Bikini Kill and Le Tigre leader Kathleen Hanna is mounting a return to music after a seven-year hiatus from performing. Her latest band, The Julie Ruin, is a five-piece re-imagining of her 1997 solo bedroom project Julie Ruin, an album now looked upon as one of the first punk efforts to incorporate electronics. The group’s debut, Run Fast, takes her music in a more personal direction after years spent producing feminist anthems that helped fuel the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s.
Hanna began assembling the band in 2010 while in the throes of a debilitating battle with Lyme disease, an illness she kept secret from fans until a documentary about her life, The Punk Singer, premiered at SXSW earlier this year.
This week, The Julie Ruin are embarking on a U.S. tour to support the release of Run Fast. To find out about the band’s musical evolution, we spoke with keyboard player and co-singer Kenny Mellman, whom you might also know as one of half of the drag cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. Read the Q&A with Kenny after the jump!
How did you end up joining The Julie Ruin?
Kathleen basically collected the team like Charlie’s Angels. With me, she asked if I wanted to write a country song with her. I was perplexed but said sure because it was Kathleen Hanna. And she came over and we wrote a song together and then a couple of days later she called and said, ‘My manager says we’ll never break into the Nashville songwriting scene so would you like to be in my band instead?’ Of course I said yes.
A country song for another artist or for herself?
She was very sick at the time and I think she was trying to come up with ways she could still engage with music but without performing it. But anyway, I think it was also a ruse to see if we could work well together because we knew each other and she had performed once with my old act Kiki and Herb. I think she was just testing the waters.
Aside from music, what do you have in common that allows you to work well together?
We have a lot in common, as we’re realizing more and more. When Kiki and Herb was touring the world so was Le Tigre. Some of the greatest times were seeing Le Tigre in London or Manchester in the UK. You would go and there was this incredible sense of community that crossed the world, and I feel like for Kiki and Herb it was the same thing. For Justin [Bond] and me it was very important to create a safe space and a community around it. Basically Kiki and Herb started as a big protest against the AIDS years and Reagan and blah-dy blah blah. So I feel like Kathleen and I have that in common in that, yes, it’s just an album and, yes, this is just a band, but there’s a sense of something more than that.
Can you tell me about your contributions to The Julie Ruin album?
It was a true collaboration. My contribution besides one song’s lyrics, some backing lyrics and some crazy keyboards was making sure, to the best of my ability, that we weren’t writing another Bikini Kill or Le Tigre record. Or that we weren’t writing a surf record from the sixties because, selfishly, I wanted Kathleen’s new music to be new and not have people write it off as, ‘Oh this is just her screaming about feminism again.’ Or however people discounted Le Tigre. Our guitarist Sara [Landeau] is a really amazing surf guitar player so she would come up with a riff and I would say, ‘That’s great, now let’s add a crazy keyboard line that’s vaguely – I don’t know – LCD Soundsystem and try to keep it current.’ I don’t know if I succeeded.
How would you say Kathleen Hanna has evolved as a musician over the years?
Even after seven years of illness she’s still the most dynamic person. With Bikini Kill, she obviously goes on record as saying she saw that women weren’t being represented in the punk scene and so she needed to do that. And with Le Tigre she was well ahead of adding electronics into songs of that nature. With this album I feel like she released herself into not thinking she had to write songs for other people and wrote songs that she wanted to write. I think that was very important to her.
What songs on the album resonate with you the most?
“Goodnight/Goodbye” because it’s really about ageing, which is relevant to everyone in our band because we’re all in our forties [laughs]. And “Run Fast” – I almost cry every time I hear it. Kathleen would often sing what sounds like nonsense words when we were writing songs because she had’t really written the lyrics. So we had no idea what that song was about except that the chorus was “Run Fast.” Then I read the lyrics I was like, ‘Oh this is a mission statement of Kathleen.’ I think it’s one of the most amazing songs that she’s written.
“Kids In NY” is a song about gentrification and how New York City has changed over the years. As a New York resident, how do you feel about that song?
It was funny because when Kathleen first wrote the lyrics to the chorus it was, “We love it here and we’re not gonna go!” And I was like, ‘Kathleen we are not kids! You have to change the pronoun on that.’ In the four or five years I’ve lived [in Brooklyn], it is completely changing. I have to stay in my rent-stabilized apartment because an equivalent apartment at market value would be six times the rent. And so I do feel that Kathleen is right. There’s a certain drive people have to have now – as they do all over the world – but to exist in New York City you really have to hustle. Some amazing music and art is coming out of that because it’s the people who are really, really committed to it that can actually stay here and not go somewhere else to create art.
