Q&A: Carrie Brownstein On Writing Her Memoir, Portlandia‘s Fourth Season, And The Future Of Sleater-Kinney
Few indie rock alums have managed to enjoy a career as successful — and as wildly varied — as that of Carrie Brownstein. For those of us who came of age in the early ’90s, Brownstein was already an icon due to her role as a vocalist and unstoppable guitar shredder in Excuse 17 and Sleater-Kinney. When Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus in 2006 (much to the chagrin of everyone who’d basically had their minds/ears blown by 2005’s The Woods), Brownstein became something of a professional dabbler. In 2007 she began writing a much-beloved blog for NPR (“Monitor Mix”) as well as writing and performing in a series of video sketches alongside Fred Armisen. It was those videos — originally created under the moniker of ThunderAnt and premiered on Stereogum in 2007 — that became what we now know as Portlandia. Even though rocking out might have temporarily taken a backseat to her other endeavors, Brownstein still found time to record and tour with supergroup Wild Flag in 2011 and lend her talents to a variety of other non-music projects. This past year she figured prominently in Sini Anderson’s documentary on Kathleen Hanna, The Punk Singer, played a couple of Pearl Jam encores, starred in an Amex spot, and — in addition to filming Portlandia — dove deep into the process of writing a book about her own life. Even though Wild Flag is apparently done (at least for now), 2014 is still shaping up to be an even busier year for Brownstein. The fourth season of Portlandia (which includes a truly insane list of guest stars) is set to premiere on IFC in February, and there has been a lot of fairly encouraging speculation as to whether Brownstein will join forces once again with Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss for a Sleater-Kinney reunion in 2014. (Fingers crossed!) Carrie called me up on a Saturday morning from her home in Portland to talk about all of these things, as well as give a quick recap of the things she happened to love in 2013.
STEREOGUM: How was your 2013?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I think 2013 was a good year. The last couple years seem to have blurred together, which in some ways is fortunate because it means that I’m working and also doing things that I love, and that always tends to create this dizzying sensation. I worked a lot on this memoir that I’m writing. So I just think it’s been a lot of focus on writing and exploration, and trying to get better in terms of productivity and not find more and more means of procrastination, which is really easy to do. So I think it was a good year. I traveled a lot and worked a lot. That’s my 2013.
STEREOGUM: I know a few people who are working on memoirs now, or have recently written them. I actually helped someone ghostwrite a memoir a couple of years ago, so I know what a crazy, fascinating, and truly weird process that can be. How has it been for you?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: l I think fascinating and weird are two good descriptors. I think it always maintains a slightly surreal quality, and even a strange level of disconnect, because I’m not looking back on my life from the vantage point of old age. I mean, hopefully I’m not at the end of my life. Although I guess we never know. I think part of it is just trying to assess what to write about and what feels important. And it’s also interesting because our memories are very multi-dimensional and they’re very colorful. And they have a mansion-like quality — we can see the nuances in our mind’s eye. And then you start to write about them and they immediately become very flattened out because you have to tell the story. And everything that’s grandiose and colorful in your memory becomes these little shacks on the page and you have to build the scaffolding with every sentence and paragraph. It is very daunting. You assume that somehow it’s going to get onto the page in the same magnificent way that it exists in your brain, and that’s just not true. So I just find it incredibly arduous. But I’m getting through it.
STEREOGUM: I recently interviewed Kathleen Hanna about The Punk Singer, which was really illuminating for me. I came of age as a person during that time, so it’s been interesting to talk to people who were involved in making that music. And as a music writer, I am constantly seeing more and more young bands who are kind of mining this nostalgia for the ’90s — kids who were literally children when that was happening. When you look back at the early years of Sleater-Kinney, how do you feel about it?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Well I think nostalgia is a very tricky thing. I always find that nostalgia is sort of like memory without the pain. And that’s why it feels so good to kind of bask in that, and I think it can be deceptively comforting. I try, in the present, to not exalt the past because I think that’s such a way of diminishing the present. And it’s hard to live like that. It was interesting to watch that movie because I have spent the last few years really thinking about that stuff. I really started with my writing for NPR, which forced me — in a good way — to be constantly engaged in celebrating current culture and music, and not focusing on things like, Were the ’70s the best years? Were the ’80s? It was just, This is what we have now and how can I enjoy this? And same with Portlandia. It’s a way of doing something now that separates me and my own identity from being entrenched in Sleater-Kinney. So to watch The Punk Singer and see all that footage from that time, it was kind of like being catapulted back into something that was very formative for me, too, and inspiring. I think the main thing that I thought about was how dire things felt then. It really was a time when a lot of space had not been carved out yet in music — and particularly in punk music– for women and girls. And certainly ideas had not yet been posited so often that they didn’t seem dangerous. And I really just felt a heightened sense of danger. I had kind of forgotten how perilous it sometimes was. And of course Bikini Kill were part of a lineage, too, but they really pushed the conversation forward, probably at the risk of their own careers. Certainly not at the risk of their lives. Not that dire. But I think that they put politics up first. And I think Sleater-Kinney were really lucky because we came along kind of right after that and we were able to try and put the music first, because people had come before us and kind of created a space for us to exist in. It was really interesting to watch that. Also, just to realize how hard it is to shock these days. And to surprise. And that was the most interesting thing to me, for sure. It was definitely a lot easier to sonically throttle people, strangle people, back then.
