"Portlandia" comes on the IFC channel long after this blogger's bedtime. It's the best TV series he's never seen. However, a scouting trip to Amazon Instant Video revealed that all 6 episodes from Season 1 are available for $6.99 rather than $1.99 per episode: "Save $4.95!" So, this blogger will be able to see the place “where young people go to retire” before bedtime. If this is (fair & balanced) whimsy, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Margaret Talbot
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A smugly enamored couple sit in a restaurant, their hands clasped as they fret over the menu. The chicken, for instance: can the waitress tell them a little bit about its provenance? Of course she can, because this is the kind of cool restaurant in Portland, Oregon, where patrons regularly seek elaborate assurances about the virtuousness of their food. The waitress informs the couple that the place serves only local, free-range, “heritage-breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts.” But because the diners, Peter and Nance, are characters on “Portlandia”—a television comedy in which precious concerns spin into giddy lunacy—the conversation does not stop there. Peter, played by Fred Armisen, asks if the hazelnuts, too, are local. Nance, played by Carrie Brownstein, needs to know the size of the parcel of land where the chicken roamed freely. (Four acres.) The waitress excuses herself and returns to the table with a file folder and a photograph. “Here is the chicken you’ll be enjoying tonight,” she says, with therapeutic solemnity. “His name was Colin.” Peter seems appeased: “He looks like a happy little guy who runs around.” But then he wonders if the animal had “a lot of friends—other chickens as friends?” The waitress, who finds this a reasonable question, admits, “I don’t know that I can speak to that level of intimate knowledge about him.”
“Portlandia,” which débuted last winter, on the Independent Film Channel, and returns on January 6th, is the rare sketch-comedy series that has a sustained object of satire. It’s about life in hipster enclaves, and the self-consciousness that makes hipsters desperately disavow the label. Many of its characters are caught up in the prideful culture of D.I.Y. entrepreneurship, in which people reject office jobs in favor of becoming, say, an appliqué-pillow designer with a page on Etsy. (This season, a couple launch a business based on the catchphrase “We can pickle that!,” brining everything from eggs at an urban farm to a broken high heel found on the sidewalk.) “Portlandia” is an extended joke about what Freud called the narcissism of small differences: the need to distinguish oneself by minute shadings and to insist, with outsized militancy, on the importance of those shadings.
Brownstein, who is also one of the show’s writers and producers, told me, “In general, things in a place like Portland are really great, so little concerns become ridiculous. There are a lot of people here who can afford—financially but also psychologically—to be really, really concerned about buying local, for instance. It becomes mock epic. It’s like Alexander Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock.’ I was standing in line at Whole Foods, and the guy in front of me says, ‘I really wish you guys sold locally made fresh pasta.’ And the cashier says, ‘Look, we do.’ And the guy says, ‘No, no—that’s from Seattle.’ Really? You don’t have a bigger battle?”
Portlandia” presents a heightened version of the city’s twee urbanity: a company sells artisanal light bulbs, a hotel offers a manual typewriter to every guest, and a big local event is the Allergy Pride Parade. The mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan, becomes an object of scandal when he’s “outed” as the bass guitarist in a middle-of-the-road reggae band. (The real Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, who is openly gay, plays MacLachlan’s assistant on the show.) Armisen and Brownstein, wearing anthropologically precise wigs and outfits, portray most of the main characters: bicycle-rights activists, dumpster divers, campaigners against any theoretical attempt to bring the Olympics to Portland, animal lovers so out of touch that they free a pet dog tied up outside a restaurant. (“Who puts their dog on a pole like a stripper?”) Many characters recur, and, because they often seem to know one another, their intersections from sketch to sketch give the show the feel of a grownup “Sesame Street.” This childlike vibe has an edge to it, however; as an Armisen character explains at one point, Portland is “where young people go to retire.”
