Chris Hornbecker
Chris Hornbecker

Carrie Brownstein Rules at Everything

Chris Hornbecker
Chris Hornbecker

On Portlandia, Carrie Brownstein demonstrates that with a little persistence, anyone can pickle anything. In real life, the indie-rock star turned music critic turned sketch comedian proves that the same general principle applies to mastering an art form—or a racquet sport.

There's a 12-piece polka band setting up in Carrie Brownstein’s neighborhood dive bar when we pop in on a Saturday afternoon in November. We’re looking for a quiet place to chat after our photo shoot, and this is not that place. “It’s like an episode of Portlandia!” says the 39-year-old cocreator and costar of IFC’s hit television sketch show, which lovingly satirizes modern life at urban hipness ground zero.

That Brownstein has enough energy to summon a joke is amazing. She was out the night before at a wrap party. Portlandia’s fourth season just finished three months of filming, and she spent that time in “a state of mania,” on set 12 hours a day, jumping between two or three locations, playing four or five characters (requiring at least that many wig changes). At times like this, she says, “I don’t need to sleep as much. I don’t need to eat as much. I exist on a level that’s fervent and restless.”

If you’ve paid attention to Brownstein’s career, that explains a lot: She seems to have the superhuman ability to master whatever she pursues. Portlandia is just one line on her résumé. She’s also a guitarist and singer who spent a dozen years co-fronting the celebrated indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney. Not long ago, she released another critically acclaimed album with a different band, Wild Flag.

And as if that weren’t enough multitasking mastery, she’s about three quarters of the way through writing a new album—one she won’t say much about except that she’s working with people she’s worked with before, which is enough to make a Sleater-Kinney fan’s heart skip a beat. In her free time, she’s working on rewrites of a memoir.

“I would describe her style as ‘Keep going, then go more, then let’s do this, then let’s think about that, and then here’s another idea,’” says Fred Armisen, her Portlandia partner. The verb Brownstein uses to describe her work life is vacillate. But switching from acting to music to writing doesn’t feel like shifting existences. “It’s coming from the same place of energy and intention and drive,” she says. “It’s easy to take lessons from one discipline and apply them to another.”

Although she comes across as a perfectionist—she speaks in thoughtful complete paragraphs—Brownstein’s training has been ad hoc. As a self-proclaimed drama nerd growing up outside Seattle, she went to theater camp and acted in school plays but was “diffident and awkward” on stage. Something about it appealed to her anyway. “There were moments that I could transcend that and sense that the stage was a place you could step outside yourself,” she says. “It was music that got me further outside, to that place of fearlessness or trying not to care what people thought.”

At 14, she saved up babysitting money to buy a guitar, enlisting a neighbor to teach her chords. She played in a riot grrrl band called Excuse 17 at Evergreen State College in the early ’90s and then, from 1994 to 2006, in Sleater-Kinney, a tight trio that, over the course of seven albums, transcended punk rock to become a staple of critic’s-pick lists. Greil Marcus, in Time, called them the best rock band of 2001, and Rolling Stone declared Brownstein one of “the 25 most underrated guitarists.”

But even at Sleater-Kinney’s pinnacle, Brownstein’s interest in acting didn’t recede. In Portland for a summer in the early 2000s, she and her friend Miranda July, the writer and performance artist, embarked on a course of study that could double as a segment from Portlandia. They collected a group of seven or eight acquaintances into what Brownstein describes as a “folksy, casual, almost self-undermining” theater group. Each week, a member was tasked with coming up with a lesson plan. He or she would go out and buy a book on acting technique—Meisner or Stanislavsky—and teach it to the group through improv activities.

July was fond of using psychoanalytic ’70s board games she found at thrift stores. “We’d just pull the cards out and sit around someone’s living room or backyard and play out these scenarios,” Brownstein laughs. But the endeavor wasn’t a joke. “It was a way of dealing with tedium but also acknowledging a kind of ambition we had. It was a way of taking risks couched as silliness.”

It was her first experience publicly embracing awkwardness—of harnessing the power of those little moments of clumsy uncertainty. In Sleater-Kinney, she says, “We were OK with being disarming, but you didn’t want to be awkward.”

