Music

This Is My Thing: An Interview With Kathleen Hanna

On music, politics, working under an alias, and why cabaret is the most punk-rock thing out there right now.

Collage by Minna.

Collage by Minna. Far right photo by Aaron Richter for SPIN.

Kathleen Hanna formed the Julie Ruin three years ago in New York with Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Sara Landeau, and Carmine Covelli. The band’s first album, Run Fast, came out this month. If you’ve streamed some of the songs already, or if you saw the awesome surprise set last month at Rookiefest in L.A., you know that the album is full of joyful, rambunctious music. There are moments—like during “Lookout” and “Kids in NY”—when it’s reminiscent of Le Tigre or Bikini Kill, Kathleen’s previous bands, both outspokenly feminist projects, but Run Fast is not a nostalgic or overtly political record. Among other things, Kathleen sings about love, hanging out, and letting your adult self say goodbye to your younger self.

It’s the first music Kathleen has released since 2004—around the time she started feeling the horrible effects of Lyme disease. She was strictly private about her illness until Sini Anderson’s documentary about her, The Punk Singer, premiered earlier this year. (Starting November 29, the movie will be in select theaters and on-demand.) Around the same time, the Feminist Press published The Riot Grrrl Collection, which features some of the zines, fliers, and other work Kathleen made as a punk-rock feminist musician, writer, and artist in the early ’90s.

She has been feeling better and working like crazy on the Julie Ruin’s record release and tour, and she recently invited Rookie over to her apartment in Manhattan.

LENA: Hi! Thanks for having us over—that was really nice of you.

KATHLEEN HANNA: Welcome!

With the new Julie Ruin record, the Bikini Kill reissues, and The Riot Grrrl Collection recently coming out, there’s a lot of attention back on Riot Grrrl. You were a big part of that feminist punk movement in the ’90s, so obviously a lot of people want to talk to you about it. But I was reading on your blog that it just gets old for you—

[Laughs]

—because it’s been 20 years and you are more interested in talking about new art and new activism. And I was wondering, in terms of feminism, are there ways that people are merging art and politics that are exciting to you right now?

Yeah. I mean, Pussy Riot goes without saying. The first time I saw one of their videos I was really interested. I liked the music, I liked the energy, I liked the costumes. I didn’t know they were going to get fucking arrested and all this shit was going to happen, but they’re really exciting. And the worldwide anger and disgust at the way they’ve been treated because they’re feminist art-makers—that’s been an amazing thing for people to see in the U.S., to realize how many freedoms we have. I mean, think about the Guerrilla Girls in the ’80s. They were a group that wore gorilla masks to hide their identities, largely because they worked in the art world and they were bringing up sexism and racism in that world with stickers and posters. They were nervous about losing their careers if people knew who they were. Then you look at Pussy Riot, and they’re worried about losing their lives—like going into prison forever, not being able to see their children. It’s an intense wakeup call for me, and I hope people in the United States are like, Wow, we could get away with so much more, and we’re not. We’re blowing this chance.

But I also see young girls like Grimes, who is so amazing. She’s producing her own work and it sounds really great and it’s really interesting to watch. And Savages. I don’t know how “feminist” they call themselves or whatever, but feminism isn’t something that you are, it’s something that you do. I don’t give a shit what you call yourself. Like: Betsy Ross. Betsy Ross is a fine thing to call yourself. Whatever. If you’re doing feminist work in the world, then it’s exciting.

Compared with when you first started playing in bands, do you think it’s getting easier to be in a feminist band in the U.S.?

I don’t really know, because I’m older, but I don’t know a lot of bands who are like, “Yes! We are feminists!” besides Pussy Riot. There are definitely women who are singing about women’s issues, don’t know a lot of bands who are like, “Yes! We are feminists!” besides Pussy Riot. There are definitely women who are singing about women’s issues, and to me that’s the most important thing. But I would love to see more female musicians—and male musicians—calling themselves feminists and not being nervous about that word. There are all these stereotypes about it—it means you’re a man-hater, it means you have hairy legs, it means you’re a lesbian—and I was like, “Yeah, and? So what if I am a lesbian? So what if I do have hairy legs? So what if, right now, I do hate men? Fuck off!” [Laughs]

There were people at Bikini Kill shows in the ’90s who would be violent or really mean towards you and the band, but a lot of that type of thing seems to come out now on the internet—for people like Grimes, who gets rape threats on her Tumblr.

When we were playing in the ’90s and men would come to our shows and yell, “Take it off!” or call us the C-word or the B-word—or, most commonly, they would just say, “Shut up!”—in a way, they were doing us a big favor. At the time, of course, I wanted to punch them in the face and drag them out of club—and sometimes I did. But sexism exists in every room we’re ever going to walk into. Racism exists in every room. Homophobia exists in every single room. When people bring it to the fore, it’s like popping a blackhead. All of a sudden, everybody knows: There’s sexism in the punk scene—we can’t ignore this issue anymore. Because before, it was totally being held down. People were like, “Sexism doesn’t matter, man! It’s the ’90s!” It’s the same thing that happens today, where people are like, “Sexism doesn’t matter! It’s 2013!” Or “Racism doesn’t matter! Look at Barack Obama!” What’s scary to me is that maybe men, and some women, aren’t going to shows and being like, “Shut up! Just play your music!” or “Show us your tits!” or whatever—people just take to the internet and rip other people apart.

