The former Sleater-Kinney front woman moves into comedy with IFC's latest original series, which premieres this Friday
Former Sleater-Kinney front woman Carrie Brownstein has teamed up with longtime Saturday Night Live comedian Fred Armisen for her latest project Portlandia, a six-part original comedy series that is set to premiere on IFC this Friday, January 21, at 10:30 PM, with Episode 01.01: Farm. It is a fantastic exploration of the world's brew and strip club capitol, Portland, Oregon, and the strange denizens who inhabit the area. Portlandia arrives as an instant classic, and it is one of the do-not-miss shows of 2011. We recently caught up with Carrie to chat with her about this exciting new venture, which is possibly the funniest thing to ever immerge out of the Great Pacific Northwest.
Here is our conversation:
Your band Sleater-Kinney is well-known for being from the Portland area. Were you someone that grew up in that area? Have you been around the people of Portland your whole life?
Carrie Brownstein: I grew up in Washington State. In a suburb of Seattle called Redman. Then I went to college in Olympia, where I formed Slater-Kinney. By the end of 2001, the rest of my band lived in Portland, so I moved down there. I have never lived outside of the Pacific Northwest.
My memories of Portland all come from the late 70s and early 80s. It was a dreary, nightmare landscape for children at that time. Portlandia brings all of those memories flooding back. It doesn't look like much has changed in the town in the past thirty years.
Carrie Brownstein: I do think there is a certain essential quality of Portland, even the entire Northwest, that will always maintain the frontier spirit, and that sense of isolation. There is a self-aggrandizement that exists in Portland. There are a lot of progressive ideas that manifest themselves there. Neo-hippiedom. Drum circles. I think it has become a little bit more cosmopolitan than it was in the 70s. If you watch those old Gus Van Sant movies, Portland did used to be a hot bed of junkies. It was pretty down and out. Portland's a little fancier now, though. You should come check it out.
I have been there recently. My family lives up that way. It's the gloom in the atmosphere that sometimes brings those feelings back. Even the Gus Van Sant movies you mention have that omnipresent overcast looming over them. It's always on the verge of rain.
Carrie Brownstein: There is that grainy quality. All of the characters on Portlandia do have a self-defeating quality. The Northwest does operate from that perspective. You can't ever get too excited, or too joyful about anything. Because you are under a figurative and literal rain cloud a lot of the time.
I asked Fred the other day how he thought the citizens of Portland would take to your show. What has been your experience with that so far? Are the locals loving it? I know you guys worked with a mostly all-Portland crew.
Carrie Brownstein: I think it depends on whether or not the people who decide to watch it have a sense of humor. I think the hardest thing...I don't feel the people of Portland are targets. I feel that Fred and I are making fun of ourselves. We embody characteristics of nearly all of the characters. The hardest thing for Portland is that, unlike Los Angeles or New York, or Chicago, Portland hasn't seen itself on television that much. Once you get used to something like that, you say, "Of course!" This show can't, and isn't, trying to represent every single person in Portland. If people can get over that strange, surreal sense you get when you see someone trying to portray you in the media, hopefully they will have fun with it. I felt a general sense of support. But I do think there will be some people who are uncomfortable with it. I can't worry about that, though.
In my youth, it was always fascinating for me to see Portland represented in a show or in a movie. It certainly drew me to whatever it was because I didn't see that too much. I have a feeling a lot of the locals will cling to this simply because it is a showcase of sorts for their town.
Carrie Brownstein: Yes. And when we were making this series, our director grew up on the West Coast. We talked a lot about shows like Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. I remember feeling lucky as a kid, watching those shows, and seeing how green and verdant the Northwest is compared to anywhere else. Even just that is sort of an exhilarating thing. To see yourself. So hopefully people will be enamored with it. I think Portlanders are enamored with Portland already. We already feel lucky to be there. So hopefully we'll be giving the city another sense of pride. Like Fred said, the crew was about ninety percent local. When we were shooting the show, we felt like we were running a marathon, and being cheered on by everyone we passed. Hopefully, there will be an air of benevolence, and we'll still be around after the show airs.
