[Q&A] Carrie Brownstein on the similarities between Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney, her favorite music of 2012, and more

Carrie Brownstein played with legendary feminist indie rock trio Sleater-Kinney from 1994 until 2006. In 2010 she began playing with Wild Flag, and shortly after, in January 2011, the first episodes of Portlandia began airing -- a satiric sketch comedy show she co-writes and stars in with Fred Armisen, parodying the contemporary alternative world of Portland, Oregon. In advance of the show's third season, which begins this month on the Independent Film Channel, we asked Brownstein about the ways her original vision for Sleater-Kinney now translates to a comedic television show, as well as her favorite music of 2012, her upcoming memoir, and more.

You're doing so many things right now, with music and writing and acting and Portlandia. Do you find one of these outlets to be the most personally fulfilling?

I find they're all fulfilling in different ways. They each speak to a different part of me. The fact that there's a multitude of outlets for me is quite helpful. I'm very uncomfortable with stillness and feeling stagnant. So I tend to over compensate because of that fear. The more projects and the more outlets I have, the less anxious I feel.

Even when I was doing Sleater-Kinney, I always had other interests and things that I wanted to pursue. I’m lucky that I am able to exist in a few worlds right now. I feel very fortunate.

After years of playing fierce punk music full of feminisms and criticisms, does it feel like a relief now to be working on something more light-hearted and comedic? Or do you feel like that sense of feminism and criticism is still part of your vision for Portlandia, just conveyed differently?

I think my perspective or outlook or politics will always inform the process and hopefully the outcome. As we write Portlandia, I find myself being critical and interjecting my opinions, for example, if I don't think a character is fully formed. I don't feel like I'm willing to just throw my politics under the bus for the sake of being funny.

I still am drawn to music that has a soul to it, or an intensity. But it is a relief to be funny and have a different perspective. I think humor is just as valid a way of dealing with an issue or talking about a subject. It is nice to be able to be frivolous and more absurd. It would have been strange to suddenly have Sleater-Kinney be an absurdist band, even though all three of us have a sense of humor.

That's always the false assumption that anything political or feminist can't be funny. Certainly with Portlandia there's a greater allowance to get to places that are surreal. I do feel a sense of relief in that way. Because it is more of who I am. I'm both things. There's part of me that's in Sleater-Kinney and part of me that's in Portlandia. They're not divorced from each other. Portlandia allows for a sense of intensity that can immediately veer into silliness. With music it's harder to balance that. At least in the bands I was in.

Do you think that your 1997 self playing in Sleater-Kinney could have ever predicted that 15 years later you'd be working on Portlandia?

Never in my wildest imagination -- which is good. It's better to be surprised and to have moments that are unexpected.

With your music and throughout a lot of your career, you've been involved with and heard by mostly alternative, underground and punk communities. Now with Portlandia you’re speaking to more of a mainstream audience. Do these experiences feel different because of that?

It’s just a different time now. Identifying what constitutes the underground is a lot blurrier. We all have access to movements and artists that would have before been invisible. That notion of creating on the fringes still exists, and it’s something to strive for, because I still think that sometimes the most interesting endeavors are happening outside the glare. But it’s so much easier to posit yourself in the spotlight now, because of that democratizing aspect of the internet and technology which just renders everything kind of equal and visible. So even though Portlandia and television in general sometimes seems more accessible and mainstream, it really is just a different time.

Portlandia still feels very much on the periphery of what would constitute broad or mainstream comedy. And the sensibility from which we write is informed by the backgrounds that Fred, the director Jonathan Krissel, and myself have. We all came up through communities that really exalted punk and alternative and indie. So we’re either exploring those very ideas in the sketches, or they’re just informing the process.

I feel lucky because in some ways Portlandia feels like the same kind of endeavor that Sleater-Kinney did in the sense that I’m making something with my friends and it’s very organic. It started out under the moniker Thunderant, which was just Fred and I making silly videos. Somehow that shifted into a television show. It happened as organically as the bands that I played in. It feels similar even though I know the medium and the audience is different.

What is Wild Flag up to right now? Are you putting out another record?

We are taking a break right now. Last year when Portlandia wrapped, a Wild Flag album had just come out, and I went right into touring, and then right back into shooting and writing and working on Portlandia. This year I’m focusing on writing a book and just doing some other music projects while I have this moment between the two seasons.

I read that the book deals with the way that music is changing. Do you ever feel disillusioned by how much the independent music world has changed in recent years?

Well, originally the book was more akin to the writing I was doing for NPR. It was more criticism and less personal. But the book ended up shifting. It has a different title now and a different publisher. It’s more of a memoir.

I don’t feel disillusioned. To be wrapped up in any kind of nostalgia or notion that the past is better -- that undermines the present and also undermines yourself. It’s too demeaning and self-deprecating to think that everything good happened five years ago or 10 years ago or 30 years ago. We're no better than the time we're living in. I don’t think we’re in a worse place right now. I kind of have to think that we’re always in the best place, or if we’re not, then we have to try to make it better.

What excites you most about playing music right now?

I love performing. I love playing live. This was probably also true 5 years ago or 10 years ago. But I think now more than ever, people are putting a premium on the live performance. It's the one thing right now that doesn’t feel ephemeral. There’s so much music that’s released every day. There’s so much to discover and that sense of infinite discovery is very exciting but it’s also exhausting. Seeing a performer live is the thing that feels the most permanent, the most real, the most edifying. It just cuts through the static.

Technology can compartmentalize and disintegrate moments. As much as it can nurture a moment, technology can also disintegrate a moment. So getting to play and perform live for an audience has a way of cohering all of these disparate parts of ourselves and our lives. It’s very gratifying. I think that’s the best part of playing music right now. And I think that when I see bands that can really perform live, those are the bands that start to mean the most to me right now.

What new bands are really exciting to you right now?

This year I listened to the Miguel, Dirty Projectors, and Ariel Pink records the most. I loved the Kendrick Lamar album. I saw John Maus perform in Portland and I thought it was so dangerous and strange. He was just onstage by himself, completely willing to get to a place that felt a little dangerous. People were really responding to it.
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