Armisen, who is forty-five, is a seasoned comic actor who has been in the cast of “Saturday Night Live” since 2002, but Brownstein’s involvement in “Portlandia” is surprising. She had never done comedy before collaborating with Armisen, and, in many ways, she is the epitome of the indie culture that the show sends up. For twelve years, Brownstein, now thirty-seven, was a guitarist and singer in Sleater-Kinney, a three-woman band from Olympia, Washington. Sleater-Kinney drew on the riot-grrrl sound but transcended it; the band’s energy was raw and punky, its vocals haunting and its lyrics vehement. In 2001, the critic Greil Marcus named Sleater-Kinney the best rock band in America, and when it went on indefinite hiatus, five years later, the news triggered many end-of-an-era laments. Last year, Brownstein started a new band, Wild Flag, with the drummer from Sleater-Kinney, Janet Weiss, and two other indie-rock eminences, Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole. The group’s first album, released in September, has been widely praised; Rolling Stone said that Wild Flag “makes other bands sound like sniffly rookies.” Urban Outfitters sells the record, on vinyl.
When Brownstein plays music, there is nothing ironic about her. The first time that we sat down to talk, at a restaurant in Portland’s loft-filled Pearl District, she said, “I’ve never understood people who play up the artifice of music. Music, for me, was like a tidal wave. It took me outside of anything I’d ever done.” She had been an isolated teen-ager, and punk was “a salvation,” she said. “You can never underestimate that moment of somebody explaining your life to you, something you thought was inexplicable, through music. That was the way out of loneliness.”
Brownstein is petite, with chin-length dark-brown hair and a wide mouth. Offstage, in jeans, striped T-shirts, and sneakers, she looks more cute than commanding. Onstage, she projects the primal grandeur of Iggy Pop. She writhes on the floor, climbs on the kick drum, and windmills her playing arm. She yelps and shouts, and hiccups just like Joey Ramone. “She brought all that posturing and posing to girl rock, which would be nothing if she didn’t write great songs and play guitar like a demon,” Brendan Canty, the drummer for the band Fugazi, who is a friend, says. “She was a straight-out-of-the-box rock star.” Sometimes this side of Brownstein appears on “Portlandia”—when one of her characters needs to freak out, she delivers a great howl. But it’s a howl of thwarted entitlement. The show is offering satire, not salvation.
Brownstein likes to say that “Portlandia” is an affectionate portrait of the city where she has lived for the past decade. The warmth is not in the writing, which leans toward the acerbic, but you can find it in other places, like the show’s dreamy look. In the opening-credit sequence, a chillwave instrumental plays over a montage of lush, tree-lined streets and saturated neon against an inky blue sky. It’s a little like Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”—the imagery evokes a world you’d like to live in, even if the people in it are hard to live with. The characters in “Portlandia” are dressed with an eye toward recognition, not ridicule. Brownstein says that when she puts on the outfits picked for her by the show’s costume designer, Amanda Needham, she feels as if she were “borrowing clothes from someone’s closet.” Needham, who told me that she shops for the “Portlandia” characters year-round, as if they were friends, won an Emmy last year for her designs.
But the most palpable affection onscreen is that between Armisen and Brownstein, who have an unusually devoted platonic relationship. They met in 2003, when Sleater-Kinney was playing in New York City, and Armisen invited the band to an “S.N.L.” after-party. When Brownstein showed up, she found him wearing a Sleater-Kinney button with her picture on it. Their paths had probably crossed before: Armisen started out his performing life as the drummer in a Chicago punk band called Trenchmouth, and he was married for six years to the British singer and songwriter Sally Timms, from the Mekons. Brownstein says that she and Armisen likely slept on some of the same couches when both were touring. (“If you were in an indie band in the nineties, you slept on a lot of couches.”) After that party in New York, Brownstein and Armisen began building a friendship, but, given that they were living on opposite coasts, they decided that they’d have to work on something together. As she put it, when you’re not dating somebody, “it begins to seem kind of weird if you’re flying around the country to see him.”
It’s easy to see why Armisen and Brownstein clicked. Both are hard workers with little tolerance for downtime. Both are music obsessives, with an encyclopedic knowledge of B-sides. Neither has children, or seems likely to have any, though they’re sweet to their friends’ kids. They shudder at the thought of becoming bitter or cynical. Both describe themselves as having been difficult, or restive, in romantic relationships. Armisen was married first to Timms, and then, for less than a year, to Elizabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olson on “Mad Men.” Brownstein has dated both men and women, and she was once involved with Corin Tucker, the singer and guitarist with whom she founded Sleater-Kinney. But she hates categories like “bisexual,” and has always felt more defined by her work than by her relationships. “I never think of sexuality as an identifier,” Brownstein wrote in an e-mail. “What seems to have defined me more is that I’m pretty horrible at relationships and haven’t been in many long-term ones. Leaving and moving on—returning to a familiar sense of self-reliance and autonomy—is what I know; that feeling is as comfortable and comforting as it might be for a different kind of person to stay.”
When Sleater-Kinney broke up, Brownstein threw herself into other creative activities, partly because she was grieving the loss of the band and partly because she was fearful of being the kind of person whose finest years were in her twenties. She started writing a blog about music, for the Web site of National Public Radio, an enterprise that she kept up for three years; she also started writing a book, The Sound of Where You Are, about the current state of music-making, which is scheduled for publication in 2013. Thinking that an office job might be a good thing to try, she did a six-month stint at Wieden+Kennedy—the modish Portland ad agency responsible for Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. (The agency’s playcentric workplace has been spoofed on “Portlandia.”) But working at an ad agency proved alienating, she said, because of the way “the work mimics art.” She added, “Music, to me, is an earnest populist endeavor and this was a cynical populist one.” During that period, she stopped playing the guitar, even at home; it felt too sad, like “putting your wedding ring back on after a divorce.” She spent so much time helping out at the Oregon Humane Society that she was honored as Volunteer of the Year. Then she remembered how much she liked acting.
As a child growing up in Redmond, Washington—the Seattle suburb where Microsoft has its headquarters—Brownstein loved putting on plays. The idea of gathering people in the same room, attentive to the same thing, appealed to her, as did the “staging of small dramas with a beginning, a middle, and an end I could control.” She was also reacting to an emotionally chaotic household. When Brownstein was fourteen, her mother, who was deeply unhappy, left the family—Carrie has a younger sister, who is now a private investigator in Seattle—and has stayed in only intermittent contact with them over the years. Brownstein’s father, a corporate lawyer, brought up the girls. Brownstein remains fairly close to her father, but was taken aback when, a few years ago, he came out as gay and began living with a younger man. Her dad had been a typical suburbanite, she said, who “veered a little conservative.” He is now “way more liberal, more outgoing, he laughs more. It’s like meeting a new person.” Though she has welcomed this transformation, it “casts doubts on what your own childhood meant.” She said, “It’s kind of hard to think that that was him in a period of denial. Just when you think that everything that’s going to inform the rest of your life has sort of settled in, it’s, like, ‘No, there’s one more thing.’ ”
As a teen-ager, Brownstein discovered the Clash and the Jam, and bought a guitar with money she had saved from babysitting and working at a multiplex. In 1993, she enrolled at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, where there was a rich alternative-music and feminist scene. Brownstein fell in with the riot-grrrl crowd—bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Bratmobile—and eventually joined forces with Tucker, who was two years older. Though Brownstein became a musician, she didn’t forget acting. “She’d always had this interest in it,” Tucker, who remains a close friend, recalls. “She had an improv group in Olympia. But it was like your friend who has this weird hobby. You know—some people are into trains? She was into improv. It wasn’t that cool, in the context.”
In 2002, in Portland, Brownstein and her friend Miranda July, the writer, actress, and filmmaker, started a group to study acting. “It was a very Portland approach,” July recalls. “We got this group of friends together—maybe ten people, meeting at each other’s houses. One of us would go to the library and get a book and bring in an acting exercise and present it to the class, and then we’d all do it. It was the sort of thing that could never have happened in L.A. None of us knew anything and there was no teacher. But I think Carrie and I both actually kept a lot of that feeling with the acting we went on to do.”
