BY JONATHAN VALANIA Some say Sleater-Kinney is/was the Nirvana of Riot Grrl, that early ‘90s punk-rawk insurrection of punk poetesses and feminist studies majors storming the ramparts of indie-rock armed with little more than jagged guitars, spastic rhythms, thrift store chic, and the radical notion that feminism means women are people, too. And that goes double for rock n’ roll. Carrie Brownstein would probably just say that Sleater-Kinney was the Sleater-Kinney of Riot Grrl, which is more or less the takeaway from Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, her fascinating and revealing new memoir about the chaos and confusion of coming of age in the Pacific Northwest in the years BC (Before Cobain).
Bookish, cerebral, and wise beyond her years, Brownstein seemed to be clued into the meta narrative of her own life at an uncommonly early age, which surely came in handy when she sat down to write her memoir at the ripe old age of 41. Born to an anorexic mother and cipher of a father who finally came out to family and friends when she was 14, Brownstein describes a largely happy, well-adjusted childhood that ran aground on the rocks of teenage neurosis, sexual confusion and the slow motion meltdown of her nuclear family. And then, like a character out of a Velvet Underground song, her life was saved by rock n’ roll.
In 1994, after some false starts, Brownstein forms Sleater-Kinney with gal pal/sorta-GF Corin Tucker of Heavens To Betsy fame and, three or four drummers later, Janet Weiss of Quasi/Stephen Malkmus & Jicks fame. Straight outta the girl-positive DIY hot house of Olympia, Sleater-Kinney was soon coronated the queens of the underground by swooning legions of purple-haired punky brewsters, hormonal fanboys and dad-aged critics looking to get their riot grrl on. By 2006, the band was beset by all the usual interpersonal pathologies that trigger intra-band warfare — ego, insecurity, road burn — culminating in Brownstein beating the shit out of herself in a bizarre backstage meltdown that spelled the end of Sleater-Kinney after seven LPs.
Following a brief tenure as a music blogger for NPR, conceptualist for a hipster ad firm, and tireless animaltarian, Brownstein’s budding friendship with SNL’s Fred Armisen blossomed into a creative partnership that birthed the wildly popular hipster burlesque of Portlandia, now headed into its sixth season. In the fall of 2014, Sleater-Kinney reactivated and recorded No Cities To Love followed by a world tour at the dawn of 2015. Somewhere in there she wrote and wrapped Portlandia’s fifth season with Armisen and committed the story of her life so far to the printed page.
Last week we got Portlandia co-star/co-creator and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein on the horn in advance of her reading/discussion of her new memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl at the Merriam Theater on Thursday. DISCUSSED: Duran Duran, lipsynching, her mother’s anorexia, her father’s mid-life coming out, Portlandia‘s triumphant Season 5 and what’s coming in Season 6, Patti Smith, Brian Jones, sociolinguistics, homosexuality as a choice vs. homosexuality as a birthright, Riot Grrl, Greil Marcus, Eddie Vedder, Dad-Rock, and what it feels like to be called ‘the greatest band in America’ by TIME magazine. The short answer to that last one: heavy.
PHAWKER: Pleasure to speak with you, love your work, love the book, We’re not going to talk about Portlandia today but I just want to say that I love, love Portlandia. In fact, I thought the last season was maybe the best, which is, I think, a good sign when you are five seasons into a series.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Thanks I really liked Season 5 as well, you know I think it’s hard when you’re that many seasons in to get people to invest in a show, I mean the fans look for it but I think we really changed what we were doing and I was excited, particularly when it started streaming on Netflix which I think is where a lot of people started seeing it. We got a good response from that season and we were really happy where we went with it.
PHAWKER: And I really like the way a single sketch would take up an entire episode in Season 5.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Well, Season 6, which we just wrapped filming is more of that.
PHAWKER: Excellent! Can’t wait. It’s often said that Patti Smith didn’t want to, pardon my French, fuck Brian Jones she wanted to be Brian Jones, I sense that you had similar motivations to becoming a musician. True?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think in less blunt terms there is an element of wanting to be the creator, be the progenitor, be the thing that’s worshiped instead of emulating or idolizing something else. You know, it’s about empowerment and self-transformation and, yeah, I think that’s that belief in oneself is what differentiates you know wanting to love something versus wanting to be something. So yeah, I think it does require that that element of belief and striving.
PHAWKER: Reading the book, it seems like all throughout your childhood that it was inevitable that you were going to become a performer of some sort. Reading about your childhood you can almost hear the roar of the greasepaint — you lip-syncing Duran Duran and putting on shows in the back yard and that elementary school talent show when you were a backup dancer to a band doing “Round and Round” by Ratt — that last one is serious cognitive dissonance, the guitarist of Sleater-Kinney dancing in a grade school talent show to Ratt. The mind reels.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: * Laughs*
PHAWKER: Did it not occur to you at some point like this is what I have to do, this is inevitable this is where I belong?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Despite it seeming innate, my desire and enjoyment of performing, I, because I’m such a cerebral person, I was always drawn to academia. In college I studied linguistics, sociolinguistics, and there was always a part of me at odds with my performer self, not even at odds, but just pulling me in a direction that was more introspective and I think those two sides often just allowed me to really focus on the performance aspect, I mean it didn’t seem ordained and it didn’t seem certain. In fact, I really was sure I would go to graduate school or get a Ph.D., that seemed much more inevitable than performance, I mean looking back on it, it’s ridiculous that I didn’t pursue theater or acting.
