When Bikini Kill ended its seven-year run making activistic punk music and inciting the riot grrrl gen to stand up for feminism and human rights, its lead singer Kathleen Hanna just wanted to retreat into her bedroom.
The group -- consisting of Hanna, guitarist Billy Karren, bassist Kathi Wilcox, and drummer Tobi Vail -- had spent years battling violent backlash during their performances and were about to do it again in ‘98 for a tour with spin-off group the Frumpies, featuring Bratmobile’s Molly Neuman. Kathleen Hanna opted out to avoid any conflict and, consequently, made one of the most seminal albums of her career, The Julie Ruin, which took its title from the name of her lo-fi diaristic solo project. It also laid the electronic groundwork for her next band, Le Tigre.
Hanna retreated once again after leaving Le Tigre, emerging after much introspection with her upcoming second album for the Julie Ruin, Run Fast. “I was writing subjectively a lot about my life, what’s going on with me now, memories, stuff that just cheers me up when I’m sad,” she recently told Hive. “I wasn’t trying to write an anthem for a generation.”
Even so, there’s an explosive, jump-and-shout energy in this new batch of songs -- in part because she’s shed the lo-fi veil that spread across the Julie Ruin’s debut and is reaching for a cleaner, more danceable sound. This could be attributed to her newfound confidence as a songwriter and the fact that Bikini Kill have finally found their well-deserved place in the canon; recently, they helped put together an archive of zines and ephemera from their active years called The Riot Grrrl Collection, and their legacy has been re-introduced by Pussy Riot who have made a lot of noise while carrying their torch.
Hanna has help this time around, too, having expanded Julie Ruin into a full-time project with her former bandmate Kathi Wilcox, keyboardist Kenny Mellman, drummer Carmine Covelli and guitarist Sara Landeau.
Hive spoke to Hanna about how history is on her side, her Bikini Kill fashion choices, and how she’s enjoying, finally, playing for a peaceful crowd.
How do the issues you’re addressing on Run Fast compare to the first Julie Ruin album?
When I wrote the solo record, I was still in Bikini Kill and we were kind of just disintegrating. I had a lot of energy and didn’t know what to do with it so I kind of holed up in my apartment and made this record. A lot of it was about gaining confidence as a songwriter. I taught myself to play a guitar, I taught myself how to sample, and it was going back to the beginning. When we first started as a band, Tobi knew how to play drums but we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing and I missed that spirit of experimentation.
With the Julie Ruin, as a full-time band, I’m more confident as a singer, I’m more confident to collaborate with people and say what I like and don’t like, but I’m still writing from a much more personal place than I’ve written in Bikini Kill and early Le Tigre -- although there are a few songs that are entirely personal from both bands. I wanted to write songs that are more personal and sometimes when you write songs that are more personal they end up sounding more political than you were trying to be.
Up to now, were insecurities a necessary creative impulse for you?
Definitely. I almost had a nervous breakdown before every single show. Even when the Julie Ruin played last week, I can’t really tell you what happens to my body before a show but it’s like I still get completely nervous. Maybe that’s not all insecurity, but trying to find confidence has been a big theme in my work. If I wasn’t insecure, what would I be searching for?
But as I’ve gotten older it’s really changed. I think a lot of musicians are desperate and crave love. Maybe their parents didn’t love them. We’ve had some shit in our lives where we felt unloved and then we go and look to these anonymous strangers to love us. After many years of therapy, and becoming more secure and not needing love from anonymous people -- which kind of happened to me during Le Tigre -- I was like, “Am I still going to be nervous? Am I still going to want to go on stage because I’m not desperate anymore?” Actually, I still got nervous but I didn’t rely on random strangers to give me love. I was there to play music and have a good time. I didn’t have to get their approval so I kind of had more free reign to do what I wanted.
How does the culture of the new, expanded Julie Ruin compare to your other bands?
It really changed for me in Le Tigre and a big part of it was that we started making electronic music, so it was way less a culture of "I’m going to throw a bottle on your head"—although I did have a wine glass thrown at my head in Le Tigre. But it wasn’t like Bikini Kill where I was being pulled off the stage by my ankles or having beer spit in my face. It was much less violent in Le Tigre. There wasn’t moshing and a bunch of straight dudes jumping on women’s heads. It was a much more queer-friendly scene.
And our door prices weren’t $5. They were like $12 and I think I’ve mentioned before that people typically don’t want to spend $12 to throw a beer bottle at your head – they’ll only pay $5 to do that. So it really changed for me with dance music and respecting myself as a musician. Taking myself seriously actually helped the violence get better -- and getting management and having help.
As you’ve gotten older, do you find yourself thinking more about your own mortality or your safety during performances?