Do you ever feel like moving?
One of these days I’ll probably move to Portland, Oregon. I spent a large part of my adulthood in San Francisco and feel like Portland has the energy of San Francisco in the eighties and nineties: Really amazing food. Really amazing scene. I like that in the queer scene in Portland is really mixed, which is not entirely true of New York City.
What’s the queer scene like in New York?
Honestly, I’ve been partnered for nine years so I don’t access a lot of the queer scene, but I will say there are some amazing parties and things happening in Bushwick, Brooklyn and in Williamsburg. It’s suddenly becoming mixed again. Back when Meow Mix, which was the big lesbian club, closed I feel like New York really took a step back and there weren’t mixed clubs. For instance, Kathleen’s ex-[Le Tigre] bandmate JD Samson is throwing a party right around the corner from my house called PAT and it’s just so awesome to see everybody: women, men, trans, straight, gay. It hasn’t been like that for a long time.
The Julie Ruin collaborated with Vaginal Crème Davis on an alternate version of “Girls Like Us” for T Cooper’s Real Man Adventures book soundtrack. How did that come about?
T Cooper asked us for a song. And we hadn’t finished our record so there was no chance of us actually giving one of our songs to it. But because the book was about masculinity and trans issues and Kathleen and Vaginal Crème Davis had collaborated before, I thought it would be an awesome idea to have Vag re-record the vocals. Indeed, it’s one of my favorite things because Vag is amazing and that version of the song adds a trans element that isn’t exactly there when Kathleen is singing it. Plus the ad-lib Vag does in the last part is amazing and it’s a nice connection to old-school homo punk.
Of the lyrics you wrote on this album, what are you most proud of?
My favorite thing on the record is on “Oh Come On” – the single – when I scream “Get in the car now!” I think it is the most audacious thing you could ever scream back at Kathleen Hanna.
Why is that?
Because it’s like a dad thing! ‘Kathleen! Get in the car now!’ It’s just so preposterous that it makes me laugh every time I sing it. It’s funny because we played a party for Rookie Mag, which is basically a magazine started by a now-16-year-old girl, and her dad came up to me after and said, ‘My favorite part of your whole set was when you screamed ‘Get in the car now!’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah it’s a total dad thing.’ That’s not what I was thinking at the time! [laughs] So I would say that’s my favorite: the part dads are gonna scream at.
What’s the biggest thing you learned from Kathleen while making the album?
She is one of the most generous people to collaborate with because she understands the power that comes with giving up a little bit of yourself. I was in a collaboration with one other person for 20 years and that was one kind of amazing, generous collaboration, but Kathleen is willing to give up ideas. I never thought I was going to be singing on this record. It was incredibly amazing that she was like, “I’m gonna have a guy sing on this record and who cares what people think.”
So the band debated having a male voice on the album?
[Drummer] Carmine [Covelli], who did videos and tech on Le Tigre tours, talks about how when he would walk out to arrange something he would get booed. And in Bikini Kill they would hide [lead guitarist] Billy [Karren] behind a sheet sometimes because it was verboten to have a man in that band. So I was a little scared that people were gonna be like, ‘Ugh! There are male voices on this album!’ Luckily there only seems to be two or three Twitter people who have that opinion.
How do you hope this album will contribute to conversations about feminism that have started around the Bikini Kill reissues and the Riot Grrrl 20th anniversary?
We and the rest of the world needed Kathleen back. She’s a very singular and particular voice and it would’ve done an injustice if the Bikini Kill reissues were the end of her contributions to music. I’m incredibly happy that we were able to get this album together and put it out because for the kids and old people and everyone, Kathleen is such an amazing voice. I’m just gratified that I got to be a small part of that.
The Julie Ruin’s Run Fast album is out now via TJR/Dischord. Check out tour dates below:
September 5 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
September 7 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
September 12 – Portland, OR @ TBA Festival
September 15 – Seattle, WA Neumo’s
September 19 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
September 22 – San Diego, CA @ Irenic
November 8 – Austin, TX @ FunFunFun Fest
November 9 – Austin, TX @ FunFunFun Fest
November 10 – Austin, TX @ FunFunFun Fest