Kathleen Hanna on Surviving Lyme Disease and Starting Her New Band, the Julie Ruin
It's tempting to call Kathleen Hanna, face of the Riot Grrl movement, an icon for "a certain generation," but it's really not true. An informal survey of teenage girls suggests that, amongst a certain crowd, the process of discovering Bikini Kill and the rest of Hanna's oeuvre -- blasting her music in headphones in your room late at night, using her lyrics as lighter fluid for a growing sense of what's unequal in the world, of where the cards are stacked and why -- that's timeless.
Shervin Lainez The Julie Ruin
For me, it was 1997's Julie Ruin, a determinedly lo-fi, sample-heavy solo record she put out between Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, that stayed on repeat. A third-wave feminist manifesto disguised as an introspective indie-pop record, its Wikipedia page rightly and hilariously notes that the album "touches upon feminism, crocheting, aerobics, and resisting police abuse." Most of the 14 tracks sound, somehow charmingly, like they were recorded through a sock.
Nine years after we last heard from Le Tigre -- a time period in which Hanna married Adam Horowitz of the Beastie Boys, became the subject of a documentary, curated an entire Riot Grrl collection at NYU's library, and fought a serious battle with Lyme disease, among other things -- the singer is putting out new music under the name "The Julie Ruin." Run Fast is a full-band album, with Bikini Kill's Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, and Sara Landeau rounding out the sound, while Hanna's unmistakable verve cuts through as strong as ever. Ahead of their show at Slim's this Tuesday, Sept. 17, she answered some questions from the road.
In a recent interview, you talked about doing a sort of inventory process in your songwriting for this album -- thinking about how 20-year-old you would view 40-year-old you. How have your politics changed since your 20s? For so many people there seems to be this inevitable slide toward becoming more moderate, more cynical, less radical, less engaged.
I don't think I've become more moderate, I just think I've become better at looking at the bigger picture. And while I still believe that 'Thinking Globally and Acting Locally' is a great model, I realize that boycotting some guy's band because he said something sexist in an interview isn't the best use of my time. The other thing for me has been that my illness really MADE me step back. I wanted to go down and be a part of Occupy Wall Street when it was happening, but I was too sick and that was really really hard. I look forward to being more politically active as, hopefully, my health continues to improve.
Julie Ruin was one of my favorite albums, in part because of its distilled Kathleen-ness, if that makes sense. What made you decide to resurrect that name now? And as a full band, when one of the defining marks of that project seemed to be how solo it was? Why the "the"?
First of all, thanks for saying you liked that record. I was very nervous about how vulnerable it was and felt kind of relieved that not many people heard it, so to think that you appreciated it for the very reasons I was nervous is really nice.
I resurrected the name because being ill brought me back to a similar place of vulnerability as I was in 1997. At the time of the first record, I was not only losing my band, but being both loved and reviled for being the leader of something I no longer felt a connection to. A pretty influential "Riot Grrrl" at the time was targeting me in a really vicious way, going so far as trying to extort my band for money; the threat was she would stage a boycott against us if we didn't give her particular group a sum of money that she felt they deserved. Girls were telling me I was fucked up for being in a band and that we should sell our instruments and give the money to the poor, it was all really nuts. So of course I locked myself in my apartment and made something to keep from going crazy.
Our new album is similar in that making it kept me from going off the deep end, only this time, it was about going through something way harder, an intensive two year treatment for Lyme disease that oftentimes made me question how much pain I could take without breaking. The other difference is that this time, I didn't have to go it alone, four amazing people stepped forward to collaborate on the project, even though there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding it. That's why it's called 'The Julie Ruin' and not 'Julie Ruin'. It's a true collaboration, even though it started from a similar, desperate place.
How did your illness, or thoughts of the worst that could happen, affect this album? (In a recent New York Times interview: "I am like somebody who maxed out their credit cards because they thought they were going to die," she said, "and I lived.")
I think being sick and thinking about mortality allowed me to be super honest lyrically. It also allowed me to be abstract and self-indulgent at times, cuz why the fuck not...I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or die of Lyme Disease, hahaha.
During the intro to the VMAs, MTV had you and Grimes on, talking about (among other topics) feminism, challenges for women in the music industry, and Beyonce. Who else's career are you watching these days?
I try not to watch people's careers really -- I just notice when I'm jealous, like thinking "Why does that band get to be on TV and we don't?" And then I set out to make that happen. So I am really kind of a jerk, I only watch people's careers in a mean kind of way.
Is there anyone you find particularly interesting, or who you think is breaking new ground for women in the industry?
In the mainstream I see BeyoncÃ© as breaking new ground because she writes about female empowerment and she plays, unapologetically, with an all-female band. I think Tegan and Sara are also really really interesting in that they are incredibly ethical and smart and still have a huge following. It doesn't have to be either/or and that is hugely inspirational.
Do the conversations about women in music seem more or less sexist than when you started out?
I'm not sure. I do get asked "Why aren't there more women in bands?" a lot when I lecture, which I find pretty annoying. It's like, "Because sexism exists, duh."
What about in the punk rock/alternative scene, whatever that means to you right now?
What I see is way more female participation and women helping each other out more. Wanting to tour together, citing each other as influences, that kind of thing. I also see women and girls critiquing what was going on in the '90s, i.e. Riot Grrl, etc...in really productive ways, rather than trying to revive it.
What's this about a TV pilot you wrote with Adam Horovitz? What inspired that?
We were inspired by our friend Bridget Everett, who is a punk rock cabaret artist. Adam has been playing in her band 'Bridget Everett and the Tender Moments' for a few years now. She would also want me to say she "has a heart of gold" which she does, but her amazing voice and strangely alluring over-aggressive sexual presence onstage are also some of her strong points.
The show came about because Adam and I were watching the news one morning and a story came on about a school bus driver who got caught drinking on the job. They showed a simulation picture of a woman on a school bus with a mug between her legs pouring whiskey into it and we both looked at each other and said "Bridget" at the same time. And thus began 'Bridget Drives the Bus', the show that hopefully will be in production soon!
What are you most excited about doing over the next year or so?
Singing live again.