photographer / Jody Rogac. story / Sydney Scott + Koko Ntuen. hair + makeup / Allie Smith. stylists / Koko Ntuen + Cristina Leiva. assistant stylist / Mariana Alvarez. shot at / Mica Studios. Dress, Marissa Webb.
Whether or not she knew at the time, Kathi Wilcox became a prominent figure in music and feminism. While attending Evergreen State College, Wilcox met three women that she would team up with to create one of music’s most memorable feminist punk bands. As the bassist for Bikini Kill, Wilcox was thrust into the limelight during the Riot Grrrl movement and the media blackout that followed. It’s crazy to think that what started as a zine turned band became something completely different, and Bikini Kill’s angst driven music became the soundtrack of the moment.
Bikini Kill isn’t her only work. Wilcox has The Casual Dots, The Frumpies, The Feebles, Star Sign Scorpio and recently, The Julie Ruin, which she formed with former Bikini Kill bandmate Kathleen Hanna. She even worked with Fugazi’s Brendan Canty to create the theme song for Pancake Mountain. Wilcox delves into what it was like to suddenly be a member of a new wave of feminism and Bikini Kill’s role in it, how it felt to be at the forefront of it all, and how everything came about.
What have you been up to these days?
I just got off tour. We just did three shows on the east coast and five shows on the west coast, and it all went really great. It was amazing for us to meet all the fans who came out. They were all so sweet and enthusiastic. It’s one thing to have the feeling that bands you’ve been in were important to people, it’s another thing to come face-to-face with those people and have them explain exactly what your music has meant to them. It was really moving.
What do you like to do on your downtime?
I like to hang out with my 7-year old daughter. It’s like getting my battery recharged just being around her.
Did you ever get a weird mail?
Not anymore, but we did in Bikini Kill. We got a lot of it! It’s interesting that even though it was a lot more trouble to communicate with people back then — you had to get a piece of paper, write the letter, find an envelope, pay for a stamp, then go mail it — it seems like we got a lot more crazy mail back then than we do now, even with email. Maybe all the crazy people went away? I don’t know, but so far The Julie Ruin hasn’t attracted them.
How does it feel to be an iconic figure?
I find it moving when people tell me how much my music has meant to them. I understand that feeling because I have people who I feel that way toward. When I met Johnny Marr I was trying to act normal, but really it was a very big deal for me because of how much The Smiths meant to me when I was a teenager. I guess I see it from both sides — in one way, I feel like I’m just a person who helped write some songs that mean a lot to some people, so in a way I feel like it’s not a big deal. I don’t feel like an iconic figure. But I also know how much music can mean to people at certain points in their lives so I know that it really is a big deal to them, and I am honored to be a part of that.
When did you feel like you could play music for the rest of your life?
I’m not sure I ever thought about it that way. I mean, when Bikini Kill started it felt like the only thing I wanted to do at that time. But I’ve always had other interests, like writing and film-making and sewing clothes. I kind of think about playing music like reading books. It’s just another activity that I really enjoy.
What popular bands do you listen to know.
I’ve been pretty out of touch with modern music, to be honest. When I go to listen to music I usually put on something like Devo or the Modern Lovers or something. I need someone to make me a mix tape!
How does it feel to have such a iconic friendship with Kathleen Hanna. You guys are like the Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington of the punk world?
Kathleen and I have a lot of history, even pre-dating Bikini Kill — I was 19 when we first met — so it really feels like she’s a member of my family. I think people tend to outgrow friendships that start when they’re that young. Everyone changes and sometimes you lose that connection for whatever reason. But with Kathleen I feel like we are getting closer the older we get.
What is one thing that no one knows about you?
Hmm… I don’t know! I feel like my husband knows pretty much everything there is to know about me at this point.
Who were you listening to in high school? Who did you look up to in your twenties?
In high school I was listening to Beat Happening and The Smiths. Those were my two favorite bands. I also had a Marine Girls 7” that I liked, and a couple Cocteau Twins records. I was kind of a new-waver, I guess, rather than a hardcore punk. My brother made me a Butthole Surfers tape when I was 16 and I was just completely confused by it. I remember thinking “this is not surf music”. He also gave me cassettes of Big Black, the Ramones, Minor Threat, and X. But it was the Smiths I really connected with most strongly. I still get shivers when I listen to that first record because it takes me straight back to that feeling of being an angsty teenager.
And Beat Happening was just the most fascinating band to me. I was straight-up obsessed with them. I used to just stare at the back of their first record, looking at the photos of them and fantasizing that they were my friends. I used to wonder what their lives were like. Beat Happening was really the reason I moved to Olympia and went to Evergreen. I thought that any place that could produce a band like that was a place I wanted to live.
Bikini Kill is now considered one of the most influential female bands ever. Does that ever scare you?
No, I am proud of that band, and I think as far as bands go it is pretty cool if it’s continuing to be influential or inspirational. I guess I’d rather be inspirational than influential, because inspiration can lead anywhere and be applied to anything.
You and Kathleen Hanna are now in The Julie Ruin and just released an album, Run Fast. When and why did you and Kathleen decided to work together on this?
How does it differ from Bikini Kill and do you think fans will be open to it? It seems like less of a walk down memory lane, it sounds like a riot grrrl who’s grown up but still has something to say.
When I moved from DC to NY, Kathleen asked if I would be interested in being in a band with her again. I was really into the idea of playing with her again, but I wasn’t sure what kind of music she had in mind, or who the other people were in the band. She emailed me a song they were working on, which was “Oh Come On.” As soon as I heard that I knew I could be in the band. And when I met Carmine and Kenny and Sara, I could tell that it would work personality-wise too. Because that’s something you can’t really control, the chemistry of the people involved. It kind of either works or it doesn’t.
I think The Julie Ruin is much less chaotic than Bikini Kill, which can be thought of as either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your taste. People have been really positive about “Run Fast”. I think it’s enough like the other bands Kathleen has been in that people can hear that, but it’s also its own thing. It doesn’t really sound like Le Tigre or Bikini Kill, or even the first Julie Ruin solo record. But there is a common thread that runs through all the projects, and that is Kathleen’s voice and attitude.
Will there be more from The Julie Ruin or are there other projects in the works?
We haven’t talked about it, but I think The Julie Ruin has more in store, more songs to record. Who knows?
I really want to finish the Casual Dots record I’ve been working on for almost ten years. We recorded basic tracks to seven songs at the end of our last tour in 2004, and have since written parts of several more songs that are still unfinished. We all live in different cities, though, so it’s tough getting together to work on it. But eventually I hope we can finish the tape and put it out because the songs are really good.
More on Kathi in the # 8 issue of LADYGUNN