Bikini Kill was a girl punk group ahead of its time

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that members of Bikini Kill lived in a group house, nicknamed “the Embassy,” in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. The house was located in Mount Pleasant.


Bikini Kill perform at the Asylum in Washington, D.C., in April 1992. The group consisted of vocalist and songwriter Kathleen Hanna, guitarist Billy Karren, bassist Kathi Wilcox and drummer Tobi Vail. (Pat Graham)

Guys were always peeling off their shirts at punk shows. Why couldn’t she?

It was June 27, 1991, and D.C. was sweltering. Just like Kentucky the night before. Just like Alabama the night before that.

Enough. Kathleen Hanna marched on stage wearing a black bra she’d found at a thrift store, bracing herself for another night of heckles, threats and projectiles. Instead, the singer of Bikini Kill felt the room turn upside down. Or maybe, finally, right-side-up.

“I remember halfway through the show being like, ‘People are really getting this,’ ” Hanna says. “It was like they had been waiting for us.”

Outside the District, Bikini Kill was ahead of its time.

Formed in Olympia, Wash., in 1990, the quartet helped launch riot grrrl, a radical feminist movement that would spread from Adams Morgan group houses to the pages of Newsweek. They coined the term “girl power” in a photocopied fanzine years before the Spice Girls spelled it out in bubble gum. They were pals with Nirvana before Nirvana was Nirvana. (Kurt Cobain took the title for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from some graffiti that Hanna drunkenly scribbled on his bedroom wall.) They wrote brilliant, abrasive punk salvos that would inspire Sleater-Kinney, the Gossip, embattled Russian group Pussy Riot and a generation of others.

And when Bikini Kill crash-landed in D.C.’s activist-friendly punk scene after a sleepless tour of towns that had never heard rock songs about rape, domestic violence, empowerment and equality, they found a new home.

“The D.C. scene was unapologetically political,” bassist Kathi Wilcox says. “Everyone was like, ‘We understand your band perfectly.’ ”

Instead of lingering in the back of d.c. space — the now-shuttered venue at Seventh and E streets NW — the girls in the audience rushed to the front to see Bikini Kill’s big splash up close. Instead of barking slurs, the guys danced.

“I can remember exactly where I was standing. It was that kind of show,” says Ian MacKaye, then of local punk giants Fugazi. “The shape of the songs, the presentation, the charisma was pretty undeniable.”

Six days later, MacKaye brought the foursome — Hanna, Wilcox, guitarist Billy Karren and drummer Tobi Vail, all in their early 20s back then — to Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios where they spent the afternoon recording what would become the core of Bikini Kill’s furious debut. Released 20 years ago this autumn, the self-titled EP is being re-issued on Tuesday.

After the session, the band decided to stick around for the summer, but ended up living in Washington for its most pivotal year, rallying an underground community that would ultimately suffocate the band with its impossible expectations.

“We were trying to keep the outside world from killing us,” says Hanna, sipping a latte with Wilcox at a Manhattan cafe on a recent afternoon. “So the tension within the band that wasn’t resolved . . . it came out on stage. When you see a band that’s on the verge of falling apart with a really angry lead singer . . .

Wilcox completes the thought, “It’s not boring.”

The start of riot grrrl

Washington’s coffee options were bleak. So the transplants endured Folgers from Safeway until Vail’s mom started mailing oversize bags of beans from home. Hanna remembers when the first neighborhood Starbucks opened, “Everyone was like, ‘Corporations are taking over the world!’ and we were like, ‘Woo-hoo!’ ”

That summer, the members of Bikini Kill would each adapt differently to Washington.

Vail passed on being interviewed for this story via e-mail: “I don’t remember much about DC except being depressed and homesick.” Karren almost never gives interviews and also declined.

“For me, it was a homecoming,” Hanna says. “This was going to be me taking over my not-so-great history of growing up here . . . What do you call that? Repetition compulsion? Where it’s like you go back to the scene of the crime, but this time it all works out?”

