By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
I checked out Sleater-Kinney one night in 2000 in New York City. As they took the stage at the Bowery Balloom and plugged in, some yokel in the balcony shouted, "I hope you're better than you were at Irving Plaza!" The crowd ooh'd, then booed. A challenge had been made, a gauntlet thrown. The next two hours were one sweaty, thousand-watt rebuttal.
There weren't many fair-weather fans of Sleater-Kinney. During their late-'90s, turn-of-the-century reign as the country's most intense and credible female alt-rockers (always with that gender qualifier, if not the dreaded "riot grrrl" tag), their emotionally raw performances and feminist convictions inspired fierce devotion among fans. Even Time magazine called them "America's best rock band." But by 2006, utterly spent, the trio announced an "indefinite hiatus" and hasn't regrouped since.
But late last year two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein (now a co-star of cable sketch comedy show "Porlandia") and drummer Janet Weiss (also still half of the long-running indie-pop duo Quasi), reappeared in an emerging new band, Wild Flag, with ex-Helium guitarist Mary Timony and keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders). You could say they're a supergroup — but the Fugazi comparisons are closer than those of the Traveling Wilburys.
In March, Wild Flag made its debut at the annual South by Southwest music showcase, playing a rousing, irresistible set. The music was chunky, strong and urgent, but also lighter, bouncier, full of Cole's kitschy keys and layer upon layer of sunny ooh's and ahh's. Their energy positively crackled — and they have successfully captured that on the band's self-titled debut album, due Sept. 13.
It's as if another gauntlet was thrown, and this new quartet feels they have even more to prove. We spoke last week with Weiss about that and more ...
Q: I absolutely love the record. It's a blast.
Janet Weiss: Oh good. We haven't talked to too many people who've heard it. Hopefully it's different and surprising in some ways.
Q: It is surprising. Were you going for the element of surprise?
JW: Any time I make a record or walk onto a stage, I'm hoping to surprise people. It's getting harder to do, though. There's so much information about a record and a band before you even hear the music or see the show, as in YouTube or an online presence, that gives a lot away instead of intriguing people. I think surprise is one of our greatest weapons, and I think we wield it well here.
Q: What's first surprising is the level of energy, absolutely bristling from the songs. You recorded the whole thing live, right?
JW: Yeah, there are only maybe three or four overdubs, besides the vocals. It's a real energy record. We're all four looking at each other while we're playing. The intricate moments that feel vibrant are actually us playing together, really finding out who we are as a band, and focusing on that instead of fancy production. We're not making an epic, 18-song double record. It wasn't about that. This is like shaking your hand, "How are you? Nice to meet you!" We're still finding out who we are. We're not sure.
Q: Where is all the excitement coming from?
JW: We just really want this to go off. Carrie hadn't been in a band for a few years, so she was probably dying to get back up there and play. Mary had been teaching guitar but not playing. Rebecca went back to school. The three of them especially were chomping at the bit to express themselves in that way again. I've never lost that. It's what I do in my life.
Q: Tell me how Wild Flag got started.
JW: Carrie asked me to help her with a soundtrack she was doing for a documentary. I'd known Rebecca and played with her for years, always thought she was awesome. We got her to play on it, as well. The three of us recorded, wrote some ditties, some instrumental incidental music. Spending the days in the practice space just reminded me of our connection, how prolific Carrie and I can be when we sit down to write. It went really well. It was a very organic unfolding. It wasn't, "Oh, we're gonna make this new band and take over the world!" Mary and Carrie create this dynamic that I really love in music with this tension and contrast. It's a little like Sleater-Kinney, but there's more bravado here, more pushing and pulling.
And I've never seen two women playing guitar solos at the same time. [Laughs] I've never seen that! Have you? I've been watching music my whole life, and that's something I've never seen!
Q: Why does that confound you? Why, in 2011, is that such a funny, shocking thing to realize?
JW: I'm just surprised. I just sat down and thought about it. Have I seen this? I haven't. And without going off into a conversation about women in rock, because I don't do that — I don't discuss "women in rock" because I don't "men in rock" — I just thought: I've seen two guys play solos together. I'm just saying.
Q: The chemistry you're describing, part of that is already well established between you and Carrie — and it seems pretty intense. Why is that?
JW: We do have this intensity. It's a language, an ability to be open with each other. There's an easiness there.
Q: And what does that mean specifically for the music?
JW: It means we get to important ideas very fast. It means we already feel like we're getting somewhere in this band. It's a language for working through how to unfold a song.
Q: Does that turn into music that's otherwise more intense than the usual pop fare?
JW: Well, we definitely feel music has gotten a little soft in the last few years. We've missed seeing truly cathartic, emotional, visceral performances. We miss seeing people letting go, daring you to let go.
Q: Sleater-Kinney always maintained a similarly intense relationship with its fans. What contributed to that?
JW: We totally exposed ourselves on records, and [our music] was a desperation to share our experiences, to create — it was our desire, our need to have the experience between us be meaningful and intense and revealing, every time.
Q: Was any part of the creation of Wild Flag linked to a desire to return to that Sleater-Kinney intensity?
JW: Not in the way of, "Let's relive this thing that existed." This was a brand-new discovery on its own. There are very few situations you get in and think, "This is really exciting, this has some real possibilities!"
Q: Will this lead toward or away from a Sleater-Kinney reunion?
JW: Sleater-Kinney was so in the moment — every show was a big deal — and that relationship with the fans was so intense and meaningful, to do it again as a reunion would feel so much less to me, less than what it was. I would never want to touch that. ... Why go on tour if we'd be less than we were? We value what we stood for. It's bigger than us.
Wild Flag will return in the fall as part of a proper tour. They're scheduled Oct. 9 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. Tickets: $15, (773) 276-3600, emptybottle.com.
with Mickey and Radar Eyes
• 10:30 p.m. July 22
• Subterranean, 2011 W. North
• Sold out
• 9 p.m. July 23
• Wicker Park Fest, Milwaukee and North avenues
• Tickets: $5 requested donation at festival entrance, wickerparkfestchicago.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.