Four women unafraid to rock (just don't call them ballsy)

As their much-awaited CD arrives, Wild Flag's bad-ass alt-rock superheroes discuss falling in love with music again

By Gail O'Hara
Published September 10, 2011 4:01PM (EDT)

“We love the sound, the sound is what found us / Sound is the love between me and you.” That's a lyric from “Romance,” the new single from Wild Flag, the Portland, Ore./Washington, D.C.-based quartet featuring four ultra-talented musicians: drummer Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Jicks), keyboardist Rebecca Cole (the Minders), guitarist Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), and guitarist Mary Timony (Helium, Autoclave). In their “free time,” Brownstein works at the Humane Society and stars in and writes the IFC comedy show "Portlandia." Timony teaches guitar to kids. Weiss and Cole can be seen playing tons of shows with other bands.

In the "Romance" video, Brownstein knocks an Arcade Fire record off the counter at Jackpot Records. This is an omen. In a just world, this is how it will go down: Wild Flag drops the self-titled album on Tuesday and it shoots up to No. 1. They tour the U.S., and when they hit the U.K. in December (Japan and Australia up next), they blow up. Teenagers start copping their look. As it  did with Arcade Fire, Merge will celebrate another round of Grammys -- via Wild Flag -- and by this time next year Wild Flag will sweep the VMAs, leaving yesterday’s bitches (with all due respect, Gaga, Beyoncé, etc.) in the past. We asked these inspiring women some questions.

How has Wild Flag changed since forming last year?

Brownstein: We’ve become a band. It definitely took months for all the disparate parts to cohere and congeal, and we weren’t even sure that they would. We had a chemistry where the sum was greater than the parts. No amount of experience can force chemistry between people, so even though we all had many years of touring and recording under our belts, it did not guarantee any kind of uniqueness. We’re a better band now.

How have you changed as a live band?

Weiss: We’re more confident now, and there seem to be certain roles that are playing out. We’re daring each other to go further and push ourselves into the exciting unhinged zone. We definitely haven’t reached the ceiling in that department. There is a sense that we don’t know what’s going to happen. Those moments have become a little crazier.

Is Wild Flag a continuation of what Carrie and Mary did with the Spells?

Brownstein: The familiarity and ease with which I work with Mary stems from our friendship that we’ve had since the mid-’90s and also working together in the Spells. We already knew that we had musical chemistry, but it certainly is not a continuation of it. It definitely feels like its own band and a much more intentional dynamic. Wild Flag really started when Janet, Rebecca and I were working on a film score, and realizing how fun and good it felt to play together. We called Mary in to do some vocals and it just planted the seed that this potentially could be something worthwhile.

Mary is really coming out of her shell as a live performer. And we thought you had a lot of energy in Sleater-Kinney, but now you’ve kind of raised the bar.

Brownstein: I don’t take anything for granted anymore. After not playing music for a couple years, you realize what a sacred space live performance is. There’s so many things that are allowed in that moment that are disallowed in other aspects of life. Extreme emotions and a level of chaos and danger that you would never even want to go to in your regular life, and I don’t go to that place in my everyday life. When I’m performing, I’m trying to explore all of the parameters and boundaries while I’m onstage and then I can return to my teetotaling, dog-walking life. I get so frustrated when I see people onstage who aren’t enjoying it or aren’t taking advantage of it, so I really just take advantage of that moment. It’s very spontaneous and it can be magical. I’m pushing it further than I did in Sleater-Kinney, and certainly I’ve seen Mary start to really enjoy herself onstage and express herself in a way that I hadn’t seen. Part of that is just feeling so confident with the other players in the band and knowing that they’ll back you up. There’s less pressure. In a three-piece, each element has to be firing at once. When you add more people, you can play with the dynamic more. I can put my guitar down and do something. I can not play for a second or Mary can not play or she can just play chords instead of having a solo. There’s just a lot of freedom that both of us feel.

Timony: Wild Flag is really fun because it’s much more of a live band than anything I’ve ever played in. My biggest weakness as a musician is that I’m not good at playing live. I’d never gotten it until I played with Wild Flag, and now it’s a whole new world. I’m like, Oh, live shows can be really fun. It’s just a different dynamic. Focusing on playing guitar is so awesome. It’s so nice to not have to hold down all the vocals and guitar and try to play keyboards. It’s fun to just play guitar and sing some of the songs.

Did taking time off from music give you more pent-up energy?

Brownstein: Perhaps. I definitely turned to endeavors that were much more cerebral and introspective, like writing. I carry a lot of energy and frustration and angst — if I don’t have an outlet for those things I kind of turn on myself and become manic or even depressed. When music came around again for me, I really needed it. I don’t really know how to relate to music in a way that’s not urgent. It’s much more controlled now, but there is a certain kind of catharsis that I still get from music.

