One of the most exciting and fresh voices to emerge in 2011 was Wild Flag. A super-group consisting of punk-rock all-stars Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole, Wild Flag’s debut album (out on Merge Records) heralded a thoughtful, visceral and powerful combination of each woman’s strengths and styles. In no way was this sound a major departure for any of the members; however, the synthesis of their aesthetics into a unified and solid brand was not only commendable but rather astounding. For a band with such lengthy (and well-loved) histories behind them, Wild Flag seemed poised to either sink or swim when their album came out.
Thankfully, the band silenced many of the critics with the release of Wild Flag, which while somewhat flawed also boasted incredibly tight riffs, catchy melodies and inspired writing. By no means a perfect album, it did showcase many of the band’s skills and left audiences wanting more beyond the record’s ten songs. Wild Flag spent the majority of 2011 touring before and after the album’s release, and has already grown significantly in musicianship and presentation (see a review of their recent show at Washington, DC’s Black Cat here). 2012 is already shaping up to be another busy year for the band, as they’ve booked a UK/European tour for January and February, an Australian outing in March and then another round of dates in North America come April, including a major spot at Coachella.
Glide Magazine’s Jeff DeMars recently spoke with drummer Janet Weiss about the group. The conversation touches on Weiss’ background with Brownstein in Sleater-Kinney, her own role as a musician before coming to Wild Flag, the group’s future sights and why she would love to add the title “Janitor” to her business card.
Let’s start by talking about how Wild Flag came to be. What started the idea of the four of you joining forces together as a band?
It definitely came together in a much more casual fashion than you’d expect. We were working on a soundtrack for a documentary movie, but we were not at that moment thinking of it as a new band project. Carrie asked me if I wanted to help work on this film, as it was just going to be instrumental pieces. So, we just got together and kind of worked on some things in the practice space.
We called Rebecca in, who I had played with in a cover band, and I knew I’d wanted to work further with her. And I think it was like a spark went off, in that the ease by which we came up with ideas was exciting. When it came time to put vocals on one of the little ditties– the director wanted some vocals– we thought of trying to get Mary involved. She’s someone we’ve admired for many years.
It wasn’t as if we were assembling a band, but in actuality we were. So in hindsight this documentary soundtrack has a lot of weight, even though at the time it didn’t have much weight at all. It was just sort of a fun project. Once we heard each other in the context of this foursome, though, we thought we should explore the possibility of having it be a band and taking it further by trying to write some songs and seeing what they’d sound like. I don’t think we really knew what we were gonna sound like until we went on tour, and then we heard ourselves in the live context and that started to make more sense.
So you decided to go on tour last fall, but you didn’t have a record yet.
Yeah, that’s true. I think we only had ten songs, I believe.
You had no record but all four of you had major reputations that preceded you.
Well we did, but we played really small venues. We played Bunk Bar in Portland, we played a place in Nevada City with like 80-person capacity. We just needed to play music together and explore our personalities and our what was becoming “our” music together without a lot of pressure or fanfare.
How did the touring go? Was it difficult? Were there ever any doubts about the future of the band?
Well, not really, no. We weren’t thinking about it as like, “This is a band that’s going to be together for ten years.” We were just playing. Neither Carrie nor Mary had done music in a while, so we were just having fun and playing some small, really rowdy shows, just seeing if this thing worked before we made a big huge deal about it– before we crammed it down everyone’s throats! It was more of an organic beginning for a band. As you pointed out, we had all been in these other bands, which didn’t necessarily mean we’d still get along as one group. It didn’t mean that our chemistry together as a four-person group would be what it needed to be. So we had to figure that out.
After your Fall 2010 tour, you went into the studio with those ten songs to record your debut album. At that point had you already been signed to Merge?
Yes, we had. We made a four song demo in our practice space and sent it to them, and some other places, but Max and Lauren at Merge really liked it. It’s different, though, with Merge, because they weren’t saying to us, “Well you guys have all been in other bands, so we’ll take it on,” as if that was the only thing they needed to qualify Wild Flag. I think that they really liked the music, which was important for everyone. We’re not really interested in nostalgia or mining the past. We’re trying to make songs that are current and that represent us as we are today.
Why did you choose Chris Woodhouse to produce the record?
I was really into Thee Oh Sees’ record Help at that time, and I just thought the sounds were incredible, the performances were spot on, but also really simple and straightforward but still intriguing and cool at the same time. I felt like, just with the first tour we did, our first album should be totally about presenting ourselves. It shouldn’t be too fancy, just to the point and showing who we are as Wild Flag. All of my favorite “first” records are straightforward and not self-conscious. They’re direct and honest, and so Chris seemed like the guy to do that for us.
Walk me through how a Wild Flag song is written. Where does it start?
There’s not really a clear-cut answer for that. Usually it starts with one of the guitar players having a riff or a melody. Carrie or Mary often come in with a vocal and/or guitar part, and we go from there. But some of the songs, like “Romance” for example, started with a keyboard riff– just goofing around and someone stopped and said, “That sounds good, do that again!” Things like that. It’s very collaborative. There’s very rarely a song that comes in completed from start to finish.
You’re not only a drummer for Wild Flag, though. You have a microphone with your kit, adding in vocals to a lot of the songs. What else do you do in the group?