No, but now I’m really freaked out now that you’ve asked that. Just kidding. I thought about that a lot in Bikini Kill because I got such extreme hatemail that specifically would threaten me. There was a time where I didn’t want to perform and my bandmates were in a band called Frumpies and they went on tour during that period and I was just like, “I can’t go on stage.” It was getting to such a fevered pitch of hatred against me as a feminist performer that it didn’t feel like it was safe. That’s another reason why I did the Julie Ruin solo record. I was like, “I don’t feel safe going on tour so I’m going to hole up in my apartment and make a record.”
But I don’t feel that way anymore. People are giving a lot of love to me and Kathleen now that it’s not the ‘90s. After so much hatred and violence I’m like, “Yes, thank you for saying you were on our side.” Because I would be in a bathroom getting ready to play a show and would tell myself, “History is on your fucking side. Get on stage and do it.” Now, I’m having everyone say, “What you did was really important” and I’m like, “Thank you, more of that please.”
One of the things I love most about Bikini Kill is that your messages always came across through your clothes. You found a way to merge the two worlds and make a feminist fashion statement. Looking back, how do you see your style relating to your music and the statements you were trying to make?
The Kill Me dress was kind of a commentary on the way the press was dealing with us. We got a review in a magazine that just said “Fuck you” 11 times. That was it. We got a review in another really large national magazine that said we wrote the worst record of all-time and then, three months later when Thurston Moore said he thought Bikini Kill was awesome, they re-wrote the review. I was also getting all of this hatemail and people were threatening me and saying, “You don’t deserve to live. You should put duct tape on your mouth.” I was really freaked out. So I ironed “Kill Me” onto a dress and went on stage in it. I felt like I had a fucking bullseye on my head so I was like, “Why not have a bullseye on my dress?” That was one of my more negative outfits.
I was a dancer or stripper at my day job -- that’s what put me through college -- and I was working out some of the issues of taking my clothes off for men and being a feminist at the same time. So I would mix my stripper clothes and wear them over tops or tights -- like wear a sparkly bra top that I wore at work over a T-shirt -- and I did a lot of dance moves that would turn from “I’m a gorilla” into “I’m a sexy stripper” back into “I’m a monster.” I was working a lot of stuff out on stage with my body and my costumes. It was a place where punk rock met this ultra-feminine fake identity I put on as a stripper. I think there’s a connection there. There have been so many female performers, way before me, who had jobs in the sex industry as a way to be in bands and go on tour. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to be bringing that into punk rock. How do you make enough money to be in a punk band if you don’t have a trust fund?
You’ve said that no one ever asked you about fashion during your time in Bikini Kill. Why do you think it’s been overlooked?
Pretty much all people ever asked me about was riot grrrl and feminism in Bikini Kill and queer politics and feminism in Le Tigre. It was the same thing how no one asked me what kind of guitar I play. People would ask us why we wore costumes but they wouldn’t ask about them or why we had certain kinds of costumes made. No one talked to me about it when I was in Bikini Kill and had these shirts with hairy chests on them and tried to play with the idea of gender as a role that you put on like you put on a shirt. The only time people commented on our clothes was if I got hot and took off my shirt and was wearing some ugly bra and then people would be like, “She stripped on stage.” There was more of a focus on potential nudity than like, “Oh, she wore this dress that had a man on it. What did that mean?”
How do you feel about riot grrrl fashion being evoked again on the runway and the punk movement being celebrated by the Metropolitan’s retrospective?
I see girls with blue hair and don’t really associate it with riot grrrl. People forget a lot of riot grrrl fashion at the time was carrying a lunchbox and wearing baby dreads and I don’t see that at all. All I notice is this kind of grunge thing that doesn’t look grunge. Grunge didn’t exist in the first place. I also see a little of the flowery dresses with the combat boots from Reality Bites happening and the stretch pants -- which I hate.
I actually read a really great article about one of the co-curators for the Met exhibit, but I don't care about what’s been happening now. I’ve been archiving my own work so much and talking about the past that I don’t want to look at that kind of thing.
Do you think that it’s possible for feminism and fashion to co-exist?
Absolutely. The whole thing about youth culture is that kids define themselves by what clothes they wear—that denotes what group they’re in. Think about the mods and the rockers or whatever. When I think of fashion that relates back to riot grrrl, I think of a good teenage girl who might be wearing a Bikini Kill jacket to school and another girl might come up to her in school and say, “You’re into that band? I’m into Bratmobile or Savages,” and they hang out. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to find someone else because they like the same band as you or they dress like you. It’s always been a way that youth culture has marked itself.
Youth creates style and they also create Occupy Wall Street, so I don’t see how you can separate the two and I don’t see how fashion has to be this horrible thing. Sure sweatshops totally suck, but there are a lot of independent fashion designers who are doing a lot of interesting things and then there’s someone like Tavi Gevinson who’s mixing feminism and fashion in a way that’s really interesting and it’s about being creative. I feel like it’s been denigrated because it’s typically something that’s associated with gay men and women so people think it’s frivolous, it’s gross. It’s also a place where art and commerce meet, and art and commerce aren’t supposed to meet in the same way that politics and music aren’t supposed to meet.
Run Fast drops on September 3 via TJR Records.