(Photo: Pat Graham)

Perfecting Imperfection: On the Ideas Behind the First Bikini Kill Record

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 09.13.12 in Spotlights

The C.D. Version Of The First Two Records

Bikini Kill

20 years ago this October, Bikini Kill released our self-titled first EP. Recently, the rights to our records returned to us, so we started Bikini Kill Records as a way to document our work on our own terms. Our full catalog was re-released digitally in July. The physical reissues will come out one at a time, in special anniversary editions that aim to contextualize each release. The first 12″ EP comes out this fall.

At the end of Bikini Kill’s first US tour in June 1991, Ian MacKaye offered us a free day at Inner Ear Studios after he saw us play at the legendary punk venue DC Space. We were touring on borrowed equipment and hadn’t slept in at least three days, but soon found ourselves in a real studio making our first record with someone we admired. It was a great opportunity, but it was also a little intimidating: Recording studios are traditionally male-dominated environments, and we had little-to-no experience in that setting.

Listening to the record now, our discomfort is audible. Kathleen nails it, but the rest of us sound a little hesitant. Ian remembers us being nervous; that was probably due to our decision to record live, without overdubs, in as few takes as possible. But that wasn’t the only reason. As much as we were thrilled to be given access to the tools necessary to make a record, I remember deliberately wanting to create a document that emphasized process over product.

In short: Bikini Kill wanted to inspire other girls to start bands. We left our mistakes on the record because we wanted girls to listen to it and imagine themselves in a recording studio. Like the early D.C. hardcore bands that recorded at Inner Ear before us, we also left in the bits between songs where the singer talks to the engineer as a way to document the process of making a record. We wanted you to hear us talking in the studio so that you might be inspired to make your own record. We didn’t want to gloss over anything. That was our aesthetic. It was political.

In an article I wrote at the time for my fanzine Jigsaw, I called that technique “the impetus of imperfection.” You could also call it “daring to suck.” It’s a way to demystify the myth of perfection that a more polished product perpetuates, and it’s also a way to say, “Hey! You at home! You can make a record, too! You don’t have to be a prodigy. It’s not about that. It’s about figuring out what is possible with the tools you have and the place you’re living in. You don’t even have to wait until you know how to play your instrument. Just start a band, play a show, make a record.” There’s a part on the Rites of Spring album where bass player Mike Fellows misses a note. As a kid listening to that record in my bedroom on repeat, that mistake opened up a whole world to me. It made me imagine the space where the band recorded, and it made me feel OK about making a mistake at my first recording session with my first band, The Go Team.

Our visual aesthetic corresponded to that idea. You can tell we laid out the records on a Xerox machine, stayed up all night, worked under fluorescent lights. We didn’t have our lettering typeset by a professional. We did it ourselves using old typewriters, Sharpies, rub-off letters and stencils. We crossed stuff out and rewrote it and left it looking messy. Words fell off the page and got taped back on. You can see the tape, you can see our fingerprints and you can see coffee stains. We used snapshots and blown-up color copies. We look weird. You can imagine the photographer and create a story around the situation the photo captures. You can see the dots, you can see the process the printer used and you can see the lines we drew on the page to guide us. When we used a professional quality photograph, we made sure it was off-center, so you could imagine someone laying it out by hand, in a hurry. Nothing is straight. Everything is crooked. We didn’t want our relationship to the means of production to be invisible. We wanted to incite participation.

The first Bikini Kill record is an insurrection. We didn’t set out to create a masterpiece. We weren’t interested in perfection. We didn’t want you to feel satisfied listening to a record. We were agitators. We wanted all girls in all towns to start their own bands. We thought if that happened, the world would change.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Did the world change? You tell me.