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Escape Velocity

More Personal Politics: An Interview With Wild Flag
Jenny Stevens , December 1st, 2011 08:38

Ahead of Wild Flag's appearance at ATP's Nightmare Before Christmas next weekend, Jenny Stevens spoke to the band's Janet Weiss to talk about how the group came together and why comparisons with members' previous projects are way off the mark

Right from 'Romance', the opening track of their eponymous debut, Wild Flag spell out loud and clear what brought them together: “We love the sound, the sound is what found us. Sound is the blood between me and you”.

It's a mobilising cry – musician to musician, artist to audience, that's stemmed from years of interconnectedness between Wild Flag's composite parts. They formed after Sleater Kinney (and later Jicks) drummer Janet Weiss met up with fellow Sleater-Kinney guitarist and singer Carrie Brownstein, Helium's Mary Timony and Minders' Rebecca Cole., to write an instrumental soundtrack for Lynn Hershman Leeson's documentary !Women Art Revolution! It was a natural collaboration, considering that Helium and Sleater-Kinney toured together, Brownstein and Timony worked together on late 90s project The Spells, and Weiss and Cole both played in The Shadow Mortons.

For those still lamenting the loss of Sleater-Kinney after their indefinite hiatus in 2005, the anticipation that Wild Flag might be some sort of re-constituted version of the eighth record they never made has proved off the mark. Wild Flag is neither a sentimental jolly, nor backward glance at its member's respective careers. Instead, it's a passion-fuelled, visceral journey through garage, psych and rock and roll. Timony and Brownstein's vocals switch from layered harmonies over clap-happy pop to abrasive scrawls, matched by Weiss' strutting, propulsive punk drums and Brownstein's Pete Townshend helicopter guitar moves.

Since Sleater-Kinney's hiatus, Brownstein has used her blog for US National Public Radio to bemoan the incessant rise of soft-rocking, pleasant indie-boys making “passive music, that makes you sit back”. 'Where's the fierceness gone?', she asked. Where's the music that addresses the chaos, unease and sterilising greyness of society? Enter Wild Flag.

The Quietus caught up with Janet Weiss from a motorway payphone somewhere outside of Boston, part way through a mammoth tour of the US and Canada. “We're veterans,” she says. “We've all done this a bunch of times so we know what to expect.”

How did Wild Flag come about?

Janet Weiss: Carrie and Rebecca and I worked on some instrumental music for an independent documentary, [!Women Art Revolution!]. It was very frivolous and fun and didn't sound at all like Wild Flag. We felt so connected together and had so much fun writing. When the director asked us to add vocals to a track, we thought 'let's get Mary to put some vocals on it'. Mary is our long-time friend, and Carrie has worked with Mary and I've always wanted to play music with her. So a natural collaboration came about on something that was not band related, but that sewed the seed for taking this thing further and trying to write some real songs.

What do you mean by “real songs”?

JW: The collaboration for the soundtrack - when we weren't Wild Flag yet - those were not real songs. To me a real song is something you present to the world as part of your canon. You work on it, you craft it, you finish it, you're proud of it. You get it as good as you think it could possibly be, and then you present it to the world. That's a real song. An instrumental soundtrack for me doesn't really count as a real song. I meant consciously writing songs for ourselves and the project.

So when was the moment when you realised that this could be a long-term project?

JW: The idea of seeing our potential became very intriguing. Mary began flying out from Washington DC where she lives, and we very quietly started working on things just to see for ourselves where it could go and exploring some of our musical ideas together. I don't think until we even finished our first tour and started on our second tour that we really felt this thing was going to take off, that we were actually capable of playing together in a way that was exciting and fulfilling. I think it took a little bit of getting to know our boundaries and getting to know how to push those boundaries and getting to know each other as musicians and bandmates. That took a little bit of time.

You've all been in successful bands before. Did you feel pressure to make this work?

JW: I think I would have felt that pressure regardless. But there is that pressure, yeah. I feel like people expect a lot from me and I love that. I expect a lot from myself. I wouldn't want to make a record unless it was meaningful to me and I felt like it was saying something that needed to be said and was important. On a personal level, I feel driven to make something that matters. It's really important to me, and the band, to make something different.

