If you know who Kathleen Hanna is, you probably have some strong feelings about her.
Hanna, who is the subject of Sini Anderon's new documentary "The Punk Singer," made an indelible mark on feminist culture with her first band Bikini Kill. Hanna, along with bassist Kathi Wilcox, drummer Tobi Vail, and guitarist Billy Karren, pounced on the scene in 1991, with a signature call to arms called "Revolution Girl Style Now!" Their songs about sexism, abuse, hypocrisy, and sheer feminist rage incited and excited their fans, and garnered them some pretty misguided press coverage and plenty of haters over the years. Bikini Kill was part of a larger punk feminist scene, but Kathleen Hanna is, without a doubt, the unwitting poster girl for the movement. It's also because there's a certain something about her that turns grown women into blubbering fan girls.
Hanna and her sisters have inspired other musicians and writers, countless term papers and critical thinking about their body of work. Books like " Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution" and "Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now!" act as ethnographies of the short-lived movement whose effects are still being felt today. The titles are also callbacks to the aforementioned Bikini Kill song, and Hanna's exhortations for guys in the audience to stand back and allow, well, girls to the front. As she says during one live performance, as seen in the doc, "All boys, be cool for once in your lives. Go back. Back!"
"The Punk Singer" covers Hanna's body of work so far, from her early days as a DIY artist and musician her current band The Julie Ruin. It also sheds light on her personal life, specifically the years after she left Le Tigre in 2005. She has since revealed that she quit the band because of mysterious and alarming symptoms that were later identified as late-stage Lyme disease. Hanna's back with a new band called The Julie Ruin, and their album "Run Fast" is a catchy, poppy look at grown-up life and love.
This grown-up riot grrrl was beyond thrilled to sit with Hanna to discuss "The Punk Singer."
FILM.COM: What was the interview process with Sini like? Did you guys just sit down like, "All right, tell me about your life"? How did that go?
KATHLEEN HANNA: Most of it took place at our house in New Jersey – we have an apartment in New York, and we have a house in New Jersey on a lake, and we would just choose weekends, typically when I was well, and we would all go up there. Sini the director, and the camera people, we'd just go up there and hang out and they would film me doing stuff. Like, I had to get comfortable with, like, I was actually making music. There's a shot of me making music near the end of the film, and I actually really literally was making music, and I was pissed because I saw the camera come around the corner and I was like, I really needed to work. I needed to get this one song done. So there were times where it really was them just filming me doing stuff, and that was more difficult than the interview process.
The interview process was – I sat in a chair and they had a set-up and Sini asked me questions, and sometimes we'd do questions twice. I know when I'm being interviewed on video, a lot of times to repeat the question at the beginning of the thing, so I kind of knew about that sort of stuff, so there was a little bit of like professional interviewing technique involved in it. But Sini's been a friend for over 15 years, and I felt like I could just be honest, and I trusted the women that I was working with a lot, and I knew that, in the edit, if there was something that I honestly couldn't stand, that I trusted her to take it out. But I left a lot of really uncomfortable things in it, because it's not my film, you know? It was Sini and Tamra [Davis]'s film, and I was just interviewed for it. And that's how I look at it, you know what I mean?
When people critique the film, rightly so, have positive things to say about it, negative things to say about it, I can't really take it personally because it wasn't my project, you know what I mean? It was something I was interviewed for, but I didn't have control over what the narrative ended up being or any of that stuff. The control I had was, I said, if I said anything about my family that I didn't want in the film or about friends that I didn't want in the film, I was allowed to take that out. And I didn't take anything out. I just added a line about my mom and that I love my mom.
I interviewed Sini yesterday, and we talked about how it was sort of like therapy, the interview process. It seems like a project that wouldn't have been possible with someone who wasn't a friend, and someone who honestly loves you and cares about you and made a film that shows that. It's really insightful. It's really touching.
Oh, thank you.
What was your first impression when you saw it?
Well, I saw early edits that were really like, all over the place craziness, you know? It just – I think Sini was having a hard time narrowing down what the story was, because we were so close that she wanted to tell so many different stories, and she's a first-time filmmaker, so I was kind of like, wait, what's the story here? I kept being like, what's the story? What's the story? Because I knew that when I watch a movie, I'm – there are some movies that I really like that they don't have strict narratives, but I felt like for a biopic, it kind of needs some narrative, some kind of whodunit, some kind of something to keep people engaged. It can't just be pretty pictures of my face when I was 23, although there's lot of that in there.
