Shane Carruth wrote, produced, edited, scored, and acted in his 2004 directorial debut, Primer, a labyrinthine time travel narrative, which, in the decade since its release, has been analyzed and charted by cineastes and lovers of thoughtful science fiction. Before becoming a director, the 40-year-old Texan studied mathematics and worked as a software engineer, earning technical skills he applied deftly to the film’s meticulous details. Primer, which was made for $7,000, was lauded for its seemingly realistic portrayal of far-out ideas and won the Grand Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival.
This Friday, Carruth will release his anticipated follow-up, Upstream Color, for which he has added distribution to his long list of auteur duties. The film is a mysterious soup of percolating sonic textures, often-wordless acting, and a nebulous storyline that is simultaneously preternatural and deeply connected to the natural sciences. The film is loosely constructed around the life cycle of an organism that moves from plants to worms to humans—who drop into a trance when the worm enters them—to pigs and back to plants. The unwilling recipients of this parisitic organism experience a sensation that borders on love, metaphysical unity, and, eventually, a blurring of identity.
This cycle is never explicitly described, and detailing the plot of Upstream Color is about as revealing as pulling apart the storylines of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, or Terrence Malick films. Like these directors, Carruth creates experiences, not illustrated narratives. And while he speaks openly about the conditions surrounding the film’s genesis, he is reluctant to discuss the film itself, which is a hermetic, meticulously constructed world that exists outside the confines of language. Over coffee at a Manhattan hotel, Carruth wrestles with questions about Upstream Color while considering the bleak reality of today’s science fiction.
BULLETT: You’ve said you prefer the word “mythic” to science fiction when describing Upstream Color. Why is that?
SHANE CARRUTH: I like the pure idea of science fiction. What I don’t like is what it’s become or what people understand it to be today. We’ve got to explore something universal in a narrative—that’s the whole point of science fiction. The Greeks used mythology. They had a whole system of gods they could use to represent different aspects of nature.
Exactly. Unfortunately most of today’s science fiction is used for sheer entertainment or titillation or just as an aesthetic. But I hope that the architecture of the [Upstream Color] story is so strong that you could repurpose it. You could take it out of this film completely, repurpose it in a hundred years in a different setting with different characters, and it would still be relevant. Everything about it feels more like a fable than a modern story.
Can you think of other stories or films that function in a mythic way?
Heart of Darkness. It’s about the suspense of going upriver and putting an end to something that has changed and maybe isn’t what you thought it was going to be. That’s a universal concept that could be repurposed a thousand different ways.
And, of course, it was repurposed in Apocalypse Now.
Yeah, I mean, we’re talking about archetypes. Star Wars is also full of archetypes. There are things that are common no matter where you come from.
How important is cause-and-effect logic to telling a story? Primer, for instance, sort of hinges on that.
Logic is extremely important. You’ve got to have a house with a really good structure before you can start putting in floorboards and painting walls in different colors. When the architecture is solid, then you have the permission to be lyrical.
Primer has been described as a puzzle with an answer that can be revealed over multiple viewings. But this new film doesn’t seem to have an answer—just more questions.
The hope is that it’s not something you have to see twice or more, but rather something you want to see twice or more. The narrative bits get less and less important the further along you get. They’re still in there, of course, if somebody wanted to dissect every nook and cranny of how it unfolds. Nothing is in there because I went down some madman path. It’s either a perfectly cemented story or it’s my attempt to make one, and maybe I’ve failed—but nothing is in there just because I’m in love with a piece of music or an image of ice water.
You’ve said that you have to “infect culture at some level so that this [film] has a chance to live on its own,” and I wonder if this metaphor of art as organism is something that’s important to you.
