A quarter century has passed since the birth of Bikini Kill, the original riot grrrl band.
While the band is no more, its influence persists.
So does its music. The band has been re-releasing old recordings on its own label, and “Revolution Girl Style Now,” the band’s 1991 demo tape, comes out Tuesday on vinyl, digital and CD formats, and even on cassette.
Singer and songwriter Kathleen Hanna and bassist Kathi Wilcox are playing together again as The Julie Ruin, which last played in Olympia at the July grand opening of the SafePlace Community Service Center.
Drummer Tobi Vail is still living in Olympia, where she plays in numerous bands, writes and works at Bikini Kill Records, which she co-owns with Hanna, Wilcox and Bikini Kill guitarist Billy Karren.
In an email interview, Vail looked back at a pivotal time for the band and for music history, spoke about her passion for all-ages shows and more.
Q. What was happening for the band when you released “Revolution Girl Style Now”?
A: We recorded the tape with Pat Maley at Yoyo Studios when it was located in the basement of a group house on the west side called The ABC House, named the Alexander Berkman Collective after the early 20th-century anarchist. We had only played a handful of shows, and Billy had just joined the band and was still learning the songs. We released the tape in late spring 1991. We were about to go on our first U.S. tour. We distributed the tape on tour and through K Records internationally, but it was a self-release.
Q: What was life like for you?
A: We were all in our early 20s, and Kathleen and Kathi were getting ready to graduate from (The Evergreen State College). They wanted to move to a bigger city, so we went on tour with that in mind. We ended up staying in Washington, D.C., for the summer and moved there a few months later.
Q: What was the music scene in Olympia like?
A: In late 1990, Kathleen was involved in running a feminist art gallery downtown called Reko Muse Gallery. They had been having shows for about a year, but were evicted right around the time Bikini Kill started playing shows, so we never got to play there. When Reko Muse closed down, all-ages shows started happening at the North Shore Surf Club on a regular basis. There were also shows at a few different houses around town, and there were shows at Evergreen in the library building and also unofficial shows in the dorms. There were a few shows at Grange halls around town as well.
Things had been kind of dead in Olympia for a while, but ’90-’91 was pretty active, with bands like Giant Henry/Unwound, Fitz of Depression, Nirvana, Calamity Jane, Some Velvet Sidewalk and Beat Happening. Other Northwest bands played here a lot, like Bratmobile, and a little bit later, Heavens to Betsy and touring bands like the Melvins played regularly. There weren’t any shows at bars back then. The scene was too young. Most people who went to shows were under 21 or didn’t hang out in bars.
Q: How do you feel about what’s happening in Olympia now?
A: There are more 21-plus shows in bars now, but some venues still make a point of having all-ages shows. The Northern closed down last year, but the Olympia All Ages Project is still around doing shows in various spaces. The Capitol Theater is still all-ages.
I don’t believe in discriminating on the basis of age. If Olympia didn’t have an all-ages punk scene when I was growing up here in the ’80s, I probably would have gotten into all kinds of trouble. There needs to be places for kids to go that encourage them to get involved in the local music scene. When you are invested in your community, your life becomes more meaningful, and you develop a support system.
Beyond the cultural enrichment, being in a band is a creative outlet that encourages discipline, builds respect and fosters self-esteem. It is also a way for young people to have a voice and platform for self-expression. I think the city of Olympia might want to take a look at the international cultural and economic impact the Olympia music scene has had in the past three decades and invest in our local youth.
That said, Olympia still has a great live music scene with a lot of energetic bands made up of people of all ages. My favorites are G.L.O.S.S., Broken Water, Vexx, M.O.D.s, Nudity and Rocknho.
Q: What is it like listening to the demo tape now?
A: I can tell we couldn’t really hear each other and are playing hesitantly. Kathleen’s performance makes it worth listening to for more than historical reasons. I consider it her best performance of our early songs.
I think we sort of rushed to record because of the upcoming tour, but in retrospect, I’m glad we did because Kathleen is on fire.
