So, I bragged that I was interviewing you on Facebook, and everyone my age or older was like, “Sleater-Kinney!” And all my younger friends talked about Portlandia. Do you find you have a bifurcated fan base?
"[Smiling] Well, I do like the word 'bifurcated.'”
Total nervous word.
"No, I appreciate when anyone can pull out a heavy vocabulary word in the middle of an interview. There is a slight duality, I suppose, in terms of my fan base, but with overlap. What’s interesting is that one associates music with youth, but like you said, it’s actually older people who are familiar with my band. Whereas Portlandia – it’s a pretty broad demographic. There’ll be a 70-year old guy who comes up and says, 'I’m into your show, and so is my 35-year-old kid, and my grandkids.'”
We can all laugh at hipsters together! Is being recognized a daily occurrence for you now?
"Yeah, I guess it is."
Is that weird?
"It’s not weird because I’m a very approachable person. And the way people approach me is mellow. The work I put out is the kind that people feel a sense of ownership over; they sort of cherish it. So, the way I get approached is very friendly and not scary or creepy."
When I see TV or movie stars in real life, I don’t recognize them as famous at first, and I have to stop myself from saying "hi" like they’re my friends. Whereas I once saw Tom Verlaine at the Strand, and I was just stunned.
"Totally. People relate to music in a very earnest way, but it’s not that feeling of 'Oh, yeah! I was just hanging out with you at my house.' So, when people come up to me for Portlandia, it’s like, 'Oh, hey! We’re friends, right?' It’s a very different approach than when I played music."
What albums were seminal for you growing up?
"Definitely Patti Smith’s Horses. I remember the first time I heard 'Gloria' — 'Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,' you just feel like there’s a tear in the sky. And The Clash’s Sandinista! and London Calling."
The Clash kind of helped me locate my teen angst in the larger world. Their lyrics are so smart.
"And, there’s such specificity. Paul Weller or The Kinks did this, too: singing about quotidian things, but it was about how you can’t separate your daily life from the political sphere or the social sphere. It’s all very connected."
British bands are really good at doing that.
"Totally. And The Jam were huge for me, too. One of my first punk albums was All Mod Cons, that a student teacher brought to me."
That’s incredible. What do you think that teacher saw in you as a teenager?
"Well, I was going through an awkward, transitional phase, where I was falling behind in the popularity contest with my more…normal friends [laughs]."
I know the feeling.
"I think every weird kid goes through that. So, I was searching for a new friend group, and there were a group of kids who dressed weird at my school. They were called the 'bat-cavers.'"
"This was right before Nirvana, so things weren’t labeled 'alternative' yet. Not everyone had the same sartorial identity, so you had to come up with your own. You had your metal kids, hipsters, rockers, heshers, Goth kids, the punks, we had a few sharps — it was split into these small subcultures. And, at our school, any kid who wasn’t a rocker or a punk or a Goth, we were all the weirdoes. So, we were called 'bat-cavers,' because we looked like we’d crawled out of some dark cave."
Were you attracted to their aesthetic?
"I was. You know, you look back and the Left Banke, the Bloomsbury Group, the mods: They all have such a sharp, unified aesthetic. So, I would see this pack of kids walking down the hall in their black trench coats and army-navy jackets and combat boots, and I thought, 'I still want to feel a sense of belonging, but I don’t quite fit in with these popular kids anymore…' So, I was sort of halfway transitioning, like I’d still wear a preppy rugby or polo shirt, but I had combat boots on. And this student teacher said to me, 'Hey, I brought you this Jam record.' And I loved it."
For me, mod was a revelation, because in my high school, it was cool to dress like a London punk circa '77, but I had no idea where to get leather jackets and bondage pants. But, mod — that I could do with blazers from the little boys’ section at the thrift store.
"I shopped in the boys’ section at the thrift store too. It was all about finding that perfect vintage T-shirt or corduroy pants. But, I don’t want to make it sound like I was totally punk. As a kid, I listened to tons of pop music that I still love today, like Madonna or Cyndi Lauper."
It’s amazing that at this point, you’ve had multiple dream careers. How did you find yourself writing a sketch comedy show?
"Well, it all started because Fred Armisen and I are friends."
You knew him through his band, Trenchmouth, right?
"Yes — and if you want to make Fred smile, tell him you’ve heard of Trenchmouth. You know how when something is very tied to your formative years? It doesn’t matter what kind of success you’ve had, if somebody recognizes the person you were when you were 17 or 21, there’s something so fragile about that person. So, Fred, despite all his other successes — getting a Trenchmouth compliment just makes him beam."
So, you knew each other’s music?
