Interviewing Kathleen Hanna presents a near unique set of problems. After all, she isn't someone to be understood too quickly – a key figure in the American underground, she helped spearhead Riot Grrrl but has forever moved out-with any label placed upon her.
A vital, contrary, fascinating figure, she's also incredibly vivacious – seriously, if it were possible to get that laugh down in words, then the world's mood would undeniably lift. The emphasis placed on certain words, the rhythm of her speech, seems to lift her answers out of the mundane, making each statement feel vital, new.
So, paraphrase is a little difficult. But each of us have a job to do – Kathleen Hanna, for instance, is currently fronting The Julie Ruin, a band whose short-sharp electrical shock style (in simple terms) matches Bikini Kill's visceral riffing with Le Tigre's high voltage electronics.
New album 'Hit Reset' is out now on Hardly Art, and it's dominated by these noise rock miniatures, by song structures that erupt across a span that is more often than not counted in seconds, not minutes. “We were into the three minute pop song idea to have some sort of structure,” she tells Clash. “Like, let's keep it tight. A lot of stuff we'd play through, and be like: we don't need to have this that long. Then we'd cut it, and cut it. We just kept making stuff tighter and tighter and tighter. Which is great, except for when I end up with something where I sing the whole time and there's no time for me to breathe. And I'm like (laughs) you guys, you've cut this too short!”
“I think we wanted to keep it concise,” she adds. “One of my least favourite songs is 'The End' by The Doors – this 13 minute song. Attention spans, with the internet and stuff these days, it's like, people just don't have the time to sit through a 13 minute song!”
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This attention to brevity is something that has occurred throughout Kathleen's career, and it lends certain intensity to The Julie Ruin's current iteration. “It's like writing an essay, or a book review, or something,” she insists. “It's like, when you can make it as concise as possible and still get the information, or the feeling, or the artistic expression across, it's for me a lot better to not waste people's time and get right to it. You know what I mean? And chock it full of all the things that you want it to be.”
“I just like that kind of thing,” Kathleen continues. “I like Tres Leches cake – cake soaked in milk, so it's really dense. And I like that because of that you could listen to it over and over and get something new every time, whereas if it was really long and drawn out, it might just be too much. Repeating stuff over and over and over. The days of the double chorus at the end are pretty much over.”
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The days of the double chorus at the end are pretty much over…
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Although The Julie Ruin name first applied itself to one of Kathleen Hanna's solo ventures, it is now most definitely a group project. Touring has been sporadic – in part due to the singer's struggle with Lyme's Disease – but hasn't dented the sheer creativity going on in the studio. Ideas are exchanged, songs are battled for, and – by the end – a new album has been completed.
“I mean, we definitely did weird off-time things. Like, I brought in a sample for a song called 'Be Nice' which was, I think, our last song and it was completely out of time,” she recalls. “The sample I made was so wrong. It was speeding up and slowing down, and doing all this weird stuff.”
“I think we wanted the record to be like The Slits – you could listen to a Slits record and hear all these different musical aspects. Like a stoner record. Where you could listen to it and hear one thing, and then be a little bit stoned and hear all these different things in the background. Like, we definitely wanted to put all these hidden treats in there for people. We wanted to have this psychedelic element, and this confusing element, that would allow people to create a narrative of their own, or to just put it together more in a poetic way, than a narrative way.”
There's definitely a certain poetry to 'Hit Reset'. Kathleen Hanna's lyrics have rarely hit harder, but the breadth of emotional tone – lucidly sarcastic, bittersweet nostalgia, naked grief – is astonishing. 'Be Nice' – with its out of time sample – looks at the implications that 'being nice' can have on young women.
“Sometimes being nice means staying in a room with someone who's treating you like shit,” she explains. “And I don't want to do that any more. And I'm sick of the whole idea… I'm sick of people – especially men – who take advantage of that trait being so engrained in women, or a lot of women, that you're supposed to be nice if someone pulls their car up next to you and asks you for directions. But what happens if nine times out of ten this guy's masturbating? Am I still supposed to just walk over and give someone directions when they could grab me and pull me in the car? These are the times when you shouldn't be nice. I think being nice is the worst advice ever.”
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We definitely wanted to put all these hidden treats in there for people…
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This pointed, undeniable truth, though, is shrouded in the most sugar-sweet melodies imaginable – it's like a bubblegum pop song, wrapped around something that would, in most senses, be divorced from 'classic pop'. “I mean, I definitely think you've got to get somebody to the party so they can have a good time. And it's like, I feel like people who have had really shitty childhoods deserve music that is awesome and fun to dance to.”
“Like, I always think about going to a dinner party or something, and people talking about: ‘oh, this really fun time my family went to the beach!’ And I'm like: I don't really have any happy memories. I don't really have any happy memories from my childhood because my Dad was such a dick. And I know there's more people who are probably like me in that respect, who had alcoholic parents, or who have dysfunction or abuse in their lives, so why can't we write pop music about that? Why does it always have to be about having sex? There's so many subjects you could write about.”
The autobiographical nature of pop, she argues, is inherently cathartic. “I feel like it's really happy to be able to tell your story, whatever it is, however depressing it is. It's like… it's a joyous moment. It's like with the Sex Pistols: anger is an energy. It is an energy, and it can be a positive energy to be angry. And that's part of the reasons I really like singing songs that have heavy material in a light way, because I like the contradiction of it. It doesn't have to be a sad song where it sounds really sad. In fact, the happiest song on the record sounds really sad.”
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It's like with the Sex Pistols: anger is an energy.
