Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony of Wild Flag
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Some bands thrill audiences with their music and some with their stage show, but few have generated as much excitement from the simple fact of their existence as Wild Flag. When word got out that Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, and Rebecca Cole were playing together, the response was immediate and overwhelming. Brownstein and Weiss hadn’t played together since Sleater-Kinney dissolved in 2006, and Timony, both as a solo artist and with her bands Helium and Autoclave, made some of the most memorable indie rock of the last two decades. But even beyond that, the combination just seemed enticing. Mix Brownstein’s visceral charisma, Weiss’s propulsive and versatile drumming, Cole’s garage-rock organ, and Timony’s guitar playing (which harnesses the power of classic rock, but leaves out the clichés), and the chemistry could be explosive. A string of jam-packed SXSW shows and an ensuing tour of sold-out club dates proved the expectations were warranted, and the entire catalogue of the fledgling band quickly made its way to YouTube. With the exception of vocals, the quartet’s self-titled debut was recorded live, capturing the sweaty magic of those shows with enhanced clarity and allowing its 10 songs the multiple replays they richly deserve. While gearing up for the album’s release, Brownstein and Timony talked to The A.V. Club about their return to music, Sleater-Kinney’s breakup, and the power of being in a band.
The A.V. Club: How did Wild Flag come together in the first place?
Carrie Brownstein: Janet and Rebecca and I were working on some music for Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s documentary film [!Women Art Revolution], just a couple of songs. Originally, the director had not wanted vocals, so we didn’t really write songs we could sing over. They weren’t designed like that. And then we realized she’d changed her mind. So we thought, “Who would be a fun person to send this song to?” We thought of Mary; she was someone who Janet and I had been friends with for years. So we sent her the song remotely. She cut vocals over that, and that was it. We had definitely planted the seed, even though we’d never been the same room during that process. Janet and Rebecca and I had such a great time playing. It was the first time that Janet and I had played together in about three years. We have a very innate chemistry; everything’s very easy for us. I’ve always been a huge fan of Rebecca’s playing style. So we had this immediate enthusiasm for this project, even though it was very brief.
Then adding Mary to it, a light bulb went on and we thought, “What if this is something that became an actual band?” But it just struck me as very difficult. Mary lives in D.C. I was actually about to move to New York. There were a lot of factors that indicated it wouldn’t actually come to fruition, but we became more intentional about it over the next year or so. In the spring and summer of 2010, we really began getting together in Portland. I had moved back to Portland. Mary would fly in. We began writing songs. But even then, we didn’t want to just be a project band, we didn’t want it to be a novelty endeavor, or “Let’s just cut an album and not do anything.” We waited to see if we had the makings of a real band. So we did a bunch of touring last fall, just to see whether it clicked.
AVC: Had you been wanting to be in a band again? Was there a point after Sleater-Kinney disbanded where you didn’t want to do music, and then that changed?
CB: Certainly. After our last show in August of 2006, I really had very little desire to play guitar, or tour, or do anything that had to do with playing music. I’m not the kind of person who is always sitting around with an instrument, writing or playing something. I put the amps and guitars away and started writing for NPR and working on other projects. I didn’t put the nail in the coffin, but I had no five-year plan, “Oh, I’ll come back to it at this time.” It was actually writing for NPR and just being engaged in music, in this constant dialogue about fandom, and one’s relationship to music, and what I liked or disliked—it was a very animated discussion that I really enjoyed having with other fans. When you’re writing a blog, there’s not a hierarchy of performer and audience. I really just felt that we were having this online discussion. It made me very excited about music again, to the point where I was interested in playing again. A lot of what I was writing about was participation vs. passivity. And I realized that even though writing is a form of engagement and participation, it wasn’t necessarily what I was meant to be doing in terms of music. I feel like I had sort of exhausted all my theories.
It was very good for me, and I really loved the kind of private discussions and dialogue I had with the audience, but I was ready to play. It just came around again, I guess, in 2009. It had been a full three years, and then I felt really ready. I’m not casual about music. It’s not something that I take for granted, and I don’t want to be a participant in it unless I feel like I need it. That’s how music started for me as a teenager, as a life raft. I can’t say that it’s what saved my life, but it’s something I always relate to having an urgency with. I can’t get involved with music unless I feel an urgency and a need for it. And that just happened again, and I got back into it.
AVC: Mary, you’d been playing a bit with Soft Power, but for the most part, you hadn’t been in a band since Helium broke up in 1998. Did you miss writing with other people, sharing the load? Was it something you’d been looking to do, or did it just come out of the blue?
Mary Timony: I wanted to. It’s weird how it happened. I definitely got burnt out with making solo records, and I wasn’t even going to do another one. I really wanted to collaborate with other people, and then suddenly this kind of came along. I was really lucky.
