Interview: Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia

January 19, 2011

Before we lived in New York City we lived in Portland, Oregon. There we went to a college that was so weird it was recently threatened to be prosecuted as a crack house, and lived a life that was hard to get over after the fact. Low rent, local owned froyo down the block, a foolproof network of thrift shops, free fruits and vegetables literally falling from trees and bushes, cardio-intense but safe bicycling, excellent macchiato microfoam, fresh goat tacos. Blah blah blah, land of dreams! Still, after a while, it felt like we gave every dollar we made making coffee to someone else making coffee. And we left, not because we don't like breathing air that tastes like refrigerated ferns, Brandon "The Rain" Roy or adventure-socks and day hikes, but because there are not a lot of "real" jobs there and we weren't ready to retire before having started. Comedian Fred Armisen and former Sleater-Kinney guitarist/NPR correspondent Carrie Brownstein have jobs and are buddies. Fred's visits with Carrie in Portland inspired a sketch series they did called ThunderAnt that explored and gently butchered Rose City characters. The bits they developed there have now matured and been given a run as a 6-part series called Portlandia that will start airing on IFC this Friday night. We talked to Carrie Brownstein about wet winters, strange storytelling, the world's crush on Riot Grrrl and the blessing of wanting to play music.

You’ve always lived in the Pacific Northwest. What was it like growing up there and when did you move to Portland?
I was born in Seattle, but my family moved to this suburb of Redmond before I can remember. Redmond was a fairly rural. The whole cluster of towns was called— sort of derisively— the East Side. If you were in Seattle you would refer to us as the East Siders. I did a lot of bike riding as a kid, horseback riding. It was a very beautiful, bucolic place. There was a forest next to my house, and in the ‘80s they razed the forest and put up an office park called Evergreen Place, and I guess Evergreen was supposed to help us think of trees, even though all the trees were gone. And in the office park was a small building called Microsoft, and of course eventually took over Redmond and it became Microsoft Place, and it became this giant campus that now defines Redmond, Washington. I think that experience informed a lot of things about my life, a lot of my distrust of technology. It was an interesting experience to see a giant corporation transform a fairly sleepy suburb. But I got out of there before it all happened. Then I moved to Olympia, Washington. I went to school at Evergreen State College, I formed my band there. I moved to Portland in 2001 because most of my band lived there. This will be my tenth year there.

I lived in Portland for almost five years and visited recently. In the time since I got there, a lot of neighborhoods have undergone substantial development. What’s it been like to watch it grow for a decade?
Growing up around Seattle and going to Olympia, what I appreciated about Portland was that it maintained a small-town feel. In 2001 it felt like the younger sibling to Seattle. Seattle had exploded with the dot-com boom and grunge music, and Portland had maintained its own identity and had actually benefited from being in the shadow of that. In terms of city planning, it learned from San Francisco and Seattle, which really exploded and didn’t handle the big changes well. Portland revitalized the downtown instead of spreading out to the suburbs. It’s maintained a community-based dynamic despite the fact that it has become more cosmopolitan. Now you can have some of the best food in our country in Portland, and it has a very thriving music and art and film scene, but it still retains real neighborhoods. Almost anywhere you go in Portland there’s these micro-communities that have popped up; a strip of restaurants and a bar. But at the same time, there’s a huge sense of pride in Portland and abundance of riches that people are proud of but a little embarrassed by. Portlanders tend to be a little bit self-analytical and we feel a little bit guilty for all the good things we have.

It looks like you filmed the show during the part of the year when Portland has amazing long, sunny days. But for most of the year, it’s dark and rainy. How would you explain a Portland winter to someone who’s never been through one?
I think if you’ve never experienced damp cold then you don’t know how permeating it is. Damp cold chills you to your bones, and there’s this way that Portland brings the outside weather inside. It’s hard to dress up in the winter because no matter what you put on this horrible Columbia, Patagonia, or North Face coat on top of whatever you’re wearing. The leaves and grass and wetness come into your house and all of a sudden everything is soggy and you have a moldy basement. I often will wear my coat until I get into bed. The quality of light in Portland in the winter is so poor, too, almost like this half-opened eye. In the morning it’s like the sky is halfway open and in the evening it closes again, but it’s never light out. I think of Portland winter as a lot of the reason the art and creativity that comes out of Portland is dark— it has a dark underbelly to it thematically, a lot of it has a kind of depressed, joyless quality to it. Especially music and film.

