Kathleen Hanna has never been shy. As one of the founders of the Riot Grrrl movement, Hanna has been a leader in the third-wave feminism movement that continues to this day. She has influenced countless women, both in and out of the music world, by refusing to accept the status quo and not being afraid to share experiences once considered taboo or embarrassing. During her quarter-century-plus career with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, the singer-songwriter has opened up about her experiences with sexual abuse, sexism and violence. But on Hit Reset, the new album from her current band The Julie Ruin, Hanna gets even more personal, taking on her childhood and especially her father, who she said emotionally abused her and created at scary, dysfunctional home.
Hanna’s story is well documented. Born in Portland, Oregon and growing up largely inWashington State, she first got serious about feminism at 9-years-old when her mother took her to a rally in Washington, D.C. After high school and after her parent’s divorce she attended Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington and worked as a stripper to support herself. While in school, she and another student set up a photo exhibit featuring the pair’s photography, which dealt, respectively, with sexism and AIDS. However, the school administrators took the photos down before they got the chance to be viewed, an act of censorship that prompted what Hanna refers to as her “first foray into activism”—the creation of an independent feminist art gallery called Reko Muse with friends Heidi Arbogast and Tammy Rae Carland. The three women then formed a band called Amy Carter, which put on shows before the art exhibitions. Around this time, Hanna was also doing a lot of spoken word performances about sexism and violence against women, but she soon gave that up in favor of reaching people through music. She formed a band called Viva Kneivel but after two months they broke up. Then, she formed the band that would launch her into stardom — Bikini Kill. At the same time, Hanna began collaborating with Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman from the band Bratmobile who started writing a fanzine called Riot Grrl. Although they quickly decided performing music shows was a better way to spread their message, the Riot Grrl zine inspired other women from across the country to start their own zines and their own bands.
The Riot Grrl movement became a call to action for increased feminist activity and female involvement in the punk rock scene. At Bikini Kill shows, a “girls to the front” concept was born where women were encouraged to move near the front of the stage to avoid harassment from male concertgoers, which made them comfortable and more welcome to participate. But Hanna inspired more than other women. A good friend of Kurt Cobain, Hanna unintentionally came with the name for Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” She wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Cobain’s wall. At the time, Cobain was unaware that Kathleen was referring to Teen Spirit deodorant for young women, and thought that the phrase would anchor the song’s theme. While Cobain and Nirvana are largely credited for starting the grunge movement, it’s not as commonly known that they came out of the Riot Grrrl movement.
After Bikini Kill broke up in 1998, Hanna completed a solo project that she called The Julie Ruin and released a self-titled debut. She then joined friend and zine editor Johanna Fateman in Portland, Oregon and formed a band called The Troublemakers. The band didn’t last long, as Fateman moved from Portland to New York. In 2000, Hanna moved to New York and teamed up with Fateman and filmmaker Sadie Benning to form another band, Le Tigre. By 2005 though, Hanna left Le Tigre to deal with health issues that was later discovered to be Lyme Disease. Her battle with the disease was documented in the 2013 film The Punk Singer.
In 2010, Hanna reformed The Julie Ruin as a full band an in 2013 they released their first album but had to cut short their 2014 tour because of Hanna’s issues with her disease. Today, after a long battle with the debilitating disease, Hanna says it is pretty much behind her. The Julie Ruin just released their second album “Hit Reset,” which seems to be a metaphor for both her battles with her disease and issues with her family, which are front and center on the release.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito caught up with Kathleen Hanna in New York, where she lives with her husband and Beastie Boy Adam Ad-Rock Horovitz a few days before The Julie Ruin’s next Chicago appearance, July 14 at Thalia Hall.
CA) You’ve said that part of the way you get over things is by singing about them. How much has music saved you over the years?
HANNA) I think therapy has been more effective, but singing has definitely been a way for me to turn something into a story that I can tell. And then to get feedback on it when somebody says that, for example – a guy that I just talked to said when he was 17 he went to a Le Tigre concert and on his way out he turned and told his best friend that he was gay. And his best friend told him that he was gay too! [laughter]. So to be able to sing honestly about things and about turmoil, bigotry and equality and then to have someone say we were so inspired by your gig that we came out to each other that night, that is also really healing. It gives me the motivation to swim in shark infested waters and not stay in the baby pool. You take the risk but it pays off a hundred fold.
CA) You have been well known for a long time now, but did your film The Punk Singer allow you to be discovered by a new generation?