AVC: Were you taken aback by the reaction to the news that you all were playing together? The press release alone was enough to start people freaking out.
MT: Yeah, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t been in a project that anybody had really shown much interest in a while, so it was kind of a shock for me. I forgot what that’s like. I don’t ever experience, actually, this amount of people being interested. It was a new experience.
AVC: Carrie, the fact that you and Janet are both in Wild Flag was particularly exciting for Sleater-Kinney fans. Did you expect they’d react the way they did?
CB: No, certainly not, actually. What a certain band meant is so personal and individual. Even though Sleater-Kinney meant a lot to me and Corin and Janet, you’re never thinking about that. You sense that it meant something to other people, but that’s not what you’re focusing on. It meant something to us, for sure, and it’s always surprising and touching to remember that, or be reminded of that, and we’re grateful for that. But at the same time, any person that has a creative endeavor wants to be judged by their current project or their current incarnation. So there’s also that risk factor, and that burden of expectations, where you know that what you did before meant something special or significant to someone, and you’re aware that that had a lot to do with where they were, and the context in which they heard the music, or how old they were. So now as you embark on something new, and it’s a new band, it’s not the same, and it’s not the same dynamic, and the fans aren’t in the same place. It may not mean the same thing. It may not be as impactful, or impactful in a different way, so you can’t really get too caught up in the kind of external conundrum or dialogue. You just have to stand by what you’re doing now.
I loved Sleater-Kinney. I was a Sleater-Kinney fan, and I was in the band, but this isn’t that. I think one of the reasons we toured so much before the album came out was because we almost wanted to give people a chance to reject it. Like, “Hey, this isn’t going to be Sleater-Kinney, and if you’re still grieving for that, or that’s the bar any other band we do is measured against, then maybe this is not the right band for you.” Then we tour, people come, either they decide, “Nope, this isn’t what I wanted,” and they leave, or they’re like, “Yeah, I can love this too.” Or, and this is, I think, all you can really hope for, there’s the group of people who are like, “Wow, I was never into Sleater-Kinney, but this, I like.” Touring, you become a band, and you have your own fans. We did not want to be a band that was just, “Oh, do you love Sleater-Kinney? Then you’ll love Wild Flag.” It was like, “Nope, Sleater-Kinney is in the past. This is a new band. Love it or leave it. Fine with us.” We really worked on just being our own band. It’s not really my place to worry about whether it’s meeting people’s expectations or not. All we can do is make albums, or an album, I guess we have just one, that we’re happy with, and move on. I would never say Sleater-Kinney wasn’t important to me, but I think both Corin with her solo stuff, and both Janet and I with Wild Flag, we’re living in the present.
AVC: As you get older, it’s easy to mourn the fact that music doesn’t mean to you what it did when you were younger, but in a sense, that’s because you don’t need it as much, or in the same way. If you’re in your 30s listening to an album and feeling like the person singing is the only one who really understands you, you’re in bad shape.
CB: Exactly, and I think you have that awareness. I fall into that trap too, where I’ll be measuring something up against a Clash album or something else, and then I realize, “No. This new band that is cool and interesting, they’re great. The reason they’re not The Clash is not necessarily because they’re not The Clash, but because I don’t need them as much as I needed Joe Strummer in 1990.” The way you need and relate to music changes. You can’t necessarily judge the artist by that. But people do, that’s just what happens.
AVC: Can you talk about what happened with Sleater-Kinney? When The Woods came out, you were talking about your next album, and then suddenly the band was breaking up. It’s not as if you’d just put out a subpar album and you were obviously out of juice.
CB: From our perspective, it didn’t come suddenly. Writing The Woods was a struggle, even though it was a struggle that paid off in all the ways that we could have hoped for. We felt like we were not all on the same page, in that we weren’t enjoying it as much as we were before. And I think touring had gotten to be very stressful. It felt like a better time to go out, as you said, instead of fade away into obscurity or obsolescence or unimportance. That’s a depressing way to cap off a decade-long career. So even though there was a lot of sadness, and certainly there were a lot of reasons for continuing, it felt like the right time in other ways. Like, “Well, we’ll leave, in my opinion, on one of my favorite Sleater-Kinney albums.” I think any of us would say that was one of the albums we’re most proud of. I’d much rather have that be the last thing. I think there was a suddenness to it in terms of that perspective, like it seemed like maybe we were entering a new phase. It’s like when you go to a live show and a band only plays for 45 minutes instead of an hour and a half. You’re sort of annoyed, but at the same time, you were transfixed the whole time, and you weren’t checking your watch after an hour.
AVC: I’ve definitely come to realize there are bands I really love who I only want to see play for 45 minutes, and that’s fine.
