Former riot-grrrl rocker Carrie Brownstein is back with a new band – but forget nostalgia, Wild Flag is all about the here and now, writes Jim Carroll
YOU COULD call it a comeback, but Carrie Brownstein would probably roll her eyes at that one. A comeback? C’mon, you can do better than that. You could call Wild Flag a supergroup, but Brownstein would possibly wince at that one and its connotations, too.
What’s undeniable, though, is that Brownstein’s new band have produced one of 2011’s most visceral, engaging and downright rocking albums.
Given their past form, you’d expect nothing less. But given their past form, you might not have expected something quite as of-themoment as this.
Make no mistake, Wild Flag have form. Many will remember Brownstein and Janet Weiss from their days with fiery riot-grrrl rockers Sleater-kinney, while Rebecca Cole and Mary Timony clocked up time in The Minders and Helium respectively.
When you get a clatter of indie rock’n’roll royalty coming together like this, folks take notice and expectations are raised. But the most thrilling aspect of the Wild Flag foray is that this isn’t some sort of nostalgic hankering for the old days. Rather, they’ve delivered a glorious, magnificent, bad-ass, boisterous debut album, which zings from one fierce, frenzied track to the next. There’s little pausing for breath or midlife introspection here. It’s not that sort of album, and they’re not that sort of band.
“You can’t be content if you’re always yearning for the past or if you operate from a sentimental, nostalgic base,” says Brownstein. “You have to embrace the here and now. I always found that you have to be the
thing we’d already done and achieved: it was about what’s to come.
“Those were the songs we had, and they had a sense of urgency and a messiness and chaos to them. But they were also poppy and had these melodic elements.
“It was our first album and we wanted it to be a document of who we were and what we sounded like. Because of that, we wanted it to be unadorned. For later albums, we could be more deliberate and considered, but for this one we just wanted to show the rock sound that we have.”
After Sleater-kinney called it a day, Brownstein stopped playing and performing as a musician and moved onto other careers. She created and starred in TV sketch show Portlandia and wrote for websites and magazines like Slate and the Believer, as well as National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered show.
“I didn’t miss playing music very much,” she says. “I really enjoyed writing and doing other creative projects. When I rediscovered playing music, I came back to it in a way which was very organic. I had been writing about music and had posited myself as a fan of music, which is where I came to playing in the first place.
“If you listen to enough music, you draw enough inspiration from it that eventually you feel this urgent sense to participate and create by singing and writing. I didn’t come back to it until I was ready. When I was ready, I felt this very fresh and pure need for it.”
As a critic, Brownstein found herself drawn to “songs and music where it feels like people really want it and can’t live without it”. She also found herself overwhelmed by the amount of new music coming at her. “You just have to find people to trust who can help you navigate through what’s out there and what you should be listening to. There’s a lot to love and it’s a good time, but you need those filters, like a good blog or record store, to help you make sense of it.”
Returning to the stage with Wild Flag, she relishes the performance aspect most. “The most satisfying element is that ability to connect with people in a way which is very spontaneous. I like being onstage; I like the element of surprise. It’s a way to get out of my head a little bit and get to a point which is unexpected, and it deviates from the brainy part of myself and my everyday life. I can let go a little bit. I need it.”
As for Sleater-kinney, Brownstein looks back at it with fondness. “I think it ended in the best way it could,” she says. “We didn’t come skidding to a halt after losing momentum. We did what we set out to do. We were in a band which was very important to us and many people. I don’t like to think we had unfinished business . . . We went out at a time when people didn’t want us to go, and that’s a much better feeling than overstaying your welcome.
“We were just three people who wanted to play music and wanted our music to mean something to us and to other people. It was not an agenda-based band; it was just about wanting the songs to be good. We were approaching it like any other band. We wanted to write great songs and make meaningful music. And agendas are not songs.”