Followers of the Seattle-area punk rock explosion of the late 1980s and early 1990s know and trust the name Girl Trouble. For the past thirty years, this foursome has held on to the same lineup, and their sound hasn’t changed; gritty blasts of punk rock and garage rock that places itself nicely in the history of that area’s rock and roll lineage. One of the things that is notable about Girl Trouble is that twenty-five years ago, their debut album, Hit It Or Quit It!, was the first full-length album released by nascent punk label Sub Pop. It’s a great record of pure garage rock, and it served as a fitting launch for one of America’s most notable independent labels. K Records, who co-released the album at the time, reissued the record this December. We sat down with drummer Bon Henderson to talk about the history of the band, the making of that record, and their most famous song.
You guys just played a show celebrating Hit It Or Quit It!‘s twenty-fifth year. What was that like, to come upon such a historic milestone in punk rock–and especially considering you’re still the same line up, and still the same band from all those years ago?
It was really great. We described it more as a Northwest punk rock reunion than anything else. That’s because people really came out of the woodwork for that show. People who we’d started out with, gone to parties with, played shows with…many were there. We were thrilled to see the four guys who really made that record possible, other than the four Girl Trouble members, were there too. Calvin Johnson of K Records and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop, who originally released it were there, as were the two producers, Steve Fisk and Tim Olsen. My real regret is not getting a photo of the four of them. They’d never been all together in the same room before!
While we were playing and I was watching the crowd, I kept thinking about how little they’d all changed, really. We may be twenty-five years older, but the enthusiasm was still there, the love of getting together as a group and just hanging out was still as fresh as ever. When about twenty of them hopped up on stage to dance on the last song, I just thought that they probably wouldn’t have dreamed they’d be still be that crazy and fun. I think that’s really amazing.
What was the scene in Tacoma like back then, when you started? Obviously, geographically,you were located in between Seattle and the Sub Pop scene and the Olympia/Calvin Johnson/K Records scene. Is it overlooked–or was it nonexistent?
Tacoma was a tough place to start a band. There was only one punk rock gathering spot and that was 56th Street House in Tacoma. Girl Trouble guitarist Kahuna rented it with two friends, Jim May of Community World fame and Noxious Fumes guitarist, John Grant. It was the hub of anything cool going on in Tacoma. To dress different in Tacoma was very scary. The people here were not receptive to anything new and unusual. They’d go after anybody who looked like a punk rocker and try to beat the crap out of them. Tacoma people were really threatened by the punks. For some weird reason, it made them violent. It sounds kind of nuts now but back then you had to have some balls to wear a leather jacket, tight jeans and short hair.
So the kids here really made their own scene. They were very clannish because that’s probably what was going to save them from outsiders who didn’t like their fashion choice. I was older than all of these kids but they allowed me to tag along to shows mainly because I loved the music. We would go to the Showbox on a regular basis to see The Ramones, X, 999, Gang of Four, The Plasmatics, and so on. The Tacoma crowd really started bonding with the Olympia kids when the Tropicana club opened up. That was really when Girl Trouble started learning how to be on stage and put on shows. We loved playing the Tropicana and when we weren’t playing there, we were going there to see other bands. The Olympia crowd and the Tacoma crowd found they had a lot in common. I feel like the entire South Sound from Olympia to Tacoma started to meld together. There was a great scene happening. When the Butthole Surfers are playing at the Tropicana and hanging out with you at the after-show party, you feel like the action is coming to you.
We loved being in Tacoma because we were close enough to go to both Seattle and Olympia to see shows. That’s when we started meeting all the amazing people in Seattle, hanging out with our idols, The U-Men, and going to lots of parties and shows. It was a wild time.
The only time that things really happened in Tacoma was mostly due to Jim May. He always managed to bring bands to town to play at the 56th Street House, he organized the first punk rock show at the Tacoma Oddfellows Hall and later he went on to run Community World Theater, which was famous for hosting Nirvana’s early shows and lots of the other bands who went on to be successful. Later, when more people started going to live shows, more clubs developed here.It’s always been a roller coaster.Some years there are several clubs to play and other years there’s nothing.
How did Girl Trouble get together? What brought you folk together–and more importantly, what’s kept you together?