STEREOGUM: It felt like such a liberating time in a lot of ways, but as a young gay person in that scene, for me, it was always sort of weird and uncomfortable. During the early ’90s when it sort of became okay and kind of cool to be a weirdo, when all the politics and aesthetics of grunge and alternative rock were really exciting, it was still a very weird and not entirely safe place to be a gay person. For some reason, watching The Punk Singer really made me think about that. It also reminded me just how amazing Bikini Kill was, and how many people were doing really fantastic, groundbreaking stuff at that time.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. Definitely that. I think for those of us trying to be steeped in the present for music, you can sometimes do that at the expense of realizing how great people were that came before. And I think that is what’s sort of nice about that documentary. I mean Kathleen is an amazing performer, and it was also all so unadorned. Everything just seemed very stripped back and not as — purposely — not as branded. It felt very volcanic and galvanizing. But I think to your point about queerness or gayness, there was something about the early-’90s where it felt like things were very compartmentalized. It was such a time of identity politics. I think as some people have gone back and, rightly so, found ways of critiquing Riot Grrrl and the politics in the ’90s, one of the big criticisms is that it didn’t synchronize with other forms, other struggles. Whether it was people of color, or queer culture, for some reason those things all felt very separate. And obviously now I feel like the political landscape is more sophisticated, it’s murkier, for better or worse. Everything is kind of intertwined. But I think there’s just a greater awareness of how different forms of oppression play into each other, and how the progress of one group can’t be at the expense of another. I think that just wasn’t as much in play back then, for a variety of reasons.
STEREOGUM: It must be really gratifying for you to now have the kind of career that allows you to stretch your legs in a bunch of different directions, whether it be writing or making music or acting.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Sometimes it’s wonderful and I can vacillate in a healthy way between these different mediums and they can feed off each other and segue into each other in a way that’s very organic and beneficial. Other times, logistically, it becomes overwhelming to balance the actual workflow and to try to make space for each endeavor in a way that doesn’t water down or diminish one or the other. But that’s a lucky problem to have; it’s not a complaint. It’s just my own desire to not have any of them suffer. And I think the book is obviously the easiest thing to let suffer because … I’m not accountable really, except to my editor, but I don’t have other people that are waiting on the actual work. And obviously Portlandia has a production schedule and there are formalities there that have to be adhered to. But mostly I really love it. Sometimes when I hit a wall with the book writing I can go down to the practice space, which is in my basement, so I never have to leave my house. I can just go downstairs and work on music. So it has a way of relieving roadblocks for me, having these various platforms.
STEREOGUM: Are you surprised by Portlandia’s success? I don’t mean that in an insulting way, but are you surprised that it kind of took on this larger life…
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yes, yes. I’ll just save you from your question, which started to sound like an insult, but it wasn’t. Yes. I have that feeling of being flummoxed that we just finished season four and that I’m only months away from writing for season five. I mean, that seems completely flabbergasting. I also am certainly surprised that it’s a show that people talk about, or that it has entered into the cultural conversation at all. Mostly because there’s so many shows on TV and that there’s maybe 30 shows that get talked about compared to the thousands, literally, that are on television. I feel lucky that Portlandia is one of the shows. But I think being surprised is always a good thing, because I think writing or creating from a place of entitlement is detrimental. So I think to start each season with the assumption that people might not be interested anymore is good — and I think that’s a good way to start any record, too. I think some of the most exciting records in 2013 were records where people thought, maybe no one cares anymore. How can I make people care and pay attention? I think you have to make work that asks something of an audience, and so when you start from a place of what am I going to ask the audience this time and how do I make them care? I think that’s a good place to write from. So certainly with Portlandia we try and hope that there will be an audience. But yeah, Fred and I both have always been pleasantly surprised that the show is talked about.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever get weird blowback from people in Portland about the show? I know people there who love it and some that really don’t.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I mean yes and no. I think in Portland it’s more difficult because people are looking for a verisimilitude that we’re not actually trying to insert into the show. They want the reflection to be more authentic than we’re actually aiming for. It’s always hard to see your own setting reflected back at you, and for a city like Portland, we’re not as used to seeing that. If you live in New York or Los Angeles, you’re more forgiving because you know there are so many versions of your city — filmic versions, literary versions. These are cities that have been mined and explored over and over again. So there’s that. But also, it’s not Portland-specific. I think Portland is just our launching pad. And also I think it’s more of a mindset than a show about Portland. It’s a show about a way of being in concert and conflict with your place. And I think that’s why people can relate to it, even if they don’t live here. Because it was never a show just about Portland.
