The Rumpus Interview with Kathleen Hanna
Frontwoman of seminal ’90s punk band Bikini Kill and later, in the 2000s, a member of the experimental multimedia group Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna’s legacy as a ’90s icon of Riot Grrrl may be firmly cemented after her donation to “The Riot Grrrl Collection” at New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, as well as the recent documentary about her called The Punk Singer—but that doesn’t mean this forty-five-year-old is content collecting dust. After overcoming a mysterious illness that turned out to be Lyme disease, Hanna has made a triumphant comeback with the release of Run Fast, her “supergroup” The Julie Ruin’s debut, high profile interviews, lecture appearances, and even some stints as a DJ.
I was elated to talk to her from her apartment in Manhattan via Skype. Over the course of a breezy, brief twenty minutes, we discussed how her music is about herself, now more than ever (and how that’s freeing), what it’s like to be considered a leader of a movement, the circumstances that led her to see Gloria Steinem speak when Hanna was only a teen, and how having an abortion at age fifteen empowered her to become the icon she is today.
The Rumpus: You have all these things happening—you just donated your archives to the New York University Fales Library, and the documentary on you just came out, highlighting involvements of yours that happened in the 1990s. You’re older and your music has changed. There’s the Julie Ruin album that came out recently. I’m curious about where you are now and where the music comes from and how there’s this dichotomy going on between your young, raw days and what you’re doing now as an artist.
Kathleen Hanna: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s weird. I don’t really try to look back on the past now. I mean, I had had to, but I always just kind of kept moving before and I never really watched videos of myself, or sat there and listened to my own albums. I don’t think I ever listened to Pussy Whipped once. But we also started a Bikini Kill record label so I had to go back and listen to a bunch of that stuff because we were remastering it and archiving all of that.
It’s been really tough, because I’ve had to face the good, the bad, and ugly, and I don’t really feel the need to reconcile who I was then with who I am now, because I just kind of am who I am now, and I like who I am now, and I like what I’m doing now much better, and I like who I’m hanging out with now in my life. They’re the people who I should be with, and I feel really confident in my friendships and my support network. So, since I’m happy, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m perceived. I spend more time thinking about making the work I want to make. I’m less nervous about letting myself just make work and see where it takes me than I was ever before. Most of my work in the past has been, What does the audience need?
I was thinking what would I need if I was younger? Or what kind of song is the Post-It note that would get me through this day? And hoping that there are other people whom that Post-It note, as a song, would help, but I’m much less that way now. I just don’t feel like every song has to be this narrative that’s totally understandable. I’m letting myself go and have my abstract moments, not forcing everything to make sense. That doesn’t mean I’m going with the first draft of lyrics ever, it just means I’m not forcing things into things they don’t want to be.
I still don’t think I’m some kind of transcendent artist who’s getting messages from the universe or something. But I do really just want to be in a band and not have to have this mantle of anthemic writing weighing on me. I want to have a good time, and just have fun playing music with my band. And sing about things that are important to me. There’s a lot on the record about my illness that maybe people don’t get, but to me, it was important to get out. It’s important to me that my music not only helps others, it needs to help me too. I realized on this record that I needed help. And I wanted to write some stuff that I needed to just say to myself.
Rumpus: In a recent interview, I found a quote about how, now that you are older, you can do whatever you want and trust that you’re a good artist. I could relate to that now that I’m thirty-five. I look back at my twenties and how insecure I was. Can you talk about what’s different—what it’s like to create music now versus what it used to be in the past?
Hanna: Well in Bikini Kill it was—except in the very beginning, when I played bass, for like five minutes or whatever—it was pretty much that Kathi, Bill, and Tobi would write the music and I would write the lyrics and the melody—the vocal melody lines. Typically it was pretty standard in terms of “I was the singer.” They would write the music and I would do the lyrics kind of on top.
In Le Tigre, it was such a different process because it was all about starting with samples. I really worked a lot like I did on my solo record, which was called Julie Ruin, in that I had little samples that I would sing over and I would start these ideas and I would build and build and build and build. Le Tigre started similarly to that, but then it came to a much more collaborative process. It was really computer-based, electronic-based, so it was kind of this intellectualized process—you know what I mean? We weren’t in a practice space working out songs. We were in front of our computers writing beats.
