Under the Banner of Portlandia

Wild Flag, from left: Janet Weiss, Rebecca Cole, Carrie Brownstein, and Mary Timony.Photo: David Torch

If you want to piss off the members of Wild Flag, ask them about being in an all-girl band. “What do you mean, Does it matter that we’re all women?” snipes Janet Weiss, formerly of revered Portland, Oregon, trio Sleater-Kinney. “It matters only insofar as it’s the four of us and we’re women. It’s funny to say, but if one of us were a man, she would still be in this band. This band is about these four people.”

To varying degrees, these four people—guitarist Mary Timony, keyboardist Rebecca Cole, guitarist Carrie Brownstein, and drummer Weiss—are all indie-rock icons, esteemed veterans of the Gen-X alternative culture, and representatives of the nineties feminist rock revolution. Timony is the former front woman of sludgy experimentalists Helium. Cole played drums in the Minders, an avant-pop band associated with famed underground collective Elephant 6. Brownstein was also in Sleater-Kinney—formed in 1994 in Olympia, Washington, the epicenter of riot-grrrl culture. They went on to be named America’s best rock band by Time magazine in 2001—but these days Brownstein is better known for co-creating and starring alongside Fred Armisen in IFC’s absurdist sketch-comedy show Portlandia,which exposes for laughs the stealth exclusivity of an expressly inclusive counterculture. Nearly two decades after these women, now in their late thirties and early forties, formed their first bands and years after several of them figured they’d played their last rock show, they’re starting over again.

It all started two years ago, when Brownstein agreed to score Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution. Built around 40 years of archival footage and anchored by interviews with major female artists like Miranda July, Marina Abramovic, Cindy Sherman, and Yoko Ono, the documentary is an ambitious attempt to illuminate the role ­women have played in shaping modern art. Brownstein called in Weiss (“I had become very reliant on the way she understood my songwriting process; she’s almost like my editor,” she says) and Cole, who had taken a break from music to finish her B.A. in chemistry and was contemplating grad school. “I think the director really wanted Sleater-Kinney music, but she couldn’t afford it,” Weiss says with a wry cackle.

Propelled by the tense guitar-and-vocal exchange between former couple Brownstein and Corin Tucker (who released her first solo album last year), Sleater-­Kinney’s seven full-length records are loud, heavy classics of the indie-rock canon; over twelve years, the band achieved the optimum blend of moderate commercial success and feverish critical adoration, which means its members can now do whatever they want knowing they’ve always got that reunion-tour backup plan. After the band split up, Weiss continued to play with Quasi, the cultish, demented pop band she’s been in for eighteen years. She toured with Steven Malkmus (now a Portland local) and Conor Oberst. “Drummers are the nonmonogamous band members,” Weiss cracks. “When everybody else needs to take three weeks off, we’re like, ‘Okay, what tour can I join for three weeks?’ ”

Until she formed Wild Flag, Brownstein, on the other hand, hadn’t played music in nearly four years. “I literally didn’t pick up a guitar or have any desire to for a really long time,” she remembers. “I’m not someone that strums for friends around the campfire.” For a while, she contributed witty, incisive posts to NPR’s All Songs Considered blog (and is working on an essay collection). But all that intellectualizing without performing “hardened” her, she says. “It’s like that friend that’s always telling you they’re going to break up with their boyfriend—you’re like, ‘Okay, just do it! Enough already!’ I exhausted all of that cerebral discussion and was finally like, Fuck it, I need to just play now.

After the !Women Art Revolution studio sessions, the impromptu trio decided they should become a band. That’s when Timony was invited in (Helium and ­Sleater-Kinney toured together, and in 1999, Timony and Brownstein recorded an EP together as the Spells). Timony, the only non-Portland resident, “added tension to our dynamic,” Brownstein says, noting she “brings restraint and mystery and this ethereal quality to the band.” Since Helium split in 1997, Timony, who lives in Washington, D.C., released several solo albums, but in the last few years she hadn’t played much. “I had kind of given up on trying to do my own music,” she explains. “I was teaching guitar to kids.”

The recording process was charmed. “We all shared a big house, and every single night for three weeks after working in the studio all day, we would go home and watch The Golden Girls reruns and drink red wine,” Timony says. The result is a confident, compact album that merges familiar elements—Timony’s haunted wail, Brownstein’s epic guitar freakouts, Weiss’s signature brawny elegance, Cole’s intuitive synth lines—but blends in new features like multilayered vocal harmony (all four members sing) and real space in the songs; Wild Flag is not a crisp little punk band: They like to jam.

Another way to piss off the band is to call them a supergroup. “Carrie said this really well,” Timony says. “Calling us a supergroup waters down the term. We’re not that famous. We’re not the Traveling Wilburys.” But it does matter that Wild Flag are all women. Gender is not an overt part of Wild Flag’s creative identity—as it often is with Hole or Le Tigre or Bikini Kill—but it is part of their power.

On a hazy evening last month, backlit by the saccharine pink of an iridescent sunset, Wild Flag opened for Sonic Youth at the Williamsburg Waterfront. “Romance,” their first single and de facto mission statement, goes: “We love the sound / The sound is what found us / Sound is the blood between me and you.” Mid-set, Brownstein, who shares lead-vocal duties with Timony, looked across the stage at her co–front woman and grinned with a mix of pride and awe. Timony was wailing into the mike in a fitted little dress, leg propped up on her stage monitor, flashing her underwear to the front row.

When Brownstein’s ferocious command “Pony up and ride” wailed over a careening, violent guitar line during set-closer “Racehorse,” the crowd—grown-up rebel couples, the men collegiately sexy in A.P.C. jeans and graying sideburns, the women yoga-toned and wearing posh spectacles—was awed. Even though it shouldn’t be, it is unusual to see four women onstage playing with the level of innovation, technical skill, and brute power that Wild Flag demonstrates. “I’ve been in a lot of bands, and there’s not usually one that’s going to satisfy you, where you’re able to do everything you know how to do,” Weiss says. “This is a band where we all use all our strengths. There’s something great about four people doing what they do best. It makes us feel powerful. It makes us feel invincible.”

Wild Flag
Wild Flag.
Merge Records.
September 13. $13.98.

Under the Banner of Portlandia