An interview with Kathleen Hanna

The co-founder of Bikini Kill, le Tigre and now the Julie Ruin on her band’s new record, feminist strides in the music world, guns, Trump, the first female president & more.

Kathleen Hanna
Kathleen Hanna

The influence of Kathleen Hanna on contemporary pop culture can’t be overstated.

Her band Bikini Kill inspired a generation of women and girls to stand up, stop taking shit and start getting creative and politically engaged, with music, art, zines and activism inside and outside of the punk and indie rock scenes. Her riot grrrl manifesto galvanized third wave feminists and started a movement of its own. A phrase she spray-painted inside her friend Kurt Cobain’s house, “Kurt smells like teen spirit,” became the title of the single that — to paraphrase Sonic Youth — finally broke punk rock into the mainstream.

At the end of the ’90s, Kathleen Hanna re-emerged with a new band, le Tigre, whose unforgettable, pop-propelled electro-punk songs delivered the same ethos to a wider audience. But between those two bands, Kathleen Hanna released a solo record that was more introspective and largely electronic — the album was released under the name Julie Ruin, and Hanna has revived that moniker (as the Julie Ruin) for her new band, which features fellow Bikini Kill alumnus Kathi Wilcox plus Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli and Sara Landeau. Their first album, Run Fast, was released in 2013, along with a must-see documentary about Kathleen Hanna called The Punk Singer — it chronicles her history as a band leader and figurehead, her recent struggle with Lyme disease, her marriage to Adam Horowitz (aka the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock) and much more.

Ahead of the band’s Montreal show this week, I spoke to Kathleen Hanna about the brand new Julie Ruin record (Hit Reset) and how conditions have improved and stayed the same for women in the music world — “one step forward, two steps back.”

(We also spoke about gun control and the U.S. presidential election, two issue that have developped dramatically since the interview was conducted — as you’re reading, note that this was before the shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philandro Castillo near Minneapolis, before the police sniper shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and before Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate.)

Kathleen Hanna The Julie Ruin
Kathleen Hanna in The Julie Ruin

Lorraine Carpenter: Where did you want to go with this new record?

Kathleen Hanna: For me it’s a pretty personal record and it deals with a lot of stuff from my childhood. “Hit Reset,” the title track, has the lyrics, “Deer hooks hanging on the wall, shell casings in the closet hall, drunk from a mug shaped like a breast” — that’s all true. I was sick of talking about everything in general terms; I have to tell my own story now and get really honest with how complicated it is. That song’s about how, when you grow up in an abusive household, it’s not just about going to therapy and realizing it’s not my fault — when it’s a biological parent who you look like, it’s like every day I look in the mirror and I see my abuser.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to wake up, and that’s affected my whole life. I’m in my 40s and I still have weird PTSD shit from my dad running around outside the house shooting guns. I wanted to write about what it felt like being a child in my house, and how scary it was, and it’s sad to say, but there’s a ton of people who can relate to that. We’re the people who go to dinner parties and don’t have any fun stories to tell about growing up. Why do we have to hide and not talk about that stuff, ’cause it brings people down and it’s a bummer? Fuck that! We’re not alone; we should be able to talk about it.


LC: Are you at all involved in gun control activism? What are your feelings about this issue right now?

KH: My mom and her boyfriend are very much involved, and when I get a little less busy I want to get into what they’re into and help out however I can. (At the moment, we’re making a t-shirt that will be sold to benefit a non-violence group in New York City, out of respect for the Orlando victims and survivors.) My mom’s boyfriend of 40 years was shot in a mass shooting and he survived, but not everybody in the shooting did.

It’s completely stupid there are weapons available that only the owner with the registered fingerprint can use and the NRA blocks them. That’s like blocking medication from people who need it. The fact is that a lot of kids wouldn’t be able to shoot their faces off if those guns were allowed… Fingerprint technology is one step in the right direction but also just having common sense laws. Why does anybody need an AK47 or AK57? There’s no reason to own a military style gun unless you’re a soldier in war.

I grew up hunting a little bit and knowing a little bit about that culture ’cause my dad collected guns, but all I saw them as was something that could potentially kill me and was gonna kill animals. I just couldn’t wait to get out of my house so I don’t have a gun around me. But I did own a gun on my very first tour ’cause I was really scared, but I know now it would’ve gotten taken away from me had there been a really bad situation, and it probably would’ve been used against me.

I mean I can’t believe that people who have domestic violence convictions are ever allowed to buy a gun. To me, you’ve lost your privilege, esp if you’ve used a weapon in the commission of domestic violence, which so many people have. You should never be allowed to have a gun again.

It’s so disrespectful to the people who died and lost family and friends and lovers and lifetime partners in Orlando, it’s so disrespectful to not turn around the next day and do something. That guy should’ve never had weapons. And then the anniversary comes up of the white dude who prayed with people in a predominantly African American church [in South Carolina] and then he murdered them? How are we trying to say that terrorism is our worst problem? It’s domestic terrorism.


LC: Do you feel like the music world in general is a more hospitable place for women than it was in the ’90s?

KH: I think it’s one step forward, two steps back. From what I’ve seen, there’s more diversity in the indie music scene, in the audience and on stage. There’s never been this many women playing music at the top of their game at the same time, and there are definitely more women of colour forming bands now.

