Kathleen Hanna: Start a Band Right Away

‘Izzy Says’ is a new column featuring interviews and musings by teenage drumming sensation Izzy Schappell-Spillman of Care Bears on Fire. Recently we interviewed Izzy, and we were so impressed we asked her to join the team! Here’s her interview with music legend and feminist artist Kathleen Hanna.

The idea of interviewing Kathleen Hanna was intimidating. After all, in 1990 she started the seminal Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill in 1998, the danceable feminist feast Le Tigre, and in 1997, put out a solo record under the name, The Julie Ruin. All this while being a feminist activist, writer, and hero to thousands. Last year, she donated her incredible archive of Riot Grrrl zines to the NYU library.

So, standing outside the building, where she lives with her husband Adam Horowitz (aka. Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys) on a sweltering Manhattan afternoon, I was suitably terrified. Yet when Kathleen answered the door and gave me a giant hug, I was put at ease. She continued to be warm and funny and disarmingly honest throughout the time I spent talking to her in her home, about her creative awakening, artistic process, and even her difficult teen years (a topic which she has not spoken about much) and showed me a bunch of photos of her growing up. As she told me about the ongoing documentary being made about her life, and her newly revamped band The Julie Ruin, which is currently recording a new record, a line from the song “Rebel Girl” ran through my head, “When she talks I hear the revolution…

IZZY: Soooo the site is all about teenagers and youth culture so I want to start off by asking you what was your high school experience like? Did you like high school?

KATHLEEN: No, I did not like high school at all. I moved all the way cross-country from Maryland to Oregon in the summer before freshman year, which was a super bad time to move. I didn’t know anybody and when I showed up at school the first day I had long brown-feathered hair like Farrah Fawcett meets Stephanie Powers from Hart to Hart, and all the other girls had bobs and were super preppy. I remember feeling like I had to change my hair immediately. Because I’d moved every three years since I was born, I really saw fitting in as a kind of game. That’s why the hair thing was so important to me, I thought, ‘Ok, I’m gonna try to be popular in this school.’ And then I specifically set out to achieve that goal. To win the game so to speak. I’d never been into sports but I bought a rugby shirt! And I tried to look kinda jockey, cause that’s what was big, and I drank beer and I chewed tobacco, cause those things were cool that year! And then I made friends, and people were nice to me. But I knew it was totally fake. Once I realized how easy it was to win “the game” I dyed my hair black and started going to clubs to see music and growing more into my own person. I had much more fun then, but I was doing too many drugs. I wasn’t a creative force in the world until much after high school and that’s a little depressing to me. I’m sad that I smoked so much pot and got drunk so much cause I just felt like I wasted all this time.

I: Do you feel like the drugs prevented you from being creative?

K: Yeah, I think it was a way for me to numb out. I mean, I wasn’t that confident and I didn’t know about feminism really. I had some inkling of it, I guess, but it didn’t really affect my actual life. I did stuff with boys I didn’t want to back then cause I felt like I had to do it to get a ride home or whatever. And some crappy shit happened to me that demoralized me and made me not confident about my body. I just remember feeling really gross a lot and embarrassed. I was also really obsessed with clothes. Dressing different all the time – one day I would be new wave and the next Goth. I’d just try on new styles all the time. I think it came from changing schools a lot. I knew how to change my hair and dress to fit in, and once I saw how ridiculous it all was it freed me up to experiment more.

I: So what type of music were you listening to at this time?

K: I was really into reggae in high school. I really liked The Itals. They were my favorite band. I was also really into speed metal for a minute, oddly enough. I didn’t own many records; but I did have this one psychedelic compilation, because in the 80s we were all obsessed with the 60s kind of like how in 2000 everyone was into the 80s, anyways there was this band called The Mad Violets on this comp and they had this great girl singer named Wendy Wild and I used to fantasize about being her a lot, but I didn’t have any idea that I could be in a band myself. I mean all the bands we went to see were guys. And when my girlfriends Stacey and Tiffany and I went to see bands at this club ‘the Satyricon’ in Portland, we were usually the only girls there.

I: So what was going on in the club scene at the time?

K: The craziest thing was when the short haired hard core kids and the long haired heavy metal kids met up at speed metal shows in the 80’s and started fighting. It was totally ridiculous and precipitated me only going to reggae shows because I didn’t like the violence. Is there some kind of nonsense war like that going on now?

I: I don’t know if we have a hair war like that. I guess there’s a lot of anti-hipster sentiment.