HANNA) I’m really not sure, but I do know that when it went up on Netflix a couple years ago I would get recognized more. Usually the only place that I would ever get recognized in New York City was a record store or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Now, I was just in Chelsea walking around and these random people were looking at me and said ‘Hey, aren’t you…’ and I said yes. A lot of times it’s older people who weren’t aware of my music but we’ve also have a lot of younger fans at our shows, so it’s really awesome that’s it’s become multi-generational. I’m guessing the movie had something to do with that. But also the resurgence of the 1990s. People read about Nirvana and we’d get mentioned and they look for our records. There’s a lot of really young Bikini Kill fans and that’s really interesting to me. I’m just like, ‘wow!’ It’s very humbling, you know what I mean?
CA) Well, the issues are still relevant to a lot of people.
CA) Your songs have always been very open and personal, but on Hit Reset, which is released today, you take it to another level. You focus a lot on your family, which you called “scary” and focus a lot on your dad’s emotional abuse. Do you still have a relationship with your family? What has their reaction been?
HANNA) Oh God. [Laughs]. I told my mom what to expect, I’ve very close with my mother. I don’t know where my father is. I haven’t seen or talked to him since I was 27, so I’ve been out of touch with my father for 20 years. I have cousins who I consider my sisters, whom I love very much and that I’m in contact with, along with my mom and her partner. They’ve always supported me, they’ve always been very proud. I don’t know where my father is. I know he’s alive. Maybe after this record he’ll jump off a bridge [laughs]. I know that’s horrible to laugh about but not really.
I keep meaning to email my mom and I have to send her the record now that it’s out. I don’t know if she reading the all the press but the first article that came out we talked a lot about it and it was actually a really cool thing. We worked on a lot. I’m so proud of her for stepping up to the plate and being like, ‘Here’s the mistakes we made.’ It all makes me feel so much better as an adult to be like, ‘ok, I’m not remembering these things wrong.’ These things really happened and she’s willing to face them. I love my mom.
CA) Your song Calverton on the new album is about your mother. It’s a beautiful song, and I especially love the way it ends. I’m curious about something I read however — You also have said that your mother was a “secret feminist.” What do you mean by that?
HANNA) Well my mom, I think she read some feminist book years ago and my dad tried to mansplain it to her, and this is before we had the word mansplain, so it was even more psychologically fucked up because she couldn’t just say ‘he’s mansplaining it to me.’ I think it’s really important to have the proper language for this stuff, because you’ll then see that people experience this in mass. It’s not just you in your house. After that, she was just like ‘I can’t really talk about this stuff’ because it’s just going to end up with my dad telling her what [he thought] it really means and making her feel terrible. The only thing she did was she got Ms. magazine. I would cut out pictures of women in non-traditional jobs because that was the extent of my feminist knowledge [at the time]. She worked at an early domestic violence shelter when it was really just people being housed in other people’s houses for a few nights to get away from the abuser. My mom would go to this church basement late at night every Tuesday or Wednesday. My mom isn’t religious so I was like, ‘Why are you going to church?’ and she would never explain it. I finally put two and two together when I was older. She was doing domestic violence work.
CA) Not to change the topic, but getting back to the new album, Mr. So and So is a pretty funny song, taking on sexism in indy rock. Yet, it’s a serious topic. Have things changed at all since you first started out?
HANNA) Yeah, I think they definitely have. The fact that I’m able at this point to write about all this stuff that happened to me and my friends and others — the kind of serious tokenization and underhanded compliments from people, which is related to being marginalized as a musician. I’m able to take over that voice and be totally sarcastic and have fun with it. I don’t think people were ready for that 20 years ago. People didn’t get it that when I sang “White Boy” that it was a serious joke. These days people realize how nuanced things are and there are so many more — even having someone like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert become wildly popular, people have realized that you can be really funny and really serious at the same time. Now there are groups that are saying ‘We’re singing about feminism,’ ‘We’re singing about racism,’ or ‘We’re singing about passives’ and they aren’t ashamed of it and people are excited to hear what they have to say. And yes, they still experience some of the things that we experienced — because once you say that you’re going to write about this serious stuff, people hold you to a really incredibly high standard. The thing is, why weren’t The Strokes held to a high standard? What were they writing about? Girls, or crashing your dad’s car, that’s fine. But if you sing about world politics it’s like ‘you better be vegan, and you better wear vegan shoes and you better never say anything that’s stupid.’ You’re in focus and they’ll magnify the shit out of it. I understand it and I should be criticized for certain things that I’ve done and mistakes that I’ve made but I do think it’s a little unfair that I have to explain feminism to everyone. I want Justin Timberlake to explain feminism to everyone. You know what I’m saying? Why me? Let’s ask Justin Timberlake about racism and have him explain his knowledgeable history of it. And I’m not saying anything bad against JT, I’m just saying why aren’t straight white men asked these questions? I mean, how many guys that we know in bands who have slept with 15-year-old groupies, and no one gives a shit. I would never do anything like that, but if I did you better believe that I’d be held accountable.