Portlandia’s impulse is the opposite. Its humor is predicated on a layer of clumsiness, on dipping a toe into real life’s often uncomfortable current. To Brownstein, it’s why the comedy works. “Clunkiness can be charming if it’s married with intention and bravado,” she says. “It’s OK to embrace the parts that seem mismatched. That’s when you surprise people. It’s very hard to surprise people.”

People who knew Brownstein as a serious rock star were surprised when she started popping up in goofy online improv videos with Saturday Night Live’s Armisen in 2005. With Sleater-Kinney winding down, Brownstein was looking for other things to do. In the ensuing years, she contributed to NPR’s All Songs Considered, volunteered at Portland’s humane society (she’s good at training dogs), and, even briefly, worked a day job at the hip Portland ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. (“I was dreaming of corporate lunches,” she told NPR’s Peter Sagal in 2012. “But it turns out I’m not very good at working with a traditional boss.”) She and Armisen met at an SNL after-party (he was a Sleater-Kinney fan, wearing a button with her face on it) and became fast friends. Their comedy duo, ThunderAnt, made satirical sketches about snooty foodies, uptight feminist bookstore employees, and bloviating performance artists—a rough draft of Portlandia, which debuted in 2011.

If Brownstein’s new role as comedic actress was incongruous—this cool rock star wearing a fake mustache in a crude rendering of a muscle-head boyfriend—it was also totally hilarious. She eased into the role with such charm and shared such obvious chemistry with Armisen that the juxtaposition was hardly jarring. Together, they’re the Lucy and Desi of the YouTube era.

Brownstein also found familiarity in the process. To her, writing a song and writing a sketch are similar exercises. “There’s a moment of vulnerability when you present your ideas to someone else,” she says. “I like the sense that the idea is not fully formed until it’s been added to or rethought or restructured with collaborators. If you’re working with people you trust and admire, there’s an implicit awareness that the idea will actually be better once everybody chimes in.”

This makes writing her book both the least collaborative of her pursuits and the most challenging. After she finished filming Portlandia’s third season, Brownstein turned her focus to writing the first draft of her memoir. Being alone with a laptop can be intimidating. “All the onus and drive is whatever is inside me every morning, and sometimes it’s not there,” she says of writing. “I’ve never known procrastination greater.”

After rejecting the loud dive bar, we end up across the street at a bicycle shop that serves espresso and flights of beer on skateboards. “That is such an unnecessary presentation,” she laughs. “People always ask if Portland is like Portlandia, and I say it’s weirder.”

The show may be a skewering send-up of hipster culture, the earthy, overearnest, faux-inclusive Portland variety in particular, but it’s also a loving homage to the city and its people. It’s the kind of good-natured teasing that can only come from a place of genuine investment. Brownstein cares deeply about the city she’s called home since 2000. It’s not just the small-town outsider spirit that lets things like backyard theater groups arise. There’s also an enduring faith in the future and in community—something the show gently lambasts as “the dream of the ’90s”—but which for Brownstein is still an important motivating force.

“I want others to feel a sense of ownership. I like to feel invited into a space, whether that is a creative space or a dialogue with art or culture,” she says when asked whether it’s important that her work have underlying politics. “It doesn’t have to be overtly political. It doesn’t have to be aggressive or contrarian. But I like something that posits a question, something that foments engagement and loyalty. We’re in an age of dabblers. There are so many dabblers. To have something that somebody wants to engage and reengage with is exciting.”

For Brownstein even dabbling is a chance to gain a new proficiency. She won a ping-pong tournament a couple of years ago. She’s “entranced” by sociolinguistics, which she studied in college. She recently accidentally mastered slam poetry. (“I started extemporizing slam poems in jest and then started to get pretty good at them.”) When I ask Armisen whether there’s anything Brownstein can’t do, he says, “She cannot bring liquids, aerosols, or gels onto a commercial aircraft if they are not consolidated into one bag and X-rayed separately.”

“I’m not very good with stillness,” Brownstein says. But curiously, this hasn’t turned her into a classic multitasker. She’s more like a serial tasker—a master of prioritization with an ability to focus intensely on one thing at a time. And it’s clear she’s careful to concentrate on what’s truly important to her while letting the rest—namely cooking and yoga—fall by the wayside. “I want to be present in everything I do,” she says. “That’s the only limitation I set for myself.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here. All photos by Chris Hornbecker.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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