Girl Trouble guitar player Kahuna is my younger brother. I’m about eleven years older than he is. The day he was born was one of the first performances of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I was always into rock and roll bands, primarily Northwest bands and British Invasion groups. He grew up listening to those records. When he got older he introduced me to bands like The Ramones, The B-52s, Sex Pistols, The Cramps, and Gun Club. Kahuna and Dale Phillips, our bass player, went to school together and found they both loved the Ramones. They also started playing guitar and bass together a bit back then. I wanted to play drums (and nobody could ever afford a drum-set) so I bought a small kit at the Sears surplus store.
The three of us practiced together but it seemed like having a singer would be a good idea. KP Kendall and Kahuna had met at the Java Jive in the days when they’d allow underage patrons (as long as they didn’t drink). KP was one of the guys who’d go to all punk shows and parties. He’d take over and be the self-appointed emcee, which was hilarious. We thought he’d be a great frontman; he told us he couldn’t sing and we told him that was okay because we couldn’t play. We all learned together.
We are more like a family than a band. We hang out together, still go to shows together, KP, Dale and I work together. I know it’s weird but it’s always been like that. We still enjoy each other after all these years. Of course we’ve had some fights but it’s like fighting with your brothers and sisters. You might be mad for awhile but you know it’s not going to break up the family. This family isn’t going to break up.
Hit It Or Quit It! was the first full-length album released on a budding Sub Pop. How did that come about–was it something that Girl Trouble sought out, a business agreement between Calvin and Bruce and Jon that the band wasn’t involved with? How does it feel to have that distinction, that place in history?
People who weren’t there have a hard time understanding that anything that happened back then was just because you were friends with somebody. It was all about who you were friends with. We were friends with both Calvin and Bruce. We’d played lots of shows with Beat Happening so we knew Calvin and those guys well. Bruce was just one of those guys that everybody knew from the Evergreen College days. I first met Bruce at a party in Seattle because I liked his Sub Pop column in The Rocket and he liked the magazine I made for us called Wig Out! These guys weren’t anybody who were considered a big deal at the time. They were just starting out. They were just a couple of guys who wanted to put out a few records and they were friends of ours. We’d done two singles on K Records already. Calvin asked us and we said, “sure”. That’s all it took. He liked Girl Trouble and was more trying to help us out than anything.
When it came time for the album, Calvin thought that Bruce could promote it a different way from him. Bruce and Jonathan Poneman were good promoters and Calvin thought we could use a little of that extra push. We thought it would be cool to have both the help of both K and Sup Pop. But we always thought of it as our friends Calvin and Bruce more than what label it was. Now people ask me what process we went through to be “signed” to Sub Pop, like it was some huge achievement. Bruce asked us and we said it sounded good. That’s how things worked back then.
“My Hometown” is probably your biggest song–and it’s a loving tribute to Tacoma circa the early 1990s. What’s Tacoma like two decades later? Art Chantry, whenever he posts on Facebook about Tacoma, that song almost always gets posted (often thanks to yours truly–ed), and I recall he once said that song was the perfect snapshot; that for people from that era, it would instill a sense of place and memory for those in the scene for decades to come.
That was nice of Art! We went to junior high and high school together. He was in the class below me with Tim Olsen (my brother-in-law and the producer of most of the Girl Trouble records). We were in a paper airplane club together. That’s a story for another time but that’s nice of him to say that about “My Hometown.”
When I wrote “My Hometown,”I decided I’d better do it because I heard about a band from California who were thinking about it. I figured I’d better do one since we were actually born and raised here.
“My Hometown” reflects what I was talking about where it was dangerous to wear punk clothes. Tacoma was a tough, working-class town back then. People didn’t understand anything new–nor did they really want to–so you really had to be committed to be different. In the 90s Tacoma had a really dicey reputation nationally. News crews would come to Tacoma and file reports about the crime, gangs, etc. The first verse to “My Hometown” actually happened to Kahuna. He rode the Greyhound home and the driver announced that everyone should stay on the bus because there was “nothing for you here”. I thought it was a good way to start out the story.
We’d had a lot of experiences where people put us down because we were from Tacoma, so I wanted to say that, no matter what happened, no matter what others said, we were proud to be from this town.
Tacoma is changing. They try to call it “Grit City,” but from what I’ve experienced, the grit is gone. But it’s still a working class town. We aren’t fancy. We like it that way!