Kathleen Hanna and The Julie Ruin

by flaunt

We caught up with the feminist punk legend on her new band, new tour, and Beyonce.
Talking to Kathleen Hanna feels like talking to your cool and compelling older sister. At times, her voice shakes with frustration as she speaks about hate crimes and injustices, stirring the same angry emotions inside of you. Other times it drives a chuckle out of your mouth as she laughs at her own witty and brash jokes. She is blunt and candid when she speaks, both stunning and captivating you with each honest remark.

The feminist punk-powerhouse, most notably known for her contributions in the 1990s to the Riot Grrrl and third-wave feminism movements as the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, jokes that she sometimes feels that people expect her to be the be-all and end-all of feminism, that she has “seen the spectrum of all of the sexism and I can tell my tale from my rocking chair.” But with an incredibly personal new album, Hit Reset, with her band The Julie Ruin and an upcoming fall tour, Hanna still has plenty to say and a following that is still dying to listen.

We caught up with Hanna to discuss the creative process behind the album, the current state of feminism, and our feelings on Beyonce (there were many).

The Julie Ruin’s new album Hit Reset is arguably one of the most personal albums you have done. What made you want to open up so much?

I think I just don’t care anymore (laughs). Part of my interest in ending violence against women is because I’ve experienced it. While I have written about my own stories before, I’ve always mixed them with other stuff and I’ve never been like, ‘That’s totally my story.’ This is really personal. Like, my dad literally drank from a mug that was shaped like a bust. That’s what I saw him drinking from when I woke up from being asleep when I was nine years old—my dad drinking coffee out of a bust. So that’s what I thought the world was like (laughs). That’s what I thought men were like! They see us as these sexualized bodies or disembodied bodies. That’s a real thing and everything in the song “Hit Reset,” which is the same title as the album, is totally real stuff.

I just find that by writing this stuff I let it go. Then when I go on tour and I sing it every night, that’s like what therapy is. You just keep telling it until it becomes a story and you don’t have all the emotions behind it anymore. Maybe I couldn’t go through the emotion as a kid but if I can go through it in front of 3000 people at a festival, I’m going to get through it and be at a better place. Part of taking care of myself is telling the truth.

How was it to be back in the studio for this new album?

It’s such a thrill to have Eli Crews work with us. I feel like he really gets my aesthetic and I really get his aesthetic. He gets the negative space in the song and how important it is. And he knows how to do that with a five-piece band and that’s really pretty hard. We do lots of backups and we add tambourine and cowbell and stuff and he still creates these pockets of space where people can insert themselves into it and not just be bombarded by something.

One song in particular that strikes a chord is “Mr. So and So,” which is about a hypocritical male character who claims to be a feminist. Did a particular instance spark this song for you or has this been a buildup of multiple experiences?

This was like 25 or 27 years now of these kinds of tokenizing gestures by men. Again, I just needed to get rid of it and I needed to let myself do it. Whatever your situation is, there are tons of people who get tokenized for all kinds of bigoted, creepy reasons. I think that when you are marginalized in any way in culture, there are going to be those people who do anti-racism in a racist way or do anti-sexism in a really sexist way. Like my specific examples are different. But people who are asking to be on panels at the last fucking minute because they’re like, ‘Oh there’s no women on this panel.’ And then you show up and you’re getting paid half of what everybody else is because they blew their budget on all the straight white guys. And you know something’s wrong, like, ‘am I being tokenized?’ It’s always that thing of ‘Is this a sexist thing? Is it just a weird thing?’ It’s really hard to pull apart. Did they really want me but they didn’t know how to get in touch with me until the day before?

I feel like I’d be bleeding to death and someone would be asking me for a Bikini Kill autograph and shoving Sleater-Kinney t-shirts into my wound (laughs). And it’s nothing against Sleater-Kinney. I hope everyone gets that, like I love that band. I use them because they’re so big and they’re such a good example.

It’s crazy to think that these experiences that you’ve dealt with from 20+ years ago continue to happen to girls in the industry today.

I read the tweets that Jessica Hopper did. I’m like, man, this is all the same shit but it’s on the Internet now and people are writing articles about it and we’re not just suffering in silence. That’s what’s great. What would be even better is if men in the music scene or the music business read all this stuff and said, ‘How are we going to fix it?’ There’s so many ways that it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. I have ideas and if somebody doesn’t do it by the time I’m done touring, I’m going to have to set up some sort of project to figure it out.

Let’s use the internet to circulate this as an idea of how to create a better space or how to make shows better for people or how to deal with the fear that Orlando has brought to people. Let’s make sure that the LGBT community feels welcome at spaces that aren’t just LGBT spaces. People should feel welcome at all spaces. It shouldn’t feel like you’re walking into a cigar club when you’re walking into an indie show.

