Bikini Kill

Tobi Vail on the Album that Saved Bikini Kill

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 05.06.14 in Features

Bikini Kill’s Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah EP is a document of a moment in time, an audio snapshot captured on tape. It isn’t glossy or produced. Nothing is fixed or corrected. There are very few, if any, overdubs. What you hear on the record is simply the sound of us playing live in our practice space in real time, with the requisite tape hiss. It is essentially a field recording. It’s a record, but it was never intended to be released as one. It was recorded for less than $15, and you can tell. We were desperate, we were broke.

Bikini Kill moved to Washington, D.C., from Olympia, Washington, in late 1991 after touring the U.S. with Nation of Ulysses and spending the summer in D.C., where we were involved in starting riot grrrl with our friends in Bratmobile and some girls from the D.C. punk scene. We recorded what would become our first EP that summer, but weren’t sure what to do with it. Although we had self-released Revolution Girl Style Now, our demo, as a cassette and put out two issues of the fanzine (also called Bikini Kill), we were still without a record label. As a result, although the group was already starting to be covered in the mainstream press and was busy establishing an underground network of feminist punks, it would be years before we’d start to see any substantial income from record sales.

‘Nothing was certain, except that we wanted to get the songs recorded in case we broke up before we had a chance to release an album.”’

In 1992, the minimum wage was $4.25, but none of us had “respectable” jobs or bank accounts. Getting real jobs wasn’t even an option, because we needed to be able to tour for months at a time. We were able to bring in a little money by playing shows around the East Coast, but as anyone who has ever toured can assure you, being in a band is expensive. Not only do you have to figure out how to pay for gas, food and sometimes lodging, but vans break down and equipment needs to be maintained. (We seemed to have a particular knack for breaking stuff.) Bikini Kill somehow managed to sustain ourselves by being resourceful and thrifty, but without a steady source of income daily life was a struggle. We had to hustle.

Luckily, our roommate Tim Green, from Nation of Ulysses, was an aspiring recording engineer who happened to own a reel-to-reel, multitrack tape machine, and was willing to record us as long as we covered the cost of the tape. While Tim later became known for his ability to accurately capture a band’s live sound on record, this was one of his early attempts at recording, and his equipment was old and kept breaking down. It sounds like it was recorded in a basement by a friend.

What I remember most about making the record is the sense of urgency. Looking back through my journals from this time period reveals a band on the verge of collapse. Personalities were clashing under the pressure of life in a new city with no money. As media coverage escalated, the band’s relationship to riot grrrl became strained, and that was hard — Bikini Kill was represented as “the leaders” of riot grrl, which, by definition, was decentralized. Kathleen was reported to be the leader of our band, but we functioned as a collective. We didn’t choose these roles, and were careful to always represent Bikini Kill as a group without a leader, separate from riot grrrl. But there was friction. We were having a communication breakdown. We also couldn’t pay rent or buy groceries. Nothing was certain, except that we wanted to get the songs recorded in case we broke up before we had a chance to release an album.

Recording Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah was a way for us to overcome our situation. When I listen to the record now, I hear the sound of a group determined to prevail — the sound of one band kicking down a wall. The guitar is fiercely present and driving, the songwriting focused. The rhythm section is in sync with Kathleen’s skillful use of phrasing and melody. It sounds like a group working together, united by strong convictions and focus. It is the sound of a group of disenfranchised people setting aside their differences to pull together to fight against oppression. I don’t know if that same desperate feeling would have been achieved in a studio.

Once we “signed” to Kill Rock Stars (we didn’t have a traditional contract), we could have gone into a professional studio and made a more polished version of the same record. In some ways, I wish we had. It would be nice to have well-recorded versions of the songs that made us sound like the Clash or even the Damned. It might have made our feminist ideas more accessible to a wider audience. On the other hand, Bikini Kill wanted to foster a community of participation rather than consumerism. That meant we didn’t want to hide the economics of making a record from the listener. To release the recording as-is was a political choice that aligned us with other kids in bands recording in basements all over the world.

‘People took pride in the sound of tape hiss, because it signified the democratization of culture.’

When we decided to reissue Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, we talked about going back into the studio to try to make it sound better. I had mixed feelings. The weird way it sounds has grown on me, and I felt like it would be dishonest to go back and change it. Our relationship to the means of production is audible in Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah‘s lo-fi sound, but I’m not sure tape hiss signifies economics to listeners today in the same way it did back then. It’s a different era. Before home computers made state-of-the-art recording technology accessible to the masses, most people recorded at home on cassette four-track. Others used a boom box or handheld tape recorders. That is where the lo-fi aesthetic originates — it’s the sound of amateurs recording for free. People took pride in the sound of tape hiss, because it signified the democratization of culture.

Regardless, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah is a pure archival document of our work. It seemed appropriate to fill the B-Side with even more DIY recordings of some of our previously unreleased songs. These recordings were done by the band during practice or, in some cases, made at shows. We decided to release them so people can hear more of Bikini Kill’s process. Ultimately, the purpose of sharing more amateur recordings is to encourage other disenfranchised people — especially other women — to create and document their own work by engaging in independent cultural production outside of the professional realm.