What are your favorite Portland bands now?
I really like this band called Pancake Breakfast. Portland has a real oddball earnestness to it? You want to be annoyed by the oddball nature, but it’s pretty authentic. It’s just this guy Mike Midlo and a cast of characters to back him up, they do tap dancing and foot stomping and sing songs about Peterbilt trucks. At the core of it is good songwriting, which to me is what saves it. It’s not jokey, there’s not a schtick. Every time I see them I feel like I’m peeking into somebody’s living room while they’re having a family singalong, which is kind of quaint but I think it’s cool.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten at Powells? The best thing you’ve found at the Bins?
I have a lot of great early editions of like Alexander Pope and James Baldwin books from there, a lot of beautiful hardcover books that line my bookshelf. I think we bought some of the early feminist bookstore clothes at the Bins. I’ve gotten some beautiful Christmas sweaters there too, giant red holiday sweaters where someone has managed to depict a fireplace and a snowman all through knitting.

What’s the best Goodwill in Portland?
I like the Goodwill out on 82nd the best, the one on the way headed south to Clackamas.

What are your favorite places to get food?
New Seasons Market is pretty phenomenal, even though it’s expensive. I love Screen Door, Pok Pok. There’s a new place called Killer Burger that opened by my house that I love. I love the Laurelhurst Market. It is so hard to not eat well; it’s become ridiculous how many good restaurants there are.

Riot Grrrl has been given a great deal of attention and consideration in the last year: Sara Marcus published a book, Kathleen Hanna is making an archive at NYU, the Raincoats performed at MOMA, Tavi Gevinson is talking about girl bands and zines on her blog. How do all those conversations sound to you?
I think I feel the same way about it that I did when one of my guitarists went into the Experience Music Project museum, where there’s this strange disconnect between experiences and the way experience is codified. The minute something becomes historical or documented for the ages, you automatically feel a distance from it, especially if you were part of it. Which is ironic because I think if you weren’t a part of it, those codifications make you feel closer to it. But if you were a part of it, you’re suddenly asked to experience something in a very highly intellectualized way. I think it was NYLON that did a Riot Grrrl fashion thing, and it was so strange to see these thrift store fashions that people were making based probably on financial status and not necessarily aesthetic intentions become iconic. At the same time it’s exciting to have a sense of legitimacy for something that at the time was very misunderstood. It’s exciting to see young women discover it for the first time and embrace it and make it their own.

In some way you and Fred are some of the first people telling the story of Portland, like NYLON and EMP are trying to tell the story of Riot Grrrl, with the show. How did you approach that task in a way that felt okay?
Any time you tell a story, it’s just one story. We have an awareness of that, and I think we have an awareness that Portland is merely the context in which we’re creating. Especially with comedy, you want a stepping-off point, but you want to reach a level of transcendence and absurdity, hopefully. So even though we’re starting with specificity, we’re going someplace outlandish and strange. You have to keep that sense of freedom in mind. It’s not a documentary. We’re trying to do something creative and create a version of Portland, a romanticized, idealized, bizarro version of Portland. It’s not a hyperrealist portrayal.

How’s playing with Wild Flag going?
It feels awesome to be working on the songs. There were many years after Sleater-Kinney broke up that I had no interest in playing music, so to have a sense of urgency and to want to play it is to me a huge blessing. I don’t like art that doesn’t come from a place of urgency or daring, I wouldn’t want to play music unless I wanted to. It feels amazing to be in that place with three other people that feel the same way. We’re going on a tour in March and an album will come out in the fall.

Interview: Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia