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DIY or Die; Kathleen Hanna Returns with The Julie Ruin

The Julie Ruin
24 September 2013

Kathleen Hanna has returned to the stage after a six year absence with The Julie Ruin. Reuniting with Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox, the group maintains Hanna’s political convictions while crafting effortless melodies showcasing Hanna’s trademark passion. The release of The Julie Ruin’s debut LP has earned a lot of attention from mainstream media as well as long-time fans eager to welcome Hanna back.

Sharing the name of Hanna’s overlooked 1998 solo record, The Julie Ruin is a return to form for Hanna who sounds rejuvenated after a devastating illness that put her career on hold. After an initial misdiagnosis it was later determined Hanna had Lyme Disease.

“I had to take a long break to figure out what was going on with my health. I underwent intensive treatments and though there were breaks when I was feeling well I was really depressed,” reflected Hanna.

Hanna’s creativity took a detour after Bikini Kill’s breakup back in ‘97-‘98 Hanna said it was “a death of sorts” but her follow-up group Le Tigre proved she still had more to say but with a surprising new twist. The group proved very successul and the band created a new niche; dance music for feminism. Trading Bikini Kill’s feedback and aggression for dance hooks and memorable choruses, Le Tigre was met with seemingly open arms from the underground that once resisted, at times violently Hanna’s feminist convictions espoused in Bikini Kill.

“I always took the resistance to mean we were doing something right,” laughed Hanna.

Bikini Kill’s catalog was recently re-mastered and though the incredible rise of the Riot Grrl movement has since faded from mainstream media, the recent success of The Julie Ruin proves there are still true believers in feminism, equality, and leftist politics. Hanna has been anointed icon status in some publications but she quickly clarified in no way does she believe in that moniker.

“The whole icon thing is bullshit because nobody views themselves like that. I’m pleased that Bikini Kill is now getting appreciation outside of the baggage. It helped people to question sexism in the punk scene. Just getting people talking is something all in its own. It’s funny to look back because we got a ton of shit and now when I do lectures people say they loved us. It’s about fucking time,” laughed Hanna.

The Julie Ruin borrows Le Tigre’s focus on melody but contrasts thanks to having a full live band as opposed to drum machines. Hanna’s convictions are still intact but her politics have evolved thanks to a seemingly less confrontational approach.

“At this point I feel like I just want to be in a band again. There are many facets to my identity, not just politics. I still consider what I do political but life is too short to get so caught up in things. When sexism happens now I get confused because the people I run in circles with don’t act that way so when I see it now it’s strange, almost like a sucker punch,” said Hanna.

What makes Hanna unique is her versatility. She has worked to create an instantly recognizable voice within different genres. Bikini Kill offered her the chance to confront sexism and other inequalities by utilizing punk rock while Le Tigre had her building on those convictions by complimenting them with dance backbeats.

“We called ourselves feminist, electronic punk. We wanted to make people dance and coming from a previous band where some shows got violent I wanted a change. With Le Tigre we wanted to politicize the party so to speak and become the party band for the protest,” recalled Hanna.

The Julie Ruin presents its material using a basic, straight-ahead approach. Taking the driving force of garage rock and the harmonies of girl groups from the ’60’s, Hanna has once again worked to create an eager audience.

“I’m excited about this band but some people may want Bikini Kill part II or something. That’s not what we are. I’m working to make the music that I want to make,” stated Hanna.

In addition to her celebrated music career Hanna continues making appearances within academia and the lecture circuit. Her former notoriety has transformed her to an ambassador for feminist ideals and independent music.

“Looking back to when I was a student and Bikini Kill was starting we thought how could we take our beliefs from these feminist writings and put it all into action. I think it’s great to see more women’s studies courses within academia now. Bikini Kill wouldn’t have existed without the writers we learned about in college,” stated Hanna.

As the Riot Grrl movement Hanna undeniably helped create has aged over 20 years, there seems to be a newfound appreciation as Hanna noted during recent lecture appearances.

“I’m 44 now and when I do lectures I get a lot of younger people telling me how they’ve gotten into Bikini Kill and other bands. It’s very rewarding to hear that as well as see a lot of bands today that are proud to call themselves feminists. There wasn‘t a lot of that going on when we first started.”

In retrospect, the Riot Grrl movement helped many of Bikini Kill’s peers reach broader audiences as well as assist women artists seek new opportunities to have their voices heard. The movement reached prime time during a 1992 Roseanne episode which featured Jenna Elfman introducing Bikini Kill, The Red Aunts, and L7. Legendary rocker Joan Jett took notice and penned Activity Grrrl two years later. Hanna teamed with Jett 12 years later on Sinner, contributing guest vocals on Tube Talking. Hanna reflected on first meeting Jett.

“She’s the queen of rock n’ roll and I remember the first time I met her, it felt like she was a member of my family. It was a dream come true when we talked about producing a single but believe it or not people gave us shit for it because she was on a major label,” laughed Hanna.

She added that such a special opportunity trumps narrow-minded DIY ideals.

“I think that experience trumped people’s limited DIY notions because we had the chance to work with a performer of such legendary status. I also remember the intense debates surrounding Kill Rock Stars and their idea of putting barcodes on their records. I’m not an indie snob. I didn’t grow up in a college educated family or with musicians. I learned about punk from this cable show called Night Flight. If people can learn about new things through other stuff what’s the problem?”

She added “I recall Kill Rock Stars took out a three line ad in Rolling Stone and it ended up turning on a lot of people to new music,” said Hanna.

The Julie Ruin’s recent appearance on The Jimmy Fallon Show may be a new benchmark for Hanna as well as another opportunity to create a bigger audience. Perhaps the masses are finally ready for the uncompromising messages that Hanna still brings to the stage. Her views on the opportunity were more lighthearted.

“Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to be on television? Besides, if we don’t do stuff like Fallon how would a kid learn about punk rock and see the freaky woman in her dress,” laughed Hanna.

She did state that she always finds it interesting that some people like the music but not the message and vice versa.

“There is a small subset of people who like both. I think the height of creativity is when your politics and your art are so intertwined that they’re one and cannot be separated. When it all sounds effortless. I always wanted the message and the music together and as I grow I think they’ve come closer together.”

The Julie Ruin has offered Hanna a new opportunity to receive feedback and witness changes she struggled for. She stated how fortunate she feels to still be creating music and having positive interactions with fans.

“There’s no higher compliment than to get feedback in person. To have someone come up to you 20 years later and say something you wrote saved their life is very gratifying, especially when you look back to when you first wrote it and wondered if anyone was even listening.”

Hanna concluded that there’s lots of positive energy within today’s underground art and many young women are making positive contributions.

“Today, I do see a lot of progress in underground music. I see a lot of young women doing exciting things and it‘s so great to see it and still be part of it. ”

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