In April 2020, Bikini Kill guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle found herself on lockdown in a rural area, with a deep desire to play music after the band’s tour was canceled.
“I had the feeling that all of the musicians were at home feeling the same way,” she says.
So Lyle set forth on the kind of remote musical collaboration, complete with a list of dream musicians and a focus on a good cause, that might only be possible during the early days of a pandemic.
Her partner on this project and album — Land Trust: Benefit for North East Farmers of Color — was Los Angeles-based drummer Vice Cooler, who tours with the Raincoats and has produced for Peaches and Ladytron. Each track started with Cooler's drums, then moved on to Lyle on the East Coast to add guitar. They handed off the songs to musicians like Kim Gordon and Kathleen Hanna to finish with lyrics and vocals. Lyle and Cooler's goal was to keep the project unfussy and not possessive.
“The whole point was to create a big pile of sketches for the singers, and we were just going to work really quickly, so it felt very improvisational, in a way,” she says.
Lyle is a South Florida native who helped shape the nascent punk scene of the early '90s in the area into one that elevated anger into social action. The prolific grassroots activist is also part of an arts collective, Sobbeth, with her partner, Midnight Piper Forman. Their current project is a postapocalyptic road-trip movie through Florida exploring gender transition called Our Place in the Sun. Also a writer, she's working on a book and is the founder of the newspaper Turd-Filled Donut and the zine Scam. For a constant creator like Lyle, the early days of quarantine offered space for inspiration.
Motivated by “a real spirit of mutual aid around the country,” she and Cooler shifted the focus of their fundraising with Land Trust as they realized the project would take longer than three months to complete. Instead of addressing the revolving door of social justice and human rights emergencies of that long hot summer, they landed on an enduring cause: the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC).
“Supporting the ownership of land felt like one of the best ways to support future generations of activism,” she reflects. “So much is possible when you own land. In the climate of displacement and gentrification. POC communities have so much difficulty maintaining a permanent stake in a community location.” While it took a while to settle on a beneficiary, assembling a list of collaborators was a breeze. From the Raincoats to the Linda Lindas, the musicians span generations. Lyle and Cooler focused on artists with whom they share friendship and community. But once they sent out tracks to the vocalists, the series of life-changing events that unfolded in pandemic-era 2020 and 2021, from wildfires to political upheaval, interrupted the next step of the recording process.
“I told Vice, 'You know if Donald Trump gets voted out, you’re going to see all these people are going to do their songs right away' — and that’s basically what happened,” she says.
Recently, she and Cooler threw themselves a record-release party of sorts in a steamy Dallas parking lot at 3 a.m. They reminisced about moments from the last two years as they listened to the songs.
“All of these songs have these really vivid memories of these intensely rich two years embedded inside of them for me — and that’s what’s really amazing about them,” she says.
She remembers clearly what was happening as each song was being recorded.
The oldest track, sung by Katie Alice Greer, “was recorded on the very first beautiful spring day of quarantine — the first time that it felt like everything hopeful was happening in my body. We were in this fucked-up situation, but suddenly the world was alive and beautiful.”
And as she recorded “Soul Fire Farm,” which features vocals by punk icon Alice Bag and lyrics that focus on NEFOC’s ethos, Lyle recalls news of President Trump deploying the National Guard against protesters in front of the White House flashing across her computer screen.
On tour now with the original riot grrrl act, Bikini Kill, she's struck by the irony of hitting the road amid a pandemic that refuses to go away.
"After spending a couple of years trying so hard not to get COVID and then to expose myself so openly, like every single night, has been a little bit of a mind-fuck, but we all really wanted to try to see if we could do it, she says. "Not just be stuck at home.”
To avoid getting sick and disrupting the tour, they’re living in a COVID bubble, wearing masks even around one other. Which means she won’t be able to socialize with friends when Bikini Kill plays two shows in Miami this week at the Ground.
So far, the stringent steps have paid off — along with the huge perk of playing live.
“It feels like a celebration of togetherness, which encompasses the full range of emotion from joy to rage,” she says. “Most of the audience is largely comprised of female-identified people, and it’s a big deal for people to come together right now,” she adds, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recently leaked draft decision that overturns the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion-rights case.
Not that the crowds are looking to the band to educate them on issues around their bodily rights.
“They’re looking for a reflection. They want to see themselves reflected back,” Lyle says.
And with revolution on their minds and a song on their lips, the grrrls will get precisely that at Bikini Kill shows.
Land Trust: Benefit for North East Farmers of Color drops on Friday, June 3, via Bandcamp.
Bikini Kill. 8 p.m. Friday, May 27, and 7 p.m. Saturday, May 28, at the Ground, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; thegroundmiami.com. Tickets cost $39.95 via eventbrite.com.