And then Armisen came along. He did know what he was doing, and he suggested to Brownstein that they make some videos for the Internet. They called their enterprise ThunderAnt and developed some of the characters and situations—notably, the feminist bookstore—that are now mainstays of “Portlandia.” ThunderAnt was something they did chiefly for fun, but by the time they had ten fairly polished sketches Armisen thought that they might have a show to pitch. In 2010, they signed a deal with Broadway Video, a company run by Lorne Michaels, who produces “Saturday Night Live,” and approached IFC, which was looking to create some comedies. Jennifer Caserta, the executive vice-president of IFC, who launched its current slogan—“Always On. Slightly Off”—says that the channel was “turning to smaller comedy clubs, YouTube, and other viral sensations, looking for something less polished, freer, maybe more improvisational than you would see in situation comedies.” IFC took on the show, and “Portlandia” has become its biggest hit, with an audience of more than five million. “It was so crystal-clear to Fred and Carrie what the show was,” Michaels says. “It’s their own aesthetic. With ‘S.N.L.,’ between dress and air, there’s a lot of edit work that goes into it, and earlier, too. I’m all over that. But I wouldn’t second-guess this.”
Armisen and Brownstein are fascinated by how couples interact—the shared references and gestures that mark intimacy—and since they often play couples on “Portlandia” they have been able to channel their outsiders’ observations into characterizations. “I get to play at connecting with people,” Brownstein says. “Because in every scene we’re in a different relationship, it’s like I’m learning how to have relationships from the show.” She has let go of some of her squeamishness about nuzzly couples: “When you’re embodying the person, you’re not judging.”
Armisen and Brownstein text each other every night before bed. Brownstein says of their friendship, “Sometimes I think it’s the most successful love affair either of us will ever have.” Both claim that it wouldn’t work if they were romantically involved. “It would be colder, because we’ve both treated our romantic relationships in a cold way,” Armisen says. “Carrie and I are more romantic than any other romantic relationship I’ve ever had—that sense of anticipation about seeing the other person, the secret bond. But things don’t become obligatory. I’m not thinking, I’m doing this because you’re my girlfriend; I’m just thinking, I love Carrie.”
Two of the main characters on “Portlandia” are named Fred and Carrie; they have an ambiguous joined-at-the-hip relationship. The show’s production designer, Tyler B. Robinson, has proposed that, at some point, they be shown waking up in the same room, in twin beds, with their names above them. “It’d be very Bert and Ernie,” Brownstein said, adding that if, in real life, “Fred said to me, ‘I’m going to move into your house, and sleep in the same room, in twin beds,’ I’d be, like, ‘Sure!’ ”
“Portlandia” is shot on location all over town, and one sunny weekday morning in September the cast and crew gathered in the back garden of a restaurant called Casa Naranja. Though the sensibilities mocked on the show are equally on display in places like Austin, Texas, or Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or the Silver Lake neighborhood in L.A., the show is anchored by locales in Portland, such as Oblique Coffee Roasters, whose Web site features this self-description: “A super bitchin’ Victorian Coffee Mercantile with scrumtrulescent beans micro-roasted in an über-German cast iron roaster named Bart!” The show diverges from urban reality in one key respect, however: as Jonathan Krisel, the show’s director, likes to say, it never rains in “Portlandia.” The sunny look gives the series a honeyed, fantastical aura.
Casa Naranja’s garden is trellised and outfitted with macramé hammocks; patrons who sit in the hammocks end up awkwardly close to the ground. Brownstein, Armisen, and MacLachlan were dangling in three of them. In the first season, the characters Fred and Carrie made friends with the mayor, a sprightly, outdoorsy guy who holds meetings sitting on his exercise ball so that he can work on his “core.” In the scene about to be filmed, Carrie and the mayor suggest to Fred various ideas for a cool, original date, and he is resisting.
“Portlandia” is a largely improvised show, and the sketches often start out very sketchy indeed. Armisen will come to Brownstein with a newspaper clipping about, say, the trend of men knitting. Or they’ll be walking around Portland and notice that it is fashionable there to show off “wild and flowing, fully gray” hair. Then Brownstein, who is good at capturing the larger social setting, will start providing the context. For the second season, Bill Oakley, a former head writer for “The Simpsons” who had moved to Portland, has helped out on the show. He says, “I’ve spent a lot of time in writers’ rooms. They’re pressure cookers. In most cases, they’re heavily male. You work long hours and many of the people in them have a really negative view about themselves and life.” The “Portlandia” writers’ room, however, is collaborative and laid-back. Some meetings have been held in the loft of the director Gus Van Sant, who has become friendly with Brownstein. “Gus’s dog was wandering in and out,” Oakley says. “There was a microbrewery downstairs.”
