Interview: Kathleen Hanna on The Punk Singer | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Kathleen Hanna on The Punk Singer

The musician opens up about the documentary, her illness, and future projects

Nov 29, 2013 Web Exclusive
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When you talk about indie rock icons, Kathleen Hanna’s name will pop up again and again. She was a central figure in the feminist riot grrrl movement; her first band, Bikini Kill, was the scene’s best-known act and one of the truly great bands to come out of the Pacific Northwest in the early ‘90s. Later, she moved to the East Coast and formed Le Tigre, who put out a string of outstanding electroclash records around the turn of the millennium. Between these two projects, she recorded an essential one-off solo record as Julie Ruin; it’s a name she recently resurrected—now a full band called The Julie Ruin—for her first record since taking a long hiatus from performing as she battled late-stage Lyme disease.

Filmmaker Sini Anderson completed an engrossing documentary on Hanna and her achievements, titled The Punk Singer, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles. It’s one of the best music docs of the year, and our review can be read here.

Kathleen Hanna hopped on the phone with Under the Radar to talk about The Punk Singer, her legacy, and future projects.


Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: It comes up now and then in interviews, where you’ve said you aren’t entirely comfortable being referred to as an icon.

Kathleen Hanna: [laughs] Yeah.

With this documentary out now, containing so many of your peers lauding your achievements, has it gotten harder for you to argue you’re not?

Not really, because I feel in this film I’m also so vulnerable, and you can see I’m a normal person. I think that disrupts the idea. The cool thing was people saying, oh, her work really matters.

To me, it’s about the hard work. I can’t look at myself as an icon because I feel more like a shark, where I have to keep moving. I don’t typically look back on work I’ve done in the past, except to think of the mistakes so I can improve upon them. I never really was able to fully take in how much impact my work had until I archived it for NYU, and was making this film. And then I was like, whoa! I’ve actually had this impact, and to me, people coming up and saying, “I found feminism because of you” – that is the success.

The you’re-an-icon thing is like good press/bad press: some people say you’re an icon, some people say you’re a bitch. If you listen to the icon thing, you also have to listen to the bitch thing. I tune those both out, and I listen to the grey area.

For someone who prefers not to look back, it must have been strange see your work and your life dissected up on the screen.

Yeah, especially the Bikini Kill footage. I was really blown away by how much energy I had on stage during those shows. I mean, I had energy in Le Tigre, too, but I had just come off making a big tour film [Who Took The Bomp? Le Tigre On Tour] so I had seen a lot of what I looked like performing in Le Tigre. I had never really faced what Bikini Kill was like live, because I was always on the stage. I was never in the audience except when I got pulled into the audience.

Facing that was the most difficult thing, because I was sick, and watching my younger self having such a great time and being crazy onstage, I was thinking “hey, I may never be able to do that again.” It felt like that was a different person. When I was watching it from bed, sick, I didn’t even recognize that person. Now I’m just this weird, sick person.

The film shines a light on Lyme disease. I think a lot of people without close-hand experience have no idea how terrible and incapacitating it can be.

What’s funny about that is when we first started shooting I didn’t realize that I had it. Once I did, and I started going through treatment, that was actually rougher than the illness itself. I realized so many people do understand Lyme disease, because so many people have it, and so many people know people who have it. Once I came out about having the illness, I had people in droves writing me e-mails about it.

I turned down a DJ gig at a museum one time. I had committed to do it, and then I went to a really bad place, illness-wise, and I had to make the call saying I can’t, I have to get out of it. I told the truth, that I had late-stage Lyme disease, that I was battling this illness. Usually I’d have made up some excuse, but I was like, fuck it, I’m just going to tell this guy. He said, my mom has it, I totally get it. Having that experience, I feel, wow, a lot of people do understand it, but I didn’t. I just thought you’d take a couple doxycycline and it’s over. I was treated for it early, but I wasn’t treated long enough, so it went on an on and on.

I’m curious about the documentary’s genesis. When did you and [filmmaker] Sini Anderson meet?

We met 15 or 20 years ago, when Sini was doing spoken word and living in San Francisco. We had mutual friends in common. We actually had several drunken nights together that were very memorable and fun, but neither of us drink anymore. We felt like family immediately, even though we were on different coasts and never saw each other. I just felt, you’re one of my people, and I think she felt the same way. When she moved to New York, we spent a little more time together. I asked her work on the Le Tigre tour film, and she said no, she didn’t want to. [Laughs.] She later came back with the idea to do a film just on me, and I was like, no, I didn’t want to. But I changed my mind!

Did it require much persuasion on her part to get you to open up on your life like that?

Well, part of it was I thought I was dying, and that I didn’t have much time left to tell my story. I just wanted to tell the truth. Because we’d been friends so long, it was easier for me to be vulnerable on-camera. If I said anything I later felt really uncomfortable with, I felt I could tell her I was uncomfortable with it. 

It’s impossible to cover an entire lifetime in a single film. You’ve mentioned there were things there weren’t room for here, and you’ll have to cover those when you write your eventual memoir. Are there any sections of your life or career you’d like to focus on more someday, when you look at all of this again?

