Janet Weiss and Mary Timony On Wild Flag and Being Rock 'n' Roll Animals

Jamie Peck // Illustration by Debbie Allen

Wild Flag, a rock 'n' roll dream team of sorts playing at the Williamsburg Waterfront tonight, is a new project many years in the making. I'm not even going to pretend to be objective about this band, as it includes Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, plus Mary Timony of Helium and Rebecca Cole of the Minders. Sleater-Kinney was my favorite band in high school, one of a handful of lady rock acts that made me want to pick up a guitar and play music, and then, once I realized I wasn't so great at that, to write about music. I chatted with Timony and Weiss (who is also in Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks and Quasi) about sick solos, bad band names, and being animals onstage.

Janet, how did you get into psych and classic rock as influences? I know the earlier Sleater-Kinney records were much more sparse and punk.

Janet Weiss: I think if you listen to The Woods, we definitely were veering in that direction. It's just some of the music we like; our influences are vast in this band.

Mary, what's the secret to making a guitar solo awesome for people other than yourself? I feel like solos have the reputation of being kind of a douchey dude thing to do, but you do them really well.

Mary Timony: It is kind of douchey. I've never taken guitar solos in other bands I've been in. One thing I'm kind of having fun with in this band is we all have moments where we can go off technically. I love that about this band.

Is it harder to work with three other strong personalities than it is to have a band with one clear leader?

MT: It's better. There are things you can do with collaborating that you can't do otherwise.

JW: There are songs that seem like a Carrie song, like "Racehorse," but [Mary's] riff is the basis for that song. Ideas are coming from everyone. Everyone gets to have their say. Sometimes it's hard, it can be touchy, but it's really important...we're getting better, for sure.

How'd you come up with the name Wild Flag?

MT: Carrie got it from E.B. White but it doesn't reference that. She just liked the words together.

JW: There was a really long list that will never see the light of day...it's hard to pick a name! I don't feel any tinge of ill feeling when I say the name. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks? No, that's too long. I say "the Jicks." I think [Wild Flag] really suits us. Often when I talk about our band, I use the word wild.. "It gets kinda wild!" There is a wildness there, an untamed element to our band. I expect to see more of that in the youth...I expect to see that in a band that's 23, but I don't see that so much. I feel like older musicians are still carrying that rebelliousness we grew up with

Who inspired you as kids?

JW: When I was a kid I saw X and was really inspired...she was singing in a scary monotone and talking about things that were sort of taboo, in a really cool way. It was more than I could put a label on. She didn't look like a housewife.

How about you, Mary?

MT: All kinds of stuff. I grew up in D.C. and there was a really active punk scene there, but it was really male dominated. I think that's one thing that made me pissed off, like, "I'm gonna fucking do this." Then Bikini Kill moved to town when I was 20 and that was really inspiring, just watching them perform. They were such badasses. They took over and kicked everyone's asses. Took over. And Sleater Kinney. Watching you guys! I was always secretly pining to play with Janet and Carrie.

Who first brought up the idea of starting a band together?

JW: I feel like I sort of made it happen.

MT: I didn't know that!

JW: I thought it would be the coolest band. I didn't know if it would stick. It started casually. I've been in Quasi for so many years that I don't want to be in just one band. The Jicks took a break and I needed a job. But I don't want a regular job, I want to tour and make music! And this is my ultimate band. Part of it is making something happen. Nothing's gonna fall in your lap. The sooner you learn that, the better off you are.

At the same time, you've definitely got a built in audience who've liked your previous work and are very excited to see what you'll do next.

JW: We're lucky that people know our bands and respected our bands. We didn't put out a lot of junk. There's not a lot of junk between both [Helium and Sleater Kinney]. I think we're going about it the right way, starting small and playing small venues. We're not just trying to get rich and have our faces plastered all over the world. We want this to be lasting and meaningful.

How have audiences been reacting to you?

JW: We're inviting people to interact with us. The crowd's reaction directly affects the show. People in the front standing with their arms folded are gonna have a worse experience than people who are moving and open. We can still play a good show even if people are unreceptive, but for us to really go out on the edge and do something amazing, the crowd has to be part of it. It's about putting your camera down and allowing yourself to be transported.

I love that idea, music as something transcendent or transformative.

JW: It can really save you in a lot of ways --  more than a lot of other art forms. It's so direct, primal, visceral, physical.  Music, to me, is the most immediate of all art forms. Maybe because I'm physical...I bang on things. There's a physicality to our music. We're using every part of our body.

I love that duality --  obviously you're good at your instruments, but you also become  animals onstage.

JW: Totally. Women aren't often allowed to be animals. And we are.

Wild Flag play with Sonic Youth and Kurt Vile and the Violators tonight at the Williamsburg Waterfront. 5:30 p.m. Tickets are available here.

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