I would say my strength is in arranging songs. I think Carrie has mentioned that I’m sort of her editor. I can hear the basis of a song and have ideas as to where the song should go, what should happen, what the song needs to be completed and exciting. You know, we all contribute a lot to the band. We all have our strengths. I just have an organizer’s brain. I deal with the merch–ordering the T-shirts and all that stuff– so organizing the songs in way so that they’re different or stand alone is something that comes really naturally to me, and is really something I love doing.
So what was it like coming from a group like Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks to Wild Flag? What was that transition like for you?
Well I think the way we write songs in Wild Flag is more what I’m used to. Sleater-Kinney wrote like that, and Quasi to some extent is collaborative. So, the difference is that in Stephen Malkmus’ band I’m just responsible for playing the drums and coming up with the drum parts. Sometimes he also has ideas for what the drums should be. So with that outfit, it’s more fitting into someone’s vision, which is also really interesting and fun to do. In Wild Flag, though, I have much more of a songwriting voice. I can suggest guitar parts, or even keyboard and vocal parts, whereas in the Jicks I wouldn’t ever have suggested that for someone else.
A year ago. you were touring to see if this band we know as Wild Flag was even feasible and had chemistry. You’ve gone from that to now selling out a string of shows on top of a highly successful and critically acclaimed record. It’s a big chance. Where do you stand with all of it?
It feels great. We’re older, you know, but in a way we are a little bit wiser. It feels rewarding to have learned so much and gone the journey so we can at least feel like we’ve learned something. What I’m learning now is how to do my best work without burning out, and I think that goes for a lot of us. The challenges for being in a band are mostly personal, you know, but those challenges are actually the hardest part, in my mind. These other more logistical things about how to do a tour, how to start a band, what kind of tour should we do now– that’s not the toughest. We have a really great team with a fantastic booking agent and an amazing label. We have all these great resources with people that want to help us and make sure that we’re handled really well. We didn’t go play huge rooms right away, which would have probably often been half-filled huge rooms. We tried to build this thing from the ground up– just like how you should build a band. That feels really rewarding, and we’re so grateful that people are interested in what we’re doing.
So then what’s next for Wild Flag?
We’re definitely going to do some more touring. We’ll finish up the album cycle by doing England and Europe, then Australia and the US. We’ll definitely play some bigger places in the spring. We just did a really long tour this fall, so we’re going to do a shorter tour this next time around but play larger venues and see how that goes. It’s important for us to try and keep it fresh so that we’re engaged and having a good time, so hopefully to avoid hitting any ruts. We choose to do this, but we’re trying to make the best music that we can.
During your fall tour, you played two new songs: “Winter Pair,” and “Nothing.” Are those songs that didn’t make the first record, or are they brand new?
Those are new songs. We only had one song that didn’t make the record, and that came out as a bonus thing earlier. We wrote “Winter Pair” and “Nothing” right before we left on tour. In fact, one of them we actually finished on the road.
Does this mean there’s a new album in the mix?
Well that’s all we’ve done, so far. We have some writing dates coming up where Mary will come out and we’ll work on some new things.We have to have that thrown in– that’s for our sanity, you know, so you don’t just play the same songs. It’s really fun to infuse a set with a couple new songs. Hopefully we’ll have a couple more by the time we play again in the States.
Since we’re talking about songs, is there one that sticks out in your mind that is just so fundamentally Wild Flag? A song that you feel just speaks to your sound and speaks to the entire feel of the band?
I definitely feel with the album that “Romance” kind of summed everything up. It has that certain aspect of what we’re doing and who we are. I think that’s why in a way it goes first– it’s the introduction. It sort of covers everything, I feel, in one song, which is hard to do. Carrie wrote some phenomenal words, and we all just sorta stepped up to the plate on that one.
Not only is it a great song on record, but the music video for it is also amazing. Definitely one of the highlights of the year, for me.
Thanks! Yeah, it was so much fun. We showed up a little skeptical about the whole thing, thinking, “Oh my God is this really gonna be funny?” We saw the masks and we were just confused, not knowing if they were “good” masks or not. And then Tom [Scharpling] took me aside and said, “Trust me, I’ve thought about this video more than anyone ever should have. I promise you it’s gonna be great. It’s gonna be awesome and funny.” I then sat there a bit in disbelief, but it was also so incredible that he did that, because from that point on it was just all, “Alright let’s just have fun.” And I think turned out fantastically.
And at first, before Tom, we were legitimately freaking out, because there were so many serious, ridiculous video treatments that you wouldn’t even believe were real– like something out of Spinal Tap. We were so confused, but then Tom showed up and I was like, “This is our guy, for sure. Our guy.” He is so funny, and then we were all really happy with it. Thank god we went down the hilarious route!
Also, I got to be Janet the Janitor, which I was happy about (laughs) Finally!
That’s a good business card: Drummer and Janitor.
My dream job.
You know a funny story about that video is that Rebecca and I went out to lunch in our costumes. I had the jumpsuit on and she had her security guard outfit, and we went to New Seasons, this natural foods deli, and the guy behind the counter treated us like we were on our lunch break. Like we were working girls on our lunch break and he gave us extra giant portions of our food. And it was so awesome cause he was like, “You girls on your lunch break?” and we responded I think just by saying, “Yeah, sort of!” It was really cute. So, yeah– Janet the Janitor. It was way too much fun.