You used to have to wonder what rock musicians were thinking about. A recent bounty of memoirs by figures whose inner lives you never thought you'd gain access to—including Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello—has made that speculation a very different project, further complicating the already complicated experience of watching the rock 'n' roll era fade into (and weirdly out of) myth.
Carrie Brownstein doesn't have as many years under her belt as her fellow memoirists do, but her work in Sleater-Kinney has been uncharacteristically galvanic, particularly in the context of Northwest punk. So much significance was conferred on the band she formed with Corin Tucker in 1995—which achieved glory when drummer Janet Weiss joined later—that it was often difficult to talk or even think about them without having to dodge the righteous motivations people ascribed to them.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following Brownstein's pre-Portlandia career that her memoir is an artfully frank depiction of the dawning of her artistic impulses, and the process by which they inspired, enthralled, dominated, nearly destroyed, and ultimately saved her. She's at her best as a writer when digging into the intricacies of relationships—with her mother and father, with Tucker, with the utopian community of 1990s Olympia, and, above all, with the self she always seemed to be aware of having to construct.
It's tempting to call her new book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, a love letter to her band, or to punk rock, or to the self-discovery afforded by an artistic awakening. But it's a lot more interesting than that, and it also has the delicacy to remember that love letters are private.
Though she parts the curtain on some of her life's less pleasant elements (her mother's anorexia, her father's years in the closet, her pathological need for self-exposure, her band's internecine conflicts), the revelations aren't played for melodrama, or rationalization. They're building blocks. Brownstein is a fantastically direct writer, as good with the romance of music making:
I've always been able to appreciate (but be simultaneously heartbroken by) bar bands and karaoke—you witness the playing or the singing and you know that just being up there, engaged in a momentary artifice, a heightening of self, is sometimes enough to get by, to feel less weighed down by, less withered by life. Sometimes it's everything.
...as with the deft little physical descriptions that both show and tell all you need to know, such as the man's suit vest she wore to audition for 7 Year Bitch (P.S. !!!!!!!!!), "which swung out from my body like saloon doors."
The book is a conscious exercise in subjectivity, and in claiming salvation where you find it. For Brownstein, that salvation comes in the form of Sleater-Kinney (which is a nice treat for those of us who find a piece of it there, too). But that also involves an act of surrender, of keeping faith that you'll be allowed to locate yourself in someone else, or in the larger third thing you create together. The material about her family establishes the absence of a context, a grammar for that kind of faith, and the exhilaration of creating one out of pure determination.
Unlike many similar books, Hunger isn't an argument for destiny. Brownstein portrays her quest for a self to live in not as an arrow but a pinball, a fitful series of divings-into and growings-out-of—friendships, romances, bands, looks, ethical certainties, etc. But when she finds Tucker (a conscious effort, as it turns out), the tuning fork is struck. The music they make, its interdependent matrix of guitar and vocal lines, of harmony and disharmony, turns out to be the structure she's been seeking all along. Her book is the story of coming to understand that the structure was also a foundation on which to build the rest of her self.
The current iteration of Brownstein's self—between tours, between albums, and between TV seasons—spoke to me by phone last week, in advance of her appearance in conversation with Stranger Literature Genius nominee Maria Semple on Fri. Nov. 6 at 7pm the Neptune.
It seems like a lot of music memoirs have been coming out lately.
Yes, it has been raining musician memoirs.
Have you been reading them?
Yes and no. I read Kim Gordon's [Girl in a Band]. I read Just Kids and I'm a couple chapters into M Train [both by Patti Smith]. I went to see Grace Jones in New York. She was going to do a reading, but it just became a signing. I've read a little of that book. Haven't read the Chrissie Hynde one. It does seem like there's a lot coming out now. I never was, like, a big music memoir aficionado.
Do you think there's anything that gets lost in gaining access to the artists' interpretation of themselves?
It was interesting because Fred [Armisen] just finished the book, and he said he really loved it, but he specifically commented on that. He said as a die-hard fan of the band, that he was nervous that other people now had information that only he had possessed. So I suppose that in the demystification there's a chance for the audience to feel exposed. I think the fan base feels as exposed as the memoir itself, because so much of one's relationship to music is so personal and ineffable, and then all of a sudden you feel like, "Wait a second. That was just between me and you, and now it's between all of us."
One of the most engaging and surprising things in the book is how frank you are about the fact that Sleater-Kinney sometimes had a fractious relationship and fought a lot. Mostly because so much of the public idea of the band has always been about mutual admiration and support.
Our internal arguments and disagreements never spilled over too much into our interviews. I don't feel like we were ever performing at fondness or affection or mutual admiration. We were fairly good communicators. For us, the music, and talking about the music, was where we were reminded of those very things. It wasn't what splintered us further. I think often when we would come together for press or shows or recording, in those moments was when we felt the greatest respect and appreciation for each other. I would also say that most people assume that bands fight and disagree, and I would put us on the tame end of that spectrum. I remember playing a show in New Zealand and another band came to our show—I won't mention their name. We were playing a tiny club, and they brought security guards. We were like, "Oh, come on, you guys. Really? You need security guards, like you're gonna be attacked by our fans?" And they were like, "No, the security guards are so we don't fight each other."
