Indie-rock royalty. Slacker-generation supergroup. Post-whatever whatever.
It's fun to invent hyphenated superlatives for Wild Flag — the Portland, Ore.-based band made up of two singer-guitarists, Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony, keyboard player and vocalist Rebecca Cole and drummer Janet Weiss — whose collective rock family tree strings together Sleater-Kinney, Helium, the Minders and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.
The four women first toured in the summer of 2010, playing intimate shows before they'd announced they were a band, relishing the chance to get to know each other musically without pressure.
“There was a mysterious quality to the way it started,” Weiss said by phone from her home in Portland. “We made it somewhat exciting by not being forthcoming, but it wasn't intentional. We just weren't in a mood to beg for attention.”
Over the years, interest in Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein's Olympia, Washington-based band that released several albums on the Chainsaw, Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop labels, hasn't flagged (they went on hiatus in 2006), partly because of Brownstein's work as an NPR contributor. Weiss, Sleater-Kinney's drummer from 1996 until the end, also chugged along with Quasi, her group with Sam Coomes, her ex-husband; she later played behind Bright Eyes and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, the Pavement singer's other band. Timony's group, Helium, meanwhile, toured with Sleater-Kinney; so did Cole's band, the Minders.
Portland itself is undoubtedly enjoying a moment. "Portlandia," the IFC comedy show starring Brownstein and Fred Armisen, is hugely popular and gets better with every episode. The Pacific Northwest seems to be on everyone's minds in a way not seen since the ubiquity of grunge in the early '90s. With a built-in audience, one familiar with Wild Flag's members' previous work, it might seem hyper-calculated for the four women to join forces at this point.
As it turns out, the members of Wild Flag just didn't want to waste time on the unknown. “It definitely is picking people you feel like you have potential with,” Weiss said. “My bandmates are great musicians. I've been playing for over 20 years. You don't want to start over with new people. You want to play with people who can push things, who can communicate ideas. There's a friendship aspect, sure, but it's really the playing that matters the most.”
Wild Flag's first record — a very good record, mostly recorded live with vocal overdubs in April 2011 in Sacramento — is a strong opening statement; its intertwined, fuzzed-out guitar parts, steady grooves and epigrammatic lyrics (“Racehorse” starts off, half a minute into the song, with “I'm a racehorse, yeah I'm a race — horse / you put your money on me”) feel settled and mature, and also sort of fun. The music's devoid of any sense of uncertainty, even though nearly everything you read about Wild Flag talks about how unsure they were at the beginning about what would take place, where the band would go, what it would sound like, or if it would even work.
“I don't think uncertainty is the appropriate word,” Weiss said. “I think it was just that we didn't jump in before we knew whether it was going to work or not... We weren't like four 19-year-olds. It's necessary to be deliberate in starting a band. We wanted to check it out first because it can fall flat. We didn't want to make something happen that wasn't there. We didn't want to pretend there was a chemistry when there wasn't. We wanted to make sure it was going to have some legs.”
There's no bass player in Wild Flag (Cole handles the low end on the keyboard), which might present a challenge for a drummer. But Weiss said she's pretty used to it. (Sleater-Kinney was a bass-less band.) “I'm not a fan of big boomy low end,” Weiss said. “I don't like low end at all. I prefer the Paul McCartney style of bass. He's always up high on the neck... I think that really low frequencies can take over. They are so large and loud, and they can take over the vocals... if you are in a grunge band, you have to have a bass player... But for what we are doing we feel like we have enough.”
Wild Flag starts their tour with a show at Toad's Place in New Haven on March 30. Weiss said she has few expectations other than enjoying the moment. “I expect to have a lot of fun,” she said. “I always look forward to playing the East Coast. I feel like the shows are crazier. Chicago, New York, D.C., they've been so great, so incredible.”
Weiss was hesitant, however, to say where she thought the project was going.
“It still feels like we are getting to know each other, on stage, in the practice room as far as writing goes,” she said. “I'm not interested in telling people where we are going. Surprise is a really hard thing to come by these days. They've seen your whole show on YouTube. The only thing we really have is where we are going in the future... Curiosity is a really important quality in the music business.”
Wild Flag w/Hospitality, Black Box Revelation, March 30, 8 p.m., $16-$18, Toad's Place, 300 York St., New Haven, (203) 624-8623, toadsplace.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times