Weiss: On that first tour, Carrie just got up there and blasted it out. She’s born to perform. She so ballsy and so forward -- she is fearless onstage. And then there’s Mary, who’s so mysterious and you’re not sure what’s going on in her head. Those first shows, the two of them were figuring out their places and how to work together. It was surprising to Mary at first -- like, Wow, Carrie’s just really going for it every second. By the time that second tour rolled around, Mary just turned it up in such an incredible way. Now Mary’s just firing on all cylinders and dancing and playing the guitar behind her head -- she’s just a superhero -- so fun to watch. It’s been a pleasure to see her blossom into this performer. She’s always had everything that it takes to be this amazing performer, and now it’s just incredible to watch her work a stage.

It’s so great to hear Mary with a full band.

Weiss: This is her first real collaborative band. She’s learning how to do her thing within the context of these other people, and it’s just making us so strong — we’re all sort of clean-up batters in a way. In all of our bands in the past we’ve been in a driver’s seat at some point. It’s fun to have four drivers just driving off the cliff.

What does it feel like onstage?

Cole: Great, edgy. I’m comfortable in the sense that I know the song and I know how the part’s going to go, but there’s an edge to it, an element of unknown that I really love, every time we go into a song. I’m still really enjoying checking out my bandmates and figuring out all the ways we can make the energy move through the music.

Seeing a band with so much energy and fun seems ideal for the times.

Weiss: Yeah, there’s a joyousness for sure. A lot of music is so subdued. Our personalities are not like that. We’re expressing ourselves but it’s not the norm at this current time. In another time we’d be like the pop band among the more punk-influenced bands but now we’re the rowdiest band. A lot of bands are real folkie or quiet, singing real soft and playing accordions and violins and traditional instruments in a subdued manner. The sound of Portland these days is real mainstream, and I never liked the mainstream and I never will. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the past and the mainstream of the past, but I don’t want to play music like that. It needs to be rowdier for me. Although we do stick out a little bit with what’s going on here in Portland, people are really responding to it, they’re thirsty for some rowdiness.

A lot of Pacific Northwest bands sound like the Fleet Foxes...

Brownstein: ...who I love by the way. I just can’t write music like that... without it seeming like a joke. I don’t have a pretty voice, but if I even tried to write guitar like that, I would think I was emulating my dad’s Dan Fogelberg records.

Weiss: Real subdued, gentle music. Music isn’t meant to give you hugs. I’m not here to give you a hug. I’m just not. This is meant to inspire you, to wake people up, and engage people and make people feel alive. I don’t want to make people feel like they want to go to sleep. I would feel like a failure if that happened.

Where do you see this band fitting in? It doesn’t seem like there are any other bands doing anything like what you’re doing.

Brownstein: I mean, I just don’t care. Sometimes I look online and there’s all these bands that make sense together. We definitely don’t fit into that but I’m fine. To me, music is not about fitting in. It’s about pulling things in a new direction. It’s not a club. I’m fine with any kind of outsider status. 

You have described your relationship with Carrie as telepathic.

Weiss: It’s intense how over 10 years you’re put into so many different situations onstage -- especially Sleater-Kinney because we got these opportunities to do these crazy shows like playing at Madison Square Garden or opening for Pearl Jam for 20,000 people -- these shows that take you completely out of your context, where you’re just in a life raft hanging on to your bandmates. The only thing I know here, the only thing that’s familiar, are these two people standing in front of me. So we really did some exploring together and we kind of got pushed out on the plank together to the point where we can really count on each other onstage. It takes years to develop that kind of trust. That’s something that you build over time. 
That is part of the reason that this band can go so far out right away because Carrie and I already have that. I always know if things are getting real wild, that she’s listening, that she’s there, I can kind of tell where she’s going and I can go there with her. With the other two, we’re figuring all of this out. They surprise me all the time. When you see a band that’s been together for so long, they kind of have that cohesiveness because they really know each other, even if they don’t like each other anymore. But there still is that telepathy onstage that’s kind of unmistakable. I look forward to getting there with the other two. It’s actually interesting to have the combination and tension and friction and electricity onstage that makes this band pretty exciting.

Mary and Carrie are so different...

Weiss: They could not be more different! The band revolves around those two and how different they are. That is the core of this band, the spark. It comes from the tension, the back and forth, and the pulling in different directions that they provide.

Are you surprised to be evolving at this stage in your career?

Timony: I didn’t expect to ever be in a band that people were interested in again. I did try to stop playing music for a year or two and that was kind of depressing. I just figured I’d be a teacher. I had no expectations of ever being in a project people were interested in. I wasn’t expecting this band to happen, but that’s what makes it even more fun. It’s not like I desperately needed it -- it just fell in my lap. I was like, Oh my god, this is awesome. My dream band! I really feel that way. This can’t be real.

