An Interview with Kathleen Hanna
I recently talked with Kathleen Hanna in New York City, who was confused when I compared her to Bob Dylan. She thought I was saying she was old. So I explained to her that, like Dylan, people tend to talk about her like she’s dead. She’s this rare brand of living legend whose history is being written while she’s still alive—as the founding member of the radical feminist punk band Bikini Kill, Hanna is known as the matriarch of the early-90s Riot Grrl movement. Her papers have been archived in NYU’s Fales Library; she’s the subject of a new documentary, The Punk Singer; a central figure in Sara Marcus’ Riot Grrl chronology, Girls to the Front; and a few years ago, there was a big tribute concert for Hanna that featured icons like Kim Gordon. With all this focus on Hanna’s early career, it sometimes feels like she’s stuck in time.
The reality is that she’s worked on a lot of interesting projects since Bikini Kill, most recently “Run Fast”, the debut album out by her new band, The Julie Ruin—not to be confused with Julie Ruin, Hanna’s 1998 lo-fi electronic solo project—The Julie Ruin features five musicians, including keyboardist Kenny Melman of the legendary NYC cabaret act Kiki and Herb, and Kathi Wilcox, who played with Hanna in Bikini Kill. The album combines some of the punk rock style of Bikini Kill and the electronic edge of Hanna’s next band, Le Tigre, all under Hanna’s signature loudspeaker vocals. But it’s also very much a rock record.
I started out asking Kathleen Hanna about her nine-year disappearance from music after releasing albums pretty consistently from 1991-2004. Though many assumed she’d gone into early retirement, what few people knew was that Hanna was actually very ill and getting increasingly worse. After visits to many doctors, she was finally diagnosed with late stage Lyme disease, which explains the archiving and memorializing. In a way, she was helping to write her own eulogy.
THE BELIEVER: I wonder if you feel that all of these eulogies are premature, and that you’re kind of like, Look! I’m still making music. Let’s not do this yet.
KATHLEEN HANNA: It was really my choice to archive my material at NYU. A lot of it had to do with being sick and not knowing what I had for so long, and feeling like I was deteriorating in such a rapid way that I needed to really kind of put stuff into a package and put it away—just in case. When you say the word “eulogy”, it’s really exactly that. You know, I didn’t know when my eulogy was going to happen because a lot of people with Lyme Disease are just like, “No one’s helping me; I’m never going to get better.” So I really felt like I had to face mortality and I had to deal with my business.
And what’s really funny is now I have a second chance and I’m like, “Did I prematurely eulogize myself?” It’s like when somebody thinks they’re dying and they max out their credit cards and then they’re like, “Oh no, I shouldn’t have bought that Crate and Barrel couch I couldn’t afford. Now I have the couch and I’m going to live, but I have terrible credit.”
But I’m not going to write a book about my life or anything. Thank goodness I didn’t do that, you know?
BLVR: Did you think about doing that?
KH: Well, they were making the documentary and I was watching it. If somebody made a movie about your life and it’s an hour long, there’s no way they can talk about every weird thing that ever happened to you, you know? No matter who you are, whether you’re an artist or a musician or a bank teller, whatever you do, there’s no way. They had to edit out all this stuff and I was like, “Oh great, I can just use it for my book… when I’m 60!”
BLVR: Yes, that’s a good age to start writing! So you were in Bikini Kill from the early to mid 90s. And then after that you did an album called Julie Ruin. Then after Julie Ruin you did three Le Tigre albums. And then you kind of took a break for a while. And now you’re back to something that you’re calling The Julie Ruin. How does The Julie Ruin relate to Julie Ruin?
KH: I just wanted to make this confusing – really confusing for people so they didn’t know how to get the record or what is was! No, Julie Ruin which was a solo record, and I wrote that in a real time of transition when I’d gotten really heavily associated with the Riot Girl movement.
I was kind of known as this man hater. And it got really, “Oh you’re supposed to write a feminist anthem everyday”. And maybe I was putting it more on myself than other people even were, but my band was disintegrating and not practicing that much, and I just had to find a creative outlet. So I made this record in my bedroom in my apartment. My closet was my sound studio. For the first time I was in control of what my own voice sounded like, and there was no male engineer deciding which take to keep. I was able to record in the middle of the night if I just got an idea. It was an amazing experience and it was very transformational in terms of just writing about I wanted to write about, and not really thinking about it, and trusting myself as a musician.
I’m at a similar moment again where I just want to write what I want to write, and let the songs be what they want to be, and trust that they’ll express my values and, hopefully, be fun.
BLVR: It does seem like people are forever obsessed with Riot Grrrl, and that when they think of you, they think of Riot Grrrl. Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in this place in time in peoples’ minds?
KH: You know, I just don’t care. We did a book signing for the Riot Grrrl collection book last night at a bookstore and some young women came up to me and said, “Your music got me into feminism.” And we were just like, “That’s the biggest compliment you can say to somebody.” And time will tell if anybody will care about my new projects or if it’s just nostalgia. I think our record’s really great, so let’s just keep moving on and see what people think. But yeah, I don’t want people just to come because they’re like, “I want to see that iconic Riot Grrrl.”
I want them to listen to the music and have a good time, a genuine good time. Every day is a new day and living in the present is really important. If I get lumped in forever with Riot Grrrl instead of my new stuff, there’s worse things that could happen.
BLVR: So let’s talk a little bit about the album. It feels very kind of rock and roll-y. How does it feel to you? Do you feel like you’re departing from punk and dance and going more towards rock and roll?
KH: Well hopefully it’s rock and roll you can dance to. I mean I’ve always loved bands like The Stooges. When you listen to it, it’s like sex. Sex as a song. And I love Lydia Lunch, and I hear a lot of Lydia Lunch in my voice on this record. I really was influenced by some of her earlier stuff also by the fact that she still has a really interesting career. It’s always going to sound like a rock record when you have five people, but I think the keyboards keep it a little bit on the dance-y side.
I’m working with people who like playing their instruments. I don’t have to do everything.
BLVR: And the Riot Grrrl idea was that anyone can make music, and your album now is kind of like, “I’m going to work with these really great, technically-gifted musicians and make an album that feels beautiful.”
KH: Right. And why do I have to stay in the chicken coop for the rest of my life proving how DIY I am? I’m 44 years old, I’m proud of that fact, and I’m proud that I’ve had as much longevity as have had, and I want to change it up. I want what Isaac Hayes had on “Live at The Sahara” where he was telling stories and then had this amazing band backing him up. I remember listening to that Isaac Hayes record and being like, why can’t I have that? Why do I feel like it always has to be scratchy and not recorded perfectly, and “oh we have to get this done in two days because we’re so broke,” and I was like, “how can I figure out a way to not have it be like that forever?” you know, and to do something new.
I feel like I’ve given myself this amazing gift of working with people who really enjoy what they’re doing, and I can just sing. That’s all I have to do.
This interview was conducted for the Believer’s podcast, The Organist, and you can hear the rest on this month’s episode.
Illustration Credit: Lucas Adams