I was talking to Fred about a stripper sketch that you guys had done. He didn't go into it too much. Can you take me through what that sketch was about and why you didn't feel it worked? What was the process between the two of you in deciding when something isn't right for the show, or that a joke isn't coming together?
Carrie Brownstein: When we are brainstorming, and in the writing process, we are able to get rid of an idea early on. Sometimes an idea will have intellectual humor, but no kind of practical humor. Or it's theoretically funny. But it just doesn't seem like there is enough there to explore. What we are looking for is something in the characters that we can latch onto. I'd say this is over ninety-percent improvisation. Though, the fundamental thing is knowing who these people are. A lot of good ideas will be thrown out there, but then we need to figure out who these people are in this idea. I think with something like the stripper sketch, it was an idea that was funny. But in actuality, it just wasn't something that we connected to. It wasn't about who we were in that sketch. It fell flat. Most of the time, we were able to nip that in the bud before we started filming something. But we were working at a breakneck speed. We wrote the show. We wrote all of the episodes in a couple of weeks. Then we shot it in about three weeks. That one just didn't work out. Mostly, we want the sketches to feel surprising and spontaneous. We want them to be able to explore the constructs of the perimeters that we give ourselves in terms of the improve, the characters, the props, the costumes, and the location. That sketch just didn't have any transcendent quality that we latched onto.
Did you have quite a few of these discarded sketches? And are you comfortable letting those unfinished ideas be seen once the DVD comes out? Will you include that? Or do you not like sharing that kind of stuff?
Carrie Brownstein: There were very few things like that. This was a very economical show. There are very few things that won't make it to air. I'd say that we will show ninety-nine point nine percent of the stuff we shot. I can't say right now if we're going to put outtakes on the DVD. I can't tell you that at this time.
Well, you have to put bloopers on there, or my girlfriend won't watch it.
Carrie Brownstein: I can tell you that we could release six indie movies with all of the extra material we have. Sometimes we would go in and shoot for three or four hours. Watch for a six-part film series on PBS.
I think that would be fascinating. I have never fallen in love with a show so quickly. Portlandia has a very special quality about it, and I foresee that this is going to be around for a long time, once people catch onto it. They are running this with Mr. Show and Larry Sanders...
Carrie Brownstein: Yes, it is airing with some of the great old comedy shows. Thanks for saying that you like it. We are really proud of it. And we hope that people like it.
Having grown up in Oregon, and then moving out to Los Angeles, I am ashamed to say that I wasn't familiar with Sleater-Kinney's music. I didn't know who you were when I watched the show.
Carrie Brownstein: That's fine.
I thought you were a comedic actress, and you are so natural with the comedy. I am wondering how that transition happened for you. Was this something you were working on while you were still doing the music? Or was this something that came out of you naturally?
Carrie Brownstein: I wish that I could say that Sleater-Kinney had been a joke band.
I just wasn't privy to that whole scene.
Carrie Brownstein: I am just making a joke. Because we weren't a joke band. But it would have been helpful. As a kid, before I fell in love with music, I wanted to do acting. But there is an immediacy to music that a lot of people fall in love with. Including myself. Its just so much more accessible if you are going to form an Indie or Punk band. You can do that in your basement. In Olympia, you could play a show the next week. That sort of instant gratification is so much more visceral than leaving your cows, and trying to go and be an actress. When I fell in love with music, I put away any notion that I was going to be doing any acting. But it was always a love I had. Performing is something I have always been comfortable with. Once my band broke up, I was able to focus on that a little bit more. I think Fred and I have a unique chemistry. A lot of the conversations that we have on the show are analogists of the kinds of weird, OCD conversations that we have in real life. We are obsessed with these awkward moments. And these kinds of strange things were we stumble around each other. Its nice of you to say that you didn't realize I was from a music background.