Do you feel freer and looser having another frontman up there?

Timony: Yeah, totally. It takes a lot of pressure off. And Carrie’s such a great performer so you never have to worry about her not connecting with the audience because she always does.

What’s the most shocking thing you’ve seen Carrie do onstage?

Timony: Oh, swinging from the ceiling in Asheville, N.C. It was crazy. I was really worried she was going to fall actually, but it was awesome.

Does Mary have any signature moves?

Cole: She does do a few things a lot. She has a cool dance that she does. I can’t really explain it. I can always tell when she’s in the zone.

The sequencing starts out like Carrie, Mary, Carrie, Mary... How do you make it cohesive with two frontmen?

Timony: The songs that came from stuff Carrie and I had brought in definitely have that feeling. The songs we all wrote together feel more cohesive. We’re more on that page now. We had to experiment a lot and try different ways of writing songs.

Brownstein: A big difference between the band at the beginning and the band now is just that everybody is writing. It’s not just Mary and me bringing in songs. Janet thinks like a producer -- an arranger -- so our songs are pretty much produced before we go into the studio because of her. She really thinks about things and edits. We’re all part of the process. Mary and I don’t sing a lot together or even over the same song -- so that kind of leaves us a place to go. On the next record, I would want potentially us to be singing on the same song. But on the other hand, we’re both enjoying not singing. When Mary sings, I don’t have to sing. I can play guitar. That leaves a distinction between the songs. Our styles aren’t that disparate. She’s cooler and more mysterious and her songs have this different kind of attitude. It’s the music that brings them together.

Cole: Wild Flag is different from any other project I’ve been in. Some of the songs really did come out of a jam or a riff that someone had and we’ll just sit there and work it until we have something that sounds good. We’ll build from there and it’s all in the room. We’re all very active. I haven’t had that before, where I’m writing the part as the song takes shape. And listening to what everyone else is doing and having ideas for other parts.

Are you happy with the record?

Cole: Yes. We wanted to make a live record and capture some of the energy we were feeling at our live shows. We did the best job we could with that.

Brownstein: I am. It’s so rare that you get to make a first album. I’m very happy with it as a first album. It’s a very raw document of where we are right now. It feels like a statement. It has a lot of energy. It’s loud, it’s unrefined, and that’s where we are right now. We didn’t want to overthink it and we didn’t, but it still sounds good.

Was there a lot of discussion before you recorded?

Cole: We wanted to sound like ourselves, so we knew we wanted the drums to be big and we wanted all the tones to be good. We worked on a lot of that playing shows, so we knew how the songs would fit together. It’s our first record, and we just wanted a document of what we sounded like, a starting point. We recorded on tape, which is great, I’m a huge fan of recording on tape.

Weiss: We wanted it to be simple and direct and clear.

The expectations are high.

Cole: I’ve never had this experience before where people were this excited. I’ve only started a band and put out a first record once before, but it certainly wasn’t like this, where everyone’s waiting to hear it. Even though people know about us, there’s still a sense that we’re a new band.

Weiss: Don’t limit us, just let us play music for you, and we’ll surprise you. Have some things maybe you don’t understand, things that are revealed to you through the music, things that you feel. We don’t want to just tell everyone everything about the band and the music and what it’s about. There needs to be some mystery there so that people can use their own imagination and fill in the blanks. Imagination is such a key component to listening to music. Putting your headphones on and letting your mind wander. Letting it mean something to you that the band maybe didn’t even intend.

It’s a challenge to capture that live energy in the studio.

Timony: That was the idea behind how we recorded it. We tried to make it like an album that a band would make for their first record. We really wanted to just record what we sound like when we play. We just wanted to practice a lot, get really tight, and then record the band.

The lyrics are kind of joyous and positive.

Timony: We noticed that. In a weird way a lot of the lyrics are about being in the band. Having fun playing music. At least mine are, and I see that in Carrie’s too. Not all the songs. Just having lost music and coming back to it -- a few songs are about that.

Brownstein: It’s about that, but it’s also about coming to terms with making nontraditional decisions. How to accept that your lot in life is to be a creative person and what that means as other people make decisions that take them away from that into more traditional roles or safe places. There is a certain amount of insecurity and uncertainty and risk that comes with kind of marrying yourself to music or art, and it’s figuring out a way to find acceptance and gratification in what you’re doing and to not judge yourself for it. And to just feel like: This is what I have and hopefully it’s enough.

Some ladybands have heartbroken/victim-style lyrics, but not Wild Flag. Did you and Carrie talk about lyrical content?

Timony: We didn’t. We talked about how we didn’t really have enough lyrics! We were like, “I hope nobody notices we’re singing the same thing over and over.”