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Our conversation is continually peppered with musical references, sometimes with key points of inspiration, sometimes with spur-of-the-moment examples. At one point, Kathleen waxes lyrical about The Style Council, about their ability to pen gorgeous pop songs that hit social and political critiques. Touching on her approach to lyric-writing, she doesn't turn to any obvious punk touchstones – she instead evokes Michael Jackson's imperial pop phase. But why not? The man was a genius, regardless of controversy.
“There's a Michael Jackson demo of 'Billie Jean', and he's just making up the words. He knew the chorus, but he didn't know the verses. He was just doing it, and that's another huge songwriting inspiration for me, in that I really enjoy signing a melody. Like, listening to the music and hearing what they're doing and then being like: how can I have a melody that doesn't sully their instruments? I hate melodies that exactly follow an instrument, and I rarely do it. I like to be a counterpoint to the music.”
“So to just have them play something instrumental, record it on my phone, and then go home and play it on Pro Tools and then I would just – without thinking – sing. Just sing. Like 100 things. And then step away for two weeks, come back and I would immediately know which were the two good ideas. And I would put 'em together.”
Allowing Kathleen free-rein seems to take her collaborators in some unexpected places – in part, as she admits, due to musical limitations. “I mean, everyone who's worked with me jokes that I can't come in on the fucking one. Like, I just don't usually come in on the one, I'll come in on the sixth,” she says, laughing uproariously. “I'd come in on a weird place, and they'd be like: oh, let's do that. It's about exaggerating what would be considered mistakes.”
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One of the album's technical high-points is 'Mr So And So', a track that pits ever-evolving, continually fluid music against a rapid-fire spoken-word segment from Kathleen. Burrowing into the words, though, quickly reveals a gruesome, grotesque character assassination of a would-be right-on male indie fan, whose attempts at praise quickly turn into disgusting tokenisation. It's entirely believable, and entirely hilarious – a spiel loaded with killer turns of phrase.
“All of the things in the song have happened to me,” she insists. “I wrote it in the first person, so I wrote it as if I am 'Mr So And So' because I just wanted to acknowledge that in other communities besides the predominantly white indie rock community, I'm 'Mr So And So'. I could definitely be 'Mr So And So' to someone else. Who's like coming into their scene and acting creepy or sketchy, or not understanding how my behaviour is effecting people.”
“It's not just hating men, or being sick of dealing with male promoters, or any of that, it's more like: the guy who is pretending to be on your side, and gets what you're doing, but then all of your behaviour is speaking volumes otherwise. The way that they act is totally sexist. You can't slap a Sleater-Kinney t-shirt over your sexism and then it's over, and I trust you.”
“I mean it was so cathartic to write that song just because I thought it was really funny,” she says, before her voice collapses into that familiar laugh one more time. “And it's about my own experiences, and I was nervous because I was like, is this too niche? Is this too much about being a woman in a band for so long? But then I saw the intern who was working at the studio, who was female, laughing her ass off when she was listening to it. And I was like: OK, we have to do this, we have to put this on the record.”
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There's so much talent that isn't being explored because people give priority to white guys in bands named Slaves.
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Ultimately, ‘Mr So And So’ is a song that has a much broader, universal meaning – it’s a statement about tokenism, in all its shades and hues. “My feeling about tokenism is: whatever gets me to the table. If they're tokenising us by having us at the festival I don't give a shit, I still want to play the festival because I want to be there,” she insists. “I just hate how tokenism makes it that people who are marginalised in any way have to compete with each other, because they're like: we can only have one African-American band at this, and we can only have feminist band, and we can only have one Latino band, or whatever. And I just find that part annoying because there's so much talent that isn't being explored because people give priority to white guys in bands named Slaves. Like, whatever.”
The sheer scabrous, hilariously sarcastic nature of ‘Mr So And So’ sits in blunt contrast to the naked heart-on-sleeve words that fuel ‘Calverton’. Perhaps the record’s most explicitly autobiographical moment, it deals directly with Kathleen Hanna’s childhood, and her relationship with her parents. Asked about the track, the line goes dead suddenly, the singer clearly pensive, and wary of saying too much.
“Yeah,” she says finally, breaking the silence. “I mean, I don't think I'll ever perform that live because I'll just cry. We had a big debate because there's a line that repeats: 'Why did I think I could fly?' And it's like, oh, that's just like that R Kelly song, that's so corny. But I was just like: fuck it, that's what I wanted to say because it's really about my mom, and that the only reason I thought I could do something was because my mom was always whispering in my ear that I could do whatever I wanted. Even though I had a very abusive, obnoxious alcoholic father who told me I couldn't do anything, I had my mom in my corner and I always felt loved by her and I just wanted to write a song about her, and Calverton was a place where we used to live.”
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I don't think I'll ever perform that live because I'll just cry…
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“It's cringe-worthy! I totally get that,” she says, almost recoiling at her own honesty. “And it's embarrassing. It feels like… TMI, a little bit. It was important for me to write what it felt like growing up in a really violent household and being scared all the time. I know that there's other people who can relate to that, and are in that situation right now. I just was like, I'm just going to bare it all because even the one person who's like 'I'm in that situation' someday maybe I can make it out, too.”
“And it's worth it,” she says, her voice once more flushed with confidence. “It was worth the embarrassment!”
And there’s that laugh again.
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'Hit Reset' is out now through Hardly Art. Catch The Julie Ruin live at the following UK shows:
2 London KOKO
4 Manchester UK
5 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
12 Glasgow CCA