Is it nice of me to say that? To be honest, I didn't know that Fred started out as a drummer for Trenchmouth. Even though I had heard of that band, I didn't know he was a part of it until I saw the press material come out for this show.
Carrie Brownstein: Actually, you are a great litmus test for us. We don't know. You shouldn't have to know the background of a show, or know the actors on a show, to appreciate it. We want people to watch this for the first time, and for there to be a humor and authenticity to it, that is apparent in the moment. If you need to know the biographical information about an actor to appreciate what they are doing, that doesn't count. Its great that it came across as funny without you knowing that Fred was a drummer, or that I played in a band.
It's good to hear that you don't take that personally. Sometimes, people get go aloof when you reveal that you have no idea they are important in one scene or the other. Musicians tend to be a little bit snobby on occasion...
Carrie Brownstein: What are you talking about? I am just kidding. Yeah. I think musicians can be snobby. So can writers? Right?
Writers, actors, musicians, everybody who has ever done something that has garnered any amount of attention. That is why it's nice to hear you not care so much. I should know Sleater-Kinney, having gone to school in Ashland at the time you guys were big. I heard the name plenty of times. I just never listened to the music. Who knows, I might love it if I listened to it tomorrow. I love this song you guys do in the first episode. The Song of the 90s. It is great. How are you going to continue incorporating your music into future shows?
Carrie Brownstein: For the record, Fred and I did not write that Dream of the 90s song. That was Asa Taccone. He did a lot of those Saturday Night Live digital shorts. He was the one that helped write Dick in a Box. And all those other great funny things. In general, Fred and I did write some songs for the show, and we recorded some music for the show. That is always going to be an element, because we will always connect on music. We view the world through that lens. We came of age during that time when people really prescribed to the esthetics of DIY and Indie. I think it's a way for us to find ourselves in a sketch, and in the show. When we are looking up at the board while we are brainstorming, we ask ourselves, "Does this show have enough musical elements in it? Because that is always going to be something we know and love. Music is an acceptable way for people to experience something. The 90s video was a great entry point into the show for people.
Having been such an integral part of that era, is it weird for you to see all of the 90s styles coming back, and the elements of that time starting to pop up in popular culture again?
Carrie Brownstein: No, not about the 90s. I was more scared about when the 80s came back. The people who lived during the 80s, and had to wear shoulder pads, and stonewashed pants with zippers, they know they did not look good then. When the 80s came back, it was way more scary. With the 90s? Everything is cyclical, everything is regurgitated. Nostalgia has a way of rearing its ugly head, and informing fashion and music. The best you can hope for is a new take on something, instead of a complete coping of something else.
About your acting...Are you going to continue to pursue dramatic acting in terms of the projection you are on now?
Carrie Brownstein: No, I don't think so. I have a new band called Wild Flag, and we just signed to Merge Records. I think I will most likely be alternating between the band and Portlandia, if we are lucky enough to do it again. And I will do some writing. I don't think I'll have time for too much acting.
When we saw Food Party premiere on IFC, they did six episodes. Then they came back with twenty-three in their second season. You are doing six episodes to start with. Will we see you coming back with twenty or more for season two? Or will that be limited by your schedule and Fred's schedule?
Carrie Brownstein: I don't think we could do that. Our schedules are prohibitive. Realistically, for a half hour comedy show, you want to do somewhere between eight and twelve episodes. That is what we are thinking for season two.
Are you already working on ideas for season two? Is it hard to be in Portland and not find ideas every second?
Carrie Brownstein: Yeah, I carry around a notebook. I do. It was a relief when everyone came up to Portland for preproduction. Because we ended up writing a bunch more. All you have to do is walk around for ten minutes. That is how the Dream of the 90s idea came about. Ten minutes in Portland, and our director already had that idea. (Laughs) It's funny.