PHAWKER: Do you think that you would have been as effective at doing Portlandia, performing, writing etc. if you hadn’t had ten years or so of touring and performing on the indie rock circuit?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I think Sleater-Kinney allowed me to develop a confidence that I did not possess before we began touring. I was painfully shy, in college especially, had a difficult time speaking in front of people. I was very nervous and I needed the cloak of volume and music in order to explore a much more primal, galvanic self. And when I came out the other side of that I felt the ways it translated into daily life. I felt a sense of ease in my body. I felt the sense of ease in a room. I felt a sense of comfort with interpersonal communication that I just did not own before that, and Portlandia, in particular improvisation, requires so much leaping off from the ledge, and I don’t think you can do that without having practiced and tried before. And knowing that there is a chance you will fail or stumble, and knowing that that’s okay. Knowing that that is part of the performance that knowing that that is part of the process. So, Sleater-Kinney was a training ground in so many ways. And you know somehow between being the family entertainer as a kid and going to college I lost a lot of confidence. I think as most teenagers do. Sleater-Kinney sort of gave that back to me. Plus logistically I would not have met Fred without Sleater-Kinney, so that there’s many ways that that Sleater-Kinney led me to Portlandia.
PHAWKER: In the book, you talk about how it was when you started going to small-room punk shows you started to peel back the onion and figure out the process of how the rock gets made — what each instrument did and how they are mixed and what each member contributes to the overall sound, and how each contributes the band’s narrative etc. But you also complain that a little more guidance from upperclassmen might have been helpful, you know for instance having someone explain to you what a stage monitor does before you guys opened for Codeine and are totally thrown for a loop by the way a club PA works. Can you talk about that? It’s sort of like them giving you the keys to the kingdom in a way but then there’s still some secrets that are kept from you that you need to somehow figure out yourself.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yeah well, I think there’s only so much you can glean as an observer, there’s always elements of the mystery that you can’t decode until you are in the place of a performer yourself, and so you know part of it was just the unlocking and the demystifying of what it meant to be in a band, so seeing those punk shows in basements and on small stages as compared to the pop music that I had grown up with was realizing that it was about dynamics and melody and structure and collaboration and that was so crucial because it seemed attainable and relatable, and it humanized it.
PHAWKER: Just to be clear here, this wasn’t just a shortcoming on your part, or because you were a girl or whatever, I think everyone has this experience, I mean I used to play in bands, I remember the first time the sound man said: “What do you want in your monitor?” and I said: “What’s a monitor”?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I mean people take for granted that there’s just like some kind of manual and I mean I guess technically there is but most of us that are playing in bands are not reading the manual. We just assume you practice in your basements or in some rehearsal space and you assume those are all the ingredients you’re going to need for performing a live show. Luckily, there are usually a lot of nice people out there in the world that will teach you that but it’s a very stark realization.
PHAWKER: Your father came out to you when you were a teenager, your own sexual identity was/is fluid, you’ve had boyfriends and girlfriends, how would you speak to this Christian Right notion that sexual identity is a choice and therefore homosexuality can be “cured”? I know this is sort of an obvious question but I’ve never heard you speak to this.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: I think everyone knows at this point that sexuality is innate and that it’s not a choice and that’s just fear-based politics and homophobia. It’s almost like I just don’t know how to answer that question it’s so self-evident and it’s not an ethical question, it’s science. It’s not like: “Well this is right and this is wrong”, they are just scientifically wrong. Like, in terms of their assessment of conversion therapy, but anyway they are morally wrong and scientifically wrong and it’s just outright homophobia based on outdated ways of thinking. Luckily, I feel like they’re in the minority at this point.
PHAWKER: If it’s not too personal, can I ask what ever became of your mother? Did she ever overcome her anorexia?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, my mom is healthy, she’s remarried, and yeah she’s doing well. She’s doing well.
PHAWKER: Last question, Sleater-Kinney were critic’s darlings, people praised you to the heavens. In the book where you have Greil Marcus calling Sleater-Kinney “the greatest band in America” in TIME magazine and Eddie Vedder ‘the Jagger/Richards of now.’ How did you guys process all of this hyperbole? Did it seem a little over the top to you? Do you think there was an element of middle-aged critics and dad-rockers trying to prove they’re still hip, that they’re down with the riot girls and that they’re not sexist old farts etc?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: As I described in the book, there’s always a disparity between the hyperbole and the sort of noise surrounding what you do and your own experience of it, and I think our own experience and assessment of ourselves was always different from how other people perceived us. Good or bad. The reality of it always kept us grounded. The example I use in the book is being named ‘the best rock band in America’ and then two days later we’re schlepping our equipment down basement stairs. I mean there’s always such a gulf between perception and reality. And as a band we have to be rooted in reality, I mean that’s our experience so to buy into that kind of extraneous dialogue is to be caught up in myth which is- I mean self-mythology and self-mythologizing is one thing but further allowing yourself to step into the projected imaginations of others can be detrimental and can start to distort your methodology. So yeah we were just bemused and sometimes flattered but it always seemed very separate from our sense of self.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN WILL DISCUSS AND READ FROM HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL THURSDAY OCTOBER 29TH @ THE MERRIAM THEATER