Bikini Kill: Punk beyond politics

Bikini Kill
photo by Brad Sigal

“We just thought we were a punk band, and [asking questions] was part of what punk bands were.”

The early-’90s feminist punk movement known as riot grrrl has practically become an academic discipline. Most underground music fans can cite the basic facts by heart: the Olympia, WA, origin story, centering around vocalist Kathleen Hanna’s fourth-wall-shattering performance style; the kinship with fellow legends-in-the-making such as Nirvana and Fugazi; the belief that, as the band’s own bio puts it, “…if all girls started bands, the world would change.” But it’s important to remember that there was music behind the message. The goal of Bikini Kill Records, the band’s own archival label, is to preserve their legacy on wax and in the digital sphere. The latest offering is a new, expanded reissue of 1993′s Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, which features material originally issued on a split with the British band Huggy Bear. (A digital reissue of The First Two Records, including Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, arrives on April 29.)

For bassist Kathi Wilcox, the label has been a chance to make sense of the band’s legacy at a comfortable remove. “The record label is completely different than touring with Bikini Kill circa 1994,” she says. “Being in that band was really stressful. There wasn’t any internet when Bikini Kill happened, so what we got was what we got at the shows—we were getting a lot of negative feedback. Now, people come up and say, ‘Your band changed my life.’ For us at the time, it did not feel like that; it felt like, ‘Everyone hates our band.’ It’s interesting to look back on it now and be like, ‘Actually, people were really getting something positive out of it.’ “

As she describes it, the band was out to provoke, but the members never expected the intensity of the reactions they got. “We thought we were asking questions,” she says of Bikini Kill’s outspoken stance. “We’re supposed to be open-minded punk rockers; we’re supposed to be critical thinkers. What does the scene have to say about sexism within its borders? We just thought we were a punk band, and that was part of what punk bands were.”

Bikini Kill
photo by Brad Sigal

The politics were only part of the impact, though; the band knew how to write an anthem. Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah standout “Rebel Girl” is one of the band’s most beloved songs—a rumbling, bass-heavy ode to a feminist trailblazer. (“In her kiss / I taste the revolution,” sings Hanna, moving from passionate croon to wild shriek.). “I wrote the bass line [to "Rebel Girl"], and I immediately didn’t like it because it seemed too simplistic,” recalls Wilcox. “It sounded too midtempo rock. Then when Kathleen started singing, I was like, ‘Oh, this song’s really great.’ And the first time we played it out on tour, we had an immediate reaction, and people were like, ‘What’s that song?!’ “

If “Rebel Girl” represents the iconic version of Bikini Kill, other songs on Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah demonstrate that the band wasn’t limited to a single mode of expression. “Outta Me” juxtaposes emotional turmoil (“It’s about being in love / It’s about being in hate / It’s about not wanting to miss you / It’s about wanting you dead”) with strummy, downbeat pop—more Phil Spector than raucous rock. Bonus track “Why” is even more spare—a hushed, arresting duet between Hanna’s vocal and Wilcox’s bass.

Other bonus tracks serve as a classic early-’90s time capsule, a catalog of the world’s woes according to Bikini Kill. Two targets, on very different scales, were the Gulf War (“George Bush Is a Pig”) and a then-new David Lynch series (“Fuck Twin Peaks”). “Our band started right when the Gulf War started,” Wilcox explains. “Everybody was in total panic about it—It was just this galvanizing rage. And we wrote ‘Fuck Twin Peaks’ right when that show came out. We heard the premise and thought, ‘This is completely sexist and awful—this jokey, ironic show about a murdered girl.’ All the punk-rockers in Olympia were super-excited about it, and they were having these lasagna parties where they would all meet at each other’s houses to watch it. It just seemed so uncritical.”