Yeah, completely. If we’re just talking about filmmaking, there are two ends of the spectrum. On the far left is this: You can write a screenplay and it can go in the corner of your room and no one will ever read it and it won’t ever get made. It won’t matter because it can’t matter, because no one has experienced it. On the far right is this: You can make a film that everybody wants to pay 15 bucks to see, and it can make a billion dollars, but, to be honest, it probably doesn’t have a lot of substance to it and it probably won’t be relevant in a hundred years. Then there’s an entire spectrum in between of connecting really deeply with a small group of people or connecting maybe not so deeply but with a bigger group of people. I don’t have to win the lottery on the far right, but I have to do something better than let the screenplay be in the corner of my room. It has to somehow get out there so that it has a chance to live, so that people get to see it and to judge whether or not they’d like to dismiss it. If it isn’t worthy of continuing to exist in culture, then it won’t. But if it is, it will. It’s like with a virus—when you study a virus there are just a couple of mechanisms that dictate whether or not it’s going to kill the world, and one of them is that it not only has to be deadly but it’s got to wait a bit before it kills the host.
So that the host can move and spread the virus.
Yes, exactly. That’s breaking it down way too simply and the metaphor doesn’t really work after a while, but that’s the way I think of it. You’ve just got to infect at some level.
For you, is bewilderment a worthy response from an audience?
If I started talking to you in Portuguese right now, you would be immediately confused. But eventually you’d catch on—“Oh wait, that’s not even English. That’s something else.” And then you can decide whether you want to care or listen or draw correlations. But if you’re trying something new that doesn’t have a clear category or definition, then it’s going to bewilder some people and that’s not their fault—I don’t think it’s mine either—because it’s unfortunately part of the process.
Is newness important to you?
Yes, it is.
Because I see writing like this: We all wake up in a cave and don’t know where we are, so we assign people to dig in certain directions. When they carve tunnels, we start to understand the place in which we exist. Everything that’s new is a new direction, or maybe it’s not completely new. Maybe somebody went down a tunnel that’s already been carved and decided halfway down to carve left. We’ll eventually tunnel out something that will define what’s universal about our experience, so I think we’ve got to try something new.
Where are we going?
Where are we going? That’s why I love writing.
Photography by Jeremy Liebman
IN THEIR respective fields of filmmaking and lute playing, Jim Jarmusch and Jozef van Wissem have become known for joining ancient sensibilities with the avantgarde. For over 30 years, Jarmusch has created some of independent film’s masterpieces, including Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which oldworld philosophy (mysticism, the 17th century teachings of warrior Yamamoto Tsunetomo) inhabits classic cinematic genres (the western, the gangster film). During that time, van Wissem has dedicated himself to what he calls the “liberation of the lute,” approaching a forgotten instrument with the minimalist composition techniques of new classical music. Both played in post-punk bands in the early ’80s (Jarmusch in New York, van Wissem in the Netherlands) and, after knowing each other since 2006, they have recently begun performing as a duo.
Their collaborative sound is an eerie environment of Jarmusch’s thick guitar feedback and van Wissem’s precise, diaphanous lute playing, the styles simultaneously fighting and embracing. The sonic effect is trance-like and carries the metaphysical weight of church music. (Songs have titles like, “He Is Hanging From His Shiny Arms, His Heart An Open Wound With Love.”) Some of the duo’s music will appear in Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive (which stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve), and some has been released on two albums, Concerning The Entrance Into Eternity and, more recently, The Mystery of Heaven. I spoke to Jarmusch and van Wissem in the Soho neighborhood of New York. Jarmusch wore sunglasses and gazed out the window when he spoke. They both wore all black.
I. SHRED TO HELL AND BACK
BULLETT: Do you visualize the music you make?
JIM JARMUSCH: I think of music very much like landscapes—sort of visual, but obviously audio landscapes. The structure is less important than the atmosphere. It’s like a moving landscape from a window of a car or train or boat. I have to listen and adapt as it goes.
Is the music at all improvisational?
JOZEF VAN WISSEM: The pieces are mostly composed but some are improvised as well. I like pieces that are not too dense—open space and not too many chords. It’s more difficult to compose a good simple melody than to come up with a really elaborate improvisation. But what’s interesting when we play is that the sound becomes about the room, so it changes. The music has an architectural element.
JJ: I can’t always play the same thing every time. That’s the beauty of feedback: it’s wild.
The music is heavily repetitive. Would you say you’re trying to induce a trancelike state?
JJ: Repetition is the basis of trance music and hallucinatory stoner music, all the sounds we’re attracted to.
What are some examples of that?
