Kathleen Hanna is smart, funny, and breathlessly honest. She’s also a musician of considerable talent whose first band, Bikini Kill, became the standard bearer of the Riot Grrrl movement in the early ‘90s. Punk rock and feminist politics found an intersection in Bikini Kill, injecting both with a roaring vitality they’d been missing for years. Great things seldom last, of course, and by 1998 Bikini Kill had disbanded. But Kathleen popped up later that year, unscathed, to release a beautiful solo album, Julie Ruin, which she’d written and recorded alone, holed up in an Olympia, Washington apartment. With a sound tangibly removed from Bikini Kill’s urgent thrash, Julie Ruin was new wave-y and poetic, if just as necessary. Last year Kathleen formed Le Tigre with two good friends, the filmmaker Sadie Benning and zine editor Johanna Fateman. Their eponymous first album takes the electro promise of Kathleen’s solo work to delirious new levels, mixing bubblegum, punk, and very danceable beats with a more subversive approach lyrically. The album’s calling card, “Hot Topic,” for example, is an inspired roll call of radicals and artists over a killer Motown vamp. But it’s also a syllabus of sorts, getting listeners to check out the likes of Gayatri Spivak, Valie Export, Billy Tipton, and Ann Peebles. When we had the opportunity to talk with Kathleen, we knew just who to send. Writer Laurie Weeks’ new novel, Zipper Mouth, is about a teenage girl trapped between internalized self-loathing and male sociopathology. She’s also the screenwriter of Boys Don’t Cry, and - by the way - one of Le Tigre’s Hot Topics.
KATHLEEN: You know that movie, There’s Something About Mary? Everyone was saying, “Oh, this movie’s so hilarious.” So I rented it, and I was like, this movie is about three guys stalking this woman. I mean, there were parts of it that were funny —
LAURIE: The dog …
KATHLEEN: The dog, and Ben Stiller getting his dick stuck in his zipper and just what he looked like sometimes, like retainer-face.
LAURIE: I’m a really cheap laugh.
KATHLEEN: Oh, me too. I’ll watch Adam Sandler movies, I’m not above it. But at the same time, I couldn’t get into it. I felt like I had no sense of humor. And I didn’t even see American Beauty, because I knew it was going to be about this middle-aged man and this woman who, because she has a career, she’s like cutting off his penis, and therefore he is forced to have fantasies about this 16-year-old girl. It was the same with Election. I kind of like Reese Witherspoon, and she played a really interesting character who’s this control-freak, perfectionist person, but then it was overlaid with all these adult men fantasizing about adolescent girls. And I was like, it’s the same in every fucking movie. The fact that people like this stuff makes me feel really alienated, so I don’t feel like a part of popular culture ever. In our song “The The Empty,” that was the point — “I went to your comedy club and I didn’t laugh at any of your jokes” — feeling that sense of alienation and thinking we have to make something that we think is funny.
LAURIE: That’s why Cecilia Dougherty’s films are so great. They’re truly hilarious.
KATHLEEN: I’d seen bits of Cecilia’s films here and there, but when I finally saw them in progression at her Threadwaxing Space retrospective, it touched a part of my brain that never, ever got stimulated. It made me feel like my sense of humor existed in the world, because I never see anything that I think is really funny.
LAURIE: Did you start that Riot Grrrl stuff?
KATHLEEN: No. It was a group, collective effort.
LAURIE: … that started in Olympia?
KATHLEEN: No, it actually started in D.C. We wanted to start a magazine, and Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman from the band Bratmobile had started a little fanzine called Riot Grrrl and we were writing little things for it. I’d always wanted to start a big magazine with really cool, smart writing in it, and I wanted to see if the other punk girls in D.C. that I was meeting were interested in that. So I called a meeting and found a space for it, and it just turned into this sort of consciousness-raising thing. I realized really quickly that a magazine wasn’t the way to go. People wanted to be having shows, and teaching each other how to play music, and writing fanzines, so that started happening. It got some press attention, and girls in other places would be like “I wanna do that. I wanna start one of those.”
LAURIE: Did you already have Bikini Kill going on?
KATHLEEN: Yeah. We’d already been in the band for maybe two or three years. Then when I moved back to Olympia, I went to a couple of Riot Grrrl meetings, but then I faded out of it, because I got sort of famous. I mean, at least famous in my own little scene, I got all this attention …
LAURIE: I think you were really famous.
KATHLEEN: It was weird because here was this place I could go and say whatever I wanted, but then I’d go out to shows and hear back from other people things that I’d said in the meetings. Things that were supposed to be confidential. And not to point fingers or be catty, but it wasn’t a safe place for me anymore.
LAURIE: You’re not being catty. Let’s avoid that stereotype. But you must have felt the same kind of thing performing with Bikini Kill.
