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Interview: Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill

words by Heather Schofner and Jackson Ellis | photo courtesy of Bikini Kill Records
11.15.2012
L-R: Tobi Vail, Kathleen Hanna, and Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill

L-R: Tobi Vail, Kathleen Hanna, and Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill

Though they may not be recording and performing, ’90s feminist punks Bikini Kill are once again making noise. Having recently launched a new record label, Bikini Kill Records, the band has begun the process of reissuing their records, as well as digital re-releases by Bikini Kill-related projects such as The Frumpies and Casual Dots. November 20th, 2012 brings the label’s most ambitious release to date: a deluxe reissue of the Bikini Kill debut 12-inch EP originally released in 1992, featuring a poster fanzine with interviews, new liner notes, excerpts from the band’s zines, and more.

Verbicide had a chat with Bikini Kill drummer and riot grrrl/punk legend Tobi Vail, and she shared her thoughts on the newly formed label, Pussy Riot, the current state of activism, and the torch bearers of the riot grrrl movement.

Heather Schofner: I’m a resident of Olympia, and I’m wondering what you think of the current music scene in town. Have you checked out any good local bands lately? Personally, I was devastated by the recent robbery at The Northern — they did so great with their Kickstarter, and some idiot had to come and wash it all away.
My favorite recent Olympia band is Weird TV. They moved away, but Perennial Records put out their last record, so I like to think of them as local. Before that I really liked Son Skull.

As for current bands, Hysterics are great, and Vex are really good. In general, I like the punk scene here. I’m not really a metal fan, so I don’t follow that as much, and I’m not too into the indie rock bands – I do like Hive Dwellers. Morgan and the Organ Donors (MODs) are pretty great too, but they don’t play often. Broken Water are another solid feminist band. I would say that my band, Spider and the Webs, is the band that is closest to my personal style of punk. We are recording [shortly] and hope to be more active next year.

Heather: Do you think that things have changed for girls and women in rock bands since you, Kathi, and Kathleen started out in Bikini Kill? Tobi said in the past that in the early days, every show was like a war; that men would try to beat you up and that security was very lax at many of the gigs.
What I find interesting is that when women started to take over rock ‘n roll in the ’90s, rock was declared to be irrelevant or over by critics and hip young people. It was suddenly no longer cool to play guitar. That seemed to happen around ’96/’97 when everyone got into electronic music and DJ culture. Kathleen Hanna’s work with Julie Ruin and Le Tigre encouraged women and feminists to explore that style of music-making, but at that point rock started to seem out of date in some ways.

Olympia is currently experiencing a revival of ’80s-style hardcore, metal, and punk — which can seem kind of like a retro thing to me since I was a part of the scene here in the ’80s. It’s interesting to see it being reinvented by kids who weren’t even born in the ’80s, and is similar to going to see ’60s-style garage bands in the ’80s, I guess. I do appreciate seeing bands with live drummers and electric guitar. For a while in the mid-’00s, Spider and the Webs would often be the only band on the bill with drums and electric guitars! Everyone had drum machines and acoustic guitars. That was weird.

As for violence at Bikini Kill shows — only some shows escalated to physical violence, but the threat of physical violence was lurking at every show. We really upset people, especially misogynist guys, and it could be incredibly dangerous. Punk shows in the ’80s were often violent, so I was used to it in some ways, but this felt different.

We still live in a male-dominated society where women are raped and murdered, where domestic violence exists, and where, more often than not, there is no justice for survivors of sexual abuse. I think that any time you try to confront that in a public setting and speak out about rape in a concrete way (as opposed to abstract) it is likely that you will get a lot of hate directed towards you. I do think that there are more places where women and feminists feel comfortable on stage talking about this stuff, but when we respond to things that happen in our community — for example, when women and feminists in a music scene try to confront the sexual violence that happens in their community — we are faced with threats of physical violence and silenced. In that sense I don’t think things have changed all that much.

I think if a band today was doing what Bikini Kill did back then, they would face a similar response because when you challenge the status quo, you are not met with approval. It’s hard to be in that place and stay there; something has to give — that is what I meant when I said every show was like a war, or a battle. We were constantly fighting for the right to exist at all.

Heather: Could you comment on the situation that’s been going on with the grand jury resistance movement in the Pacific Northwest and the arrest of Pussy Riot in Russia? Do you think there’s anything that you, or our readers, can do to help these people out?
As I understand it, the grand jury resistors are in prison simply for remaining silent. I don’t really understand what the trial is about or why grand jury trials do not allow one to exercise the right to remain silent. I do think this is similar to Pussy Riot, in that these people are being targeted for political reasons. We should support both Pussy Riot and the grand jury resistors on the basis that they are both political prisoners.

One way people can show support is to organize fundraisers and to share information about what is going on. I really would like to better understand the situation with the grand jury resistors because the entire thing is baffling to me, and I do not feel like there has been good reporting on it yet. I would like to see someone devote some time to doing a journalistic piece on what is really going on in the Northwest right now with “anarchists” being targeted for their alleged beliefs and affiliations. It is completely bizarre to me. I don’t think there is any reason to keep these people in prison.

Heather: How has activism evolved since the late ’90s when the riot grrrl movement was in its heyday? What do you feel is the best tactic people can use to initiate change?
This is hard to comment on, so I will explain why. Although Bikini Kill did participate in anti-war activism during the first Gulf War (’91) and we also were active when we lived in Washington, DC in the struggle to preserve Roe vs. Wade (’92), I don’t think we identified as activists at the time. We were trying to change society by creating culture via our band and zines, and encouraging other women, feminists, and disenfranchised youths to join us.

After Bikini Kill broke up, WTO protests happened in Seattle and 9/11 happened and the US went to war. Rachel Corrie, a member of the International Solidarity Movement, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah trying to protect a house from being demolished. The context is different; it is a different era.

