Here We Are Now
What do you do if you were too young and Jewish to catch the early-1990s Pacific Northwest rock scene? You listen to Wild Flag now.
You’re going to end up missing things in life. That’s just the way things go. “Statistically speaking, you will die having missed almost everything,” as Linda Holmes put it, in her must-read essay on the subject. And that’s fine. But what keeps me up late nights thinking about missing Sleater-Kinney is that I was so close. Not in terms of being physically close to a show, but that my “Aha!” moment, the moment when I realized the importance of independent music in my life, came so close to when the band was active that I can’t help imagining what I might have seen. Which was why I got so excited when I heard about Wild Flag.
Sleater-Kinney was a band from Olympia, Wash., that formed in 1994 and broke up in 2006. A second-generation riot grrrl band, Sleater-Kinney formed as a side project for the singer and guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, who were then in other bands. When those bands broke up, Brownstein and Tucker joined with drummer Janet Weiss, and Sleater quickly became one of the world’s best bands, with loud guitars, voices like lightning, and lyrics more focused on feminism and left-leaning politics than anything else. Greil Marcus called them a “great punk trio” and named them America’s best band in 2001, and for once in his miserable life he was right.
Listen to “Call the Doctor”: It starts off Sleater-Kinney’s 1996 album of the same name with a few seconds of loud guitar and Tucker sarcastically proclaiming, “They want to socialize you/ they want to purify you.” Then her voice kicks into the upper reaches, as if she can’t take any more of it: “They want to dignify and analyze and terrorize you!” Brownstein’s backup vocals suddenly appear, as an equalizer, and the song begins in earnest. Tucker’s voice has the remarkable quality to jump between playful and intense in the blink of an eye, and halfway through the song she breaks into the chorus, hollering back at society what it has always thought of women who refuse to get with the program: “Call the doctor! Call the doctor!” Brownstein, meanwhile, screams “You are not me!” It’s a declaration of independence wrapped around a middle finger that’s smashing a guitar on stage. And we’re not even at the 2-minute mark yet.
And where was I during all this? I was 11, goddammit, going to psychiatrists and switching from Ritalin to Adderall to lord knows what else in what felt like endless experimentation to make sure “things were going OK.” A Jewish-day-school-attending pre-teen boy, I wasn’t exactly the song’s target audience, but when I first heard it over a decade later it struck a part of me that long ago had felt weak and helpless in the face of all the tutors and doctors I needed to see every week. It gave life to a rebellion I had never been able to vocalize.
Of course, the song was still great when I first heard it in my early 20s, and it’s still great now. But it keeps me up at night to know that Sleater-Kinney was there, making this music, and I was sitting idly by, oblivious to their existence (and not caring enough when I first found out). Redemption had been so close. I was determined not to make the same mistake with Wild Flag.
Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006. Carrie Brownstein went to work at NPR’s music blog. In September 2010, she announced that she and some friends—who turned out to be Janet Weiss, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders—had formed a band called Wild Flag. They described themselves like this: “What is the sound of an avalanche taking out a dolphin? What do get when you cross a hamburger with a hot dog? The answer is: WILD FLAG.” Without releasing a single song, they promptly went on tour.
So, when my friend Josh and I got to Club Spaceland in Los Angeles, I tried to pretend like I wasn’t expecting anything. I wanted Sleater-Kinney back. But I knew I wanted The Woods and One Beat albums and everything I had missed the first time around. The crowd seemed to as well. As an opening act, Grass Widow, ended their set, the crowd’s excitement and tension bubbled over into joyous screams as our heroes took the stage to bring back, we hoped, everything that had been lost in Sleater-Kinney’s absence.
Brownstein often used her NPR blog to rail against the toothless beards that have come to dominate indie rock, and when Wild Flag came out that night the whole idea seemed to be an exclamation point to her long-running argument. Wild Flag hollered, danced, and did their best to shake the crowd of expectations that any old band would show up. “Why are you cheering? We’re a new band! Insult us!” Brownstein half-jokingly jeered. No one took the bait, but the message was clear: a new sound, a new band. They then proceeded to burn the place to the ground, more focused than a so-called new band had any right to be. All four of the band members seemed thrilled to finally have a chance to get on stage again. Songs that I’d later come to know as “Glass Tambourine” and “Romance” blasted off the stage, with Brownstein tossing her guitar around with wild abandon.
It was during “Racehorse,” though, that it all clicked. By now you might know “Racehorse” as the skull-melting penultimate track from Wild Flag’s just released album. On YouTube, there’s only a minute’s worth of footage from the show I went to, but it gives you the idea. Basic lyrics fill out what’s essentially a jam track, letting guitars and choruses and keyboards escalate and collide into some joyous rapture. It feels like a lost Zepplin track. Hearing it at Club Spaceland, that’s when I realized Wild Flag is not Sleater-Kinney.
Nor are they static musicians, for that matter, but individuals who have kept on growing and learning just like the sad 11-year-old I was all those years ago. While realizing that musicians are People Like Us may not be a Cartesian breakthrough, it’s an important one to keep close. Wild Flag is not Sleater-Kinney, and they don’t have to be. This isn’t the Carrie Brownstein of Dig Me Out, the Mary Timony of “Pat’s Trick,” the Rebecca Cole of the Elephant Six collective, or the Janet Weiss of Quasi. They are Wild Flag, they are right now, and they kick ass.
Yoshie Fruchter and his band, Pitom, delve into repentance on the new album Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes, a jazz-metal take on confession