Hanna grew up in the Maryland suburbs and in the early days of Bikini Kill, only spoke obliquely about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. During her student years at Evergreen State College in Olympia she worked as a counselor at a domestic violence and rape shelter and continued to counsel fans backstage at Bikini Kill concerts.

“That’s part of why I wanted to be in a band,” Hanna says. “I could walk up to a 15-year-old and ask her [switches into nerd-voice], ‘Would you like to join my support group?’ But if I say that from the stage and I’m in a cool band, they’re gonna come.”

Fanzines were another way to reach out. So one night in early July, Hanna and a few friends gathered around a Capitol Hill Xerox machine to run off copies of “Riot Grrrl,” a handmade pamphlet that Hanna daydreamed of developing into a glossy magazine about feminism and music.

Instead, riot grrrl morphed into an activist group that held regular meetings to discuss empowerment, organization, safety and support in the punk community. As the meetings gained momentum in Washington, participants started exporting their ideas to the rest of the country through a network of pen pals and self-published fanzines.

Hanna was eager to spread the word on stage, but she and her bandmates were waiting on Wilcox. The bassist had spent the summer traveling in Europe and Morocco, trying to solve coffee-related conundrums of her own.

“I remember Kathi bringing back a picture of her using a bikini top as a coffee filter,” Hanna says. But by then, the singer had no use for caffeine.

“I was running on straight adrenaline.”

The revolution

The District set a record in 1991 with 482 homicides. One occurred in a basement apartment not far from the one Hanna was renting on Adams Mill Road NW. The victim was a single woman, living alone, just like her. Maybe the death threats that kept landing in her band’s mailbox weren’t something to shrug off.

“Our home address was published in our fanzine,” Wilcox says. “So letters would come like, ‘I’m gonna . . . stab you in the heart.’ ”

At home and on tour, Bikini Kill’s ideals were met with a macho hostility that’s difficult to imagine today. Transforming fear into motivation became a survival tactic.

“The more [threats] we got, the more I knew we were on the right trail,” Hanna says. “I just kept telling myself, ‘We’re on the right side of history.’ ”

Wilcox, Karren and Vail were too broke to buy a deadbolt for the group house where they were crashing — a three-story rowhouse in Mount Pleasant dubbed “the Embassy” by its residents, Nation of Ulysses. The dazzling punk quintet had befriended Bikini Kill out west and toured with them back to D.C. after hyping them to friends back home.

“They were the thing that a lot of people were waiting for, even if they didn’t know they were waiting for it,” says former Ulysses frontman Ian Svenonius. “I think I probably encouraged them to move here, but I would never tell people that D.C. was some Haight-Ashbury.”

Still, the city’s mythic punk scene was in its second bloom. A decade after Minor Threat and Bad Brains established Washington as the global epicenter of hardcore punk, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses and dozens of other proudly independent rock bands were earning Washington a vaunted reputation.

From the outside, many saw the D.C. scene as an alternative to the “alternative” rock universe being peddled on MTV — the Nirvanas and Pearl Jams and the like.

In the basement of the Embassy, Bikini Kill got down to penning some of the most vital rock-n-roll of the era, including the band’s signature anthem, “Rebel Girl.”

“I remember feeling like that song got pulled out of the air,” Hanna says. “With everything that was happening, it was like, ‘I’m not even writing this, the scene is writing this.’ ”

She sang it back to the scene at Bikini Kill’s biggest Washington show — a July 25, 1992, concert outside the U.S. Capitol with Fugazi. Talk of Anita Hill and Desert Storm had dominated the conversation during Bikini Kill’s year in Washington, but the band rarely addressed national issues head-on. Now, the lyrics of “Rebel Girl” were echoing off the Capitol marble:

When she talks, I hear the revolution.

In her hips, there’s revolution.

When she walks, the revolution’s coming.

