Anger is still an energy as Bikini Kill heads Down Under
Photo by Allison Wolfe
“Punk is many things and has so many different definitions but, definitely, yes it’s ideological,” says writer, musician and feminist activist Tobi Vail on the eve of an Australasian tour with Bikini Kill. “In my definition, it’s counter hegemonic energy. It’s opposition, it’s questioning the status quo and creating an alternative.”
As founding member of the seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, a punk rock polemicist and a protagonist in the Pacific North-West alternative scene of the 1980s and 1990s, Vail is in a privileged position to muse on the nature of punk rock.
Born in regional Washington State, Vail moved with her parents to Olympia in the early 1980s. Olympia shared the attributes of many other American state capital cities: relatively small population, marginal economic importance and higher than average political consciousness.
“It’s a small city or a big town. Back then there was a mill, plus a lot of people were employed by the state,” Vail says.
Notwithstanding, Olympia would play a critical role in the Pacific North-West punk rock scene of the 1980s. The creative epicentre of the Olympia arts and music scene was Evergreen State College, a consciously progressive liberal arts college established in 1967, and in which Vail enrolled after leaving high school. Vail already had a familiar connection with Evergreen – Vail’s parents had both attended and her father had been in the college’s first graduating year.
Despite its relatively small, and geographically obscure location, Evergreen would punch above its weight, with school alumni including Beat Happening singer and guitarist, and K Records founder, Calvin Johnson, Sleater Kinney members Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, SubPop founder Bruce Pavitt, “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards and, relevantly, Vail’s Bikini Kill band mates Kathi Wilcox and Kathleen Hanna.
“I don’t think the influence of Evergreen can be downplayed,” Vail says. “There are a lot of cultural forces that shaped the music scene [in Olympia], but Evergreen is really one of them. People sometimes say ‘Oh college is middle class or upper middle class’ but Evergreen is full of working class people and lower middle class people, not privileged people. And it’s also really small so there’s that aspect too.”
Vail had had a keen ear for music from a young age – both her parents had musical backgrounds – and by her early high school years was, trusty skateboard in hand and on foot, Vail was hanging out regularly downtown and “meeting other skateboarders and getting into punk rock”.
Punk in those days was a close acquaintance of hardcore and still prone to pejorative and misinformed categorisation by the music press and, amongst some of its most vocal adherents, a propensity for misogynist, overbearing behaviour.
But the concept and philosophical underpinnings of punk was being challenged.
“At the time there was this idea that punk was really rigid,” Vail says. “Maximum Rock’n’Roll defined it really rigidly at the time, you had to be fast, you had to sound a certain way, you had to dress a certain way. The North-West didn’t really follow those rules, we didn’t fit into that.”
Calvin Johnson was already subverting punk’s masculine façade with his three-piece band, Beat Happening. After Vail interviewed him for Vail’s local community radio show, Johnson eventually suggested they form a band together. Keen to address what she perceived as a lack of gender parity in rock’n’roll, Vail wanted an equal partnership in the band –which, Vail says, led to the occasional “power struggle” with Johnson.
The Go Team toured a few times outside Olympia and recorded a few singles and cassettes, but “the whole time I was doing that band I was looking for girls to play music with because I thought there needed to be more of that,” Vail says.
The opportunity to form a band with other women came via the ‘Jigsaw’ fanzine Vail founded, shortly after moving to Eugene Oregon in the late 1980s. Back in the days before social media, fanzines were the hub of counter-cultural community awareness and discourse (albeit with a generally male-dominated focus).
After a crash course in fanzine layout and publication from Some Velvet Sidewalk guitarist and vocalist Al Larsen, Vail published the first issue of ‘Jigsaw’ in 1988, featuring the transcription of Vail’s radio interview with Calvin Johnson and a reproduction of an interview with British pop star Lulu (with Vail pretending to take on the role of interviewer), augmented with “some of [Vail’s] ideas about playing music, asking different criticisms about what was happening, also setting up an aesthetic.”
By the second edition, Vail “was angry about all kinds of stuff, so it was more fierce and I started writing about sexism. I was full of rants. But next to all these feminist awakening rants, there would be writing about punk records or records made throughout the history of rock’n’roll by women.”
Historical context is everything and Vail says it’s important to appreciate “what was going on politically in the United States at the time” – especially for a younger generation.
“The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Reagan got elected, he started making people registering for the draft again. That wasn’t long after Vietnam. By the time you’re a teenager, you’re starting to think ‘We might get drafted, the draft might include women’, so there was this political awareness that a lot of kids felt and that was part of what drew me to punk too. The first show I went to was Rock Against Reagan and that was when Reagan was up for re-election.”
‘Jigsaw’ touched a raw nerve of feminist disdain with dominant political and pop culture. The third edition featured a contribution from fellow Evergreen college student, Kathleen Hanna, whose provocative spoken word performances on feminist issues had rendered her a conspicuous presence in the Olympia alternative arts scene.
By the end of 1990 Hanna, Vail and another Evergreen student, Kathi Wilcox, had formed Bikini Kill. With the addition of guitarist Billy Karren, who’d played with Vail in The Go Team, the ‘classic’ line-up of Bikini Kill was born.
