Hit The Lip: Carrie Brownstein
'90s-bred guitar shredder proves you don't have to burn out or fade away—especially if you know how to laugh at yourself.
Carrie Brownstein doesn't need to be nostalgic about '90s counter culture. As guitarist and vocalist for the legendary Olympia, Washington band Sleater-Kinney, she was it. She and her peers actually did the real-life version of the alternative '90s that grew into the indie 2000s, giving us two decades' worth of great music—and an endless stream of hipster jokes.
Lately, in a feat of brilliance, Brownstein has positioned herself as queen deconstructor of the culture she helped create by starring in Portlandia, the fauxhemian-roasting IFC sketch comedy show she developed with fellow “recovering hipster” and Saturday Night Live star Fred Armisen.
Sleater-Kinney disbanded in 2006, but by then, our heroine had already begun ruminating on the institution of indie rock as a writer for Slate, The Believer, and eventually, via her beloved NPR blog Monitor Mix, which ran from 2007 to 2010. Now at work on an upcoming book project, she also leads the indie supergroup Wild Flag with former Helium singer/guitarist Mary Timony. During her recent stopover in New York, we discussed her long career and recent projects at a trendy, East Village farm-to-fork eatery, where you could easily envision one of her Portlandia characters asking for a thorough history of how its chicken lived and loved.
Could you have imagined, the early days of Sleater-Kinney, that you would still be playing in a relevant band nearly 20 years later—living "The Dream of the '90s," so to speak?
I’m not exactly sure. I feel like Sleater-Kinney was a band that started out with fairly humble goals and aspirations. Of course, Sleater-Kinney ended up exceeding our world and our expectations, and we were a very fortunate band. But I think one thing that I’ve always maintained, especially with music, is the fleeting nature of popularity and other peoples’ interest and taste. So perhaps I would not have been able to look into the future and seen myself in another band. Once Sleater-Kinney ended, I wasn’t certain I would really play music again.
You've been working on a book for a while, and I've read you imagined yourself as more of a writer before Sleater-Kinney took off.
A little bit. That was something that I always felt was one of my strong suits, and also I’m just kind of a loner. I think when the band was over—I love performing and playing in shows, but that constant wave of people and cohorts and never returning to your own bed at night, it’s a very fragmentary existence that I loved, but also found very difficult. So I guess when Sleater-Kinney ended, I thought, with a small sense of relief, “Ok, now I enter my quiet phase.”
That surprises me, since, in Wild Flag, you guys have said that you wanted to build your own fan base by touring before your first album, rather than relying on the reputations of your previous bands.
Well, now you're talking to me after a year of touring! Certainly, the live aspect of any band, to me, is still a very legitimate way of judging or assessing who a band is. Because I think that that's a moment of truthfulness and vulnerability and spontaneity that just can't ever be replicated with an album. But, despite not loving months and months of tour, I do love connecting with a live audience. And I think it was important for Wild Flag because I knew that people would always sort of be looking back. And I'm not really one that likes to look back. That can be a dark rabbit hole to go down. So I knew Wild Flag would have to be a band that went out and played small clubs and just kind of proved it.