Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch Series,”where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Bikini Kill was a feminist punk group 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.
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 was re-issued.
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 . . .”