‘Starting a Riot’ episode 2: Well I Went To School In Olympia

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
June 15, 2023 1 p.m.
These fliers promoting shows and DIY records were created in the early 1990s when riot grrrl started in Olympia, Washington. They are part of James Maeda's collection.

These fliers promoting shows and DIY records were created in the early 1990s when riot grrrl started in Olympia, Washington. They are part of James Maeda's collection.

Sage Van Wing / OPB


Come with us to Olympia, Washington. This little town perched on the Puget Sound is known as the birthplace of riot grrrl. We’ll hear about what it was like in the ‘90s, what it meant for the movement to start there and how the town’s history affected riot grrrl.

Voices in this episode: Musicians Amber Claxton, Corin Tucker, Allison Wolfe and Katherine Paul, visual artist Nikki McClure, former K Records co-owner Candice Pedersen, KAOS DJ Roxy Boggio, Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon, “Blacks in Thurston County” author Dr. Thelma Jackson and Charlene Krise, executive director of the Squaxin Island Museum Library and Research Center

Our theme music is by Ray Aggs.

Special thanks to James Maeda, JT Griffith, Polaris Hall, Nathan Fasold and Black Book Guitars


GPS: Turn left onto Pear Street Northeast, then your destination will be on the right here.

Sage Van Wing: Pear Street Northeast it is. okay.

Julie Sabatier: It’s just like a house, right?

GPS: Your destination is on the right.

Van Wing: Right here, says the lady.

Fabi Reyna: Music history is not hard to find in Olympia, Washington.

Amber Claxton: This is where I practice. My guitarist, Maddie, she lives there. This is Kurt Cobain’s old apartment when he lived in Olympia.

Reyna: Amber Claxton plays in a band called Heat Shimmer and she’s lived in Olympia for about 7 years.

Claxton: I was really inspired by how many amazing bands could come out of such a small city I guess. And just also the people who are in the bands, the quality of the music and the frequency with how many shows were able to pump out of this tiny town.

Reyna: Olympia is known as the birthplace of riot grrrl. The three foundational bands – Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens To Betsy – all started here. But despite being the state capital, this city is small. It barely meets the definition of a city, with just over 50,000 people. Olympia is nestled on a coastal inlet in the Puget Sound, about halfway between Seattle and Portland. And, like Amber Claxton, a lot of people are drawn here by the music scene. It’s where I played my first basement show. But why is this tiny little place an incubator for so much great music? And what does it mean for riot grrrl that the movement started here?

I’m Fabi Reyna, founder of She Shreds Media and this is Starting A Riot.

As you might have guessed, we’re spending this episode in Olympia, Washington. It rains a lot here.

Claxton: You either hate it or you love it but either way it’s gonna knock something out of you because it’s just miserable in a way, but really beautiful. And the mood of it all – honestly, there’s nothing better than sitting on a quilt on a rainy day writing a song. It’s really nice. So yeah, I love that.

Reyna: The Olympia Brewing Company has been making beer since 1902 and the company’s slogan is simply “It’s the water.” That kind of captures the city’s understated sense of pride. It’s been a gathering place for centuries. Two of the largest employers in town are the state government and the Evergreen State College. Olympia punk is very different from New York punk. Sustainable farming and environmental activism are very much a part of the scene here. It’s predictable and safe in its small town charm, but that can be limiting, too. Producers Julie Sabatier and Sage Van Wing took a trip up to Olympia recently. And Amber Claxton agreed to show them around.

Claxton: When I first moved here, we talked a lot about how there was like a house show, like any day of the week. There were all these different houses. You’d always hear like a new name from a new house and you’re like, where’s that? I’ve never heard of that before.

Reyna: This underground network of punk houses that runs up and down the Pacific Northwest have been incubators for establishing subcultures. Ten years ago, when I was playing in Olympia, there were more punk houses than there were music venues. We would get to the house, set up in the basement and wait for the room to fill up with people to start playing. No set times, no curfew, just wait, play and see what happens. The place that I played most often was called Grandma’s House. According to Amber, there’s still a ton of these punk houses all over town.

