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November 3rd, 2010 AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

Mock Star

Carrie Brownstein is making fun of you.

Carrie BrownsteinCarrie Brownstein at home in Portland, Oregon with her dog Toby. - IMAGE: John Clark.

In her 10 years as a Portlander, Carrie Brownstein has been many things: a guitarist, an actress, a blogger, an advertising writer, a dog trainer and, most recently, the creator of a TV series. But she wants to make it clear she has never, ever, been a typical Portland driver.

“For the record, I am not afraid to hit someone with my car as an act of aggression,” she says. “I think polite drivers should be met only with aggression, to teach them a lesson. If I’m following someone whose [bumper sticker] says, ‘A Rind is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Compost!’ I just want to throw garbage out my window.”

It’s a crisp autumn night, and the woman Rolling Stone once called the most underrated female guitarist of all time is sitting in Northeast Portland bar Tiga, talking about the Portland traits she thinks are funny. But she doesn’t sound amused. She sounds annoyed.

“Anger and comedy to me are just right up against each other,” she says. “Anything that can elicit an emotional response from me is usually worth exploring.”

In August Brownstein returned to Portland from New York City. On one of her first days back, she recalls, she stood in the checkout line at the Interstate Avenue New Seasons and marveled at the number of tattooed parents.

“There’s so many kids,” she says, “and their dads are covered in tattoos, and I just think the common question for a child in Portland is not ‘Where are babies from?’ but ‘What is a tattoo? What is a panther leaping out of a rainbow? What does a mermaid sitting on an anchor symbolize to you, Dad?’ I wonder how parents are dealing with the tattoo questions. That haunts me at night.”

The person making these observations isn’t another overeducated, underemployed musician comfortably asserting her sense of irony in a city of homogenous ironists. OK, maybe she is, just a little—but she’s different. She’s got a cable television show, and she’s not afraid to use it.

Next year, Brownstein leaps back onto the national stage with the premiere of Portlandia, an improvisational sketch-comedy series she writes and performs in. When Portlandia premieres on the Independent Film Channel in January, it will portray this city as a day camp for adults—a town where tourists stand in line at Stumptown Coffee like it’s a Disneyland ride, feminist booksellers teach classes on how to write journal entries, and diners prefer to eat at a restaurant only after they have visited each of its source farms.

Don’t get offended, Portland: One of the generation’s most beloved indie rockers is about to ridicule America’s most unassailably indie city.

Brownstein bought her first guitar, a cherry red Epiphone copy of a Fender Stratocaster, in Redmond, Wash., when she was 15 years old. She earned the $170 from babysitting and working concessions at a multiplex.

“I had a lot of hobbies as a kid, and I was fickle about my prolonged interest in them,” Brownstein tells WW in an interview. “I wanted to do cross-country bike tours, I wanted to be a tennis pro, I wanted to be an actor. My parents were very supportive of all my endeavors, but when it came to funding an amplifier and a guitar, I think they thought, ‘This is going to be a passing phase, and you need to fund it on your own.’”

It became more than a fleeting phase. For 11 years, she whaled on guitar and sang with Sleater-Kinney, the punk trio she founded with Corin Tucker at Evergreen State College in Washington. It was the band that bridged the feminist punk movement and indie rock. If you want to know more about Sleater-Kinney, you can look them up. They’re famous. At their final show, Eddie Vedder opened for them.

Brownstein moved here in 2001, into a house in the Grant Park neighborhood with her dog, a German wirehaired pointer mix named Toby. At age 36, Brownstein is a Portland music-scene fixture—in the crowd at shows at Rontoms, or the foreground of a music video for her friends the Thermals.

In 2006, Sleater-Kinney went on indefinite hiatus (music sites like Pitchfork eagerly report any hint of a reunion tour) and Brownstein returned to her restless avocation-hunting. In fact, a survey of her Portland undertakings looks like the Max Fischer yearbook montage from the opening scenes of Rushmore.

For six months, she worked at Wieden+Kennedy, where she brainstormed for a Starbucks rebranding campaign. “What I wrote in [my] notebook—which basically tried to compare Starbucks to a 1920s Parisian salon or the Bloomsbury Group in London—is so disgusting, so full of bullshit, and so humbling that I hold onto it as a reminder to be grateful that I’m able to eke out a living doing what I love,” she says now. “If I ever slit my wrists, you’ll find that notebook next to the body.”