CB: Yeah, it’s not a bad thing at all. Very few people can captivate an audience for an hour or two. I guess if you’re charging $75 and playing an arena, you’ve got to play for two hours. If you’re a Springsteen or a Radiohead, your fans can probably spend the whole night with you. But other than that, you should probably leave people wanting more.
AVC: So what did Wild Flag start with? Did you have songs already written, or was it just a matter of playing together and seeing what developed?
MT: We kind of had to figure out how it worked, because we had never played in a band together before. So basically people brought in parts and we all arranged them in the practice space. There were other times when we just started writing all together in the practice space, like half and half of people bringing things in—even if someone brings in a chord progression, it usually gets played with.
AVC: “Glass Tambourine” has several discrete sections. Was that one that got pieced together that way?
MT: That was one where I had written a little song, and then I brought it in and it morphed into this thing so much better than if it had stayed in my realm. Especially when we play it live, it’s really fun, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s kind of a map of what happens here and there, but you never really know what’s going to happen with anybody. Carrie and Janet have a thing going on where they’re kind of jamming. I kinda just like fill holes. I actually don’t really know what’s going on. It’s kind of an experiment every night. I feel a little bit out of control, because I’m always messing with this flanger pedal. I get it to make this crazy siren sound by overdriving it. It really is like I don’t know if it’s going to work sometimes.
AVC: Was that why you recorded the instrumental tracks for the album live, and only overdubbed the vocals?
MT: That was something, not completely new, but I hadn’t recorded that way since maybe the first couple records that I made. So it was like a return to something. I’d kind of forgotten how to do that, so I was like, “Wow, this is really hard and challenging.” But then I was like, “Whoa, this is great. I always want to record like this now.” It’s so much better to just get your shit together and go into the studio and record what you sound like live. I had forgotten how to do that, I think.
AVC: There are obvious elements of Sleater-Kinney and your various projects in the mix, but there’s also a kind of Nuggets vibe running through the record, both in terms of a psychedelic tinge and the sense of getting together in a garage and jamming.
MT: I think that might just come from the music we really like. It’s weird, because I don’t think I’ve ever really made a record before that sounds like the music I really like. Which is kind of fun about the new album.
AVC: Wild Flag has four players and four singers, and you’re clever about when to use those tools and when not to. On “Romance,” the lead guitar lays out for most of the verse, which makes it more effective when it comes in. Most of you have spent a lot of time playing in trios, and there seems to be a keen awareness that not all four of you have to be playing all the time.
CB: It’s definitely an exercise in restraint for us that we’ve all come to enjoy, but that has been a challenge for us. I think that when we employ it, we always love it in the end. But it takes a while to figure out, “What do I do then? Oh, I guess I can sit back and enjoy it.” “Romance” is a great example, because I play the riff at the beginning, and then Mary takes over while I sing. And that works fine. But we definitely are used to having to carry the song from beginning to end, which has its own intensity. That’s why people call them “power trios,” because everything’s firing at once. Once you add another person, or maybe with bands these days you add eight more people, you can sit out sometimes. It really helps the dynamic, and I think it helps songs build, and it allows them to deconstruct in the middle of the song, too.
AVC: Was there a Wild Flag song that came together in a particularly effective way, that made you think, “Yeah, this could be a band”?
MT: The first time that that happened? I think “Future Crimes.” I pretty much liked what we were doing all along, but I knew that when we finally got an arrangement of “Future Crimes” down that we liked. I have so much fun playing that song. It’s a song that Carrie wrote, and it went through so many different phases. I think I originally heard it when she was visiting New York, and she came down to D.C. for a couple of days to trade parts. It may have been the second time we had gotten together, or maybe it was the first. I heard that song, and it sounded a little bit different. Then when I went out to Portland, we worked on the song and it was a little bit different then, and I think maybe the second time I went out to Portland we arranged it how it is now. There’s something about that song—it flows really well, like each instrument is doing its own thing that works well together. It’s totally fun to play that one live.
CB: I think there’s a handful of things like that. The first single that we put out, “Glass Tambourine,” and “Future Crimes”—which we’ve re-recorded in a way that I much, much prefer—I feel like those are the two sides of Wild Flag. “Future Crimes” is a much more succinct, disjointed pop song that has elements of pop, but also has this emotional through-line. It’s also very straightforward. And then “Glass Tambourine,” which showcases each of our capabilities. One of the reasons we love being in this band is that all four of us can sing. I’m playing with a guitar player that’s far more accomplished than me. There are moments where each of us can pull back and let somebody else push. It’s being able to play with those dynamics that none of us were able to do before. Mary was always the lead singer and guitarist in her bands, so she had to be singing and soloing and playing all the time, from beginning to end. There’s never a moment where you can just, “Ah, I’m just going to play a chord, you do the heavy lifting.” Or Mary and I can both stop playing, and Janet and Rebecca can play. Rebecca plays bass keys, so we don’t always have to worry about the low end. I think “Glass Tambourine” embodied the places in Wild Flag where we feel very free.