That’s really different from now, where I just go to practice and if I’m bored, I’m just like, let’s make something new. Then someone will say, “Oh, I have this keyboard line, I have this whatever,” and then we just start writing and recording stuff on my iPhone, and maybe I’ll take it home and chop it up or move it around. It’s really been interesting to see how the recording process has really changed the way I write.
In Bikini Kill, we rarely recorded practices. When we did, I would write lyrics over the cassette. I didn’t have a four-track for a really long time and once I got one, it changed my process. In Le Tigre, I could do ten different takes of vocals and then listen to them and see what was the best. It’s kind of the same way now in that I can record on my iPhone and then two days later I listen to it and I’m like, Ugh, that song’s not going to work. But that one has a lot of promise! Being able to listen back and have some kind of distance really makes it a lot better. That’s something that happens today, too; I’m able to be a better editor.
I’m less attached to every single idea I have. It’s easier for me to listen to my own voice and be kind of detached from it. And partially also, because the media see it as this separate entity, that I’ve put on a different hat, my editor’s hat, and I step away as if it’s a different person. The singer of the band is not me—it’s a singer and I can now ask what would I want her to do.
Rumpus: When you look back at movements and scenes you see things that you couldn’t while in the midst. When you’re in that moment, you don’t really realize that there’s even any kind of coalescing going on or things coming together. Then ten, twenty years pass, and all of a sudden people see these big, huge movements such as Riot Grrrl. When you were right in the middle of it, did you realize what was happening or what was being created?
Hanna: I didn’t at first. With Bikini Kill we were just doing what we were doing, and we were inspired by homocore and what Sub Pop was putting out on their label. They released all these singles by bands like STP, L7, Babes in Toyland, Lunatics, and Hole. We were really inspired by that kind of stuff and decided, we’re going to sing about whatever we want. We’ve got this wide-open landscape, and I can be a radical feminist in a punk band. It was really, really exciting, but we didn’t get a positive response at first. We had to really, really work to build a feminist audience.
Once it started getting media attention, that’s when I realized something was happening. I was like “Whoa! What the hell?” You know? And when I started getting letters of like, “Oh, I started a Riot Grrrl chapter in Minneapolis,” or “I started one at my all girls’ school in Singapore,” I was like, Oh man, this is really taking off. I did know something was happening, just in the fact that we started selling out our shows. People started being different. The love got more intense, then the hate got more intense at the same time. So I did know something was going on, but I definitely didn’t think that when Tobi, Kathi, and I started our band, that we would be so heavily attached to this thing called the Riot Grrrl movement. Or that it was ever going to go beyond our town. We didn’t think it was going to go beyond Olympia.
Rumpus: Let’s go back to your foundations of becoming a feminist. You saw Gloria Steinem speak in D.C. when you were a young girl. First off, that’s just amazing, and second off, what was that like? What were the circumstances where your mom brought you to a Gloria Steinem speech?
Hanna: Well, my dad was heavily involved in the labor union pipefitters, the UA Local 669! This was in the ’70s, when labor unions were a really big deal, and we were a union family. The rally was actually a protest for workers’ rights called Solidarity Day—the Solidarity Day March in Washington, D.C.—so it wasn’t a feminist talk at all, it was a workers’ rights march. There was a feminist contingent there that we somehow fell in—we didn’t know what we were doing, neither me or my mom—so we were just like, “Let’s go to this thing.”
My mom’s always had some political beliefs, but I didn’t grow up in a bohemian household at all. I didn’t grow up in a house with feminist books around. Even though we were a union family, no one was really talking about that. It was just that we went to union events and saw union singers at the union hall. Let’s just say there weren’t a lot of political discussions in my house. It was really kind of an anomaly that we went to this event where Gloria spoke, and then Bella Abzug spoke…
Rumpus: Oh, wow.
Hanna: It was the first time that I’d heard this power in a woman’s voice before and heard women talking about women workers and women workers’ rights. I was just like, What the hell? What is this?
