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Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein: The Word ‘Hipster’ Doesn’t Mean Anything Anymore

8 minute read

As the co-star and co-creator of IFC’s comedy series Portlandia — which returns for its fifth season Thursday night — Carrie Brownstein can make you laugh. But she can also make you cry, whether that’s heartfelt tears (she had a role in Amazon’s drama Transparent, a role creator Jill Soloway wrote with her in mind) or happy ones (her influential band Sleater-Kinney returns with the long-awaited No Cities to Love on Jan. 20). TIME caught up with the multi-talented star to talk about the Portland stereotypes she fits and why Sleater-Kinney will never pull a Beyoncé.

TIME: You do comedy in Portlandia, you do drama in Transparent, Sleater-Kinney is making a comeback, you’ve got a memoir coming out. Is there anything you can’t do?
Carrie Brownstein: Based on statistics alone, there’s so many things I can’t do. You only named four things out of a million possibilities! Really, I’m probably failing.

What is your hidden non-talent?
I’m a horrible visual artist, I can’t draw or paint or sketch. And I’m a terrible cook. I don’t have any acumen for plumbing or mathematics.

Well, who needs math, anyway?

The new season has a flashback to a ‘90s dance-off between beloved Portlandia characters Toni and Candace, the feminist bookstore owners. Have you been waiting 20 years to bust out those moves?
Yeah, I mean we had our Portlandia premiere screening on Monday in Los Angeles, and when I watched that scene on a big screen, it did remind me of the dancing you do alone in your bedroom when you’re a teenager. It was the ultimate fantasy sequence for my younger self.

I hope you choreographed it yourselves.
We choreographed it improvisationally on the spot!

How do you not break watching Fred down to “I got the power!”
Oh, there’s plenty of breaking. Luckily, when he’s dancing, the camera is on the back of my head.

Part of that flashback was to flesh out the Portlandia universe and focus more on single stories instead of sketches. What challenges did that bring?
We set out to make each season different from the last, but when you are staring down the fifth season of a show and there are so many different, wonderful sketch shows on television — whether it’s Key & Peele or Amy Schumer or Kroll Show — there’s just an awareness that it’s a very strong medium right now. We’re fortunate that we have the freedom with IFC that we can be very elastic with the form. I feel like sketches is covered right now. We just wanted to keep pushing ourselves. It’s a challenge from the time we write to the time we film. It changes the whole nature of production and performance, but I think it was a challenge that shaped the whole season, and I think we’re really happy with how it turned out.

How else do you keep the show fresh creatively several years in?
The missive that we had for each other was to take these characters we’re fond of and whose lives we’ve only seen fleeting moments of [and not] press play for a few seconds. With a sketch, you hit pause, and you’re not even getting a sense of who these people are. We decided to speak in sentences instead of phrases — I feel like the language is the same, but the form is longer and has more room for subtlety and nuance. That was really what we set out to do. That’s how we kept the stakes high, by just knowing that we might fail. That sense of undermining yourself and taking steady ground and making it uncertain again is important in pushing things forward.

What is the most stereotypical Portland thing about you?
The fact that I have a closet full of clothes that are very practical. Portland has a lot of weather-specific activity clothing, and I try to get rid of those things — I never bring them to New York or L.A. When I go home to Portland, I can’t believe how many Gore-Tex jackets I own, or vests or flannels or hiking shoes. It’s just a prerequisite when you live there, that you have to fill up your closet with these clothes. You could go camping at any time. Someone might spring a camping trip on you in the middle of a dinner. It’s very strange.

That’s my worst nightmare.
Oh my God, it’s the worst. That’s a deal breaker for a friendship.

Wait, so you have all this stuff, but you don’t like the outdoors?
No, I do outdoorsy things, I totally do. I don’t camp, though. I hike a lot. The cliche thing about me is that I really actually love the outdoors — I don’t know if that’s really a cliche. I like hiking. It’s how I reset myself. It’s part of my methodology of thinking and working, to just leave and go on walks.

Are you able to have a normal life there? Do people just shout catchphrases at you while you go grocery shopping?
That happens, but it’s flattering, I think. It’s not something you take for granted. I think it’s so rare to have anything you do enter cultural conversation, so when somebody shouts a catchphrase to you, that’s definitely not something I’m annoyed by. I think it’s very sweet, but I do have a normal life. Portland is very neighborhood-based. I keep things kind of insular there. I go to the same grocery store, the same bars, the same restaurants. I’m a little bit of a hermit there.

Have you gone incognito on a one of the Portlandia location walking tours?
Oh goodness, no I haven’t.

You can pop out at the end, like, “Surprise, it was me all along!”
I already feel like a tourist attraction there sometimes! There’s a weird surreality for people, if they’re visiting Portland from out of town and they run into Fred or I in Portland because it’s like some statute or landmark come to life. It’d be like going to New York during the Seinfeld era or something you just so associate with the city. Portland is a smaller place, obviously, but it’s a little surreal for us, too, I think.

Does the word hipster mean anything anymore?
You know, I feel like hipster is one of those terms that no one ever knew exactly what it meant. It plays into everyone’s insecurities of someone else being cooler than they are, or trying to be cooler than they are. I always felt the term was insufficient in this way. To me, it was like, “Describe something that you yourself felt like you couldn’t pull off.” It felt sort of derogatory, but at the same time, there was the element of, “Should I be wanting to do that?”

So it’s a self defense thing — dismiss something so you don’t have to deal with trying to keep up with it?
Exactly! That’s what I mean. “Oh, I guess I can’t pull that off, so that person’s a hipster, and I’m not.” But yeah, I don’t think it means anything anymore.

You finished the new Sleater-Kinney album before you announced it. You must be good at keeping secrets.
It’s strange, I feel like we were less secretive than we should have been. We were talking to friends, and somehow our friends kept it a secret. It’s a miracle that it stayed a secret. We recorded it at a studio in San Francisco. There were bands recording in the other room — there’s usually an A-studio and a B-studio. Of course we asked people to be discreet, but I’m very surprised. We were never interested in doing a proper reunion tour. It was always going to be about the record. But we didn’t want to announce it until we were certain that we had made something worthy of being put out into the world. There was a chance, even during recording, when we weren’t exactly sure what this was going to be. That’s why we kept it a secret. But I am a little surprised that it worked.

You could always do it Beyoncé-style.
Maybe. That’s definitely an option, but I think we want it to be just slightly more deliberate. And no one is Beyoncé — you just have to give her props for that.

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com