Wild Flag: Fucking Fierce

The concurrent paths of Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Helium's Mary Timony intersect ferociously.

Mary Timony was living in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1995 when Matador Records released The Dirt of Luck, her band Helium's debut album. It's a bewitching mixture of the oddball, pop-imbued punk rock that Matador was known for at the time, Timony's narcotic, imaginative guitar work, and unsettling lyrical themes reflecting the Northwest's burgeoning riot grrl movement, which had partial roots in the D.C. area.

Across the country, Carrie Brownstein's Olympia-based band, Sleater-Kinney, saw its self-titled debut drop via Portland's Chainsaw Records the same year. Released on the label owned by former Screaming Trees guitarist Donna Dresch, the album was a crudely rendered and undeniably powerful piece of work, characterized by the articulate fury of Brownstein and bandmate Corin Tucker's dueling guitars and call-and-response vocals, all underpinned by the bravely aggressive, feminist tones that were the emerging hallmark of that region's take on riot grrl.

Helium became a fixture on the indie-rock touring circuit, releasing two more EPs and one more full-length prior to their dissolution in 1998. Timony launched a moderately successful solo career, but generally kept a low profile throughout the '00s. Sleater-Kinney's career took a markedly steeper trajectory. After initially being held up as the definitive riot grrl band alongside fellow Olympians Bikini Kill, S-K went on to transcend that label, touring the world several times and eventually being canonized by Time in 2001 as one of the most important and influential rock bands of the decade. When they announced their "indefinite hiatus" in 2006, their fan base mourned loudly, while Brownstein retreated to other creative avenues, blogging for NPR, and scoring a sleeper hit as co-creator of Portlandia. Back in D.C., Timony was spending most of her time teaching young women how to play guitar.

Sixteen years after their debuts, Brownstein and Timony have drawn a modest but enthusiastic crowd to New Orleans' One Eyed Jacks on a Wednesday evening in October to hear their new band, Wild Flag. Former White Zombie bassist Sean Yseult is in the audience at the French Quarter club, as is Gutter Twin/Twilight Singer Greg Dulli. Brownstein and Timony are visibly pleased to be onstage together, trading vocal duties and guitar leads with egalitarian ease and working their way through a one-hour set comprising songs from their eponymous debut, released by Merge Records in September.

When I reach Timony via phone a few days later, she's in a Dallas hotel room, reflecting on the track that brought her to that stage. "I had gotten burned out on working in a vacuum," she says of her time as a solo artist. "I kept thinking that I wanted to do something collaborative, but it's hard to find the right people. I had pretty much given up being in a band, and was just really focused on being a teacher. But I didn't want to give up playing music—that was a depressing thought."

Meanwhile, Brownstein was working on new music to accompany Lynn Hershman Leeson's documentary !Women Art Revolution, and had enlisted Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss and keyboardist/vocalist Rebecca Cole, formerly of the Minders. Brownstein had worked with Timony in the late '90s on a short-lived project called The Spells, so it only made sense to pull her into the mix again. "We got together to play to see what happened, and we took it day-by-day," says Timony.

While they were content to take things slowly, word of their tentative union created deafening buzz almost instantaneously. The Pitchdork nation quickly became all a-Twitter about this impending collaboration, frothing expectantly and lazily slapping on the "supergroup" label, which Brownstein found irksome initially.

"I found it somewhat surprising, even though that might sound a little naive," ruminates Brownstein via phone from Los Angeles before Wild Flag's two-night stint at the Troubadour. "Of course there are going to be expectations based on previous musical endeavors. I didn't think that there would be such a lack of imagination that people would immediately turn to the term 'supergroup.' That to me was just not an apt description of four people who collectively had not sold millions of records and who were certainly not 'super' in a lot of ways," she says with a self-deprecating laugh. "It was a little off-putting, but it certainly didn't deter us."

Following the release of a few singles via the Internet and as Record Store Day exclusives, and a handful of tour dates in major markets, Wild Flag signed to Merge. The 'supergroup' tag still dogs them, but the New Orleans show was a joyous exhibition of creatively galvanized women relaxing into a more cohesive and unique identity.

Though elements of their former bands are undeniable—Brownstein's distinct, strident wail, Timony's celestial guitar lines, Weiss' muscular, thrilling approach to percussion—Wild Flag is very much a new entity. And while punk-rock bones are still visible, this is a group imbued more with inviting pop sensibilities than old-school antagonism. Songs like "Romance" bristle and sparkle at the same time, reflecting a mature sense of craftsmanship but delivered with the primal passion that made these musicians such stunning performers earlier in their careers.

"Word of mouth has been good, and it's now building up organically the way you would want anything to slowly build," continues Brownstein, reflecting on the band's evolution since she first announced its inception via her NPR blog in 2010. "Audiences have been very gracious and accepting."

Between tours and recording, she took time to harness part of the Independent Film Channel's audience via her hipster-skewering sketch comedy show, Portlandia. In her eyes, the commonalities of creating comedy and music are notable. "I think the performance element is the common thread, but the intentionality is different," she says. "I see music as something I take very seriously, so my intention in a band is to have a certain ferociousness or intensity— or just the act of letting go. And with Portlandia, some of those things are also true. Just because it's couched in comedy doesn't mean the intention is not to be ferocious. They are very congruent, even though the worlds in which they manifest themselves sometimes feel vastly different. Despite being a TV show, it started out as two friends doing a project together to entertain ourselves and our friends—the same way often bands start."

And Wild Flag started not just as a new project, but as a step that could be arrived at only after she had regrouped within herself.

"I personally wasn't ready to play music again until I was ready to . . . not 'divorce' myself from my past and Sleater-Kinney—because that will always be intrinsic to who I am—but to shed that identity and be willing to be considered as a person other than someone who used to be in a certain band," Brownstein says. "You have to wake up with a sense of vitality and purpose, and if that only exists in 'yesterday,' then you're not in a good place."

music@seattleweekly.com

 
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