Wild Flag interview: 'Music has been quiet and reserved and polite, and that's just not what we are'

Rock's most exciting new band dismisses that whole "supergroup" thing.

Photograph: John Clark
Wild Flag

The term supergroup has been used to describe Wild Flag since the band's inception in 2010, but that doesn't mean its members—Carrie Brownstein, Rebecca Cole, Mary Timony and Janet Weiss—have to like it. "It's such an eye roll for me," says Brownstein with a laugh, when we reach her before a day of filming her IFC sketch-comedy show, Portlandia. Timony, chatting via phone from Washington, D.C., agrees: "[Supergroup] doesn't mean what it used to mean. Now it just means a new band with people that used to be in different bands."

That's fine—but the fact remains that this collaboration is something special. Brownstein and Weiss, formerly of the much-beloved Sleater-Kinney, are performing together for the first time since that group broke up in 2006. And Timony and Cole are indie-rock stalwarts in their own right, having played with Helium and the Minders, respectively. For fans of those groups—and really, anyone who loves rock & roll—Wild Flag is one of the most exciting joint efforts in a long time. "Music has been quiet and reserved and polite, and that's just not what we are," Weiss notes by telephone from Portland. "We're explosive and daring and ballsy. For the people who want that, this is going to be a fun band."

The group formed almost by accident. Brownstein was working on the score to Women Art Revolution! Lynn Hershman Leeson's 2010 documentary about the feminist art movement, and recruited Weiss and Cole to contribute music. "The director wanted some vocals, so we sent a track to Mary to sing over," remembers Cole, also calling from Portland. "When we got it back, it sounded like a band, and we thought, Wow, we may have something here."

One of the initial hurdles to bringing them all together was location: Timony is based in D.C., while the rest of the group lives in the Pacific Northwest. ("I've been traveling out to Portland a lot," Timony explains.) And there was also the matter of chemistry. Despite the fact that all four women have played together in various permutations, none of them knew whether joining forces as a quartet would yield anything interesting. "We were hesitant to actually call it a real band until we knew that something existed beyond four individuals playing music together," explains Brownstein. "It's really easy to create and record music these days, but it's not as easy to be a great band in terms of performance ability."

They needn't have worried. Brief tours of the West Coast late last year and the rest of the country this spring proved the four are totally in sync. During Wild Flag's sold-out sets at Brooklyn's itty-bitty Rock Shop in March, the crowd—who, at that point, knew virtually nothing about the band beyond its pedigree—fed off the musicians' palpable energy; you could tell they were having a blast playing together. "I've never had so much fun performing live," enthuses Timony. "It's such a relief, because all I have to focus on is playing guitar, [which is] one of the most fun things about music to me."

That dynamic quality was something the band wanted to preserve when crafting its eponymous debut album. In April, all four gathered at the Hangar, a Sacramento warehouse converted into a studio space, to lay down tracks, recording live rather than putting songs together piecemeal. "We wanted to capture where the band was, the parts that were still raw and unformed," says Brownstein. Adds Weiss, "Really, how we interact is the most important and interesting thing about this band at the moment. I feel like how the four of us work together—the energy and tension that's created when we're playing music together—is a real asset." Wild Flag, released in September, is a short (just under 40 minutes) but powerful sonic blast, melding the best things about these performers into a cohesive whole.

The group swings back through New York this week, playing three shows—all sold out, of course—including the Bowery Ballroom on Tuesday 18 as part of the CMJ Music Marathon. Aside from a spot opening for Sonic Youth in August, it'll be the first time the band has played here since those initial small shows, and the first time since the album was released. "It'll be more exciting to share the songs live now that we're comfortable with them," says Cole. "Hopefully the showmanship will be better. Whether ten people or 10,000 people are excited, the most important thing is doing the best work that we can."

The Hot Seat: Carrie Brownstein

The former Sleater-Kinney guitarist tries her hand at comedy in Portlandia. RECOMMENDED: Full list of Hot Seat interviews Which comedians or sketch artists have inspired you? When I was younger I watched the same things that a lot of people did. I loved Kids in the Hall, I loved early SNL—I loved Gilda Radner so much. Writing-wise, Elaine May is super-funny, that old Nichols and May stuff is so funny. Kristen Wiig is brilliant. I think that wit and intelligence is what I'm attracted to at the base of any humor. But then what I love about something like Kids in the Hall is that it is intellectual-based, but it also goes into a level of absurdity. And I think that that's a freedom that you have in comedy that you don't necessarily have in music. I don't like joke bands. [Laughs] So I love that area that you can explore in comedy where it goes off into a level that is surreal. The show does have a sort of absurdist quality that's similar to something like Kids in the Hall. Yeah, otherwise then you feel like you're too on the nose with something. I'd rather have those characters in the restaurant [in a Portlandia sketch] who are being so persnickety about the chicken that they just go off and end up on a cult farm. They should always go off somewhere strange. Some of the characters and situations in Portlandia reminded me of stuff I see in Brooklyn. It takes place in Portland, and there's a specificity to that, but we're hoping that it will translate elsewhere. I think there's a

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Live photos of Wild Flag at Celebrate Brooklyn!

Wild Flag, Mission of Burma and Ted Leo brought the punk-pop party to Prospect Park. Celebrate Brooklyn! at the Prospect Park Bandshell is a lovely venue, and one of our favorites for seeing an outdoor show during the summer. Still, the concert space felt like an odd choice for last week’s triple bill of Ted Leo, Mission of Burma and Wild Flag—which is not to say the show was a disappointment, but it’s definitely weird to see veteran punk-rockers like Leo or MoB in a space where the crowd is genteel and seated the entire time. In any case, all three were in fine form that evening. Leo, who typically plays at least one outdoor show per summer, kicked things off with a solo set that included well-known tunes (“Me and Mia,” “Bottled in Cork”) as well as a few new numbers. (This Park Slope resident also appreciated his goofy shout-out to Arecibo, a local car service, as he explained the ease with which he got to the venue that night.) His performance was followed by a blistering set from Boston rockers Mission of Burma, which is touring behind its excellent new album, Unsound. The crowd finally got to its feet for Wild Flag, which put on a characteristically great show (I’ve now seen them six times, and the band never disappoints). The outfit's tight set included every song from its debut album, as well as a few covers; in a nod to the New York audience, the band played Television’s “See No Evil” and Patti Smith’s “Ask the Angels” during the encore.

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