JJ: Earth [the band], Morton Feldman, Sleep, and Joujouka music from Morocco. It all has the property of changing your mental state into a kind of openness—just kind of accepting things. Therefore a lot of trance music is spiritual, mystical.
There are some references on your first album, Concerning The Entrance Into Eternity, to the Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
JVW: Those quotes are about the afterlife. He was a very lucid writer and quite an interesting character, and I think his ideas about what comes after death go well with our trance pieces.
JJ: Swedenborg was a big inspiration to [painter and poet] William Blake. Their lives overlap. Swedenborg wrote “Heaven and Hell,” a very famous essay, and Life on Other Planets. And Blake wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a reference to Swedenborg. The first music we made together on Jozef ’s record, The Joy That Never Ends, was called “Concerning The Beautiful Human Form After Death,” which is also from Swedenborg. And what a beautiful title, but it’s also a mystical concept regarding the beauty of a dead human form. Not in a creepy way, but kind of elegantly separating ourselves from it.
JJ: But we don’t go into a trance when we play because we are listening and are aware. I think with rock and roll, when you’re playing
it, it’s best not to be thinking too much. If you think too much, you fuck it up.
JVW: There’s this line: The best blues musicians are the ones who had the least education. That’s particularly true about country blues.
JJ: I remember reading an interview 15 years ago with Neil Young and he said that if you want to play rock-and-roll guitar, don’t take lessons. Just pick up the thing and start beating on it. But, of course, it depends on what music you want to make. If you want to be Steve Vai, you’re gonna have to go to school. I have a personal reaction against virtuosity, not that I don’t respect it. Jozef has all kinds of technique, but that’s not the thing he’s trying to express. You can go online and find thousands of teenage kids in their rooms who can shred to hell and back. I’d rather plug my guitar and start beating on it with a mallet. Nothing against Steve Vai, man. I heard he’s a beekeeper.
II. YOU SHOULD BE SLAPPED
Jozef, how do you write music?
JVW: I don’t sit down to write something. It’s more like I hear something—I pick up something—and then that’s the composition. It’s like a channeling. I don’t have to elaborate on it or change it or vary it or work too hard on it. That ruins it.
Jim, do you make much music on your own outside of this?
JJ: For the last five years, I’ve been making music with a band called Sqürl [with Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback]. It’s very slow,kind of molten stoner-y stuff. We’ve been making a lot of stuff for this new film that I’m working on.
JJ: It’s called Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, and Jeffrey Wright. It’s kind of a crypto-vampire movie. It’s a love story between two people who have been together for centuries and who happen to be vampires. It takes place in Detroit and Tangier, Morocco. It’s pretty strange. The characters have been alive for so long—she’s like 2,000 years old and he’s maybe 500 years old, and he’s actually a musician, the character. This mixing of lute music—this older, beautiful renaissance style—with electric feedback and the heavy rock trance drone stuff works beautifully in this film.
Do you ever consider making videos for your music?
JJ: I’d rather let other people make them. In a lot of my endeavors I’m a control freak, but with Jozef, he’ll title things, he’ll throw pieces to me, he’ll have ideas for sequencing things and for mixing them. He’ll say, “Why don’t you play that here?” He guides me, which
is a relief because I’m usually the one organizing all the details.
You’ve used the phrase “the agnostic concept of the godhead” a few times when discussing your song “Etimasia.” What does it mean?
JVW: It comes from this idea of Hetoimasia, which means “empty throne.” A lot of people don’t know if there’s a god or if there’s heaven. What is heaven? What is this concept of afterlife? And we just like to leave it open, to leave it at that.
JJ: I’m not monotheistic. I’m not into this one god thing. I’m interested in Buddhism and indigenous cultures but I’m not a practitioner. I learned some years ago that in Lakota Sioux, “god” is translated to “the great mystery” so there’s no definition of what it is. It’s just something that’s strong and mysterious but there’s nothing saying, “He will judge you.” It’s just the mystery of nature, of everything, the universe. So that makes a lot of sense to me. I think being agnostic means that you’reopen but you don’t have an opinion. I’m vegetarian but I don’t go around telling people why meat is murder. I think a sin in any religion should be telling anyone else what they should believe. That should be a crime. You should be slapped. You should be allowed to believe whatever you want. You want to stand on your head and worship Donald Duck? Man, that’s your choice.
