Tobi Vail (born July 20 1969) is a musician, influential DIY punk zinester, activist, and feminist theorist from Olympia, Washington. She formed one of her first bands as the drummer for The Go Team when she was 15, later collaborating in several other groups like Bikini Kill, as well as being involved over the years with a prolific assortment of project bands, figuring prominently in the Olympia music scene. Currently she fronts the psychedelic-garage-punk band Spider and the Webs, plays drums in The Old Haunts, as well as running her own indie cassette label, Bands Against Bush, the Kill Rock Stars mail order department, and publishing various zines.
my dad and grandad were drummers. there are a lot of hillbilly musicians on my dad's side I started playing instruments and making up songs in junior high, played in bands in high school, started touring at 18
Her younger sister Maggie Vail also plays drums, guitar, bass, clarinet and cello, and has played in such bands as Bangs, Gene Defcon, The Geoducks, The Slatternlies, The Stowaways, Frenchie and the German Girls, and Bonnot Gang (named after the famous French anarchist group of the same name). She currently plays in both Romancing and Leti Angel, as well as being the vice president and head of West Coast operations for the independent label Kill Rock Stars as of the current president Portia Sabin's move to New York City in 2006 with her husband, label-founder Slim Moon.
The Go Team was about process. Sometimes we'd deliberately leave stuff out to incite participation in the listener. Donna Parker Pop, our first K release, featured all instrumentals but included the statement 'Make up your own words and sing along' - and people did. We recorded with some of those people later. . . . On the one hand we were trying to demystify music and encourage people to play songs in public -- if they wanted to. On the other hand, we actually liked what we sounded like, and we hated most of the pro-sounding jam bands/shredding metal-punk bands that played parties in Olympia. We embraced chaos and rejected mastery.
Vail was also working as a DJ for KAOS (FM) and playing in an all-teenage girl band called Doris with Cheryl Hooper and Tam Orhmund at this time (1986-1988), which played shows around the Northwest with Beat Happening, Spook and the Zombies, Rich Jensen, Oklahoma Scramble, and Snake Pit. They made a demo tape, which was recorded by Steve Ross (Cactus Love, the Briefs) but never released. After the demise of The Go Team, Vail played in various project bands and made a record as the drummer for Some Velvet Sidewalk.
Vail is best known as the drummer of Bikini Kill, which lasted from 1990 to 1998. The band was often met with resistance and misunderstanding due to their chaotic live performances, controversial lyrics, and political zines which dealt with various activist-punk topics like anti-racism, vegetarianism, anti-corporatism, anti-capitalism, anti-heterosexism, and in particular feminist issues such as rape, incest, domestic violence, abortion, sexuality, body image and eating disorders, stalking, patriarchy, sexual assault, and sexism in general - all with a strong emphasis on community and DIY culture.
When Bikini Kill first started people reacted to what we did very strongly - either they really loved it or they really hated it, and a lot of times that was kinda hard to deal with, especially just starting out. A lot of times I thought we would just be asking questions, and people saw us as really sort of 'dogmatic' or whatever, but I thought that was really not how it was at all... Maybe our presentation was sort of dogmatic because every show we played was like a war, cos like guys would try to beat us up and stuff, it was really violent, and we were really - we had a lot of fans and we didn't have any crowd control, we didn't have a manager, we'd just play these crazy places like bowling alleys and then cram like 600 people in there, you know, no security.Despite frequent mainstream media misrepresentation and serious violence at shows (usually against singer Kathleen Hanna), they continued for several years and today are largely credited (along with Bratmobile) with starting Riot Grrrl, a movement that merged Do It Yourself punk culture with feminism. The actual word 'grrrl' was coined in Vail's seminal journal, Jigsaw (1988-present), one of the first Northwestern punk zines to address gender issues explicitly. Prior to this, many influential female-centric bands like The Slits, Girlschool, and Bush Tetras had long resisted the notion of being thought of as "girl bands" and almost always avoided the word "feminism", with the occasional exceptions of bands like Poison Girls, Frightwig, and Au Pairs.
I understand why some women/girls/ladies don't want to be women-identified 'cuz it totally complicates your band identity and no one seems to pay much attention to the music or what you're doing. We have chosen to be girl-identified (although Billy isn't a girl!), because we want to encourage other women/girls to play music. When I was growing up, I found it discouraging to have all these women in bands not wanting to address the issue of gender...we're interested in what women are doing.
Vail had started working with schoolmates Kathi Wilcox and Kathleen Hanna at The Evergreen State College, together producing a zine called Bikini Kill - the name of which came from a phrase coined by indie-godmother and fellow KAOS DJ Lois Maffeo, which Tobi asked if she could use. Along with Bratmobile's Girl Germs and riot grrrl, these zines are credited as the first manifestos of the movement, reclaiming feminism for the punk scene in an attempt to disrupt the straight white male bias thereof, and rebelling against such annoyances as having the women at their shows fall victim to sexual assault when attempting to enter the mosh pits or even get closer to the stage, their bodies often groped, their clothes deliberately torn off. In one instance in particular, a man was caught rubbing his penis on a female fan in the audience at a Rock for Choice benefit. In response to such attacks, not only against the girls in the audience but often against themselves and their friends, Bikini Kill was one of the first bands to declare their mosh pits "women only".