Brownstein: The album is very celebratory and the songs overtook the subject matter. The songs were moving at such a fast pace. I don’t know how there could have been a self-pitying moment in the context of the music. Sometimes when I was trying to write lyrics, the music was just pinning me against the wall. The lyrics have to go along with that and fight with the song, so there wasn’t a moment to be self-pitying. It’s not a crybaby record.

Cole: We haven’t written our heartbreak songs yet. Maybe that’s on the next album. It’s a real revelation to find music this way in a new way again and have it be fun again. For us all to come back into it and realize how much we loved it and have missed it and how much we needed to be doing it again. That’s certainly a theme for all of us. We’re stoked.

Wild Flag has been described as “ballsy.”

Brownstein: That term always seems derisive about a woman. It’s so off-putting.

There’s probably a better word.

Brownstein: Yeah. There’s always a better word.

Cole: There isn’t much that’s timid about this project. It is pretty “ballsy,” I guess. I don’t think we’re -- here we go with another one -- cocky about it. We’ve all been playing for a long time and we’re all pretty comfortable with our instruments. That comes across. We’re all confident people in general as well. Putting the four of us together in that way, we’re not hesitant about the fact that we’re there to play music and move some sound waves through the air. There is this trend in music right now where people aren’t really ripping it up. A lot of bands are doing this softer, gentler side of rocking. I like quieter stuff. But the combination of the four of us, we’re just not going to put out a gentle record. We don’t feel gently, we feel very strongly about music and the power of music and being powerful because of music. Anytime the four of us get together, that’s probably going to not be gentle, the opposite of ballsy.

How does Wild Flag feel compared to Sleater-Kinney?

Brownstein: I was in Sleater-Kinney when I was in college and I was in my 20s, and obviously every experience with Sleater-Kinney was new. Sleater-Kinney opened up my world and granted me opportunities I never would have had otherwise. What an amazing way to spend my 20s. Traveling all over the world and performing. Sleater-Kinney was specific to a time and a place and playing with three people has an intensity to it that’s hard to match. Wild Flag, from the beginning, feels like a more intentional band. Even though we still are trying to be fearless and push ourselves musically, there is a certain amount of experience that we bring to the band that Sleater-Kinney just didn’t have at the beginning.

The biggest difference is just playing with four people. For me in Sleater-Kinney, I really relied on Corin [Tucker]. She had the voice, and if I was writing a song and needed to go somewhere in a chorus, vocally I could hand that off to Corin. In this band I don’t really have that, so it’s pushed me as a songwriter and singer to try to figure out where I need to get in a song by myself. There’s a lot of differences, but neither are good or bad. I loved Sleater-Kinney so much, and it was so important at a specific time in my life, it’s hard to compare. There’s things that feel very different, and that’s good. When Sleater-Kinney ended, part of the reason I didn’t want to play music again was because I couldn’t imagine anything being as good or as satisfying as that. It was such a rare chemistry to have. I could not imagine being able to find that again. I’m really aware of that. At least I feel that Wild Flag is worth it.

Who’s the comedian in the band?

Timony: Obviously Carrie. She’s really good at stage banter and knowing how to connect with people.

Weiss: It’s funny, [Carrie] never was a comedian but now she is a comedian. She is surprisingly, out of the blue... I never would have picked her to be the comedian. She’s a pretty serious girl and she’s lightening up. All the good comedians are dark and real smart and cutting in a way. They cut through. The things they find are funny are so true. They tap into these true things, especially on "Portlandia." Carrie is now technically the comedian of the group, yes.

What goes on backstage? Hookahs? Groupies?

Timony: A lot of singalongs. We kind of sing. Before we go on, we usually sing Bryan Adams or Toto or something to warm up -- and a shot of tequila. No hookahs!

Do you guys have a stylist?

Timony: Not yet. We’re going to get one of those airbrush makeup stations in the bus.

Do you feel like role models?

Timony: No, I don’t feel like a role model.

Weiss: A little bit, musically especially. “Role model” is a heavy term but I’ve sort of stuck at something all these years and made my own decisions and charted my own path and worked real hard at being good at something and being useful. I think that’s a good example for anyone, especially girls. A lot of women choose to have families, and music is not a priority for them so much after that happens, and that’s not my path. I could be an example for people who maybe feel like they don’t want to have a family and want to focus on another endeavor that would give them a sense of belonging.

Are you taking the dogs on tour?

Weiss: We wish, but no. You have to get up too early and take them out. It would be really fun, but it would be too exhausting. Maybe we can get a dog nanny.

Gail O'Hara

Gail O'Hara is a photographer, writer, founding editor of chickfactor fanzine, former music editor at Time Out NY and filmmaker (Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields).


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