Mar 02, 2016 5:27PM

Carrie Brownstein On 'Transparent', Sleater-Kinney & Being A Modern Girl

Ahead of her Australian tour.

Carrie Brownstein is a hero for so many reasons. So many, in fact, that listing them here would be near impossible because we've all got places to be, people to see etc. Here are the highlights: she was a founding member of peak 90s riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney (who recently regrouped and are touring Australia v soon!), gave us life in Portlandia/Transparent in both an acting and writing capacity, and recently put out her really great memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl.

We pinned the busy lady down to chat about getting the band back together, her forthcoming Australian tour/appearance at Sydney's All About Women festival, and what it was like working with Kyle MacLachlan in Portlandia.

Emily RoyalLet's talk about the tour you've got coming up with Sleater-Kinney. You're playing multiple shows in Melbourne and they are all at quite small venues. Why so many dates and why the small venue?
Carrie Brownstein: Oh, I have no idea! I imagine, at some point, there was a discussion about how we like the way energy is contained in a small room. It's so far to travel to get to Australia, for almost anyone, [so] in some ways it's better to spend some time there and actually have the shows unfold and each have a characteristic of their own. Instead of coming all the way over there and just playing one big show — I think you risk the chance that it's not going to have a different nature between each set. I think that's why we are looking forward to that.

You're also playing at Golden Plains. I saw you play at that festival with Wild Flag a few years ago and I have to admit I mainly knew you back then from Portlandia but didn't really know your music. I really enjoyed watching you guys play. Will it be a similar vibe this time with Sleater-Kinney?
It's two very different bands and I think you have to see Sleater-Kinney to see the differences. Certainly, it's such a specific chemistry and dynamic between Corin, Janet and myself. So, I feel like there's an inherent difference mostly because of who we are. Hopefully you will enjoy it!

And about that — it's been ten years since you've recorded with Sleater-Kinney — has the chemistry changed between the three of you and if so, how?
Well, I think as is true of any working relationship, as the people that comprise the endeavour change, so does the actual entity. Corin, Janet and I are different and the ways we have changed affect the band. At the core of the band is a very close-knit friendship between the three of us and a shared passion for what we do and I think that has stayed the same. Sleater-Kinney will always be a conduit for a certain form of expression that is very passionate and vociferous. I think there are ways that it is similar and ways that it feels a little bit transformed. We are always trying to innovate and push ourselves forward musically.

When I was doing research for this interview I emailed my friend Simon because he is a huge fan. He was giving me a bit of a rundown about the history of the band and the genre in general and he wrote, "She's also in Portlandia which I personally think is rubbish," and I immediately replied like, "Woah buddy! Stop right there!" How could he say such a thing about such a brilliant piece of cultural genius? But he explained that he'd always thought of you and the band as being quite serious and so he felt funny about watching you be funny. Have you found that there are two types of fans, in a way? That loyal die-hard music fan and a newer fan that came upon you during this period of you doing other things as well as music?
Well, I can't really pay attention to that; I can't worry about what the fans think about those kinds of things, that's a very stifling place from which to create anything. Even within the world of Sleater-Kinney, you have fans who prefer one album over the other. If you start obsessing over the minutia of everyone's personal opinion and taste, that's how to not make anything interesting for yourself. I hope Simon isn't listening to a chorus of people every time he steps out the door! And I am not listening to a chorus of people either!

I think he's just a bit of a purist! I am convincing him that he needs to go back and re-watch it because I still think he's wrong.
Well, I am totally not offended!

I knew you from Portlandia, then I saw you play live and learned about your music career and now seemingly all of a sudden you're straight up acting, and really amazingly, in Transparent. How do you feel about working across those different types of creative jobs?
I feel very fortunate that I'm able to work with people that I care about and respect, someone like Jill Soloway who is the creator of Transparent, someone who is immensely talented. Mostly, I feel fortunate that I have various outlets for my creativity and that people trust me with their vision like in Transparent. With the other endeavours for me, which I co-created, like Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney, the writing is the commonality between the two. I really feel lucky that I can choose who I get to work with and those collaborations have been fruitful and inspiring.

Is there more pressure being in someone else's thing? I've heard there's a bit of improv in Transparent…
There is improv but there is such a freedom in giving yourself over to somebody else's words. With Portlandia, I write on the show so there is always the dialogue between myself as the writer and myself as performer. And in Transparent, there is a freedom to not worrying about the writing and letting somebody else be in charge of that. It almost feels that there is more elasticity as a performer because I feel like somebody else has created these parameters that I can push against and play against or with. When I write my own material or co-write material, sometimes it's harder to shut that writer part of my brain off. It's a little bit more acrobatic in a different way. It is very freeing to get to be on the set of Transparent, the writers are excellent and of course the other actors are really incredible.

Can I ask you about working with Kyle MacLachlan? He's so genius and funny. I love all of Portlandia, but when he's in scenes it's like another level. What's he like?
He's one of the kindest people. We owe him immensely for the faith that he had in our show and in the idea because he was on the show from the first season. He came into the production offices and we pitched him the idea of him playing the Mayor and he was very much on board. I think he's such a versatile actor and a wonderful human, and he's very fun to work with and we've become friends. All of us who work on Portlandia have always been a fan of his acting and his presence. He's as wonderful as you would imagine him to be.

Oh good! Let's move onto your memoir. How long did it take to write and what made you want to do it?
It took about two years to write it. I've always wanted to write a book and I had been doing some writing about music for NPR. I realised when I inserted my own narrative into the story and my own experience, that's what people were most drawn to. I wanted to tell the story of feeling like an outsider and kind of on the periphery of creativity, to feeling like a participant and Sleater-Kinney felt like a good conduit for that story. That is in many ways a story of youth, adolescence and early 20s and it seemed it was far enough in the past that I could write about it.

When you are in Australia, you are also playing and appearing at the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House with Miranda July and other great people. Are you excited?
Absolutely. Miranda is one of my oldest, closest friends so it's always a bizarre coincidence to find yourself doing the same event, all the way on the other side of the world. In addition to that I am a big fan of Sydney and of Australia in general, so I am excited that in my journey over there I get to do something with the book and the band.

Is it true you guys recorded or wrote your first album in Melbourne?
Yes we actually wrote our first album in Sydney and Melbourne, Corin and I. I travelled for university and she travelled for fun to Australia in 1994, so over twenty years ago and we ended up writing our first album there. Australia is very much a part of the Sleater-Kinney history.

Sleater-Kinney will be playing the following dates in Australia:

Sunday, March 6 — Sydney Opera House, Sydney NSW
Thursday, March 10 — Croxton Park Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Saturday, March 12 — Golden Plains Festival, Meredith VIC

For more information or to buy tickets, head here.

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is available here

Photo: Courtesy 

Emily Royal