‘It reeked of hope and ambition’: 30 years of grrrl riot label Kill Rock Stars | Music
In 1991, something was brewing under the endless clouds of Olympia, Washington. Young people flock there, craft groups form, fanzines are fervently scribbled, and feminist politics galvanize young women. And a record company was founded to house it all.
âEveryone was in a band, usually three,â recalls Tinuviel Sampson, who helped launch Kill Rock Stars (KRS) with Matthew âSlimâ Moon. Forged in this underground melting pot alongside grunge in nearby Seattle, the label is celebrating its 30th anniversary with the Stars Rock Kill (Rock Stars) cover compilation, having launched artists such as Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney and the Decemberists. , as well as the riot grrrl feminist punk scene in the American mainstream. In many ways the scene still seems very relevant: the rallying cries and stage monologues that grrrl riot groups voiced are issues that are still fought today, including abortion rights, self-reliance. body and basic safety of women.
John Goodmanson, the Seattle-based producer of many of the label’s artists, remembers Olympia as “small but super exciting.” The joke was: at 17 you release a record and at 18 you start your own label. It was a magnet for young artists thanks to progressive Evergreen State College, whose student radio station KAOS required 80% of music to be on independent labels, which meant the obscurities thrived.
In April 1991, the K label – founded a decade earlier by KAOS DJ Calvin Johnson – hosted the International Pop Underground Convention, a weeklong event featuring fierce sets from American punk bands such as Fugazi, Bikini Kill and L7. Thurston Moore, whose Sonic Youth group was touring Europe with Nirvana at the time, asked Kurt Cobain if he wanted to play ISU instead. “Fuck yeah!” was his answer.
To coincide, KRS released a compilation of time capsules featuring Nirvana, Melvins, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Unwound and the Nation of Ulysses. Hand-made silkscreen covers by Sampson with Moon – wired over coffee and ephedrine – going back and forth to sell records once the covers are dry. The convention kicked off KRS, but was also pivotal due to an evening known as Girl Night – a program of all-female punk and queercore groups. “It was really a big deal,” said Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, whose band Heavens to Betsy performed their first gig. “Tonight took a feminist stance.”
The event crystallized a popular movement. Zines such as Jigsaw, Girl Germs and Bikini Kill, merging punk rock with feminist politics, fostered a growing community. In July 1991, the fanzine Riot Grrrl was launched, giving it a name. Many have credited Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail as the catalysts. âKathleen was a real force,â says Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile. âShe has helped make women’s voices heard by being on stage and speaking openly about violence against women.
The activity drew people to Olympia, such as Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney. âThe sense of innovation, imagination and freedom was really appealing,â she says. âWe were in discussion with ourselves: through fanzines you created these epistolary conversations between yourselves, through polemics. It was a literate punk community despite the run down or aggressive nature of the music; there was an underlying intellectualism and sensibility that made it unique.
Wolfe remembers a palpable change. âSomething was going on,â she said. “A powerful awareness.” KRS has become home to many of these women and their music. âIt was about getting out of groups that made sense,â says Moon. âSometimes it was political, sometimes it was pushing the limits by being experimental. For me, there were just more women doing interesting and meaningful work in the 90s than men. “
Even though they shared the raucous heavy guitar spirit of grunge, some bands in riot grrrl saw themselves as antithetical. âThere was some sexist imagery that shocked the grunge,â says Wolfe. âMostly Sub Pop groups. It didn’t speak to us. I’m not that naked woman on the blanket with blood flowing all over me [Dwarvesâ 1990 single Drug Store]. It was about working our way through to have a voice and knowing even if we didn’t have the musical skills we had something to say that would be more interesting than half the shit these guys are saying.
Although the riot grrl was initially regional, its impact was starting to spread. The Huggy Bears of Brighton – self-proclaimed âboy-girl revolutionariesâ – were kindred spirits. âThe British scene was terrible,â says Chris Rowley of the group. âHe was astounding in his attitudes towards the gender disparity. Sexism was widespread and considered a joke. We didn’t want to be centered on alcohol culture, macho attitudes and intolerance.
They looked longingly from abroad. âThis KRS compilation was the key,â he says. âThere were some super heavy bands alongside the folk singer-songwriter, spoken word and beatnik punk. It represented an idea of ââcommunity we aspired to: DIY and politically minded children under one roof. It reeked of hope and ambition.
Huggy Bear signed to KRS and released a split LP with Bikini Kill; their 1993 performance of Her Jazz on Channel 4’s The Word remains fierce and joyous. “So Terry, you think all fucking women are crap, don’t you?” The band’s Jo Johnson yelled at host Terry Christian later after a tasteless interview with the Barbi Twins models. The group was rudely kicked out by security and Christian quickly took a commercial break.