In her kiss, I taste the revolution.

Hanna and Wilcox don’t remember revolution arriving that afternoon. They remember that parking the van was impossible and that bathrooms were really hard to find.

Touring and burnout

Bikini Kill left D.C. to tour in 1992 and never came back, scattering to different cities before finally reconvening in Olympia in the mid-’90s.

Olympia’s small-towniness felt claustrophobic. Everyone had read the articles in Seventeen and Newsweek, articles about riot grrrl that distorted the movement’s message and spun the community into disarray.

As the band dodged the media crush, strangers would approach Hanna on the Olympia streets, trying to befriend her and blame her for ruining the scene in the same breath. Wilcox calls the band’s final days “a recipe for losing your mind.”

Touring was just as disorienting. “Our shows felt super schizophrenic because you had girls in the front row singing the lyrics to every single song as if it was their song that they wrote,” Hanna says. “And then you had guys who wanted to murder us. At the same show! . . . It’s only five dollars to throw a beer bottle at someone’s head, so why not?”

But as the group continued its slog, it was impossible not to notice its impact. All across the country, women were starting bands.

Jenny Toomey, leader of the veteran D.C. indie troupe Tsunami, remembers the shift. “Touring before Bikini Kill and after . . . it was drastic,” Toomey says. “Sometimes there was a girl playing bass, but you didn’t have girls singing their stories.”

Unfortunately, Bikini Kill’s story ended in total burnout. Fiercely committed to punk’s do-it-yourself ethos, the band became a cipher with no support system. No manager. No booking agent. Not even a roadie.

“We didn’t have the best interpersonal communication skills,” Hanna says. “When you galvanize against what feels like a hostile exterior, you end up not talking to each other.”

Everything finally crumbled in 1997 when Hanna and Wilcox fled Olympia in a U-Haul cargo van, Hanna’s cat riding in a crate between the two front seats. Wilcox hopped out in D.C., where she was dating Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Hanna drove south to Durham, N.C., where she would move in with friends and take job doing data entry.

She left one of the most influential rock bands in America with $400.

After the breakup

If life in Bikini Kill was interminably tough, life after Bikini Kill was briefly devastating.

“I cried for like a year,” Hanna says of the break-up. “I just felt like I lost my family and my band at the same time and I didn’t know who I was anymore.”

Wilcox, however, was eager for anonymity. She chopped off her peroxide-blonde locks, started walking dogs in D.C. and eventually took a day job where only a few colleagues had ever heard of Bikini Kill — in the newsroom of the Washington Post, where she worked until 2006.

(I first met Wilcox when I was hired by the Post in 2001. More disclosure: Svenonius is a friend and MacKaye is a mentor who released my old band’s recordings on his label.)

Hanna, meantime, was quickly drawn back into the warmth of the spotlight. In 1998, she formed the acclaimed electro-pop trio Le Tigre in New York where she now lives with her husband, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys.

Wilcox now lives in New York, too, and has joined Hanna’s new band, the Julie Ruin, an extension of Hanna’s old solo project of the same name. They’ve recorded an album they hope to drop next year. Vail and Karren live in Olympia, and all four are still in touch, having recently launched an eponymous label to get the Bikini Kill discography back in circulation.

“A lot of our band was just survival,” Wilcox says. “It was exhausting. So when we broke up, it took us years to re-fortify. . . . Now, we can finally say, ‘Yeah, what we did was important and we’re really proud of it.’ And we can keep it in print.”

As for Bikini Kill’s Washington, D.C., it’s hardly recognizable.

When the band arrived in the nation’s capital, there were two women in the Senate. In January, there will be 20. Last year, Washington saw its lowest murder rate since 1963. MacKaye, Svenonius and Toomey are still in town, still deep in music, but Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses and Tsunami are all long gone. The old d.c. space is even longer gone.

Today, it’s a Starbucks.

Read more interview excerpts from this story

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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