Is there a musicality to filmmaking?
JJ: They’re inherently related: a film passes before you on its own timeframe like a piece of music. It’s not like reading a book or looking at a painting—it has its own time signature. You take the ride, and you don’t control the speed or direction. You just get on the boat.
You have to just go with it, or—
JJ: Jump off.
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Photography by Bjarne Jonasson
In the summer before the release of her ebullient ninth album, Sun, and not long after her publicly scrutinized breakup with longtime boyfriend, actor Giovanni Ribisi, I spoke with Chan Marshall, the 40-year-old, Georgia-born songwriter who performs under the name Cat Power. When I initially called at noon, she didn’t answer. A few minutes later, she responded with a text: “Sorry JUST WOKE UP gimme 2 minutes to get off the crapper, get my dog outside, press the coffee button & we’re on!! Or can we do that all together on the phone?” I told her she could call me when she was ready, and she did, five minutes later.
During the hour-long interview, she held an eight-minute conversation with her godson, ate a bowl of Honey Puffs cereal, and belted a soulful verse from Nina Simone’s version of “Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter,” which she describes as “one of the greatest pieces of audio I’ve ever heard in my life.” The whole interaction felt intimate and unburdened by the usual social niceties that can slow conversations to a mumbling drag. Marshall talked while she chewed, spoke in several character voices, and freely discussed her mental breakdown and her difficulties with live performances, which, fueled by her past struggles with alcohol, have been notoriously unpredictable. This kind of uninhibited talk might be surprising in another context, but not with Marshall. You can hear the same raw, loose energy in the cracks of her singing and the cinematic peaks and valleys of her songwriting. It’s what Cat Power is known for: she doesn’t hold back.
I. LOVE & COMMUNICATION
BULLETT: Are there any love songs on the new album?
CAT POWER: I would say “3, 6, 9,” because it’s about self-respect, which is an aspect of love. Another one would be “Nothing But Time,” which I wrote for my ex’s daughter, Lucia, who’s a teenager; when we lived together, she was dealing with some online bullying.
Online bullying sounds terrible.
Yeah, there’s this thing called Formspring. Teens and preteens can go and become members with their Facebook accounts and join anonymously, and you can say whatever fucking shit you want to say to whomever. It’s often really hurtful stuff. It was a big deal a couple of years ago. So she was going through that, and I wrote that song for her. And at the time, she had fallen in love with Ziggy Stardust, so I called David Bowie and Iggy Pop to sing on the song. David said no, but Iggy said yes.
I’m so glad I didn’t have to endure the Facebook era in high school.
Yeah, you hear about these kids committing suicide… I think one of the big things is that the community formed by punk rock music in the ’80s is missing now. There’s nowhere for young people to really get that camaraderie in music anymore. What’s considered underground now is electronic music, and all the labels and new descriptions coming out of that.
A few of the tracks on Sun have elements of hip-hop, I noticed.
When I was playing the record for the owners of Beggars [Music, her label] in Paris, I wished that I’d given a song ve to Jay-Z and that he would have been is interested in doing it.
“Doing it” meaning he would sample it?
He would’ve been much better singing it. Or saying it.
Do you listen to much hip-hop?
Only hip-hop that I like: Hot Boys, B.I.G., Jay-Z, Trina, Foxy Brown, Three 6 Mafia, Eric B., and Sugarhill Gang.
When did you start working on Sun?
I first recorded four years ago in L.A., when I lived with my boyfriend, now my ex. I actually had a dream about him last night. We were with our old dog and he had an alligator farm in the backyard.
Do you analyze your dreams?
That’s what they’re there for!
So you think your dreams have meaning?
Are you kidding me? Dreams are very, very important.
II. YESTERDAY IS HERE
I’ve heard you say that you feel like something is always wrong when you are on stage. Do you still feel that way?
