Wild Flag created more buzz with the announcement of its existence than most bands manage with years of touring. The reason is simple: the lineup is an attention-grabbing who’s who of female indie-rock talent featuring Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium fame and Rebecca Cole, best known from Elephant 6 offshoot the Minders. Together they’ve been touring and recording for the better part of a year, and their eponymous debut has garnered a whirlwind of critical praise. The attention is warranted—Wild Flag is an infectious, raucous record packed with charming. four-part harmonies and wild-haired riffs. Keyboardist Rebecca Cole spoke to OffBeat on the cusp of the band’s upcoming national tour.
I don’t want to start too far off topic, but while researching for this interview I got into the Minders, your previous band, and you guys had some truly great records. Information online was a bit scarce—what happened there?
The Minders was a garage band. In every sense. We recorded in a garage, practiced in a garage. It was pretty homegrown. Ultimately, what happened with the demise of that band was that Martyn [Leaper] and I were married for the course of my playing in the band, and once we divorced we found it pretty hard to have a band. We tried, but we couldn’t make it work in a way that was productive musically. It changed our dynamic. so I quit playing in the Minders a few years ago. And Martyn has actually reformed it with a couple of guys and he’s writing some new songs.
You were the drummer in the Minders, correct?
I started out as the drummer in the Minders, but I had always played piano. I had taken lessons as a kid, and there came a time, after our second record came out, that I realized I wasn’t a great drummer and that I might never be a great drummer. I had this moment after I had tried and tried for five or six years, where I realized that if music is really what I want to do, if I’m really trying to make something lasting, maybe I should switch to the keyboard because I have more ability there. I felt like I wasn’t going to improve much more. I switched over to keyboards in the Minders a few years before I left that band.
How did you meet up with the rest of Wild Flag?
I had known those guys for a while. Minders had played with Sleater-Kinney and Janet [Weiss] and I had played in a cover band together, like, getting together for a friend’s wedding just to play for a night. And we know each other from being around Portland. Then Carrie [Brownstein] and Janet got asked to do a soundtrack, and the two of them asked if I wanted to do this soundtrack music with them in the studio. It would be this one-off thing. And I said totally, that sounds awesome. I wasn’t playing a lot of music at the time, so for me it was just something fun to do for a weekend, to get my keyboards out. But it went really well; there was an ease in the room. The three of us just worked really well together. Then the director asked for some vocals, but we hadn’t written the songs in that way, so Carrie sent one of the songs to Mary [Timony] in D.C., and Mary sent us back this vocal track that sounded amazing. We sat on that for a while, and I think we all realized that there could be something there. Mary came out from D.C. a few months later and we tried to see what would happen when the four of us got together in a room playing.
How does the songwriting process work, with four previously successful musicians getting together, all with strong voices?
It’s interesting. We all do have pretty strong personalities. I think I’m the most mild-mannered of the four, although we all probably think that. We all have a lot of opinions about songs and music and what we’re trying to get out there. But we’re on the same page with a lot of those opinions, which is nice. It works out. There’s not one formula. One of the ways it can work is: we’re working on a song that Mary brought in that had just her and a guitar. But then we all get in a room and decide how long should the chorus be, how long should that verse be, maybe we should change that chord on the chorus. Does it need a third part? So we get into every aspect of her song. Then there are other songs that happen where we just start with a bass line in G and see if we can find something there.
That sounds really, really fun.
It is! There’s a lot of dynamic range in how we work.
It must be interesting to be in a rhythm section with Janet Weiss, with your left hand providing all the bass.
For sure, and I think a lot of my right hand stuff, there’s melody to it, but having been a drummer I am tied into rhythm and what’s happening there. She’s such a great drummer, sometimes the best thing I can do is just hold down the through line so that she can travel all over. She’s got a really intuitive sense about rhythm in a song. Actually, on top of the fact that she’s my friend and I love her, it’s been a real learning experience playing with her and writing songs with her, figuring out how she listens to songs. I feel like I’m getting a little education for free.
I love the video for “Romance.” How did you guys hook up with the amazing [director of the video] Tom Scharpling?
He’s so great. We had a bunch of people submit ideas for a video. He had a few different treatments that he sent us, but the thing we liked about Tom is that he had this sense of fun and energy present. It felt like a great match. There was nothing too serious in the video; he seemed to really get the feeling of the song. He came out to Portland for a couple days, had a tiny little production team from New York City, and they lived on the cheap out here for a few days doing massive location scouting in our town. Then we shot the video in a two-day span.
Wild Flag has downbeat moments, but it’s mostly a fun rock record. Do you have a favorite song to play live?
It changes. For the longest time, “Glass Tambourine” was my favorite to play live because we just have a breakdown like four minutes into the song—live we might stretch that out to ten minutes, or it could be really short. I really like that we have those moments. “Racehorse” is another one where, who knows what’s going to happen when we get to that song? But then we brought in a couple new songs in March, so quickly in the set I started looking forward to those. But having said that, “Future Crimes” is our oldest song, and I can’t play that and not move. It’s fun to get into that song.
The 7-inch version of “Future Crimes” is different from the version that ended up on the record, right?
The single version is a little more dried out, and I like that, too. The record version has a little more forward push in the song. The drums are more present, and all the instruments are recorded more hotly. There’s more sonic space they take up, and on the 7-inch, there’s a little bit of that air sucked out of there.
I’ve noticed in interviews that there’s been an emphasis on making it clear that this is a real, operational band, not a one-off project. With that in mind, do you guys have any plans for the future?
We’re going to do this tour, and next year play a lot more. We’re already working on new songs, which hopefully we can play on this tour. I think as long as there’s this sense of newness and excitement, this sense of wonder around the songs, that that’s something that we’d all four want to get together and do.
Wild Flag play One Eyed Jacks Wednesday night with with Eleanor Friedberger of Fiery Furnaces opening. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.