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'Portlandia' is a 'manifestation' of Carrie Brownstein's formative years in indie rock

Musician, actress and writer Carrie Brownstein.
Musician, actress and writer Carrie Brownstein.
Autumn DeWilde

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If the only thing Carrie Brownstein had done with her life was found and play in the indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney, that would have been, well, enough. The feminist trio was instrumental in the riot grrrl movement, and during their initial 12-year run, critics called them one of the greatest rock bands of their time. 

Sleater-Kinney announced an indefinite hiatus in 2006 and, luckily, it turned out to be just that: a hiatus. The group released its eighth studio album, "No Cities To Love," in January, 2015.

In the meantime, Brownstein had moved onto a number of creative projects, most significantly the IFC series, "Portlandia." It started out as a series of homemade videos she made with her friend, Fred Armisen (of "Saturday Night Live" fame), who also had a background in music as the former drummer for the band Trenchmouth.

Under the monicker "ThunderAnt," the videos were mostly meant to entertain friends, but they soon evolved into the scripted and polished "Portlandia," which pokes fun at today's holier-than-thou hipster culture.

Brownstein is also a writer; she ran a blog on NPR Music called "Monitor Mix"; in October, Riverhead Books released her memoir, "Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl."

When Carrie Brownstein came to The Frame's studio to talk about her wide-ranging career, John Horn began by asking what her best collaborative relationships were.


I had earlier collaborators, but in terms of almost learning a vernacular with someone else and creating a shared musical language — you know, [Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker and I] kind of learned how to play guitar with each other. We developed a style based on the continuations of phrases and kind of half-chords that we Frankensteined together to make the sound of Sleater-Kinney. That makes her, I think, sort of the most significant collaborator I’ve had, in that it was innovation. That to me is a very crucial form of collaboration. Because the idea is, with someone else, you can innovate in a way you wouldn’t be able to do by yourself.

How important is it to be with people performing something live as opposed to being on a TV set where there’s no real feedback outside of the people you’re collaborating with? 

I definitely love performing live because there are moments of spontaneity. And as much as you’re performing on stage, I feel like the audience is performing, too.

In "Portlandia" or any show where you have a crew — especially in comedy — getting tricked into thinking that people laughing on set translates into something that works in the edit is dangerous. Sometimes a thing that seems really funny on set does not serve the story.

In the sketch about a chicken (watch below), there’s a lot of truth in this sequence. Was that something from the very beginning you wanted to make sure "Portlandia" reflected?

Absolutely. So much of it is about the ways that we start to curate our lives. The same way that we curate our online selves and cut out the things we don’t want to know about. I feel like people have made their neighborhoods and their cities like this too, for better or worse. Is it really for the best? It’s a little bit of calling into question of how we’re benefiting culture as a whole by making  everything so precious.

We like to poke fun at mostly ourselves, but I think a lot of people have been able to relate to it.

Is this a heightened version of yourself then, that you’re playing in this? How would you describe it?

I would say that most of the characters on the show are permutations of Fred [Armisen] or me. We do play heightened versions of ourselves. That allows a level of absurdity, I think. And it allows you to kind of explore something with a little more surreality or levity than you would than if you were just playing yourself. You can just be sillier. 

Then there's the sketch, "Portland Pet Haven."

That’s before "Portlandia"! That’s before we were a TV show and we were just making videos for our friends.

There’s a different sensibility. You’re a little looser, you’re laughing and smiling more. How would you describe that? You’ve become so much more serious and glum.

Yes, I’m very glum now. Well, before, Fred and I were working under the moniker ThunderAnt. There was a clumsiness to it because it was less pointed. We weren’t working with scripts. Sometimes we just had one idea and ran with that without a lot of editing. But it certainly was the seed for "Portlandia" and I think our sensibility and chemistry was formed therein. But now it’s nice to have scripts and beats and characters.

How would you describe your collaboration with Fred? And how has that creative collaboration evolved over the years?

Fred and I both come from music backgrounds of small, insular indie rock communities who profess to this inclusive nature, but then seem very exclusive. There are a lot of very codified rules — how to be, how to dress, what to like, what not to like — that were very labyrinthine and flummoxing. It was difficult to navigate these rules and it felt very anathema to the community if you didn’t follow the rules. "Portlandia" is definitely a manifestation of those formative years for us.

Also in terms of our music background, we think of the writing with a musicality. There’s a percussiveness, there’s a rhythm. He and I can be very irreverent sometimes. We like to dissect things and we’re sort of unafraid in that way. At the same time, we like it to be kind-hearted. We really have a good working relationship. 

Did the success of "Portlandia" come as a surprise to you? How validating was it that you were onto something that spoke to a community well beyond Portland and your immediate circle of friends?

We were very surprised. I think everyone’s question the first year was, Will people get this outside of Portland? And that was answered, a resounding yes! Because Portland — and the reason it’s called Portlandia — is such a substitute for so many cities and communities like Portland. And it’s more like a mindset. You don’t have to immerse yourself in Williamsburg or Silver Lake to understand what we’re talking about on the show.

You live in Los Angeles. It’s a loud city. How does that affect you creatively? Do you find a place where you can insulate yourself or is that not important?

It is very important. My methodology in terms of writing and thinking has always been in relation to nature and the outdoors. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. I still live part of the time in Oregon. What I love about the West Coast and what I’ve always found difficult about being on the East Coast in bigger cities is that nature is a little more disconnected from where people live. I like that blurriness between city and forest. Luckily, here in Los Angeles it’s pretty easy to get up into the hills and do hikes. I don’t take my phone. I just think. And when I get back, I write down ideas. And I’ve done that in Portland, I did that in Washington state where I grew up, and I do that here. So I’m very much of a West Coast person in that the idea of landscape and spaces is very intrinsic to how I work.

The sixth season of "Portlandia" returns to IFC on Jan. 21.

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