ALL EARS He’s a kid. He likes wearing wigs. “What he’s looking for/He won’t find in school,” Jody Bleyle sings, her strong, declarative voice rising to a challenge in the first line and descending into disappointment on the second. It’s late on a restless night, and the boy is listening to music, looking for something he can’t seem to find.
That is, until Bleyle flips the song’s descriptive point-of-view, commanding herself, “Hey you, say what he needs to hear.” Which she does, as the music turns inside out in a way that captures self-recognition and affirmation, sending shivers up the spine: “Queer sex is great/ It’s fun as shit/ Don’t worry Jesus is dead/ And god don’t exist/ And swearing is fun/ It’s funner than piss/ That it’s stupid is a cruel and classist myth.”
The kid is Psychic Al, a character in “Musical Fanzine,” the penultimate song on Team Dresch’s 1996 album Captain My Captain. Psychic Al would be in his mid-to-late 30s today. As for Team Dresch, how applicable is their music to the year 2019? We’re about to find out, as just months since Bikini Kill’s brief but celebrated reunion shows, the group are set to tour and also re-release their two albums, Personal Best (1995) and Captain My Captain, as well as a singles collection, Choices, Chances, Changes. (They’ll be performing June 22 at Bottom of the Hill.)
There’s another answer to the question of how relevant Team Dresch are today, and that answer is plenty. There is no equivalent band to “the team” on the musical landscape today. Queer and especially trans and women’s rights are under attack in the Trump era. The Personal Best song “Hate the Christian Right” and Captain My Captain song “I’m Illegal” could apply to the state of being female in the South and Midwest, where growing waves of anti-abortion legislation are robbing women of autonomy, including in response to crimes such as rape and incest. The present-day picture is scary and infuriating and demands the sort of direct statements and actions that have always been core elements of Team Dresch’s overall project.
But Team Dresch aren’t just relevant in terms of all-queer lineup and explicit politics. They’re also radical in sheerly musical terms—this is a band that unites punk energy and explosiveness with melodic pop immediacy and Shudder To Think-esque math rock complexity to create roiling songs that sometimes go through a series of metamorphoses before reaching a conclusion. Next to what they’ve made, a lot of today’s punk- and garage-influenced music sounds basic. There’s even some unique ingenuity in the group’s name, which recasts the fractiousness that defines so many groups into a mutually supportive team formation, with eldest member Donna Dresch functioning as a wise captain of sorts while Bleyle and Kaia Wilson trade off vocals.
If boygenius is a female supergroup today, Team Dresch certainly functions as one. Queercore or homocore true pioneers Fifth Column even wrote a song called “Donna” about guitar and bass goddess Dresch, who played with proto-grunge dudes Screaming Trees and helped forge Olympia’s celebrated punk scene through the zine and label Chainsaw, the latter of which released Sleater-Kinney’s galvanizing 1996 album Call the Doctor. The sole female member of Hazel, Bleyle had her own label, Candyass, which released Free to Fight, a genre-spanning compilation devoted to teaching fundamentals of self-defense to women and queers. Before Team Dresch, Wilson fronted her own band, Adickdid.
The film Personal Best is an Oregon- and NorCal coast-set 1982 movie that includes soft-lit lesbian love scenes, women’s steam room banter, a Bruce Jenner lookalike, a fag joke, athletic montages set to everything from the Doobie Brothers to marching bands, and Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly as an iconic tortured duo: the straight woman with same-sex leanings and the the lesbian who knows her identity. With a winking nod to the movie in its on-the-mark flirty cover art and the straight girl kiss-off song “Freewheel,” Team Dresch’s Personal Best moves from anthems (“She’s Amazing”) to dedications (“Fake Fight”) to a song that’s the sonic sister of Lizzie Borden’s radical 1983 movie Born In Flames, “#1 Chance Pirate TV,” where Bleyle moves from reassurance to defiance on the thrilling final lines: “Sometimes it feels alright/Like when you rip up a picture of the Pope.”
One of Team Dresch’s innovations is in the structure of its songs. Vocal baton-passes within a single composition were a commonly uncommon trait of Northwest women’s bands of the era, such as Excuse 17 and, of course, Sleater-Kinney. The approach reached one zenith of dual or dueling complexity in the title track of the latter’s 1998 album The Hot Rock. But Team Dresch mine similar territory earlier on Captain My Captain’s “The Council” and “Yes I Am Too, But Who Am I Really?,” a femme-butch dialogue of sexual freedom where Wilson’s proto-pup pleas of “Boss me around/Please, I want you to” are met by Bleyle’s command “I wanna watch you lose control.”
Heroism in sound—and friendship and erotics and solidarity too—Captain My Captain is filled with such moments. Marked by present-tense lyrical assertions, built over drummer Melissa York’s rapid and faultless tempo changes, it’s a conversation between two vocalists with attractive voices: Wilson’s shifts from shy confession to screaming rebellion, Bleyle’s present-tense pivots from sharp sarcasm to the very embodiment of seizing power. Electric moments abound, as Wilson nimbly navigates the pitfalls of a relationship in “107” and Bleyle faces agoraphobia with the help of her girlfriend in the direct “Don’t Try Suicide,” the band’s most popular song online, thanks in part to its use in the 2000 documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street.