The whole thing is kind of crazy because the band rose to international prominence on the basis of the demo tape and our live show. Our self-titled EP didn’t come out on Kill Rock Stars until October 1992, almost a year and a half after the tape. By that time we had toured the U.S. several times, been offered a U.K. tour and record deal, and had plans to record a single with Joan Jett — all without a record label, a booking agent or a publicist. So it makes sense to reissue the tape. It’s a big part of Bikini Kill’s DIY history.
Q: Does it surprise you how inspiring and important Bikini Kill still is, 25 years later?
A: Yes and no. What really surprises me is that the Go-Go’s are still the most successful all-female band in the history of American popular music. I’m a big Go-Go’s fan, but it’s kind of depressing that no one has surpassed their chart success in the past three decades. I still hope to see that change in my lifetime.
Q: It’s said you came up with the spelling “grrrl.” Tell me about that.
A: In the late ’80s, I was living in Eugene (Oregon), trying to start an all-female band. I kept encountering people who thought it was “reverse sexist” to want to play in an all-girl band.
I decided to put out a fanzine as a way to talk about gender and music. I was 18 and didn’t really feel like the term “woman” applied to me, but after the first issue of Jigsaw came out, I was criticized by other feminists for calling myself a girl. I thought that was dumb: Does feminism only apply to women or does it include girls, too?
So kind of as a joke and reference to second-wave feminists who were spelling women as “wimmin” or “womyn,” I decided to change the spelling of “girl” to “grrrl” in my fanzine. It was supposed to be fun and funny, but it was also serious to the degree that I was frustrated. What was wrong with being girly or even with just being 18 and not feeling like a grown-up yet?
Fast-forward a year or two, and that conversation I was trying to start in Jigsaw No. 1 eventually led to riot grrrl, which was a young, punk-based feminist movement that encouraged girls to start their own bands and make fanzines as a way to seize cultural power, build community and resist patriarchal oppression.
Q: That word has had a huge impact. How does that feel?
A: It’s kind of cool, right? It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s even allowed in Scrabble — although it’s only 4 or 5 points.
Q: What is new and exciting in your music career?
A: Spider and the Webs is releasing a new album next month called “Spider Magic.” We are touring in Alaska Sept. 23-28. That’s pretty new and exciting because I’ve never been there before, and at this point there are only a few states I haven’t played. We’re going to have to play Wyoming, Vermont and Florida next.
I also play drums and sing in a new all-female group called gSp (girlSperm) with Marissa Magic and Layla Gibbon. We played our first show in San Francisco on July 4 at the Epicenter Reunion. We are recording at High Command Studio soon.
Both releases are coming out on my label, Bumpidee. Hopefully, gSp will do some touring next year after we put out the recording.
Q: Are there more Bikini Kill reissues coming up?
A: Yeah. Bikini Kill Records will release “The Punk Singer” soundtrack digitally on Oct. 13.
Q: Do you miss playing with Bikini Kill? Do you look back on that time and that band as special?
A: I still love the band musically and conceptually as much as I ever did, but I don’t miss the drama! I do miss drumming in Bikini Kill: Kathleen and I had a phrasing thing locked in that I just don’t seem to have with other singers. She really paid attention to the bass drum. I miss that.
I really miss writing songs with Kathi, and Billy is still my favorite guitar player of all time. There’s a song on the new Spider and the Webs record called “Inanition (Two Weeks Is Too Long)” that I wrote with Kathi during Bikini Kill.
Q: Has Bikini Kill discussed reuniting for shows?
A: It’s not possible at this time, and I’m not sure if it’s something we’d ever want to do, but you never know.
I think we were all pretty relieved when it was over. It was a difficult band to be in for personal reasons, and we were at the center of a lot of political conflict. Seven years is a long time for four people to be in a collective. On top of that, disenfranchised kids dealing with abuse and homophobia would seek us out looking for help. It was hard work, and we were under a lot of pressure.
Today, we are all happily busy with other musical projects. Kathi and Kathleen are playing in The Julie Ruin. I got to see them play and hang out in Olympia a few months ago at the Safeplace gala, and they sounded great. It was super cool to see them playing together again. They both live in NYC, so I don’t get to see them that often, and I have missed hearing their voices.
Billy is as mysterious as ever, but his guitar playing is still wild and frenetic. There’s really nothing like it.