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.
“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.
“When it comes to overt politics, I’d already done that and didn’t want to do it again. Also, being so sick, I needed to write a record for me. A record made by a person who thought they could tackle any obstacle and then had to deal with the limitations of their body. I needed to write a fan letter to myself, if that doesn’t sound too narcissistic. I needed a little Jill Clayburgh, ‘It’s My Turn’ time. I needed to wear my gypsy skirt and spin around in a circle. That’s what I did. And I’m really proud of it. That’s one of the great things I’m seeing with younger women in bands. They’re saying, ‘I can write about abortion rights if I want to. Or I can not.’ Back when I started, I didn’t feel I had that luxury. I was like, ‘There’s a war on women going on. People are telling me feminism shouldn’t exist. I work in a domestic violence shelter. Fuck all of you, I have to make this music.’ But now I feel like these 25-year-olds who think, ‘Hey, I can write about whatever I want.'”
“Bikini Kill was a great band, and their songwriting was incredibly powerful,” says Corin Tucker via e-mail. Hanna’s powerful songwriting helped in part to inspire her to start her own band, Sleater-Kinney. “I think ‘Feels Blind’ is my favorite: ‘All the doves that fly past my eyes, have a stickiness to their wings . . .’ Kathleen was able to combine feminist poetry with such a catchy and melancholy melody, her message of angst was so strong, and her voice was so unique. I think the sheer courage it took to take such a strong and confrontational stance against sexism, and not give a damn what anyone else thought of her, was the most inspiring thing for me.”
As much as she’s finally able to look forward, her radioactive past seems to have a half-life that still affects her, still glows 20 years later. Not the least of which are those now famous words she scrawled on a wall—”Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit”—one night when partying with pal Kurt Cobain. It was a joke about underarm deodorant that sparked the most explosive song of the decade. About it, Hanna is understandably wistful.
“It’s funny,” she says, “I didn’t really get asked about that line for a long time, except in foreign countries. It didn’t start coming up until Wikipedia published it. When I think about ‘Teen Spirit,’ I think about Kurt’s death, and because of his suicide it’s hard for it not to leave a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a melancholy thing. Happy and sad at the same time, you know? Sort of, ‘Remember when we were young and we felt like we could do anything? When we were healthy and crazy?’ And that’s immediately followed by, ‘Oh yeah. Some of us didn’t make it.'”
‘Run Fast’ is out September 3 on TJR Records. The Julie Ruin play the Bowery Ballroom on September 3 at 8 p.m.