K: I always thought that was kind of interesting that anti-hipster thing.

I: I know, cause I always thought the hipsters were kind of cool.

K: I still do. Cause they’re the ones who take fashion risks and admit that they care. Cause everyone cares; its just that they’re the only who admit they care.

I: And I think that’s the problem for a lot of adolescents, admitting that you care. Cause really so much of being a teenager is really caring so much but feigning indifference out of fear of being alienated/marginalized/not being allowed to sit at the cool table.

K: And it’s also maybe about setting up dualities. Like, these people suck because they listen to this sort of music or have this type of hair cut, and we’re cool because we don’t pay attention to what we look like and we listen to this kind of music. Or identifying yourself in opposition to things cause your trying to figure out what your identity is. Like, I’m NOT a jock, or I’m NOT a hipster.

I: I feel like for a girl that’s really intense. Cause its like you are virginal or you’re a whore. That whole virgin/whore dichotomy is really hard and soul crushing for a lot of people. So, back to music, when did you discover punk rock?

K: I didn’t really understand punk as a concept until I went to college and met Tobi Vail (co-founder of Bikini Kill) and she made me mix tapes and stuff and I was like ‘Oh, now I get it’.

I: In terms of writing songs, you’ve said that you wanted to make the kind of music you wished you’d heard at fifteen. So what music do you wish you’d heard at fifteen?

K: I wish I had Bratmobile back then, cause I feel like they express the interior of my soul better than any other band. Me and my girlfriends were very ‘caught out there’ in high school. We didn’t have the idea of feminism or even the idea of girl power to cling to. There was no vibe of unity. I mean we listened to ‘Siouxsie and the Banshees’ non-stop, but it wasn’t like they were singing about female empowerment or talking about gender in any way that helped us out.

I: Were you doing anything creative?

K: I wrote a lot of poems. I had a xylophone and tried to play along with Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. I was really not very cool.

I: When you started creating the music you wished existed when you were fifteen, did you feel like you were writing songs for/to teenage self?

K: For a long time I was into the idea of writing the song that I’d wished had been there for me. Or, thinking ‘what’s the song about this one feminist concept that doesn’t exist?’ And then making that song. I’m trying not to do that anymore though cause it’s a little too prescriptive.

There’s actually a song on the new Julie Ruin record, about being a teenager that I didn’t expect to write at all and it is way more vulnerable and personal I think, because it just sorta happened.

I: How different is the creative process when you’re not consciously setting out to write for your teenage self or audience, but, like in this most recent record, looking inside yourself.

K: I’m really glad I’ve written stuff for my teenage self and that those songs have actually connected with younger girls. But in the end it’s like if you’re an archer and you are pulling back a bow, and you’re staring at the bull’s eye and you’re trying really really hard to hit the bull’s eye, you’re just not gonna hit it. It’s only when you look away that that happens. At least that’s been my experience. When I stop trying so fucking hard to please other people or write “the missing song” that’s when the songs start writing themselves. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time caring deeply about the audience I write for. I guess it’s cause  I grew up listening to rock stars who didn’t give a shit about me. It was all about the fantasy of me giving them blowjobs in cars or whatever. So when I got on stage I was like – I’m singing for those fucking girls. But there’s a part of that that’s a little sad to me now. Why can’t I just write stuff that is entertaining to me? Why can’t I write a song without knowing where it’s going? Isn’t always trying to write the “missing song” just playing into an idea of femininity where we’re supposed to always be of service to everyone, ‘Can I get you some more water, can I empty your ash tray!” I guess after years of doing Bikini Kill, I started feeling like I didn’t want to be anyone’s ‘riot mom’ anymore. Sure, I wanna have connections with people of all ages but I don’t wanna be anyone’s Mom. I don’t want to be handing down advice; it’s such a condescending role to be in.  I just want to be another musician.

I: Did you feel there was an unfair amount of pressure on you to write for the audience?

K: Yeah, but I don’t think anyone else really put that on me. I think it was more like a psychological compulsion. But you know, nine years of therapy later, I feel like I’m ready to move on. I’m ready to write a record where I don’t stress out so much about how functional it needs to be.

I: That’s really interesting. So, what was the first song you ever wrote – going way back?

K: When I was six I wrote a really horrible song about the Bible. I had this weird idea that the Bible told you that you couldn’t wear make up, and the lyrics went something like ‘The Bible tells you make up is a fake up,’ and it had a refrain on the chorus, that went ‘nooo way, nooo way’! It was really bad. But I did perform it for my parents in the living room and they totally laughed at me. They were not a good audience!

