There is a common belief about Olympia, the 24th-largest city in Washington and capital of the state, that the outsize cultural weight of the town sprang from Evergreen, a small liberal-arts college founded at the end of 1967’s Summer of Love. Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Lynda Barry both launched their cartooning careers there. Campus radio KAOS was the first station to give priority to independent record labels. Bruce Pavitt, cofounder of Sub Pop, first made a name for himself on campus. The talents incubated at Evergreen, so the lore goes, seeped into the greater community and, from there, burbled on out into the world.

I used to believe this about Olympia.Then I went there. In the 1990s, there was something thrillingly off about the place. Many of its hangouts looked like stage sets: the old-man bars like the China Clipper, or the Reef, with its 6 a.m. happy hour; the punk houses named like tree forts; the pet parade; the weird gazebo in Sylvester Park, a teen hangout (when they weren’t sliding down hills on blocks of ice like it was 1910). There always seemed to be random piles of lumber everywhere, and an endless procession of hippies and drifters and weirdos and dockworkers and fighty rednecks. The quaintness clearly harbored something darker. This was the place that seemed to shape the humans who passed through it, not the mere college campus.

Slim Moon arrived in Olympia on the first day of 1986, having moved from the larger metropolis of Missoula, Montana, and finding what he called “the old weird America, with the stink of death.” His college experience at Evergreen was brief (the school booted him for depression after the first year), and he worked for years with the Washington State Human Rights Commission. In the late 1980s, Olympia’s underground scene could be summed up in one letter: K. Founded by Calvin Johnson in 1982, K Records had been an outlier in expanding the parameters of what could be considered punk. Slim met Calvin the way people do in underground music scenes, just by showing up.

When Slim decided to release a record in 1991, a spoken-word split EP between himself and his friend Kathleen, it was Calvin who showed him the ropes. Thus was born Kill Rock Stars—named after one of Slim’s paintings—as a record label devoted solely to spoken-word releases. That same year, Calvin was planning the International Pop Underground Convention, the IPU, an unprecedented six-day festival of indie and punk bands, which seemed like a good opportunity to sell this first spoken-word 7-inch.

Thirty days before the IPU, Slim saw Unwound for the first time and got excited about putting out an Olympia compilation, which meant changing his mission statement to include rock records. He made his intentions clear to the band’s guitarist “in a big excited huff,” went home, did the math, and realized he couldn’t get the record out in time. Meanwhile, Calvin called Slim the next morning, already knowing of the conversation—everyone knowing everyone else in a small town—and sold him on a plan to release a compilation album in the span of one month. “I’ve got a Melvins song,” Calvin explained. “I’ve got a Jad Fair song, I can get a Nation of Ulysses song. We can put it together, and what you can do is silk-screen the covers.” Slim had his own roster of mismatched locals: his next-door neighbor’s rock band, Slim’s own 10-year art project Witchy Poo, something by the up-and-coming Bratmobile, and a track by his pal Kathleen’s new band, Bikini Kill.

The International Pop Underground Convention exploded that August. Although the events featured prominent non-Olympian bands like Fugazi and L7, the festival cemented Olympia’s cachet. Somehow, magically, Slim produced the compilation in 30 days. His next-door neighbor, it turned out, was Kurt Cobain, which means the compilation featured a Nirvana song (the band itself, in Europe, made clear they’d rather have been playing the IPU). A month later, Nirvana’s second LP, Nevermind, came out on Geffen. By Thanksgiving, the record was certified platinum. In January, Nirvana dethroned Michael Jackson for Billboard’s top spot. Slim’s hastily crafted compilation record sold more than 20,000 copies without a formal distributor, financing the first wave of Kill Rock Stars releases for years.

Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein
Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein conjures the power of Grayskull for a Y2K crowd. Photo via Getty

KRS outgrew K’s distribution capacity almost immediately. In a stroke of magical timing, Karin Gembus, guitarist of East Bay hardcore band Spitboy, persuaded Ruth Schwartz, head of the esteemed Mordam Records distribution empire, to forgo their rule about not working with “baby labels.” Throughout the 1990s the label had a rock-steady income to match its rock-steady royalty payments.

The label also outgrew Olympia. From 1991 to 1995, Slim “just put out bands that were either from Olympia,” he recalls, “or that Tobi [Vail, Bikini Kill drummer and longtime label employee] in particular, and all my Olympia friends in general, unanimously thought were a good idea.” This led to a beautifully eclectic roster from the outset. Besides locals Unwound and Bikini Kill (whom Slim actively courted for their first LP), the label worked with the unclassifiable godheadSilo from North Dakota (although they quickly became locals), Huggy Bear from the U.K., and Universal Order of Armageddon from Maryland.

This consensus produced some stunningly strange and beautiful releases: the No Wave-ish Emily’s Sassy Lime 7-inch; the intricate Firesign Theater insanity of Miranda July’s two spoken-word albums. This body of work in turn attracted a vast array of disparate, already established talent: Kathy Acker, Jim Carroll, Kleenex/LiLiPUT. In 1999, Ronnie Spector told Salon, “Kill Rock Stars allowed me to put out a real genuine rock ’n’ roll record.” In 1995, Slim went against the consensus and signed Elliott Smith, who went on to play the Oscars and sell many, many records.