I think I finally really started getting it when Tamra came on the project, because she sat there and actually made a story and chose the story because Sini was a little bit in the weeds, and she would admit that. Tamra just is like this total – she made the Basquiat documentary ["Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child"] – and she just sort of is this machine and sits down and is like, here's the story, here's how we're gonna edit it. She could see really clearly because she hadn't shot all the material. She wasn't attached to certain things. And then Sini came in and was bringing some of the art back into it because I don't think either of us just wanted it to be this straight biopic.
The thing I wish, I wish there was a villain in it. I wish there was more dissent in it because I feel like that – I wish there was a little more tension in the movie.
Interesting, because when we were talking yesterday, Sini was like, yeah, this is one-sided on purpose. Which I thought was cool. But was it weird to watch your friends say all those cool stuff about you? Was it embarrassing or squirm-inducing? Like, ohh, you never told me that! I love you guys!
[laughs] I think the only thing that shocked me, and I have to make sure I don't start crying –
No, no, I won't. I'm a professional. At the very beginning of the film when Kathi [Wilcox], who's my bandmate now in The Julie Ruin and was the bass player for Bikini Kill, was talking about starting the band and that she thought I was a good front person, and I never knew that. I mean, I never she thought I was a good singer, even. And I was in a band with her for seven years. And you kind of, I guess, assume that your bandmates think you're good because why would they be in a band with you for that long? But just to hear that, like, oh, she's a great front person, who wouldn't want her in their band? I was like, oh, you think that? And it gave me a lot of confidence.
I had lost a lot of confidence from being sick, and when I started playing music again, I would kind of roll that around in my head a little and be like, I can do this.
At what point did you guys realize the narrative was going to become – not become you getting sick but include that? Because you watch the documentary and it seems like a natural progression. At any point were you guys unsure or were you specifically hesitant to get into that side of things?
No, I wanted to, because I felt like it was really, really important for other people who have autoimmune illnesses, and specifically Lyme, that I didn't lie about it, and I hadn't told a lot of people. And I'd kept my illness to myself for a really long time. And I just was like, I need to tell people because when I was having these seizures — they're like Lyme seizures from your hypothalamus, it's a long story, but I was having a lot of seizures — and I went online and looked up "Lyme seizure" and I found this girl named Heather… Her best friend had filmed her having a Lyme seizure, and it looked exactly like mine. She even had a ponytail, which I usually have. Heather inspired me to allow that in the film because seeing her and then seeing "Under Our Skin," which is a movie about Lyme disease, and I actually found my doctor, my present doctor who's not in the film, through that movie because the woman who had the closest symptoms to mine, I was like, who's her doctor? Because she was getting well. And it turned out it was Dr. [Joseph] Jemsek in DC and I started seeing him, and he's given me a second chance at life.
So I wanted to do that for somebody else, do you know what I mean? I just didn't want Lyme to become the whole movie, because that was the whole thing. It's just another thing. It's a part of my life, but I don't want it to overshadow the fact that, you know, I've been a feminist artist for over 20 years, and I considered it a movie about my work, first and foremost. And it does have stuff about my personal life, and my personal life affected my work so I felt fine having that in.
You know, also, there's a real equation between coming out as a sexual abuse survivor and coming out as somebody who has an illness — an invisible illness. And I think that, in a way, living with the memory of incest or any kind of sexual abuse, silently – and then having an invisible illness, that people can't see, you know — in a way, living with abuse – rape, domestic violence, whatever — and not telling anybody is like having an invisible illness that you're walking around with, and that people don't see. So I really saw an equation there, and I really saw an equation with not lying about it.
And also people — and doctors, in this case — telling you it's all in your head. You're making it up, you're anxious, or you're being hysterical. It's a real callback to that sort of thing, and it seems like there's a lot of support and information sharing among women online about these sort of things, because they're so mysterious. And it's like, no, really, my body is doing this, even if you don't believe me.
I had a doctor who dumped me in the fibromyalgia category and I just got up and left. I was just like, f*ck you, I don't have fibromyalgia. That's just, to me, from what I've learned, it's a medical diagnosis dumping ground for women. They just dump you in there when they don't know what you have. And I've also learned that if you go to an RA, they're going to tell you you have degenerative arthritis, and if you go to – you know what I mean? If you go to a gastroenterologist, they're going to tell you you have Crohn's, and that happened to me.
