Back in the summer of 2007, I fielded an email request from SNL’s Fred Armisen on behalf of him and his friend Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein’s band had broken up the year prior and she and Armisen had been filming some short comedy videos, which they thought Stereogum would like to debut. They called the series ThunderAnt and this was their first episode. The second episode introduced Candace and Toni, the proprietors of a feminist bookstore called Women & Women First.
Those were the humble beginnings of Brownstein, Armisen, and director Jonathan Krisel’s hipster-skewering sketch show Portlandia, which will conclude its eighth and final season on IFC next month. Over the past seven years, the series has lampooned eccentric characters that have become newly familiar to liberal enclaves: extreme locavores, militant cyclists, hobbyist DJs, artisanal junk merchants, brunchheads. It’s filmed around Portland, but the show isn’t about Portland — modern concerns like Uber ratings and binge-watching are depressingly universal. Along the way, a parade of cameos from well-regarded but oft-inscrutable musicians like Joanna Newsom, Glenn Danzig, J Mascis, and St. Vincent has ensured that the show’s stars wouldn’t have to ask music blogs to post their clips.
As Portlandia comes to an end (at least for now), Brownstein remains busy with a dizzying array of writing, acting, directing, and music projects. Unlike in the ThunderArt era, these days it’s not surprising for us to see a member of “the greatest rock band of the past two decades” (Tom Breihan, Wikipedia) randomly appear in Curb Your Enthusiasm or a TV commercial. I caught up with Brownstein to find out what’s on on her plate, and because I saw her interview question kit for St. Vincent’s album launch I knew what not to ask.
STEREOGUM: I thought of you around the holidays because they play that Dan Fogelberg song and you’re the only musician I’ve ever hear regularly shout out Dan Fogelberg.
BROWNSTEIN: “Same Old Lang Syne” — no ever mentions Dan Fogelberg. That was such an indelible part of my childhood. My dad had so many Dan Fogelberg records.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of legendary songwriters — what was it like directing Riot Spray, Spyke’s hardcore band with Krist Novoselic, Henry Rollins, and Brendan Canty?
BROWNSTEIN: It was pretty surreal actually. There’ve been many surreal moments on Portlandia, particularly in relation to some of the musical heroes or influences or legends that we’ve had on the show. There was something striking about putting a fake band together consisting of three very influential people in punk rock. And the fact that they were so game, and so willing to poke fun at themselves — with such self-awareness and such a vast sense of humor and levity — was really wonderful. And just on another level, hearing them play together? So weird, such a strange moment to have them actually play music.
STEREOGUM: What can you tell us about Kurt Vile’s upcoming cameo?
BROWNSTEIN: Kurt has been talking to us for a while about having us figure out a role for him and I’m a huge fan of Kurt’s music. Some of his albums are ones that I’ve listened to over and over again for months on end, and he plays a roadie … that lives in me and Fred’s house. [Laughs.] It’s a weird role. But he plays himself … as a roadie.
STEREOGUM: You also did an Escape The Room sketch this season. Have you ever played Escape The Room in real life?
BROWNSTEIN: Oh yeah. And [the sketch depicts] obviously very amplified versions of the seriousness with which people take escaping the room.
STEREOGUM: I did one once and we “won” but I was no help at all.
BROWNSTEIN: If you go with people who are self-proclaimed experts, it’s really hard to insert your own ideas or solutions into the dynamic, because they’re very certain that they’ve cracked the code. When I’ve gone with people who have more experience than me I kind of just sit back and let them Sherlock Holmes the entire thing.
STEREOGUM: Back in 2005 or so when you were making what became the first ThunderAnt videos, that was just for fun. Do you remember at what point you thought: this really works, this should be on TV?
