An interview with Kathleen Hanna

· Thursday January 9, 2014

The Julie Ruin is the new band from Kathleen Hanna, the outspoken, intelligent, funny, punk-rock feminist who talks like a valley girl. She formed and fronted pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, which was followed by politically minded electro-indie trio Le Tigre (who presaged electroclash and the whole '80s revival). If you haven’t already, you should watch the documentary on riot grrrl and the recently released documentary on Kathleen Hanna – both are excellent.

The Julie Ruin are coming to Australia thanks to Mistletone. We are so excited! Wilfred spoke to Kathleen over the phone about interior design and Temple of the Dog.

One of my favourite quotes about making music is something you said a little over ten years ago. You said that after you release an album you feel like you go into this weird denial tent, like you've been at a party the night before and got really drunk and said a bunch of fucked-up yet ultimately true stuff to people. I wondered if you still feel that way.

(laughs) I'm laughing at my own quote, which is probably pretty fucked up. No, I don't feel that way about this record because I felt so strongly about it, so proud of it. I was really clear about making it. I like the records I put out otherwise I wouldn't put them out. But there's always that moment of insecurity – will other people like it? I just didn't have that as much because I've been doing this for a long time, and if I like it and I'm super psyched I'm willing to let the world decide what they think of it. Y'know, you get older. Everybody hated the last Le Tigre album when it came out but now a lot of people like it and say it's our best record. So I take it with a grain of salt. But that is pretty funny and that is how I felt about records back then.

Did you feel weird taking the early stuff that was recorded in your bedroom and putting it on the stage?

When I was in my twenties and I did the first Julie Ruin album, which was a solo record, I really felt like I was drunk at a party. And that was one of the records that I just shoved under the door of the label Kill Rock Stars and then ran away. I had no idea what the reception was going to be like. It was the first record I did press for, I really was trying to be proud of it because I really believed in it, but I really felt like people were gonna trash it. And a lot of people trashed it and hated it and now they say it's really great! (both laugh) This happens with SO many things! It's really funny. I'm not saying everybody says it's great but now it's like $100 on eBay because they're out of print and I'm like, “Wow…” I thought 40 people bought it so I was pleasantly surprised.

I feel really powerful taking stuff out of the bedroom and taking it to the stage. I think it's a real statement of my confidence as a grown-up that I don't have to keep stuff in my diary, I can present it, y'know? I think the songs became so much better through our collaboration. It's so fun to sing those old songs; the songs that we play live still resonate with me because if they didn't I wouldn't sing them.

I listened to an interview where you talked about being really into interior design, and how you got into it because you spent all this time in dingy, disgusting rock clubs. It made me think about the mythology of rock and roll, and the rock-and-roll lifestyle. I wondered what your thoughts were on that after spending 20 years in the music industry.

Well I definitely think the 'sex, drugs and rock and roll' thing is very much alive in people's minds. And people think it's not a real job or something. I definitely think it's a really fun job and if it's not fun I'm not going to do it anymore. But at the same time it's a lot of work. For me personally, I couldn't be drinking and doing drugs and singing the way I sing every night. And I couldn't be drinking and doing drugs and like, doing this interview (laughs) and making videos, and we're running our own label and we're managing ourselves. So there's a lot of work for the five of us, split up and doing all our own accounting and stuff like that. So we're not in a position where it's like this 'party lifestyle' or whatever.

But in terms of the interior design thing, on tour I just got tired of looking at drawings of, like, women being raped and huge pictures of penises and all that kind of stuff and disgusting bathrooms. I started coming home and really nesting and really making my space beautiful and then I became really interested in other spaces. I live in New York and it's the kind of place where you never know what you're going to find behind a door. You could be in a building that looks really fancy and you walk inside and it's just the Department of Sanitation. Or you could be in a building that looks like it's falling apart and then inside there's just this amazing space with huge, tall ceilings all full of plants and you're just like, “This is stunning.”

While studying interior design one of my teachers pulled me aside and was like, “Y'know, you suck at the technical stuff, I'm just being honest with you, but you're really good at the visuals – you're the best student I have in terms of presentation.” She said, “Why aren't you making visual art and doing installations? Use what you've learned here to do installations.” So when I have some downtime that's what my plan is; I'd really like to do some installation art and use what I learnt in terms of the history of spaces and all that kind of stuff in my work.