She began writing music criticism for National Public Radio—her NPR Music blog, Monitor Mix, ended a three-year run this month; her posts included a multimedia examination of Phish. “I realized that they were one of those bands that people say they hate without ever having heard them,” she says. “So I spent a week learning to love Phish.”

She was named the 2006 Volunteer of the Year at the Oregon Humane Society, where she taught dog obedience classes and once joined a search party for a missing shelter dog in Tigard. “Even though it looks like an amber prototype for a Dubai skyscraper, that [Volunteer of the Year] trophy is on my mantle and it might be one of the things I’m most proud of.”

She and Shins frontman James Mercer acted in an independent feature film, Some Days Are Better Than Others, that was the buzz of this spring’s South by Southwest festival. “It’s like having to throw up into a straw,” she says of playing an emotionally distressed character.

She is apparently a very good amateur pingpong player: Teamed with former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, she defeated two members of the band Starfucker to win a tournament at Holocene this summer.

Brownstein’s friends, who deny they’re in a conspiracy to nominate her for secular sainthood, talk about her in awed tones. Three of them describe her, without prompting, as “a Renaissance woman.”

“She struggled a little bit to find outlets for all of the intellectual power that she has,” says Tucker.

“She’s one of those types of people you get mad at ’cause they’re so damn talented,” says Matt McCormick, the director of Some Days Are Better Than Others. “If anything, maybe she’s someone who is secretly working 19-hour days, but figures out how to make it look like she’s just getting out of bed.”

“People can say, ‘Oh, she’s so lucky,’” says Weiss. “Well, yeah, there’s a little luck, but she works at it. If everybody read two books a week, they’d be a lot smarter.”

This year, Brownstein has narrowed her focus to three projects.

In March, she moved to New York City, planning to stay a year and write a book, The Sound of Where You Are, a hybrid of memoir and music criticism. Returning to Portland with a rough manuscript after six months, she formed a new band, Wild Flag, with Weiss and two other local music veterans, guitarist Mary Timony and bassist Rebecca Cole. Wild Flag debuts at the Doug Fir on Saturday, Nov. 13, and plans to release an album in 2011.

“I’ve always been wary of stillness, for sure,” Brownstein says. “There was a lot of chaos in my household growing up, and I think that instead of trying to sit in the eye of the hurricane, I tried to be my own hurricane. Stillness always seems like the enemy to me.”

Her third project is Portlandia.

“I hope people here like it,” she says. “Otherwise I’ll have to leave town. Or I can fall back on my band thing.”

Fred Armisen’s face—elastic, bespectacled, often goofily grinning—is one of the most recognizable in comedy. That’s what happens when you impersonate President Obama each weekend on Saturday Night Live.

With that weekly gig at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Armisen is positioned to do what he wants. And last year he decided he wanted to make a TV series with Brownstein.

“My agent and manager are like, ‘What are some other things you want to do?’” Armisen says. “And I was like, ‘I just love hanging out with Carrie.’”

Brownstein and Armisen can’t remember when they first met; he says it may have been when she requested tickets to his stand-up act in San Francisco in 2002. (He was already a Sleater-Kinney fan: “Someone I was staying with in Olympia said to me, ‘Do you want to hear the greatest thing ever?’ and put on their record. And it was the greatest thing ever.”)

The two became friends, visiting each other and regularly exchanging text messages from opposite coasts. But Brownstein never imagined they’d be a comedy duo.

“We met, we knew we wanted to collaborate on something, and I just kept assuming he meant music the whole time,” Brownstein says. “And when he showed up in Portland [in 2005], he said, ‘No, we’re going to make a video. I’m going to be Saddam Hussein, and you’re going to play the host of a cable-access show.’”

Brownstein and Armisen began releasing their videos online under the name of ThunderAnt. From that first sketch, the skits became increasingly Portland-specific: One featured a Hawthorne restaurant dealing with irate Yelp! reviewers (“The waiter at Katchenza stirred my daughter’s drink with his penis”), while another showed Armisen in a sanctimonious one-man play at the Hollywood Theatre.

The focus on blue-coast privilege and sanctimony grew—what else were they going to joke about? They were surrounded by it.

“That’s the first thought that came into our heads,” Armisen says. “‘What do you want to do next? Oh, remember that store we went to, In Other Words, and there were all those signs up, and it was just so specific, so Portland? Why don’t we do two ladies who work there?’ Done. It’s only later, when we look back, that we’re like, oh, it is all sort of ‘Whiteland.’”