KATHLEEN: Part of the thing that made Bikini Kill get a lot of attention was that we were confrontational, that I was seen as a confrontational personality on stage, whereas I didn’t feel confrontational at all. I mean, if a guy was taking a picture of my ass the entire show and I told him to stop, and he wouldn’t, and he’s a frat guy with a backwards baseball cap, and I walk up to him and I’m like “Please, can you stop taking my picture? Please,” and he smiles right in my face and takes a picture — I’m gonna grab him and throw him out the door. To me, that feels totally normal, but to everybody else it’s like, “She freaked out for no reason, and she punched this guy.” Then I hear about it for the rest of the tour. After every show people come up to me and tell me I’m just a reverse sexist. It was amazing to watch how many guys got away with such totally bad behavior that there was no reason for, while me acting totally ordinary in a weird situation was always seen as really aberrant and bizarre. And then people started to come just to antagonize us, yelling “Show us your tits,” wanting me to get really angry, and I stopped getting angry, because I knew that’s what they wanted. But that anger went somewhere, to me feeling totally sad all the time and getting really depressed.
LAURIE: And disillusioned?
KATHLEEN: The first time I was disillusioned was actually long before Riot Grrrl. I realized that a lot of women, myself included, involved in feminist activism were just as competitive and capitalistic and trying to one-up each other as in the rest of the world. Instead of going, “Okay, we have a lot of work to do,” I became really despondent and pulled away for a long time. And it’s sort of like art saved my life. I’d found out about stuff that other people were doing — like Felix Gonzalez Torres — and I’d think, there are other forms of art, there’s other stuff going on. That helped me, because I was eating, breathing, and shitting feminist punk, writing, and zines. My whole scene — who I lived and ate with, what I ate, was about that. I realized the only way I could have a healthy relationship with my art and my activism was not to cut out my personal life and pretend it was apolitical, but to have other interests that are separate from it, you know?
LAURIE: That’s the whole problem of the push and pull between activism and art.
KATHLEEN: Yeah. Part of the reason that it was so disillusioning was because I had this split, that it was like, either you’re a total hedonist, or you’re an activist. And if you’re an artist, you’re in the hedonist category. I thought it was a fake way out to say, “Oh, I’m mixing my activism with my art.” I had to have everything be about my activism.
LAURIE: So how did Julie Ruin come into being?
KATHLEEN: I wanted to experiment and I didn’t want to just do rock music. I’d always been interested in sampling. For like five years, I had it in mind that I needed to learn how to use a sampler. I did this band for a minute called The Fakes, that was like a bunch of different people, and in one of the songs we “sampled” “Music Box,” to do this song about being a prepubescent girl. We didn’t know that samplers existed, so we just looped this “Music Box” track over and over on cassette. A couple times in Bikini Kill I’d take lines out of other songs — “You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record,” from Dead or Alive — or Whitney Houston, “You get so emotional, baby.” I would stick them into our song and sort of comment on it, as if it was a male voiceover on what I was already saying. Then I discovered samplers, so I could actually take the real song and insert it. I heard Public Enemy, and everything changed. I was like, oh my god. Just musically and politically it was totally interesting, and I said, “Oh, I want to be a part of that. I want to find out about drum machines and samplers.”
LAURIE: You never used any of that stuff in Bikini Kill.
KATHLEEN: Well, I was part of this punk scene where I didn’t see a lot of experimentation. It was pretty much just drums, guitar, and bass. We did some experimental stuff, and that’s the direction I wanted to go in, like, in this one song, someone read a review of us into the microphone while there was screaming going on at the same time.
LAURIE: That was the whole drive for Julie Ruin then — that need to experiment?
KATHLEEN: With Bikini Kill, I was used to having a really limited recording budget and I didn’t have a 4-track to try out my ideas. We just recorded it and there were no two ways about it. It wasn’t like in writing where you have a first, second, and third draft. But then I realized that when I’d record a song and listen to it, then record another version with different vocals, I could pick which one was best. I started getting okay about hearing my own voice. Mixing was a really hard process for me, because even hearing my voice on the answering machine — I couldn’t deal.
LAURIE: I sort of did the same thing as you. I had to quit putting stuff I’d written in drawers for four years and waiting till it was perfect.
KATHLEEN: Yeah. And with Julie Ruin, I could do it on my own time. Before, we would always have a batch of songs, tour them, and then go in and record the whole thing in ten days. I wanted to find out more about recording, so I got a 4-track in my apartment. And I could do it whenever I wanted — if I got an idea at three o'clock in the morning I could do the vocals, and if I liked it I could keep it, and if I didn’t I could do new ones on another track.
