Kaia Wilson and her Durham-based bandmates in The Butchies have long shared a love of punchy rock 'n' roll. Since Wilson returned to Oregon five years ago, though, she's found another love—table tennis.
"My dad got me into table tennis when I was a kid for fun, and then I got some lessons to learn proper technique at an official table tennis club," she says from Portland. "And then it was hook, line, sinker, forget about it, done: an official addict. I am a ponger."
When The Butchies play for the first time in five years this week at the Cat's Cradle, more than music will be on display. An event of variety-show scope, drag king specialists the Cuntry Kings will host, while Wilson will challenge all competitors to games of ping pong before the show even starts.
"There's ping pong because that's kinda all I do these days," says Wilson, who pairs an athletic build with a personality full of verve. "I would go into withdrawal if I didn't get to play for a week."
Wilson's underselling the case, though: The day after the reunion, she flies to Europe for a small tour and then, whack!—she'll compete in the table tennis tournament at the Gay Games. Going to Europe for the Gay Games is a bit like getting to the Olympics. Athletes need backers to help with the bills. The games are a sprawling international sporting event, drawing some 10,000 participants. Wilson held a Portland fundraiser in May, with a tourney whose winner had to play her. The highlight was a doubles tournament featuring Portland musicians, including Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein, both of Sleater-Kinney, Joe Preston of Thrones and Team Dresch's Donna Dresch.
Wilson got serious about table tennis nearly two years ago, training with former U.S. champion Sean O'Neill and using a bizarre robotic table for practice. In March, she posted a message to her "Punk" Rock Ping Pong group: "Where are you, ping pong players? Rock and roll slayers? Join my fan page, let's connect, and get the games going!" Stepping away from a touring band like The Butchies afforded her time for the hobby.
The Butchies formed in Durham in 1998 as a trio with Wilson on guitar and vocals, drummer Melissa York and bassist Alison Martlew. Wilson and York had left the Portland band Team Dresch in 1995 and later formed The Butchies here, while Wilson co-founded Mr. Lady Records, a beacon label and distributor for queer and feminist music. When Wilson headed back to the Pacific Northwest, York and Martlew stayed in Durham and York joined the now-defunct Ex-Members. Wilson says the band broke up in a "weirdly friendly manner five years ago: We shared a bottle of red and talked about how much we loved each other and the band." The Butchies' continued resonance reflects brightly in their loyal fans, inspired by the band's stories-in-song, perhaps helping a gay person in a small town feel good about being themselves.
The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival invited The Butchies to perform in August. This is their warm-up gig for the locals. A homecoming feeling runs through the whole night, with Mr. Lady alumnus Tami Hart coming down from New York for a set and Butchies descendents Pink Flag opening. But Wilson really wants people to show up early, around 7:30 p.m. She, of course, needs a ping pong partner.