I: When did you really start to get into feminism? At what age did you start to really identify as a feminist?

K: I was 17 and still really into reggae when I started college. Sophomore year I was writing a paper about the politics and religion in Jamaica and how that set the stage for this amazing style of music, and was trying to connect some of the same ideas to the civil rights movement in the US and 60’s soul and right around this time I took a class where we read this book The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir and it totally blew my mind. All of a sudden I was like ‘Ooooh shit, I’ve really internalized this sexism stuff’ and I started to see all the ways I’d been held back and held myself back because of my female conditioning and it opened up this new way of thinking. The fact that I stumbled on feminism at the same time as I was studying libratory music I think, really influenced the direction I ended up going in.

I: What were you able to see in your past once you learned about feminism?

K: One of the things that happened to me was that I had to unpack a bunch of sexual abuse stuff . To retrieve it from the lockbox I’d hid it in. I had to be like, “argh I was date-raped in high school all the fucking time”. And just remember being drunk and getting taken advantage of and process that stuff and forgive myself—cause I really blamed myself for a lot of it for a long time—I was like ‘Why did I take that ride from that stranger when I was drunk? That one was clearly my fault.’ I had to go back in time and realize, yeah I made some bad choices, but that didn’t give anyone the right to rape me.

I: Did you have any feminist role models as a teenager? Or any role models in other areas of your life?

K: I had a weird photography teacher who wore wacky earrings and I remember thinking she was really cool. She took us to see a Cindy Sherman exhibit in Portland, and that was probably my first experience seeing punk rock. And I was like ‘That’s what I wanna do.’ I actually ended up going into photography before music because of her. I remember thinking that she seemed like she was an independent woman who had her own life and knew all about art. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. So I guess she was my role model. Sadly I don’t even remember her name!

I: I’m sure you get this question all the time, but I wonder how do you think riot grrrl is important for the next generation?

K: I don’t know. I mean, how do you think riot girl is important to the next generation?

I: Well, I think it’s incredibly important. I’m trying to start a feminist club at my school and there are a lot of people, guys and girls, who say stuff most in a jokey way like, ‘Get back to the kitchen’ And, I’m like, ‘NO.’ or, ‘If I do, I’ll come back with a knife’! I think young women are scared to identify as feminist. It’s bizarre and I don’t understand it. Feminism has somehow become a dirty word. When feminism is cool, and I think people, especially girls need to see riot girl presenting feminism as a cool thing?

K: We were experiencing the exact same thing you are talking about in the 90s. It’s really sad to know we were having the exact same conversations:  ‘Why is feminism not cool? Why is it a dirty word? Why is it embarrassing to identify ourselves with that?’ That’s why Tobi, the drummer from Bikini Kill, and I met. I was in this band, back when I was nineteen, called ‘Viva Knievel’ and a lot of the lyrics I wrote were about sexual abuse, and I felt pretty alone and pretty hated. Then I read her fanzine and she talked about sexism in the punk scene and I knew I had to be friends with her—cause there really was no one else who was talking about this stuff at the time. I mean, we were totally laughed at by a lot of people. It’s sad that you guys have to fight the same fights we did and have the same boring old arguments. Hopefully, what we did can at least be used for reference and you guys don’t have to feel like you’re starting totally from scratch. But it always kinda feels like your starting from scratch I guess.

I: It is kind of sad that there feels like there were hundreds of women that came before us and we are constantly building upon their legacies but not yet like ‘really.’ Strides have been made since the 90s but there’s still a lot there that needs to be done. “Slut Walks” are currently a huge thing. You know women taking to the streets to end rape culture and victim blaming. Riot Grrrl did an appropriation of the words like bitch and slut…

K: I think it’s great any time people organize for themselves. Like rock camp. I feel like rock camp is such a great way to put feminist theory into practice. Also, Ladyfests—Plus there’s so many women in bands now. A lot of people complain they’re not singing ‘feminist’ songs but I don’t think everyone has to get up and sing ‘white boy, don’t laugh, don’t cry, just die!’ Everyone doesn’t have to be super militant about the way they do their feminism. Clearly, being a feminist or just being a woman isn’t always the most interesting thing about a person. And we aren’t all the same kind of person with the same desires, which is a good thing!

I: Do you consider any of the popular female musicians today feminists?