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah I think in 2009 we ended up with six or seven sketches, and they just started coalescing around a sensibility. And a lot of them took place in Portland and Fred and I were getting more comfortable with our creative chemistry. And we wanted to be more ambitious about it … more deliberate, and make them into things that felt a little more coherent and pointed, maybe make the narratives longer, give them proper endings. It just felt like something we wanted to focus our time on. So yeah I would say by 2010 it was something we were really considering pitching as a show.
STEREOGUM: Portlandia probably doesn’t get enough credit for relaunching IFC. I don’t think people were aware the network rebranded until the show started getting attention. Now of course there are so many digital outlets welcoming very irreverent material. And we heard you’ll adapt your memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl for a Hulu pilot?
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, we’re in pre-production on that now. I’m just starting down the road of casting for that, it’s very exciting. And strange.
STEREOGUM: You have a bunch of movie projects happening too. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot recently premiered at Sundance. What’s your role like in that? Did you have scenes with Joaquin Phoenix?
BROWNSTEIN: All my scenes are with Joaquin. I play his case worker. I loved working with Joaquin, he’s funny and an intense, dedicated actor. And very just open to making the scene work, in a collaborative way. And I’ve been a fan of Gus Van Sant since I was in high school. So that was really wonderful.
STEREOGUM: What’s the latest with Fairy Godmother, which will be your feature-length directorial debut?
BROWNSTEIN: A lot of those feature films are really dependent on casting moving the needle forward, and getting things off the ground instead of just in the realm of the theoretical. So once we lock down the casting situation that will move forward pretty quickly. It’s a huge undertaking, but I’m really fond of the script and I think I can create a really interesting visual world and do something a little subversive and surprising with essentially a fairy tale and a romantic comedy.
STEREOGUM: You told our friends at Billboard that Sleater-Kinney had been back in the studio.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes we have! We went back in the studio at the end of 2017 up in Portland and we recorded five songs and we are going to continue in that way for a while. So these kind of deliberate studio sessions … whereas before, for many years, the methodology with which we worked was very like, classic band dynamics of getting together in a basement and writing. Or Corin and I getting together in one of our living rooms and writing songs and — because we’re each busy and sometimes we’re not in the same cities — we’ll write separately and then send each other ideas over email, and then we work on the songs kind of remotely and then we come together in the studio. I think changing the process has been really interesting, and challenging for us in a good way. Because it disallows any falling back on the usual ideas or settling into something that we feel like we’ve done before. You know it’s always tricky to undermine, or unsettle, your process when it’s so familiar and you’ve been doing it so long, and the people you work with are ones who you know really well, so I think when we change the means with which we approach something it can really bring about innovation and I think we really want that.
STEREOGUM: I love how everyone was so surprised by No Cities To Love and the tour, and are immediately like, WHEN’S THE NEXT ONE.
BROWNSTEIN: I know! [Laughs.] No, I’m grateful for that greediness and that desire, and it [lights] a fire under Corin, Janet, and I … we always feel that sense of urgency around Sleater-Kinney and it was I think a pleasant surprise that we didn’t feel pinned against the wall by the band itself. With the intensity with which we play and the intensity of the songs we write and the subject matter that we try to deal with, you know, there’s a heaviness to it … but at least there was such a levity and buoyancy to that round of touring that we knew we wanted to continue with the story of the band. I think the cycles are just longer now. There’s a longer cycle in between albums — so it might be every three or four years but we do wanna continue making music and putting it out and touring.
STEREOGUM: And now that you’re done with Portlandia, how soon will you go back to recording?
BROWNSTEIN: I actually was talking with Corin yesterday — I don’t talk on the phone to a lot of people … but you know you have friendships that existed before texting? I talked to her yesterday because I was trying to lock down some studio time [right away]. Because I’m someone that really thrives on busyness and I like being active, and I thought “now that Portlandia’s locked and loaded, let’s get right back in the studio!” Corin was sorta like, let’s slow down, let’s carve out some time in February/March. So that’s the plan. And I would hope that if we continue going as is that an album should be around early next year.