And any specialty that you go to is going to tell you that you have that illness. You know, I was misdiagnosed with Crohn's, and I could have actually died if I would have done the treatment that they wanted me to do, which was Enbrel, and that's a treatment that would have made the Lyme go absolutely crazy in my body and it could have killed me. And I was really pressured to do that treatment, because they were like, your Crohn's could go out of control if you don't do this right now. And it's a treatment that costs $4,000 a month out of your own pocket, and you're hooked up to an IV, and there was something in me that was like, I don't have Crohn's. Because I don't have the symptoms of it. They found inflammation in my gut, but I don't have the symptoms of it. And it turns out Lyme is a disease of inflammation so your whole body gets inflamed.
Your new album – obviously, I've been a fan for a really long time and thank you – but your new album is so awesome and happy and fun. And as someone who's growing up and figuring out all this stuff along with my heroes, like, is it – it seems like a natural progression to be more vulnerable emotionally. Is it scarier to be, like, hey, "You're Just My Kind!" Or, like, in "Goodbye and Good Night," I felt the sneering – I was like, I would probably think I was such an –
Is it harder now to be like, oh, you know what, I'm going to be open and loving and fun?
It's so much easier. It's so much easier because — I just turned 45 two days ago… And the illness actually, you know, there's good things to come from bad situations, and the illness just made me realize, once again, that I matter but I don't matter and my life is only this long and there's not much time to bullshit. And I need to be honest and just tell the truth, even when it's really hard. And I think the movie also taught me about that because when I watched it, I was like, oh, this is really about telling the truth. It's really about just telling the f*ckin' truth, even if people don't believe you and just knowing if my friends believe me, that's enough. And I've always felt that way about records. If my five friends like it, then I'm cool with it.
And it's typically when I'm not thinking, I'm not like – I always equate it with an archer who's holding a bow and trying really hard to hit the target, and I feel like the songs that I've written in the past where I've been really trying to hit the target have totally missed it. And when I go like that [turns her head and shoots an imaginary arrow from a bow] it's a bull's-eye. And I feel that way about this record a lot, that I wasn't trying to do anything, I was just doing what I did. And I really like it! I've made records that I didn't like, so… [laughs]
Do you think the media landscape has changed since the famous media blackout? Who do you see coming in to talk to you now?
Yeah, people who are like – I mean, I just had a guy [interviewer]… and he was totally like, oh, I went to Bikini Kill shows. You know, he was one of the guys who stood in the back and was fine with it. I'm seeing typically people who were or are fans and who have really positive responses to the music or positive responses to the film and who [laughs] have really good questions. It's been great. I'm really lucky I get to talk about my work. There's a lot of people who make amazing work and nobody makes a movie about them, and there's a lot of people who make amazing work and nobody comes and wants to interview them for anything, and I just feel incredibly fortunate.
There's the occasional a**hole phone interview who, all they wanna do is be like, so, you're married to King Ad-Rock, what's that like? Blah, blah, blah, blah blah. Oh, I went to a Beastie Boys show, blah, blah, blah, blah blah. I'm just like, okay, this is an interview about my album. You haven't even mentioned the album once and we only have one more question. So that still happens, but it's so much less, and I find that articles are not being written where what I look like is the main thing. "Oh, she walked in and her hair looked like blah blah blah, and I expected blah blah blah. She's shorter in person and blahhhh." You know what I mean? [laughs] Or like, it's not about that. People are actually writing about the work.
Riot grrrls have grown up, and they've become journalists.
Yeah, that's kind of what I feel. Like, even on the fashion runways, it's all getting a bit freaky and I dig it. Like, "American Horror Story: Coven" – it's like weirdoes have grown up and are making the media now.
[laughs] You are a riot goth! Still.
Old habits die hard. So, if you have to update "Hot Topic," who would you give shouts out to?
[laughs] Let's see. Grimes. Hilton Als. Barbara Ehrenreich… Is bell hooks in there? I don't remember. Bell hooks, Barbara Christian, June Jordan – I don't think June Jordan was in there. I'm just thinking of authors that I like… The girl from Chvrches, whose name I can't remember right now [Lauren Mayberry] but I think she's really cool. Who else do I think is cool? Savages! Maybe they're called Savage. I always get my plurals f*cked up. I love love love love love their music. Love it. I actually gave a shout-out [in the original song] to my bandmate because Kiki and Herb – and he was Herb in Kiki and Herb. I think we might have actually said Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman, and now I'm in a band with [Kenny]. I should try and be in a band with every single person who's still living who's in that.
"The Punk Singer" is now in theaters.