Another bonus track— “I Busted In Your Chevy Window,” a minute-long snippet of anti-sexist slam poetry, excerpted from a live show at legendary Berkeley punk venue 924 Gilman Street—bridges Kathleen Hanna’s pre–Bikini Kill spoken-word work and the band that made her famous. “That’s kind of a holdover from what she was doing before she was in a band,” explains Wilcox. “She had lots of [spoken-word pieces]; she would insert them randomly in the middle of the set. She would just launch into one, and we’d have to be like, ‘We’ll just let her go till she’s done!’ “

As the recent Hanna documentary The Punk Singer—and the Julie Ruin, her current band that also includes Wilcox—suggests, she may never be done. But even as the members of Bikini Kill remain focused on the present, they take pride in their shared past; they’re committed to keeping their catalog in print, on their own terms. “Kill Rock Stars, the record label that we were on, doesn’t really exist anymore,” says Wilcox. “In name, it’s still a record label, but it’s owned by a totally different person. So it felt like the right time to take these records back and put them out ourselves.” In that sense, Bikini Kill Records isn’t just a label; it’s a fitting epilogue to one of the great DIY success stories of our time.

Renaissance Man Rouse

Mikel Rouse
photo by Susan SanGiovanni

“I always believed—because I’m not a snob—that the structures I was working on were interesting because they could be heard. Not because I could prove they were interesting through mathematics or something, but… where multiple metric combinations would come together and would actually feel like the kind of resolution that you normally get with harmonic resolution.”

Singer-songwriter Mikel Rouse may have concluded his indie-rock touring career 25 years ago, when his band Tirez Tirez—which started by opening for Talking Heads—recorded their last album. But over the last quarter century, Rouse’s productivity has hardly fallen off: in addition to the chamber operas (Dennis Cleveland) and multimedia pieces (Gravity Radio) that have been presented at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the classically-trained composer has continued to churn out an impressive catalog of rhythmically complex, melodically catchy avant-pop songs. With a host of stellar, independently released albums like the street-sound-sampling Recess and the beat-mad Boost/False Doors, as well as Rouse’s latest run of singles, it’s fair to say the artist is experiencing a late-career renaissance.

Now, even as Rouse is at work packaging up his career archives for the New York Performing Arts Library, he’s also started posting new compositions to Bandcamp, building a vast library of musical material for a planned 13-hour art installation based on a midcentury behavioral science text titled One Boy’s Life.

“It’s at the very beginning stages of the process—and I thought: how am I going to keep myself interested [and] still keep my work out there?” Rouse recently told me, as he put the finishing touches on “Mayan Yours”/“I Dry Gin,” his latest two-song single. “A lot of the music that you might hear from these Bandcamp releases, some of these might be changed for the piece; some of the lyrics might be taken away. You’ll notice for example on ‘The Law of Average,’ I [included] a couple different versions, including an instrumental version. … I can explore this thing, in public, as I play around with it.”

On the three-song Law of Average EP, Rouse for the first time offers up a deconstruction of his famously busy arrangements. Moving from the clattering, use-everything-in-the-kitchen-sink “composite” version, to the largely acoustic “Version 1” and then the beat-focused “Version 2,” makes for a highly enjoyable suite-like experience. Rouse calls this his first purposeful “song within a song” effort, even though “many folks think I’ve been doing this for decades.”

While sifting through his archives for the New York Performing Arts Library, Rouse recently came across an old article from the New York Times “that talked about my pop band’s music as sounding something like multiple conversations in an elevator” going on at the same time. “I think it really has to do with the fact that a lot of the stuff I work with—with isorhythms and polyrhythms—would have multiple tempos going on within the same song. Even if it sounded like a very simple pop song, you could see these different tempos moving together, through time. With ‘The Law of Average,’ I think it’s much more distinct, because one sounds like sort of a strummed, very lush acoustic pop song—and then the other one has all these multi-layered beats. But once the composite version is happening, the different structure points [are] very plotted out on a grid, so it will make sense. … It’s not just as if they were meshed together, as if you heard them both playing in a bar at the same time. But I like the idea that they could be perceived that way.

