Hunger Makes Us Modern Fans: An Interview with Carrie Brownstein
The Sleater-Kinney guitarist's memoir releases this week so we sat down with the 41 year old legend to talk about her influence, the future, and Young Thug.
“Rock and roll is almost dead,” Carrie Brownstein tells me, cross-legged on the couch in her hotel room. That’s a weird thing to hear from someone you consider living proof it’s still around—Brownstein is a founding member of the pioneering rock band Sleater-Kinney and widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of our time. But the 41-year-old would rather talk about Drake. Or Kendrick Lamar. Or Young Thug.
“I listen to a lot of hip-hop. Probably more than anything,” Brownstein explains over a swell of sirens from the street below. It’s raining in Manhattan and we’re about ten floors up. “Hip-hop doesn’t try to be separate or above anything. It’s in the fabric.” She looks out the window and onto Madison Avenue. “It feels integrated with a rhythm, and I mean this in terms of the pace of our lives. It meshes together in a way that’s very seamless.”
We’re here to talk about her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (out October 27) but the shift in our conversation feels startlingly apt: Of course Carrie Brownstein loves hip-hop. “One thing that I think is so boring about rock and roll is that there’s something about a white guy with a guitar that has to be taken seriously because people think ‘Well this is going to be around forever, right?’ But who knows? What is forever? That’s such an entitled idea that you’re just automatically in the canon because you’re emulating this long tradition. I feel like with hip-hop, it has to be considered right now. And that’s how everything should be. What else is there but right now?”
In the early 90s, Carrie Brownstein and Sleater Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker took a distinctly conversational, almost rap-like approach to songwriting that underlined the band with socially political duress. Not only that, but the way that Brownstein and Tucker screamed at each other in manic verse and overlapping guitars reflected the chaos of the issues that were coming to a head in punk music at the time: radical feminism, queer identities, and sexual assault. On stage and off, Sleater-Kinney’s repeated refusal to be qualified as a “female band” and worked to crush the traditional standards of women in rock by speaking directly from inside of the issue, or as Brownstein says about hip-hop, “in the mix.”
“To me, it’s the most exciting kind of music—there’s a sense of humor, it’s topical, it’s relevant.” In the middle of gushing about To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar and her fan girl love for Drake (“Kendrick's album is incredible!” to "How good is 'Hotline Bling?'"), she lights up and runs across the room to grab her purse. “Wait. I have to show you something.”
“Do you like Miguel? I love Miguel so much.” After digging through her bag, she finds her iPhone and blushes uncontrollably. “He’s not really hip-hop but watch this.” I lean in as she scrolls through her videos. “This will prove to you what an insane fan I am.”
Watching someone as famous and influential as Carrie Brownstein freak out over a birthday video message from a pop star like Miguel is an example of why her memoir is so fascinating: Even at the height of Sleater-Kinney, when people were getting Brownstein’s signature tattooed onto their arms, she remained unable to fully separate herself from the suburban superfan whose life was changed after discovering Bikini Kill in 1991. Even now, as a bonafide rockstar, she seems more comfortable fangirling about Miguel than talking about herself.
In the book, she recalls her transition from desperate riot grrrl wannabe into the spotlight with her own band in a way that only people who have given their whole heart to a music scene before can understand. When she admits to writing embarrassingly effusive fan letters to guitarist of 7 Year Bitch in excruciating detail, down to the outfit she wore with the pen in her hand, you can see the buds of Sleater-Kinney. Her book makes a case for fandom as an intellectual pursuit. It’s interesting how people often conflate Sleater Kinney with the riot grrrl movement when in reality, Carrie Brownstein started out as a hardcore fan who basically stalked Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy until she noticed her. But what really made Sleater-Kinney different from the rest was how they engaged in conversation with what it meant to have experienced riot grrrl, instead of just declaring its tenets.
Brownstein’s memoir makes it clear that it’s never been enough for her to take things at face value. Instead, she understands her influences as parts of herself, allowing her to see the importance of her band with analytical nuance. She carries with her the ingredients of self, and that’s exactly how Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl breaks it down.
Noisey: You describe discovering punk and riot grrrl in your youth with such detail. How did you remember it all so vividly many years later?
Carrie Brownstein: The process, I guess, for writing the book, was to draw from moments that seemed to define my journey into creativity, and what stood out. What seemed crucial in terms of finding myself, discovering the creative process, kind of being found by music and community. So much of Sleater-Kinney was a part of that, and Corin [Tucker] in particular. I came up with an outline, and I knew there were certain sections I wanted to focus on. I talked to Corin a lot, and my sister, and I read old journal entries, I asked friends who I had written letters to from tour. I started to cobble together the narrative, but I didn’t necessarily write it chronologically. I wrote it in chunks, and then put it together in the order that seemed most interesting, and carried with it the most suspense.
The analytical way you recall your musical inspirations intellectualizes the experience of being a fan. Why do you think that is?
I feel very much a kinship with my younger self who was a fan. To me, fandom carries with it an inherent curiosity, and I think curiosity is what allows us to be open and optimistic and to allow into our lives experiences that we would otherwise be closed off to. We’re confronted all the time with so many instances and so much information that almost requires a shutting down—almost requires us to become inert... to become frightened. There’s something about fandom’s relationship to curiosity that keeps us moving forward into the world and into the process of discovery, and I think to balance that with the things that feel more frightening and uncertain... It helps me keep optimism as part of the ingredients in my life, and it helps me live in the present. Even if you’re discovering something old for the first time, the process of allowing something new into your life I think speaks to an allowance that’s important.
