“Is there another word you can look up in the thesaurus? What’s another one for ‘powerful?’” Kaia Wilson asks, an hour or so into my interview with her and Melissa York, of queercore icons Team Dresch. Wilson and York use “powerful” at least 11 times throughout the interview, so often it turns into a running gag—but no other word quite suffices.
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The word “community” also pops up at least 15 times. These two words are both key to understanding Team Dresch, who, perhaps because they felt like such a singular band, haven’t gotten the kind of legendary historicizing that some contemporaneous riot grrrl groups have. (Team Dresch were not exactly a riot grrrl group, but they were from an overlapping world, and very clearly influenced bands like Sleater-Kinney.) They may have only released two albums—both of which are getting a lovely reissue treatment for the 25th anniversary of the band and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising—but their music is undeniable: poppy, catchy, complex without being overly technical. It’s music by and for queer people, but straight punks loved them, too; Personal Best was, at least in my experience, the quintessential punk house soundtrack from 1995-1998.
Team Dresch stuck out in a ‘90s underground full of raw emotion; they had plenty of that, too, but they were able to harness it with deft songwriting and precise performance. “We were really excited and proud of what we were doing musically, as musicians,” says Wilson, who shares guitar and vocal duties in the group with Donna Dresch and Jody Bleyle. “Our musicality was very strong. Looking back at that time, it seems silly, but that was a priority for all of us, to make really good music. But the bigger effect was that our fans weren’t fans—I mean, they were fans, but they were our friends, like Melissa says, our community. There wasn’t a distinction or line drawn between us as the important artist on stage and then people that—I don’t know how to describe this, but we were family. The whole thing was family.”
“When I joined Team Dresch, I was real young, and I was just so excited, and building friendships. Being in a community, our fans, friends, me—being in this community was so healing for me,” York, who plays drums, says. “I felt like the band was very healing for so many people. I think that for me, the biggest thing, being in Team Dresch and also the Butchies, was—this is going to be cheesy, but the power of love. Acceptance, and just, like, a big group hug for everybody. We would get a lot of letters from kids that were like, ‘Your music stopped me from killing myself.’ So many stories. That’s very, very powerful, to feel like you’re not alone. Just being support for people.”
When she says this, I pause, unsure of whether to insert myself into this interview. I was, you see, one of those kids with pen in hand and a page ripped from a spiral notebook, Dear Jody and Donna and Kaia and Melissa—16, queer, out, being bullied at school because of it, a survivor of multiple types of violence, unable to tell my parents because I was so ashamed. (I shouldn’t have been; I am lucky in that regard.) Inspired by my colleague Mariana Timony’s braveness, I gulp down a breath, and admit it.
“That’s a wonderful confession!” Wilson says. Her voice is full of warmth. York is quick with her own kind words, too: “No, don’t be sorry! That’s what I want people to know. We were there for people. And you were there for me! Your letters helped me! It’s this thing where it’s like, we’re in this together. There’s strength in numbers. And we’re not alone.”
Team Dresch’s reappearance—the reissues, some shows to go along with them—aren’t an ordinary punk reunion for nostalgia or cash, you see. For one thing, the band never really broke up; Wilson and York left to form The Butchies in 1998, but Team Dresch has been playing together on and off, in one iteration or another, since 2004’s Homo A Go Go festival in Olympia. (“We’re pretty inactive, but we’ve decided to get more active,” Wilson says.) Original drummer Marcéo Martinez is playing with them again, too. “Basically we’re a five-piece now, which is how I think it should be for all of eternity,” says Wilson. “That’s the heart, all of the members that were instrumental in the writing process of the two records.”
“I feel like I need this [reunion] as much as you do, or whomever is interested,” York says to me. She and Wilson are a tightly bonded pair; it was Wilson who sent her the very first Team Dresch recordings, sparking their lifelong friendship. They were roommates in Portland, and they’ve played music together in multiple groups. (“Kaia is my forever-partner. Seriously,” York says. “It’s a love story,” Wilson adds.) For York, who played in hardcore bands like Vitapup and Born Against prior to joining Team Dresch, playing with other queer women was a revelation; here was a place where she finally felt like she fit in. “It was very, very powerful,” she says—there’s that word—and it was something I needed as well. Just feeling that sense of belonging.”
“I feel like all the girls—I say girls because we were young—all the dykes, not just musicians but artists, people like Tammy Rae Carland, all the freaks and the artists and the creative people, we would find each other,” Wilson reflects. “It was such a different means to find one another, pre-Internet. It was like, ‘This person went on tour and then they met that person that was in Vitapup, Melissa, and you’ve gotta play with her because she’s the raddest drummer.’ And so that’s how—by giving people each other’s phone numbers. That’s how I booked tours back then, on the phone. You did shit through the mail. It’s very hard to explain this, but the way in which that felt special because of the extra [effort]—when you’re finding something that you have to really look for.”
Having been there and having written about this very phenomenon before, of what the underground felt like when you really had to dig for it, I can confirm. It felt like a secret language, a world of possibility and creativity bubbling beneath the surface of mainstream culture. And to circumscribe a queer circle within an already-small punk/indie rock world felt like pure magic, a sigil of safety and of love. “I think some part of [the closeness and challenges of the relationships within Team Dresch] has to do with the genesis of the band being the targets of violence back in the ’90s,” says Wilson. “[Homophobic violence] still is very prevalent of course, but it was even more intense back then. It felt like we were always having to protect and look out for one another. We were always trying to create that more safe-feeling queer space at our shows.”