“As I was working on it, I thought: Wow, I almost could really think of this as two completely separate songs. So in a weird way, the ‘composite’ version of ‘The Law of Average,’ to me, is the most disturbing—because it really, in a way, doesn’t work, to put those two things together. Unless you remember things like Charles Ives, in which case it actually works incredibly well. … It sounds to me like the way New York sounds. You go into a post office or a waiting room nowadays, and you hear two different songs. I was just in a hotel, and they have CNN on the television, but in the very same room they’re playing music over their sound system. So the whole world has become the way I think I was writing 20 or 30 years ago.”

When I told Rouse that, among his recent singles, I particularly enjoyed placing that three-song version of “The Law of Average” on loop, he said that was very much by design. “I think it’s because there’s an internal logic there. And I always believed—because I’m not a snob—that the structures I was working on were interesting because they could be heard. Not because I could prove they were interesting through mathematics or something, but…where multiple metric combinations would come together and would actually feel like the kind of resolution that you normally get with harmonic resolution.”

Rouse’s rhythmic antennae—which seem always primed to hear some new pattern out in the world—went on high alert during a recent trip through the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, Mexico. After listening to a tour guide offer up a series of handclaps that resonated across the ruins in an echoing delay pattern, Rouse read up on how that the partially restored, ancient sports stadium he was touring was built to allow for “very precise numerical acoustic delays, similar to the numeric delays that are used in the buildings to represent workers and gods and all sorts of stuff.”

“The architects and the preservationists that came in and rebuilt the ruins… had no idea about the sound stuff. They were just rebuilding architecture based on what they knew about architecture. But then the NASA scientists come in, and they discover the acoustic phenomenon afterward. And that, to me, is like discovering a 2000 year old audiotape that still works. And it blew my mind.” The handclaps of Rouse’s tour guide figure into the final mix of “Mayan Yours,” Rouse says, while “a lot of the precision of the beats in that song also follows delay patterns based on the 7-beat delay.”

Of course it’s far too soon to know how much of the Mayan hand-clap inspiration will be of use to his upcoming art installation project. But for the moment, Rouse knows he just has to start creating enough material to fill up a 13-hour art installation. “There’s going to be a long long arc of theme and variation that goes on with this piece. … I think the section in ‘Ambulance Chaser,’ where you hear the string and choral section, way in the background? Within the context of the installation, that may be an entire wash of sound that live musicians play against or play with.”

“‘Ambulance Chaser’ was the first [single], and I wanted to keep it—at least in my vocabulary—really simple. I think I put some wah-wah guitar on it, but for the most part I was just using programmed beats similar to the programmed beats I used in Boost. But using them you know in a multi-rhythmic way, as opposed to just straight-ahead beats.” With as many as 50 or 100 multi-tracked parts going into some of his recent singles, Rouse is well on his way to having plenty of material to cull and adapt for his half-day-long project. Thankfully, though, Rouse has decided there’s nothing wrong with giving us access to the work-in-progress.


Build and Destroy


“A lot of the cats that came up around the time I was coming up, the ones that are still relevant today, had some sort of major label foundation that they were able to make good on. If you’re keeping score, I’m trying to catch up.”

In 1995, as a college student at SUNY Albany, J-Live released his first single, “Longevity.” Giving his debut that title was a brash move for a rapper barely out of his teens, but nearly 20 years later and J-Live has made good on the promise. For a rapper/producer who’s seen countless peers come and go while he navigates his own career’s travails, you could call him a survivor, but with his sixth full-length album – Around the Sun – on the horizon, he’s not just surviving: J-Live is thriving.

To be sure though, it’s taken a while to get here. When I first met J, it was around the time of that first single; he had come to my radio show on KALX in Berkeley, CA to promote it. Within my clique of fellow-minded hip-hop fans though, he was already on our radar, having been featured in the vaunted “Unsigned Hype” column in The Source. Moreover, we marveled at the B-side track, “Braggin’ Writes,” where J served as his own DJ, cutting things up on two turntables while simultaneously rhyming on the mic.