Captain My Captain opens with a snippet of phone conversation between Bleyle and pioneering punk dyke folksinger Phranc, who is then honored as the “Uncle Phranc” of an affirming queer family set against an emotionally manipulative mother in the song that follows. Sometimes it takes an uncle to impart necessary advice, such as not to fuck with straight girls and not to take pills. Speaking of necessity, just how necessary is Team Dresch’s return? The question is answered with typical clarity by a couplet at the end of the song that began this article, “Musical Fanzine”: “Sometimes I can’t remember why I want to live/Then I think of all the freaks, and I don’t want to miss this.”
I recently got in touch with Team Dresch’s Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson to discuss the group’s plentiful dynamics – bold and direct song titles over winding or even oblique lyrics, to cite just one example – and the feelings that come with a reunion.
48 HILLS What’s it like returning to the songs today as listeners, as the songwriters and performing them?
KAIA WILSON It’s like riding the most amazing gay-ass bike.
It’s an honor, it’s amazing, and it’s also so fun. We all love each other (we are family) and we have the most incredible people who like our music and come to our shows to feel the loud distorted celebration of queer love.
JODY BLEYLE Playing the songs feels even better than it used to because we’re better players and we love each other more. It’s so fun to be loud and sweaty together. Listening to the songs can be more complicated because it’s just me alone with my ears and thoughts, but every time I listen I appreciate more what great musicians my bandmates are.
48H Different bands in the NW at the time traded off vocals, but in Team Dresch it really feels like a passing of the baton. Was there a point when you hit upon the dual vocal approach, and how do you feel it developed in the band over time?
KW Our band just shared the spirit of the punk message we were all attracted to, which for us was all about making shit up, sharing equally in all the collaborations, and not following “rules” of the mainstream song makers. Also, it adds so much to the dynamics of our songs to mix up vocals like we do, and to get both singers’ voices in some of our songs is the pinnacle of that.
JB It evolved as we wrote more songs. The heart of the band is that original need to find each other, so we’ve always worked towards collaboration, even though it can be hard.
48H What were your favorite bands then, and what/who do you listen to now?
JB Then: Joni Mitchell, Ut, Throwing Muses, Queen Latifah, Soundgarden, Suzanne Vega, Tone Dogs, Patti Smith, Public Enemy, Kate Bush, fIREHOSE, Everything But the Girl – and all the friend bands that we were lucky to play with so many times. I still listen to those bands, and let’s see, now I listen to Elite Beat, Janelle Monáe, Lizzo, Roseblood, Gillian Frances, and the new Versus EP!
KW Then: Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Versus, Slant 6, Cold Cold Hearts, Come. Now: Same as before, add Lizzo, H.C. McEntire, Janelle Monáe and [some] awesome new bands in PDX – Roseblood and Hurry Up.
48H Can you tell me about the character of Psychic Al and the inspiration behind him?
JB He’s my brother! He was probably 14 or 15 when I wrote those lyrics. He came out to me and Mel [drummer Melissa York] on a Team Dresch tour around that time. We told him that he was young and that if he changed his mind we’d still love him. (He’s still gay.) I was probably projecting my own experience onto him, but I think we were all looking for things in songs and hoping that when you opened a cassette tape it would have a long paper insert filled with secrets to unfold.
48H ”Don’t Try Suicide” has been used in the documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street, and has reached a lot of listeners online. Do you hear much feedback from new listeners about that song?
JB We do. It’s a deep and painful way to connect with people. We’re often asked whether we think it’s easier to grow up LGBTQI+ now and to come out, and sure, it’s easier on paper, but that doesn’t make it easy and painless and uncomplicated for each real person.
48H Songs like “Hate the Christian Right,“ “I’m Illegal” and “To the Enemies of Political Rock” feel very applicable to the present moment. How does it feel to be reemerging in and engaging with the music industry and overall political climate right now?
KW It’s weird, sad, but not totally surprising that so many of our more directly political songs are as relevant today as they were 25 years ago.
I think our band has this lovely musical/activism chemistry, and that it would be such a waste for us not to step up to the plate right now during Trump fucker years, and take our swing at this horror show of the political Right; even if we are swinging our bat of love, for queers, for all marginalized folks, because love and creating a space to feel alive, connected and empowered is as important as when we say fuck you. But also, we are gonna make sure to say fuck you and keep fighting.
Jody’s lyric in “Yes I Am Too, But Who Am I Really”—”some people get it, lots more people need it”—sums it up for the struggle, through all the eras, since whenever humans started being dicks.
JB The political climate is horrifying and the more I act against it, the better I feel. I’m on the fundraising team for the Sunrise Movement in Portland. Sunrise is a youth-led movement to turn the Green New Deal into a reality. They’re brilliant and inspiring and working strategically to create a world that will be not horrifying – it will be a party that you don’t want to leave. To me, playing with Team Dresch right now is a chance to give some love and soak up some love and help build the Sunrise Movement. And it’s really really fun to play music and jump around with [drummer] Marcéo [Martinez], Mel, Kaia, and Donna in every political climate.
June 22, 8:30pm, $15/$17
Bottom of the Hill, SF.
More info here.