Nobody sings like Kathleen Hanna. Her voice is distinctive, like Kate Pierson’s from the B-52s or Poly Styrene’s from X-Ray Spex. Some slumbering spot in your brain lights up when you hear it, endearingly grating, especially if you discovered punk or feminism in the early 1990s, when Hanna, led the seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. That voice is back, and heavens to Miley, music needs it now: What’s it going to say?
“Well, I just wrote this crazy record where no one can understand the lyrics,” Hanna offers, laughing.
“Run Fast,” the long-awaited debut album from Hanna’s newest band, The Julie Ruin, is out this week — reuniting Hanna with Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox and adding guitarist Sara Landeau, drummer Carmine Covelli and keyboardist Kenny Mellman. Will it be a Wild Flag-style indie supergroup?
“We can call it a supergroup in our own minds,” demurs Hanna, who was raised in Maryland.
In Bikini Kill (which made its base in Olympia, Wash., where Hanna went to college), Hanna shouted demands from the start of every show: “We’re Bikini Kill, and we want REVOLUTION GIRL-STYLE NOW!” In the late ’90s, as the vocalist of electro-politico group Le Tigre, she took on a brainiac-workout-instructor vibe: The band’s songs were practically a college seminar in women’s studies, all to a beat you could pogo to.
The Julie Ruin isn’t supposed to be a political band, and “Run Fast” isn’t supposed to be a political album. But lyrics like “Throw your words/ in the deepest ocean/ cover your wounds with calamine lotion” (from the album’s first single, “Oh Come On”) seem to carry some battle scars from a still-unfolding musical revolution Hanna’s helped soundtrack for more than 20 years.
This band has been a long time coming. There was a prototype of sorts: In the late ’90s, Hanna released some home recordings as Julie Ruin and even started recruiting band members. But the process was slowed way down by a Lyme disease diagnosis and recovery that lasted several years.
“It’s been a mixed blessing that it took so long to do the record because it was actually great that no one was looking at us,” Hanna says.
But they are now, as the band embarks on a U.S. tour. And what fans of her previous bands get may not be what they expect. Hanna’s politics are more nuanced now, and her songs leave more room for contradiction and even humor about feminist essentialism.
“There’s always going to be disagreement,” she says. “If there’s no tension, things can’t move ahead.”
Hanna has been literally sorting out her political and musical legacy, preparing personal papers and ephemera for the Kathleen Hanna archive at New York University’s Fales Library and contributing to a broader Riot Grrrl archive.
“On one hand, I don’t give a s— about ‘legitimacy,'” she says. “On the other hand, this stuff needs to be studied so it can be critiqued. I don’t want to airbrush the flaws out now.”
In a way, finishing the archive has freed her: “[In previous bands,] I felt very responsible to those kids who lived in the suburbs like I did,” she says. “I can still love them and hope they reach my work. But now there’s a generation of women who don’t feel like they have to write feminist anthems every 45 minutes, because that’s been done. I want some of that!”
Kathleen Hanna: A Primer
She hates being called “the godmother of riot grrrl.” But Hanna’s bands have made a huge mark on music.
Hanna, bassist Kathi Wilcox, drummer Tobi Vail and guitarist Billy Karren burst onto a not-very-welcoming punk scene in 1991 with the tape “Revolution Girl Style Now!” Hanna penned the now classic riot grrrl anthem “Rebel Girl” and often performed with the word “slut” Sharpied across her chest in protest of the treatment of women in rock.
Call them electroclash, call them didactic, just never call them boring. Le Tigre — with Hanna, Johanna Fateman, Sadie Benning and, later, JD Samson — brought feminist theory to the masses (2004’s “This Island” was even on a major label) with crazy PowerPoints and songs that did double-duty as graduate-level reading lists.
In the late ’90s, Hanna released recordings made at her home studio as Julie Ruin, an alter-ego who wrote songs about crocheting, aerobics and love. (She’d begun dating Adam Horovitz, aka the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock, whom she’d later marry.)