The general feeling of wanting to encourage more girls to start bands, zines, make their own culture and create their own homemade and fiercely independent media grew rapidly in popularity through a largely underground network of similar-feeling fans, artists, musicians and writers, and soon regular meetings started taking place, usually in punk houses like Positive Force. Bikini Kill had started working there with friends like Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi after moving to Washington DC in 1991.
In a music scene and era turned professional it is important to demonstrate allegiance and respect for the realm of the unprofessional musical endeavors. This means we are trying to rebel against the idea that everything must last, must be a record, must have a promo sheet. Sometimes things are just what they are and then later they are something else. The professionals of the world will try and argue for bands that should break up to stay together and go on tour but sometimes the spontaneous approach is much more than this could ever be: START YOUR OWN BAND AND DO WHAT YOU WANNA DO
The band itself released several LPs and singles on their friend Slim's then-new label Kill Rock Stars, of which Vail is now a chief editor, and toured extensively across the US, Europe, Japan, and Australia, which helped spread the word further.
In 1992 Tobi started The Frumpies in DC with bandmates Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren, Molly Neuman of Bratmobile and The PeeChees, and later Michelle Mae. They wrote and recorded several 7" singles, most of which are compiled on the Kill Rock Stars release Frumpie One Piece, and many recorded in the basement of Vail's parents' home. The Frumpies Forever single has on its cover a polaroid still of A Taste of Honey, a favorite movie of Vail's, who likes a lot of French New Wave and 60's British cinema. Distinctly less overtly political in nature than either BK or Bratmobile, and refining a much different sound (no bass player, 3 guitar players), they toured the U.S. with Huggy Bear in 1993 and Italy with "yes wave"-electro-avant-punk-noise band Dada Swing in 2000. They also developed a mini-rock opera called Mohawk Toupee.
|"Olympia is all about Tobi Vail throwing her drink across the room and saying, 'Damn it, let's make a record.'"|
|— Steve Fisk|
|"tobi for me is heroic"|
|— Mike Watt|
Although she continues to enjoy playing in some predominantly male bands, Vail still keeps with her DIY efforts to encourage more women into the independent punk scene as a founding member of Ladyfest, a volunteer-based music and arts festival for female independent musicians, performance artists, spoken word poets, visual artists, and authors, for which most of the proceeds are donated directly to non-profit organisations. The festival also holds workshops for girls on everything from music lessons, to how to make a zine, to self defense courses.
She is also one of the founders of Bands Against Bush, an international resistance network of artists and musicians dedicated to promoting and organizing activism and direct action against George W. Bush, his administration and the rest of the PNAC. It was inspired by the very first show she ever attended: a Rock Against Reagan benefit in 1983. A recent New York Times article claimed BAB was under surveillance by the U.S. government.
She also founded FAB (Feminist Action Brigade), a feminist book club based in Olympia that attempted to start an activist network using zines and the internet. Her current publications are Spider Magic, Feminists Against Bush and Pogo for Peace.
In 1994, Vail started her own DIY cassette label called Bumpidee (named after the Portland-based Sunday morning children's show and eponymous character Bumpity) and released music by Worst Case Scenario, the Corrections, the Bonnot Gang, and the Slatternlies. Recent releases include demos by Spider and the Webs and Marissa Magic and a compilation called "Spider Friends". Each tape comes with a newsletter called The Bumpidee Times which contextualizes each release, and many are often free in the anti-capitalist DIY punk spirit of sharing. Currently there is also a web site, bumpidee.com, of the same name.
Although many KRS artists have since signed to major labels (Sleater-Kinney, Kathleen Hanna, The Gossip), Vail's output has always remained consistently independent of corporate ownership. A letter she wrote appears in the liner notes of a KRS compilation called Stars Kill Rock:
Later, in Mark Andersen's book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capitol, she continued:
Now, more that ever, it's the time to forge the underground idea, 'cuz in the face of corporate co-option, us true punks gotta stick together. Some of my best friends are in bands that are on major labels and I respect their choice, but it's not the sound of the revolution.
A fair amount of fallacy has been circulated about their relationship due to Nirvana biographers and rock journalists relying largely on second-hand misinformation, rumors, and erroneous conjecture presented incorrectly as fact, as neither Vail nor Cobain ever spoke of their relationship publicly. For over 15 years, as Jenny Toomey relates, "Tobi refuses to speak publicly and participate in the exploitation of the Cobain myth by hack journalists trying to make a career, record companies trying to sell records, and feeble attempts made by ex-"friends" to mark their place in history. The only interview she's ever given on the subject of her old friend was for Everett True, another old friend of hers and Cobain's. True is the only biographer who was actually close with them during this time, and he has derided Cross' book as the "Courtney-sanctioned version of history.