How does a person break into a scene they’re a fan of without feeling like a pest? You mention struggling with that yourself when you first moved to Olympia and began engaging with bands like 7 Year Bitch and Heavens to Betsy.
I think the missing link is just knowing who you are. It’s hard to kind of integrate and posit yourself into a community when you’re still so full of insecurities. There’s that real transformational story about Elizabeth from 7 Year Bitch literally not recognizing me. I wanted so badly to be a part of her world of her band, literally wanting to be part of her band, and I was invisible to her until I became essentially someone else. And that’s a very dramatic and specific version of transformation, but I do think it has a lot to do with being comfortable with who you are—surrounding yourself with people who make you feel whole, or at least don’t make you feel less than. And being in a place where you feel safe enough to take risks. And that can be a variety of things. For me, I had already formed Sleater-Kinney and was playing on stage, but for other people, I think it can be having the confidence to present yourself not as an outsider—as someone that belongs. And that takes a lot of confidence. Part of that is surrounding yourself with people where you feel like you belong.
That’s what led you to from suburban Seattle to Olympia?
Yeah, and it helped me. That was something school couldn’t do. I was in college, and I could barely speak up in class. I was so shy and so nervous. It really took a constellation of freaks and weirdos and outsiders until I no longer saw myself on the periphery. The periphery expanded until it felt like a center.
And then it literally did! There’s that moment in the book where you’re center stage at one of the first Sleater-Kinney shows, realizing you had crossed over from being a fan to a true part of the scene there. Like your idols finally accepted you. Do you think experiences like that shaped how you and the band with your fans?
I think collectively, we’ve been on both sides of that equation. I think also, because we didn’t have a meteoric rise to fame where you’re missing out on those intermediate steps, we’ve been there through that whole process of having friends put on shows, and staying on strangers’ couches. Early on, there was hardly a differentiation between you and the audience. That hierarchy was completely dismantled. So I think if you start that way and very organically build into the next steps, it’s hard to decide, like, “Oh, well we’re not going to communicate with you anymore. We’ve transcended you.” So our popularity had a fairly organic progression. At the same time, once we were bigger and touring on a bus and playing bigger shows, I think it was just still important to us. It’s just the nature of our music. We sense such a need from people that I think we try to acknowledge it when we can. I feel very certain that actually music is what I want to be giving to people. There’s not that much beyond that that’s even satisfactory. As an artist, I don’t think there’s anything you owe to your fans beyond the music. However, as a human who is compassionate and kind and sensitive, I do try to be aware of what exists outside of the fan-band dynamic, that exists just in the voices that reach out through social media, or in line after a show, and to have them be individuated. Not fan, generic, just people. That’s when I remind myself of how important it feels to be noticed. There’s so much about that early on in the book—that feeling of even eye contact, just like, yes I’m here. I felt invisible before, but I’m here.
Back in the early iteration of Sleater-Kinney, we would get proper letters to our label, and I would read those, but in the age of social media, and at our shows for No Cities to Love, there were a group of fans who started to get tattoos of our signature, and that was really intense, because we would sign their arms and I would assume that was a temporary bit of ink upon their arm, but then they would get that permanently tattooed. And part of me thinks like, this is crazy and you have to chill out. You do not want my signature… but another part of me just realizes like, that enthusiasm, that willingness to do something that is kind of like spontaneous and frivolous and also just kind of counterintuitive is all part of just the process of loving something or feeling part of something. I probably would have done stuff like that too. But when you’re on the other side of it, it feels bizarre. I was like, I need a more beautiful signature. I’m going to have my signature look like a Picasso painting. I’m going to learn calligraphy. I, however, do not have any tattoos of anyone’s signatures.
If you could though, would you?
Who you fangirling over right now?
I mean, Kendrick’s amazing, but I also love Young Thug and Meek Mill.
So are you on team Meek Mill or team Drake?
I’m kind of on team Drake. They split apart. I mean, they were friends. I prefer Drake’s album. Even his new “Hotline Bling,” I love that song. It’s such a good song. I just think hip-hop is such a nimble genre. I love it a lot. I think it’s great. But I think Kendrick probably put out the best hip-hop album this year. Do you like Big Sean? When I’m in the trailer shooting Portlandia, it’s all I’m listening to. Oh, and Tame Impala. I love that record. And I like the new Kurt Vile record. I like Rihanna a lot. I really like how she’s like, “Nah, I don’t want to be in Taylor Swift’s spot. I don’t want to be a role model.” You know, good for you! You don’t have to be everything to people. Do whatever you want. There’s a lot of multitasking involved when you have to be a role modeI. For example, I saw Grace Jones last night do a reading. She signed up two hours late and just fucked around and signed books. It was a diva moment. But I was like, you know, wow, we really ask a lot of female pop stars. They’re supposed to be larger than life, also down to earth, sexy, but likable. I just like how Rihanna was like, “I don’t want to be likable. Don’t make me a role model. I’m just going to put out music.” I love that. She speaks the truth, and she doesn’t get involved in the beef and stuff.
But in the book, you do admit to feeling that same kind of pressure from your fans. People idolize Sleater-Kinney enough to be called a cult. How do you deal?
I think by just keeping it in perspective, I guess. Keeping it real. Looking at Miguel talking to me on video.
Bryn Lovitt is a contributing editor to Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.