People who talk about Team Dresch’s music say it saved them. It’s not an exaggeration. The feminist queercore band was active for only about five years, leaving behind two albums and a collection of singles, but the records’ knowing intimacies made them pre-Tumblr beacons of community for isolated queers in their darkest moments. A life is shaped by minute experiences; when a great punk song captures the emotional specificity of those moments, it wins our lifelong devotion. Team Dresch mirrored the experiences of people who weren’t used to having their lives reflected back to them. In doing so, their work shattered isolation.
In the early 1990s, Donna Dresch lived in the Martin apartments in Olympia, Washington alongside many members of the rising riot grrrl movement, worked for K Records, published the queercore fanzine Chainsaw, and played in bands such as Dinosaur Jr. and Screaming Trees. When Jody Bleyle, then drumming in the Portland band Hazel, met Dresch after a show, she expressed a longing to play in “an all-dyke band.” Her desire would materialize in spring of 1994, when the two were joined by Marcéo Martinez (of Calamity Jane) and Kaia Wilson (of Adickted), who herself had once written long letters to Dresch as a lonely gay teenager living in conservative rural Oregon.
In poetic fragments dripping with humor and pain, 1995’s Personal Best recounted evergreen stories about crushing on straight or closeted girls (“Freewheel,” “She’s Crushing My Mind”), making your mother cry by shaving your head (“Growing Up in Springfield”), and dreaming of leaving it all behind and moving to the woods (“Screwing Yer Courage”). “She told me I needed God/I told her I just needed her,” Wilson sings on “Growing Up in Springfield,” named after an Oregon town which, in 1992, became the first municipality in the nation to include anti-gay language in its city charter—a measure pushed by a conservative Christian organization called the Oregon Citizens Alliance, which also advocated to classify homosexuality as “abnormal, unnatural, and perverse.” Team Dresch responded to these attitudes with “Hate the Christian Right!,” where metalcore screams, melodic vocal lines, shredding guitar, and rapid-fire drum fills combined to create a sick-of-it-all rage spiral, a plea for an out that might never exist.
Everyone in the band was already a skilled musician in their own right, and Personal Best was tight and catchy, packing deft, shifting melodies and numerous ideas and genres into less than half an hour. The bridge on “#1 Chance Pirate TV” sounds quintessentially mid-’90s emo, and “She’s Crushing My Mind” precedes one of the Promise Ring’s most memorable melodies. “Fake Fight’”s longing for tree forts and bike rides is one banjo short of folk-punk, while “Freewheel” delivers “go back to your boyfriend” levity with power-pop glee. But the album’s emotional centerpiece, destined to grace many a mixtape, is “She’s Amazing”: a tribute to every outspoken woman and queer root that did for Team Dresch what they would do for countless others: “She’s amazing/Her words saved me/She holds her head as if it’s true.”
Dresch’s Chainsaw zine grew into Chainsaw Records, which, along with Bleyle’s Candy Ass Records, co-released both Personal Best and the band’s second album, Captain My Captain. Chainsaw also released notable records by bands such as Heavens to Betsy, Tracy + the Plastics, and Sleater-Kinney, and hosted an online message board where community and conflict played out in real time. As grunge blew up and major labels began courting bands from the Pacific Northwest, independent artists felt the weight of their mission. Bleyle, whose band Hazel had been signed to Sub Pop, was familiar with the industry and wanted to remain autonomous. Team Dresch funded their own European tour, wrote to fans directly when mainstream gay magazines wouldn’t interview them, and worked to inform their peers. “The more bands and labels that… are willing to cooperate with one another—to share information and talk about what these major-media people are saying to them—the easier it will be to resist commodification,” she told Punk Planet. “There’s no way you can up against this by yourself. Once you’ve dealt with labels like this you realize that’s what they want: for everyone to be isolated.” Operating through DIY channels meant Team Dresch didn’t have to compromise, assuring fans that behind every release stood a tangible community of like-minded co-conspirators.
