Among a particular strain of NPR-listening indie rock obsessives, Wild Flag's self-titled debut album is the most hotly anticipated supergroup production of the year. Move over Kanye and Jay-Z, the combined musical DNA of Wild Flag includes two ex-members of Sleater-Kinney (Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss), The Minders' Rebecca Cole, and Mary Timony, of Helium, Autoclave, and the Mary Timony Band. The joyful, hard-rocking album lives up to the prerelease hype and the talent of Wild Flag's members. It's been getting almost uniformly ecstatic four-star reviews, and Wild Flag's live performances have been universally praised.
Slate spoke with Wild Flag singer and guitarist Mary Timony about the logistics of creating music when you and your bandmates live on opposite coasts, getting called "crazy" by male rock critics in her early days with Helium, and what it's like teaching guitar to a generation of kids weaned on Guitar Hero.
Slate: I know your old band, Helium, toured with Sleater-Kinney, and that you and Carrie Brownstein released an EP as The Spells—but how did the particular lineup of Wild Flag get created?
Mary Timony: Carrie was asked to do a soundtrack for a film called Women Art Revolution, and enlisted Janet [Weiss] and Rebecca [Cole], and they recorded a bunch of music—wrote it pretty fast for the soundtrack. They had fun playing together and wanted to write real rock songs, and they wanted another person in the band, so they called me up, which was awesome.
Slate: How do the logistics of your songwriting work? Do you write together or separately?
Timony: Both of those things. At first Carrie was living in New York for a year, so we got together a couple times and just traded parts around, and then she went back out to Portland, and those guys wrote some stuff together. Everybody brings parts in. Some of the songs came from parts that were more formed than others. With other songs, someone would bring in just a little tiny idea, and then we'd write songs in the practice space.
Slate: You and Carrie both do lead vocals on different songs on the album—how do you decide who sings what?
Timony: When we're writing the songs that kind of just happens. If Carrie brings in a guitar part she's been playing around with usually she'll have vocals too. That's just the way it works.
Slate: For rock stars, Wild Flag sounds refreshingly free of ego.
Timony: That's nice! I don't know. I guess every band has a different dynamic.
Slate: You live in D.C., and the rest of the band lives in Portland, Ore.—how did you record the album?
Timony: Over the past year and a half or two years, I've been traveling out there pretty often, and we had a few tours. Over the summer I was out there at least a couple times to make the videos we did. For the record we decided to do it in Sacramento, because that's where our producer Chris [Woodhouse] is based.
Slate: Who came up with the concept for the "Romance" video?
Timony: It was all Tom Scharpling, the guy who directed it. It was all his concept. It was two days, we were in Portland and there were a million locations and we were running all over the city wearing these masks the whole time. I was wearing the bear mask, and I found out towards the end of the video shoot that for some reason you could hardly breathe out of my mask, but everyone else's you could still breathe out of. I was wearing this bear head and I couldn't see anything and I couldn't breathe and it was crazy. I think Carrie's was kind of bad too.
Slate: In an interview with Venus Zine a few years back, you said: "With Helium, I was strongly thinking about women's empowerment and a lot of the song lyrics had to do with that." Wild Flag is an all female band, but the new album's lyrics are more abstract—are you still thinking about women's empowerment?
Timony: I guess the answer is I'm not really thinking about it. I don't know if it's because we're older—I mean, we're kind of thinking about it, but this band seems to have a vibe that's more just about enjoying music and having fun, and not really thinking about political stuff.
Slate: You've also mentioned in the past that male rock critics thought you were crazy and angry after the Helium album Dirt of Luck came out. Was it hard having your creative output be scrutinized in that way when you were in your early 20s? Do you think it shaped you or your music?
Timony: I haven't really thought about that in a while. That did happen when the first Helium record came out. There was a reaction to it. I don't know what to think about it now. It was weird. I guess I have learned to not really pay attention to what people think about me as much. I try to shy away from what they think. If it's bad or good, it's going to mess up your head in either case.