Claxton: ABC House or Mantis House or we’re going to Track House as well. It’s like one of the oldest show houses in Olympia that I can think of. Let’s see … Squirrel House. I played a show at Squirrel House this summer.

Reyna: Heat Shimmer played their first show at Red House. (It’s not really red. It’s sort of tan.) That was back in January of 2016.

Claxton: I remember that night pretty well. I was nervous but excited. I was excited to be playing here. People would just be spilling out into the yard here.

Reyna: She says Red House doesn’t host many shows anymore, but there is some lore around that house.

Claxton: When we first played there, I was told that Bikini Kill played here.

Reyna: Who knows if Bikini Kill really played at the Red House? Even if they didn’t, they’re just as likely to have played the punk house next door. Olympia feels like a pretty small town that way.

On a clear day, you can get a great view of Mount Rainier, which some people here just call “the mountain.” And you don’t have to go far to feel like you’re in the wilderness. There are large, towering fir trees all around. And of course there’s the water…

Nikki McClure: I love the smell of low tide. I love hearing the gulls squawk at high tide because they have nothing better to do so they just fly around and squawk because they can’t get clams.

Reyna: Visual artist Nikki McClure came here in 1986 for both the music and the college. She’s lived here ever since.

McClure: I love the smallness of it, though it’s getting bigger, that you walk down the street and you run into people that you know …This is a noisy street, okay, And there went Lucy Gentry. She’s an artist in town. Let’s see who else we know. There’s someone else who knew me. She smiled. Don’t know that guy.

Reyna: McClure grew up in Seattle listening to bands from Olympia. She says she just knew the shows would be better here…And they were. She remembers seeing riot grrrl bands play at a venue in downtown Olympia called the North Shore Surf Club. She met up with producers Sage and Julie in the alley around the back side of the building. It was a clear day and there were puddles all around the alleyway from a recent rainstorm. McClure is the kind of person who notices small details. The entrance to the North Shore Surf Club was in the back through this alleyway, and she says that gave the place a certain feel.

McClure: To me, it just had a different level of intimacy that other places didn’t have. (And there’s a beautiful flock of geese flying overhead right now.) The stage was really low.

Reyna: McClure remembers people cramming into the space and dancing close to the stage. She says, in a lot of ways, it felt more like a house show than a concert venue. It didn’t have a green room or backstage.

McClure: The band would just basically sort of emerge from the audience themselves and just kind of go around these corners of the stacks of speakers and then start to play.

Reyna: She went to house shows too, of course. And she dabbled in songwriting.

McClure: I would make up a song and then run down to the show just down at the other end of the alley from my house, there was a house show place called the Lucky Seven and I would go and ask the band, like I remember asking Bikini Kill, “Could I play this song before you guys play?” And they’re like, “sure!” So I’d play the song that I wrote like literally 15 minutes before.

Reyna: She also has a story about that duplex on Pear Street – the one we visited earlier with Amber Claxton, where Kurt Cobain used to live. In the early 90s, McClure had a job doing bird studies in the woods. She lived in unit #2.

McClure: Kurt had been kicked out by the landlord in the back and so he would stay at my apartment, I let him stay at my place, while I would work because I work 4 or 5 days and then come home on the weekends and then he would be playing shows on the weekends. So yeah, we hot bunked.

Reyna: It was that apartment on Pear Street where Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna wrote “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on the wall. A couple of years later, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became Nirvana’s biggest hit. For a while, though, they were just another band playing shows around town.

Corin Tucker: They played all over Olympia.

Reyna: That’s Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney. She moved to Olympia in the early 90s in part because of the music scene. But also for the Evergreen State College. She remembers seeing Nirvana play on campus.

Tucker: They played in the college dorms, they played in the CAB, the communications building. They played in my friend’s basement. It was incredible. They were such a tight band, they were so great and that kind of dark melody that they did, I thought was just great.

