Kathleen Hanna – The Collapse Board Interview
KATHLEEN HANNA: 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, I 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 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 [Vail] and Kathi [Wilcox] 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 hit the drums harder than anyone I had ever seen and Michelle Leon was just sexy as hell and could totally play the bass. 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. 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 femininity with the strength in the music in saying that femininity 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 Camp for Girls in the US. 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 [Team Dresch, The Butchies, Mr. Lady Records] 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 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 a creative force?
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. 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]
When you started your project The Julie Ruin in your apartment by yourself with an 8-track and a sampler in 1998, did you ever think anyone else would hear it? Did you even want people to hear it? Was it a private exercise for yourself?
KH: It was really a way for me to not go crazy. It seemed like my band [Bikini Kill] was deteriorating, no one wanted to practice. My life was my band. In my 20s that is all I cared about. I didn’t care about anything else. If I ever had a boyfriend or a girlfriend who ever got in the way of my band, they were gone. If I ever had a friend who I felt got in the way of my band, they were gone. It’s all I cared about; I felt they were my family. You know when you feel like your family is breaking up and moving apart from each other, it’s really depressing [laughs]. I just decided that I had to start making something to make myself feel better.
I was really interested in learning about recording. Every time Bikini Kill recorded, there’s a part in the process where they play your vocal a capella, dry. You’ll sing a verse a couple of different times and then you’ll listen to it dry with no reverb or anything on it – it’s kind of like being naked – with the band in the room, producer, engineer and whoever else is there. It always made me so self-conscious and made me feel so bad about myself and question myself. I started to realise that I really needed to learn more about recording and how to get used to listening to my own voice and to get excited about it instead of bummed about it.
I got an 8-track and started experimenting at that time. I realised it served two purposes, in that, it taught me how to make ‘beats’ because I was using a sampler, it taught me how the recording process worked in a hands on way and gave me more confidence as a singer, that I was able to do more things than sing exactly how I sang on the first Bikini Kill record. I got to try out new sounds! It was a real exciting, transitional, growth period. I didn’t actually think that my band was going to break up when I was making that record but it’s what ended up happening.
When did you realise you were breaking up?
KH: After I moved. I was like, I just have to get out of Olympia. My best friend and her girlfriend Kaia (who you mentioned before) they lived in North Carolina and I hadn’t been around my best friend Tammy for years because she had moved out of Olympia. The band had taken over my life and we just saw each other whenever I was in the town that she lived in. I always vowed that if it looked as if my band was over, I would just go wherever she was and sleep on her couch and figure out my life from there and that’s what I did. It was obvious that it was over but no one was really saying it. I believe I sent an email and was just like, you guys, it’s over. I think everyone knew. It wasn’t like a big shocker. These things just happen. There was no incident. We’d been a band for almost nine years, most girl bands last for two months so I feel pretty happy with the eight or so years we had.
In a more recent interview you mentioned that with the new Julie Ruin stuff you’re working on, it has a prominent theme of anger through the album lyrically.
KH: Yeah [laughs]. It’s really funny because we’ve been recording the record for so long. We’ve been doing it really slowly partially because we’re all involved in a lot of other projects. Carmine [Covelli] our drummer was actually in that Neal Medlyn production, Wicked Clown Love. Kenny [Mellman] our keyboardist works constantly with other downtown artists making music, he is in a 100 different shows at once. Sarah [Landeau] the guitar player runs her own school for guitar and drums. Kathi has a daughter and just moved here (Kathi from Bikini Kill).
What’s it like to be creating with her again?