Riot grrrl may now seem acceptable enough for big Netflix movies (Amy Poehler’s Moxie), but it was dangerous. Women artists have received written and verbal abuse, threats of rape and mutilation, and the most tragic justification for the necessity of her existence came one night in Boston. As Bikini Kill rocked a tumultuous set, an aggressive rowdy got a taste of Hanna’s chewing gum she spat at him. Things got violent and he threw a punch but missed and knocked out the group’s female roadie. A member of the crowd slaughtered him and he fled. A month later, this man, Michael Cartier, murdered his ex-girlfriend. âI had a stomach ache, just horrified,â Vail said of the incident.
Unwanted attention from mainstream media has increased. âAny woman doing music was labeled a riot grrrl,â says Wolfe. âThen people would like to see the catfight happen in the press. It was like: why can’t we all exist? âGirl in a groupâ is not a genre. This created tensions. âRiot grrl was falling apart,â says Wolfe. âThere was a backlash, the media attacked Kathleen, it got nasty. We have been constantly misrepresented because we have created our communities and our platforms to represent ourselves. We have never seen a use for the media. A media blackout was proposed, but things fell apart and fell apart. In 1995, many of KRS’s key groups – Huggy Bear, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 – broke up.
KRS was expanding, launching a sister label 5RC for experimental bands such as Deerhoof, and signing Elliott Smith to its main roster. As strong guitars continued to dominate – Pearl Jam’s Vitaly had just sold 877,000 copies in its first week – Smith’s tender but painful acoustic music was a step back from the noise. âElliott was really against the grain of what was going on and people were puzzled, ‘Slim, why are you doing this? â, Says Moon. âNew York had anti-folk but it was clean enough; Elliott had grain. Smith went on to become one of the most revered and influential songwriters of his generation, releasing two albums on KRS, before leaving for a major label. He committed suicide at age 34 in 2003.
In 1997, KRS had success with Sleater-Kinney who, despite interest from the majors, signed to the label for their third album, Dig Me Out. The label’s reputation was a blessing and a curse. âIt opened doors but on the other hand it was exhausting,â Tucker says. âPromoting a record was just: what do you think about being a woman in music? Again and again. As if we were always meant to be two-dimensional; you’re from the riot grrrl scene, so you’re that kind of a band.
Over the years, KRS fueled hits like Gossip and the Decemberists, and soon the first wave of bands shaped futures. Supreme guitar shredder Marnie Stern loved Dig Me Out and sent a demo to KRS because of it. Moon immediately signed it. âIt was crazy,â she recalls. âI was 30 but I was 13 – I was jumping everywhere. I didn’t have an audience at all, the label was the gateway to everything for me.
Sampson left the label and the music business several years earlier, and Moon moved away from KRS in 2006 for A&R for Nonesuch briefly to “find the next Radiohead”, but could not locate them. Moon’s wife, Portia Sabin, ran operations for 13 years, overseeing crucial releases such as Smith’s posthumous album New Moon and influential post-punk reissues of Kleenex / Liliput, Essential Logic and Delta 5.
Moon – now a recovering drug addict and a practicing minister – earned degrees in religious studies and theology. The deaths of Cobain and Smith, as well as a drug overdose that killed KRS artist Jeff Hanson, hit him hard. âThese losses made me look for spiritual answers,â he says. âI had friends who were addicted to drugs, and after I got clean I had friends who were recovering, but sometimes they relapse, so I’ve known that a lot of people die from overdoses, suicide and mishap. Besides, my father died young. It is not only musical loss but personal loss; I feel the loss of Elliott, Kurt or Jeff the same way my father did.
The label continues to release noisy young political groups: British feminist punks Big Joanie are signed to KRS in the United States. âIt’s great that young people don’t care what we did and that we are now able to do things in the same spirit,â says Moon. âWe also say more consciously that we are feminists, queer and political than 30 years ago. At this time, you won’t see many cisgender straight white men on the label.
This generational transfer also thrills Tucker. âI’m excited about the new ideas that the younger generation brings,â she says. âThey are much more political and in a more interesting way than our scene was. And that’s how it should be. Thirty years later, the label’s hymns still resonate with timeless anger and abandonment. âThe groups were transcendent and important,â says Goodmanson. âWhen you hear Rebel Girl from Bikini Kill, you’re dancing. It’s like a Bat-Signal.
â The cover compilation, Stars Rock Kill (Rock Stars), is available now on killrockstars.com.