In an interview with Punk Rock Academy, Jody Bleyle discusses the fact that after Team Dresch’s first show, the club owner attacked her, sideswiping her with his car, calling her a “lesbian bitch” repeatedly, and punching her in the face. This is the kind of violence Wilson is referring to, and it was part of the genesis of Free to Fight, a double compilation album with a booklet including self-defense instructions, which Bleyle released on her own label, Candy Ass. “I think Free to Fight would have happened anyway, but that [incident] added fuel to my fire,” Bleyle told Punk Rock Academy. “I was brainstorming one night. I was just saying, ‘I don’t want to just put out records and bands are going to go on tour. I want to do something else. Even if I only do one thing a year, I want it to be something that’s really important. I want to use this medium to disseminate information and fuck with the standard idea of going to a rock club and seeing a band. Rock clubs are public space. They’re one of the only public spaces there is and we need to use this base as a way to get information to people because not everybody’s going to show up at the Y to take a self-defense class or whatever, but there has to be a way we can get them a lot of information through records.’”
This grit and ferocity was a huge part of Team Dresch, but so was a sense of softness and vulnerability, the kind of opening up one can only do around people you trust who are coming from the same place you are. For every “Fagetarian and Dyke” and “D.A. Don’t Care”—poignant, uncompromising songs about homophobia and sexual violence—there was a “Hand Grenade” and “She’s Amazing,” devastatingly sweet songs about queer crushes and queer relationships. “[There] was not much representation, at the time, of women singing love songs for other women. We were not the first to do this; we were underground, too. We were not Ellen, or Melissa Etheridge,” says Wilson. “But I feel like what you’re saying, and the way that we brought love into our songs, had this vulnerability. Like you said, soft… Everyone can relate to it. [It was important to us] for queers to be able to hear themselves in the story. We grow up with fucked-up romanticizing about what it’s supposed to be like to be in a relationship, or what it’s supposed to be like to fall in love.”
I mention, feeling bold after my letter admission, that I used to put Team Dresch songs on mixtapes for girls I liked in lieu of actually telling them I liked them—and that I was far from the only person I knew who did this. “I love that, that’s so cool!” Wilson says. York chimes in: “It’s just so, so sweet. It’s very tender. Again, powerful. I did look for other words, and nothing’s as good as powerful, you guys… It’s just so sweet. Because I’d do that too [putting queer love songs on mixtapes for people she liked]. I didn’t put Team Dresch on the tape, because that’d be a little weird. Too ego. But that’s just so sweet. That’s a whole other level.”
“It’s like Team Dresch songs were a box of chocolates, or flowers,” Wilson enthuses. “We handed it over, and the intention was ‘I like you, I have feelings, I want to share them.’ And also just to test waters! ‘Cause you don’t know if people are gay. ‘I don’t know if she’s queer,’ and you’re so scared of freaking her out or being rejected. We did need it. We still do. We need all of the validation of how perfectly wonderful we are, in all of our queerness, all of the ways in which we are queer.”
This is not to say that queer community has always been an easy thing to foster for Wilson and York. It would feel dishonest not to address, in all this talk of support and care, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival issue. The Butchies played the festival, with its policy that specifically excluded trans women, in 1999, along with Le Tigre. There was significant pushback, which I was part of; that year, I flyered outside of their show, for trans rights, at the Black Cat in DC with friends, instead of going in to enjoy the music. It was a painful decision for me, but not a difficult one. (I had not come out as trans at that time, but I knew that something was off with my gender—I just hadn’t gotten quite there yet.)
“That whole process was really, really hard,” York says, her voice weighty. “Yeah. I mean, the band went to therapy, quite honestly. It was a very big experience for us,” adds Wilson. “That whole thing that I said in the beginning, talking about community, about how we all needed each other? We needed each other to provide,” York says to me. “It was a really hard moment, Michigan. Because I felt like, for me, I was fighting for everyone. We would go to places in the U.S. where it was like, ‘Is this safe for people like us,’ you know. To have such hatred from your own community was really, really hard. Both sides of that, honestly. Your experience, your feelings, gosh. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about it all. I wish that we could all come together, but maybe that’s happening now.”
Both York and Wilson work intentionally these days toward a queer community that fights for trans rights and racial justice, something also clearly also fumbled by white punk feminists in the ‘90s. This growth, which would not be possible without difficult intra-community discussions and work, without people advocating for their needs and differences, has helped Team Dresch’s audience not so much change as grow organically. “I really think so many of the same humans who were there for us in the ’90s still come to us. And then there are the generations of people who—we broke up before they got to see us live, and then there’s younger, younger people, like maybe in their 20s? And then there’s also the rad part—if we do an all-ages show, there’s the kids of the people who are our age who are at these shows too,” Wilson says.
“It feels like it continues to be the same kind of giving and generous people coming to our shows to watch our music and experience the connection that they do with us,” she continues. “For the live shows, everything’s so different than how it was then, but when we play, it connects more to that feeling of the mid-’90s when it felt so vibrant everywhere. We get to bring that back in that space together for that moment.”
“It’s harsh when you just need a place to belong and there’s people within that that are like, ‘You don’t.’ That’s harsh,” York says. “And really disruptive to living. Really. And I just want people to know the damage that can be done there… We may have different things that we’re fighting for, but the main thing is that it’s all of us [working together], and there can be a part of what I need in this community. What you need, Jes, and what Kaia needs—all of us.”