The documentary “The Punk Singer” is a welcome, informative portrait of riot grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna, the former lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. It screens from December 20 to the 26th at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA.
By Robert Ribera
Kathleen Hanna’s voice is an awesome force: beautiful, funny, biting, political, feminine, challenging, and loud. As the former lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna helped form the foundations of the riot grrrl movement and played an important role in third wave feminism in the early 1990s. She challenged women to take the movement into their own hands and make it their own. She published zines, told men to move to the back and keep their macho violence away from their concerts, and shut out the media when they published false stories about her background. She was a force to be reckoned with, even as the bands barely scraped by. They toured the country, crashing on floors and changing the lives of untold amounts of women with their music and their ideas. With her current band, The Julie Ruin, which started out as a solo project, Hanna continues to create powerful, fun, music.
Now, Hanna is the subject of a new documentary by Sini Anderson, The Punk Singer (which screens from December 20 to the 26th at the Coolidge Corner Theatre), which chronicles her early days in the Olympia, Washington punk scene, focusing on her time in these influential bands as well as revealing that she suffers from late-stage Lyme disease. The result is a mix of concert footage, interviews, and a somewhat glossy look back at the bands. While I’d hoped it would delve a little deeper into Hanna’s life, the film reflects her insistence that the riot grrrl movement is not about her—it’s about all the girls and women who have to stand up for themselves and take charge. The revolution is theirs; Hanna never asked to be a leader. Still, the documentary is a welcome, informative portrait of the feminist icon. It was an honor to speak with her for even a brief time, and not just because Bikini Kill once famously imposed a total media blackout. We still have a lot to learn from Hanna.
ArtsFuse: I see that The Julie Ruin is heading out on tour in a few weeks. How do you prepare, and has that changed since you’ve been ill?
Kathleen Hanna: I mean it’s pretty much the same as ever that we just practice and try to get as good as we can at the set. The thing about tours is that it takes a little bit to get into it. After your first three shows you kind of hit your stride and then it starts being really fun and, though it is not easy, the band gets tighter. What’s hard is going out on shorter tours because I have a little bit less stamina these days because I’m still getting over my illness. I can’t do super long tours where we hit our stride and stay in that exciting stride for a month or two. So you have to redo every single tour, practice, and then do a couple of shows, hit your stride. I just try to stay as healthy as I can, eat as healthy as I can, and keep my throat together.
AF: When you made initial solo The Julie Ruin album how did you adjust to working by yourself? How has that changed with the new album?
Hanna: You know, it was great working by myself after being in a band for so long because it was really liberating. I didn’t have to wait around for other people to write music for me to sing. Once I got a sampler I would just take anything, loop it, and just start singing. I’m kind of a melody fanatic, like all I want to do is sing and make up melodies, new melodies all the time. I could have just kept going and going and going. I could sing to somebody clicking their tongue, so I was really excited that I had this power. And I was really happy to get over the freak out of hearing my own voice and to get to try all these new things that I’d never tried. I probably would have been embarrassed to try them in front of other people. People in your band play something, you finally get confident enough to start singing the jibber jabber, record it, and then see what it sounds like.
I worked really hard behind the scenes before I would bring stuff in for Bikini Kill. We would record the instrumentals and I would go home and work on it until I had something I felt confident enough to show it to the others. After doing that first Julie Ruin record it’s so different for me. Especially in this band, because I feel confident bringing in any old garbage crap and playing it for them. I’ll do some sample and make a bunch of melodies and bring it in. I know it doesn’t sound great, but I know it’s the kernel of an idea. Now I’m working with people who are like, you know, it’s like when people say, I’m a doctor and I’ve seen it all before. They’ve been musicians for a long time, they’ve seen it all before, they know how the process goes. They’re not like, “Eww, that sounds gross!” They’re like, ‘Maybe if we do it this way it’ll be better’ So that’s been the big change. I’m able to take all of that stuff that I learned back then and apply it to this band in this really enjoyable way.
AF: The documentary makes a mystery of your disappearance from the stage. Your band mates talk about how they were concerned that you were feeling sick. Did you feel you owed your fans for your withdrawal? When did you decide that you needed to talk about your health, and is that connected with making the documentary?
Hanna: I didn’t really think about fans and all that. I was just sick. I was in this personal bubble with my husband and my friends. I didn’t really think anybody cared until those interviews came out for the movie. I was like, “Whoa, people wondered where I was? That’s weird.” I just didn’t think anybody really noticed, but I did at a certain point. Once I got my diagnosis I told my immediate friends. I had a birthday party and I had a cake that was shaped like a tick, and that was how I told everybody. And then I felt that the movie was a natural way to tell people what happened. I didn’t want to make a movie about Lyme disease. I wanted to make a movie about an artist who happens to have Lyme disease. I didn’t want it to be the whole story, but I felt that it was important that there was an explanation: ‘OK, she’s in this band Bikini Kill, she’s in Le Tigre, and then from 2006-2011 she’s gone.’ That’s six years.
AF: Do you feel the same way about being a musician who happens to be a female? Obviously your music, your identity, is an integral part of what you were doing and are still doing. Do you still think about that as you’re making music?
