Carrie Brownstein: the Northwest's funny girl
In her music and on television, she takes a quizzical and quirky look at who we, and she, are.
A slim, thirty-something woman in skinny jeans, checkered flannel shirt and parka walks along an Oregon beach with her German wirehair mix — off leash. The male owner of a leashed dog showing an aggressive interest in her mutt confronts her.
"You really need to put that dog on a leash," he says.
The woman glares.
"Well, you know, I would, but it's actually your dog that's totally out of control. My dog is minding his own business."
"You still need to put that dog on a leash," he repeats.
An older woman approaches.
"Did you know your dog was sniffing my cooler?" she asks.
The younger woman feels fury rise in her cheeks.
"All right, then," she says. "Fine."
Clipping a leash on her dog, she parks herself in the sand — a foot away from the cooler — and sits there for nearly half an hour. If there were a dialogue balloon above her head it would say: "So. I hope you're satisfied now. My dog is on a leash. And guess what? You don't own the beach."
If this sounds suspiciously like the germ of a sketch from the cult hit TV show "Portlandia," you're not far off. It's a re-creation of a true story told by the co-star of the show, Carrie Brownstein, the Redmond-bred veteran of the band Sleater-Kinney who shares the "Portlandia" spotlight with "Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen. (Yes, Brownstein's the one in skinny jeans.)
As many observers have pointed out, there's a fine line between the tics of the Northwest character and the show's absurdist caricatures. If you've missed this looney Independent Film Channel (IFC) series, which wraps its second season next week, it can land uncomfortably close, the way it zeros in on the Northwest's quirks — its passive-aggressive self-righteousness, political correctness and sanctimonious privileging of animals, just to mention a few. In what is probably its most famous skit, thanks to YouTube, an obsessively territorial bicyclist (Armisen) shouts "bike lane! bike lane!" as he terrorizes the town. Then there are the humorless owners of a feminist bookstore who advise the air-conditioner repairman to get in touch with his feminine side and stop using the sexist word "unit." And the diners who demand to see the farm where the chicken they are about to eat was raised.
While all that may come off a little superior and smug, Brownstein wants you to know she doesn't see herself as exempt.
"I don't feel outside these situations at all," says the 37-year-old actor/musician, sitting in the upstairs lobby of Portland's vintage Hollywood Theatre, not far from her house in the Hollywood District. "This is the world I grew up in. I'm not saying, 'Oh, those people.' I am those people."
"And just so you don't think I'm a total asshole," she adds, exhibiting yet another typically Northwestern trait — our desire to be "nice" — "I regret moments like that. What I should have done is just leash my dog and walk away."
Modest, self-effacing, cool to the point of emotional distance, egalitarian, outdoorsy, wholesome, but also sardonic, quirky and decidedly anarchist at times, Brownstein is as Northwest as blown Pilchuck glass. She is also intensely self-critical, whip smart, befuddled by illogical people, maddeningly circumspect, expressive, quick to laugh, supremely self-confident, possessed of an explosive temper and, as an artist, apparently fearless.
THAT BROWNSTEIN is "one of us" should come as no surprise. As a girl, she played soccer and tennis and rode her bike to Chateau Ste. Michelle; raised hell on the Riot Grrrl rock scene at The Evergreen State College, where she started the indie band Sleater-Kinney, which Time magazine once called the best rock group in America; then, during a four-year hiatus from music, started acting in independent films and blogging for National Public Radio.
Last year, this multitalented Northwesterner hit her stride with "Portlandia" and a raucous new trio, Wild Flag, which just finished a European tour. In the past few months, she has been profiled in The New Yorker and The New York Times magazine and has won raves everywhere from Slate to Spin.
Though Brownstein is known primarily around here as a musician, she first dreamed of becoming an actress. Growing up in Redmond's Country Creek neighborhood — halfway between Marymoor Park and the woods now colonized by the Microsoft campus — she was, in her words, "an obsessed drama nerd."
"I loved Bette Davis and Clark Gable," she says. "The Golden Age of Hollywood. I wrote letters to young TV stars I had crushes on, like Ricky Schroeder."