History has depoliticized Kill Rock Stars

Mail order was a huge part of the label’s first decade, not merely a department or outsourced service as it is now. Bands sending demo tapes (or, later, CD-Rs) didn’t stand much of a chance of getting signed, but pen pals could go on to become artists on the label, which is how it worked with the Gossip, and Gravy Train!!!!, and XBXRX (although demos got fair hearings; Jessica Espeleta, hired at 16 to do mail order, told me of a tape by a band called Steve Guttenberg and the Fucking Freaks that became the soundtrack for a summer). KRS was a prosperous node of a larger network, one powered by copiers and pens and stamps. Back then the flow of “swag” was reversed. It was the fans who sent the label their flyers and fanzines and stickers and three-page letters on homemade stationery.

History has depoliticized Kill Rock Stars. In the 1990s, a label with a female staff and many loudly feminist and queer bands offered something dramatically, diametrically different from the grunge explosion in whose overhyped, swaggering man-child shadow they had to operate. KRS seemed to work outside the realms of all of popular culture. This was the decade when the Spice Girls joyously trumpeted Girl Power without getting around to attacking or even acknowledging systemic sexism. Riot grrrl, the third-wave feminist movement, was closely associated with the label, and their linked assault on falsity seemed to run on some of the same engines that had driven hardcore punk a decade earlier. Pushback was sustained, and came from many directions.

Kill Rock Stars, Bikini Kill, and riot grrrl each added to the secret gravity of a town a quarter the size of Boise.In 1997, L.A. punk group NOFX conflated all three with their song “Kill Rock Stars,” which goes after Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. In the track, frontman “Fat Mike” Burkett actually makes a Gloria Steinem crack, as if he’s doing a super-shitty Hollywood Squares bit about “women’s libbers” from 1975. “You can’t change the world by hating men,” he whines, mewls, like a zitty teen incel.

Still fuck that guy,” Slim tells me.

Bikini Kill in 1993, humoring Gene Simmons (a.k.a. Mr. “With-It”).
Bikini Kill in 1993, humoring Gene Simmons (a.k.a. Mr. “With-It”). Photo via Getty

The label spawned an interesting offshoot. In 1997, KRS launched 5RC (for 5 Rue Christine, a Gertrude Stein reference), a side label meant exclusively for the kind of edgy noisy music that had been ignored even by label-friendly press. At the time, Slim told me he’d started this new label as an investment in future coolness. Kill Rock Stars, he explained, “wouldn’t be cool forever.” It was fascinating and a little incomprehensible to me, like placing an order on a strange stock market derivative (he has since changed his mind on the longevity of coolness).

Online bulletin boards didn’t seem to pose much of a threat to postal communication (doing my own label’s mail order, I used to receive updates about bulletin board gossip in physical letters). But message boards, the inheritor to bulletin boards, seemed to have a seismic effect on mail-order culture. In the early-2000 edition of KRS’ in-house newsletter, Tobi Vail, for years in charge of mail order when not touring,noted the loss with befuddled sorrow. I remember reading and understanding I was one of the few people who fully comprehended this loss (even though I hated doing mail order for my own label and was thus not always good at it). Discussions and arguments about everything from politics to scene minutiae shifted from private letters to public boards like spockmorgue.

Sometime around the turn of the century, Slim again tried to only sign bands by consensus of the then-six-person staff, giving any one employee the right to veto. The only records the label released for a stretch were local bands with previous connections or strong local support. Against his vote, the group vetoed going after the White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. After several years of coinciding depression, he again ended the consensus approach and signed the Decemberists, an indie rock sensation one level below Elliott Smith in cultural impact.

By the mid-aughties, Slim felt the label had stalled out. Both choices facing him as label owner—set up a label-owned distribution company (“being a businessman”) or make a deal with Warner or Capitol or Matador or Sub Pop—felt equally unpalatable. And “it was definitely clear that if we had any more Decemberists or the Gossips, they were gonna leave for Capitol or Sony,” he says. “That was the state we were in. The only way we’d ever have a band stay with us is if they were so fiercely independent that they would stay on Kill Rock Stars forever and rebuff major labels, and yet not so fiercely independent that they wouldn’t just go start their own label like Ani DiFranco.”

Slim felt stalled out as well. In 2006, he left. He went to work for Nonesuch Records, a Warner subsidiary, as an A&R rep. He spent the following year listening to artists and going to shows five nights a week. But he never pulled the trigger, never signed anyone.

Decemberist Chris Fun
Decemberist Chris Funk summons the hogs on his farm in Minsk in 2000. Photo via Getty

Slim’s successor, Portia Sabin, arrived with distinguished credentials. Besides a PhD in anthropology and education, having worked production and press at KRS, and managing the Gossip during their dizzying rise, she also once played drums in Socket Wench, surely the first contemporary riot grrrl cover band, playing tracks by Bratmobile and Bikini Kill months after the original’s release. A huge Sleater-Kinney fan, she remembered reading the liner notes to one of their albums in the 1990s and saying, to a friend, “Slim Moon, what a weird name.” By the time of the handover, they’d been married two years.

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Fall 2023 issue. Explore the full mag in our archive, buy a copy here, and subscribe for more.




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