'Portlandia' star, guitarist Carrie Brownstein finds outlet for all her interests

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; E16

It's a crazy, mixed-up multimedia-scape we're living in - one where the Lady Gagas of the world wear many hats, not all of which are made of meat.

Of the brightest pop stars scheduled to grace Washington stages this year, many double as activists (Gaga), rom-com actresses (Taylor Swift) or ESPN commentators (Lil Wayne). But only one is a riot-grrrl guitar hero, turned NPR blogger, turned ascendant sketch comedian.

That would be Carrie Brownstein. After her pioneering punk band Sleater-Kinney split up in 2006, Brownstein got busy. She started an acclaimed music blog for NPR called Monitor Mix. She wrote articles for the Believer and Slate. She inked a book deal. And last month, she and "Saturday Night Live" cast member Fred Armisen launched the new IFC sketch comedy show "Portlandia," a weekly skewering of the hyper-liberal, progressive-community personality types who populate Portland, Ore.

Oh, and she started a new band, too. It's an indie-rock supergroup called Wild Flag, and it features former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, Rebecca Cole of the Minders and D.C. native and Helium founder Mary Timony. Like just about every project Brownstein tackles, it's pretty awesome.

"You want to feel like a multifaceted person that's capable of doing other things," says Brownstein, 36, of her numerous post-Sleater-Kinney adventures. "You don't want to feel like a has-been or that you peaked in your 20s. There are a lot of fears that go along with feeling like the best is behind you."

That's what pushed Brownstein toward NPR in 2006. She pitched the blog after NPR streamed one of Sleater-Kinney's last Washington shows online. From November 2007 to May 2010, Monitor Mix gave Brownstein a chance to become a fan again.

"I felt all the more connected to fellow fans and music lovers than I did as a band member," she says. "When you're in a band . . . there's this automatic dynamic of fan and performer, and it's hard to break that down."

Her entry point to the comedy world came when Armisen suddenly invited Sleater-Kinney to attend a "Saturday Night Live" after-party in New York. He was a fan of the band, but couldn't make its show in New York because he was taping "SNL." So he invited them to the afterparty, instead. They kept in touch via e-mail, and he eventually started visiting Portland to film comedy sketches with Brownstein under the name Thunderant.

"I played this character named Cindy that got the first interview with Saddam Hussein," Brownstein says of her first sketch with Armisen. "The first post-bunker interview on my cable-access show."

The duo filmed other sketches - poking fun at feminist bookstore owners, overzealous locavores and bicycle enthusiasts - and pitched a show to IFC. "Portlandia" premiered in January.

"In a lot of communities, whether it's Williamsburg or Austin or Madison [Wis.] . . . you have these people that are very stifled and conflicted by their own sense of altruism," Brownstein says. "I think that's the underlying theme of the show. . . . A lot of comedies are based on people being bad. Ours is based on people trying to be good."

And while music remains her primary love, Brownstein says the show gives her an outlet that rock-and-roll can't provide.

"As much as I admire bands that can get to a place of sheer weirdness, that's just not the kind of music I make," she says. "I think 'Portlandia' definitely occupies a sphere of silliness and outlandishness that I would not be comfortable going with in music."

Before dropping its debut album this summer, Wild Flag will make its un-weird Washington premiere at the Black Cat on March 11.

"It's really nice to have four solid players," Brownstein says. "With Mary and Rebecca, they're both classically trained and you can really talk to them in a way where they automatically understand what you're saying. We came together with sort of an instant chemistry based on an appreciation for daring and the sort of innate recklessness that we bring to songwriting and performing."

And while Brownstein takes her music incredibly seriously, she's never too serious.

"For the Botox years when we're retired in Vegas, we have this shtick where Mary and Rebecca are going to play classical music and Janet and I will play a Ramones song," she says. "We'll just go back and forth."

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