One reason for the lack of stress is that the writers don’t have to generate much dialogue—that gets filled in during filming. Krisel does many takes of a scene, most of which start and end the same way but follow very different paths to get there.
In the garden, the actors idled in their hammocks, dragging their toes in the gravel. They had decided that, in the scene, they would call a waitress over and ask her what she thought of one scheme: a “heist” date, in which Fred asks somebody out and then smuggles her into the local drive-in. The date would culminate with Fred and the woman pretending to rob, or maybe really robbing, the concession stand. MacLachlan genially laid out the scenario: “You actually put on a mask and go to the concession stand and mess with them a little bit.” Wouldn’t the waitress enjoy a date like that? Wouldn’t she think that a guy who proposed it was daring and attractive?
The waitress was played by Annie Clark, the singer who goes by the name St. Vincent. Musicians turn up frequently in guest roles on “Portlandia”—they’re usually friends or acquaintances of Armisen or Brownstein. Last season featured Aimee Mann, Corin Tucker, and Colin Meloy, of the Decemberists; this year will include Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr, of the Smiths, and Steve Jones, of the Sex Pistols.
The tall, willowy Clark played her scene standing up. “How do we look from up there, Annie?” Brownstein called out from her hammock. “Awesome? This is such a good angle for most people.”
The clapboard sounded, and the scene began a second time. Brownstein tried out a new line, an attempt to assess whether the waitress would be open to criminal activity: “Have you ever hacked into a computer system before?” Clark answered with an apologetic no.
In another take, Brownstein tried a new tack with the skeptical Fred character: “You know what girls like? They like writing to guys in prison.”
“I am not going to prison,” Armisen replied. “I would not do well in prison.”
Krisel, who has fluffy sideburns and wore a plaid shirt and skinny jeans, said of the waitress, “We need a moment where she kind of decides to do it.”
“Right,” Brownstein said. “She should be into it, but not totally into it.”
In the next take, MacLachlan spun out the idea of the date as a caper movie. “Which kind of a character would you be?” he asked the waitress. “Would you be, like, an electronics expert or a weapons master, or what?”
“I took a kickboxing class once—I could be, like, a ninja,” Clark said, gamely.
Between takes, the actors launched into their own repartee, like joggers running in place at a stoplight to maintain their pace.
“Have you ever been to a drive-in?” MacLachlan asked.
“Yeah,” Armisen said. “ ‘Jaws 2,’ I think.”
“ ‘Jaws 3’ would have been better,” MacLachlan said.
“Were there three?” Brownstein said. “Let’s see. Two was Quaid, one was Dreyfuss and Scheider . . . ”
Armisen broke in: “Then, there’s the prequel, where the sharks are little babies—cute, really cute.”
“Yeah,” Brownstein said. “It was called ‘The Little Mermaid.’ ”
On a car ride to the next location, I spotted heavily tattooed parents leading an as yet uninked toddler out of a gluten-free bakery. On another afternoon, a woman ventured over to the set and offered the crew a bottle of wine. “Did you make it?” Armisen asked her. “No,” she said. “But it’s from our winery.” The closer I looked, the harder it was to see the dividing line between Portland and “Portlandia.” At one point, I was distracted by three skateboarders—two men, one woman, all in their thirties, at least, and all wearing wool beanies—rolling down the middle of the street. I discovered that Robinson, the production designer, is a local who drives a retrofitted ambulance, where he keeps all his supplies.
