On Saturday night at the Wonder Ballroom, four women with a lot in common will be taking the stage. Foremost, they are all queer. Plus, as members of the seminal queercore group Team Dresch, Donna Dresch, Kaia Wilson, Jody Bleyle and Marci Martinez all spent the mid-'90s inspiring young freaks, geeks and queers to stand up for themselves and to respect loud, impassioned punk rock. They also have all been grappling with and healing from a band history that is rife with conflict. Now, after a decade absence (and a single reunion show two years ago), the original lineup is back. This is the Portland group's story thus far, straight from the mouths of those who lived it.
Donna Dresch, bassist
In the late '80s I went to see a psychic, and she said, "In five years I see you becoming involved in social services." And I was like, that sounds like the boringest thing in the world that could happen to me. But finally I just asked her, "Does it have anything to do with music at all?" and she was like, "Yes!" And five years later we started Team Dresch.
Kaia Wilson, singer-guitarist
When I was growing up in Jasper, Ore., I became friends with this guy, Travis, who was gay. He was into punk before I ever really knew what punk was, besides the Dead Milkmen and the Clash. He had issues of Homocore, the magazine Tom Jennings started in the mid-'80s out of San Francisco. In one of his issues, I saw an ad for [Donna's] zine called Chainsaw that said "Are you a freak? Dyke?" and everything she said I was like, "That's me!" It was exciting; [at the time] I was dramatically in love with some straight Christian girl from my high school....
She wrote me this long, five-page letter.
Donna sent me a letter back, and it was so short and perfect. It said something like, "If I wasn't born gay, I'd definitely choose to be," and it was awesome. It was one of the best things I have ever heard. We wrote a few letters back and forth, and then somewhere around then my band Adickdid came to Olympia [where Donna lived], and we met. I was 19 and living in Eugene. Soon after, we became closer friends and decided that we wanted to be in a band together.
Jody Bleyle, singer-guitarist
I was playing in Hazel with Brady [Smith], and he worked at the Smithfield Cafe in Olympia with Donna. Hazel was playing a show at Capitol Theater, and Brady told me I had to meet this friend of his because I had been saying I wanted to start an all-dyke band. So we met there, and I talked to Donna about playing music. I met Kaia when Adickdid was playing at the Pine Street [Theatre, in Portland]. I heard her sing and I thought, I could sing with her. So I went back and introduced myself, and she knew Hazel. A while later, Kaia came up to me after a Hazel show and said, "Donna and I are starting a band, and we want you to be the drummer." And I said yes, but I didn't want to play drums. I wanted to be able to stand up and play bass or guitar and sing. So then we started thinking about a drummer and that's how we got Scotty Plouf [of the Spinanes].
The first show we played was an all-girls show at the Curse [a house/venue in Portland]. Kathleen Hannah [of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre] lived there with Radio and Johanna from Le Tigre. No boys were allowed in the house, but Scotty was still our drummer at the time. They made him sit outside until it was time to play. He was allowed to come in when we played, but he had to leave immediately after.
Marci Martinez, drummer
I didn't know about the band until I was asked to jam with them. I was in a punk band with two of my friends and didn't really know about queercore at all. But I knew Jody from my Calamity Jane days, when Hazel used to open up for us. She'd ask me how I played my drum beats, and I remember being like, "You're kind of overwhelming to me, I don't know what to do." Then she told me that she was starting a band with her girlfriend [Donna] and they needed a drummer. I guess Scotty had played as a fill-in for a while and then Teddy [Miller of Crackerbash] filled in for a while. And Jody had played for a while, and she was like, "We just want to have an all-girl band that's queer and blah blah blah and, do you want to do it?" And I was just like, "Sure."
The first Team Dresch tour [spring 1994] was pretty cool because we booked a lot of it through people we met on the Internet, through AOL, when [Donna's label] Chainsaw and [Jody's label] Candy-Ass had their own message boards. This was in '94, so it was before really anybody was on the Internet.... We got to hook up with all these queer kids who we would have never met and set up shows at places that didn't usually have shows.