"He was a friend of Sleater-Kinney, and he wanted to collaborate. We started making these unscripted, very bizarre vignettes under the moniker Thunderant. They were partial ideas that we kept riffing on until it kind of went off into space. Then, when we finally pitched the show to IFC, everything cohered at once. And, all of a sudden I was in a writer’s room. It was strange, but, you build up a level of confidence from doing one thing over and over again. I had started to feel that way about music, and I’m starting to feel that way with writing now."
Comedy writing's a notoriously tough gig.
"Well, I was lucky to work under the tutelage of Allison Silverman, who had been head writer at The Colbert Report. She’s so brilliant and funny, and was very willing to teach. She could have easily taken a senior position, but instead she gently steered the ship with ideas, and was very transparent about the process. It was my crash course in being in a writers’ room, and I’m so grateful to her for that."
Both rock-n-roll and comedy are so male-dominated, and there can be a prevailing attitude of machismo. Did you ever feel that?
"I think in some ways, I had imposter’s syndrome — not based on gender, but the fact that I’d snuck into comedy through this side door. A lot of people in comedy come up through tried-and-true channels like UCB and Second City, and they have skills and a level of improvisation that is mind-blowing. And, then you have the people who have been doing stand-up, and – kind of like someone whose been playing music – they also have this very weathered ability to deal with a lot of situations. They’re nimble. So, my first year I was like, 'How do I deserve to be here?'"
Do you still feel that way?
"No, because so many people come from different backgrounds now, whether it’s in music or comedy or film. People are open to a new approach or perspective. After the first year, I thought, 'Portlandia is its own thing now.'"
And you felt you’d earned it?
The show's become its own world now. I catch myself calling Portland “Portlandia” sometimes.
"[Laughs] I think lot of people make that mistake! And Portlanders are like, 'No, no, no, no…'"
Portlandia has such a unique comedic perspective in that it’s good-natured. It’s scathing — but lovingly so.
"One thing that helps is that Fred and I know these people — I mean, we are these people we’re portraying. They’re just permutations of our personality or they’re accentuating what’s usually a small facet of our personalities. We’re more interested in the trajectory of a sketch... We’re more interested in 'who.' Like, 'Who would make these kinds of things? Who is worried about this kind of situation?' At its core, it’s kind-hearted, because we’re interested in these people."
It doesn’t feel mean, as trenchant as it is.
"I think that you can be incisive without being mean-spirited, and I think people in Portland are able to see that. And, also, the more people actually watch it, they realize it’s less Portland-specific; it’s more about a mindset. It’s more about people’s relationship to their environment, but that environment doesn’t need to be a city in the northwest."
Totally. I’ve never been to Portland, but I know those people. The joke is on that preciousness in all of us.
"Right! And just making epic battles out of minutia. I think we all have that awareness that we’re worried about things that have really small stakes. Like, there has to be a self-awareness that a lot of people in this world are dealing with things a lot more serious than whether your coffee shop has whole milk or half-and-half. But, at the same time, we like feeling special."
Okay, important last questions. First, what advice would you give to a girl who wanted to pick up a guitar?
"Practice. Learn and then unlearn — that's the trick in finding your own style of playing. You can't merely emulate, you have to innovate, or at the very least create your own path into the process."
I loved your one album with [most recent band] Wild Flag. Any plans for another?
"Wild Flag ran in its course. I see rock as a genre that should get in and get out, and Wild Flag was a straight ahead rock band in a lot of ways. Sonically, I feel that rock has such an expiration date, you want to consume it while it's warm from the oven, burn your tongue on it, feel that residual sting for a few days, then move on. So, in that sense, one record was perfect."
There have also been rumors of a Sleater-Kinney reunion. Any chance?
"We weren't interested in longevity, just a quick spark. Sleater-Kinney was always more of an art-punk band, so angular and inverted and just weird. That sound and dynamic would be interesting to revisit at some point, but I don't know when."
I've noticed you often have a really strong, incredible red lip going on, and your skin always looks amazing. Any favorite products to share with us?
"The three lipsticks I travel with are Chanel's Rouge Allure Velvet La Fascinante, Red Lizard by Nars, and Revlon's Spiced Cider. I also really like Kate Somerville's ExfoliKate and Davines' Hair Refresher."
What advice would you give to someone trying to — as you’ve done — make space for herself in a male-dominated field?
"In terms of gender stuff, I’m fortunate to just be existing. I think you have to create your own world, your own environment a little bit. There’s certainly a bigger world that exists, but if you are able to build something up and dictate what experience you’re going to have, then you can really own that, and open things up for yourself, you know? You can just kind of create your own shapes, I guess. Portlandia is very much a world in itself, and so is Sleater-Kinney."
And, finally, what's one thing that makes you feel undefeatable?
"I love this James Baldwin quote: 'You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don't live the only life you have, you won't live some other life, you won't live any life at all.'"