Tobi Vail

Tobi Vail

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.


Vail was born on the day of the first moon landing and named after Toby Tyler, who ran away to join the circus. Growing up in a very musical family, she started playing music early.

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 and Doris

One of her first bands was The Go Team, an experimental punk project started with Calvin Johnson in 1985. The group released several cassettes and 9 singles on the independent label K Records, mostly on the 7" vinyl format - a practice Vail continues to this day. Billy "Boredom" Karren was one of the rotating musicians who played with The Go Team, and it was in this band that he and Vail played together for the first time, later collaborating in several other bands like Bikini Kill, The Frumpies, the upallnighters, and Spray Painted Love. Other guest musicians included Rich Jensen, David Nichols, and Donna Dresch. They toured the West Coast as a two piece, adding Billy Karren for two U.S. tours.

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.

Bikini Kill

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.

Vail recalls:

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.

Much like her influences Billy Childish and Moe Tucker, riot grrrl emphasized a strong advocacy for the DIY indie-punk philosophies and "you can do anything" attitude of amateurism.

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.

The Frumpies

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.

Other projects

Apart from the 5 other above mentioned bands, and occasionally releasing under her own name and various pseudonyms, Vail has played in quite a few underground bands before and after the friendly break-up of Bikini Kill in 98, including:
"Olympia is all about Tobi Vail throwing her drink across the room and saying, 'Damn it, let's make a record.'"
Steve Fisk


  • The Feebles
  • Frenchie and the German Girls
  • My New Boyfriend
  • Severed Lethargy
  • Spray Painted Love
  • the upallnighters
  • The Bathtub is Real
  • Panic of the Square
  • the Fiasco
  • Listen to the Elephants

"tobi for me is heroic"
Mike Watt


  • Chopped Liver
  • The Retirement Band
  • Spider and the Webs - with James Maeda and Chris Sutton of Hornet Leg and Dub Narcotic Sound System.
  • The Old Haunts
  • Love Can Lose
  • Repetition Vision

As a guest

Bands Against Bush, Ladyfest, and FAB

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,, 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.


From July to October 1990, Vail dated her friend, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, with whom she had collaborated during her tenure in The Go Team on another side project called The Bathtub is Real. They remained friends after they broke up, their bands hanging out and often playing together at shows, and they were on good terms until fame, drug addiction and depression obscured many of Cobain's connections with old friends, including Vail. The end of their relationship occurred during the period when Cobain was writing material for Nirvana's foundational album Nevermind and some of the songs seem to contain veiled references to Tobi, including

  • Smells Like Teen Spirit - Teen Spirit was Tobi's choice of deodorant at the time, and Kathleen Hanna had spray-painted "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on his wall one night.
  • Aneurysm - Cross' biography of Cobain incorrectly claimed that this song was written in an attempt to win Vail back, the line "love you so much it makes me sick" referring to the fact that when they first met, she made Cobain so nervous that it once made him vomit. The song was actually written during the relationship, not after.
  • Lounge Act - Krist Novoselic is quoted as saying that "Lounge Act" is about Tobi and Kurt wrote in an angry (unsent) letter to Vail that "Lounge Act" was the only song written about her and wrote that he never played it, unless Courtney Love wasn't around.

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.


The Go Team


  • "Sand/Jigsaw" (January 1989)
  • "Outside/Stay Ready" (February 1989) with Billy Karren, Louise Olsen, Dave Nichols
  • "Breakfast In Bed/Safe Little Circles" (March 1989) with The Legend!
  • "Milquetoast Brigade/She Was Sad" (April 1989) with Jeffery Kennedy
  • "Ribeye/935 Patterson" (May 1989)
  • "Go Team Call/Three Ways To Sunday" (June 1989) with Quang H., Billy Karren, Brad Clemmons
  • "Scratch It Out/Bikini Twilight" (July 1989) with Tamra Ohrmund, Louise Olsen, Donna Dresch, Kurt Cobain
  • "Tummy Hop/Maverick Summer" (August 1989) with Brad Clemmons
  • "The Pines Of Rome" (September 1989) with Brad Clemmons


  • Recorded Live At The Washington Center For The Performing Arts
  • Your Pretty Guitar with Steve Peters
  • Archer Come Sparrow
  • Donna Parker Pop

Bikini Kill



  • New Radio/Rebel Girl 7" single on Kill Rock Stars (1993)
  • The Anti-Pleasure Dissertation Single on Kill Rock Stars (1994)
  • I Like Fucking/I Hate Danger 7" single on Kill Rock Stars (1995)


  • Kill Rock Stars on Kill Rock Stars LP/CD (1991)
  • Throw: The YoYo Studio Compilation on YoYo Records (1991)
  • "Daddy's Lil' Girl" on Give Me Back LP, Ebullition Records (1991)
  • "Suck My Left One" on There's A Dyke In The Pit, Outpunk Records (1992)
  • Bikini Kill: The Singles (1998)

The Frumpies

  • Babies & Bunnies
  • Frumpies Forever
  • Eunuch Nights


  • Frumpie One-Piece



  • Cinderella's Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground by Maria Raha
  • Girls Make Media by Mary Celeste Kearney (Routledge, 2006)
  • Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap Ed. by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers

External links

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