(Photo: _.belinda_ on Instagram)

(Photo: _.belinda_ on Instagram)

Pretty much from the first word, Carrie Brownstein’s new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, debunks the idea of a rock musician’s wild life on the road. The book, out this week, starts with her coming down with shingles at one Sleater-Kinney’s final shows. (“Hives,” she writes, “doesn’t really have the same ring to it as, say, ‘heroin.'”) Admittedly, this isn’t the stuff of Motley Crue’s memoir, with its infamous story about Ozzy Osbourne snorting a line of ants. “I’ve never snorted ants,” Brownstein told actress Gaby Hoffmann during their talk at B&N Union Square last night. “I just was like, I shouldn’t read that book because it has nothing to tell me.”

Still, Brownstein’s memoir is not without its intrigue. In prose a hell of a lot more elegant and evocative than anything in Motley Crue’s The Dirt (you can see why Brownstein, during a break from Sleater-Kinney, applied to MFA programs in non-fiction), she recalls a Valentine’s Day spin-the-bottle party at K Records during which she planted hickeys all over Miranda July’s neck. Then there are her early makeout sessions with her Sleater-Kinney bandmate, Corin Tucker (strictly above-the-waist, since Tucker and her then-boyfriend had an arrangement).

Though it wasn’t for public consumption, the short-lived relationship with Tucker would eventually make the pages of Spin, spoiling the band’s first bit of major press. It was Brownstein’s father who first read the piece and called to let her know she had been involuntarily outed. (He would later come out as gay himself.)

Point is, Brownstein isn’t shy about kissing and telling. But she’s also far from an exhibitionist: in the book, she recalls being embarrassed when members of the awesome and criminally undersung band Team Dresch came over and demonstrated some sex toys they had just bought, and she also remembers awkwardly excusing herself from an orgiastic party that members of The Makeup took her to. Which is why, last night at Barnes & Noble, nobody was expecting moderator Hoffmann to reveal that Brownstein “is a really good kisser.”

As the audience gasped, Hoffmann explained, “We had to kiss at work!”

Brownstein admonished her Transparent co-star: “They haven’t seen season 2!”

(Photo: Daniel Maurer)

(Photo: Daniel Maurer)

It was one of several funny exchanges between Brownstein and Hoffmann, who started the talk by admitting that she hadn’t known much about Sleater-Kinney. Still, she had done her homework and read the book, and had many questions to ask about Brownstein’s coming-of-age in the DIY and Riot Grrrl scenes of Olympia, Washington. (Sorry, Portlandia fans, the book doesn’t really touch on the show.)

For Brownstein, performance was a childhood coping mechanism (her anorexic mother and her distant, closeted father divorced when she was young) that later, on stage, became “the means through which I felt embodied.” She explained, “I was such a divided self for a very long time, that found safety in thinking and being cerebral and kind of cutting myself off from the world of emotions. Through music it was like I found the bottom half of myself.”

She made an analogy: “I kind of think of myself in a room, often, [as] this headless person that’s carrying their head on a platter with a smile on it, who’s walking around like, ‘Oh, yeah, here’s my head and I’m smiling,’ and it’s very disturbing. What music did was it put that head back on my body even if it wasn’t smiling.”

Hoffmann asked if, over the years, Brownstein had found a way to become “more expressive of the full, dynamic, nuanced Carrie, both on stage and off.” The answer was a decided yes. “I think for so many years,” Brownstein said of her earlier days with Sleater-Kinney, “I felt like what we were projecting out was a fist. It was about pushing away, and pushing through, and boring a hole into something, and carving out— it was a claw. I think when we came back through the nine years, through Portlandia, through just my own growth, it was the same gesture but my hand was open.”

As a result, touring has become a lot easier (Sleater-Kinney has a handful of upcoming shows in December). “There was not this disconnect between being on stage and pushing against something,” Brownstein said. “[Instead] it was being on stage and acquiescing, giving into something.”

But back to that “fist” for a moment. Brownstein said she was “so grateful” for the potent mix of music, DIY ethos, and feminism that existed in Olympia, and she acknowledged that putting “a line in the sand” is crucial for a young movement seeking to define itself against the status quo. But she also acknowledged that its constraints and expectations could be frustrating. She spoke of a “juxtaposition where something that we assumed felt very inclusive [actually] had a lot of exclusivity to it,” and continued: “I think some people felt alienated by either feeling left out because they didn’t see themselves represented in it—based on ethnicity or class or even regionalism—or I think even people within the community, including myself, sometimes just felt flummoxed by what seemed like an ever-moving goalpost, or that there was some contradiction within these rules.”

One of the big taboos of DIY, Brownstein writes in the book, was that of selling out. It’s why, during the Kill Rock Stars days, she nearly sabotaged a deal with Matador Records by showing up late to a meeting and acting like a “raincloud freakshow.” Last night, with fellow Olympia musicians Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox (Bikini Kill, The Julie Ruin) sitting in the audience, she pondered the issue: “There was a conversation which I had with people in this room and with other friends that were in Olympia at the time, was this idea of ambition and wanting people outside of our communities and like-minded communities to hear what we were doing. I mean, we had goals, we had things we wanted to say. And ambition felt anathema to [that]— or that it was immediately tied with materialism or commercialism, that it was a very dirty word to kind of ‘go for’ something.”

Brownstein noted that female ambition still has negative connotations: “There’s always sort of a sexist overtone in terms of female ambition, as if it always means this kind of like neo-liberalism, like ‘leaning in,’ capitalist thing that it doesn’t mean. Well, you can be ambitious through compassion, you can be ambitious and be community oriented. I mean, it doesn’t have to be strictly associated with something that’s just about the brass ring.” (After Sleater-Kinney broke up, Brownstein ambitiously immersed herself in volunteering at a local animal shelter.)

Later, she put it another way: “I am very sensitive to the ways that women that are going for it are kind of torn down almost automatically for going for it in ways that if they weren’t women it would not even be part of the discussion. I’m a little allergic to that.”

Some of the sexism, Brownstein relates in the book, comes from journalists who ask questions like “Why are you in an all-female band?” (Kim Gordon has complained about the same question.)

“I don’t think anyone’s ever asked the question, ‘Why are you in an all-male band?’ Brownstein pointed out, and then said she actually asked the question of Eddie Vedder while interviewing him for The Believer.

One of Brownstein’s other pet peeves is the way journalists tend to focus on a female musician’s clothes. (That didn’t stop Hoffmann from asking about the “business casual” look that Brownstein adopted when she first started playing. “There was part of me that just thought, ‘Well, I’m going to work, so I should wear slacks and a button-up shirt,’ most of which at that time I had purchased or perhaps stolen from thrift stores,” Brownstein explained of her misguided attempt to channel the ’60s mod look. “It just was ill-fitting—my butt was nowhere to be seen; it looks weird, with a guitar, to look like, you know, you’re working a clerical job.”)

Still, things have improved. Brownstein observed that, in between the release of Sleater-Kinney’s first album in 1994 and its reunion album earlier this year, she had noticed a “massive change” in the way the band was covered. “To say that there’s still not widespread sexism and transphobia and racism and classism in journalism would be crazy, but I think there’s differences. And it’s a little more nuanced— there’s a little more women writing about music, or at least culture, online and that helps the conversation, and there’s more people in charge of their own narratives a little bit.”

Still, people continue to ask dumb questions. Like the guy who, during the audience q&a session, yelled out, “Is the dream of the ’90s still alive?”

When the crowd’s groans subsided, Brownstein said, “You just killed it.”