Last July, Brownstein and Armisen decided to make the jump from the Web to TV and pitched the show to IFC and Lorne Michaels’ studio, Broadway Video. Brownstein’s formal proposal promised “to dismantle these new and alienating ways of life by calling them out on their contradictions.”

Both companies immediately said yes.

IFC will debut the six-episode show in January and hopes to establish a niche audience—people who live in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and Austin, Texas, or who want to live there. Portlandia’s budget is less than $1 million, sources say—about one-tenth of what’s spent on a season of 30 Rock. (That was enough to pay 56 Portland crew members for a 19-day, 68-location shoot, after Oregon gave the show a 20 percent rebate on all money it spent in the state.)

The conventional wisdom on Portlandia says that Brownstein is riding Armisen’s coattails into comedy. Even she says she feels “like an imposter.”

But David Cress, a Portlandia line producer who watched the show’s “dailies”—the raw footage from each 13-hour day of shooting—saw something different.

“One of the first things that Carrie did that totally surprised me is, when we’d get close to getting into their character roles, it almost always seemed like she led Fred in,” Cress says. “She was ready to go a half second or a few seconds sooner than Fred was. She would turn on faster and stay in character longer.”

She also gives the series some of the emotional aggression of her Sleater-Kinney microphone attacks.

“She’s a little aggro, I would say,” Portlandia director Jonathan Krisel says. “And when she would let herself get into that space, she was always very natural in it. She would cry, or she would throw a fit and yell. She’s kind of like a dude who would get into fights.”

*

So what is Portlandia like?

Much of the series’ humor hinges on the perception of Portland as a haven for boutique lefty frivolity—as Armisen puts it, “Portland is where young people go to retire.”

Krisel is still editing the episodes, but a finished sketch for the pilot shows Brownstein and Armisen playing retail artists who visit a North Mississippi Avenue store and customize every item on display with the same suggestion: “Put a bird on it!” Their delicate stencilings of songbirds are undermined by their latent hatred for each other—and Brownstein’s gagging disgust at the sight of a live pigeon.

The sketch was Brownstein’s idea, and shows her deadeye grasp of local absurdity. (Armisen still tends to identify all the city’s streets as Burnside.) Brownstein grounds the show in distinctively Portland details—like the mayor, played by Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan, suffering from a scandal: He’s secretly a member of a reggae band. For some reason, many of her performances culminate with her dry heaving. “Carrie’s stomach-squeamish,” says Armisen, who later divulges that she hates air conditioning and is allergic to soy.

So it only makes sense that, on one of the final afternoons of the shoot, Brownstein is battling the stomach flu and a 101-degree fever.

The Portlandia cast and crew are working in Elements Glass Gallery & Studio in the Northwest industrial district—the show has refashioned the space as an artisan light-bulb studio where the handcrafted bulbs take six months to make, cost $68 and give a glow ranging four inches.

Dressed in a peasant smock and a floral kerchief, Brownstein incorporates her illness into the character of an assistant glassblower. During long takes polishing bulbs, she exaggerates her coughs into a hopeless retching, and takes swigs from a flask, which she says contains “a mixture of vitamins and urine.” Eventually she picks up an acoustic guitar and improvises a song. The lyrics are:

We’re hanging out down on Hawthorne
Eating a croissant
There’s a bicycle in my soul
C’mon, let’s eat a pancake
C’mon, let’s never eat steak
Tempeh-tofu sandwich
You’re my boy

*

Predictably, the Portlandia backlash began as soon as the show was announced. Krisel remembers Brownstein “checked some message board on some site—don’t ever look at message boards, that’s my policy—somebody was going on there saying, ‘They’re never going to get it right. I’ve seen their stuff, and it’s dated anyway.’”

“I think that Portland is a very self-reflexive, meta city,” Brownstein says. “I grew up in Washington, and Portland is a far more self-conscious city than Seattle. It’s a subtle difference. I think of it like a golden retriever and a yellow Lab. Yellow Lab owners never tell you—but a golden retriever, that’s just a little more special. Portland is the golden retriever to Seattle’s yellow Labrador. We just want people to know we’re a little more special. And I think we are a little more special. I’ll say it. But it’s definitely something that we’re aware of. We’re not just a dog.”

Notice she uses the word “we.” Go ahead, tell Brownstein that making comedy sketches about the absurdities of Portland is such an absurdly Portland thing to do. Nobody is more aware of that fact than she is.

