Key Acts: Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, The Decemberists, The Gossip, Deerhoof, Xiu Xiu
Riot Grrrl Roots
Kill Rock Stars was founded in 1991 by Slim Moon, a then-23-year-old Montana native who'd relocated to Olympia. Moon hoped to use the imprint to issue spoken-word 7"s, like his first-ever release, a spoken split single between he and Kathleen Hanna, vocalist of Bikini Kill. Kill Rock Stars only became a full-time concern when Moon assembled a compilation for the International Pop Underground convention in 1991. The compile, called simply Kill Rock Stars, featured three local Olympia bands who would become the bedrock on which the label was founded: Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Unwound.
Moon's reasons for turning KRS into a 'real label' was that someone desperately needed to release these three acts, and no one else was jumping at the opportunity. "When Bikini Kill told me that they wanted me to put out their record, I wasn't sure I was ready," Moon recalls. "I had a secret fantasy of building a record label, but I thought it would take like three years before I had something to offer to a big band. So I was floored when they asked me because it was way ahead of my schedule of how things would go. But they felt they could trust me because I was their friend. It was super exciting. I didn't know that they were going to get in this vortex of riot-grrrl popularity with national press."
The nascent riot-grrrl movement, and the press hysteria that followed, defined the early days of Kill Rock Stars, when the label's roster was populated by the likes of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Heavens to Betsy, and, eventually, Sleater-Kinney.
The Breakthrough Years
In 1997, Kill Rock Stars went from being a respected, hard-working, politically-minded, gender-aware indie imprint to becoming an established, influential, commercially successful label, largely on the back of two albums. That year, Sleater-Kinney released Dig Me Out, and Elliott Smith Either/Or. Both albums found incredibly positive critical acclaim, and far exceeded the label's sales expectations for them.
The release of Gus van Sant's film Good Will Hunting only sped up this process. Featuring Smith's songs throughout the film, the Oscar-winning picture to Smith to a mainstream audience. And though he'd soon, thereafter, sign with the 'boutique' major Dreamworks, his back-catalogue would remain a strong seller thereafter.
In 1997, Moon also started an in-house 'sister-label' to Kill Rock Stars, named 5RC. Essentially born to release more 'experimental' fare than KRS was handling, the distinction between the label was often hard-to-define, especially when records were co-released on both imprints. 5RC's first signing was Deerhoof, the experimental Bay Area outfit who'd go on to release a dozen different records for both 5RC and KRS.
In 2001, Kill Rock Stars signed The Gossip, a raw, raucous rock group originally from Arkansas, and, in 2002, 5RC began working with Xiu Xiu, two acts who'd become mainstays of the label over the coming years. 2003 found Kill Rock Stars beginning a working relationship with The Decemberists, a nautically-themed, Victorian-styled folk-rock act who'd become the label's biggest 'breakout act' since Smith.
Slim Leaves, Label Moves
In 2006, Moon, who for a long time was an outspoken critic of the music industry, shocked many by leaving Kill Rock Stars to take up an A&R position at Warner-owned imprint Nonesuch (home of Wilco, the Magnetic Fields and others). Less than a year later, he lost his job in a corporate downsizing, falling victim to the practizes he'd long railed against. In Moon's absence, his wife, Portia Sabin, assumed operational duties of Kill Rock Stars.
In 2008, Kill Rock Stars moved their base of operations from Olympia to Portland, the city that had given them acts like Smith, Sleater-Kinney, The Gossip, The Decemberists, and countless more. The label's first signing since the move was another PDX outfit, raucous lo-fi outfit The Thermals, whom they signed away from Sub Pop.