One of Brownstein's favorite girlhood pastimes — she was born in 1974 — was corralling pals and, sometimes, her younger sister, Stacey (now a private investigator) — into putting on plays and musical pageants for their parents.
"We had a Duran Duran cover band," she says. "We built instruments out of plywood in my friend's garage and painted them. Sometimes when my parents had friends over, we would insist on singing a song. I wasn't a great singer, I was a horrible dancer, but I loved being in front of people."
Back then, Brownstein's father worked as a corporate lawyer and her mother stayed home. When Brownstein was 14, her parents divorced, and she and her sister were raised by their dad. Though she declined to discuss it, this teenage tumult likely was the crucible for the rebellious, angry punk rocker who emerged in Sleater-Kinney.
Shortly after the divorce, she bought a red Epiphone guitar with money she'd saved by baby-sitting and working at the local movie house; took a few lessons from Jeremy Enigk, a neighbor who later formed the band Sunny Day Real Estate; started listening to aggressive bands like the Jam and the Ramones; and hung out on the fringes of Lake Washington High School's "alternative" set. An average student ("I didn't apply myself"), she transferred in her senior year to Redmond's upscale private school, Overlake, and "reinvented" herself.
"I traded my Doc Marten boots for L.L. Bean duck shoes," she says, flashing one of her irresistible, Mary Tyler Moore-wide smiles. "I went preppy. Which, in reality, was much more my true nature."
To anyone who has seen Brownstein windmilling her electric guitar, barking lyrics like "I hate your guts!" that may come as a surprise. But it makes sense. Impressively well-read and well-spoken — her favorite author is Somerset Maugham and her recent reading list includes Paula Fox, James Baldwin, Jonathan Franzen and Mindy Kaling — Brownstein is no anti-intellectual. She never got in trouble in high school and speaks with circumspect, almost academic care, occasionally using the third-person pronoun "one." When told S-K bandmate Corin Tucker had called her a "Renaissance woman," Brownstein said "dilettante" might be more accurate, then settled on the word "polymath."
At Overlake, Brownstein had a starring role in the senior play, gave her best on the field ("she was a black-and-blue soccer player," quipped her English teacher, William Armstrong, who coached) and played doubles for the school's undefeated varsity girls' tennis team, though they collapsed at state, where Brownstein lost it on the court.
"I really pulled a McEnroe," she recalls.
Armstrong loved having her in class, describing her as a bit of a free spirit who "was willing to wrestle with ideas and think about the possibilities of this or that."
Overlake probably helped her get into Lewis & Clark College. Unfortunately, there wasn't money to send her there, and her father had no "focused plan" for school, so in the fall of 1992 Brownstein unenthusiastically packed for Bellingham. Before her first quarter at Western Washington University ended, she dropped out, moved to Seattle and got a job delivering sandwiches to an office park.
"I was miserable," she said. "I had always assumed I would be in college by then. But instead, I was working at this crappy job, living in an apartment — having the privilege to know it was temporary — but not enjoying it."
THE NEXT part of the story has been told many times. Brownstein went to The Evergreen State College, started Sleater-Kinney and over the next decade earned a major niche in rock history, not to mention enough money to buy a house in Portland.
But before the band broke up in 2006, Brownstein met Armisen at a "Saturday Night Live" after-party, and a new chapter of her life opened up.
"When I met her, it was like we were instantly friends," Armisen wrote in an email.
A huge S-K fan who came up in Chicago playing drums in a punk band, Armisen invited Brownstein to collaborate. The result was a series of web-only comedy sketches posted under the rubric ThunderAnt — the germ of "Portlandia."
The pair's natural comedic chemistry sparkles in those early skits. Thinking they were on to something, in July 2010, Armisen and Brownstein pitched the ThunderAnt sketches to IFC and Broadway Video (SNL's Lorne Michaels' studio) and got two thumbs up. After three episodes of the first six-show season, "Portlandia" was renewed for a second season of 10 episodes.
On "Portlandia," the pair play a variety of outlandish characters, including a couple called Fred and Carrie. Though they start with a rough idea, almost everything is improvised. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the subtext of the show is their relationship itself.
"I think it's more about that than anything else," says Armisen. "Portland is the framework around it."