Hanna: I can’t get away from gender, but I don’t really think about it, it’s just part of who I am, like having Lyme disease or being a feminist or being interested in how the pyramids were made—these are all different parts of my identity. And that informs my music. I’ve never been someone who said gender doesn’t matter. I definitely don’t want to be just one of the guys. Everyone in the band understands that what we bring, in terms of our privilege and our identity, is important in shaping the impression we end up making. I mean, there are three women in the band and a gay man. We still have to deal with stereotyping. We just try of laugh it off together.
AF: Can you remember the first time you asked the women to come up front and the men to move to the back at your concerts? And were you surprised that even little gestures like this became so meaningful?
Hannah: I don’t remember the first time that it happened, but I do remember being shocked about how, you put it so much better than I could, that a small gesture was such a big deal. I was always shocked that it was such a big deal. I didn’t think it was that much to ask. It just seemed like, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if?’
Hannah: And what would that feel like? When we called the first riot grrrl meeting, it was all women, and there was this big stink about it, I was like, who cares? If you’re a stripper your whole backstage situation is all women. If you’re on a sports team, your whole thing is about playing soccer with all women or with all men. Hopefully that situation will change. There are tons of spaces that are all male spaces.
AF: And it’s so ingrained as well.
Hannah: Yeah, it’s like, ‘We’re men, we deserve this space.’
Hannah: And I think that was the problem. It was like, ‘Hey guys, guess what? This is actually a male space.’ That’s how a lot of people feel in here. A straight male space, a straight white male space. And a lot of what we were saying was, what if we changed this around a bit, what would happen? People didn’t really get sometimes that Bikini Kill was all about asking questions and experimenting. It wasn’t about saying, ‘From now on it should always be like this.’ We weren’t cops or teachers telling people what to do. It was more like, ‘Hey everybody, do you want to try this weird experiment with us?’ I was genuinely shocked that it was such a big deal. There were a lot of things that we did that I was like, ‘Why do we need to be freaking out about this?’ It’s just Feminist 101 — it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
AF: One thing that wasn’t explored in the documentary was a discussion of labels and the distribution of the music itself, with cassettes, all the way through Kill Rock Stars. Your latest album was previewed on NPR online. Things have changed a lot since you started out. Your paper zines were handmade, intimate objects. Now the Internet has undercut their cultural power. How do you view this transition? Does it help you spread your music and your ideas?
Hannah: It is a double-edged sword… I am now co-owner of three different record labels. Everything I’ve ever made, my entire back catalog, except for one album, is owned by the bands that I’ve been in. So Bikini Kill has a record label. Le Tigre has a record label. The Julie Ruin album is self-released. So this is still very much a part of a do-it-yourself thing. We manage ourselves and pretty much do everything ourselves. That approach springs from my experiences in the past, realizing that even when you have extra paid help around you still end up doing the same amount of stuff anyway. So why not just do it all anyway?
One of the things that was so great about zines was their handmadeness. For me especially, I really love the US Postal Service. I really love making packages for people. I recently donated my papers to the riot grrrl archive at New York University and I had to go through all of the letters that I had written with my girlfriends and they were so beautiful. The stuff we would write to each other was so intimate and so supportive and loving of each other’s work. We were such huge fans of each other and it wasn’t like an e-mail that was like, ‘Hey, you’re really cool. I like what you’re doing.’ They were these really deep, meaningful conversations that we could keep on a piece of paper and weren’t deleted. I think that’s part of the reason that young people are returning to cassettes and people are asking me to do zine workshops. I find those requests really funny because I’m like, ‘All you do is just take stuff out and cut it. Do you guys even know what a glue stick is? It’s not hard, it’s not rocket science.’
AF: Your starting off as a visual artist and then as a spoken word artist. How did that background influence the way you crafted songs?
Hannah: I think because I was interested in taking stuff that I found offensive and putting it in zines and then commenting on it, that definitely led to me using other peoples’ song lyrics in songs as a way to generate commentary, and then later to sampling. Sometimes the sampling was about the cut and paste, you know what I mean? I was used to cutting and pasting things together. Pro Tools, which is my drug of choice in terms of music production, when Pro Tools came along it was natural to me because it was all about cutting and pasting things and being able to loop things. And I can see it on a screen, and it really felt like I was making a zine when I was Frankensteining a song together. I still do that. Our song “Lookout” was very much like that. I took a bunch of practice stuff off of my iPhone and put it in Pro Tools and started chopping it up. I started singing over it and ended up making a weird song. I brought it in on our last recording day. The band had never heard it before.
AF: I’d like to give you the opportunity to talk a bit about Lyme disease. What is something that you think people should know about it?
Hannah: The biggest thing that people should know is that if they have been told they have any kind of autoimmune illness, if they’ve been told they have fibromyalgia, any of those kinds of illnesses — they may be at the beginning of MS, or Lupus, or Crohns, which I was diagnosed with — to look into Lyme disease. You may have taken a test five different times and it came back negative, but you need to look into taking a more expensive test. It is called western blot and it isn’t covered by insurance. I was tested several times and it came back negative, but wasn’t told that the test that you’re given by the insurance company is completely unreliable. It’s something like 40% reliable. Had a doctor given me that information early on my life would been a lot different. So don’t trust the routine test: you really need to go in and talk to your doctor and research Lyme disease. People are getting out of wheelchairs because they are finding out that this is what they have and they are getting proper treatment.
Rob Ribera is a filmmaker and music video director in Boston. He is the co-creator of the music website Sleepovershows.com, and is currently working on his PhD.in American Studies at Boston University.