What was it that you wanted to say with this album?

JW: I just think there is an urgency and a raw vitality and an aggressiveness and rebelliousness in there. We wanted to spark people's imagination, getting people to feel involved and feel like they can participate with us in the music, and that maybe they can then make music of their own and have the courage to do something that's aggressive or vital or energetic or raw. It's a spurring on in a way and I feel like that's important.

In one of Carrie's blogs for NPR she wrote about the rise of bearded, soft indie rockers. Do you think there is some kind of passiveness in music at the moment and is that what you were trying to challenge with the album?

JW: It's not just music – it's society. I feel like everyone is passively staring at their computer screen or into their phones and not participating maybe as much as they could. We wanted to create a place in their lives where they can put things down and close their eyes and listen to music and feel empowered by it.

Yet Wild Flag doesn't feel as overtly political as, say, a Sleater-Kinney record. Were you trying to keep it politics-light?

JW: I think the politics on this record are more the politics of expectations and cultural norms - what is expected of people, what is expected of women, what is expected of musicians. It's still speaking out, but those are more personal politics I think. There are ways of music being political just by being a certain way. If everything is quiet and you're making something that's loud and abrasive and raucous, there is something in that – you know, listen up. We didn't say 'This is not going to be a political record' - everyone writes from their personal experiences. But that's not to say that there's not going to be a song that's political in nature in the future, there's not a map for this at all.

What kind of cultural expectations of were you trying to challenge with this record?

JW: I just feel like it's very difficult for women to be heroes. When you think about the heroes in our culture, most of them are men. I just want to be allowed the space to explore the idea of being heroic and causing people to fantasise, to dream about music and about their lives and what is possible and what their potential is.

This obviously isn't a Sleater-Kinney album, it's really forward looking. It doesn't feel like you're reminiscing at all…

JW: People really want to compare us to Sleater-Kinney. You cannot have anything even close to Sleater-Kinney without Corin Tucker. She is just a force of nature. There are four people in this band – and our chemistry together is totally unique. This is a different sound, we found our own beat and we're not resting on the world of any past bands. Creativity is what we live for, it's how we express ourselves and how find our way in the world. We just keep trying to find new ways of expressing ourselves. New ways of making songs exciting and interesting.

There's clearly a range of influences on the record. I can hear, for example, elements of post-punk, psych, garage rock, even 60s girl groups. Did you have a particular sound in mind when it came to write the album?

JW: Not really. We were serving songs pretty much – if a song needed to be short, we made it short. If a song needed to be long, we made it long. There was a lot of exploring different ways of making the songs. The most important thing was that we were all present. All our different personalities were all in. Everyone was participating. Other than that, I do have a rule of no reggae. Other than that there aren't rules.

What's wrong with reggae?

JW: I just don't wanna play reggae. There's nothing wrong with it. I love it, really. But I don't wanna play it. I'm not equipped to play reggae music. It's not something I wanna play in my band. It's not my personal experience of music.

That's fair enough. So the Wild Flag dub remix isn't coming any time soon then…

JW: [laughing] I listen to a lot of dub, but I don't feel like I can fairly represent that genre.

I just want to ask you about your name. You've spoken there about wanting to create something that was aggressive and loud, and quite visceral. Wild Flag feels quite symbolic of that…

JW: We liked the name better than any of the hundreds of other names we had. It seems ambiguous enough and causable enough. It elicits a feeling - it's visual. [Wild Flag] stood out as representing how we wanted the thing to feel, but at the same time, not ramming meaning down someone's throat and telling them exactly what the band is through the name.

So what's the long term goal? Can we expect another Wild Flag album?

JW: Hopefully, yeah. Right now we're just in the middle of a tour and we're completely focussed on that. We have lots more touring to do on this album. It's just come out so we're still really excited about it. We've already got a couple of new songs we've been trying out so hopefully there will be more and we'll have a second record. We're tying to live in the moment and appreciate all the good fortune and have a good time playing together. We're having a great time.