Even then, the lucidity of his lyricism made an instant impression. At a young age, he had already mastered an economy of language – saying more with less – but also displayed a dazzling ability to switch between different modes: storyteller, social documentarian, and cipher specialist. A generation later and his mic presence hasn’t faded a bit. Just piece apart his latest single, “Money Matters” and follow the flow:

“Your world, my world, same shit, different day,
Different shit, same toilet, paper gotta circulate,
Just to keep the water flushing, stove hot, fridge cold, cabinets full,
Clothes clean, quarters for the wash and fold.”

J-Live was a natural as an MC, but his growing pains came everywhere else, especially while gradually taking the reins of his career. He had a falling out with his first label, Raw Shack. When he signed to Payday in the late ‘90s and was poised to release his debut album, The Best Part, the sale of Payday’s parent label led to his project being shelved: bad luck, tough times.

Impatient fans took to bootlegging it, leading to rumors that J himself had been behind the leaks. By the time he officially dropped The Best Part on his own, in 2001, his initial buzz had long waned. He wasn’t quite back to square one, but he remembers it as a frustrating setback: “A lot of the cats that came up around the time I was coming up, the ones that are still relevant today, had some sort of major label foundation that they were able to make good on. If you’re keeping score, I’m trying to catch up.”

If it’s not apparent, J is a perfectionist with a relentless work ethic to match: twenty-some recordings and counting. He is his own harshest critic at times, admitting that his third album, The Hear After, was not his proudest record: “I feel like I could have done a lot of things differently on that album.” Yet from an outsider’s perspective, what’s remarkable is that he even pushed himself to make it to a third album (let alone now, a sixth). Far lesser challenges have stilled the careers of many of those same contemporaries that J-Live referenced before but he’s still here. Learning. Striving.

J’s been known as an “indie” artist since the beginning, but there are different levels of independence. In the past, his albums have usually gone through a separate label, such as Penalty or BBE, but with his 2011 album, Said Person of That Ability (S.P.T.A), he handled the whole release from beginning to end. Apropos of someone who used to teach primary school English classes, J constantly processes his career as one long learning process. Regarding S.P.T.A., he says, “I feel like, musically, I did everything I wanted to do, but as a label, I didn’t necessarily do it justice. So people are still discovering that album.” Those lessons have gone into Around the Sun: “I can already see what the finish line looks like, because I’ve run this race so many times before. I’m like, but now you know what to do. You have the means to do it, you’ve done it before, you can reflect on what it’s like to do it right and what it’s like to do it wrong.”
J-Live isn’t just learning about better ways to release his own music. In the last few years, he’s also built a label, Mortier Music, which takes its name from the French translation of “mortar,” a term that itself has multiple meanings to J. “Mortar shells, as in bombs, mortar and pestle, as in it could be used for cement, medicine, for seasoning, any kind of dye, coloring, things of that nature. So, within the word mortier, you had elements to build bridges and destroy barriers.”

Some of that bridge building includes artists he’s met in his transplanted home of Atlanta, where he’s lived for nearly 10 years. “We often joke that there’s so many transplants here, it’s kind of hard to find somebody who is from Atlanta,” says J, and as it is, one of the newer artists to sign to Mortier is J Nolan, who comes to ATL via Connecticut. Along with producer Reese Jones, they’re featured on the new Mortier song, “Real Fellas.”

“My challenge is to host the artists and see the potential in what they’re trying to do,” explains J, describing how and whom he chooses to bring into the Mortier fold. “I respect their work in the sense that we have common goals, and I feel like I’m in a place where I can help take their music somewhere where they can’t.” Ever the student, as J moves into the third decade of his career, he’s learning how to be a headmaster too.

Chicago Underground Duo: Studio wizards

Chicago Underground Duo

“…tension is what makes the music interesting.”

