The Wild Ones
Take a Walk on the Wild Side with Indie Rock's Smokin' New Dream Team.
By ALEX SCORDELIS
Photographed by MOLLY QUAN
Rock 'n' roll supergroups (see: Traveling Wilburys, Asia, Them Crooked Vultures, etc.) are usually created on a whim and primarily exist to satiate fans' desires to see their rock idols join forces, like Greek gods assembling on Mount Olympus for a jam session. So last fall, when rumblings emanated from the Portland, Oregon, indie rock scene about a new band featuring Carrie Brownstein (former guitarist and vocalist from Sleater-Kinney, and star of IFC's sketch comedy hit Portlandia), Mary Timony (former guitarist and vocalist from Helium), Rebecca Cole (a multi-instrumentalist from the Minders) and Janet Weiss (the drummer from numerous bands, including Quasi and Sleater-Kinney), it was obvious that, despite the dream team line-up, this would not be a supergroup by definition. The explosive combination of Brownstein's mod- rock wail, Timony's honey-dipped vocals and expert guitar work, Cole's playful organ flourishes and Weiss's thunderous drumming (it sounds like she's playing with Thor's hammer instead of drum- sticks), established this new project, Wild Flag, as a vital band with the potential to shake-up the rock universe.
Even though the Wild Flag roster is loaded with all-stars, their origin story is a modest tale. In the summer of 2009, while recording a soundtrack for the Lynn Hershman-Leeson documentary !Women Art Revolution, Brownstein enlisted Weiss and Cole to assist with the score. "We busted a bunch of tunes out, and the lady who was working on the film wanted vocals, so Mary got involved," Cole says. "That was the genesis of Wild Flag. It initially felt like we were just working on the soundtrack for this film. It didn't feel like the try-out for a band."
"It happened so quickly," Washington, D.C.-based Timony adds. "Carrie emailed me some tracks to add vocals to. Then I ended up flying out [to Portland]. And now I'm in this band."
Before the band publicly announced its existence, rumors swirled on music blogs about the secretive project. Yet despite the building buzz, Brownstein routinely denied in interviews that Wild Flag was even a thing. "We needed time to let it incubate without being in the public eye," Weiss explains. "There needs to be an element of surprise. You can really sneak up on people with a new band. At our first shows, we wanted to catch people wide-eyed and capture their attention."
True to the band's clandestine ways, Wild Flag played their first shows on an under-the-radar jaunt down the West Coast last November. "Our first tour started out very small in an art gallery in Olympia playing to less than 100 people," Brownstein says. "We wanted to be a new band who earned their audience."
Watching YouTube videos of Wild Flag's early performances in sweaty clubs, kicking out Rolling Stones and Patti Smith covers alongside their new jams, it's obvious that they weren't relying on their impressive résumés to build a following. "We were playing stages that were the size of a postage stamp," laughs Weiss. "Some nights, the four of us literally couldn't fit on the same stage." Tickets to these shows were tough to score despite the fact that the ladies hadn't even released a single yet. "To be honest, I've never experienced people being this interested in a project I'm doing," Timony says. "I mean, people were interested in Helium, but those shows were more subdued. Wild Flag is definitely more of a live band."
After getting off the road, Wild Flag hunkered down in the studio in April of 2011 and cut their debut self-titled LP, which hit shelves earlier this month. The record is a slight departure for all parties involved: it's poppier than Sleater-Kinney and it rocks harder than Helium. The result is an electrifying mix of brash guitar rock, power-pop and post-punk snarl. "The record is vibrant," Weiss says. "There are a lot of fast songs, and it has a swagger. And you just can't manufacture the intoxicating energy of a new project."
"With Mary being such an accomplished guitar player, and with the addition of Rebecca who plays these melodies on the key-bass, it really allows for the dynamic to fluctuate in ways that can showcase and highlight different elements of the band that I was unable to do in Sleater-Kinney," Brownstein says. "With a three-piece, everyone is sort of 'on' all the time. The energy is very focused. But in a four-piece, and with another guitar player and bass, you can have that energy shift around."
After their album's release, Wild Flag will hit the road again this fall as soon as Brownstein wraps on the second season of Portlandia (which is due to air on IFC in January). Despite having a modest hit on TV, Brownstein demurs at the thought of fans com- ing to see Wild Flag based on her comedy work. "I think there will be some crossover," she says, "just in the way that people who know me from Sleater-Kinney see me in Portlandia, and they're like, 'Ah! What is this? She should be playing guitar.'" Now that she's back shredding on her axe, what will her comedy fans think of her new band? "If people have only seen me in Portlandia, and they come to see Wild Flag, they're gonna be scared." ★
(l-r) Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, Rebecca Cole
Makeup: Karyn Carmona at Gold + Arrow