The feminist bookstore where “Portlandia” films is a real one called In Other Words. When I visited the place, the employees were nowhere near as humorless as their counterparts on the show, Toni and Candace. (In one sketch, Toni, played by Brownstein, reproves a woman who has written an appreciative account of her boyfriend’s sexual technique for the store’s “journaling class.” “I feel like it was a brag journal,” Toni says. “And what a journal should be is a document of misery.”) But the store was featuring an art exhibit of clay labias, and it sold something called a Pee-Zee, a plastic device that allows women to urinate standing up. In the bathroom were posters seeking roommates for group houses, including this one: “We are into open and honest communication, dumpstering, crafts, music, raw/living foods, biking, natural building, permaculture, living in shacks and trailers and all kinds of fun stuff like that. We are a vegan house, except that some of us do dumpster dairy.” (When I mentioned this to Brownstein, she said, “If I were into dumpster diving, dairy is the last thing I’d dive for.”)
That evening, I spent some time with Armisen and Brownstein at her house, in the Grant Park neighborhood. She lives in a clean and uncluttered Craftsman-style bungalow, with hardwood floors and arched doorways. Curled up on the sofa and eating takeout Thai, Brownstein was dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans, and Converse low-tops, looking like the tomboy kid sister in a movie from the sixties. She has two rescue dogs, a German-wirehair mix named Toby and a hound-boxer mix named Cricket, and they hung out in the living room with us. Brownstein had been improvising dialogue all day, had done a press conference at lunchtime, and had just come back from driving St. Vincent to the airport, but she was as articulate and forthcoming as usual.
We found ourselves talking about ambition. Though Brownstein had taken full advantage of the riot-grrrl scene, it clearly wasn’t a long-term place for her. Brownstein loved the way that the movement had freed her to make angry, exuberant music, and she was grateful for her collaboration with Tucker. But she ultimately found life in Olympia oppressive: “When you’re indoctrinated into a scene, there’s this pride that comes with being accepted and understood by people you admire. But the flip side of that is this almost stifling sense of democracy. You put yourself down, to overcompensate for the embarrassment of riches or the little attention you get.” Even worse, she said, was “the élitism that passes itself off as inclusiveness.” She went on, “The rules are so esoteric, so hard to follow, that no one else could fit in. And what you’ll never admit to yourself is that you don’t want other people to fit in.” That’s a good summation of what “Portlandia” lampoons.
When Miranda July tried to explain why she and Brownstein had stayed friends since their riot-grrrl days, she began to say the word “ambition,” but hesitated. Instead, she said that they shared “a steady focus on what we are going to do next. We’re always asking each other, ‘What’s the next project?’ And, that being the throughline in our lives, more than relationships, that becomes pretty meaningful, at a certain point. Because it’s something that potentially can feel kind of shameful in the details. The world we started out in—it was not, like, the point of doing what we did was to become famous. That whole revolutionary riot-grrrl kind of spirit—it was very community-based.”
Several weeks after I visited the set in Portland, I had breakfast with Brownstein in Washington, D.C., where I live. During the meal, she got a text from Armisen: “You and I are in Spin together! Love you!” Brownstein smiled and said that she appreciated Fred’s unabashed enthusiasm for their accomplishments. It had taken a while, she said, for her to shed the sense that it was unseemly to “take credit for something you did. So Fred is so nice, because he never came from that scene. And it’s not about being self-aggrandizing. It’s just about taking a moment to be proud of yourself, that you worked hard and feel good about it.” Maybe, she mused, it helped that he was a guy.
On October 18th, Wild Flag played a sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom, in New York. The highlight was “Romance,” Brownstein’s irresistible anthem to the power of music: “You watch us sing, we sing till we’re crying / We sing to free ourselves from the room / We love the sound, the sound is what found us / The sound is the love between me and you.” The crowd felt the love and sent it roaring back.
The next morning, it was pouring, and so windy that there was no point in opening an umbrella, because it would instantly invert over your head. Brownstein, who had stayed at a friend’s apartment in the East Village, was trying, unsuccessfully, to hail a cab, so that she could get to a street corner near the Holland Tunnel, where she had agreed to meet Janet Weiss, the Wild Flag drummer. Weiss drives one of the two vans that the band tours in, and by midday Wild Flag had to be in Philadelphia, to tape a radio show. Though being in a respected indie band may land you a well-paying gig doing something else—a television show, say—being in an indie band is not, in itself, a well-paying gig. Touring can be a grind, and bands must do more of it now, to make up for the loss in album sales attributable to downloading.