I helped organize the first Ladyfest in 2000. I was involved in starting Bands Against Bush and Pogo for Peace in 2003 and 2004, partially inspired by Rachel Corrie, but also by remembering how punk in the ’80s was political — it was also inspired by the first show I went to, which was Rock Against Reagan in Olympia in 1983 — we were trying to channel the rebellion of punk and turn it into political resistance. At that point I realized that, while there is a lot of crossover between punk and activism, a lot of punk had become apathetic. Bands Against Bush and Pogo for Peace was an attempt to challenge that. I would say we were moderately successful I guess, but people stopped going to anti-war marches at some point and despair set in during Bush’s second term.

Now we have Obama — so yeah — the context is constantly changing, and who knows what is next. I do think that creating a culture of resistance is a vital step to radically transforming society.

Heather: Kathleen has said that she and you receive emails all of the time from girls asking, “How can I revive riot grrrl?” and that both of you always answer, “Start a band!” and encourage the women to just do their own thing. Do you think that it’s time for another revival? Have you seen any bands that have taken your advice, that have the passion and the talent to make people stop and listen?
I am pretty sure that riot grrrl is still happening and vital to at least some young people today. I don’t think it ever really ended — it just isn’t such a huge story in the mainstream news, but people do call themselves riot grrrls today. It’s kind of like punk: the original punks think it died when Sid died, but it is still happening — it just evolves and mutates.

Riot grrrl belongs to the kids who need it — it is there to participate in if people want to pursue it. If it is no longer useful (too nostalgic, outdated, flawed — whatever) then you can always start your own radical feminist movement using the tools and resources you have access to at the moment you are alive, in accordance to the needs and interests of your own generation.

Jackson Ellis: Recently, the band launched Bikini Kill Records, and it sounds like the physical re-release of the Bikini Kill 12-inch with the extras (the zine poster, new interviews, new liner notes) will be an incredible collectors’ item that will hopefully turn on new fans, as well as give longtime fans the chance to rediscover and fall in love with Bikini Kill all over again. I noticed, however, that you’ve already re-released the digital versions of some of your back catalog. Why exactly did you pull these albums from Kill Rock Stars? Were they no longer selling your albums on iTunes?
We got the rights back to our back catalog in July. Bikini Kill Records released everything digitally at that time.

Speaking personally, I think 20 years is a long enough time to be signed to a record label. Changes at KRS happened over the years, and we no longer felt it was the best place for us to be. Slim [Moon] no longer works there, my sister Maggie no longer works there, and I don’t work there anymore either.

More to the point, when the label started, we were involved in a scene that the label documented. We don’t have much in common with the current roster at this point, and are in a position where we are able to release the records ourselves. It just makes sense. We are still working with Maggie — she manages Bikini Kill Records, so it has been an easy transition for us so far. We look forward to reissuing physical releases one at a time as a way to document our work on our own terms.

Jackson: What have been the biggest challenges to setting up a new label? Have you found that re-releasing albums by established bands (The Frumpies and The Casual Dots, in addition to Bikini Kill) has helped you lock up distribution, or have you encountered any wariness from would-be partners due to the fact that none of these bands are currently active?
We are selling Casual Dots and Frumpies digitally but have no plans to reissue them physically; although I don’t think we’ve totally ruled it out, it’s not a huge priority at this point. We didn’t have any trouble at all with distribution. We still sell a decent amount of records, so distribution is not a problem — we also have a lot of connections from working with Maggie and being so actively involved in the world of independent records for so many years. We are distributed by Dischord. Stores can get stuff direct from them or from Revolver. You can also order the records direct from the label and I will fill your order and try to write you a note and keep in touch through the mail.

By the way, The Casual Dots are currently active — they were recording when I was in New York City a few weeks ago — but they don’t all live in the same place, so it’s probably on a project basis. You’d have to ask Kathi.

Jackson: Do you foresee Bikini Kill Records eventually releasing albums from new or current artists, or do you think that the label will remain an outlet solely for re-releases?
No, Bikini Kill Records was created to release records by Bikini Kill. In the future, Maggie and I could start a record label, or one of us could, but there is no plan at this time.

Jackson: Regarding the Bikini Kill debut EP that you’ll be reissuing, I was wondering: how did you end up recording in Washington, DC? Were you initially contacted by Ian MacKaye out of the blue, or were you introduced to him via mutual friends?
Bikini Kill was based in Washington, DC from the summer of 1991 to the fall of 1992, although we were on tour a lot during that time. Ian offered to record us after seeing us play for the first time. We were in DC for the summer, and moved there soon after. We moved back to Olympia at the end of 1992.

Jackson: I’m sure you’ve done a ton of reminiscing in preparing the Bikini Kill EP for its release, but I was wondering, what was most memorable about the recording process? I know you’d recorded a demo before, but was this the first time you were all gathered in a studio together?
It was the first time we had been in a recording studio together, yes. The thing I remember most is that we were very tired from being on a cross-country tour that had us driving all day and all night, only stopping to play shows. I was also bummed that, because we were touring in a car, I didn’t have my drum set with me, so I had to borrow drums for the recording. It’s still hard for me to listen to for that reason, but I’m really glad the record exists as a document of the band at that time.

Ian tells his story in the fanzine that come with the reissue of the 12-inch EP.

Jackson: What is the next project for Bikini Kill Records? Will you be reissuing all of your albums in sequential order, or will you perhaps be skipping around or even focusing on re-releasing the work of other bands, such as The Frumpies or The Casual Dots?
We are talking about releasing the demo tape next, but we aren’t totally sure. Once [the Bikini Kill EP] comes out we’ll be able to better understand how to do the next record.

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