the 90s

Bikini Kill Tells Us Why They’re Back

Bikini Kill.
Bikini Kill.

In May, 1991, a revolution began — not with a coup, or a call to arms, but with a cassette. The Olympia, Washington–based band Bikini Kill released their demo tape Revolution Girl Style Now! and played their first shows. They went on, of course, to become the voices most associated with the riot grrrl movement, as well as gaining recognition as musicians, artists, and writers in their individual careers. As feminists, the band believed that cultural change would only happen when women started making their own art, on their own terms. Today, Bikini Kill Records is reissuing Revolution Girl Style Now!, featuring three previously unreleased tracks (it’s available as a DVD, on vinyl, for download, or a cassette). We spoke to some of the members of the band about what things were like back then, why they are releasing the demo, and what they think about the current interactions of feminism and music.

Kathleen Hanna (vocalist): 

When we made the demo tape, we weren’t even on K Records yet. I was just like, “Hey, you guys have decks at your office, can we use them?” And they said yes. We had a bag of 100 cassettes that Nirvana had given us because Sub Pop messed them up, and I took them to K with our master cassette. It was a community that made that demo happen … to be in that kind of community was more of an inspiration to me than any kind of music.

At the same time, this was the age of, well, we’re still in the age of mass shootings, but this was the time when Marc Lépine, a man in Montreal, went into a technical school [École Polytechnique] and said he wanted to kill feminists. He lined the women up against the wall and shot and killed 14 people, ten of them women. I remember walking around crying and wondering why everyone in my whole town wasn’t sobbing. To me, that was one of the biggest inspirations for Bikini Kill. When people would say, “Who are you inspired by?” I’d say 14 people in Montreal.

I wasn’t just inspired by so-and-so’s guitar solos. I was inspired by politics and the audaciousness of the Slits, who used to do these interviews where they’d be asked about feminism and would just like have a tape recorder and play crazy ticker-tape noises. They just responded with nonsense because I think they were so sick of being asked about being a girl band and not about what they were doing and their music, which was clearly great music. Total stoner music, to me. It was feminist stoner music! That’s so awesome! But nobody was asking them about their music. No, you’re just girls. That was it. And they responded with such wonderful, ravenous nonsense. That, plus the 14 women in Montreal — you put that with the community, where you can do something, and you have that demo tape.

Back then, Bikini Kill was like, “Don’t take pictures of us.” We were very freaked out by the male gaze. We were very freaked out about men framing what we were doing. There were so many more male journalists and photographers. [We’d say], “We don’t wanna be a part of the mainstream and we don’t want our picture taken. Don’t tape this.” ‘Cause there’s some guy with a video camera pissing us off because I’m looking at an extension of some dick waving in my face in a huge studio space …

[So] much feminist work is erased that, looking back now, it seems like a pretty luxurious position to take: “No, I don’t wanna be in your magazine,” or “I don’t want to be photographed.” Now I see how many amazing artists don’t get any attention. And I feel lucky to have it. I wanted to make sure my work didn’t get thrown in the garbage. Especially with Bikini Kill. If the ‘90s are back and stretch pants are back and lower dresses are back, then Bikini Kill should be back, too. It shouldn’t just be about Sub Pop or Nirvana and flower dresses and combat boots. It should also be about young DIY feminism and what does that mean today and what can that mean today and how can that be built on in a way that’s better than what we did?

Kathi Wilcox (bassist):

We’re trying to catalogue our work, and from an archivist, historical perspective we thought we needed to [make] this music available for people. I certainly didn’t have any idea back then that we would still be talking about this now. I don’t think any of us went into it with that kind of thought. It’s not like we were that famous. Even huge punk bands like Black Flag, 99.9 percent of the population would have no idea who that was.

It wasn’t until we got to the U.K. and toured with Huggy Bear in ‘93 that we were like, Whoa, this is really huge. We were in NME and Melody Maker. The British media just kind of churns through bands, and at that moment, we happened to be the band they were freaking out about it. We didn’t have any idea then what it meant, but that was when we were like, Something really huge is happening. In a small way it was. The shows were big and there was a lot of hullabaloo.

[But] we hardly toured [otherwise], and we only put out three records. So in that sense, it is a little surprising to me that we have had that big of a cultural impact.

Tobi Vail (drummer):

When we first started we were mostly thinking about our immediate community. At the time, that was the punk/indie scene in the Pacific NW, but we also had contact with the burgeoning homo-core scene in the Bay Area and the political post-hard-core scene happening in Washington, D.C., surrounding Dischord Records. We were more into the Nation of Ulysses and K Records than grunge or Sub Pop at that point.

I kind of hate archiving, but I have all this stuff in my basement and now it’s not just collecting dust, it’s starting to decompose. I also work in a library and love to do research so I appreciate [archiving] in that sense, but on a personal level I like ephemeral art. Fanzines are an example of that. I really hate the idea that a fanzine would be in a museum or on the internet preserved forever for a general audience when it was created in private for a secret group of friends or pen pals or whatever, like a page from your diary distributed as a message in a bottle for a random person to discover.

But even though I have mixed emotions, I recognize that feminist culture should be documented and that means sharing our history. I’m most comfortable with the reissuing of the records because they were made with the intent of being distributed to a wider audience … I keep waiting for a pop singer to cover “Rebel Girl” so that it can reach a wider audience, but I was surprised that the most recent artist covering it is the Melvins featuring Teri Gender Bender.

Bikini Kill Tells Us Why They’re Back