I can’t believe I said that. When I was young, I would always say the wrong thing. But yeah, something is usually distracting me when I’m doing my job, especially since my job is to be faithful and dedicated to the song. It’s hard to present the song in its natural state if someone is taking a picture with a flash, seven times, in the front row, or if there are two chicks who are like [Valley Girl voice], “Oh my God, I know! So last weekend, that was so much fun!” I’m like, Can you go to the bar where everyone else is talking? It’s hard to be a professional robot when things are fucking distracting your mind, when what you are trying to do is to get away from your mind. What if the lighting guy thinks strobe is perfect for a slow song? What if the sound guy turns the vocals so loud it hurts your ears to whisper?
Photography by Eliot Lee Hazel
Late last year, I visited Christopher Owens, the songwriter for Girls (a duo consisting of Owens and bassist Chet “JR” White) at his home in San Francisco. I’d played a show in town the previous night, and in the morning, I woke, walked to Owens’ apartment near Golden Gate Park’s panhandle, and met him in his garage, where he was washing the dirty laundry he’d accreted on Girls’ recent U.S. tour. Upstairs, he brewed us coffee and we spoke for several hours amid his home library, stamp collection, and indoor plant garden, which, despite the neighborhood’s foggy microclimate, seemed to be in full flourish.
ROSS SIMONINI: As an artist, you have an outward persona. You make press appearances and have an active Twitter account. Do you feel as if you’ve represented yourself accurately?
Christopher Owens: The idea is to have my outward persona be as true as it can be to real life, so it’s frustrating when, every once in a while, I can see that someone has the completely wrong perception of me. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal for somebody with a fabricated personality, but it’s difficult when your goal is to present your actual self. I figure it’s just best to ignore those things. People have short memory spans. Within five years, I’ll manage to present a proper image and the wrong stuff will float away.
Do you read much press about yourself?
It’s sent to me. I’m always getting links. I’ve wondered if I should stop reading them, but I think I need to know what’s going on at this point. Besides, the computer’s right there. How could you not look? Some big stars are all, “I don’t read reviews.” Well, great. That’s because you don’t have to—you have 100 people working for you. You’re above the common man’s view of you, I guess.
But didn’t you just say that ignoring the press is the best approach?
Yeah, but I don’t want to be in the dark.
It’s a hard balance.
This way of gauging your success from the computer—it used to be an entirely different thing: print press, radio play, and fan clubs. In the ’70s, Freddie Mercury didn’t sit in front of his computer and judge the entire pulse of his fandom.
The Internet as an archive is considerably different from previous press archives.
It’s easy to watch a YouTube clip of a show and think, That was fine. But back then, there was no way of knowing unless you were there.
How does Twitter connect with all of this?
We’re all losing our privacy. I choose to use Twitter because I want to talk to specific friends. Most singers use their band’s names on Twitter. I don’t. I seldom discuss anything about my band on Twitter.Why are you so set on keeping the band and yourself separate?
I don’t want it to be about the band. It’s more about talking to my friends, and it’s obnoxious for the people who do know me if my feed is boasting or setting records straight or talking about details of songs. I have friends in bands and all they ever do is retweet praise. I don’t want to toot my own horn. Interviewers ask me questions and I answer them, but on Twitter it would be me, on my own accord, saying, Look how smart I was to write that. It’s obnoxious.
II. Mental Illness
Do you write poetry?
I do. I don’t think I’m very good at it, but I do it anyway—because it’s fun. My poems are very simple—they rhyme. I wouldn’t want them to be reviewed. But it’s like everything we’ve been discussing: At what point do you become afraid and start listening to criticism? Critics are often right, but it’s like, Great, you’re so smart. It’s like making fun of a handicapped person. We all know that most artists share some form of mental illness. I used to have an artist friend who would say, “Painting is the last legal form of insanity that’s allowed in society.” I know what he’s saying. You can’t hack somebody into pieces because you want to know how it feels, but you can paint a picture about it. Ultimately, it’s about wanting to discover feelings. If you read Kurt Cobain’s diaries—the guy was crazy. He had mental problems and so do I.
Would you describe most artists you know in this way?
