Music

Kathi Wilcox on the Legend of Bikini Kill, Riot Grrrl, and the Chances of a Reunion

Music

Kathi Wilcox on the Legend of Bikini Kill, Riot Grrrl, and the Chances of a Reunion

Bikini Kill was not just a band. They were game changers. Through their angst-driven music, radical grrrl empowerment antics, and girls-to-the-front message, the seminal feminist punk band set the tone for the riot grrrl revolution of the nineties. They were fearless; they gave a voice to women that didn’t know they were lacking one. If you missed out on Bikini Kill the first time, the good news is you’ve been granted a second chance. Last month, the band released a twentieth anniversary reissue of their debut twelve-inch EP on their new label, Bikini Kill Records. In a recent phone conversation with Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox, we chatted about the early beginnings of the band, and Wilcox debunked the rumor that the riot grrrl media blackout policy started with Bikini Kill.

When you first started Bikini Kill, what were your expectations and goals for it?
Well, when we first started the band, I don’t know if Kathleen Hanna had the idea for riot grrrl. Talking to her in later years, she’s said that she had always wanted to collect a contact list of girls and create this network of artists and musicians and writers, and connect with girls like that. But when we started our band, we didn’t, like, sit down and say, “This is what we want to do.” It was much more casual. And it was just the three of us. It was just Tobi and Kathleen and me—we didn’t have a guitar player yet. It was just, “Let’s get together and play,” you know? It wasn’t like, “We’re gonna start this feminist punk band” at all. It wasn’t like that. I mean, it came out inherently just because that’s kind of who we were, but it wasn’t like we sat down with some grand scheme or anything like that.

When did you start to feel like it was something bigger than what you just described? Was it apparent at a certain point?
Yeah, I think kind of right away. We did the fanzine, and then we played a few shows, and it was sort of immediately apparent just by the way that people were responding to our band. I don’t think that we necessarily thought, “Oh, people are gonna completely either hate us or love us,” or, “People are gonna really respond super strongly.” We just thought that that was how our band was and then we played, and people really responded strongly—like, a lot of people [responded] really negatively, they were just really not into it. They were like, “You guys are reverse sexist,” and “You can’t say that kind of stuff,” and “You’re way too harsh,” and “You hate men.”

And we were super surprised. You know, we thought we were a punk band, and we were in that community, so I think we were all kind of shocked by that response.But then a lot of people really loved it. A lot of people were like, “Wow, we’ve never seen a band like you.” You know, girls were like, “You’re articulating how we feel” or whatever. So, it was sort of apparent right away that something bigger was happening.

Why do you think that as a group you were so misunderstood?
I don’t know. I’m not sure that we were misunderstood exactly.

People just didn’t like what you had to say?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that that’s what it was! I think it just struck a nerve. Maybe Kathleen’s presentation, style, and lyrics and stuff were just a lot more direct than [what] people were used to, especially for that time period. You know, it wasn’t like ’77 punk rock was really a big, popular thing in 1990 or 1991. It’s not like we really sounded like that exactly, but there was something [about it] that was sort of like that confrontational seventies punk type of thing. And that was not the music of the time—it was more what people call grunge or whatever. We didn’t call it grunge, but that’s what they call it now. [There weren’t] really super direct lyrics; it wasn’t like someone [was] screaming in your face. There was a slight remove, so I think people were really shocked by that.

Bikini Kill was famous for taking part in the media blackout. Looking back, what are your thoughts on that now?
You know, we didn’t actually have a media blackout policy. We didn’t, like, get together and just decide to do that. It was [more] like we had agreed to do a couple interviews, and then we were kind of unhappy with the way the articles would come out, and so I think that we, as a band, were like, “Well, you know, we don’t need to do interviews.” We were sort of like, “We have our network, we have touring, we have our fanzine, we don’t really need to do [interviews].” We didn’t feel like we needed to be the biggest band of all time. We didn’t have this super ambition that we had to be in Rolling Stone magazine, we already didn’t care about interviews.

So then when we did a couple and they came out and we were unhappy with them, we were sort of like, “You know, we’re just not gonna do them anymore.” It wasn’t really like, “We’re staging this big thing” or anything like that. It was just like, “Until something better comes along that seems to make sense, we don’t really want to talk to the media.” But the riot grrrl thing was different. It wasn’t like we ran riot grrrl, or like Kathleen ran riot grrrl, it was sort of like they, I think on their own, decided not to talk to the media because so many articles were coming out and they were like, “Well, that’s really not what we’re doing. They didn’t really get it, so.”

So you weren’t a part of that decision then explicitly?
No! I mean, I wasn’t part of it, and as far as I know, Kathleen wasn’t part of it. Maybe they took their cues from us . . . but there were people doing riot grrrl all across the country, and this was even before the Internet so it wasn’t like we sent out some big mass email, like, “Nobody talk to the press.” You know, it was sort of like, “We don’t feel like being on the Sally Jessy Raphael show or whatever, so you go and do it if you want to, but . . .” You know what I mean? It [was] sort of like, “We’re touring and we’re writing songs and we’re doing our own thing.” But I think maybe some people took that as a cue to not talk to the press.

That’s so interesting. I feel like things are always just a little bit different once you find out the real story!
[Laughs] That’s always the case!

Your band changed so many people’s lives. What band or musician did that for you?
Well, there have been a lot, but I would say the artist that has sort of stuck with me the longest is probably Patti Smith. For a lot of reasons, but [especially that] she seems so above genre. She’s a writer and a poet and a musician and just an iconic figure. And I love the way that she goes about her life—it comes across as a little bit, not devil-may-care, but she actually seems like she doesn’t care about her image in the press, or her standing in the music world. She is just doing her thing, and it’s pretty inspirational to me.

How much of a role does Bikini Kill play in your everyday life now? Do you feel like it’s influenced, or is a part of everything you touch, or does it just feel like something that’s really coming back now since the rerelease of the EP?
Well, I’m still friends with the people that were in the band, and I’m in a band with Kathleen, so in some ways, it seems like it is part of my everyday life, but it’s just the people, you know? Of course, lately since the EP [recently came out] and we launched the record label and all that, the band has been sort of front and center every day, but, you know, I have my own life. I have a six-year-old daughter, and it’s not like that band dominates my day to day reality at all, but people do recognize me on the street from time to time, which still surprises me, so it definitely comes up but it doesn’t identify me completely.

There are a lot of female musicians making music now, but I was wondering if you think there are any that are making a similar cultural impact to the one that you guys made, and if there’s even room for that now in the same way that there was?
[Laughs] I would hope there was room for it! I mean, I guess the obvious one would be Pussy Riot, but in this way I feel like they’re not really like a band? And I mean that in the best possible way—I feel like they’re much more than a band, you know? They’re not a band that’s just going on tour and putting out records. They’re kind of more like a political movement.

And the question on everyone’s mind—and I’m sure you’ve answered this [a bunch] already, is there a reunion in your future?
[Laughs] Um, I don’t know. We had talked about it a couple years ago, just doing a show because someone had asked us to do a show for a special event, and so we had kind of considered it, but it just didn’t make sense at that time, but, you know, I wouldn’t rule it out. I don’t see it [happening] in the near future or anything but, I don’t know, you never know.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you’d like to add?
Just that Kathleen and I are in a band [The Julie Ruin], and we’re putting out the [Bikini Kill] demo tape [soon]. That hasn’t been available really—it was just a cassette that came out in 1991, so we’re gonna release that as a vinyl record and possibly also as a cassette, which, to me, seems absurd at this point [laughs], but people seem excited about having a cassette again, so we’ll put that out probably by the spring.