I think it did seep into me in the way that I started asking questions like, “How come at school the boys get to play football and we have to do square dancing? How come there’s no cross country team for girls?” It was all about sports for me as a kid. Like, “Why can’t we play soccer?” It was really looked down upon if a girl played soccer at recess—it was all boys. I started to question things like that after the march.
I think it unconsciously seeped into me that I didn’t have to take it. That there were things that I could do. I felt the power of all those women that day, behind me, from that moment on, and I think I’ve always felt the power of being in that crowd. I was in a crowd of all women and we were marching around in a circle, yelling stuff. And I was just like, Whoa! It was like being in a punk rock feminist mosh pit. Except there was no fighting.
Rumpus: You’ve been outspoken about the fact that you had an abortion when you were a teenager and about how you would’ve been in a different place if that hadn’t happened, how your entire trajectory would have been different otherwise.
Hanna: Well, I worked at McDonald’s and I spent the money I earned at McDonald’s to get my abortion. I was only fifteen and the person who got me pregnant did not want to give me any money. I was $40 short, so I had my drug dealer call him and threaten him, so he gave me the last $40.
I really credit it as something that changed my life because I got a job, I took care of my business, and I moved on. And I’m not one of those people who’d have looked back and been like, Oh, that kid would be 30 right now… I don’t think, Oh, I really regret it… Maybe that’s a fucked-up thing to say but, I don’t regret it at all, number one, and number two, it was one of the best things that happened to me. Not actually being on the table and having it done, but feeling like I was responsible for my own life and realizing that when I made mistakes, there were consequences and that I could take care of those consequences. I could make mistakes and I could fix them. And live with them. It wasn’t a big deal.
Except for that, I got to be in all these bands. And if you think about it, I don’t think I would’ve been in any of these bands if I’d been a teenage mom. I probably wouldn’t have finished high school. I definitely wouldn’t have gone to college. I’d probably be managing a McDonald’s or something. That gives me chills because when girls come up to me and they’re like, “I got into women’s studies because of you,” I do think, God, if I hadn’t have had that abortion, would this girl have gotten into women’s studies?
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about your love of Kathy Acker. Do you remember when you first came across her? If so, what was the experience like to discover a writer like her?
Hanna: Well, I had a teacher who gave me one of her books, and I’d been writing in this way that was sort of like—I couldn’t write from a singular perspective, I couldn’t write an open and closed narrative. I just sort of wrote this stuff that was from all different kinds of identities, and I thought I was nuts and I would just hide that shit in my bottom drawer.
Then I read Kathy Acker, and I mean, the stuff she was writing was so much smarter and better, but I realized I wasn’t nuts for writing in this way, that here was this woman who was being touted as the new Burroughs, and she was so incredible and I loved her work and I got it. That was the thing—it was really weird, but I let myself go and just read it and I was like, “I totally get this!” And I didn’t know how I got it, I just knew I got it. And I got to meet her when I took a workshop from her in Seattle, and she actually chose me to open for her when she was giving a reading. She chose me to read with her—she didn’t like me very much, by the way—but she did choose me to read with her and it was life-changing.
I got my first bad review after that show. This guy wrote this really mean-spirited piece—it was like, “Kathy Acker just picked her because she’s a woman and because she writes stuff about hating her dad,” blah blah blah. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. The guy said all this stuff such as, “She’s just being maternal,” when Kathy did not have a maternal bone in her body towards me. She challenged everything I said in the brief time that I spent with her. We did not really agree on anything, but I took a lot of what she said to heart. As I grew up I realized how right she was about so much of what she said to me. And I realized when I read the guy’s name at the end of the bad review, that he was in the same workshop as me. And he wasn’t picked, he didn’t get chosen to open for her. And so it was a big, big, learning lesson: reviews are subjective. And this guy didn’t—how could he know she was maternal towards me?
Hanna: She wasn’t! So how could he know that? He just made it up. And it’s like, he made it up because he was pissed he didn’t get chosen. And my performance was pretty bad! But he could’ve just said that, you know, and I sort of thought—it was a great education for me, in that bad reviews don’t really…don’t take it to heart too much. If you write a bad review of me I’m just going to laugh!