LAURIE: That’s a great way to work.
KATHLEEN: No one was listening to me, there was no producer in the room who I felt self-conscious around, so I realized I could learn all these different styles of singing. I wanted to find out what was in my head that wasn’t censored. I always have this problem that I go off on all these tangents, so I decided, “I’m just gonna pick a structure: songwriting.” Conceiving a song. Writing a verse, a chorus, and a verse. Like '60s Bubblegum Rock. I was gonna make '60s Bubblegum Rock. But I couldn’t make '60s Bubblegum Rock, you know?
LAURIE: Well, you run it through your nervous system and it’ll come out of your particular body in a unique way.
KATHLEEN: So I just started doing it and couldn’t stop. I made like 26 songs. I was in this weird apartment in Olympia where they were having wet t-shirt contests with 14-year-old girls in the parking lot across the street, with a loudspeaker, and I couldn’t get away from it.
LAURIE: That’s too creepy. I don’t know how you kept your focus.
KATHLEEN: With Julie Ruin, I had this vision of feminist pop music that I kept coming back to. That record for me was about learning the craft of American popular songwriting. I got really involved with Elvis Costello, and with songwriting as craft. I’d been afraid to think of craftsperson shit in music, because I had this whole punk aesthetic of: you just do it. I’ve always had economic limitations and mental limitations that have actually inspired me. I don’t feel like I have totally unlimited options — it’s like, “I only have enough money to print this record cover in black and red,” so when I go to Kinko’s in the middle of the night, I know I only have these two colors to work with, and it even helps me finish the project.
LAURIE: How did Le Tigre come into being?
KATHLEEN: Johanna Fateman and I had been in a band called The Troublemakers, named after G.B. Jones’ movie. Sadie and I met when I saw one of her pixelvision videos.
LAURIE: You and Sadie seem made for each other.
KATHLEEN: She used a Bikini Kill song in that video, which just gave me shivers up my spine because I was like, “Finally somebody’s doing something really cool with something I’ve been a part of, as opposed to just ripping it off and making fun of it.” Then she just started writing me these letters …
LAURIE: That’s so cool and open and non-self-protective, to put herself out there like that.
KATHLEEN: Yeah, and I started writing back and one thing led to another. She got a gig doing a short thing for MTV, and she needed somebody to do music for it. I lied and said, “Oh, yeah, I play guitar,” and I totally didn’t know what I was doing. So I locked myself in a room with a 4-track and a guitar I didn’t know how to play, and I sat there for an hour trying to tune it and when I finally did I was just crying. But it was really cool, because nobody else would have hired me for something like that, and I needed the money, and it was really fun working with her. Then, when I did the Julie Ruin project, I asked her to work on a video with me. So we went to Chicago and made Aerobicide.
LAURIE: And how did you originally get together with Johanna Fateman?
KATHLEEN: She’s a painter and writer, and she did a bunch of really great zines. She had one on Jackson Pollock, and she did one called The Opposite, and now I think she’s doing The Opposite Part Two. I met her through this zine called SNARLA. At one point, I really needed to get out of Olympia, so I moved to Portland for about a year. This was when I was still in Bikini Kill. So I found out where Johanna worked, and I hung out there, trying to meet her. After talking to her for about ten minutes, I was like, “Can I move into your house?”
LAURIE: No shit?
KATHLEEN: Yeah. I needed a place to live, and she was like “A room’s opening up soon,” so I just sort of bided my time until then. And she was really, really cool to me, and we did a band together and did all kinds of weird shit. We built a stage in our basement and had shows at our house. Then Johanna went to New York, and started art school and writing zines about art, and it was really freeing. I’d had this thing about, “Oh, it’s so fucked-up to be an artist, and I should be an activist, because how’s art actually going to change material conditions …
LAURIE: Well, your art is your activism.
KATHLEEN: Yeah. And it’s always really hard, you know what I mean? With Le Tigre, one of the things that really helped me was being excited about Mr. Lady, our record label. Tammy Rae Carland runs it. She started Mr. Lady with her girlfriend Kaia, who’s in The Butchies. One of the first things they did was the "New Women’s Music Sampler,” and in the liner notes Tammy talks about the whole lie that things are “post-gay, post-feminist, post-Riot Grrrl, post-race, post-poor, post-oppressed.”
KATHLEEN: Post-oppressed. I wish it was post-depressed! But there’s this other sentence, “We refuse to allow our writing, songs, art, activism, and political histories to be suppressed or stolen … we refuse to be embarrassed about the mistakes and faults, and move forward.” That inspired me because I realized I didn’t have to be either/or. I don’t have to be involved in something or be totally the opposite of it. We can take the mistakes and learn from them.
LAURIE: Was it hard to put that into action?
