZ: I want to ask you about another side to you which is your comedy side because you have this sketch show on IFC called "Portlandia." And you do it with Fred Armisen from "Saturday Night Live." And I just want to hear a clip from the show before I ask you about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PORTLANDIA")
FRED ARMISEN: (as character) Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep until 11 and just hang out with their friends? I mean, you had no occupations, whatsoever. Maybe working a couple of hours a week at a coffee shop.
BROWNSTEIN: (as character) Right. Thought that died out a long time ago.
ARMISEN: (as character) Not in Portland. Portland is a city where young people go to retire.
RAZ: It's a great line: Portland is a city where young people go to retire. Obviously, the show makes fun of a certain type of person who lives in Portland, which is where you're from. What - how have people in Portland reacted? Has there been any backlash to sort of the mockery that you see on the program?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I will say that neither Fred nor I consider the show a mockery.
RAZ: I got you. Sorry. Forgive me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER))
BROWNSTEIN: I mean, here's the thing: there is a Portland in every city. I mean, you know, here I am in New York right now. Talk about a city that's kind of having a love affair with Portland, you know? And there's - you know, you have Brooklyn, you have Silver Lake...
RAZ: Everyone's riding their bikes.
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. You have Madison, Wisconsin, you have Austin. You know, there's these - there's sort of a Portland everywhere right now.
RAZ: There is, actually. Right.
BROWNSTEIN: And, yeah.
RAZ: There's sort of Portland all over the country.
BROWNSTEIN: And Portland just happens to sort of be the apex of this kind of, you know, this very progressive, well-intentioned lifestyle that, you know, even I, of course, am trying to live by that. So I am all those characters on the show, and so is Fred. Like, we're not, you know, just targeting somebody and saying, let's make fun of them. It's like, oh, this is this part of me where right at the point where my belief system could just get so crazy and alienating to other people.
RAZ: You guys are getting ready to go on tour, and you'll be out of Portland for a while. Is it hard to be away from Portland?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHORT VERSION"))
BROWNSTEIN: It's hard to just be away from home. Tour is so fragmentary and jarring by nature. There's nothing consistent about it, except the moment you're on stage, and that's why that moment is the best part of tour. Everything else, like, a moderately clean hotel room, like, just living out of a suitcase, it's just not conducive to, like, healthy living. You know, you trick yourself and you bring running shoes and you just think, every morning I'm going to wake up, and I'm going to go down to that crappy gym in the basement. And I'm going to get on, like, a treadmill from 1998 that I'll probably fall off of. Oh, it's so unglamorous. Anyone that thinks tour is glamorous should try it, really. They should try it. But, no, I love playing shows, and I love going to different cities. But I wish I could teleport myself back to my own bed every night.
RAZ: That's singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein. Her new band is called Wild Flag. Their self-titled debut album was released this month. And you can catch the band on tour starting in October. Carrie Brownstein, thank you so much.
BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHORT VERSION")) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.