A few years back, Carrie Brownstein was a singer and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney, a key player in the riot grrrl movement. Today, she's a blogger for NPR's Monitor Mix, where she writes about everything from horrible band names to drunken bass solos. I spoke with her recently about the transition from stage to the blogosphere, the death of rock 'n' roll, and her hush-hush upcoming music project.
NG: What music are you excited about right now?
CB: I really do love this band called Surfer Blood that's been getting a lot of attention and had a lot of buzz building up to their self-titled debut [Astro Coast], which just came out. Although, with the churn factor being so high, I feel like it's already over, and the time has come and gone; they had their three seconds of fame. But they're a four-piece from Florida. Florida is such an unlikely place for a band, unless you're an emo or hardcore band. In terms of the touring route, or even the way the geography works in terms of bands and communities, Florida's always been this appendage that you either cut it off and dismiss it, or you somehow include it in your scope. They're just an interesting band, teenage pop and good hooks. Listening to their records makes me excited about music.
I also love the new Quasi record. I am biased; I played music with Janet Weiss for years and I've been a huge Quasi fan. But I really think they've outdone themselves with their new record, American Gong. That came out on February 23. They have veered over the years to psychedelia and jazz, which I've always been able to follow. This album still has the surprising and chaotic elements, but they also are able to reign it in and create these really magnificent rock pieces. It's just a really exciting, well-intentioned record that still has the political overtones that the records have always had, and the dark metaphors.
NG: How do you feel about the state of female-driven music right now?
CB: It seems good. I mean, I feel like one would be hard-pressed to take stock of the last couple years and not realize that there are plenty of women who are playing music, that are singer/songwriters but also part of bands. Generally, however, it's followed this trend of softer music. I think men are making softer music as well—this quieter, understated, passive approach. I don't know if there are a lot of great rock bands right now, let alone women-led rock bands.
I feel the more primal stuff is coming out of the garage scene. The Vivian Girls play garage music, and Wet Dog, out of England, are making more of a post-punk sound. There's this surf garage band called Grass Widow out of San Francisco that are cool. I think in terms of rock in general, whether women or playing it or not, it's been on the backburner in lieu of more introspective beard rock, as I call it.
NG: I feel like I was just reading about this in Rolling Stone, where they were lamenting the death of rock. Any good, successful rock bands right now?
CB: Maybe Them Crooked Vultures, but I also think they're tapping into this nostalgia fest. You know how nostalgia creates this strange itch that everyone becomes obsessed with scratching? As much as they might be making great fist-pumping rock music, I can't say they're doing anything amazing. I just think they're satisfying for people that are missing that energy. I think a lot of the intention of bands, especially in the last year, is to spread themselves out geographically and borrow from different cultures and different sounds, and to be eclectic. And that's great in terms of dynamics, but it also tends to not have that torpedo and fire running through it. If you're spreading yourself out across the globe, you're also not emphasizing a singular point, which I think great rock music has always done. If you listen to the Stooges, those guys were from Detroit and sounded like Detroit. I don't think you need to sound like from where you're from. But I think there is something magical and powerful about encompassing something fully and singularly.
NG: You've been in the music scene awhile. Are you ever cynical about finding new artists or about where the music industry is heading?
CB: I've always been a fan first and foremost—obsessing over bands and seeking out bands, and spending hours and hours listening. When I played music, the scope of my fandom became more myopic; I was focusing on the bands we were touring with, or the bands on the label. And you're always positing yourself in relation to other bands. Since I haven't been playing, I feel a little less cynical. I'm able to seek out music and approach it strictly as a fan. So yes, cynicism does creep in. I think you can start to feel like nothing is as good as it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago—but that’s toxic. You have to embrace the time you live in. And if you're dissatisfied, you have to realize you're also dissatisfied with yourself.
