Kathleen Hanna: “I woke up. I was like, oh shit! I wasted 17 years of my life, I need to make up for that lost time. I just started making everything I could.”

Handmade collage art by B.

Our editor has interviewed Creatives and made fanzines for the past 25+ years since she was 15 years old. One of her favourite interviews she’s ever done is this one with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin. Currently Kathleen is about to hit the road again with Bikini Kill for an extended U.S. reunion tour. Let’s hope the tour makes its way here to Australia.

Not too long ago she also stated a project called, Tees For Togo. T4T is a project where “100% of the profits go to Peace Sisters a group started by Tina Kampor who has been sending money back to Dapaong, Togo for 15 years so girls in her hometown can attend school.” Kathleen had her husband Ad-Rock and friends like Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon and more contribute art work which became designs for the tees. Gimmie contributor, artist Jhonny Russell contributed art for a shirt too; he’s responsible for the hand-cut collage header of this site.  

When did you first become aware of music?

KATHLEEN HANNA: I used to do dance class when I was a really little kid, when I was about five or six. They had specially made singles for our dance class [laughs]. I remember getting them and playing them. I remember being really into Tony DeFranco and The DeFranco Family, which was kind of like our teen sensation, kind of like our Justin Bieber of the 70s. Probably my biggest record was Carole King Tapestry that my mom had that I just listened to over and over and over again and the soundtrack from Chorus Line [laughs]. I loved music when I was little, I just never really had very much of it. I had the 7 inch of Dancing Machine by the Jackson 5. Probably one of my biggest musical moments was listening to that song over and over again and making up dances to it in the basement.

I used to do that to that same song too!

KH: [Laughs] No way! That’s crazy!

I have two nieces that are close in age to me and we were always making up dance routines in the backyard to the Jackson 5 and then later Janet Jackson and things like that when we were little.

KH: [Laughs] That’s so cute.

Recently you mentioned in a post on your blog that NYC and Brooklyn is having a total renaissance and some of the best art and performance is happening there at the moment.

KH: Yeah! I just saw this woman, Young Jean Lee’s show, Untitled Feminist the other night and it was absolutely incredible. I was lucky enough to see it develop about a year and a half ago. They had the show in a ‘work in progress’ mode and then they had a Q&A afterwards. It was one of the most interesting/devastating experiences I’ve ever had because the show had a lot of language in it that was talking about the history of feminism and what does feminism mean now. It also had dance performance, female nudity. Afterwards the performers sat in chairs and the audience members asked questions. I was really struck by how the show was called Untitled Feminist and how the audience kept asking questions or making comments like, why didn’t you represent this one certain kind of feminist? How come you didn’t mention this? Or saying, you need to instruct men about feminism more, that’s really your job. Everything was kind of critical comment about how she wasn’t doing enough. It was really interesting to me, I feel like it was because the word ‘feminist’ was in the title. I feel if that word wasn’t there the questions would have been completely different. I’ve heard some of these same critiques of my own work over the years so I felt really sensitive about it. I just saw the new version of the show and a year and a half later it had no language in it, it was all dance; there was some singing, a little bit in Italian. I’ve been really interested in the idea of how do you communicate ideas without language. I really want to ask her if that Q&A just turned her off language forever [laughs]. She’s a performer that has done a lot of stuff in New York that is really, really exciting.

It’s interesting that you mention doing things silently and communicating without language. Are you familiar with the magicians Penn & Teller?

KH: Yes.

Then you’d know Teller is usually silent for most of their act, well, I was reading the other day why he decided to do that and apparently it was because people would heckle him while he was doing his act vocally. He decided to try silence and found people stopped heckling and focused more on the act and what was happening. Letting the piece speak for itself.

KH: Wow that’s interesting. I don’t think that Young Jean Lee’s piece was a copout at all; it said so many things without language. I didn’t think she was afraid like everyone didn’t freak her out about language forever but, I did wonder how much of the Q&A influenced what she did. It also made me think about when I was 19 and in school doing photography. I was so nervous about objectifying women’s bodies that I was afraid to have my friends’ bodies in my photographs. I started doing work about objects. In a way, if you don’t grapple with difficult subjects, if women don’t take pictures of other women ever then we never find other ways of being. If we just say ‘Capitalism sucks! Fuck it!’ you can’t really escape it. We have to find other ways that meets people’s needs that is fair instead of just throwing your hands up in the air and being just like, I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to drop out and be the opposite. When you’re the opposite of something you just totally reinforce it.

How does singing make you feel?

KH: In public or in private? [laughs]

I guess both, I didn’t really think about singing in private vs. singing in public.

KH: It’s different. When it’s work… right now I’m at the end of finishing our [The Julie Ruin] album and I can’t watch singing on TV, I’m having a weird relationship with it. It feels like work right now. I’m stressed out because I have a little bit of a sore throat and I’m like, am I going to be able to get these songs done? Will the sound how I want them to sound? In general I find singing just lets me explore different parts of myself, I know that sounds so fucking corny but, when I’m standing in front of a mic… when I’ve been singing lately up in my home studio, I might have a rough idea of what the song is about or rough lyrics but a lot of the time just weird stuff comes out and I don’t know what’s going to happen. To me letting something happen and not control it is a real new experience [laughs]. For me that’s what singing is about—letting go and not trying to control an experience. Then there is the technical side of going back in and getting what I want out of it.