The credit for building that framework goes to director Jonathan Krisel, who came up with the show's controlling notion that Portland is an anachronistic haven for the idealism that swept alternative youth 20 years ago. Krisel wrote the show's opening sequence, which features a parade of Portlanders giddily singing, "The dream of the '90s is alive in Portland!" to a melody written by Brownstein.
Krisel also gave the show its pastoral feel, which makes Portland's leafy neighborhoods and even its warehouses feel luxurious.
That may be why Portlanders love the show — including Mayor Sam Adams, a good sport who plays the mayor's assistant (Kyle McLachlan plays the mayor).
"I think it reinforces the fact that Portland has a great sense of humor about itself," Adams says.
Critics love the show, too. Though one, the Portland Mercury's Steven Humphrey, said the show lacks real characters to care about — which is what brings viewers back to TV shows week after week. For example, in a satire of an "adult hide-and-seek" club, the most sympathetic character is a normal woman in the library who rolls her eyes at the nerdy guy (Armisen) "hiding" under her table.
Krisel counters that viewers "fall in love with Fred and Carrie. It's them. You like them. You like seeing who they're going to send up."
Krisel also notes with pride that Brownstein brings an unusual feminine energy to "Portlandia."
"Comedy is a man's world, for the most part," he says, "especially for the kind of juvenile and silly stuff. I think I would call this a 'female' show. It's softer, more intellectual."
Can such a sensitive show survive in the rough-and-tumble world of television? So far, the numbers look pretty good. "Portlandia" has pushed viewership from 360,000 per episode in 2011 to almost 600,000 this year — no great shakes in a medium where ratings are usually measured in millions, but fine when you spent less than $1 million on the first six shows.
Perhaps more pertinent is the question of whether Brownstein — with her classically Seattle too-cool-for-school commitment to staying "alternative" — can comfortably embrace success and the incessant criticism that comes with it.
"No matter how disgusting or harsh or vituperative it gets," she says, "it's never as bad as what's going through my own head. So people should know that. You can say the meanest thing, and I've thought it — times one hundred."
She's especially down on herself right now for not being able to finish a book about the music industry she agreed to write for Ecco/Harper Collins, "The Sound of Where You Are."
"That's going to be my albatross," she says.
Reciting a litany of other things she also doesn't think she does well, Brownstein noted she has not been particularly successful at relationships, either.
For a hot minute in college, she and Tucker dated — a detail Brownstein's father unfortunately read about in Spin magazine. (It was her turn to be shocked a few years ago when her father came out as gay.) But Brownstein, who identifies as bisexual, said she has always found more sustenance in work than in personal intimacy.
However, she and Armisen — who's been married twice — have become extremely close. They talk all the time and text each other every night. Yet both have stated emphatically that they are not lovers.
"We are both married to our work," she says.
"Yeah, I guess so," she says, adding, "A lot of married people are platonic lovers, too. We just didn't go through all the other stuff."
WRAPPING THINGS up in our chat at the Hollywood Theatre, Brownstein tells another great story on herself. One of this season's best "Portlandia" sketches satirizes people who wave cars through an intersection when the other guy has the stop sign. Talking about this obsequious, passive-aggressive habit reminded Brownstein of something that had recently happened to her.
"I was following a woman, and there was this bicyclist that crossed the street and the woman decided the bicyclist needed to know she had done an incorrect crossing," she says. "So she slowed down, trying to talk to the bicyclist . . . so I started — this is awful — I started incessantly honking at her to go. She must have thought something was wrong, so she slammed on her brakes. And I hit her."
Hey, that could be a "Portlandia" sketch!
But listen, keep it to yourself. Brownstein and Armisen already have at least 70 ideas in the can, and counting.
If a third season is in the cards, they're ready. With the new band and the book, it's a crazy schedule, but Brownstein is loving the ride.
When her father suggested last fall that she needed a break, she told him she'd go on vacation in a year.
"It's all very fleeting," she says. "Anybody who doesn't know that is fooling themselves. There'll be a time where neither the band nor the show exists anymore. And no one will care. But right now, I'm enjoying it."
Paul de Barros is a Seattle Times staff arts writer.