“I’m critiquing myself,” she says. “I’m in a prolonged state of adolescence. I feel as entrenched in the juvenile culture of Portland as anyone else. I feel more accepted and more at home here than I would anywhere.”

Brownstein has always been reluctant to fully identify with a place or cause.

Maybe it’s because of that vicious streak of self-consciousness. (In conversation, she ends most of her personal revelations with a nervous laugh, and she has a habit of covering her face behind her arms when she’s thinking, or embarrassed, or doesn’t want you to know whether she’s thinking or embarrassed.) Maybe it’s a result of touring constantly throughout her 20s, and living in a media spotlight.

“She holds onto her privacy pretty hard,” says Armisen.

For example, she’s rarely discussed her sexual orientation in the media—even after Spin declared her a lesbian at age 21, revealing she had dated her bandmate Tucker. She’ll only talk about it now because of a recent slew of bullying against gay teenagers, including the death of a Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge.

“Only because it seems so culturally important to be able to say who you are: I definitely identify as bisexual,” she says. “Every interesting person I’ve ever read about, sexuality’s all over the map for them. It never was clearly defined. I’ve always just kind of existed in that world of openness. But right now, in terms of the political climate, and with a number of young gay suicides, and with don’t ask don’t tell not being repealed, and with so many politicians still being so aggressively against gay marriage, it is hard not to at least identify in a way that lets people know, ‘It is OK whoever you are.’ It’s weird, because no one’s actually ever asked me. People just always assume, like, you’re this or that. It’s like, ‘OK. I’m bisexual. Just ask.’”

In a time when culture is segmented into groups shouting labels at each other, what Brownstein is attempting with Portlandia is something fairly radical, and maybe even a little brave: She’s identifying herself as a citizen of Portland by puncturing the city’s self-seriousness. She mocks because she loves.

As she prepares to go watch a show at Holocene, Brownstein says she’ll be following up with a slew of thoughts. Sure enough, the next morning she sends an email. It concludes:

“A lot of my creative endeavors and partnerships are my way of belonging, of creating small worlds where I feel like I fit in, and those worlds become my home. Sleater-Kinney was that for sure. And maybe Portlandia is just my way of trying to belong here in Portland, trying to come to terms with the fact that I just might want to be here for a while.”

Five Funny Things About Portland

By Carrie Brownstein

1. Portlanders are smug. My theory is that Portlanders are engaged in a perennial mock epic: Both our battles and our victories our real to us, but on a larger scale—or to outsiders—some of our struggles might come across as trivial. The smugness comes from our countless progressive victories (“We boycotted our daycare until they allowed boys to wear dresses!!!”). We win a lot here—just living in Portland sometimes feels like winning—so we feel really, really good nearly all the time. There should be days when people from Gresham, Hillsboro and Vancouver get to come into Portland and punch us. Oh, I’m sorry, I mean lightly tap us with a synthetic feather.

2. Because there is an assumption that Portlanders agree on broad political issues, what constitutes “doing good” takes on a hyper-specificity: I thought I was being good, or at the very least benign, by signing up with locally owned Umpqua Bank. But when I walked into the branch on Alberta Street, I saw a protest sign spray-painted on a sheet, hanging from the house across the street. Apparently, Umpqua should be boycotted: It has something to do with the logging of old-growth forest. For a moment, I thought maybe I should just give my money to a squirrel—they love trees!—but I went ahead and opened an account at Umpqua anyway.

3. At the Alberta Street Fair a few months back, a white, dreadlocked woman had a single tray of Rice Krispies treats for sale. She had a sign that said, “All Proceeds Go to Help Rwanda.” I really hoped that Rwanda was the chosen name of a friend of hers needing bus money, because I don’t think the country in Africa wanted her $3.

4. Whole Foods temporarily pulled kombucha from their shelves on account of the alcohol content. When they were able to restock the item, the store on East Burnside painted the words “Kombucha is Back” on its window. In any other city, something writ with such fervor would have said “Jesus Has Risen.”

5. I had a crush on a veterinarian whom I met when I had to take my cat to a heart specialist. He was a cardiologist. I was totally excited about the fact I was meeting someone not from the music world; someone with a “real job.” Within a few weeks of us getting to know each other, he had quit his job so he could work fewer hours and just do consulting at home. He started taking upright-bass lessons and was playing me Ramones songs in his living room. The trajectory of one’s life, work and maturity in Portland is the complete inverse of the norm.

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