Bikini Kill on Riot Grrrl's Legacy, Taping Over Nirvana Cassettes

Hear a dirgey unreleased gem from feminist punk legends' debut cassette, 'Revolution Girl Style Now'

Bikini Kill reissue their first demo, the feminist punk landmark 'Revolution Girl Style Now,' on September 22nd. Credit: Allison Wolfe

In 1991, the members of seminal feminist punk band Bikini Kill — Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, Tobi Vail and Billy Karren — played one of their first shows together at an Olympia, Washington, club called ABC House. The next day, with their equipment still set up, the band recorded 11 demo songs at the same venue. Once the tape, called Revolution Girl Style Now, was finished, it was cut down to eight raw, ferocious tracks, including some of the band's most iconic songs ("Double Dare Ya," "Suck My Left One").

Now, nearly 25 years after that first cassette tape was released, the band is revisiting the recording via a reissue of Revolution Girl Style Now. The contents will be released for the first time on CD, LP and digitally on September 22nd; for the die-hard fans, the band is also offering a reproduction of the original cassette, same bright-red artwork and all. It's all part of an ongoing effort by the members of Bikini Kill to recirculate the band's older material: In 2012, they founded Bikini Kill Records and have since remastered and reissued several of their earliest releases.

This new version of Revolution Girl Style Now also features the three tracks that were left off of the original demo, including the doomy "Playground," which we're premiering here. These songs have less in common with the anthemic punk Bikini Kill is known for than with the dark, fuzz-bathed work of the band's Pacific Northwest contemporaries, including Mudhoney and Nirvana (whose members were friendly with Bikini Kill when both were first starting out).

We chatted with Hanna and Wilcox, who were getting ready to fly to Europe for a brief tour with their current band, the Julie Ruin, to get the scoop on the reissue, what it was like to revisit Bikini Kill's early days and the future of Bikini Kill Records.

This is the fourth reissue that you guys have done on Bikini Kill Records; what was the impetus for starting the label?
Wilcox: Kill Rock Stars, the label that we were on, was being run by a person who wasn't running the label when we were on it. And Tobi [Vail] and Maggie, her sister, used to work there, pretty much since the beginning. They were both let go at the same time several years ago. We just kind of were thinking, "Why are we on this label? At this point, does it make sense to stay on this label?" We started researching our options, and it made more sense to start our own label.

Revolution Girl Style Now is one of the band's earliest recordings. What was it like to revisit that nearly 25 years after it was first made?
Hanna: I thought it was really funny. When I listened to it, I laughed a lot.

Wilcox: Yeah, I did too [both laugh].

Hanna: When we got together to work on this video trailer for it, I was like, "Did you laugh? I was totally laughing." It's just how young we were, I think, and how different we sounded. It brought me back to that feeling of... I used to have this white truck, and I would drive in it and listen to cassettes from our practices, and I would make up lyrics in the truck, like singing at full volume. That's how "Double Dare Ya" came about, and a whole bunch of other songs — and that really came back to me full force when I was listening to the demos. 

There are a few unreleased tracks on the reissue. Why did you decide to pull those out of the vault now?
Hanna: Those were recorded at the same time, but for some reason we didn't mix them. I'm pretty sure there wasn't enough room on the cassette tape.

Wilcox: That's what it was. We just picked the songs that would fit on the cassette. Maybe it was the songs we liked best at the time. I don't remember how we chose, but they wouldn't all fit on the cassette.

Hanna: It was definitely a mixture of the two. What would fit, and within those parameters, what were the best songs, so we had to leave three off. But it's really interesting to listen to those three songs. I think you said, Kathi, something about how they sound more "grunge" than our other stuff [laughs].

I was actually thinking that when I was listening to the new songs — there's definitely a grungey vibe to them.
Wilcox: Yeah, "Ocean Song" is kind of dirgey. We were definitely listening to the bands that were happening then. I'm sure we were internalizing that to some degree.

Hanna: That's why I think it was cool to put those on. For me, the more I listened to it, I started remembering that, like, I was also listening to Tad [laughs].

Wilcox: But, like, the first Nirvana record is pretty dirgey. Bleach is pretty dirgey.

Hanna: Actually, the cassette was recorded primarily... [Nirvana] had all these cassettes, and the record company or whoever was putting it out accidentally put the same songs on both sides, and they couldn't use [the tapes]. And they gave us this bag of used cassettes, so we taped over them, and then we just put a cassette label over it to hide the "Nirvana" bit. If anyone has an original one, they can peel that off and they'll see it. And also you can actually hear, because our music will stop first, and then you can hear the end of "Negative Creep," or whatever.