K: I don’t like Lady GaGa’s music at all but I definitely think she has some sort of feminist connection. She seems like a strong person who is identifying herself as an artist and I think that’s a pretty inspiring thing for young girls to see.

I: I know there’s a documentary being made about you, called The Punk Singer, which Sini Anderson is directing. In the past lots of people have wanted to make documentaries about you, but you weren’t that into the idea, so why now?

K: I guess now because I’m really into making sure everything I’ve done so far is properly documented. I feel like it’s a way for me to honor my work thus far so that I can move on into whatever’s next.

I: I think female artists often have a problem with that because it’s like we’re told it’s not appropriate to be outwardly proud of our work. It makes other people uncomfortable. So women end up apologizing for ASKING TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY. It’s taking a stand in and of itself, to be proud of your body of work.

K: Yeah. The whole thing of “you’re a narcissist” is sooooo prevalent if you’re a female artist. And then, if you dare to call yourself a feminist there’s another set of hurdles thrown your way. Like does being a feminist artist mean you can’t ever have your picture in a magazine? Does it mean you’re objectifying yourself or exploiting your body if you wear tight jeans and have your photograph taken? For me all this stuff just gave me the ammunition to not properly document my work as it was happening. But then one day I was like, ‘Who am I kidding? I’m a performer, I fucking love attention. I am a total ham. Why else would I be doing this for twenty-something years?’ It makes total sense that I would want to be the star of a movie that showcases my work.

(photo courtesy of Kathleen Hanna’s blog)

I: How has your songwriting process evolved since the days of Bikini Kill?

K: In Bikini Kill Tobi, Kathi and Bill would write the music and I would sing on top of it. I had a lot of poems that I’d bring in and I’d go through and sing everything I had until I came upon something that matched with the music they were making. The first Julie Ruin record, which was the next thing I did after Bikini Kill, was just me with a reel-to-reel eight track in my apartment so I just got to sit there and sing and sing and try all sorts of melodies and not focus on the words so much. I started concentrating more on tone and melody and writing songs from a really personal place. I’m working with a new band now and they’re all really good musicians, and it’s pretty similar in that I bring in a loop with a melody idea, and they take that idea and make it way better, more dynamic. I learned a lot from Tobi, in terms of songwriting because I always thought she had the best Bikini Kill songs and she typically wrote, I believe, melody first. That’s how Michael Jackson did it too—you know the song is there and you just make up fake words to find your melody and fit the lyrics in later.

I: Is that how you write your songs, now?

K: Yeah, I usually write the melody first then I hear something within my fake words that sounds like a real word and I use that as a nutcracker to pry open what the song is actually about. Some end up being narrative, some are completely absurd and with some it’s more about the feeling of the song than what the actual words are anyways.

I: Do you feel that your activism is still part of your art?

K: Sure, I mean, I feel like my core values are going to come out in any work I make, for better or for worse. I’m not changing laws, you know, I’m not a politician. I’m a musician who cares deeply about being a part of a larger feminist community.

I: How does Le Tigre fit into that?

K: When I was in Bikini Kill I was pretty invested in screaming at the asshole dudes who were pissing me off. In LeTigre there was a real shift. I started thinking ‘shouldn’t we be inviting more women and weirdos of all kinds to our shows instead of spending so much time yelling at men we don’t even care about?’ I mean, If we really don’t care about them why don’t we just not invite them to our shows? So, instead of saying ‘fuck you,’ to the assholes that came to see us, we were able to say ‘I love you’ to a totally awesome crowd we actually enjoyed being around. Of course, once we did that music writers were all like ‘you’re just preaching to the converted.” And we were like “Yeah we totally are and it’s awesome.”

I: If you could talk to your fifteen year-old self, or sixteen year-old or eighteen year-old, with all of the wisdom you have now, what would you say to her?

K: “Kathleen! You wear far too much makeup!” She picks up a photo of herself… Actually, looking at this picture, what I would really and honestly would say is  “Have a good time, be kind to yourself, you’re perfect just how you are.” It’s really funny when you get older and you look back and wonder, ‘Why was I always walking around being like, my nose is too big, my thighs are too fat, my butt is too this, I have zits, da da da da da …’ Nobody cares about your fucking zits you’re young, you’re hot, on fire, and excited. Everyone is too busy worrying about themselves to care about your stupid zits. I also would tell myself to start a band right away. It would’ve been so fun to have been writing songs with my crazy friends instead of getting wasted all the time.