I was reading an article online about Vivian Girls, and I happened to look at the comments, and it was horrifying. Horrifying! It was every single thing people had said about us in the ’90s—but even worse. That’s what really opened my eyes to, you know, one step forward, two steps back. Maybe it’s safer for women to be at shows now, but it’s not safer for women to be on the internet.

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16 Comments

  • kimberleighrc September 16th, 2013 3:23 PM

    Amazing! She’s as great as ever.

  • emlyb September 16th, 2013 3:33 PM

    OMG OMG OMFG OM FG G

  • Chloe22 September 16th, 2013 3:45 PM

    Kathleen is one of my favorite singers, but I can’t say I agreed with her whole thing about sexual harrassment not counting in a show? I mean, she’s always spoken about the terribly sexist and scary environment of punk shows, and how it shouldn’t be that way, and then she basically back tracks and says it should be scary, or ”make you ask questions”. If a guy going into the show KNOWS they do that stuff, and it’s well known, and he goes up on stage, fine. But when it isn’t disclosed, or consented to, it’s harassment. That goes for any girl at a punk show, too. No one deserves harrassment, ever, in any way.
    http://rhinestonemoon.blogspot.com/

  • blueolivia September 16th, 2013 4:39 PM

    http://transactivist.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/trans-grrrl-riot-part-1-was-riot-grrrl-transphobic/

    i’m not really sure where ms. hanna stands on this now, but she has played for the michigan womyn’s festival, which has their “womyn born womyn” policy which essentially rejects trans women as being women at all. i’ve also heard a lot about her transphobic essays, which i haven’t ever seen and haven’t been able to find at all. anyway, its just something to think about! i still really love what she did with bikini kill & outside of the band, and i think she stands for the right things. i just don’t think its right to exclude people the way this movement tended to do in the 90′s, particularly. just adding this for consideration! she hasn’t issued any statements lately about what she believes now.

    xoxo olivia

    • Anaheed September 17th, 2013 7:37 AM

      She never wrote “transphobic essays,” because she’s not a transphobe. When people refer to her as transphobic they are always (as far as I’ve ever seen, at least, and I’ve seen a lot) referring to Le Tigre’s decision to play the Womyn’s Festival in 2001 and 2005. That was disappointing to me, but I am certain that the band (which includes a genderqueer member) thought long & hard about the festival’s trans-exclusionist policy before making their decision to play it, and that they had their own reasons for doing so, none of which were based on bigotry. The only actual words I’ve ever read from Kathleen about trans* issues were: ““I’ll cut to the chase: I do believe transwomen are real women, I don’t prescribe to outdated essentialist notions of gender–that just isn’t what I am about.”

  • intergalactic fork September 16th, 2013 4:49 PM

    Kathleen’s like a fixture here lol. she should become an official rookie writer

  • ohmyannie September 16th, 2013 6:11 PM

    this is beautiful<3

  • billie September 16th, 2013 6:41 PM

    OMG Kathleen! <3

  • Sophie ❤ September 16th, 2013 7:06 PM

    I love the art and the interview! Super cool.

    http://theneonpapaya.com

  • dreamygirl September 16th, 2013 7:46 PM

    I really admire and respect Kathleen. I’ve always felt kind of hesitant about identifying as riot grrrrl, an I am so glad to have her say that I can create a feminism that’s even better; that I don’t have to settle. Because that’s what I really want! I agree, Rookie is definitely a step in the right direction and it raises a great conversation about feminism, but I kind of think that Rookie could do a bit better, be more diverse in its photos and (this is something I’ve thought a lot about lately) how feminism isn’t vagina-based; we have to give room for our transgender* ladies with genitals and not disclose them by saying that feminism is the vagina.

    • dreamygirl September 16th, 2013 7:47 PM

      Oops, autocorrect is really not my friend, apparently.

    • Anaheed September 16th, 2013 8:16 PM

      Couldn’t agree more.

      • Anaheed September 17th, 2013 9:26 PM

        (I meant about your first comment. Not the autocorrect one!)

  • dreamygirl September 16th, 2013 8:01 PM

    Yet another thing, which is that Lena did a really great job on this.

  • veoh112 September 16th, 2013 9:29 PM

    I completely agree with Kathleen when they were talking about how people say that sexism doesn’t exist even though it does, especially in a culture full of rape. And I do think that we should have more riot girl bands and music, and me being a feminist, I encourage my (girl) friends to speak up more. And im also glad I joined the whole rookie community because its making me kinda safe in a community, and doesn’t put me down, it lifts me up, and that’s how I think girls should be with other girls. Anyways I am a huge Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill enthusiasts ( I have her picture on my English journal cover). And I think shes doing an awesome job as a woman.
    unicornskill.blogspot.com

  • dessertstealer September 24th, 2013 6:29 PM

    This interview is amazing!
    rafwillyolivier.blogspot.com