STEREOGUM: The list of all the people who are popping up this season is samazing. How does that process usually work?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: We feel lucky that so many people want to be on the show. It’s very bizarre and flattering. The process is sometimes people approaching us, and often it’s just people we’re friends with whose sensibilities we really like. Sometimes it’s us reaching out to actors or musicians whose sensibilities we think would be in line with the show. It is fun for us because it’s weird to just drag people into this small, clumsy set that we have up in Portland where we all share one trailer. But this year it is kind of ridiculous. When that IFC press release came out, I was like, wow, we really did pile it on this year with guest stars! As I’m watching the season — and I’ve seen the first seven episodes edited — it never actually comes across as stunt casting. We try to get people whose presence wouldn’t be conspicuous, who just seem like an organic part of our world. But every once in a while, like with Tunde from TV On The Radio, we had a part written into the script and Fred was just like, “I’m going to fly Tunde out,” and we were like, “Okay!” Sometimes it’s very loose, where suddenly someone’s just there on the set. It’s a very informal invitation. I like that about it.
STEREOGUM: I love that you guys got Jello Biafra to do it this season.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I kind of couldn’t believe it too because we had a very specific role for him. We just thought, “no way.” Here’s someone that is not going to have a sense of humor about themselves. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. But I think some people’s whole thing is that they don’t have a sense of humor about themselves and we appreciate that aspect of them, because in this day and age we’re all supposed to make fun of ourselves. Everyone is supposed to be so friendly and open and demystify themselves on Twitter and all this stuff. But really that heightened sense of mystery or misanthropy, or just a heightened sense of themselves in general, is not supposed to exist anymore, but it does, obviously. Look at Beyoncé, what a wonderful sense of self and imperiousness! We need that, we’ve always loved that culturally, but somehow you’re supposed to be imperious and larger than life, but also friendly and down to earth. Anyway, we thought he wouldn’t get it, but he did. And he probably took it more seriously than anyone we’ve ever had on the show. He flew in, he came right to set, and we were shooting really late. It was a night shoot, a location about twenty minutes outside of town, which is very rare for us to do. It was actually when Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis were in town. So Jello comes to set and someone comes up and whispers in our ear, “Jello’s here.” And he was there because he wanted to discuss the role with us, and no one wants to do that ever! Everyone is usually just like, “Yep okay. I got this.” It can be very loose in a way that’s sort of fun and exciting. But Jello came the night before and stayed. I think we finished around midnight that night and he just wanted to hang out in the woods and talk to us about the next day. And he was very professional and very earnest about figuring out the role and finding his motivation. It was very charming.
STEREOGUM: Along with the success of Portlandia, you also did some funny commercials for American Express. Do you find yourself being recognized a lot more on the street?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Sometimes it’s strange. But it’s definitely been a slow and very natural process. People are always very polite and normal. There’s been nothing sort of negative or adverse about it. It’s been fine. I think it’s just one of those things. I know some people’s lives are super crazy and mine just isn’t, so it’s fine. It feels totally not overwhelming … and just flattering, actually. And I just think everybody’s moment of being appreciated just seems small, you just have to appreciate it while it lasts. Although I guess I feel lucky because I try to do things that people can connect to — I’m not including the American Express commercial by the way — but I will say that’s always more important to me, that people find something relatable or meaningful in what I’m doing. And something that’s earnest.