By the time Captain My Captain came out in 1996, with Melissa York replacing Martinez on drums, Team Dresch recognized their status as visible dykons. They wrote longer songs that were intentionally aimed at their audience, with more straightforward hooks, more legible structures, and more prominent vocals. Even without the metal screams, their directness was often combative. Take the hurtling chosen-family ode “Uncle Phranc,” where Bleyle slams a mother’s conditional love as “emotional blackmail,” or when, at the end of a ponderous musical break in “The Council,” Wilson belts a cathartic call-out of scene gossip. There’s also an enormous amount of sweetness, not just in love songs to partners (“107,” “Take on Me”), but in love songs to the community that urge listeners to survive, find their people, and live on their own terms (“Musical Fanzine,” “Remember Who You Are”). Throughout, lines about writing your own Rubyfruit Jungle or figuring out whether you’re butch or femme signalled familiarity. “Live your truth” messaging can be cloying, but Team Dresch sang it in earnest, sounding more like a trusted sibling than a sloganeer.
On Captain, Bleyle also started writing intentionally about her struggles with mental illness—a topic that wasn’t being discussed much, even in underground circles. One of the most affecting examples is “Don’t Try Suicide” (not to be confused with the Queen song of the same name), where a deflated Bleyle talks about being “scared to leave the house/scared to go to sleep.” The second chorus tells of a girlfriend’s attempt at reassurance, and Bleyle’s voice is raw as she screams, “I don’t believe her/But it makes me feel better anyway.” With queer suicide—particularly queer youth suicide—an ongoing national epidemic, these moments are, tragically, some of the record’s most prescient.
The opportunity to reevaluate these albums comes as Portland label Jealous Butcher reissues both of them on vinyl, CD, and streaming platforms, along with a CD-and-streaming-only singles compilation called Choices, Chances, Changes: Singles & Comptracks 1994-2000. A soft case with a band photo collage on the outside cover and a chronologically sequenced array of miscellaneous releases on the inside, it feels like a promo CD you might get at a punk fest and end up treasuring. Selections include fan favorite “Hand Grenade” (a track that first appeared as a 7″ on Kill Rock Stars), an early version of “Fake Fight,” the bratty Tribe 8-reminiscent “Song for Anne Bannon” (released on Candy Ass’s Free to Fight self-defense compilation), and several songs recorded after Wilson left the band in 1996. Less cohesive than the full-lengths, it’s a compilation for collectors and true fans, demonstrating the band’s range and offering sought-after bonus tracks for when two records are just not enough.
Listening to the Team Dresch reissues in 2019 feels different than I imagine it did in 1995. The internet has made it easier for queers to find each other, and there are more openly queer artists than ever before. Transmisogynist elements in riot grrrl, like Wilson’s 1999 defense of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s trans-exclusionary attendance policy, seeded enduring distrust, though many current scenes are working to become more inclusive. (Wilson’s own views have since changed as well.) Still, much of the music feels and sounds as relevant as ever—both because the band’s words continue to resonate and because their harmonies, melodic defiance, and true-to-life lyrics echo through much of today’s DIY punk (Waxahatchee has covered “Freewheel” live). As a new generation discovers classics like 1985’s Desert Hearts and realizes we don’t have to settle for straight-authored queerbaiting, there is a lot to learn from queer elders, especially those that never conceded to marketability.
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Captain is the unabashed sexuality, stated plainly rather than cloaked in coded desire: Bleyle finding solace in cruising on “Remember Who You Are,” or Wilson asking a lover to boss her around on “Yes I Am Too, But Who Am I Really?” and declaring herself “a flaming S&M rubber dyke” on “I’m Illegal.” Fifty years after the Stonewall riots, mainstream Pride events are often sanitized and corporate, but it still feels revolutionary to put on “Musical Fanzine” and sing along: “Queer sex is great, it’s fun as shit/Don’t kill yourself cause people can’t deal with your brilliance/Sometimes I can’t remember why I want to live/Then I think of all the freaks and I don’t want to miss this.”