Interview with Kaia Wilson
Sometimes sitting around at a venue waiting for an interview can be really annoying. Sometimes, when you’re at the right venue, getting to listen to the sound check is really the best way to get in the mood for an interview. And if the person you are interviewing is as nice as Kaia Wilson there is hardly anything that can go wrong. Kaia Wilson, a former member of Team Dresch and The Butchies came to play some solo shows in Germany this July while she was on her way to the Gay Games in Cologne. We were lucky enough to meet her before her show at Westgermany where she was playing with her old friends Scream Club.
How did you start making music?
I started playing in a band almost 20 years ago, when I was 17. But I started writing music even before that, when I was still a little kid. I gravitated into songwriting at a very young age and I learned how to play different instruments at that time as well. When I was 15 I started playing guitar. My first band was called Adickdid, that was in the north-west in Eugene, Oregon and it was a really grungy grungecore band. I did a lot of screaming there.
Basically I started playing in a band because I wanted to be part of something really creative and also felt the need to incorporate some sort of activism. I came out in high school as a lesbian and there was a lot of struggle involved. By making music I wanted an outlet for that and to find a community. I attended a rural high school and from there I kind of foraged out to find other bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Tribe 8. Those were a couple of the first Queercore and Riot Grrrl bands.
And how did you find out about them?
I had one gay friend in high school and he brought me a zine. It was the time of the big zine explosion in the early 1990s. The zine was called Homocore, and they wrote about all these queer bands. Through them I also found out about Chainsaw, which was Donna Dresch’s zine. So it’s basically through him that I found out that there was real alternative queer stuff going on.
How did you meet Donna Dresch?
After I found out about her fanzine Chainsaw I wrote her really nerdy, long letters. The letters were about eight pages long and I was pouring out my heart about being isolated in a small town where the majority hates gay people. Donna was living in Washington DC or San Francisco at that time. She was living in a big city, she was older than me, and she already had her community. She would write me back three or four sentences saying that everything is going to be fine. That was when I was 16. We were penpals and she was like a mentor for me. Three years later I met her in Olympia when I was in Adickdid and once we recognized each other there was an immediate connection.
And was it you or Donna who was in the G.B. Jones movie?
That was Donna. The Yoyo-Gang? I love that movie.
I’ve always wondered how the connection between the Queercore scene in Canada and Riot Grrrl scene in the US first got connected.
That’s a pretty good question, but I don’t know how to answer it. I do know, that people from San Francisco, and G.B. Jones, who also played in a band called Fifth Column were really good friends. That was in the early 1990s and I don’t know any specifics of these connections, because I was still too young and still in high school at that time.
You’ve played a couple of Ladyfests. Do you see a change now compared to the first ones?
I played a number of them. I played the first one in Olympia with The Butchies and I played one in Austin. Team Dresch actually just got together again and played a Ladyfest in Brazil. That was so great! I don’t even know how to describe how much fun that was. In terms of from then till now, it’s all awesome. Not much of it has changed. It’s still the celebration of powerful women, celebrating our arts, contributions, and doing workshops. It’s in between being political and also having all sorts of fun.
After Team Dresch you formed The Butchies. Can you tell us about that?
In 1996, right after our big European Tour with Bikini Kill, Team Dresch imploded, like a lot of bands do for a million different reasons. After that I started putting out solo records. Melissa York, who was the drummer in Team Dresch for the Captain My Captain record, and I, decided that we wanted to continue playing music together, so we stayed in touch. My solo records were acoustic songs, like the ones I’ll be playing tonight. But we both wanted to continue playing louder rock music as well. I moved to North Carolina, with my girlfriend at that time, Tammy Rae Carland, who was teaching photography at UNC-Chapel Hill in North Carolina. I convinced Melissa to move from New York to North Carolina and there we found the perfect third person for our band, Allison Martlew. She played bass. Together we put out four records and we were a band for seven years.
I read that The Butchies had some trouble after playing at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. How was that?
The issue was that the festival has a policy for womyn born womyn only, and a lot of people protested and believed it was transphobic. That is why The Butchies got really targeted when we played at that festival. It’s such a long story and it was so tragic for us. In terms of our own identity and who we, as a band, were in the world, we felt like we were presenting a really gender expanding picture. All of us are butch and all of us always pass for guys and we have so many alliances with people identified as trans. We love the festival, but we also support our trans brothers and sisters. There were many hours of crying and processing and trying to reach out to the community, but it was very hard. Probably one of the hardest things I’ve been through.
I’m also always concerned about these questions. I’m involved in organizing two parties in Berlin that are only women/lesbian/trans, but I think it’s also important to invite “friends”. It’s so hard to decide whom to include and whom to exclude…
Yes, it’s so complicated. I feel like I can see all of the different sides. I do believe in organizing specific spaces for people who are, for lack of a better word, oppressed for their specific identity. I think it’s meaningful to have that sort of validation with somebody who relates specifically to your identity and what you are going through. But I also feel like there’s as much need for inclusive space. I think both things should be happening all the time and as much as possible. It’s important to build up a powerful community that extends to all the people who are fighting against the bigger bad system that’s trying to kill us. One way or another: psychically or literally.