Real musical evolution is rare. But some bands—think of Radiohead on the startlingly un-rock Kid A—manage to pull it off. They outgrow the straightforward presentation they favored in the beginning and, in a way, become their own remixers. Enter Chicago Underground Duo: originally a stripped-down, jazz-oriented two-piece but now a borderless sound factory that treats each record as a chance to reinvent not only their sound but also their process.

“For us, the studio is a big laboratory,” says drummer Chad Taylor, who has collaborated with cornetist Rob Mazurek in various Chicago Underground projects since the late ’90s. “We call it a duo, but it’s always been a trio, with whatever producer we’re working with. Postproduction is a big part of our sound; recording is only about half of it.” The title track and album opener of the group’s new Northern Spy LP, Locus—which features Tortoise’s John McEntire behind the boards—illustrates this method. Synths blast like laser beams over a strutting drum groove that sounds like it was mined off a vintage funk LP. But as Taylor points out, no looping was involved; he and Mazurek, playing keys, tracked the piece in real time, then manipulated the tones afterward. The same studio magic helped the duo simulate a larger ensemble on their danceable version of “Yaa Yaa Kole,” a traditional Ghanaian theme. Here, Mazurek employs a pitch-shifter to make his cornet sound like a two-piece horn section, while Taylor layers rhythms to suggest a trio of percussionists. “It’s hard [for a listener] to know what the process is,” Taylor says. “And I think that’s something that Rob and I like to manipulate.”

At the same time, there’s no mistaking the instrumental prowess of these two players, each a formidable improviser steeped in jazz. (Taylor’s résumé includes work with the late Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson and NYC guitar hero Marc Ribot; Mazurek oversees the avant-jazz big band Exploding Star Orchestra and a slew of other projects.) Even through a wall of effects, you can hear Taylor and Mazurek generating serious heat on “Boss” and “Dante,” pieces that suggest the classic trumpet-and-drum encounters of Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, filtered through the heady, slice-and-dice-and-reassemble sensibility of late-’60s/early-’70s Miles Davis (with some punk grit stirred in for good measure).

The Duo is currently split between two cities—Mazurek in Chicago, Taylor in New York—but on tracks like these, you can hear the influence of the environment that birthed the project: mid-to-late-’90s Chicago, where free-jazz specialists, avant-rockers, pop sophisticates and the tough-to-classify likes of Tortoise mingled freely. “In New York, you have to specialize in something in order to be successful,” says Taylor of his current home. “In Chicago, it’s the exact opposite. You had these groups of musicians who played completely different genres of music hanging out and collaborating. It’s just a different aesthetic, and I’ve always had trouble with that transition.”

Chicago Underground Duo

Fortunately the Taylor/Mazurek collaboration is a safe space, unfazed by regional bias. Locus is the latest in a string of increasingly confident releases from the pair, an album that bears the now-unmistakable Chicago Underground feel. It’s hard to think of another group that might explore disembodied ambient jazz (“The Human Economy”), collage-like electronica (“Blink Out”) and exotic groove construction (“Kabuki”) on a single briskly paced LP. Taylor credits Mazurek—who embraced electronic music shortly after the Duo’s 1998 debut, 12° Of Freedom—with fostering the project’s liberated soundworld. “I didn’t want to go that direction at all,” explains the drummer. “I grew up playing acoustic music, and whenever electronics were involved, it was like a fight. But Rob kept pushing, and eventually, I realized that the friction that happens between a drum machine and a drummer is okay. That tension is what makes the music interesting.”

These days, Taylor is fully on board with the idea that no sonic strategy is off-limits. “We don’t get caught up in the actual sound of what we’re playing, because it might change,” he says of his and Mazurek’s current approach to record-making. “We never hang onto any ideas, like, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ There are so many possibilities.” It’s to the Duo’s credit that they can channel such a wide-open process into an album as listenable as Locus; in that sense, their editing is as impressive as their playing. “There aren’t a lot of cornet or drum solos on Locus,” Taylor points out. “It’s more about having these compositions, these songs. Each has a different sound, and that’s the record.” It’s a humble description of a method that, as this album proves, can sound a whole lot like magic.


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