I have a lot of critiques of the riot grrrl movement, and a lot of the things that happened within it. I’m lucky because there are two different films being made about riot grrrl. One by a French filmmaker, and another by American filmmakers, and I was already interviewed for one. I was able to be totally honest and say, here’s what I saw happening that was wrong, and here’s how I thought things went right. That’s something that was not really in [The Punk Singer.] I think a lot of people were disappoint by that, but I knew these other two films were going to come out, and this film’s not about riot grrrl, it’s about my work.

There are also things like crazy tour stories I’d like to tell, and funny stories I’d enjoy talking about someday, but it’s like you said. A narrative has to be chosen and followed to some extent to keep the audience engaged.

The film has been completed. You’ve archived and donated many of your old papers to New York University. A riot grrrl book [Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front] was written and released not long ago. With all of this retrospection, do you feel at all you’re closing old chapters to start on new ones?

Definitely. In my new band, I’ve written a few songs about that same thing: saying goodbye to the past to say hello to the future. I really feel like I couldn’t move on until I made sure this stuff was archived. Whether that meant moving on to the next reality, the next plane of existence, or whether that meant moving on in my career, I wanted to make sure my work as a feminist artist wouldn’t disappear. Now that I’ve done it, the world is my oyster, and I can do what I want. I don’t have to write Bikini Kill Part Two, or Le Tigre Part Two. I just made a record that was whatever the fuck I wanted it to be. That’s a great feel, because I’m benefiting from my own work.

I’ve had younger women say, “I feel I didn’t have to sing about radical feminism in a really didactic way, because you guys already did that. I felt like I could just sing about the stuff that was in my life.” That feels great. I was like, why are younger women benefiting from my work, and I’m not? I don’t have to keep being this old stalwart who keeps doing the same thing over and over. I think this film and the archiving has helped me be able to move forward, but also be really honest and critical about stuff I’ve done in and things I’ve been involved with in the past.

What impressed me so much about the film is that it’s not on a profile of your life and work, but functions as excellent bisection of this specific feminist movement.

Beyond the name, how does this incarnation of The Julie Ruin tie back to the solo CD you put out in the 1990s?

With the first record, when I was making it I was super depressed. I was being stalked by some man who worked across the street from my apartment building. My band was breaking up. I was resented within the riot grrl movement by some people because I was getting more attention than anybody else. And then on top of it, there were tons of punk boys who were just like, “She’s a bitch, she’s a man-hater!” I couldn’t do anything right. So I was in a really bad place. What I do when I’m in a really bad place is get creative, to take my mind off of those things and get out some of my frustrations.

With that first solo record, I was really trying to figure out who I was beyond what people said about me. I never said I was the leader of riot grrrl or anything. I wasn’t even the leader of Bikini Kill in reality—I always felt Tobi [Vail] was. I thought, who am I? If people say I’m this man-hating bitch, or this attention-grabbing person who’s stealing the limelight from other members of my community, where I can’t even go to see other all-girl bands play because I feel like some people are still mad at me? I just felt there was nowhere for me to turn, so I turned to recording.

I think this record was from a similar place, because I was extremely ill, and felt hopeless. I felt like I was deteriorating, and I might not have much time left. I wanted to make one more record before whatever happened, happened. So on my well days, I started working on this new record with my friends, and it gave me something to look forward to. It gave me hope. That was a really a similar feeling of transformation, from being Kathleen Hanna the punk rock feminist blah-blah-blah, to just being a person in a band. I just want to be a person in a band right now.

It’s a great rock-and-roll record, and you’ve put together a good group of musicians. Is this something you see yourself making more records with?

I hope so! I also want to do visual arts. I’ve also been doing some comedy writing, and a bunch of other projects. The cool thing about this band is we all have a bunch of projects we’re doing. We can do other things while being in this band, but at the same time, making another record probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

We already have, like, five songs written for the next record, anyway.

You mentioned comedy writing. You’re developing a TV series?

Yeah, we’re kind of in the final stages of filming it! So cross your fingers, it might happen.

People always ask: are you and your husband [ed: The Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz] ever going to collaborate on a record? I just never see that happening, because we’re both such control freaks when it comes to music that it would end in divorce. [Laughs] So it’s not a good idea. But we’re a good comedy writing team, apparently.

When I was sick, it was one of the things I could do when I was too ill to get off the couch. It cheered me up. I realized the importance of comedy. The sense of humor is what gets you through tough times.

The series is titled Bridget Drives the Bus. Can you tell us a little about it?

The pitch was that it’s I Love Lucy as seen by John Waters. That’s kind of what we’re going for. It’s about a really big fuckup named Bridget who drives a bus in New Jersey. She desperately wants to move to New York City and become a star. In the process, she’s just horrible. [laughs] She’s not a redeeming character, I’d say. She does have a heart of gold, but she doesn’t know how to show that very often. I’m really excited.

The Punk Singer opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 29th. Opening dates for more cities can be found at


The Julie Ruin’s new album, Run Fast, is available now. 


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