In August of '94 we went up to Seattle and recorded Personal Best in, I think, a week. It was really fast. Then we immediately went on tour in September and October.
I think it was just the right time for something to happen; people were excited right then. We also put subliminal messages in our music. [laughs] The press was really hyper about anything indie at the time. It was right after riot grrrl, so it was kinda like all this queercore talk. Right away, we had our picture in Rolling Stone.
There was a college show that we were playing on that tour when a bunch of young kids came up to us and were like, "That was great," and told us about how we changed their lives and made them feel more comfortable about themselves. But I think most of it happened when we came back and there were letters that people had written and clips from magazines, and I was like, "Oh, it's too bad that I quit."
Marci was in a really tough place. She was in another band that considered themselves punk but didn't consider us punk. They didn't respect us as much because they weren't into identity politics, they were more about class. It just got to the point where I told Marci, "You're a dyke. That doesn't mean you have to play with all dykes."
I was just young and scared and not really ready to take on the world the way they wanted to. I remember sitting down and having our last band conversation, and they were like, "Do you really want to do this, you know, this serious thing that we basically feel is social work?" And I just couldn't do it. I just wanted to party and hang out with my punk-rock friends.
We knew Melissa [York] because she was in the band Vitapup and was an amazing drummer. We invited her to play, and she came and spent a month with us while we wrote and recorded the Captain My Captain record [in 1996]. Then we went and played all around the East Coast and headed to Europe to tour with Bikini Kill.
Melissa and I left right after the European tour and put all our energy into the Butchies. Europe just did me in. There was a lot of angst, and we weren't really mature enough emotionally to handle what was going on. I fucking hated Donna! [laughs]
I was drinking a beer, and she was like, "Fuck you!" and she pulled a knife on me, and then I was like, "Nuh-uh!" [laughs] No, actually, that didn't happen. It just wasn't working. I mean, think about it: Nine people in a van for two months. It's too damn long.
[Donna and I] still wanted to play together, and Marci wanted to play again. So the three of us kept playing, along with Amanda Kelly a little bit, and Tamala Poljak played a few shows. To me, it still felt whole. In the next year or two, we played some amazing shows and recorded some great songs.... But eventually I think Donna and I needed to take a break from each other. We had dated and then we broke up [in 1995], but we stayed in the band. We never really got to take that break-for-a-few-years thing that you've got to do before you become friends again. Our last show was in San Francisco at the Bottom of the Hill, in 1998, I think.
Different people would gravitate toward each of us after the shows. I was always the one that was talking to the total rocker dudes that wanted to talk about gear. Those were the people that I always attracted. And then Jody, since she sings from such personal experience, she always gets the boys and girls that want to talk about their feelings. Kaia would get that too, but she would also get all the girls that wanted to hit on her.
There were definitely queercore bands that existed at the time, but we wanted to be really musical as well. We wanted to combine identity with music, as opposed to just being identity! I think that's what separated us from some of the other bands that existed at the time. We had a really strong political message, for sure, and everything we did was like, "We're lesbians! We're feminists! And we're gonna do a self-defense tour!" [see timeline, right]. We certainly weren't shy about it. But I don't know why, if it was the time or what, but I do definitely think it was the music—our music crossed dividers. But there were people who would come up and say, "Thank you for your band. I didn't kill myself because of your band." It was very intense.
That happened over and over again. It's not like I just got one letter that said that they didn't kill themselves thanks to us; I got dozens of letters like that.
Being broken up was so hard. Melissa and I had remained friends and started playing together in the Butchies. In 2000, I think, the Butchies and Jody's new band [Infinite Exes] were playing in Seattle on the same night and Donna was there, too. So we went and saw her show, and they came to see ours, and it was like Hugfest 2000!
