‘It reeked of hope and ambition’: 30 years of riot grrrl label Kill Rock Stars

Born in the Pacific north-west scene that produced grunge – but often in opposition to it – Kill Rock Stars pushed women to the front of the stage, and also gave Elliott Smith a platform

In 1991, something was brewing under the constant clouds of Olympia, Washington. Young people flocked there, DIY bands formed, fanzines were scrawled with fervour, and feminist politics galvanised young women. And a record label was founded to house it all.

“Everyone was in a band, usually three,” remembers Tinuviel Sampson, who helped launch Kill Rock Stars (KRS) with Matthew “Slim” Moon. Forged in this underground crucible alongside grunge in nearby Seattle, the label is celebrating its 30th birthday with the covers compilation Stars Rock Kill (Rock Stars), having launched artists such as Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney and the Decemberists, plus the riot grrrl scene of feminist punk into the US mainstream. In many ways, the scene still feels sharply relevant: the rallying cries and on-stage monologues the riot grrrl groups voiced are issues still being fought today, including abortion rights, body autonomy and women’s basic safety.

Strike a pose … first-generation riot grrrls, Bratmobile Photograph: Michael Galinsky

John Goodmanson, the Seattle-based producer of many of the label’s acts, remembers Olympia as “tiny but super exciting. The joke was: by 17 you put out a record and by 18 you start your own label.” It was a magnet for young artists because of the progressive Evergreen State College, whose student radio station KAOS mandated that 80% of music be on independent labels, meaning obscurities flourished.

In April 1991, the label K – founded a decade earlier by a KAOS DJ, Calvin Johnson – hosted the International Pop Underground Convention, a week-long event with ferocious sets from US punk bands such as Fugazi, Bikini Kill and L7. Thurston Moore, whose band Sonic Youth were touring Europe with Nirvana at the time, asked Kurt Cobain if he wished he were playing IPU instead. “Fuck yeah!” was his response.

To coincide, KRS put out a time-capsule compilation featuring Nirvana, Melvins, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Unwound and the Nation of Ulysses. Sampson hand-made silkscreen covers with Moon – wired on coffee and ephedrine – running back and forth to sell records once the covers had dried. The convention launched KRS but was also pivotal because of an evening known as Girl Night – a bill of all-women punk and queercore bands. “It was a really big deal,” says Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, whose band Heavens to Betsy played their first gig. “This night was taking a feminist stance.”

The event crystallised a grassroots movement. Fanzines such as Jigsaw, Girl Germs and Bikini Kill, merging punk rock with feminist politics, fostered a growing community. In July 1991, the Riot Grrrl fanzine launched, giving it a name. Many attributed Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail as catalysts. “Kathleen was a real force,” says Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe. “She helped bring women’s voices to the fore by being on stage and being outspoken about violence against women.”

The activity pulled people to Olympia, such as Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein. “The sense of innovation, imagination and freedom was really appealing,” she says. “We were in discussion with ourselves: through fanzines you created these epistolary conversations with one another, via polemics. It was a literate punk community despite how ramshackle or aggressive the music was; there was an underlying intellectualism and sensitivity that made it unique.”

Wolfe recalls a palpable change. “Something was happening,” she says. “A powerful coming to consciousness.” KRS became home to many of these women and their music. “It was about putting out bands that were meaningful,” says Moon. “Sometimes that was political, sometimes it was pushing boundaries by being experimental. For me, there were just more women doing interesting and meaningful work in the 90s than men.”

Although they shared the raucous heavy guitar spirit of grunge, some riot grrrl bands viewed themselves as antithetical to it. “There was a sexist shock-value imagery with grunge,” says Wolfe. “Especially from Sub Pop bands. It didn’t speak to us. I’m not that naked woman on the cover with blood dripping all over me [Dwarves’ 1990 single Drug Store]. It was about forging a path to have a voice and knowing even if we didn’t have the musical skills that we had something to say that would be more interesting than half the shit these guys are saying.”

Despite riot grrl being initially regional, its impact was starting to spread. Brighton’s Huggy Bear – self-declared “boy-girl revolutionaries” – were kindred spirits. “The UK scene was terrible,” says the band’s Chris Rowley. “It was staggering in its attitudes to gender disparity. Sexism was rife and seen as a joke. We didn’t want to be centred around drinking culture, macho bullshit attitudes and intolerance.”

They looked on enviously from overseas. “That KRS compilation was key,” he says. “It had super-heavy bands next to singer-songwriter folk, spoken word and beatnik punk. That represented an idea of community we longed for: of DIY, politically minded kids 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 viewing. “So Terry, you think all fucking women are shit, do you?” the band’s Jo Johnson shouted at the host Terry Christian later on, after a vapid interview with models the Barbi Twins. The band were roughly ejected by security and Christian quickly cut to an ad break.