Speaking of complex dynamics: What was it like both to write about the private elements of your relationships—with Corin and Janet, and with your father and mother—and later to show them what you'd written?
You know, my approach to the book—at least in terms of my assessment of self—was one of humility and lack of vanity, in that it was very honest. Furthermore, I feel like it's somewhat a love letter to Janet and Corin and to the band and to music, so I was not really worried. Although with Corin in particular when Sleater-Kinney were touring with No Cities to Love and I was tweaking things before the manuscript needed to be finished, I read to her the parts of the book that encompassed things we had never discussed publicly in interviews. I wanted to make sure she was okay discussing elements of our relationship or interpersonal dynamics, and she... really loved the writing and weirdly listened to it as though I was telling her a story she'd never heard before. So that was a relief, for sure. I actually find, strangely, that people are more offended if they're not in the narrative. It's almost like just by being mentioned or acknowledged, even if my perspective on something differs from someone else's or my take on it is highly subjective, of course... to be excluded is where people's feelings really get hurt.
It was great to see that some of the familiar elements of the story—things like the van getting stuck in the snow while you were recording Dig Me Out at John and Stu’s Place—maintained what I’ve always thought of as their romantic character. It’s heightened by knowing the smaller personal details.
I’m glad it heightened it instead of subtracted. But it is strange. I guess that’s what you hope when you’re writing a memoir and dissecting and shedding light on certain moments that they do further someone’s curiosity instead of making it seem mundane. And Dig Me Out, in particular, those early albums, they feel romantic to me, too, in that way. Just so much still yet to be known about who we were and what we would become. Later, it becomes thornier. But certainly lying on the floor of John & Stu’s, listening to Call the Doctor back, or staying with Corin and Janet at my mom’s house, you know, those are experiences that all of us remember very vividly.
You write about The Hot Rock as a record that was difficult to pull together and difficult to perform, and you mention the split critical reaction to All Hands On the Bad One. What’s your perspective on the records that people particularly latch on to? Everyone has been revisiting their Sleater-Kinney feelings since you announced No Cities to Love, and it seems clear that The Hot Rock, which I remember as having been harder to access when it was released, is the one that lots of people have developed maybe the most intense personal relationship with.
For sure. I think that’s true. To me, that’s kind of our love album in some ways. Even if it wasn’t at the time, I think those themes on a records are the ones that people retroactively link themselves to and go back to find solace in, more so than others. I mean Dig Me Out, what an impossible record to just sit and listen to. There’s something contemplative about The Hot Rock. I’ve been in stores and heard something from Dig Me Out and not recognized it because it’s so fast and so bombastic. So I think, of course, as people got older or were just listening to music on a mix or random shuffle, or course they’re gonna pick The Hot Rock. It’s not going to come out of the speaker and punch them in the face and make it uncomfortable at a dinner party! Restlessness is not something that you can listen to all the time. Same with All Hands On the Bad One—at the time, people thought we were retreading certain themes or a certain sound, but now it turns out that’s just a very poppy album, one of our most melodic records. That’s another one that people find themselves listening to more than, say, Dig Me Out or The Woods. You know, The Woods is a really difficult album to listen to. It’s so blown out. It doesn’t sit well with other songs, so it’s hard to put on shuffle. It’s really interesting what lasts, and how people’s relationships to the albums change. Even my own relationship to All Hands really changed once I realized that it had been the earliest indication of a melodic sensibility that we would strive for later. I really hear that first on that album.
The development of a more playful style in your music—you write about Corin’s willingness to be looser with the first-person character of her songs, and her more theatrical, glam singing on that album—seemed to happen in pretty stark contrast to the way critics and fans had sort of stapled you to what they thought your ideology was, or should have been. People had a hard time accepting that you could be more fun or casual. But now the culture has changed so radically that it doesn’t seem jarring at all.
Yeah. I don’t think so either. It was sort of a stab, as if we were being inauthentic, I feel like that was the criticism, that we weren’t singing a first-person narrative—which we never claimed to be solely singing anyhow. But it made it more obvious because the point of view in something like “Milkshake and Honey” was kind of from a male perspective. As though it felt inauthentic or insincere. And you’re right: Now people would be more offended, and we would be considered almost artless if we were just singing a raw personal narrative. It wouldn’t have the complexity and irony and humor to it. At the time I think people really characterized the female singer/songwriter as, you know, your role was to sing from your own perspective, and to sort of tell a harrowing tale or something. And if you weren’t and then someone couldn’t call you a female band then they were really shit out of luck.
It’s the same with the story of when you and Corin were outed, however semi-accurately, by Spin. I remember what a shocker that was in the world of people who were aware of Sleater-Kinney—and now, that kind of revelation would be the opposite of shocking. It’s almost a commonplace.
Did revisiting that time recast any of your experience of living through it?
