Kaia Wilson on Team Dresch, how she got into punk and her first solo tour in fourteen years
Kaia Wilson (due tonight at Yellow Feather Coffee) was a teenager in the late '80s and early '90s in Oregon when she became involved in the Pacific Northwest's underground music scene. Although she played shows with many of the famous bands of the era with her band Adickdid, she first came to prominence to much wider audiences with Team Dresch.
Over the course of two albums, 1995's Personal Best and Captain My Captain from 1996, and several tours, Team Dresch became one of the central bands of the queercore movement, but really, the band's music poetically expressed the alienation and frustration of anyone that ever felt like a freak or a weirdo regardless of sexual orientation.
Dresch also demonstrated that punk rock was not just important as a way for "non-musicians" to play music and have it be a valid artistic expression but also a vehicle for those with real technical ability to play music straight from the heart.
In the mid-'90s, Dresch split, and Wilson put out her first solo album, the remarkable Finally A Dyke Album For the Whole Family -- revealing Wilson's gift for dry, absurd humor and an evolving expression of the themes that informed her earlier projects. Wilson's next band, the Butchies, toured extensively carrying Wilson's message of kinship, compassion and personal triumph far and wide.
Around the turn of the past decade, The Butchies dissolved, and in 2004, Team Dresch reformed to play that year's Homo-A-Go-Go in Olympia, Washington, to an overwhelmingly positive response, and the band has been a semi-active unit since. We recently spoke with the witty and engaging Wilson about Team Dresch and the vision behind it and Mr. Lady Records.
Photo by Alley Hector
Westword: How did you get involved with punk rock?
Kaia Wilson: I was kind of a weird kid already, and I was also gay. In eighth grade, it was a hard time because your identity is still forming. So I was like, "Oh, if I'm going to be a freak and look like a freak, I'll just come out," because I was so weird anyway and I was the "weird one" at the school. That's kind of how I got into punk, because it appealed to me stylistically and what I interpreted it as it let you be whatever kind of freak you wanted to be.
In high school, I became friends with the girls in Bratmobile. They were going to the University of Oregon. At seventeen, I got really into riot grrrl and that music scene and that political scene and the queercore stuff that was happening. So I started getting into it and then becoming part of it at that age. That helped to start my actual "career."
Was that when you started that band Adickdid?
That's right! The worst/best band name ever. It's really funny, but what's even funnier is the record. I can look back on it now and respect it from the perspective of myself as an adult now, and think, "Oh yeah, I was just seventeen and eighteen and going for it." I wrote songs about Columbus and telling him to fuck off, and it's awesome and that totally needed to happen right then for me.
It was an all-woman band, too, and at the time, there was this huge rising up of feminism in the punk rock world and making room for that in any music scene that is male-dominated. It was such an intense time to come of age as a lezzie in music. I was really lucky in a lot of ways to be in the right place and the right time, and I also took it and seized it.
Did you play with some of those great riot grrrl bands of that era?
Oh yeah. The Bratmobile girls. We had a band, but we only played in my parents' garage, and we were very excited about our band. We never played a show, but we called ourselves Linoleum. They had a 'zine, and I submitted stuff to those 'zines, like high school poetry. That's probably also where the line happens where I go, "Okay, no, I was a kid." I played music with them and played shows with Bikini Kill and all sorts of bands, including Hole and Fugazi. It was a great time. We also played with Lunachicks and Seven Year Bitch.
When you were starting Team Dresch, did you have or some kind of unified vision behind that band?
Yes, there was a unified vision, but as for a goal, I'm not sure if it was anything more specific than being visible and having our lesbianism and our queerness. Each of us had had our own struggles growing up in a very homophobic society. I was also nineteen when Team Dresch started. We definitely had a vision that we were going to speak really openly about everything. I feel the same way now in many ways -- especially kids living in rural areas.
Certain areas in the country are so rife with such homophobic messaging that it's scary, and they kill themselves because of it. That was kind of our unifying vision, that and we all had a lot of experience in music. We all had different paths, and we were dedicated musicians. And that was the other thing that was important to us -- that it was really good music. And that it was going to be poignant, because it would have something deeper than standard. I did write a bunch of songs about girls but that had its own political message, too -- or just a woman singing about a woman being political.
I met Donna Dresch when I was sixteen, and I wrote her a letter because I figured out she had a 'zine. She did an interview for Maximum Rock 'N' Roll in 1990 or '89. We had this pen pal thing, and she was the first lesbian I had reached out to, which was a really big deal when you're sixteen years old, if you're a girl in 1989. A couple of years later, when I was in Adickdid, I got to actually meet her because she was in Olympia. I think we were in the Capitol Theater with Seven Year Bitch, and that's when I met Donna for the first time. And it was awesome because we had that connection. You know how one year when you're a teenager feels like seven years -- like dog years -- it felt like I'd known her forever.
