“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young queer woman explores an LGBTQ cultural artifact in furtherance of her queer education. Think of it as your syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
Decades before Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, Janelle Monáe, and King Princess brought facets of the Queer Experience™—like navigating gender dysphoria and eating pussy—to the mainstream, a ragtag group of musicians formed a band in Olympia, Wash., in 1993, with zinester and guitarist-bassist Donna Dresch at its helm. They called themselves Team Dresch, and more than 25 years after tearing into the Pacific Northwest scene, the pioneering queercore group is still here, still unapologetically queer, and still inciting political action.
Though Team Dresch released only two albums in its heyday, those records—1995’s Personal Best and 1996’s Captain My Captain—deeply bonded listeners, many of whom were fellow punk musicians or struggling LGBTQ youth. Those bonds ran deep, and the tracks cut deep—the fiercely queer anthem “Fagetarian and Dyke” absolutely walked so “Pussy Is God” could run. Members of the band went on to inspire and even work directly with riot grrrl legends like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. The group initially disbanded in 1998 to pursue independent projects, but their punk-rock ethos, particularly its call for grassroots organizing and an embrace of the chosen family, never went away.
It was the family-like community that assembled around Team Dresch’s music that prompted them to reissue their catalog in 2019 in honor of the 25th anniversary of Personal Best. Well, it was that plus the fact that they had two new singles, “Your Hands My Pockets” and “Basket”—their first real stab at new music in almost 20 years—and the encouragement of their longtime friend-slash-manager Rob Jones of Jealous Butcher Records in Portland, Ore., who gave the group the final push they needed to resurface.
“Rob is just the nicest, raddest, and super-musically nerdy guy ever,” vocalist and guitarist Kaia Wilson tells me over rooftop drinks with Dresch and drummer Melissa York at a bar in Jersey City, N.J. “He’s awesome. We were talking about rereleasing those albums anyway, and we were like, ’He’ll treat them so special.’ He so gently helped us make it happen.”
Team Dresch are about to wrap the East Coast leg of their first formal reunion tour since the group parted ways. Wilson and Dresch joke that Team Dresch in its current iteration—Wilson, Dresch, York, lead vocalist and guitarist Jody Bleyle, and drummer Marcéo Martinez—is technically a “quintet,” with York and Martinez alternating shows depending on the gig. (York replaced Martinez in the band when Team Dresch recorded its second album, but there’s no bad blood: Martinez, a founding member who recently came out to longtime fans as transmasculine, was also very much on board with the reissue project, telling Billboard that it was “so important and necessary” to be recognized as a trans person, and not be deadnamed every time Team Dresch’s catalog came up.)
Over the past two decades, members of the band have joined forces for special gigs and events here and there, including various anti-Trump shows since 2016. Dresch says they play together about once a year and have for the past 10.
So why take the show on the road now? Having fresh music to promote was a motivating factor, sure, and Wilson confirms that the long-term plan is to write and record an entirely new album. But the real impetus behind their comeback was the current political climate. True punks both in and out of the studio, the band saw the appointment of a decidedly anti-LGBTQ Republican in the White House as an opportunity to rally for solidarity among LGBTQ fans and allies alike.
“The Trump shit did inspire us,” Wilson says. “We thought, Okay, we’re going to play some shows again. If we can do any little thing—you’ve gotta do anything you can. And this is the place where we have a platform, where we can make a dent of difference.”
Indeed, Team Dresch’s ability to ignite and galvanize its audience is the stuff MAGA ralliers can only dream of. When I attended the band’s October 1 concert at Jersey City’s Monty Hall after we had drinks, the energy in the snug, dimly lit room was kinetic, blistering, almost overwhelming. The venue felt like the perfect place for the legendary punk rockers to reacquaint themselves with the relentless, exhilarating mess of tour life.
Of course, trekking up and down the coasts isn’t easy on the mind, body, or spirit, especially when the natural resilience that comes with being young, scrappy, and hungry has waned a bit. Dresch quips that the repetitive daily itinerary of being on tour is like “that movie Groundhog Day,” but Wilson observes how well she and her bandmates, still “best friends,” fit back together all these years later.
York is more candid: “It’s hard doing this at 50! But it is a lot of fun. I just feel so grateful.”
Listening to remastered recordings of their epic guitar riffs and brutally honest lyrics is certainly invigorating. Who can deny lines like: “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”? But watching them shred and scream in the flesh is to savor a true call to arms. Their rally cries (“Hate the Christian Right!,” “She’s Amazing”) and odes to self-acceptance (“Musical Fanzine,” “Remember Who You Are”) deliver as strong a gut punch as they did in the ’90s and 2000s. In these dark days, they might even hit harder.
Wilson tells me that the group resists calling their followers “fans,” thinking of them instead as part of the Team Dresch family. She and Dresch have lost count of how many times listeners and concertgoers have thanked them for being proud “queerdos” at a time when LGBTQ acceptance—not to mention legal protections or marriage equality —was still a foreign concept in most circles. “Family” feels like a particularly apt way to describe the attendees at the show this past week, who flocked to the stage after the encore for “consensual hugs” from Bleyle.
When asked how Team Dresch concerts in 2019 differ from those in the ’90s, Dresch laughs and says that fans today had a solid “25 years to learn the lyrics.”
She continues, “In the ’90s, people didn’t know who we were. Audience members often didn’t know what to make of a bunch of ’queer freaks’ onstage. We’d get a lot of blank stares.”
Dresch stops to sip her tequila on the rocks. “But now, everybody sings along.”
Team Dresch’s catalog—including the new songs “Your Hands My Pockets” and “Basket”—is available now.