Reyna: Success in Olympia looks different than it does in a lot of other places.

Tucker: I think the punk ideology was really strong in terms of – we want to do music differently, we want it to be on an independent label. That was really a strong ideology of those bands.

Reyna: While Nirvana’s second album went platinum and the band toured all over the world, the riot grrrls kept a strong connection to the Pacific Northwest. Many of them grew up here. Others came for The Evergreen State College. (Most people here just call it Evergreen.)

Candice Pedersen: It’s both LIBERAL, all caps and ARTS all caps kind of college, Like it just didn’t fool around.

Reyna: Evergreen students can design their own course of study, and professors give narrative feedback rather than grades. It’s a public college. So, even the out-of-state tuition is a fraction of the cost of a private liberal arts school. Candice Pedersen grew up in Olympia and she says Evergreen is the only college she ever wanted to go to.

Pedersen: You don’t take tests, you have to learn to communicate well and argue your point or at least defend your point. And so, it attracts, I think, a certain kind and maintains a certain kind of person who actually wants to have something to say and to say it well.

Reyna: While she was a student at Evergreen, Pedersen interned at K Records. It’s an indie label that started in Olympia in the early 80s. And actually, it was one of my favorite labels growing up. She went on to become co-owner of that label.

Evergreen is about 10 minutes from downtown Olympia, but it feels farther.

GPS: Continue on Driftwood Road Northwest for one mile.

Sabatier: Good God! I keep thinking we’re here and we’re not.

Van Wing: No, we’re not here. I mean, I think we’re on campus. Not that I can see any buildings. All I can see are trees.

Reyna: Producers Julie and Sage eventually found some buildings among the trees.

Van Wing: let’s go find KAOS.


Sabatier: (laughs) let’s go find KAOS. In search of KAOS! oh there it is - look! There’s a dog. Should we just go in? Hi, hello. Hi. Hi, dog.

Reyna: The college radio station is K-A-O-S, or KAOS (chaos). It’s a station with very few rules. Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail grew up in Olympia, and at 16, she had her own show on KAOS. Later on, the station offered a group of riot grrrls a prominent time slot for a radio show. The show was a mix of music and political discussion. The day Julie and Sage visited, the door to the on-air studio was open for anyone to just walk right in. KAOS does have one long standing policy, though – that 80% of the music its DJs play has to be from independent record labels. Roxy Boggio was in the booth the day our producers visited.

Roxy Boggio: I am a DJ on KAOS. My show is called “Divine Unheard.” It’s all women and LGBTQ artists. My show focuses on songs about empowerment which I think is a lot of what Olympia is about, and KAOS is a really important piece of the Olympian music history as is so many other things.

Reyna: The town’s independent labels, like K Records, were happy to supply KAOS with plenty of homegrown talent. K worked with artists outside of Olympia too, of course. But Candice Pedersen says they didn’t really see much of the bands they loved from other cities. In the early 90s, touring bands didn’t really stop in Olympia. That was the inspiration for the International Pop Underground Convention.

Pedersen: We were trying to have a music festival for us and our friends and have a fun time. That was the objective.

Reyna: It was an ambitious, 6-day music festival organized by Candice Pedersen and Calvin Johnson of K Records in 1991. And it marked a moment when all the creativity in the Olympia music scene coalesced, and the rest of the world started to take notice.

Slim Moon: It was kind of a festival, but they’ve always called it a convention. Well, they invited a bunch of bands from all over the world to play in Olympia Washington, in this small, little town. And then they invited people from all over the world to come see the shows and people in Olympia didn’t really think it was gonna happen.

Reyna: K Records was an established indie label by this time. And that same year, a young Evergreen dropout known as Slim Moon was inspired to start his own label.

Moon: In Olympia, there was a lot of social pressure to not just be a consumer, to not just be a taker. People were like, “Start a zine, put on shows, get involved in political activism, do something!”