So both those songs, which were earlier on, we’re very excited about for various reasons. I think also a song like “Racehorse,” which was just built upon a riff we just kept coming back to and exploring—all those things were indicators that we were excited and wanted to move forward. It took us a while to figure out what could be a Wild Flag song. We ended up discarding a lot of things that just felt too much like either Mary or I had brought in the song and we were just kind of working them as a band, or that we were backup bands for one another. We ended up throwing those songs out, and we would try to write things that felt like the whole band had had their say and worked on it and whatnot.
AVC: A number of the songs on the album, especially “Romance” and “Electric Band,” are about playing music and being in a band, or at least make reference to it. Did you realize that was becoming a recurring theme?
MT: It’s true. That’s just actually wasn’t a conscious decision when Carrie and I were writing lyrics, but listening back to the record, and also just listening to us play, I began to realize almost every song was about returning, maybe having lost music and returning to it and making the decision, “I can’t leave it, and I love it, and it’s my life.” It’s really weird; it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. I guess it’s just what we were going through.
CB: I think part of it was that it was new for us. In a way, that might seem strange, because we’ve all been in bands for many, many years, but I think reconvening in a new dynamic, a lot of it just felt new. Some of the lyrics are about testing one’s own relationship not just to music, but to art, the notion of still trying to maintain a creative, vibrant self as you get older. I think that for people that continue to be engaged with music and art and creativity in their 30s and 40s and beyond, you have to have a continual dialogue that’s basically convincing yourself that it’s okay not to have stopped, because along the way, you’ve seen friends and colleagues that decide they can’t anymore, for whatever reason. So there is a lot of convincing oneself and grappling with the validity of it. I wouldn’t say we’re just singing about music; we’re grappling with why and whether you can still find salvation in art, and whether it’s okay to, whether by now we should have found salvation in the white picket fence and kids. It’s become harder and harder to maintain a little of that nontraditional status. So I think it’s a little more like that than, “Hey, this is fun,” but certainly a handful of the songs call into question that sort of conundrum.
AVC: If you’re in a band in your 20s and you’re not making any money and sleeping on people’s couches, that’s fine, but you don’t want to look back at some point and realize you made a choice you weren’t aware of.
CB: Exactly, and I think Wild Flag is a choice. It’s a very intentional choice. There’s a lot about being in a band in your teens or 20s that is not dangerous or risky. It’s almost what everyone does. But much later, I think you do feel like it’s a choice, because you’re aware that there are other options that are potentially an easier path, or less risky. Of course, it’s great to be in a band in your 20s, because you never even think about it. There’s so much you take for granted. I remember talking to people when we’d tour the country, and I was envious of their seemingly normal, stable lives. “Oh, you get to go work in an office every day and go sleep at home in your own bed.” They’d roll their eyes and go, “No, you get to see every part of the U.S. and the world, and isn’t that exciting?” It’s almost like I didn’t realize that not everybody did that, because I was in Olympia and Portland, and it seemed like everyone was doing that. So it’s not until you’re a little older that you realize you missed out on a lot of the wonderful parts of that just by not realizing how cool and rare it was.
AVC: There’s a sense in “Electric Band” of the power of that artistic camaraderie, that it’s a band in more sense than one.
CB: Janet and I definitely know what it is to be in a band. Sleater-Kinney was very much a band. I think for Mary, a lot of those experiences of feeling like your band is a big gang, that you’re just this team, a lot of that is new for her. And it’s very exciting to watch her, first of all onstage and in a live setting. There’s certain kinds of risks and freedoms you can take as a performer when you feel like everybody has your back. I think when you’re in a band, you have this force behind you, and you’re all on the same page. I see Mary taking a lot more risks and having a lot more fun onstage than I think I’ve ever seen her in her solo stuff. I kind of do solo stuff. Everything’s on your shoulders. The notion of taking a risk, or doing something outlandish or strange or spontaneous, is more of a gamble. Whereas if you’re in a band, if you literally or figuratively fall, you’re like, “Oh, well, everybody else keeps playing.” Mary and I have literally fallen offstage a handful of times since Wild Flag started. We may be taking that too far. Our first or second show at South By Southwest this part March, I went to do something, and all of a sudden I was on my ass, like there had been a banana onstage. I was like, “Oh God.” But I just stood back up. I don’t really care, but it is funny.
AVC: When all four of you are singing, there’s definitely some of that girl-gang, Shangri-La’s vibe.
CB: Yeah. When you can employ all the members of the band, it feels impenetrable, and you’re sort of impervious to criticism at that point—at least you’re impervious to people talking over you during live play. If anything, it’s very fun.