When I'm cynical, I seek out bands that are fully participating and trying to push something forward. Or I can just start playing music again—which is happening with a new project. But I think it's always a challenge to overcome cynicism and not get bogged down by a sense of nostalgia. That can be such a stifling feeling.
NG: What's this new project?
CB: I can't really talk about it. It's a new band, and something will be happening on the horizon.
NG: How soon?
CB: Moderately soon.
NG: You participated in a documentary, Girls Rock!, about a rock 'n' roll girls camp. What was that experience like, and why do you think it's important to encourage young girls to get involved with rock 'n' roll?
CB: I was interviewed in it, yes. Many years ago—2002, 2003, maybe earlier—I was volunteered at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, which started in Portland and since then has had branches in New York and possibly other parts of the US. I was driven to work at it and be part of it because, especially for young girls, it's a safe, comfortable environment to play music and make mistakes and start from scratch and learn something you've never even attempted before. These kids form (bands) on Monday, and Friday they're on the stage playing a show for friends and family. That journey is really empowering and really special. It also gives these young girls a chance to behave in ways that aren’t traditional for young girls—to be rowdy, to be a little angry, to have unabashed fun. Music has always been a safe context for all sorts of misbehavior, for men or women. But for young girls, there is something so valuable about breaking rules, or breaking a societal standard, or feeling like you're not being judged and no one cares about how about you look. It's about how you feel and connecting with other girls and being able to write songs. In the process of playing songs and writing music, a lot of really intense things come up for them, and I think it's very magical and really inspiring.
And it actually relates to your other question, in that I've been snapped right out of a cynical mindset by seeing a Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls showcase. You literally see 20 all-girl bands, some of them with 8-year-olds, some of them with 16-year-olds, and whether they're singing about a puppy or a boy or it just sounds like a page ripped out of their diary, and you can't believe how inspiring that is. There's that camp and Paul Green School of Rock, which is a coed camp, and I've seen amazing things come out of both. And they're extra important with the school systems in America losing funding for music and arts programs. So these after-school and summer programs kind of take the place of that.
NG: What impact do you think those music program cuts are having on kids?
CB: I don't have kids, so I can only imagine that people that grew up with music programs and arts programs take it for granted, that our education was a little more holistic. Our school systems had enough money or enough parent involvement that they felt like learning music and songs, and exploring the whole pop or classical canon, were just as important as algebra or biology. There are so many tie-ins between music and other subjects, whether it's math or language or English. You can't underestimate the importance of having an outlet, and being expressive and creative. I would imagine that hopefully, whatever is replacing that is just as edifying and just as tactile. Music is such a visceral and tactile experience for a kid, and to just replace that with video games or something that doesn't have the same sort of physical impact would definitely be a poor choice, and have a negative impact.
NG: How do you think this downloading culture has impacted the industry?
CB: I think there are pros and cons. On the plus side, the sheer accessibility of music cannot be underestimated or undervalued. A young person today can make all of those links and go on all of those journeys that it took people that are older years to track down. You would discover some record by some band, and you would realize that it came from some scene. "Oh they're from Leeds, who else came from Leeds? There's Gang of Four, Delta 5..." Say they were influenced by reggae or dub, then you had to go figure that out. Now that all can take place in a matter of keystrokes and minutes, and the music is right there for you to download. Your world can open up so immediately.
Certainly the negative elements are just as intense. The devaluing of the album—that you can pick or choose what you want from a band. If a band or artist goes into a studio and actually intends to make an album, it's kind of obsolete at this point. I think also the attention span in terms of people's excitement about something seems to last such a short time. And the interface of a computer seems to flatten a lot of different experiences. If your whole world of a band or music is taking place in a digital realm or on technological devices, it's all mediated through those things. That takes away from the experiential and sensual nature of music. That's a lot less exciting for me to think about. It's not my ideal way of living with music.
NG: How do you usually listen to music?