Reyna: Moon thought it would be a great idea to put together a compilation of songs by Olympia bands to sell at the International Pop Underground Convention. This idea struck him about a month before the event. And, with help from folks at K Records, he managed to make it happen. Bratmobile and Bikini Kill were both on the compilation. And a few bands from Seattle too…

Moon: And so we happened to put out the last Nirvana track before [the album] “Nevermind” came out. And that helped the sales of the compilation for sure.

Reyna: Also on that compilation was a song called “My Red Self” by Heavens to Betsy. The band was a two-piece: Corin Tucker and her best friend from high school, Tracy Sawyer. Corin played a little bit of the song when we sat down to talk about that time in her life. She told me she was inspired to start her own band after seeing other women on stage in Olympia.

Tucker: I saw Bratmobile and Bikini Kill play a show and I just knew that night that’s what I wanted to do. I was like, “I’m gonna do that” and I started telling people, “I have a band too.” (laughs)

Reyna: That was in 1991, not long before the Convention. The festival kicked off with “Girl Night,” featuring riot grrrl bands and other women who wanted to get on stage. Candice Pedersen of K Records remembers being in the audience that night.

Pedersen: They were just so happy and so free and some were so angry, but like the freedom to be angry or emotional as an artist, that’s pretty rare. And so I just think it was pretty astounding.

Reyna: What’s wild is that Girl Night was actually Heavens to Betsy’s first show. Here were all these bands that had come to play at the convention and a lot of them were people that Corin looked up to.

Tucker: And so for us to be like, “yeah, we’re a band,” and then to get that show in front of Beat Happening, Fugazi and all these people that I admired to play that, yeah, it was like actually making it a reality.

Reyna: Girl Night was a significant acknowledgement that Olympia was really embracing riot grrrl and music made by women. Thirty years later, the idea of “Girl Night” might not seem so radical. But at the time, it really, really was. Now I find myself sharing the stage with majority femmes and nonbinary musicians, but it’s not our gender that’s being marketed, it’s our musicianship and the chance to be in community. There is something really special about playing in a room full of women. You know you’re going to be listened to and protected. And that should be the norm at every show. “Girl Night” laid the groundwork for these spaces to exist in a type of normalcy today. Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile remembers being moved to tears watching her friends on stage.

Allison Wolfe: Oh, Girl Night was so special. It was really amazing having Girl Night be the first night was really important I think. It kind of set the tone for the whole festival. I think the rules were supposed to be supposed to be all women on stage and or mostly, and that if you needed to create a project band to do it for that night then do it. So it gave an opportunity for a lot of people who weren’t really an established bands yet, or who were just doing projects or people who created projects just for that night.

Reyna: Nikki McClure performed that night under the name “Girl Science.”

McClure: Girl night was very important. That was my first time singing in front of anyone and it was a sold-out Capitol Theater crowd and so you know, walking out on stage and singing my bear songs and to a lot of people was an act of sheer craziness, but also bravery and it was incredible.

Reyna: McClure’s “bear songs” were literally songs she made up to sing in the woods to ward off bears. This was when she worked a job doing bird studies in remote areas. And those weird, little songs seemed to fit right in in Olympia.

McClure: It’s not a competitive city, it’s a supportive city and especially back then it was very supportive and celebratory of people, just for trying, just for being up there.

Reyna: Coming up after a break, we get into some Olympia history and find out more about the ways this place shaped riot grrrl.

Reyna: In many ways, Olympia feels like a very accepting place.

Amber Claxton: I’ve felt nothing but encouraged and like supported by the community

Reyna: It’s also a fairly homogenous place. The members of Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and Heavens To Betsy are all white. So were the guys in Nirvana and a lot of the other bands that came out of this town in the 90s. And not much has changed. Musician Amber Claxton is white, and she’s noticed that a lot of the people she sees on stage, and in the audience, look like her.

Claxton: I don’t want to just completely erase the people of color who are in the music scene here by saying like “it’s really white here” because it is really small. But I mean Olympia is a pretty white town and I think yeah the music scene is somewhat reflective of that.