Wilcox: Reduce, reuse, recycle. We were just making the most of thrown-away tapes.

You two have worked together for nearly 20 years, first in Bikini Kill and now in the Julie Ruin. How has your working relationship changed in that time?
Wilcox: I think it's definitely better. I think it was really hard for all of us to be good friends in Bikini Kill because it was such a stressful band, and we were so young, and we were all reacting to what was going on. That was more like survival mode, in that band. It was kind of tough for friendships to survive. But ours did. We haven't worked together for 20 years, because there was 10 years in the middle there with Le Tigre, but we stayed friends during that time.

Hanna: Yeah, we visited and stuff like that. I think we had time to process what had happened. I was able to ask Kathi like, "Oh, do you remember when this thing happened?" And she'd be like, "I didn't perceive it like that at all."

Wilcox: You kind of realize that everyone is having their own experience of the same situation. It was definitely interesting to compare notes.

Hanna: Yeah, and in comparing notes, I think we got over some stuff. Like, in The Punk Singer — the awesome biopic of my life, out now! [both laugh] — there's a part where Kathi says something like, "You couldn't find anybody better to be the frontperson of your band." I was like, "Whoa, she thinks that?" Which, of course, this is our second band together; it's kind of a no-brainer. But everybody has their own insecurities. So it was kind of cool to be able to hear that. It gave me one of those things in my head to remember before we play when I'm not feeling too confident.

Wilcox: It's so funny because I always think of you as such a super-confident person. Like, especially when we first met, even before Bikini Kill. You had total bravado. It's funny to me that you wouldn't automatically assume you were a great frontperson.

Hanna: That's always the way things are: tough exterior and the soft interior.

As far as Bikini Kill Records goes, do you have any other plans? Would you release music by other bands?
Wilcox: We'll reissue the rest of the records. I think we want to keep it just to our records.

Hanna: I've always had the secret hope that Tobi would decide she'd want to take that [releasing albums by other bands] on and do it. It could be a really cool thing, because she has really good taste in music. At the same time, I think there are a lot of good labels right now that are supporting feminist bands, so it's not really necessary, which is actually kind of exciting.

Recently, the mayor of Boston declared April 9th to be "Riot Grrrl Day" in Kathleen's honor. But in a proclamation, he said that "riot grrrl philosophy has never felt more relevant." Do you agree with that?
Hanna: It was really strange, because Bikini Kill as a band never had great experiences in Boston [laughs]. Our shows tended to be very violent and scary there, so it was really surreal to be handed that. It was written out in the way I had written this riot grrrl manifesto, my own personal one. To have something that was just in our fanzine be translated through the government was weird.

I definitely think feminism is more relevant than ever, and riot grrrl was an offshoot of feminism that was independent, punk rock, DIY. But I don't like the idea of it being fetishized or historicized in a way that leaves out the flaws. I don't like the idea of having the same mistakes repeated. Those kinds of things, it's nice to be acknowledged, but the sincerest form of flattery is being copied in a better way, you know what I mean?

"I don't like the idea of riot grrrl being fetishized or historicized in a way that leaves out the flaws." —Kathleen Hanna

More mainstream artists, like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, are publicly identifying as feminist. As artists who've been associated with the movement for such a long time, how do you feel about that?
Wilcox: I think it's great. That can only be a good thing [laughs].

Hanna: It's totally amazing. I remember back in the Nineties being like, "We're being commodified," so I understand people being like, "We don't want feminism to become this fashion that has nothing behind it." But I'm not really worried about that. When somebody that's a huge megastar that has so many young fans, like Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus or Beyoncé, comes out and says, "I'm a feminist," I mean, that's the sound of hundreds of thousands of girls typing the word into the Internet.

I found punk through this late-night TV show called Night Flight that was on in the Eighties. I wasn't in a punk-rock scene; I listened to Lynryd Skynryd and stuff, so the way I found punk was through the mainstream. And just because they're pop stars doesn't mean they're not human beings, you know? They're using their notoriety to do something, and that's awesome.

Kathleen, you took a break from touring last year because of a flare-up from your Lyme disease. Now that you're in remission and the Julie Ruin is back out on the road, how are you feeling?
Hanna: I really feel more myself when I'm onstage than I do when I'm off, which is probably not that healthy. But I love being onstage. I love drinking a big cup of coffee and going out and singing crazy stuff. And before shows now, I have the memory of being in and out of bed for 10 years, and even when I was out of bed, being pretty sick and faking my way through photo shoots and faking my way through a lot of my life. And wondering how much more of this can I take, you know? Now I'm, like, going to Norway to play a show. How did that happen? I feel really, really lucky, and I just want to enjoy every second of it.