KATHLEEN: Well, that’s what Le Tigre was for me. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to get these people who I’ve always wanted to seriously collaborate with and make something happen.” When we started working together I got really interested in writing something … I don’t believe in positive and negative, but I did want to make something really hopeful. So I thought about how there are all these really great artists, and I keep their stuff around me all the time. I’m at home making my Cecilia Dougherty t-shirt or whatever. I wanted this stuff that’s really affected me, that makes me really happy and keeps me from getting despondent, to always be close to me. And I wanted to make a song about it. And the “old me” was like, you can’t make a song like “Hot Topic” where you list all these people that you find inspiring. You’re going to leave someone out! But then I thought, “This is a snapshot of this moment and who we’re talking about today.” So the three of us sat down and wrote out these lists and figured out who rhymed and who fit and who made us feel like we could do anything.
LAURIE: On Le Tigre you sound like Poly Styrene plus a lot of other punk girls — it’s kinda like a partial history of punk singers on the record.
KATHLEEN: I’m also really interested in women’s voices on old records, like Leslie Gore, or the Shirelles or whatever. They’re singing all these songs about following men to the depths of the earth, like “You can drag me down a flight of stairs and I’ll still love you,” but the quality of the voice always says something totally different. It reminds me of this Judy Garland special where she was doing the most fucked-up things — probably because she was on so many drugs. But every time she sang a happy song, she looked like she was going to cry and when she sang a sad song, she looked really elated. It was really bizarre to have her facial expressions contradicting what she was singing. And Connie Frances got raped and couldn’t even talk for several years. So I got really into what it would be like to be a woman with way more constraints than we have now, singing these really fucked-up insipid heterosexual love songs. How do you get your actual voice through that? It’s through the quality and the tone. Like, there’s sneaky stuff going on in the way they’re singing the lyrics.
LAURIE: What are you getting into now with Le Tigre?
KATHLEEN: We’re going to do all these collaborations. We really want to work with Anna Joy Springer, because I love her singing. All of her songs are totally incredible. And we want to do this record that takes the “Hot Topic” theme to the next level. Instead of talking about people, we make tracks and do collaborations with them, because with electronic music it’s so much easier.
LAURIE: And collaborations between writers and musicians are exciting, because music gets the stuff that language can’t quite capture.
KATHLEEN: Well, the thing about music is you can do goofy free associations. You don’t have to write in sentences — you can just go from one thing to another. A lot of songs can be about three different situations at once — like it can be about your mom, and about this woman having problems, and it can be about the nature of the world …
LAURIE: And it’s beautiful, because they’re real connections.
KATHLEEN: Yeah, and you make it into this possible thing that actually exists. You take this situation that’s been in your unconscious and you make it conscious and you sort of get over it.
LAURIE: I think the fact that you can dance to Le Tigre is such a subversive thing.
KATHLEEN: Well, pop music is a structure, and I’m going to use the structure and make something else happen with it. Sort of like Style Council. A lot of their songs are political, but they’re so soothing and pleasant that you can miss it. What they’re counting on is that people will listen to it over and over and read the lyric sheets so it can be both beautiful and political. You don’t have to make a choice. You don’t have to be in a punk band screaming political lyrics that nobody really wants to dance to, you know what I mean? A lot of rap music is about pleasure and politics all at once. I want to make something that’s totally pleasurable and political too.
LAURIE: Through pleasure, you slip the politics into the nervous system of the listener. It’s like slipping them a mickey, almost.
KATHLEEN: In some of the Le Tigre stuff, I felt that, instead of singing about it, I was being it. Instead of singing about pleasure/anti-pleasure, with this pop music medium, I was being pleasure.
LAURIE: You’ve really been a role model for a lot of girls …
KATHLEEN: I get a lot of letters that are like “You’re my role model, you’re my idol, you’re a goddess,” and when I get them it feels really good. I try to be present in the moment and think, wow, I was a bridge into something for this person, and that’s one of the most amazing things I can be. But at the same time I have to keep in mind that I’m fucking three-dimensional and I’m gonna make mistakes, and that’s part of being a role model. Isn’t the best role model somebody who can change their mind and make mistakes in public and be totally fluid? When I started figuring that out, I realized that one of my main goals for being in a band and on stage was being present, and not going into Florence Henderson good-mom mode. Like “Gee, can I help you? Would you like a coke with that?” I realized that was a pretty radical thing to do, because if you’re present, you’re going to be different every time. You’re not going to give everybody what they want, which is the cardboard character. But you will give those five people there who get it what they want, because they’ll be like, “I could totally do that.” Whatever crazy shit they have in their heads. Maybe they’ll realize, if she’s getting away with it, maybe I can totally get away with this thing that I think is better.