Reyna: Everyone we’ve heard from so far in this episode is white (except me). According to recent Census figures, Olympia is 80% white. We wanted to understand some of the historical forces behind that statistic. So we asked Dr. Thelma Jackson about it. She’s lived in the area for 52 years. She and her husband are Black. They settled in Lacey, Washington, about 5 miles east of Olympia.

Thelma Jackson: When we first came to this area and we were looking for somewhere to live, realtors just resisted showing you any properties of any kind in Olympia.

Reyna: Jackson was originally recruited as a research scientist for the Hanford Nuclear Site but ended up devoting much of her career to education advocacy work. She recently published a book about Black people in Thurston County. That’s the county that is home to both Olympia and Lacey.

Jackson: A lot of the information we gathered from those oral interviews of people who came here from the 50s to 1975, where the greatest negative experience was that of lack of open housing. The housing discrimination, very difficult to find a place to live, place to rent, place to buy, found a number of Blacks who for years, although they worked for state government, they commuted back and forth from Tacoma or Lakewood because they couldn’t find anywhere in Olympia to live.

Reyna: Many properties in Olympia had rules called covenants attached to them…

Jackson: …which said, “You shall not sell or rent your property to a Black person and they are not to be on your property unless they are working in serving capacities.” I mean that kind of language actually exists on some certain properties.

Reyna: Those covenants are illegal now, of course. But their effect is still apparent. Olympia is still very white, even compared to nearby Lacey.

Jackson: And it’s been an area very slow to catch up and to authentically embrace the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Everyone talks about it, but the more they talk, the more things remain the same.

Reyna: Given this history, it’s not surprising that the riot grrrl bands that formed in Olympia were overwhelmingly made up of white women. Corin Tucker from Heavens to Betsy explains it this way:

Tucker: I think there was some like myopic tendency to think about like, okay, well it’s just about how many women can we get on stage, without really thinking about, how can we make this more diverse in terms of people of color as well?

Reyna: Despite this myopic tendency, people of color did find connections to riot grrrl. And a lot of those people started bands of their own.

I found K records and Kill Rock Stars during a big crossroads in my life. Like I mention in episode one, I was in high school, thinking I’d spend the rest of my life dedicated to playing classical guitar. Then I went to the Girls Rock Camp in 2007. I listened to a Heavens to Betsy record and remember thinking “I want to unlearn everything and be in a punk band.” Not only was I obsessed with the music, and the feeling, but also the community. This is when I met one of my best friends, Katherine Paul, also known as KP.

Katherine Paul: My name is Katherine Paul. I also go by KP. And I’m from the band Black Belt Eagle Scout. I am Black Belt Eagle Scout. I come from the Swinomish Indian tribal community in Coast Salish territory, Northwest Washington.

Reyna: To be honest, KP and I were two of the very few brown teens at camp. Looking back, I realize this is one of the reasons we felt so connected with riot grrrl. We didn’t necessarily feel like we belonged in a lot of spaces, but there was something about Rock Camp and riot grrrl that spoke to us as outsiders. It gave us a new sense of community and the idea that we could build our own.

Paul: It was very meaningful to me to have riot grrrl and be able to express who I am as a woman, as a queer person, even as an Indigenous person and yes, I didn’t see myself within riot grrrl, but it’s given me a lot of strength and a lot of confidence I guess in being able to be who I am.

Reyna: I asked her how she thinks about riot grrrl’s connection to Olympia and the Pacific Northwest.

Paul: I don’t know. I don’t know if the land influenced their sound. And I know the land influences my sound. But that’s because I am the land. I come from the land. The land is in me and it’s specific to me being from this area. My blood runs through this land. This land has my ancestors buried in it.

Reyna: It’s impossible to talk about the sense of place in the Puget Sound area without talking about the people who are Indigenous to this land. KP is a member of the Swinomish Tribe and part of a larger group of Indigenous people known as Coast Salish. Olympia is on land belonging to the Steh-Chass band of the Squaxin Island Tribe, who are also Coast Salish.