In some ways it recast it in that I felt almost a relief and grateful to have lived through it. One, especially with Spin, there was no public discussion of it—at least that I was privy to. The only discussion was between me and myself or me and my family, and that allowance of privacy was really a gift. At the time it was normal, but there was no chorus of opinions on social media. It sometimes it feels like a snake eating eating its own tail to get into the conversation of what’s different now, because it’s hard to tell whether it’s the times that are different or we’re different or both. I mean, I assume both, but it becomes so circular.
Definitely. But since I have it on the brain a little, there is one more question along those lines: You write really eloquently about Olympia and your awakening within it. But there were things—like with the Riot Grrrl media blackout, the idea that there was an internal logic and meaning to what was going on there and anyone appreciating it or writing about it from the outside was guaranteed to get it wrong—
And they did. We did. It seemed like getting it wrong was sort of—
Getting it right.
Exactly. Speaking of snakes eating tails... But I was really struck by your writing about the way that an ambition to be heard beyond your immediate community was really kind of anathema to you at a certain stage. Which, however interntionally or unintentionally, Sleater-Kinney absolutely did. I love the part where you describe your anxiety over selling out when you’re considering signing to Matador.
I know [more laughter].
It's funny in retrospect, but your writing about it is so vivid. I wonder about that now that you exist on several media platforms. I think about it in terms of you being on television, or being in an American Express commercial, you know? What’s your internal monologue about that stuff?
As I write in the book, the term “selling out” is a foreign term to many people. The concept is unheard of. There is no means of gauging that. There is no Rubicon to cross where you are suddenly on the wrong side and you compromise your ethics by bowing to commercialism. That has become murky, if not non-existent. You certainly have individuals who make decisions based on internal logic or rules, but collectively and publicly, that conversation has all but disappeared. For myself, strangely, because of the context and community from which I came, I am still more sensitive to the marriage of music and commerce, and sensitive to lyrics that potentially had meaning to the songwriter or to an audience being used to sell cars of fast food or whatever. I feel fortunate, and this could sound hypocritical, but it’s hard for me in the context of television—that world is riddled with commercials and the kind of money that I never really dealt with in Portlandia, not money thrown at me, but just money for production and what goes into advertising a show. That realm already feels in conversation with commercialism, so I’m able in some ways to compartmentalize. You know, “I’m already on TV.” I would rather myself as a performer/actor person on Portlandia, be in a commercial than have Sleater-Kinney songs be in a commercial. I’m in a rare position where I can make that distinction. I’m also in a band with bandmates who are adamant that we never would. I err on the side of wanting people to be able to keep doing what they do. And if you start to go down that ethical rabbit hole, you’re going to fall into some contradictions. You know, you play a show and the promoter has a certain sponsor… Where you draw the line seems so arbitrary to me. I think it’s such an individual argument. But I do feel a strange ability, and again, could be totally hypocritical, but because of the different things I do in my life, I can compartmentalize and choose where I feel more comfortable associating myself with brands and where I don’t.
It’s funny that during the time you write about, when these lines weren’t arbitrary at all, they were also totally hypothetical. It’s not like the people with hardline anti-selling out stances were getting barraged with offers to sell out.
It was often people having a discussion and making statements and taking a stand against something they had never and would never be offered, which is always such an easy place to stand. It’s harder when you have been. But class plays such a role in it, too. A lot of indie rockers came from middle-class backgrounds where you kind of had the privilege to turn down money ‘cause you just assumed you’d always be fine. That was always an area that was uncomfortable for people to talk about. Well, what if you don’t have parents who are going to leave you money when they pass away? Or don’t have parents to bail you out and give you a loan to pay your rent? That was rarely part of the conversation.
It's kind of amazing how pervasive that mentality was in the Northwest. It really got in the groundwater. And despite whatever sentimental attachment I might have to that time, it seems healthier now that things aren’t so proscriptive.
Oh, yeah. It was stifling, I think. It was such an easy way to end a conversation, or to make sure one didn’t happen. That was the final say. Once you called someone a sell out, you were disempowering them, making them inauthentic, removing them from the realm of art. It was certainly the scarlet letter of the ‘90s.
Semi-related: You write a bit about the time when Riot Grrrl was really engaged in creating a space for itself in a hostile environment, and that there wasn’t much time for joking around. And you define the context of Sleater-Kinney as one of radical politics. Was it uncomfortable for you at any point when you began to later emerge as a comedian?
Well, I think that was always the outside assessment of it, and as you point out, to some extent my own assessment. But individually, and concomitant to the gravity of some of the writing and the tenets of the movement were a lot of creative, funny people like Kathleen Hanna, who has a great sense of humor, and always had a great sense of humor, even in Bikini Kill, and definitely in Le Tigre. Or even Fugazi, who weren’t part of Riot Grrrl but were certainly in an analogous, strident, didactic movement in D.C. You know, those are four really funny men who played really earnest, passionate music. I never felt like I was coming out as someone who had a sense of humor. But I do think that a lot of those experiences of feeling really stunted and kind of cowed by the overseriousness and self-righteousness of it really informed the sensibility of Portlandia, in terms of talking about inclusion vs. exclusion, and trying to follow rules that are so labyrinthine that it’s really impossible to get it right. A lot of people ask me where Portlandia is in this book, and it’s like, well…