In today’s Post, we flash back two decades with Bikini Kill, the radical feminist punk band that spent a pivotal year living in Washington D.C. between 1991 and 1992.
With the band’s debut EP being re-released on Tuesday, I had long chats with Bikini Kill members Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox; Ian MacKaye of Fugazi; former Nation of Ulysses frontman Ian Svenonius; and Jenny Toomey of Tsunami. Below are a few interview excerpts that didn’t make it into the story.
Kathleen Hanna on gender disparity in the ’90s rock scene: “The way it was in the ’90s was that shows — even L7 shows — were primarily guys in the audience. So if we wanted to continue to do this and make music about female participation and try to get more women in the underground music scene, we would have to go out and seek it. We’d have to go around with clipboards and get names and addresses. We would have to send postcards to the women we met and ask them to invite their friends.”
Ian MacKaye on seeing Bikini Kill for the fist time: “At the time, there was this weird drift into sort of math-rocky-dude bands where people were singing more obscure lyrics. Like, songs that referenced parts of cars. Like, Carburetor... It seemed so retreating from the boldness of having a front person, somebody who sticks their neck out... So seeing [Bikini Kill] was so shocking because they came at it so hard. Kathleen was such an intense frontperson.”
Hanna on her first impressions of MacKaye: “I didn’t know who he was. I thought he was some creepy guy like, ‘Yes! Come! I have a recording studio!’ And it was gonna be like that thing in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ where we go to the recording studio and then the walls fall down and we’re in a cage and he drives us off to some location and kill us.”
MacKaye on the recording session: “They had never been in a studio so when they walked in they just started laughing and saying, ‘It’s like Star Trek!’”
Hanna on the session: “We weren’t very gracious. We were super nervous and I was a really self-righteous person.”
Jenny Toomey on feminism in the D.C. punk scene before Bikini Kill’s arrival: “In most cities, for early punk ... most scenes didn’t have a critical mass in counterculture so they could factionalize. It’s hard for people who are younger than me to understand this, but there weren’t enough weirdos for you to self-select so you could be with your own weirdos. So d.c. space, where this Bikini Kill show happened, it was this teeny venue... and you had old folks and teenager runaway folks... and things weren’t so gender and racially divided. When the scene is small, it’s ‘All freaks welcome.’”
Hanna on Toomey: “We went to the same junior high and she always got the lead in the school plays. She got Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and they asked me to be a munchkin. And I was like, ‘No, that’s so beneath me.’ One time, [Toomey] came into the cafeteria with a star sticker on her face — she was so ambitious — and in front of the whole cafeteria, she sang ‘Send in the Clowns.’ I was so jealous of how she was able to do that... So then all these years later, we became friends and total allies.”
Ian Svenonius on Bikini Kill’s splash in Washington: “They were pretty undeniable. They were performing in this really confrontational way and the songs were really good. It was really exciting for people... So as soon as they got to town, things happened very fast.”
Hanna on Nation of Ulysses’s influence on Bikini Kill: “They wrote this crazy fanzine that was really smart and talked about arts and socialism and they cared about style. You could have both in the same place. You didn’t have to be drab and dowdy and pretend you didn’t care about charisma and style.”
Hanna on Bratmobile, another pioneering band closely associated with riot grrrl: “I always thought Bratmobile was a much more successful band in terms of challenging things because they were presenting in this traditionally feminine way... They were saying feminist things while being traditionally feminine and saying, ‘This isn’t a stance of weakness, it’s a stance of strength.’”
Hanna on riot grrrl’s legacy: “I get mail and e-mails from 14-to-16 year olds who just discovered Bikini Kill, but it belongs to them and feels like it’s happening for the first time. But I’m always like, Startyourownthing, startyourownthing, startyourownthing. You can do what we did better. All it was was feminism. Don’t start riot grrrl again. Start your own thing.”