I would. People make art because they have a hard time. Some people can be fulfilled by modern life, but other people have to say, “Me, over here—I’m dissatisfied,” or, “I don’t understand why my parents are divorced,” or, “I’m not fine being a part of this machine.”
I often think that all of the art I love is really just a way of saying, “It’s okay to think this way.”
One of the biggest problems in life is that we have to deal with the difficult fact that we’re all a part of the herd, but we don’t want to just feel like we’re part of the herd. At that same time, being an individual can feel lonely, too. The fact that people only shoot up high schools every once in a while is amazing to me. It says a lot about evolution that people’s chemical balances are okay.
Supposedly, we’re the least violent we’ve been in the history of civilization.
When I was 15, my parents took me to volunteer in Slovenia. It was nothing short of horrifying. The reality of war is horrifying. We’d receive goods from people who shipped them to us from Western Europe, and we’d drive into Croatia and Bosnia and go into refugee homes, hospitals, and refugee camps where 80-year-olds and 2-year-olds were living together in these little tents. There were homes for teenage girls who had been raped and become pregnant from soldiers. There were soldiers who’d had their limbs blown off and were paralyzed. It was really traumatizing. But a thousand years ago, every country had its own little wars. And farther back, the Chinese and the Mongols were just riding across the plains massacring people. So, yeah, things are getting better.
Have you ever protested against the war in Iraq?
I went to a lot of protests at the beginning. When the war started, the first thing America did was protest, and it did nothing. I lived in Texas at the time and even there, thousands of people were protesting. The people at ’60s protests were just radicals, but these protests included everyone, and still, it didn’t matter. Bombings happened as scheduled: Here goes Shock and Awe! Disgusting names like that. It was so disheartening.
What don’t you put in your songs?
I have tons of secrets. People like to think they know me but there are lots of things I will never disclose. I’ll never air other people’s dirty laundry.
Is gossip bad?
No, I love gossip. I read gossip magazines. I visit Perez Hilton every day. It’s only a problem when gossip becomes gospel.
Talking about the outward self in this way seems shallow on one level, but many artists have made their lives works of art.
In a way, that’s about sacrificing yourself to become the person you wish you were, and I think that’s beautiful. The people who end up doing that are often the most vulnerable—Michael Jackson, for instance, even down to the way he looked. He was an art project his whole life. He tried so badly to be a beautiful person. Regardless of what he was like, he was trying to present a person who cared about the world. Those types of people are so vulnerable because everyone wants to find the chink in their armor.
You’ve been pretty honest about your drug use.
It’s like with closeted homosexuals: If you’re behaving as if what you’re doing is a bad thing, then it will always be viewed that way. That’s what perpetuates the taboo—and the appeal. You might as well come out and be happy. Maybe if everyone did that there wouldn’t be so many stigmas about drugs. I think there’s a way of using drugs for a long time, and it can be okay and constructive. But I don’t think most people can handle that.
Do you think it’s possible for drugs not to be a problem?
At some point it almost always becomes a problem. From my experience, the people who use drugs in a non-dramatic way only do so after they’ve learned the hard way.
Are drugs addictive or do people have addictive personalities?
It’s the people. Drugs are just one way that addiction manifests itself. Some people have it with soft drinks or having to watch television for an hour after work. It’s silly how many things there are. Addiction is just a part of being a human being. People pick the things they want and when they don’t get them, they get upset. Life is a big buffet.
Are you an addictive person?
To be honest, I try to stay ahead of it. When I see something becoming addictive, I change things up, because otherwise you grow older faster. Keep it fresh. If you’re depressed, try walking home a different way. It really works.
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Photography by Sandy Kim
If anything, through the illusory character she’s created, Janine Rostron, a.k.a. Planningtorock, unearths a deeper truth, her masculine, monstrous vocals giving life to an androgynous, mythical creature designed to draw outside the lines of gender. After releasing two albums (2006’s Have It All and this year’s W), an opera (Tomorrow, In a Year with the Knife and Mt. Sims), and an array of stunning video work, she’s become even more alluringly enigmatic and deeply revelatory.
BULLETT: What secrets are important for you to keep as an artist?