Brownstein finally got across town and climbed into the van, drenched; two hours later, the van pulled up at the radio station. Inside, the women of Wild Flag talked good-naturedly about the humiliations of being on the road. Mary Timony had had a particularly trying night. Her boyfriend had joined her in New York, and they had booked online a place to stay that turned out to be in a yoga studio; she was awakened by a gong and had to walk through a Bikram class to get to the bathroom. All four women laughed ruefully about the practice space they’d used in Portland to record the Wild Flag album—a cramped, windowless room packed with musical equipment. In the room next door, “a really loud drummer would be just bashing the hell out of the drums,” Brownstein recalled. “I thought, at one point, that his therapist must have sent him here. There was this horrible wheat-free bakery next door—I mean, you’re not going to be craving spelt. I couldn’t write another album there, but I’m glad we did that one, because there’s an urgency to it that probably could only come from our trying to crawl our way out of there.” Weiss was carefully wrapping her blistered hands with athletic tape, to gird them for another bout with the song “Racehorse,” which often turned into a cathartic, fifteen-minute workout onstage. Brownstein mentioned how hard it was “to stay sharp on tour,” and said that she did a lot of reading. She had James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work and Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun tucked into her travel bag in the van.
Brownstein doesn’t see the contradictions in her work that other people do. Her sexy, roiling presence onstage is one side of her, her wry social portraits on “Portlandia” represent another side, and neither has much in common with her modest, cerebral, nonperforming self. Brownstein said that when playing rock music she’s always conscious that she’s performing; she remains fully in control, no matter how chaotic it looks. “Onstage, I can stop on a dime,” she said. Lately, the “Portlandia” characters had “been seeming more akin to who I really am,” she added. “Or maybe it’s just a safer place for me to go. With music, I get to a much darker place. Where I’m able to go with ‘Portlandia’ has a wider range, but also a brighter range.” Ideally, she’d like to keep her music side and her comedy side separate; she doesn’t really want people to be thinking about her onscreen goofiness when she’s tearing it up with Wild Flag.
Touring with the band kept her away from Portland for most of October and November. But she went home for Thanksgiving, to see her dogs, to take long walks in the mossy, gray-green woods, and to see Armisen, who flew in from New York, where he’d been filming “Saturday Night Live.” I e-mailed Brownstein to ask how her holiday had gone. She recalled stopping at a dog park with Armisen. Because it was the real Portland, “the weather was horrible—rainy, windy, cold.” She wrote, “I told Fred he could stay in the car. But he insisted on joining me out on the wet, muddy grass, tolerating not only the elements but a typical dog-park lady who overshared about her pair of jacket-clad whippets. When I saw Fred bundled up in his parka, wearing his brand-new R.E.I. hiking boots, I felt so happy and lucky; there are very few people for whom Fred—a classic New Yorker, not a nature guy at all—would brave the outdoors.
“The dinner itself was spent with the Goldfarbs, a family I’ve sort of adopted as my own; I spend all my holidays at their house. In the decade that I’ve known them, even when I’ve been dating someone, I never bring anyone over. I prefer to keep things separate; perhaps I’m bad at sharing the scant amount of family that I do have, or fearful of giving someone a glimpse of the few people who really know me. But Fred is someone whom I deeply trust, he’s already an extension of what I’d call family.
“We drove home late and I dropped him off at his hotel. Sometimes I get confused and think, Are we supposed to kiss goodnight? But, the truth is, I don’t want us to kiss, I want us to teach each other how good it can be to stick around.” Ω
[Margaret Talbot is currently a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has also written for The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, where she published numerous cover stories as a contributing writer from 1999 to 2003, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. Her essays have been anthologized in several books, including "A Desire to Duplicate" in The Best American Science Writing 2002 (2002) and "Material Girls" in Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write about Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race, and Themselves (2005). Talbot is a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award. As a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, Talbot continues to explore such themes as the changing contours of family life, women’s work, and children’s culture in the 21st century, and politics and moral debates as they intersect with both science and the law.]
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves