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Carrie Brownstein: 'We're Okay With Making Somebody Feel Uncomfortable' on 'Portlandia'

The singer-guitarist-comedian on season two of IFC's hit show and what's next for Wild Flag

January 4, 2012 2:00 PM ET
Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia.
Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia.
Scott Green/IFC

"2011 was a very busy year for me," says Carrie Brownstein. No kidding: The singer-guitarist-comedian has been seemingly everywhere at once over the past 12 months, slaying crowds across the nation with her new band Wild Flag and hilariously dissecting her own cultural milieu on IFC's Portlandia. (Season two of the cable breakout, which she created with Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen, begins airing Friday, though the first episode is also available in full online now.) "I feel like I was vacillating between two creative endeavors that I really love," adds Brownstein. "It was surreal in a lot of ways, and exhausting – but I wouldn't trade it for anything."

How much fun did you have shooting season two of Portlandia this past summer?
It was one of the best summers of my life – the way that you would want summer camp to be. Like, something out of Wet Hot American Summer. That's what shooting Portlandia was like, except without Ken Marino trying to get laid. We weren't, like, making out with each other. But we were having this very singular shared experience. We shoot on literally hundreds of locations, so I spent the summer getting sort of an unofficial tour of Portland homes and businesses – and just getting to explore these characters and these sides of myself that I don't often get to explore. Probably figuring out how to have a better relationship with people by portraying all these strange married couples, kind of learning how to connect with other people by pretending all summer to connect through characters. [Laughs] It just had that magical glow to it that I associate with those halcyon days of youth. The whole summer had a sheen to it.

How do you balance indie rock and comedy? Do Wild Flag and Portlandia inform each other?
I think they can't help but be part of the same sphere. The more I try to keep them separate or divorced from each other, the more I feel schizophrenic. I take music pretty seriously – and, you know, when rock music tries to be funny it can be really embarrassing. I think hip-hop does a very good job of infusing comedy and humor and wit into music, a lot more than other genres. But with Portlandia, I don't think our intention is always to find something funny. Sometimes the humor comes from taking something really seriously. We're okay with making somebody feel uncomfortable or uneasy. And in my own music, I totally embrace those moments – just for myself as the person making the music, I think it's good to put yourself in a place of discomfort. So yeah, it all kind of combines.

You mentioned hip-hop – what have you been listening to recently?
I love Drake and Childish Gambino. Their albums both have this energy and sincerity that I just want to climb into over and over again. There's so much specificity in their songs. I love that. You feel like you're entering not just someone's internal landscape, but some kind of city or playground that they've built for you, lyrically and sonically.

Any other records you're loving?
I love Eleanor Friedberger's Last Summer. I just think Eleanor has one of the coolest voices in music. That record has kind of a tossed-off summery feel, but it's very much about heartbreak. It has that deceiving quality. You feel safe, and then you realize, "Oh no, these lyrics are really sad." And I love the St. Vincent record, Strange Mercy. Annie Clark is one of the best guitar players out there. She really shreds. She should tour with Mastodon and Slayer and bands like that.

So if shooting Portlandia was the best thing you did last year, what was the low point?
Um . . . there's so much. No, not really. I mean, in some ways, it's just a personal question. I always feel like the worst stuff is the stuff that people don't see. But my dogsitter left some homemade kombucha [tea] in my house. That is not something that I appreciate. I'm still trying to figure out how to rid myself of literally three vats of homemade kombucha in my upstairs bathroom cabinet. No offense to anyone, but it really looks either like a stillbirth or potentially a pancake that's taking a bath. It's crazy. Someone told me that the SCOBY – which is like the fungus and bacteria in the middle – it can only live in water. People tell me, "Just dump it out." But I live in Portland! If I dump it out in my backyard, it's going to get rained on and grow to the size of my yard and then Portland and then America. I'm sitting on a potential end-of-days situation, and I am in charge of keeping the world safe from this giant kombucha takeover. So that's pretty gnarly. [Laughs] But then, you know, I went through a breakup. That's probably the worst thing.

"Dream of the 90s" is one of the best Portlandia sketches. What's your take on all the Nineties nostalgia in the air, with classic albums like Nevermind turning 20?
That was intense. I think the first and foremost thing that many of us felt was old when that happened. I mean, I was growing up in Seattle when Nevermind was released, and it really was like the weather changed. Within weeks, the hierarchical structure at my high school shifted – Nirvana transcended social groups. I'm not surprised that in a time that feels less certain, like now, people would look back to a time when everything felt like a statement. There was a clarity to the Nineties. It was pre-9/11, before that anxiety kicked in that exists right now about the financial crisis or terrorism. We were all just going to move forward into the millennium and everything was always going to get better. Then, whoops, that didn't happen. But it's hard for me to be nostalgic about something that I lived through pretty intensely already. I was around in the Nineties; I don't miss it.

How do you feel about the Occupy Wall Street movement?
On tour with Wild Flag, I felt like we were touring the Occupy Wall Streets of the U.S. – we saw its incarnations in small cities and big cities across the country. Despite how complicated and messy some of the manifestations of the protests were, feeling that undercurrent of revolution makes it an exciting time to be playing music. It was like, "We're playing venues, but we're also getting to see what dissent looks like." That felt great. I think this has sparked in people's imaginations the idea that working outside the system might still be a viable form of change. Hopefully it's just the beginning of something. A lot of people have focused on how inconvenient the protests are – but revolution is never convenient. You need the people who are making it inconvenient to destabilize these systems that aren't really working for most of us.

So what else do you have in store? Are you thinking about making another Wild Flag album?
Yeah, we have two new songs, and we're going to continue writing. I really don't like free time, so if it was up to me, Wild Flag would put out an album in the fall. I'll just keep going on this hamster wheel that I'm on. [Laughs]

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