With its razor sharp punk rock riffs, lyrics exploring domestic abuse, female empowerment and socio-political dysfunction, augmented by Hanna’s charismatic and evocative stage presence, Bikini Kill become the vanguard of a feminist punk movement known as riot grrrl (a term that for which Vail has been given credit in originally using), and which also included Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, UK band Huggy Bear, Slant 6 and Excuse 17.
As Vail notes wryly, Bikini Kill’s reputation preceded it – “people were writing about us, having opinions about us based on nothing, not even hearing the music” – but hit a chord with a young demographic who’d grown up under the Reagan presidency, with its attendant obsequious affection for corporate interests and fast-food patriotism.
Bikini Kill’s debut recording, the 8-song cassette “Revolution Girl Style”, released in 1991, was emblematic of the band’s sound and political attitude. “Pussy Whipped”, released in the American fall of 1993, would become Bikini Kill’s definitive album.
Clocking in at just over 22 minutes and featuring the anthemic “Rebel Girl” (a rough and ready version of which had appeared the year before on the split album with Huggy Bear), “Pussy Whipped” was a brutal, venomous rebuke to the forces of corporate self-interest, political conservatism and cultural hegemony. Bikini Kill practised what they preached, encouraging young women to start their own band and create their own punk rock aesthetic.
“Women and girls didn’t every really have an equal position in punk,” Vail says. “Even though there were women and girls in punk, there wasn’t really gender parity by any means. There weren’t as girls on stage as there were in the audience. I was like ‘Those are the bands that I like, so let’s make a great punk band’.”
When Nirvana’s “Nevermind” exploded in late 1991, major labels went scouring for “alternative” bands to sign. Vail concedes that there was some tentative discussions between members of Bikini Kill and a major label but she “was never part of it and everyone knew that I wasn’t into it, so it wasn’t something we ever considered”.
And having witnessed Nirvana and other bands struggle with the perils of mainstream cultural interest – Vail and Kurt Cobain had been in a relationship in the late 1980s – the pair even recorded a few demos under the name Bathtub is Real – Bikini Kill preferred to maintain its DIY existence.
“We just associated it with … Oh, you sign to a major label, you become a drug addict, you lose it. It didn’t seem like a healthy choice,” Vail says. “And we didn’t need that – we had a whole other thing that we were doing. I don’t know if we were ever in agreement about that but I don’t know if in the 90s bands really needed that. We had this thriving underground which you could tour forever.”
But while Bikini Kill was, in hindsight at least, a punk rock band, at the time Vail saw the band as a bit older than the youth demographic she associated with punk rock.
“At the time punk was really youth culture, hardcore punk was youth culture in the sense that there were not adults involved in it,” Vail says. “By 1989 I’d turned 20, so when I was in the Go Team I don’t know whether I considered myself a punk rocker. Calvin [Johnson] was always pressing the boundary of what punk is and he very much identified as that but I remember reclaiming it for myself a little bit later, almost as a correction.”
Vail’s observations on the “ageist” aspect of punk are illuminating. But what of the relationship between punk and the flannelette-clad, commodified youth culture marketed as ‘grunge’ in the 1990s? Was grunge the sanitised, media-friendly version of punk rock?
“So far as grunge goes, I don’t know, did the people in those bands feel like punk applied to them? I don’t know,” Vail replies.
”The North-West didn’t really follow those rules, we didn’t fit into that. Not that there weren’t thrash, not in the metal sense, but fast beat, we had bands like that but people didn’t want to follow those rules. People were non-conformist. We didn’t even have places where you could get clothes like that! Up here, the flannelette shirt is just what people wear because it’s raining outside. It wasn’t very fashion-oriented in the North-West. People were not materialistic whereas in California it might’ve been more of a uniform.”
Bikini Kill would go onto release its second album, “Reject All American”, in 1996 before breaking up 18 months later. After 7 years of intense performance and incendiary politico-musical discourse, Vail says Bikini Kill had done enough. Hanna had released her solo album, “The Julie Ruin”, and the other members of the group had been playing in other bands (Vail, Wilcox and Karren had formed The Frumpies with Bratmobile drummer Mollie Neuman in 1992).
When Hanna announced she was leaving, it was agreed to draw a line under Bikini Kill.
“It was a really, hard, stressful band to be in because we got well known really quickly years before we put out a record,” Vail says. “So there was a lot of expectation to that band and it was hard to write songs to be casual about it. So there was a lot of pressure, a lot of strong personalities, political differences.”
Vail also felt it was important to hand over the baton to the new generation of punk rock musicians. “It wasn’t clear what was going to come next either. We could repeat ourselves or we could turn into a different kind of band but I don’t know if that makes any sense. I think we just grew out of it,” Vail says.
“It seemed literally like we’d done everything we wanted to do, everything possible, but it still seemed like riot grrl, whatever that is, young, youth culture-based feminist movement, we were ageing out of that, we were 27, 28 years old. That should be something kids do. I don’t think kids do should be led by adults. So it seemed like a fine time to let it go.”
