Olympia is much more than the center of state government. It also is a nexus of punk music. That started around the 1980s, and really hit its stride in the '90s — though punk is still an important part of the music scene in Olympia.
Olympia experienced an influx of new bands and music-lovers when word spread beyond the town about its emerging community. Many also were drawn by festivals that focused on independent artists — the International Pop Underground Convention in 1991, and the first Yoyo A Go Go festival in 1994.
That was the case for Len Balli, who heard about Olympia's punk scene in the early '90s when she was living in Brownsville, Texas. She was an avid reader of music magazines, and often combed their catalogues to discover new music.
“A few of the catalogues I got were from Kill Rock Stars and K Records. I was able to check things out,” Balli said.
She read that one of her favorite bands, Codeine, performed at the the first Yoyo fest, and she couldn’t help but think: “If only I could be there.” When she read about The Evergreen State College in another magazine, she made the move to Olympia in 1994.
“I was really surprised to come up here and meet people who introduced me to a bunch of punk music I had never heard before,” Balli said.
Balli studied history at Evergreen and attended shows throughout her time there. She now works for the Washington State Historical Society.
A few years ago, she curated an exhibit about Olympia's punk movement called, “A Revolution You Can Dance To.” Balli said it seemed like the right time to look back on the state’s music history. Washington had recently celebrated its 125th birthday, and Nirvana’s album, “Nevermind,” had just turned 25.
She said unlike that music, Olympia’s didn’t go international.
“You just didn’t see a band coming out of Olympia that was all of the sudden on the cover of magazines, and on MTV, like it just didn’t happen down there,” Balli said. “But it was still so artistic and so unique, and it was just a period unlike anything else that had happened at the time.”
Olympia’s place in punk history was the result of not just the bands that emerged, but zine writers, organizers and DJs at local radio stations. It was DIY — a community effort.
Diana Arens was one cog in that DIY movement’s gears. She moved to the town from Auburn in 1988 to go to Evergreen. And she became a volunteer at the college’s radio station, KAOS.
She explained the impact of a guideline that a music director established at the station, known as the “green line policy.” It's name comes from the green tape that they placed on all the independently released albums in KAOS's music library. Arens said DJs had to play these releases 80 percent or more of the time.
“That was massive. It was a seismic shift in the idea of prioritizing independent voices on the air,” Arens said. “What had become, I guess, habit for some DJs became a mission for all of them.”
Arens started hosting a show on KAOS in 1991 called, "Free Things are Cool." It was just before the International Pop Underground Convention, where Arens DJed between bands. She connected with musicians at the convention, and invited them to come on to her radio show for interviews and performances. She ended up hosting multiple bands, including feminist punk pioneers, Bikini Kill. Arens said it was then that she saw the potential to make her time at KAOS into anything she wanted it to be.
Arens stayed at Evergreen for a fifth year so she could become the Program Director at KAOS, because the position was only open to students.
“I had four credits to fill up, so I did an audio and engineering course where I learned to use the 8-track and the 16-track and I learned to build speakers,” Arens said. “It made sense because, in a way, it’s like we’re living in a town where people are like, ‘Hey let’s form a band,’ and those bands needed people to record them.”
One of those bands was a young folk-punk group called Tattle Tale, based in Seattle. Some of those sessions became part of their first album. It was released on the record label founded in Olympia, Kill Rock Stars, in 1993.
“I wouldn’t call it a career exactly, but I think that it’s important in a music community to have people playing lots of different roles and to do so because they love it, not because they have a thing to sell,” Arens said.
Arens went on to record the first Yoyo fest in '94. The success of the event drew national attention. Arens found herself in the middle of the emerging Riot Grrrl movement, a feminist punk mentality that redefined the growing scene. She wanted to expand the voices on-air at KAOS, so she attended one of their meetings and ended up training a handful of Riot Grrrls to be DJs. Arens said she became a Riot Grrrl herself.
"I saw it as an opportunity to connect with other young women in my community who had varying experiences in the music scene. It was a way to talk to people who had a similar experience," Arens said.
The Riot Grrrl movement came about in the early '90s, as bands and creatives began releasing music and art that promoted female empowerment and tackled issues such as sexism and racism.
Len Balli with the historical society said a big year for the movement was 1991. Within that year, Bikini Kill released their demo called “Revolution Girls Style Now,” with songs that reflected a lot of the ideas that Riot Grrrls promoted. Then, a lineup of all female-fronted bands kicked off the International Pop Underground Convention during what became known as “Girl's Night.” Balli said the Riot Grrrl movement left a lasting impact on Olympia and the way its punk scene developed.
“I think it’s an interesting legacy because it really did allow women to become front and center and talk about their art in a way that maybe wasn’t necessarily open to them at the time,” Balli said. “And it’s allowed other women to decide that they’re going to become involved and the women who started it are still around, and they still encourage other people to get involved and to talk about their experiences, which I think is one of the most helpful things that you can do.”
And that’s what Arens continues to do. She doesn’t work at KAOS anymore, but she’s still involved in the music community in other ways.
“It’s about being there for each other, it’s about creating culture and not just being a consumer of culture,” Arens said. “And it’s not, I don’t feel, an exclusive community. It’s not like, these people are the producers of culture, and these are the consumers. It’s like everybody is invited to participate in whatever way they would like to.”
Arens said her time in the ringside seats of some of Olympia’s biggest events is still relevant to the music community, the legacy of something that she knew in the moment was magical.
It’s the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Today, KNKX Connects to Olympia, bringing you stories about Washington’s capital and how citizens can influence the direction of their state government. As the Legislature convenes, we’re taking a closer look at what’s happening at the Capitol, and life in the city surrounding it. To listen to all our stories, visit knkx.org/connects.