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.
Slate: Do you think it’s any better for young women musicians now?
Timony: I actually really do think it’s a little different. There are a lot more women doing music and it’s not quite as much of a statement as it was in the early ‘90s.
Slate: Are they getting more respect from male rock critics?
Timony: I don’t really read enough rock journalism to make that claim, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t that different in terms of what male writers say about women.
Slate: I tried to figure out how many bands you’re currently in, and I couldn’t get a handle on it since you seem to have so many projects going on. Besides Wild Flag, are you still performing with Soft Power and solo?
Timony: This whole next year is really going to be just Wild Flag. We’re going to be really busy—I’m touring pretty much until the spring. I’m in this band in D.C. with my boyfriend called Soft Power and we’ve been fully working on a record, and that’s the only other project.
Slate: What’s it like to create with someone you were in a relationship with?
Timony: It’s not really that different than making music with other people—it’s fun.
Slate: You teach guitar as well—how do you divide your time?
Timony: It’s not too crazy right now. It gets really crazy in the spring, because for the past three or four years I’ve had all the kids in bands, so I’m teaching and then I’m coaching their bands. That’s when I’m super super busy. But right now I’m just doing lessons and all the kids come to my house in the afternoons and on weekends, and every couple months I’m going out to Portland for a week or two.
Slate: How did you get into teaching kids?
Timony: I started teaching seven or eight years ago. I got one student through my mom, who was a second-grade teacher. One of her kids said, “I want to take guitar,” and she said, “My daughter just moved to town, and she plays guitar!” I started teaching just one kid, then I started teaching his neighbor, then her school heard I taught guitar, and within a year I had about 20 students. And that’s just word of mouth; I never had to advertise or anything.
Slate: What are your favorite songs to teach students?
Timony: I feel like teaching is an entirely different thing than my own music. I approach it as a different part of my brain. It’s a purely technical practice, like learning how to do dance routines. I really do stick with stuff that I like for the most part, though if a kid is really excited about something, I get caught up in that excitement. If they want to learn Guns and Roses, I wouldn’t normally listen to that, but if they’re excited, I’m excited. I stick with classic rock, usually, I start with Beatles songs. Then there’s “Pinball Wizard” by the Who, if they’ve been taking lessons for like a year I’ll start that. If they’re really advanced I’ll get into Hendrix.
Slate: Are the kids usually familiar with those artists or are you introducing them to classic rock?
Timony: A little of both, but oddly most of these kids are really big classic rock fans. It’s because of Guitar Hero. That era of music is a common thing they all know about. I’ve seen so many kids get so psyched to learn songs from Guitar Hero. It’s introducing them to music and I think it’s great. It helps me out a lot because they’ll bring songs in to me that they’ll learn from that video game.
Slate: Finally, what is the best thing that you’ve seen on the Internet this week?
Timony: I just was listening to this band Veronica Falls, from London. I think we’re going to play with them over there, and they sounded really good.