Thank you for asking me that question, by the way.

Oh yeah, no problem. You're welcome. I'm really excited to talk to you, by the way. I think you're awesome.

In the '90s, it was really great that Bikini Kill and the riot grrrl bands created an environment wherein people could talk in a confessional style about things that were traumatic. Then with the explosion of grunge, it kind of became a trend to talk about things that were angsty or traumatic. Did you ever worry that was going to make people take these issues less seriously?

You know, actually, I did see in a certain riot grrrl group there were some people who started to really misuse political language as almost like a one-upmanship. I think Bell Hooks wrote something about how political organisations become a thing where people are sitting around telling their laundry list of bad things that have happened to them – and that's a part of the process, but that's not the entire process. I think a big part of the process is learning about how sexism hurts everyone, not just women, and binary oppositions of all kinds, saying “this kind of person is good” and “this kind of person is bad”, really need to be challenged. When it becomes a thing where some creepy girls who maybe just don't feel confident about themselves try and one-up each other about sexual violence it's horrifying, and it's one of those things that at the time I didn't want to talk about because there's such a conservative backlash where people are like, “Oh women fake stuff and say that they're raped when they aren't.” I have watched language about sexual violence really being misused – you don't want to say anything because I don't wanna feed into the 'false memory syndrome' people who I think are total conservative assholes. But that happened and I wanna be honest that I've seen that happen and it was really horrifying.

I always think of like The Brady Bunch Movie of the '90s (which featured a fake grunge band called Phlegm) or the Kids in the Hall movie where they have these terrible grunge-rock bands that are just like, “It's a black day / And it's black in my soul!” (both laugh) and I'm just like, is that what the '90s became? Like everybody trying to act more traumatised and more depressed?

It was really weird to watch straight white guys get in on the game, with songs like “I don't mind stealing bread / From the mouths of decadence" – there was all this guilt about being on major labels. It was ridiculous.

I never realised that's what that line was about!

Yeah, I think there was a lot of stuff in the States in the '90s where it was like if you're on an indie label you're like a real authentic band, and if you're on a major label you're like total fake ass. And Nirvana was the one band that was the exception to that, where people were like, "I like Nirvana,” and they somehow maintained this real – I hate the word 'alternative' – but this real alternative vision through what they were doing with Kurt, y'know, talking about feminism publicly and calling himself a feminist and all that kind of stuff. I thought that was one cool thing that happened. But everybody mimicking Kurt's voice was really weird.

I wondered if falling in love with Adam Horovitz – who you have admitted said some childishly sexist things early in his career – I wondered if that has made you more forgiving of young artists who say insensitive things? In their lyrics or in interviews?

Absolutely. I also realise that in-jokes, that start in your own underground scene, don't often translate well on an international level and a lot of kids and artists make work never guessing it will have a large audience. This is no excuse for making shitty work but I do understand how several components can brew together to make bad decisions even worse!

I know that Sara in your band you met through Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, and I'd love to hear you talk a little about that for our readers.

The rock camps here are for girls from age seven to 17. They basically go in on a Friday and it's a two-week thing. They get assigned to a band – like they all pick what instruments they want to play and then they get matched up with each other. It's all kinds of different girls who get thrown together so I think it's really great that they have to work out their issues with each other and learn how to work together in a really short time, and then they get up onstage and play their songs. And all week during their time there they have workshops about engineering and they get to pick what they want to do, if they wanna make a zine or whatever. It's really great – they have talks about the history of women in music. And the thing that's really, really amazing about the camps is that a very large percentage of the campers are on scholarships and that's largely because women all over the country are volunteering at these camps for free, and a lot of them are musicians in prominent bands who are giving their time because they believe in it. It's a really special, special thing, and whether the girls go into music or not I feel like they're learning so much about, y'know, having disagreements with each other and getting through it. Sara and I coached a band actually, for about nine months, and we recorded them in a proper studio and everything, and we got to see them really grow as musicians and it was incredible.

There was a similar school in Australia, Melbourne Rock and Roll High School – I know that Brody from the Distillers came out of there. I visited there once – Bikini Kill visited.

Thank you so much Kathleen.

You're welcome. Thank you!