Riot grrrl may now seem palatable enough for major Netflix movies (Amy Poehler’s Moxie) but it was dangerous. Women artists received written and verbal abuse, threats of rape and mutilation, and the most tragic vindication of the need for its existence came one night in Boston. As Bikini Kill rattled out a riotous set, an aggressive heckler got a taste of Hanna’s chewing gum she spat at him. Things turned violent and he threw a punch but missed and knocked out the band’s female roadie. A crowd member maced him and he fled. A month later that man, Michael Cartier, murdered his ex-girlfriend. “I felt sick to my stomach, just horrified,” Vail said of the incident.

Unwanted attention from mainstream media grew. “Any woman making music got pigeonholed as riot grrrl,” Wolfe says. “Then people would love to see the cat fight play out in the press. It was like: why can’t we all exist? ‘Girl in a band’ is not a genre.” It led to tension. “Riot grrl was falling apart,” says Wolfe. “There was backlash, the media attacking Kathleen, it got nasty. We were constantly misrepresented because we created our communities and platforms to represent ourselves. We never saw a use for the media.” A media blackout was proposed but things were splintering and petering out. By 1995, many of the key bands on KRS – Huggy Bear, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 – had split.

Elliott Smith
Quiet storm … Elliott Smith, also launched by KRS. Photograph: JJ Gonson

KRS was broadening, starting a sister label 5RC for experimental bands such as Deerhoof, and signing Elliott Smith to its main roster. While loud guitars continued to dominate – Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy had just sold 877,000 copies in its first week – Smith’s tender yet pained acoustic music was a step back from the noise. “Elliott was really against the grain of what was happening and people were befuddled: ‘Slim, why are you doing this?’” Moon says. “New York had anti-folk but it was quite clean; Elliott had grittiness.” Smith became one of the most revered and influential songwriters of his generation, releasing two albums on KRS, before leaving for a major label. He killed himself, aged 34 in 2003.

In 1997, KRS had a hit with Sleater-Kinney who, despite major-label interest, signed to the label for their third album, Dig Me Out. The label’s reputation was a blessing and a curse. “It opened doors but on the other hand it was exhausting,” says Tucker. “Promoting a record was just: how do you feel about being a woman in music? Over and over. Like we were meant to always be two-dimensional; you’re from the riot grrrl scene, so you’re this kind of band.”

As the years went on, KRS nurtured the successful likes of Gossip and the Decemberists, and soon the first wave of bands were shaping future ones. Supreme guitar shredder Marnie Stern adored Dig Me Out and sent KRS a demo because of it. Moon instantly signed her. “It was crazy,” she recalls. “I was 30 but felt 13 – jumping around all over. I had no 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 stepped away from KRS in 2006 to A&R for Nonesuch briefly to “find the next Radiohead” but couldn’t locate them. Moon’s wife Portia Sabin ran operations for 13 years, overseeing crucial releases such as the posthumous Smith album New Moon and the influential post-punk reissues of Kleenex/Liliput, Essential Logic and Delta 5.

Moon – now a recovering drug addict and a practising minister – got degrees in religious studies and divinity. The deaths of Cobain and Smith, plus a drug overdose that killed the KRS artist Jeff Hanson, hit him hard. “Those losses led me to look for spiritual answers,” he says. “I had friends who were drug addicts and, after I got clean, I had friends in recovery but sometimes they relapse, so I’ve known a lot of people die from overdose, suicide and misadventure. Plus my father died young. It’s not just the musical loss but the personal; I feel the loss of Elliott, Kurt or Jeff the same as my father.”

Big Joanie
Generation next … Kill Rock Stars’ UK signings Big Joanie. Photograph: Helen Messenger

The label continues to release young, noisy, political bands: UK feminist punks Big Joanie are signed to KRS in the US. “It’s awesome young people give a shit about what we did and we’re able to do stuff now in the same spirit,” says Moon. “We’re also more consciously saying we are feminist, queer, and political than we did 30 years ago. In this era, you’re not going to see many straight cisgendered white men on the label.”

This generational handover also thrills Tucker. “I’m excited by new ideas the younger generation is bringing in,” she says. “They are way more political, and in a more interesting way, than our scene was. And that’s how it should be.” Thirty years on, though, the label’s anthems still ring with timeless anger and abandon. “The bands were transcendent and important,” says Goodmanson. “When you hear Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl, you’re fucking dancing. It’s like a Bat-Signal.”

● The covers compilation, Stars Rock Kill (Rock Stars), is available now from killrockstars.com.


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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