At the same time as The Butchies started, you also set up the label Mr. Lady Records. How did that go and why did you stop?
Mr. Lady technically started in Indiana, right at the beginning of 1997. Tammy Rae and I had tons of friends, who successfully started record labels, like Kill Rock Stars, K, or Daemon Records. Daemon Records was the label of Amy Ray from Indigo Girls, who was based in the South, and we became friends with her. It was an inspiration to us, seeing friends of ours, like Donna Dresch and Jody Bleyle with Chainsaw and Candy Ass Records, who had their own labels. We realized that it’s not some big adventure, but that we could do it as well. Of course it was a lot of work, but it was worth it. We started off really active. We put out the first The Butchies record, the first Le Tigre record. We put out all our friends’ music, basically, and also distributed videos.
If I really have to find a reason why we stopped the label-work, it was probably because Tammy Ray and I broke up. But it was also a lot of work and I think it’s possible, that even if our relationship had sustained, we still might have phased out the label work.
Now you are touring solo as Kaia and you also put out a couple of records under that name. What is your favorite song from your last album and why?
My last album is called Godmakesmonkeys and it technically came out in 2008, but most of the songs were written between 2002 and 2005. There’s one song called “Logical List of Confidences” that I particularly like for a couple of reasons. On the one hand it’s about trying to overcome some serious insecurities. It’s about feeling that you have to be impressive, especially when it comes to being in a relationship. About feeling insecure in intimate relationships, but also in relationships in general. Sometimes you feel like you’re not cool enough or don’t have enough skills and ask yourself, “What do I do that’s awesome?” I was dealing with a lot of insecurity when I wrote that song. Most of the time music is a cathartic way for me to move through strong emotions. On the other hand that song is a love song too. It not only deals with me being insecure in a relationship, but also with feeling connected in a magical way to the person that I was with at that time. It’s silly but it felt like a real meant-to-be kind of story. I also like this song, because I was looking at my cat, Monkey, when I wrote it. He’s no longer with us, so I also have special feelings for him being gone. But I also loved the process of that songwriting. I was just playing guitar and I was staring at my cat. It was like he was coaxing it out of me, like I was telling him the story.
There’s also my new album, that’s hopefully coming out really soon-as soon as I get recording money. On the new album will be a song called “Portage”. Portaging means picking up your canoe when you hit a sandbank and carrying the canoe over the sandbank. I like that concept and I wrote the song after I lost a number of my pets – within six months I lost two dogs and a cat due to different diseases and it pretty much tore my heart. I didn’t think that I was going to be able to recover from that. At that time I wrote a lot of songs about them. But this is probably my favorite one. It’s not only about them but also about my healing process. I was in the depth of my despair, and then finally being able to actually see lightness grasp on to it and then eventually get out. You just have to keep going and hope that there is some kind of awesomeness that happens when we die. I guess that’s what I hope for my animals. That sounds a little sad I guess; it is kind of a sad song. But it’s also about being able to overcome this pain. And I also like the lyrics and the melody.
You also recently started playing ping pong?
Yes, ping pong almost saved my life after the death of my animals. Shortly after they died I played with my dad and a group of friends at a sports center. I didn’t really expect anything. I hadn’t played since I was a kid and went there with a group of weird queer dudes. But I had so much fun that I wanted to play more often. I decided to take lessons and started to learn how to “really” play ping pong. Before that I never knew that there even were specific techniques that you can learn. It’s very mathematical actually and there’s so much to know. I’m totally addicted to it. Not only because it’s so much fun but also because it’s such a quick game that is really testing your hand-eye coordination. You have to think the whole time and be super focused in a way that’s exhilarating to me.
Next week you’re going to participate in the Gay Games in Cologne. Do you get to train at all while you’re on tour now?
I hope there will be some tables in Hamburg and Bremen the next days. And I’m hoping to find people that will train and drill with me, because I really need to find people that will play with me; I can’t just practice against a wall.
In Cologne I’m in the women’s single division and I’m a lower level competitor. I found a mixed doubles partner too and I’m really excited about that. He says he’s a defensive player and I’m more offensive. I’m really hoping I won’t let him down. I have a feeling he’s probably better than I am because he’s been in more competitions than me. I hope he’ll still like me for my attitude if I don’t do as well as he wants me to, but I don’t think he’s gonna care. After all it’s the Gay Games and they are supposed to be friendly as heck.
However it ends, I’m sure I’m gonna have fun. I’m approaching it really creatively, because I’m also doing a documentary on the whole trip. And I really do think that ping pong is the best sport in the world and that it somehow saved my life, giving me something really awesome to set a goal towards doing.