At around the same time Jody and Donna had been corresponding and had known of each other. I also knew about Jody from Hazel, because Hazel and Adickdid had played together. So I think we each figured out, "Oh my god, another dyke who is another really good musician!" Then Marci Martinez was doing Calamity Jane, which was this huge... all of us were so psyched on Calamity Jane back in that day, too.
"We're all dykes. We're all butch. It's so awesome!" We came together not exactly by chance. And when we saw each other in our various bands, it was like, "Oh, I've got to be in a band with her." So it was very proactive in making sure that we could,"Hippie jam!" That's what we called it. [laughs]
The musicianship in Team Dresch was quite good, and it seems some people missed out on that aspect of the band, because they assumed it was "just" punk rock.
Right! So many bands defied any idea that punk rock had to be that you can't play, that you could just pick up an instrument knowing nothing, which is an awesome idea, and you fucking make something special. But at the same time, you could also pick up an instrument, having grown up being trained in jazz, and all of a sudden, be in a band with other people with a musical background, and make punk rock music, but have it be constructed by paying close attention to composition and how each person contributes to it. A lot of it just fell into place, but a lot of it worked that way, too.
Is Personal Best a reference to the movie with Mariel Hemmingway?
Yeah! It's a total reference to that because of the track reference, and it was filmed at U of O.
Team Dresch obviously broke up at one point, but you've been back together in the last several years?
We had a big, awesome reunion show at Homo-A-Go-Go. It happened in different places, but it started in Olympia. Our friend Ted Vargo puts it on. In 2004, we had our first big reunion with both drummers, including Melissa York, who was on our second record and the second half of the band's career. And Marci being the first. It was a really intense experience. There were people who had seen us and so many who hadn't had a chance to and they got a chance to know about us. A lot of people had been so affected by us. Like, it was a life-changing experience to hear our music, and it validated them as gays and queers.
People were crying -- we were crying. The whole thing was fucking crazy. Everybody was singing all the words so loud. We'd had that experience kind of before, but that was the biggest moment I remember, where everybody was in this super unified place, and we were all channeling each other's energy so intensely. It made clear how powerful something like music could be, because while it was about us, everybody makes it that powerful. It was meaningful to us, but it was a gift to be given people's love. We're all emo, you know? We're all emo.
And not just gay people at all. I know a lot of punk rock kids and any people who feel alienated or however you feel marginalized for whatever reason about your life. I think our music could speak to anyone on that level. And the music spoke for itself in a lot of ways. We played shows here and there since then and went to Brazil last year. Totally amazing. I think there were four hundred kids in Sao Paolo, and they were all singing. Like, "Oh! World tour!"
What made you and Tammy Rae Carland want to start Mr. Lady Records? Was there a particular release you wanted to put out?
It was my own record, and it was inspired by my own bandmates from Team Dresch, Kill Rock Stars and any of the independent labels that were happening then. It was like, "Oh yeah, it can be done." You could get a distributor back then, and if you had a credit card, you could do it. So we started distributing experimental art videos and putting out our friends' records. We loved all the records we put out, but a few of them did really well, which was rad! And they kept us afloat. Like Le Tigre, obviously.
I wanted to have the control of it, and it just seemed like a good idea. And it was a good idea. Also to have an avenue for other feminists, weird politicos and whatnot -- another place for them to feel like they're part of a home, a family, supporters. Labels become sort of insular in a sort of style -- almost like a community. That's what we wanted to be for queer and feminist representation in the world. Again to have another visible force in the world as a record label.
Electrelane was on that label, too?
Oh! They were awesome. We put out their release here, but they already had it out in England. We loved them.
You're on a solo tour right now?
Yeah, I'm on a solo tour that I started in late April. I haven't done an actual solo tour since 1997, and it's been awesome. It's been all over the map. Some shows has been close to nobody. At others there have been a good number of people, but I had no idea that on a Monday night in Washington D.C. that people would be so psyched. "Oh, awesome! I'm psyched, too, then!" That's kind of how I am.
I actually love playing, even if it's just to four people, but that can't sustain a tour. But that's where I am at career-wise. I don't have a record label, really. I'm just trying to see what I can do without a record, or a record label or proper publicity, so that's cool [laughs]. If I can get some people to shows through Facebook, rad! [laughs]
Do you have an album you're promoting on your tour?
Yeah, I do. I mean, you know, everybody fucking loves CDs in this day and age and buys them by the handful. Just kidding. But I do have my newest CD for sale, and it came out in 2008, so that's what I'm officially touring on. But I'm also going for how the mid-'90s and early-'90s is in again, which is rad, because I never left them. The fifteen-year anniversary of my first solo record, which is also my most well-known record -- it came out in the heels of Team Dresch. It has really good artwork, and I liked it so much, I made t-shirts with it. I'm playing a lot of old songs from that record.
Is that Finally a Dyke Album For the Whole Family?
Right. Exactly. [laughs] I also really want to play new songs. I have tons of new songs and I play some of them for the shows that I can personally feel totally stuck in the past.