Charlene Krise: The descendants of the Steh-Chass, we are still here.

Reyna: Charlene Krise is the executive director of the Squaxin Island Museum Library and Research Center.

Krise: Our people have resided in this area thousands of years. And we are still here. Our people have stories that link their families back to the time of the early settlers and how we were the ones that helped take care of the early pioneers because they did not know about the different plant species – which ones were edible and which ones you did not eat. We shared with them our teas, because up here in Washington State it gets cold and a tea, a cup of tea is so soothing.

Reyna: In many ways, riot grrrl didn’t seem to acknowledge Indigenous people or a relationship to the land. But KP still sees opportunities for connection.

Paul: I think about this word, it’s called “yahow” and it’s “to proceed” and it’s in the Lushootseed language, which is my language, and I think about just the future of music in this area and how like “yahow” we move forward and it’s together, we move forward together, it’s coming together and creating things like we’re doing right now, Fabi, and that like we’re doing right now to help encourage and invite more people into uplift and to continue to change. What I’m trying to get at is I feel like yes, like riot grrrl, it didn’t include Indigenous people, but I think that probably there is good intention there of trying, of knowing that you can’t always like make everybody happy but you know that in the future those those sorts of things will will happen. And so it’s just the aspect of continuum, the aspect of not giving up, of moving forward and opening up more space.

Reyna: Since the days of Rock Camp, Katherine and I have been there for one another. We’ve helped each other navigate the music industry and grow as musicians and professionals. We’ve gotten to perform on stages all over the world, including playing guitar with one of our favorite bands that came out of Olympia — Sleater-Kinney. There’s something really full-circle about that. It’s inspiring to see ourselves literally embody—and expand on— some of the goals that riot grrrl set out to realize, like having earlier access to community and resources, creating discourse that transcends differences, and sharing the stage in hopes of inspiring the next generation of weirdos. That feels like progress.

Reyna: Even though she loves Olympia, Amber Claxton says she thinks about leaving. A lot of businesses closed and people left during the pandemic. And at the same time, this small city has become less affordable. When she first moved to town seven years ago, she says it was possible to rent a room in a house for $300.

Claxton: I see rooms now go for like $1000 sometimes which I would never pay $1000 to live in a bedroom right?

Reyna: This place that once felt so vibrant, supporting a scene where everyone was involved - and bands weren’t separate from the audience, is more transitory now. It’s expensive. People still come for the college and the music scene, but has something been lost? Is something like riot grrrl possible today?

Nikki McClure: There’s so many stories and so many paths to get here that just like seeing all these kids, they’re coming from all over and what are they gonna bring? who’s going to stay? That’s always been my thing, it’s like, who’s going to stay and be a part of this place?

Reyna: Whoever decides to stay in Olympia will be part of what’s next in this town. And what’s next won’t be a new version of riot grrrl. It might be inspired by it, but it’ll be its own thing.

Whatever happens, it seems like zines are here to stay. Before the internet, these DIY publications served as an underground communication network for riot grrrl and other subcultures. Zines are still thriving in Olympia, and elsewhere, as a useful tool for cultural and political organizing.

Sara Marcus: The very first thing to be called “riot grrrl” was a zine.

Reyna: In the next episode, we’ll talk about how zines formed the foundation of riot grrrl. This DIY source allowed people to speak directly to each other, rather than being filtered through traditional media. And punks of color used zines to create a historical record and advance conversations about race and racism.

Mimi Thi Nguyen: I still hear from people who tell me that they have a beat up copy of Race Riot that they got from their older brother’s girlfriend’s stash of zines that we’re in the attic or something. I mean, I just hear about it’s still circulating and still functioning as a kind of touchstone for people and that is really humbling for me.

Reyna: Like punk, zine culture is still thriving. Tune in for more on the next episode of Starting a Riot.


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