Carrie Brownstein has just released Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, a vivid memoir focusing on her turbulent, thrilling years as a singer and guitarist in the groundbreaking Nineties punk act Sleater-Kinney — including a harrowing account of the mounting bouts of anxiety that led Brownstein to bring the band to a crashing halt in 2006. “It was arduous,” she says of her two-year writing process. “I had to get up and write every morning, and there’s no magic, mystical quality to that. The hardest part was just sitting down to write and not finding ways to avoid that.” Brownstein has more avenues of procrastination open to her than most writers: While working on the book — and its accompanying audiobook, narrated by the author, which you can preview below — she also regrouped with Sleater-Kinney singer Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss for this year’s excellent No Cities to Love (their first LP in a decade), and shot new seasons of her cable comedy, Portlandia, and the Amazon original series Transparent. She called during a rare moment of downtime to talk about it all.
There’s a very real possibility that a little over a year from now, Bill Clinton will be back in the White House. Do you think the second Clinton era would be as good for music as the first one was?
I actually think that Republican administrations are better for music. The Reagan era was such a great era for punk and indie rock. So I think we’d have an explosion of passionate, vitriolic music coming out of all genres under Donald Trump, or someone even more intense, like Marco Rubio or Ben Carson. When it comes to music, we should be hoping for as outlandish a Republican candidate as we can get.
You write very honestly in your book about the tensions that led to Sleater-Kinney’s breakup in 2006. Were you worried about showing those chapters to your bandmates as you were reuniting?
I was writing the book when we began the early practices, rehearsals and songwriting for No Cities to Love. When we were recording in San Francisco, I found that I would go back and illustrate with more vividness some of the earlier chapters, because I was re-immersed in the world of the band. But it wasn’t until we were on tour for the album that Corin and I sat in a hotel room, and I read her a couple of chapters. I wanted to make sure — especially with her — that she was comfortable with parts of the book. She was really excited. I think one underestimates how flattered people are to be written about. And I think both Janet and Corin are aware it’s my perspective — it’s not the definitive Sleater-Kinney biography.
Has the experience of touring with Sleater-Kinney again this year been everything you expected?
It’s been really wonderful. There were a lot of people who had just discovered Sleater-Kinney through No Cities to Love, and then there were fans that had been there from the beginning. The front of the crowd was young kids and college-age kids, and that was important. Our fear was that people would view the record and the tour through the lens of sentimentality or nostalgia, but it didn’t feel like that.
Does being in the band now feel different than it did in the old days? Is it less charged and dramatic?
It’s definitely different. There is nothing about it we take for granted. We’re very careful with one another, very protective of one another, and protective of the entity that is the band. And we’re motivated first and foremost by the experience being … not necessarily pleasant, but enriching. There’s a collective desire to want it, and not to do it for any reasons other than fulfillment and enjoyment.
Sleater-Kinney have another round of shows coming in December. What about after that? Would you like to make another album?
I think we’ll definitely get back to writing songs. We feel less trapped by a repetitive cycle of writing, recording and touring. But the band feels like it’s up and running again.
So you’re in an active rock band, you just published a great memoir, and you’re acting in two acclaimed TV shows. Do you feel creatively fulfilled yet?
Yes. I’m longing for some creative un-fulfillment [laughs]! No, that’s not true. I feel very lucky. Being able to work on Transparent and Portlandia simultaneously is very edifying and inspiring, and now I can turn my energy toward the book and Sleater-Kinney. If anything, I’m hoping in the next couple of months to have a little bit of downtime and have a semblance of rest and relaxation.
You and Fred Armisen just wrapped Season Six of Portlandia. How do you keep things fresh?
Knowing that we only have two seasons left, there’s a real experimental urge coursing through us. We go into some darker themes this year. Previously we’ve had couples at odds with their community. This year, we put the conflict within the duo itself.
Glenn Danzig is appearing on this season in a scene with the goth couple played by you and Fred. What’s he like?
He was amazing. We’ve had a lot of guest stars on the show, including people that are arguably more famous than Danzig, but I’ve never seen a collective enthusiasm greater than when we had him on set. He’s really smart, and very Jersey — and he can make fun of himself, which is one of the most endearing qualities for anyone in this day and age of incessant narcissism and solipsism.
Marijuana is now legal in Portland, where you live. Do people seem more stoned than usual?
I’m so outside of pot culture that it’s really impacting my life in a minimal way. I will say that there’s definitely been an influx of stores with really tacky names and horrible aesthetics. It’s the most underachieving aesthetic I can dream of — this downtrodden paisley thing. I’m particularly talking about vaping stores. It’s like, “Here’s the future, and it was not a dream. It was a nightmare, and it’s very ugly.” And I’m really shocked that the term “maryjane” is still in use. There’s a place here that’s called Mary Jane’s, as if your aunt opened up a little knickknack store, but all the knickknacks are for pot. I was like, “Really?”
On Transparent, you play Syd, a close friend of the Pfefferman family who’s there as they grapple with a parent coming out as transgender. What appeals to you about that character?
She’s the voice of reason on the show. I think the audience sees themselves in those supporting characters, because the Pfeffermans are a volatile, fascinating, self-centered family. I like playing someone with a certain stability at the periphery of the madness. And she’s a little more carefree than I am, which is fun.
You tweeted a picture of yourself with your friends Amy Poehler, Aimee Mann and Kim Gordon, and said, “Don’t call us a squad. We’re a fucking coven.” What’s the difference?
None of us are cheerleaders, so I guess we’re not a squad. We just cast spells. But it was mostly in jest.
The New York Times ran a correction this summer after a story mistakenly identified you as the former frontman of R.E.M. Was any part of you hoping people would just go with it and you’d get credit for being in R.E.M?
That was funny. Sometimes great things happen from mistakes, so sure, if I need to step in for Michael Stipe …
What have you been listening to lately?
The records I keep returning to that came out this year are Tame Impala, Kendrick Lamar and Miguel. Kendrick’s album has such beauty and depth. It’s so dense and political, but it also dances and sings. I was very surprised by the sound of Miguel’s record — it’s really one of the best rock records of the year! And Tame Impala is the record you can immerse yourself in. It’s the sonic sofa of 2015. I just want to sit on it in my ears. But I’m most excited about Joanna Newsom — any year that she puts out a record is a special year for music. It’s a gift that adds color to everything.
You’re great on Twitter, which is considering expanding the 140-character limit on tweets. Good idea or bad?
That’s a terrible idea. People barely have anything to say in 140 characters. The last thing we need is a bunch of discursive rambling on Twitter.
The celebrity cat Lil Bub just made an album. You’re a dog person — have your dogs shown any musical potential that you’d like to explore?
No. I would like to build a blockade to prevent my dog, or any other, from making records. Maybe I can have Trump come in and put an immigration wall between my dogs and a recording studio [laughs].