Music

10.2.2015

Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail on Why Punk Will Never Die

Anyone who grew up in the 90’s knows it was a time of rebellion, anger, and burning institutions down. The coke-fueled, synth-filled days of 80’s pop were gone and had been replaced by the grunge and pain of the post-crack epidemic 90’s. Bikini Kill, the Olympia-based proto-all girl punk band, is synonymous with that music moment. The band pioneered the riot grrrl movement.

Calling out the political powers that be with their radical and unapologetic feminism, the girls behind the band empowered young ladies everywhere to fight back. Anyone who has loved Bikini Kill remembers the first moment they got a taste of the fast-paced energy and lyrics. I went on to break up with my boyfriend immediately after listening to them for the first time. He didn’t take it well.

In getting the chance to ask Bikini Kill’s drummer Tobi Vail whatever I was curious about – namely how the ‘riot’ part of riot grrrls got diluted, why punk can never die, and her personal favorite song –  I got to live out my biggest teenage wet dream.

You really helped to bring about the ‘riot grrrl’ and DIY social movements through zines and other works. Do you feel like social media has really changed the way these ideas are brought to light?

Riot Grrrl was the name of a fanzine that started the summer of 1991 in Washington DC. Shortly after that, there were several people in different places making different fanzines called riot grrrl – Olympia, New York, Virginia, DC etc. Sometimes meetings would happen. At one point there was a fanzine distribution network called Riot Grrrl Press that was based out of Chicago and a few conventions – one in DC and one in LA for example. I was involved in starting the first fanzine and I went to the first meeting but I really wasn’t too involved after it started – it had a life of its own.

Obviously social media is different than a decentralized, anti-hierarchical feminist punk network – social media sites are usually owned by massive corporations. Does that undermine it completely? This is a good question – I think #blacklivesmatter is a current example of how radical social movements can use  this technology to spread information and network on a massive scale. There are definitely pros and cons. But it’s a totally different time and context than it was 20 or 25 years ago with regards to culture and technology.

Do you feel like there can still be a DIY style of doing things in such a digital age?

If by DIY we mean taking a “do it yourself” approach to music and culture then yes. Of course old technology doesn’t completely end in the face of a new era. For example, you can buy food at the grocery store that comes from all over the world, but you can also grow food in your garden and preserve it yourself. I guess the question for me is more about decentralization – where is the corporate-free zone on the internet? Is there a social network for independent musicians who don’t want to participate in corporate-owned social media in order to share and/or sell their music? CASHmusic.org is working on creating accessible, open source digital tools that can be used for free – I can see things going in that direction in the future.

 

I remember a lot of people talking about gender in terms of identity – in this case “grrrl” – which is cool and important, especially when you are young and figuring stuff out – but the “riot” part got kind of lost along the way.

How do you feel about how history has glorified the riot grrrl movement?

One thing I have noticed is that people generally consider riot grrrl a musical genre now – and I really don’t think that was ever the case – but I understand that genres emerge historically. In this case, I think it tends to be problematic because almost any punk band from the 90’s with a girl singer gets called “riot girl.” While, that might sell records and be a good “marketing” category, it kind of does a disservice to the music to lump it all together. It’s particularly problematic when all punk feminist bands are called riot grrrl – it’s just not true. There’s a new book coming out by the drummer of Spitboy that talks about some of this stuff.

Do you feel like the term ‘riot grrrl’ may be exclusionary to fans who don’t want to take part in the gender binary? How do you feel about the ways in which gender is being deconstructed right now?

Yeah, it depends on how you take it and what it means in the context you live in, but I definitely remember feeling this way in the early 90’s. I thought it was problematic to center a feminist movement around a particular gender identity, but at the same time gender does exist and violence is gendered under patriarchy. I guess in retrospect riot grrrl could be seen as form of “strategic essentialism” in that sense. But in general, I think feminist movements should be centered and defined around action. That just intuitively seems more strategic and inclusive.

For Bikini Kill, that meant trying to get girls who would come to see us play to start their own bands and create their own fanzines. That way whatever kind of person you are in terms of gender, you are actively creating community and a platform where multiple voices will be heard – at least that was what we hoped would happen. I remember a lot of people talking about gender in terms of identity – in this case “grrrl” – which is cool and important, especially when you are young and figuring stuff out, but the “riot” part got kind of lost along the way.

What is it about the punk lifestyle/philosophy that allows it to keep resonating?

At this point, for me it’s about actively participating in a community/network of creative protest, dissent, and cultural resistance. It’s about not letting consumer culture and capitalism dictate your lifestyle, and fighting for a space where those dominant values can be questioned and ultimately rejected.

 

Looking back, what song do you feel like you still relate to the most and why?

Hmmm that’s a tough one. I always liked Carnival because it celebrates female desire and it’s funny and upbeat. It’s also a documentary and I tend to like songs like that.

If you could get anything written on your brass knuckles (no letter limit), what would you want to get?

Molly Germs.

 

Bikini Kill was a seven year long collaboration between four people. I don’t know if I would call it inspirational. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it.

If we were to run into you at a party where would you be? What kind of party would it be? 

In Olympia – dancing in a punk house basement.

What were some of the most inspirational collaborations Bikini Kill did? 

Bikini Kill was a seven year long collaboration between four people. I don’t know if I would call it inspirational. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it.

Photography by Allison Wolfe

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