Kathleen Hanna Puts the '90s Behind Her to Run Fast

If Kathleen Hanna is supposed to be a humorless caricature of a feminist, someone forgot to tell her. The fact is, Hanna, former leader of the 1990s Riot Grrl queen-makers Bikini Kill, laughs her radiant laugh quite a bit and is quick with a joke, even about the pain, exhaustion, and seizures that have befallen her since she was diagnosed with Lyme Disease—Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death, if it attacked the body instead of the soul. Still, conversationally, Kathleen Hanna is a blast.

And busy. She lectures at art collectives, does set design, helped found dance music giants Le Tigre. But she's best known for fronting Bikini Kill and embodying the Riot Grrrl movement, which started out as a raging reaction to the sexist rock scene. Like grunge, it was so quickly co-opted. They even did an episode of Roseanne about it starring that princess of darkness Jenna Elfman. True believers probably couldn't believe how quickly their outlaw movement was captured, tamed, and commodified.

Is it any wonder, then, that Hanna and former Bikini Kill member Kathi Wilcox took shelter in The Julie Ruin? Their new record, Run Fast, with lyrics by Hanna and band keyboardist Kenny Mellman, with music credited to the whole band (also featuring Carmine Covelli on drums and Sara Landeau on guitar), is an eclectic delight. It jumps from fizzy Go Go's–style pop on "Stop Stop" to the synth-drenched "Girls Like Us," which sounds like a great Thompson Twins song. All of these tunes are topped by Hanna's danger-girl voice, which sounds amazingly unaffected by her hellish illness.

Band on the Run: The Julie Ruin
Shervin Lainez
Band on the Run: The Julie Ruin

"Sometimes, I worry that I'm viewed as a '90s artist. And I'm about to get some awful lifetime achievement award," says Hanna, talking via phone from her home in Manhattan. "Like, 'You were relevant a bunch of years ago, now go fuck off.' I feel that way on bad days. But on good ones, I think, 'I'm so fuckin' lucky that people still know my name.'"

"One of my things going into it was, I didn't want people just thinking of Kathleen as a '90s artist," says Mellman. "It was important to me that this not be, 'Oh, it's a '90s record coming back.' I think we've done that with The Julie Ruin."

Part of what helps distance Run Fast from Hanna's '90s past is that it's unquestionably fun.

"That's hilarious, because I was so sick and depressed when I wrote it," says Hanna of the album's lightness. "That's the joke. Like, next time I'm going to be feeling much better, and Kenny said, 'You're going to write a Leonard Cohen record.'"

"It was, 'We'll just do this at your pace,'" Wilcox says. "You know, we'd go in for one day, then take a week off. It was absolutely geared around Kathleen's medical treatment. That's why it took so long to make the record. It was over a year. What was hard to watch was Kathleen go through her various diagnoses, where it took forever to find she really had something. It's like, in the Victorian days, the catchall for women was 'hysteria.' Now it's 'depression.' That's one of the things they thought it was. And I'm [saying], 'Maybe there's actually something else going on, and you're afraid to admit you don't know what it is.'"

Mellman is pleased the new record is often upbeat. But life, as tightly interwoven with both cheery and spooky colors as it is, also causes him to reflect on the poignant moments that permeated the sessions. The album, after all, was recorded at late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch's studio, Oscilloscope. And fellow former Beastie Adam Horovitz is married to Hanna. Still, hearing tracks from the record helped brighten Yauch's final days.

"He came in when we were working on the track 'Ha Ha Ha,'" says Mellman. "He said, 'I really, really like this song.'"

Hanna says the unlikely music that helped her through her period of illness and inspired the uptempo quality of the new album were things like "My Sharona" and Devo's "Girl U Want" ("maybe not the most feminist thing, but incredibly catchy"). And The B-52s are always on her mind. The joy captured on the album is also a reaction to her past, which often included talking Politics with a capital P. Oh yeah, and Insane Clown Posse, of course.

"I'm friends with performance artist Neal Medlyn, and he did a show about the Insane Clown Posse, which puts these insufferable oafs in their place. He does a lot of research about different musicians and does satiric shows about them; he did a Miley Cyrus show, a Prince show. Neal also had this show with Kenny called Our Hit Parade, which parodied hits of the day, and when I was really sick I'd go see it. It was my saving grace. So, I thought, 'What can I do?' And I started designing sets. For the Insane Clown Posse Show, there was a dunking tank, a boxing ring with Astroturf on top, a gaming station with beanbag chairs, and one of those tents you have at a wedding. I went to Parsons and studied interior design, so it was a good outlet for me.

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