There’s still all this bad stuff happening, but we’re actually hearing about it, and we didn’t talk about it before. People are sharing their stories, people are saying this publicist did this thing to me and everyone is backing them up and saying that happened to me, too.

In the ’90s we didn’t have Twitter so there wasn’t this kind of immediate thing, and I do caution myself and other people to make sure something’s true before you Tweet it — you could ruin someone’s life in one second by just passing some rumour that is not true. But with that publicist it was pretty obvious that there was a problem, and he admitted it.

In the ’90s, I got groped by promoters, I got letters that said “I’m gonna chop your breasts off” and “I know where you live;” I was scared on tour, and men were violent toward me, but I just never talked about it ’cause I thought it was part of what I had to put up with — there were so many things that were so fucked up that it all blurred into one horrible nightmare. I was like, I’m on a mission and I’m not gonna let dealing with (abusive men) hijack my mission and derail me. I felt like it was too much to be the fucking bitch from Bikini Kill, the man-hating band — which was the stereotype — and then on top of it call men on their shit all the time. People would’ve just been like, “You’re lying.”

I feel like men need to sit down and look at what happened, like those guys from that publicity company just changing their name — sit down and look at where things went wrong, and the times that you turned a blind eye. Be accountable for it. Figure out what’s our policy going forward. The problems women are having with the people they work with, how are we gonna make it so it doesn’t take 10 years for this to come out? How are we gonna let the women we work with know that if they have any problems, here’s the system to deal with it and they’re not gonna penalize you or not give you the great service you deserve because you cried foul. Where’s the men who are meeting in a room and reading all these tweets? Jessica Hopper did this project where women tweeted things that happened to them in the music industry, so we have a long list of things that go wrong for women who play music and make music — so let’s figure out how to make these things not happen.

And why is it that most of the time, the only African American men who work in a club are bouncers? Because the white owners are using the stereotype of scary black men right there in front of us. These things are unacceptable.

And I have this really great idea: I want to find venues that are really exciting to play, with all kinds of music in the same space, where people are mixing together in what feels like a positive space, and the staff is not all white men, and ask them, How did you do this? What’s your advertising plan? How did you create this venue? How can we make your space a model?

With all these music conferences, it would be pretty easy to set up a working group that tries to figure out how to change these things for the better. Let’s start coming up with plans instead of just article after article about horror stories, but people get off on horror stories. I wanna talk about real strategies — I don’t wanna talk about how bad it is, we all know how bad it is.

LC: It’s great that more people are coming forward with these stories but it can be discouraging for women to see these men acquitted by an unfair legal system. [I briefly summarize the Jian Ghomeshi case and acquittal.]

KH: Ugh, that’s like the Brock Turner thing that happened here.

LC: Yeah.

KH: The survivor of that attack went public with this amazing letter that she wrote to the judge that’s helped so many people. She’s totally humanized herself to the universe, or not let herself be dehumanized as the woman who was raped behind a dumpster. So many people are trying to get that judge removed because what he did was obscene.


LC: I don’t know if you’re in the habit of endorsing political candidates, but what are your feelings about the candidates [ie. Clinton and Sanders] right now?

KH: I’m psyched! I hope Hillary wins. Seeing her and Elizabeth Warren on stage a few nights ago just got me really pumped. I’m so happy that Sanders brought our country into a more progressive mode, into a mode of, “We can do anything,” “We can change things for the better.”

I really hope that after so much bitterness in the campaign that people who were gonna vote for Sanders pick Hillary. She does have a ton of experience and she’s been working at this her whole entire life. I know a lot of people have problems with her and that’s totally fine — no one’s perfect, especially if you’ve been in politics as long as she had and you’ve been really enmeshed in politics. It just worries me that people are going to abstain from voting because there isn’t the perfect candidate for them. I mean we’ve all voted before for the lesser of two evils.

But I’m psyched! I want to be excited to have the first female president. I don’t want to be ashamed of it. In this country, people have these secret Facebook groups about supporting Hillary because they feel if they speak openly about it, they’ll just get trashed on the Internet. I’ve seen it I’ve seen friends losing friends, and “Shillary” and “She’s a killer” and all this kind of stuff. It’s scary to me to find out that I live in a community where people still treat each other that way. There are people that can’t have a normal argument without starting to yell at you.

I’m sure there are pro-Hillary people who’ve done that to Bernie Sanders supporters as well, I’m not saying it’s just from one side, but I’d like to see people have open public debates where we educate each other. That’s what makes me feel good about being American, but all this stuff recently does not make me feel good about being an American.

The thing that scares me so much is I can’t believe how many people would vote for such a nationalist, racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, ableist asshole like Trump? It’s humiliating to me as an American and it’s scary ’cause when I’m in the grocery store, I’m like, “Is that person voting for Trump?” There’s people in New York who are voting for him — I’m breathing the same air as these people. It’s scary to realize how extremely racist people are.

There’s just this totally hateful right-wing in this country, and Trump is so indicative of that. He’s gonna build a wall? He’s gonna round up families and kick them out of this country? I’m gonna fucking cry! I’m sorry for going off, it’s just so upsetting. There’s been so many upsetting things that have happened lately. And then Brexit. Jesus Christ. ■

The Julie Ruin with Kathleen Hanna play Théâtre Fairmount (5240 Parc) on Tuesday, July 19, 9 p.m., $24/$27

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