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Wild Flag: 'It just sort of exploded'

Greg Kot

2:14 AM EDT, July 19, 2011

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Carrie Brownstein is rolling on the stage while simultaneously trying to play her guitar and break it. The normally reserved Mary Timony is right there with her, grinning while playing her guitar behind her back. Rebecca Cole keeps the keyboard bass line pumping while pogoing. And Janet Weiss, behind the drums, is rolling and tumbling with her sticks while doing her best not to crack up. She knows she’s got the best seat in the house for what would prove to be Wild Flag’s eighth and final show at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, last March.

 “We were still figuring out what this band was going to be when we did those shows (in Austin),” Weiss says. “We just took it over the top. The state of music, people seemed lulled in a way, so what kind of tools did we have to address that? It just sort of exploded. I can see the whole scene behind the drums, my bandmates jumping around the stage, no inhibitions. I was just as excited as the audience watching that. It’s not planned, but we sort of fed off each other. You put yourself out there, let yourself be that exposed, and we realized, ‘That’s our job!’ To go out on the ledge, and just let go.”

Wild Flag is the most exciting new rock band I’ve seen this year, though it’s really not “new”: all the band members have impressive resumes that stretch back 20 years. Weiss and Brownstein were two-thirds of the great indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney. Timony fronted the masterly atmospheric Helium and myriad other projects, and Cole was a mainstay in the Minders. Their paths had crossed over the years, with Brownstein and Timony collaborating on an EP in ’99, and Weiss and Cole recently playing together in the Shadow Mortons. Then they convened again to create the soundtrack for a 2010 feminist-art documentary, “Women Art Revolution.”

The collaboration went so well that Timony began flying out from her home in Washington, D.C., every few months to join Weiss, Brownstein and Cole in Portland to work on new music.

“Nobody said, ‘It’s a band,’ at first,” Timony says. “But everyone was pretty serious about it from the start. It was fun, collaborative, everybody bringing in ideas, not just a songwriter telling everyone what to play.”

All the band members were actively involved in other bands except Brownstein, who hadn’t played much music since Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006. Instead she had poured her energies into working as a blogger at NPR Music, and now stars in a cable-TV comedy-hit, “Portlandia,” with another former musician, Fred Armisen.

“After Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006 I had very little desire to play music,” Brownstein wrote on her Monitor Mix blog last October. “It took well over three years before picking up a guitar meant anything to me other than an exercise.”

The Portland rehearsal-room sessions opened a musical door for all involved and a group sound and identity began to take a shape: a roaming, energetic blend of rocking guitars and girl-group harmonies, expansive arrangements and assertive, frequently joyous lyrics.

“With Carrie, every record we ever made together we wanted to push some boundaries, push new emotional space, and this was no different,” Weiss says. “In a way that was easier this time because we had two new people in the mix who we’ve always wanted to play with. With Rebecca, we’re able to sing together. It was a dream of mine to have someone in a band to sing harmonies with me. Mary is just so mysterious – a lot of what I love about music is how it makes you fantasize, daydream, imagine better things. She sort of represents that in the band. She’s the magical creature.”

After the South by Southwest shows, the band recorded its self-titled debut album, which will be released by Merge Records in September. It’s pretty terrific, a mix of sharp melodies, gauzy harmonies and ferocious guitar workouts.

“There is something liberating about the music we make,” Timony says. “There’s a lot of joy in it. It’s weird, because when you get to my age (she was born in 1970), you can seem ‘old’ in the rock world. It’s a hard life in some ways, hard to make money doing it, and there are a lot people doing it who have to stop. So I feel super lucky to be in this band. I think we all do.”

greg@gregkot.com

Wild Flag: 10:30 p.m. Friday at Subterranean, 2011 W. North Av., $15 (sold out), ticketweb.com; and 9 p.m. Saturday at the Wicker Park Festival, Milwaukee Avenue between North Avenue and Wood Street, $5 donation; wickerparkbucktown.com.