Sitting at a table flanked by her four bandmates in The Julie Ruin, Kathleen Hanna is very much in her element. "I really wanted to give myself the gift of being able to write with people who brought themselves to the table and brought their own ideas in," she says of her decision to assemble the group six years ago. That gift has certainly paid off: The synergy between each member of The Julie Ruin — keyboardist and vocalist Kenny Mellman, bassist Kathi Wilcox, guitarist Sara Landeau, and drummer Carmine Covelli — is palpable from the moment we sit down. Talking over pizza at Brooklyn’s Speedy Romeo, they finish each other’s thoughts and sentences, share their slices, rib each other warm-heartedly to make the whole table laugh. But Hanna and the rest of the band are vocal about the wayward path that brought The Julie Ruin to their sophomore album, Hit Reset (out this week via Hardly Art).
"To me, the first album was put together track by track, and this was more like, Oh, we’ve kind of figured things out," Mellman says. "We’ve learned how to play as a band."
"We’re not all confused about how we feel about things anymore," Covelli adds. "We’re pretty decided on that. When you’re young, your ideas are all over the place, but now we’re just all very comfortable. We’re not trying to be anything we’re not."
That levelheadedness seems to be the key to the success of The Julie Ruin, a project nearly two decades in the making. In 1998, Hanna — the firebrand voice behind riot grrrl architects Bikini Kill, who had disbanded the previous year — released Julie Ruin, a lo-fi solo album that set aside her punk impulses for synthpop and experimental, sample-based oddities in a bid to expand her art beyond Bikini Kill and riot grrrl’s political tenor. "That was a time when I really asserted myself as separate," she says now. "Not just from Bikini Kill. I didn’t want to be the figurehead of a movement or whatever. I had to make the decision, do I literally go into politics and try to do this thing, or do I make music?"
The answer came easily. "I make music," Hanna says. "Because that’s what kept me together — mixing desperately wanting to end violence against women with something I loved to do, which was music."
It’s an ethos that aligns well with the band Hanna assembled in 2010, motivated by the idea of what she thought a continuation of Julie Ruin’s energy would sound like in a new decade, fleshed out with live instrumentation. She cherry-picked the group’s members from friends and colleagues: Mellman of NYC cabaret act Kiki & Herb; Wilcox of Bikini Kill and The Casual Dots; Girls Rock Camp instructor Landeau; and experimental art vet Covelli.
"It just started off as a fun project," Wilcox says of the band’s free-form beginnings. "It didn’t start off as a career move at all. We didn’t know how serious it was gonna be."
After rehearsing Bikini Kill and Julie Ruin songs together, the group began to pen its debut album, 2013’s Run Fast, an energetic indie rock record that used peppy song structures to mask comparatively dark subject matter inspired by Hanna’s years-long battle with Lyme disease. That experience hampered the album's recording process and forced the group to cancel nearly a year of tour dates, and can be seen up close and personal in the excellent 2013 documentary on Hanna’s life, The Punk Singer.
"I had to record all the vocals myself in my apartment. Just piecemeal, when I felt well enough," Hanna says of Run Fast. But for Hit Reset, recorded during a newly Lyme-free period of Hanna’s life, the band was able to come together in an actual studio to bounce ideas off of one another with the album’s co-producer, Eli Crews. "This was more like we were making this record as a band in the studio," Hanna says. "I really wanted that for us."
Starting last July, The Julie Ruin were able to put Hit Reset together using that studio time, as well as recording parts separately like they did with Run Fast, emailing bits and pieces to each other to pick up when their numerous side gigs slowed down. "A lot of the pressure is off, because we can just email information and workshop it at home, put it online, workshop it together," Landeau says of Hit Reset's recording process. "Then that way you're like, ‘OK, I'm just gonna send it in and not think about it. No one's gonna laugh at me or whatever.' I think that's a good way of writing."
From its opening moments, Hit Reset feels as galvanizing as its creation, maintaining Run Fast's acerbic wit and knocking energy, but with more humor and musical experimentation than before. "Be Nice" smears Hanna’s voice in reverb as she sarcastically rallies from the point of view of a petulant man (“Why won't you give me erections? / Give me expressions? / Tell me your history? / Why won't you give me all your loving?”), while "I Decide" employs backup vocals from the rest of the band over sawing guitar and bass lines to create a kind of post-punk update of Hanna’s previous electronic outfit, Le Tigre.
Meanwhile, "Mr. So and So" is the band’s funniest track to date, a boppy indictment of tokenism framed by Hanna's own experiences of sexism in indie rock. By choosing to write the song in the first person, she doesn't hesitate to cross-examine her own place in the cycle, either. But the song’s specific, biting denouement will be familiar to any musician who has been othered in indie rock: "Gonna ask you to play just a week and a day before my festival / 'Cause the bill is all guys and people wanna know why / And I need you for some press quotes / You'll be playing midday on the dumpster stage / And on the flyers we'll make sure to misspell your name."
Then there’s Hit Reset’s stirring, surprising closer, "Calverton," the band’s first "capital-B ballad," in Hanna’s words. "It’s about my mom and her basically saving my life," she says. "There’s the line that sounds totally R. Kelly, like 'I Believe I Can Fly.' I kept trying to change it to, 'You made me think that I could try.' But that’s not how I felt." The song began with full instrumentation, but once Mellman played it on piano with Hanna to try to figure out the melody, the group decided it worked better as a spare, bare-bones moment to finish the record.
"I can only speak for myself, but I fought very hard for it [being on the record]," Mellman says. "I’m a huge Suede fan, and I love a good ballad on a record that’s not all ballads. It’s something I just personally think shows another great side of an artist."
With a tour coming up behind Hit Reset, the band is preparing to set aside its numerous other professional ventures — which, between the five of them, include revival tours and reunion shows; teaching gigs and lectures; all-woman collaborative concerts; a seat on the judging panel for a dance theater contest at Movement Research; and moderating comedy shows.
"We also run a restaurant," Hanna jokes. "And a funeral home."
"And we're running for president as a collective," Mellman adds.
With the ambition on display on Hit Reset and in their live shows, it doesn’t seem completely out of the question. "It’s sort of a fantasy," Hanna says of being in The Julie Ruin. "It’s like giving myself the thing I always wanted."