How did you learn to sing?

KH: I took lessons when I was in high school because I joined a musical theatre troupe but I got kicked out because I got caught smoking. I probably took three lessons and didn’t really learn much. I just sang at school when I could was in a choir. I joined a church so I could be in a choir. I just always enjoyed it since I was a tiny kid. It just made me feel good.

Did you ever intend on being a musician?

KH: No! [laughs] not at all. Growing up I just thought musicians were men. I thought, oh I could be like Linda Ronstadt or Olivia Newton-John who were kind of my idols. I knew there were female singers but I never thought I could be a singer that people wanted to listen to. I didn’t have that kind of confidence.

Didn’t you once go to a Babes In Toyland concert and that experience opened things up for you and you realised you could do it too?

KH: Yeah definitely! I was with Tobi and Kathi from Bikini Kill too. We really bonded on the fact that we had just experienced such an amazing, life-changing thing. That show! Kat Bjellend played guitar better than Greg Sage from The Wipers! She was wearing a tiny dress with a huge bow in her hair and she looked so beautiful and so fucked up, she was doing the craziest shit with her voice. Lori Barbero it the drums harder than anyone I had ever seen and Michelle Leon was just sexy as hell and could totally play the bass and I was like, wow! You really can have it all! You can make this amazing music which was about how beautiful anger can be to me. I’d never heard anything like it and haven’t heard anything since like it. It was just at somebody’s house in the middle of the woods. Afterwards we went outside and there was this bonfire and I didn’t really know Tobi and Kathi very well but somehow we ended up standing together because everyone else at that show was talking about how much they hated it and how bad the band was. They were like ‘They’re too pretty.’ That was the big thing, they’re too pretty to be in a band. I didn’t even get it. They were totally stunning women but that wasn’t the main thing to us, it was definitely the music. It was also the fact that they were women and they looked how they wanted to look, they didn’t have to hide the fact that they were women to play this totally intense music; the combination of the femineity with the strength in the music in saying that femineity and strength weren’t the opposite of each other. It was really an intense experience. Me, Tobi and Kathi were like, that is the best thing we’ve ever seen! Everyone else thought it was the worst so it kind of became clear that we were going to be in a band together. No one else probably wanted to be in a band with us!

I recently did an interview with Kate Nash, she does an After School Rock n Roll for Girls program kind of like Rock n Roll School for Girls. She told me she had interviewed the girls in the program at the beginning of it and it broke her heart that a lot of them said they were reluctant to pursue music because they thought you had to be pretty and they felt they weren’t pretty enough.

KH: Wow! I mean it’s a whole different world now. We have American Idol and that new ‘the whole package’ idea where it’s like you have to be a model first and a singer second. I think there’s a whole other way to keep women from playing music, it’s to say that you have to look a certain way. The thing is, there is always some kind of thing. Getting back to the Babes In Toyland show, people were saying that they are too pretty and if Kat was someone that people considered by traditional standards to be unattractive people would have been saying they’re too ugly. It doesn’t matter what you do, if you’re not a straight white male you’re going to get more harshly criticised than other people so you might as well just do whatever the fuck you want. It really is true that they are always going to find fault but yes, it is totally depressing. It’s depressing to be an older lady who is doing music and is feeling like, is anybody going to want to listen to my music because I’m not a model that has a contract with an agency, who also happens to make music.

I saw a preview of The Punk Singer film about you that is coming out soon. There was a part where Kaia Wilson was talking about you and said that anybody that knew you or that was introduced to you, knew that you were going to be that person to really leave your mark; is leaving your mark something that you’ve ever given much conscious thought to?

KH: That’s a good question. I mean I want to lie really bad right now [laughs]. I want to say that I never think about things like that and that I always live in the present but, I just donated all of my archival stuff to the Riot Grrrl collection at NYU so I would be a complete liar if I said, no I didn’t want to leave my mark. For me, the kind of mark that I want to leave, I really desperately want to be a part of the feminist continuum. I really want to make sure that what my peers have done and will continue to do doesn’t get erased. It took me a long time, in the pre-internet world of the 80s, to find out about feminism and to find out about and to find out about feminist art. It was a difficult process and something that I did on my own. More than making my mark I want to make sure that I leave something behind that is a part of feminist history for better or for worse that people can build on. That part is really, really important to me.

I’ve read in an older interview once that you said that you didn’t really feel like a creative force until much later after high school. When did you first start to realise that you were?

KH: I think when I went to college. I was away from my parents and away from some negative influences in my life. I was able to start making stuff. I was excited about it and I kind of couldn’t stop. It was almost as if I felt like I had been dead. I started college when I was 17 and it really felt like I had been walking through my life numb up until I left for college. It was like I woke up. I was like, oh shit! I wasted 17 years of my life, I need to make up for that lost time. I just started making everything I could. Some of it was really terrible…really terrible! [laughs]

Please check out: Bikini Kill and Tees For Togo.