Wild Flag’s first concert was less than a year ago in Olympia. But this is no band of rookies. Cary Brownstein and Janet Weiss of NW rock icons Sleater-Kinney, plus guitarist Mary Timony of Helium and keyboardist Rebecca Cole of the Minders, have proven their talents over decades. The four are using them together for the first time, turning Wild Flag into a full-throttle, hard-touring indie-blues-rock juggernaut. Cole spoke to us from her home in Portland.
When I saw you guys last year there was a sense of “is this gonna work?” Seeing four veteran musicians behaving kinda nervously on-stage was exciting. Have you guys overcome that? Are you trying to?
I'm glad it was exciting and not like, “What the hell are we watching?” [laughs]
Part of what makes this band so fun is we’ve all come back to music and feel really excited about it. If it stopped being exciting for us, if it felt like we weren’t on that high wire, I’m not sure we’d wanna do it. That’s the driving force, the excitement behind why we do it.
Kinda like going from undergrad to grad school—you have to really want it to go back.
It’s funny you use grad school as an analogy because that’s the path I was on when this band started. I had finally finished my undergrad degree and was looking at grad school, figuring out what I was gonna study—I was thinking atmospheric science—and it hit me one day: Not that I didn’t wanna learn anymore but I had no desire to do that as a job, 40-60 hours a week, if I couldn't make music.
Grad school you get a singular focus, so instead my singular focus is Wild Flag. A band is consuming in the same way as school. It informs every aspect of your life. You're traveling, up late, always thinking about music. It's a great analogy.
My undergrad degree was in chemistry. What was interesting to me, as countries talk about cutting this much carbon emissions and emitting this much, is we don’t really know. We know how much a car emits, but we don't know how much trees absorb. Or large bodies of water.
That seems like a long time ago. I was like, “I’ll throw myself into that and become science nerd or I’ll play music again.” On my 30th birthday. I was like, “I wanna be a rock star or I wanna work for NASA.” So I went back to rock.
What’s changed for the band in the last year?
That Olympia show was tentative. We’d never played the songs in front of people. Our practice space is a 6'x6' room. To take the songs out of that room and into a space where people are actually listening—that's when a song is born, really. When it's flowing in a space and people are listening to it. We had no idea what would happen. We thought things might fall flat, for the listener or for us. Now there's more confidence than last year. There's an ease between the four of us as far as working out songs. Some of the songs we played that night didn’t make the record and we kinda dropped. We're getting better at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. We're more confident about what's gonna happen; we have a slight road map. That night it was just like, “Where are we going?” No one in the room knew. Now we have a slight idea.
It seemed like you were improvising on some of the songs that night, and some on the album have sound like heavy jamming. Is that accurate?
"Glass Tambourine," that’s a song with parts and verses and chorus and structure, but there's a point in the song where the structure doesn't exist anymore onstage and we do whatever we want with that. We're writing songs with that freedom built in, that freedom to go to a place onstage you’ve never been before, to surprise yourself and your band mates. It's more interesting for fans and for me to do something different every night. There's nothing more flat that going to see a band that plays it exactly like the record, where there's no hint we're living, breathing human beings in the room experiencing it. Maybe we'll screw it up, maybe we'll fall on our face, or maybe it'll elevate it to another place. "Race Horse" is like that too, built kinda loose and meant to be loose.
With the rehearsed set, the audience could be freaking out, jumping up and down, and the band might not play any different. That’s weird. Or the audience could be sitting here, hands in their laps, and the band would play it the same. That's not what it's about to me. The audience drives what's onstage. If the audience gives us a lot back, that pushes us. It's a more unifying experience.
The four of you are pretty experienced in making music. I like to imagine you get together in that practice room and music just flows out magically like water, but I’d bet it’s not like that.
It's not that easy, but if it were... If you're not working for something, it's not as rewarding. Sometimes it does fall into place, where all four parts just click together: That’s an amazing guitar riff, an amazing beat, here's a cool keyboard sound to hold it down. It all works. Other times it's trying everything to see if it works, every idea imaginable, we're just in the practice space experimenting, really trying to figure out all the possibilities of the idea. Another piece of that is not being afraid to cut an idea loose. We do bring in so many ideas, all of us, but sometimes it doesn't work with the four of us. It's not something we can make work. That’s a big part of the process—eliminating what doesn't work.
Is that difficult with so many big personalities contributing?
We're getting better at it, for sure. The first couple times we played together, it was awkward. That was the first time saying, "I don't like that idea." When you have to be told something isn’t working, it's never easy for anybody. Now we've built up that trust. If you have an idea and someone's like, "That’s not a good idea," you have to trust that they're right, and also trust in yourself that you can come up with 20 other ideas and one will be good. We're in a way more comfortable place with the songwriting, so it's easier for us to have that conversation. All of us have played enough that we can take the editing. You can say you don’t like it, it doesn't mean I'm gonna get fired.