CB: Like everyone else, I have my iTunes on my computer and some speakers. And I will occasionally listen to it like that. But I still have a stereo and a bunch of records. I love pulling a record out of its sleeve and putting it on the turntable and flipping it over when that side's done, and my stereo sounds better than my computer and those speakers do. I also still listen to music in my car. And I'll usually opt for CDs rather than a mix on my iPod. I still have a more tactile relationship with my music.
NG: Which seems more and more uncommon…
CB: I guess there's a vinyl resurgence. A lot of people are buying vinyl. But I don't know if they're actually listening to it or just collecting it or using it for DJ gigs.
NG: Do you have any particular performers you like to see live?
CB: There's a band called the Gossip. They’re amazing. And certainly the best way to experience that band and harness that kind of insane hurricane energy they have, which is really hard to capture on recording, is seeing them live. To also just delve into their relationship with the audience—and how symbiotic it is—and the amazing rapport between particularly Beth Ditto, the singer, and the audience, is a real pleasure.
NG: What was it to go from performing to being an observer writing about music?
CB: Except for the performance aspect, it wasn't that different. I've honestly always been an overly analytical, highly observant person. I was playing music but thinking about it at same time, which was sort of exhausting. Aside from the pain of writing—you're not really in a gang like you are in band, it's a little bit lonelier—I think it was always something that I'd wanted to do. So the transition wasn't abrupt or painful.
NG: Are there any particular music blogs that you really like?
CB: I love Tobi Vail, who was in Bikini Kill. She has a blog called The Bumpidee Reader, and she writes about music and books, and she always has an interesting, dynamic take on things. It's always with a feminist slant and has a real punk rock ethos. It's a very original blog, and I love it. I like Douglas Wolk's blog (Lacunae). He's written about music and comics for years, whether it's the New York Times, or I think he writes for Slate sometimes. I like this legendary curmudgeonly writer in the UK named Everett True. He has a blog called Music That I Like. You're always reading about things you wouldn’t otherwise. And I check all the usual suspects usually—Stereogum, brooklynvegan, Pitchfork, just to get my news for the day. My blog isn't news-based, so I try to check in with those guys to see what the status quo is. Then I write the opposite.
NG: What kind of impact do you think the music blogosphere has had on how we listen?
CB: You'd hope that no writing about music could supersede the music itself. But I do think that blogs mirror the way that we are listening. It comes at you fast and it's timely and then five minutes later we're on to something else. It caters to our desire for instant gratification. And I think blogs also have fluidity that's exciting. You have a lot of real enthusiastic music fans for the most part that are writing sometimes for a large audience, and I think certain blogs have a little too much power over what someone likes or doesn't like. But for the most part, they're a nice companion to the way people appreciate music.
There are other blogs that do a great job delving into something obscure that no magazine or even online magazine would give somebody the time or money to write about. That kind of specificity is exciting, because that's also how people listen to music; They get excited about one era, or one label, or one genre, and then they want to stay on that for weeks and want to be completist about it.
NG: How do you cater to the NPR audience, which is pretty broad?
CB: I don't. I honestly don't. I think of myself as a fan of NPR. I've listened to it since I was in high school, and so what I hope and assume is that the average NPR listener is number one, just appreciative of good writing. So whether you're introducing them to something new, or talking about something that they actually don't like, that if you write about it eloquently and are earnest in your intentions, the general NPR audience will usually have an open mind and will at least kindly disagree if they feel that you're wrong. So no, I don’t care to pander. I just try to be engaged in the ongoing dialogue.
NG: Do people "kindly disagree" often?
CB: Yeah, sure. It's never overly contentious, unless I present something that is argumentative or negative. If I have a strong dislike for something, obviously that garners an equal amount of derision, towards me from the audience. And that's fine, as long as it's within the bounds of decency and isn't too personal in the vitriol. That’s what makes the blog interesting, and that's what makes reading it interesting and that's what makes writing interesting. You don't want everyone to agree.
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