Creation, Factory, I.R.S., Slash. Just a few of the more notable names of an endless number of independent record labels that never made it past two decades before either shuttering its doors or being acquired by a major in order to keep the lights on. Which is why it’s worth celebrating Kill Rock Stars’ incredible feat of remaining not just independent but relevant and vital for 30 years this year.
Launched in Olympia in 1991 by Slim Moon and Tinuviel Sampson, the label introduced the riot grrrl movement to the world by becoming a home for artists like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Heavens to Betsy and helped define the Pacific Northwest indie-rock sound. Releases from Elliott Smith, the Decemberists, and Gossip moved the needle of KRS’ influence significantly, making them not just a regionally but an internationally respected indie label for three consecutive decades.
To celebrate this significant milestone, the label has been releasing a cover singles series throughout 2021 with over 30 artists doing their spin on a song from the KRS catalog. So far, we’ve heard Mary Lou Lord and Mikaela Davis' take on Elliott Smith's "Some Song," Mike Watt + The Black Gang covering Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl,” and Sweden’s Badlands do their version of Stereo Total’s “Lunatique,” among others. Today, Kill Rock Stars is unveiling the latest installment in the series exclusively with KEXP, a day ahead of its worldwide release, and its a surprisingly delightful choice.
On the whole, Califone and Mecca Normal could not be more disparate. The Chicago-born former dabbles in roots-rock with enough experimental electronic flourishes to keep them just outside the fringes of mainstream indie. Led by Tim Rutili in the wake of his prior band Red Red Meat, the band has an expansive catalog dating back to 1998, with their latest, Echo Mine, released in early 2020. Albums like 2006’s Roots & Crowns and 2009’s All My Friends Are Funeral Singers have made them critical darlings and Rutili a sought-after collaborator.
Vancouver’s Mecca Normal, on the other hand, have a bit of a love/hate with critics. Their sparse instrumentation consisting of just guitar and sing-speak vocals plus Jean Smith’s humorous and yet pointedly feministic lyrics make them a tough pill to swallow for those who prefer more conventional song structures. And yet, their influence is undeniable, with both Kathleen Hanna and Calvin Johnson citing the band as an inspirational source.
The song “Family Swan” is the quasi-title track from Mecca Normal’s 2002 record on Kill Rock Stars. At eight minutes and twenty-four seconds and with no chorus to be found, the song takes patience but rewards in spades. Through it, Smith paints a story from adolescence through middle age of a complicated mother/daughter relationship compounded by a vocally abusive father through the analogy of swans mating for life.
Califone’s take on “Family Swan” is a shimmering guitar-strummer that keeps true to Mecca Normal by cutting out a full drum set, but that’s about where the similarities end. With a softly twinkling shaker keeping beat, Rutili cuts the song down by about 25 seconds by breezing through Smith’s block text stream-of-consciousness lyrics in a warbly croon. In the hands of Rutili, “Family Swan” is given more color without replacing the emotional punch of the original. Rutili had this to say about the cover:
I first saw Mecca Normal with the Go Team and Some Velvet Sidewalk in Chicago many years ago. I had my little mind blown and spent all the money I had on 7inch records at the merch table.
That show was one of those experiences that changed the way I looked at music and everything - It was microscopic, personal and massive all at the same time.
There is truth and heart, existential frustration and self-acceptance in this music that made me feel like I wasn’t so alone in the world.
It made me want to move to the Northwest. I still want to move to the Northwest… Maybe someday.
Anyway... This song is a classic movie that is beautiful, sad, funny and bleak all at the same time.
This song is a really good book that breaks your heart with unwanted truth, but you can’t stop reading it and you can’t help but see the good and horrible sides of yourself and everyone you know and love in the world it creates.
This song is undeniable humanness. Thank you Mecca Normal. Happy Birthday KRS.”
Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon also shares his thoughts:
Mecca Normal are important for multiple reasons. One is where they fit in the struggle for change. Another is that they show us the way to be committed to art and politics as a lifelong devotion. And especially they should be held as the shining example of how expansive a statement a minimalist approach can yield. Never has a band done so much with so little, artistically. Tim seems to get all of this and he also has emerged as a master of less-is-more, craftily done. He is perfect as a student of MN and this cover is perfect.
Mecca Normal has rescheduled their 2020 tour dates opening for Bikini Kill for Fall 2021, with a date in Seattle scheduled for Sunday, September 12th at the Paramount. Below, listen to Califone’s cover of “Family Swan” and find a full playlist of Kill Rock Stars’ 30th Anniversary Cover Series here.