In the aftermath of Bikini Kill’s break-up, Kathleen Hanna formed the more electronica-oriented Le Tigre, while Vail’s punk rock resume grew to including a stint with The Old Haunts and forming Spider and the Webs and, more recently, Girl Sperm. After publishing the final edition of ‘Jigsaw’ in 1998, Vail moved her writing on-line, setting up her Bumpidee blog, augmented with freelance writing for various print publications.
In 2017 Vail was asked to participate at a show in New York organised loosely around the release of Jean Pelly’s 33 1/3 book about legendary punk band The Raincoats, whom Bikini Kill had played with almost 25 years earlier. Wilcox and Hanna had similarly been invited; one thing led to another and the trio reunited to perform “For Tammy Rae” off “Pussy Whipped”. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the spontaneous reformation would become the catalyst for Bikini Kill tours of the United States, Europe and now Japan and Australia. The fact that a one-off reunion became the catalyst for a proper organised reunion came as a pleasant surprise to the band.
“At the time we didn’t even see it as getting the band back together,” Vail says. “We all live a long way away from each other, we don’t see each other, we keep in touch through the label but it wasn’t something that was planned or everything. I didn’t think it was going to continue. I just thought it would just be this cool thing. But then people were really excited and also it was really fun to do.”
Vail is still living, working and playing in music. Her band Girl Sperm released an album in 2022, though pandemic-related events stymied shows to promote the record. Vail keeps a close eye on new music (though apologises for not knowing more new Australia music – “I know there’s some great stuff out there”) and cites Retail Simps from Montreal, Wise Blood, Class, Robbon Stage, The Casual Dots (featuring Wilcox, and Christina Bilotte from Slant 6) and Vail’s sister Maggie’s band The Hurry Up as current favourites.
And Vail remains as politically conscious as ever. In the aftermath of Trump’s election in 2016, compounded by the heart-breaking news of a fire in the San Francisco DIY venue, The Ghost Ship, that killed 36 people, including Vail’s close friend Joey Casio, Vail fell into a deep funk, only emerging with the help of music.
“[The fire] just seemed like a failure of the culture because these people are having to play at these places that are fire traps just to sustain our culture. It was just horrible. So I started playing guitar at the time and it got me through the depression.”
Trump may be out of the White House, but the underlying conservative political currents he tapped into remain. And that means punk rock still has work to do, despite the odds being stacked against it.
“I think we all knew what was coming, that Trump was going to appoint these judges who were going to take away the right to choose, Roe v Wade, it seemed a positive thing we could do, to bring feminists together to resist that, not just that, all the racism and everything. But Roe v Wade got overturned away. It’s not really like a punk band is going to stop that but I don’t know what else we could do.”
Feminist discourse has evolved significantly over the last couple of decades and has its own philosophical subdivisions. What’s important, Vail says, in unity around common issues, not identification of ideological differences.
“I think it’s important for people who are feminists to talk to each other because there isn’t a strong unified feminist movement in the United States right now. There are feminists, there are people doing great work, but it’s not unified in the way it needs to be to be a threat to the state, which doesn’t have our interests in mind,” Vail says.
“People can come together and unite around common issues, which is really what needs to happen with something like abortion and all the anti-trans legislation and anti-queer legislation. Places like Texas and Florida, that’s going to go national. We need to unite around these issues, which doesn’t mean we have to agree or be the same type of person, but if we’re going to fight this stuff we have to unite around common issues.”
Finally, back on the construct of punk, I ask Vail about a comparison she made in another interview about the relationship between punk and folk. Is this both in the sense of the DIY performative and story-telling aspects of the respective genres?
“I think it’s like a non-commercial thing, in a sense,” Vail says. “It depends on what context in which you mean punk. There’s an aspect of punk that’s kind of a pop forum, like the Sex Pistols existed in the marketplace and through mainstream culture the original punks were an extension of pop art, Andy Warhol and all that.
“Then there’s also that folk tradition of people getting together and making music for their friends, not buying at the story, not at the marketplace, just making it for their own entertainment and it has nothing to do with buying and selling.”
26 Hobart Australia @ Mona Foma TICKETS
28 Perth, Australia @ Perth Festival/The Rechabite TICKETS
01 Perth, Australia @ Perth Festival/The Rechabite SOLD OUT
03 Brisbane, Australia @ The Tivoli TICKETS
05 Adelaide, Australia @ Lion Arts Factory TICKETS
07 Melbourne, Australia @ The Forum TICKETS
08 Melbourne Australia @ The Forum SOLD OUT
09 Melbourne Australia @ ACMI - Q&A with Kathleen, Kathi, and Tobi at screening of Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains SOLD OUT
11 Meredith Australia @ Golden Plains TICKETS
12 Sydney, Australia - All About Women Event @ Sydney Opera House TICKETS on sale Friday Dec 2nd at 9am local
13 Sydney, Australia @ Sydeny Opera House TICKETS
15 Auckland, New Zealand @ Powerstation TICKETS
Tags: riot grrrl, tobi vail, bikini kill, nirvana, go team, kathleen hanna, kathi wilcox
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