But I do think that people talking about it is great and that’s what’s changed since the 90's is that we weren’t talking about it so much. We were just letting it go on because it’s too overwhelming to have it happen to you every day and to have to talk about it also.

 It’s also been awesome to see huge superstars like Beyonce who are so willing to speak about feminism in the mainstream media as well.

I just don’t understand the whole thing where if it’s at all touched by capitalism it’s not feminist. And I understand. I don’t think capitalism is the best way to go about things and I wish I didn’t live in a capitalistic culture and society. . I think that nothing’s going to change if we don’t engage with capitalism and if we don’t come up with alternatives to it. If we don’t come up with ways to make alternatives within this structure as much as we can. I just always want to point out too that saying you’re a feminist is not a real career booster. Like that’s not something that probably Beyonce’s record label was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be great! You’ll make so much more money!’ That’s not true. When people are like, ‘It’s just this cool, trendy thing now and people are jumping on the bandwagon to get attention.’ Feminism is never the cool trendy thing. It’s always the thing where you hate men. It’s always the thing where you don’t shave your legs. It’s always the thing where you’re the killjoy.

There always seems to be more backlash than praise.

Right! And now there’s feminists having backlash about it with people like Beyonce. I don’t understand it and maybe it’s because I’m not cynical and I know what it feels like to be an artist who’s always said I’m a feminist artist. When people are cynical about it and like, ‘It’s just because it’s trendy.’ I’m like, really? It seems to me that racism is really trendy because half our country is voting for fucking Trump. I just think it’s really cynical to say these big stars are using it as a way to make money. Like no, they’re actually really big stars and there are some big stars who are actually really cool and are incredibly, massively talented and have worked really hard for what they have and they’re willing to take a stand. They’re willing to lose money. They’re willing to not be seen in the same way that they’ve been seen and take a risk. I applaud it. I think it’s great. It doesn’t just have to happen on the underground. I would have probably learned about feminism seeing that big lightboard behind Beyonce when I was a kid.

People have also been pretty cynical towards the controversial topic of social media activism because they argue that it produces less tangible progress. What’s your take on that?

Well, I worried when the internet first came out that a lot of people were just sitting in their rooms not meeting people and having face-to-face engagements but I think that now that it’s been so in our lives, there’s so many ways you can use it. Like, any tool you can use in a shitty way. You can use a calculator to figure out how to buy two of something or you can hit yourself in the head with it. The computer’s just a tool and you choose how you’re going to use it. Black Lives Matter is a great example because they do so much stuff out in the world, the physical world and also in the cyber world. I think that’s great and that the ultimate thing is to use the Internet as a tool to connect people.

I remember this conversation I had a couple years ago with Lauren Mayberry from Chvrches. She was like, ‘I really want to interact with my fans. I really want to have an open-door policy. I want it to be a scene. I don’t want it to be just where we’re the band and we’re cool. But on the comments on the internet, there’s all these men saying, ‘Oh, I want to rape her’ and horrible, horrible things. And she’s really young! It’s really sad because I had the same problem in Bikini Kill where I wanted to be available to people to talk to after shows but at a certain point, I couldn’t take it. I just stopped reading the comments and that’s what I told Lauren. Just don’t read the comments on the Internet. Whether people totally love you or totally hate you, it’s your friends’ opinions that really matter.

But then I’m still confused about it because I feel like the idea of wanting to leave the door open is a great one. I just think the only way you can do it is to be really strong and to not take things personally. But you don’t want to shut off your mind from real, generous criticism that helps you grow as a person. But if somebody’s just going to talk about your body or compare you to other women in the music industry, it does make you just want to shrivel up and knit sweaters.

 You’re bringing out a lot of great bands like Speedy Ortiz and PWR BTTM on this tour who have really spoken out about issues in the music industry. Do you make a conscious effort to bring out bands who are socially aware and fight against causes? Do you find that you’ve had similar experiences to theirs today?

Some of the members of the band are more on top of it than others because we all have different roles we play. But I think we want to play with good bands that we like and that’s more important than necessarily what somebody’s politics may be or may not be. I think we want to play with bands that we find exciting and thrilling and we want to hear them every night. But a lot of those bands tend to be bands who are unafraid and outrageous and tell it like it is. That’s what we like.

What are you most looking forward to on the upcoming tour?

I’m looking forward to seeing the bands. We’re trying to make it so that we get to play with different bands on different legs so that we get more than one at least for a couple shows so that we can see old friends like Jean and David from Mecca Normal. We’re all really big fans of their band and they were one of the bands who made me want to be in the band. But I also want to get to know PWR BTTM and Speedy Ortiz and some of the other bands we’re playing with to try and see what the hangout is like and hopefully be a part of building a music community where we can be writing songs about whatever the fuck we want and supporting each other. I’m also looking forward to being onstage with my friends and playing music and just dancing around on stage like…my mom (laughs).