STEREOGUM: There was a seismic amount of interest on Stereogum recently when you and Corin and Janet showed up at the Pearl Jam show. Everyone wants to know what it means. Will you get back together? Can you imagine yourselves playing together again at some point?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I’m not sure. It’s a hard question. This is something I was actually talking about with Tavi Gevinson who does Rookie Mag. I’m such a fan of hers and her writing, and we were having coffee in Portland and we were just talking about how when something is very tied to a certain time in your life — it’s sometimes hard to reenter that at a different age or with a different perspective. So, it’s like finding a way into the container that is Sleater-Kinney, finding a way of entering that with something that isn’t necessarily as urgent as it was for me when I was 22. What I appreciate about Sleater-Kinney is that we did six records and they all felt different. It was a band that was able to encapsulate different sensibilities because we were focusing on it as music and art and not as a statement. That was something other people ascribed to it more than we did. So I would be curious. I think we have more to say. I think we ended at a time when it wasn’t tapering off, actually. I would be curious to know what the rest of the story is with that band.
STEREOGUM: People were really bummed about the end of Wild Flag. I always had the sense that Wild Flag was the kind of project that … there’s no reason that you guys couldn’t make another Wild Flag in a few years if you wanted to.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of people want stories or lives to have very distinct beginnings, middles, and endings. Generally I think things are a little more fluid than that. So I’m not really sure. It makes sense to me right now that Wild Flag isn’t going to do anything in the near future, and I’m pretty happy with the record we put out. But I never really thought of it as something that was going to have a really monolithic identity or one that is very fixed. We did it and it was fun and it was good for me to do something that was different from Sleater-Kinney and to play with Mary Timony, she’s such a great guitar player.
STEREOGUM: Is there something about being in a regular touring band and experience of playing shows in front of people that you miss doing on a regular basis?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yes, for sure. I think there are only certain elements of Portlandia that fulfill that for me. Sometimes when we’re in a scene there are moments. It’s a highly improvised show and sometimes the director will just let the cameras roll and we’ll just really dive into the scene and it’s manic and dynamic and a little bit scary. But there’s never a moment like being on stage in front of a live audience. And just having the ability to kind of funnel various elements of persona and spectacle and feeling into something that is really transcendent. I definitely miss that sometimes. For sure. I think I probably will do more live performing. I hosted this event in Brooklyn called “5 under 35″ — the National Book Awards that recognizes five writers under 35. I realized hosting that event that sometimes I just like being in front of people. Just put me in front of a microphone and I’ll figure out something to do.
STEREOGUM: What were some of your favorite records of 2013?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Well, I can pull that up in my iTunes and give you a really honest answer….
STEREOGUM: That’s what I always ask people. Not what you should say you liked the most, but what you actually listened to the most.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Okay well … I really did listen to the National record a lot. I just really like the lyrics, I love Matt’s voice, there’s something very comforting about the National to me. I feel like it has a mood to it and kind of … it’s very grounded music. But I will say in contrast to that, everything else I listened to was so ungrounded and I would say a lot more unforgiving and urgent. I loved the Kanye record; I listen to that in my car all the time. Like I said earlier in the conversation, I like art that asks something from the audience. So few things ask to really be paid attention to for more than a second, so I loved how that record had a kind of unrelenting, shut up and focus on me quality to it. And in the same sense I liked that King Krule record. It reminded me of Billy Bragg or Paul Weller. It just captured such a great feeling and it was very raw and honest and cool. I listened to that a lot. I really liked that Chance The Rapper mixtape. Oh my god. So did the Alt-J come out this year or last year I can’t remember?
STEREOGUM: I think last year.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: You’re like, “That is so last year.” That record is great, but somebody pointed out to me that it sounded like Dave Matthews. Just listen to that record and think Dave Matthews and you’ll never listen to it again. That record was literally ruined by a smart friend of mine. And I was pissed. Let’s see. Gosh. I listened to the Pusha T record a lot. I downloaded the Beyoncé record, so I’ve been listening to that. And then I’d listen to the Arctic Monkeys record, which I didn’t think was totally mind-blowing but sometimes I just like a rock record.
STEREOGUM: What are you most looking forward to in 2014?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: The Jicks record sounds good. I got the Jicks record and something about just a guitar record sounded really fresh. And that’s really hard to do right now, especially that style of guitar playing which is kind of breezy and insouciant. To make that sound fresh is really hard, and Steven Malkmus is one of the only people who can do that. But when he does it right, it really sounds kind of revelatory. And that’s hard to pull off. I think the St. Vincent record is just next-level mind-blowing. I’ve heard the Jicks and St. Vincent and I’m excited for Angel Olsen’s record. And I don’t know what else. But I think anything that comes along and catches me off guard will be something I listen to.
Portlandia returns to IFC for its fourth season on 2/27.