CA) I’ve read that in the past you may have been too concerned about helping your fans with their troubles than helping yourself. How did you figure out that you had to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others?
HANNA) I think my body told me. I got really sick. When I got better, it was like ‘after the car crash.’ Your body heals but you’re left with a kind of like PTSD, and there really is PTSD involved when you have an illness that’s constantly flaring up and then going into remission and then flaring up again. You’ll be bed-ridden for a month and then all of a sudden you can do something for two weeks and then you’re back in pain or having seizures. It’s really a traumatic experience and to be on the other side of it for the most part now, I’m able to look back at it and see how hard the emotional toll has been. I was re-traumatized because I grew up in a household where I felt like my safety was in jeopardy and then all of a sudden I got an illness that put my safety in jeopardy [ Lyme disease]. There are a lot of similarities to being trapped in your own body and being trapped in an unsafe house.
CA) In some ways it seems like you’ve been around a long time, but when you consider other rock icons like Patti Smith, Joan Jett and Kim Deal, you are still early in your career. Do you see yourself putting out albums and touring 20 years from now?
HANNA) I’m not sure. I really would to spend some time with other art. Maybe having a radio show or doing something where I can keep up to date on what other people are making. I’d like to take some time to enjoy other people’s art. I missed out on a lot musically and artistically when I was sick. I feel like like I’m in a position where I have a little name recognition and I’d really like to use it to expose the work of people who don’t have that recognition yet.
CA) Speaking of your fame, you’ve never been afraid to give your opinion on a variety of topics. Have you or would you ever consider getting into politics?
HANNA) No. Look what they are doing to Clinton right now. There’s a race war going on and they are discussing her. There’s all these cops killing these black men and the fucking Republicans are going to keep going after Clinton in every way they can. We have more pressing concerns in this country right now than to have a targeted attack on this candidate. It’s hideous and embarrassing. Looking at all that she has been through, and knowing what I’ve been through, there is no way I would go into politics. I don’t have the attention span and the ability to compromise. I can compromise and I can take a lot of shit, but it’s in the nature of the political system that sometimes you have to give up something you really care about in order to get something that you do care about through Congress. Sometimes people don’t realize that and say ‘she voted for this, or he voted for that’ but they have to look at the whole thing. The person may have have passed something great, but there’s this caveat in it. People select what they want to show what they want. I’ve been through that on a very one milligram scale. I would not step into that quagmire and besides, who wants an ex-stripper punk rocker? If I was being vetted, they’d get to the third sentence in my Wikipedia and they would be like, ‘Um, no.’ [Laughter]
CA) I also read that you and your husband did a pilot for Comedy Central with Bridget Everett. Will it ever air?
HANAA) Yeah. I have no idea if it will ever air. I know I got paid. [laughs]
CA) You and Adam also wrote some movie summaries?
HANNA) Oh yeah. We’ll try to sell them at some point. I’ve done them in various assumed names because some of them are really bad rom-coms. We’ll do them when we are walking our dog. I’ll be like, ‘let’s write a rom-com’ because I’m convinced that you can write a rom-com while your dog is shitting. But yeah, I’ll write a rom-com under an assumed name and then if I sell it I’ll give the money to charity.
CA) Getting back to music, who were your role models early in your career?
HANNA) Definitely Babes in Toyland, STP, the Splits. The stuff from England was a little later, after my first demo and EP [with Bikini Kill]. But you know what also influenced Bikini Kill a lot was that Sub Pub put out these singles, it was like single of the month club. They had Hole, L7, STP, The Lunachicks and I still have them all. A lot of stuff like that really inspired us.
CA)You’re playing Thalia Hall July 14 and then you’re back in Chicago in September for Riot Fest. What’s your opinion of Chicago?
HANNA) I love Chicago. I almost moved to Chicago instead of New York. I’m glad I moved to New York but I’ve always loved Chicago we’ve always had really good shows there, usually because the people who come out are so enthused and involved and that’s what makes a great show. I definitely have a love for Chicago.