PLANNINGTOROCK: My methods and my humor. But to be honest, I don’t think in terms of concealing and non-concealing. It’s more about what I give, what feels right onstage. I never feel like I’m concealing. I suppose the process of making my music is pretty private. I spend a lot of time alone.
What does hiding your gender allow you to accomplish as a performer?
I’m not hiding my gender. I’m expanding it. I’m moving it around.
How does one expand gender?
I make visual what my gender feels like to me. It’s a visible expression of gender, and I’m customizing it.
Sometimes you wear masks during your shows. Does it obstruct your ability to communicate sincerity?
Not at all. Sincerity actually comes more easily with the mask. My performances are pretty raw, very live. When I’m onstage, every part of me magnifies larger than life, and that includes my identity.
You’ve said, “The internal worlds of women are not that well represented by society.” Can you name a few contemporary female musicians who are fighting against this?
Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen started working together in 2006 as ThunderAnt, a comedy duo whose videos soon became widely-circulated Internet memes. In January 2011, ThunderAnt evolved into Portlandia, a sharp-witted IFC sketch comedy series set in Portland, Oregon, where a recurring cast of righteous, lovably obnoxious characters indulge in all sorts of crazy: the feminist bookstore owners who won’t let a bathroom-using Steve Buscemi leave the shop until he buys something; the twee-as-fuck interior designers whose answer to everything is to “put a bird on it”; the fixed-gear enthusiast who declares staples of alt culture “over” at the first sign of non-exclusivity; the “freegans” (the anti-consumerist, and therefore free, vegans) who are horrified that anyone would ever throw anything away. Portlandia satirizes a place where the “dream of the ’90s” never died, but the series’ scope is broader than one town, parodying an inter-city array of hyper-contemporary trends, snide hipster elitism, and America’s tendency to take itself way too seriously.
Brownstein, a proud resident of Portland, is best known as a member of the revered band, Sleater-Kinney, and, more recently, the lead singer of post-punk quartet Wild Flag. Fred Armisen gained international notoriety for his spot-on Obama impersonations as a Saturday Night Live regular. “I think there’s a version of Portland in every city: Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, and even in towns like Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas,” Brownstein says. “They embody the same optimism and incessant ideology pioneered in Portland. Portlandia is a highly curated version of the city. We like to start at the point where one’s belief system can veer off into ridiculousness or self-righteousness—not at the point of reason, but at the point where ideals start to go off the rails.”
BULLETT: Are there aspects of Portland that you’re purposely not covering on the show?
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: My own house, my friends— although, wait, that’s not true. We have to put our friends on the show because we don’t have enough extras. The real Portland is more bizarre, more head-scratching, and harder to pin down than Portlandia. For example, if you’re going to be a Republican in Portland, you have to be really aggressive about it. I’ve seen some intense bumper stickers, like “Liberals are Terrorists.” As with any urban center, there’s also a mainstream component to Friday and Saturday nights in the city: horrible music, too-tight clothing. Portland has all of that, but it’s just not interesting enough to put on television.
FRED ARMISEN: I have a really utopian view of the city. There’s probably a world of drugs going on around me, but I’m not really a drug guy. It’s got a big Star Trek scene, but that’s been reported, I think. Really, as a tourist I don’t know any of Portland’s secrets. Oh, there’s one thing: There’s this casino area where they have all these national acts play. It’s almost like a small Atlantic City. No one seems to ever talk about it.
Things that Brownstein might not want you to know: She was a “theater kid”; she started, and then stopped, writing a book (“It got horribly—no, wonderfully—derailed”); she dropped out of Bennington College’s MFA program.
Percentage of the show that is improvised: “60%?” —Armisen
Semi-disparaging remarks aimed at hipsters:
CB: “‘Hipster’ has this unattractive, disempowering blandness to it. It’s both very exclusive and overly accommodating. It’s too wayward. It’s like, just pick something. It’s too inert. It’s unfair to call certain people hipsters, but one hipster can’t change the world. The hipsters of Portland are unyielding in their desire to be good, but they’re also flummoxed by all the rules surrounding that.”
FA: “I’m not sure what the word ‘hipster’ means.”
Season Two of Portlandia Premieres on IFC Friday, January 6 at 10pm ET/PT