A few years later, Ed Varga [founder and organizer of Olympia's Homo a Go Go festival] was like, "I love you, you guys are my favorite band; my ultimate dream would be if you guys played at my festival." So he definitely put it into motion. And that show [in August 2004] was amazing. I just couldn't believe how many people were there. There were like 800 people, and they were all singing along to every single word.
At this point we are sort of taking it one step at a time, baby steps, and we're just gonna see how this feels and if it feels right, I think it's real possible for us to officially be a band again.
Fall 1993 Ð Donna Dresch, Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson form a band with drummer Scott Plouf, playing their first show at the Curse. For the next several months the band rotates through a number of names, including Magic Animal, Dyke Access Road and "Jody, Donna, Kaia and, okay, Scott, too."
Jan. 1, 1994 Ð The band plays its first public show at Portland's La Luna, opening for Lois and the Spinanes.
Early 1994 Ð The band adopts the name Team Dresch and releases its first 7-inch, "Hand Grenade," on Kill Rock Stars.
Summer 1994 Ð Marci Martinez (formerly of Calamity Jane) joins Team Dresch as drummer (the band's fourth).
Fall 1994 Ð Team Dresch embarks on the Self Defense Tour, which includes demonstrations of self-defense techniques by instructor (and roadie) Alice Stagg at every show.
Late 1994 Ð Marci Martinez leaves the band after recording Personal Best and finishing a single tour with the band. Teddy Miller, formerly of Crackerbash, fills in.
Jan. 23, 1995 Ð Team Dresch's debut LP, Personal Best, is co-released on Bleyle's Candy-Ass Records and Dresch's Chainsaw Records.
Late 1995 Ð Melissa York becomes Team Dresch's drummer, playing on the band's sophomore album, Captain My Captain.
March 12, 1996 Ð Team Dresch opens for Bikini Kill in Cologne, Germany, kicking off an eight-week European tour.
May 1996 Ð The European tour ends and soon after Wilson and York leave the band to form the Butchies.
June 18, 1996 Ð Captain My Captain is officially released.
1998 Ð After almost two years of playing with the lineup of Amanda Kelly, Marci Martinez, Donna Dresch and Jody Bleyle, Team Dresch calls it quits.
Aug. 7, 2004 Ð A reunited Team Dresch, including Kaia Wilson, Donna Dresch, Jody Bleyle, Marci Martinez and Melissa York, plays in the 2 am slot at the Homo a Go Go festival in Olympia.
We played our first big show at La Luna with the Spinanes on New Years in '94. That was the show me and Jody got beat up at!
But that man wasn't at the show. It was just some fucked up situation because he wanted to park in a certain place. It had to do with him saying "You need to move your car," and then he said "you are a fucking dyke" and [Jody] was like, "Yes I am a fucking dyke" and then it just escalated from there. But we had so much support after that happened, I felt like people were ready to help us. These groups of women came together and formed Free to Fight. So that was really good when that happened.
I just thought, wouldn't it be amazing if we could all come together and create a project that made explicit the bond between physical self-defense and all the different things we do to express ourselves, raise our self esteem and build community.
[Free to Fight] is this compilation that comes with this self defense booklet. Lots of good Portland and Northwest bands, and East Coast too were on it. And in between each song there would be self-defense instruction, and there was a booklet you could read. It worked out really well. And all the songs are so good. [Free to Fight] didn't start from us getting beat up at all, but it really brought us to a level of, "we are not necessarily safe." We need to watch each other's backs and prepare for the worst. I guess I feel it made us a more close knit unit. This girl Alice, she was a self-defense instructor and she also just wanted to go on tour and be our roadie as well. So it worked out to where she and members of the band would do demonstrations.
She would make us do this acting, pretending to be thugs trying to attack each other. Sometimes she could get really mean and accidentally hurt me and I'd cry [laughs].
They did was these 15 to 20 minute demonstrations during our shows of "Here's what self defense is, and here's how you can do it."
Team Dresch plays with Swan Island and Libber on Saturday, May 27, at the Wonder Ballroom. 9 pm. $8. All ages. For an extended conversation with Team Dresch, visit wweek.com.