Kathleen Hanna Talks Bad Art, Bloody Leotards, & Moving On From Riot Grrrl

Kathleen Hanna is somewhere in VFILES’ white-walled Soho store, but she’s hard to spot among the vintage Chanel backpacks, X-Girl ringer tees, and crowd of DJs-slash-somethings sipping teeny bottles of Chandon in impeccable '90s club-kid gear (there's a lot of undercuts and shiny anoraks in the house). We’re here because Hanna, former Bikini Kill and Le Tigre front woman, has been busy lately. Last week, she released a capsule collection with VFILES (featuring a repro of her infamous “KILL ME” dress and a Bikini Kill Chapstick), and The Feminist Press released The Riot Grrrl Collection, an extraordinary book featuring Hanna's own zines, flyers, and other rescued riot grrrl ephemera. In September, she’ll release her first record with her new band, The Julie Ruin.
But really, we’re here for Hanna herself. She’s our goddess, the one who howled our anger at sexist boys and a violent, silencing culture for us. She made us louder, braver, better dancers, and proud feminists — so it's probably not an overstatement to say she saved our lives. We love her. We just can’t find her.
Finally, the crowd parts, and there she is — wearing four-inch flatforms, a tote that reads, “You are nothing without feminist art,” and a truly impressive bouffant. She’s petite and smiling, giving interviews and signing autographs for fangirls and boys alike. Former Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox is here, too — tall and lanky as ever, with her bleach-blonde crop and Scritti Politti T-shirt. For a Bikini Kill obsessive, seeing them together is like seeing Mick and Keith palling around. Even Leigh Lezark is starstruck.
So, this is Kathleen Hanna meeting the press — and it’s a lot less prickly than you’d expect from the woman who self-imposed a media blackout to combat condescending media coverage in the riot grrrl days. Of course, it helps that we’re not Newsweek. We’re the generation Hanna helped create. If we didn’t have blogs, we’d be pressing our Xeroxed zines into her hand at a punk show.
We talked with Hanna and Wilcox about remembering/moving on from riot grrrl, the importance of bad college art, and why more people should write songs about UTIs, and they were as honest, hilarious, and inspiring as we'd always hoped.

The Riot Grrrl Collection is incredible — how did it come about?

Kathleen Hanna: "We just had tons of stuff! Our parents used to send us our press clippings, and I kept everything. I don’t know if I’m a natural archivist, or I thought I was so awesome that someday I would donate my papers, but that filing cabinet [on the cover of the book] was so important to me because everything I ever made was in it — even the really embarrassing stuff."

So, when you donated your papers to The Fales Library at NYU, you didn’t give the whole cabinet?
KH: "No, because a lot of it was other people's work — like my photographer friends’ prints — and there were personal letters, stuff about my family. But I did leave in a lot of embarrassing stuff."
Such as?
KH: "Pictures of me when I was a photo student doing self-portraits where I’m naked, like Jesus on a cross and I’m covered in menstrual blood."
Kathi Wilcox: "What about the ones where I’m naked and covered in blood?"
KH: "No, you’re just covered in blood; you’re not naked!"
KW: "Oh yeah, I was wearing a nude bodysuit!"

Photo: Courtesy of VFILES/Alan Yuch.

Kathleen and Kathi
Wow, sounds like there was a whole lotta naked, bloody photoshoots at Evergreen [State College]!
KH: "Those aren’t in the book, but they’re in the archive. I thought it was important to have the failures documented. When girls look at this, I want them to see themselves — the bad poetry they wrote, how angry they were when they first found out about feminism, and saw that there was sexism on every TV show, every billboard, and realized that this isn’t their own personal affliction; it’s a political thing."
That vulnerability is what made riot grrrl so powerful for us. It’s so immediate.
KW: "That’s the way our band was, too. We were doing shows before we really knew how to play our instruments! I mean, the first time we walked into [producer and Minor Threat/Fugazi front man] Ian MacKaye’s studio, we thought it looked like Star Trek — we’d never been in a studio before!"
So, what’s inspiring you guys right now?
KW: "I’ve been really inspired by the Occupy movement, just the idea that people can spontaneously come together and make something happen. And Pussy Riot — they’re so amazing!"
How has your approach to songwriting changed?
KH: "You know, for so long I’ve been in these bands that I’m really, really proud of, but a lot of it was about writing the invisible song — writing songs about things that no-one’s ever written about. Like, why is everybody always writing love songs? I’m more concerned that I have a UTI and no health insurance than some guy! In the 90s, there were a lot of girl bands, but not a lot of girl bands who identified as feminists — and we were doing that. And sometimes I’d write these really didactic lyrics, because I was thinking, 'If I was 15 years old, what would I need to hear?' And with Le Tigre, it was similar — we would get letters from people, and we would write songs to answer that letter."
Like “Keep On Livin”?
KH: "Exactly! I did a solo record [after Bikini Kill], where I let myself experiment, but I still felt trapped in this political rubric where I was the girl from Bikini Kill. Le Tigre liberated me from that a little, but honestly, it still got to the point where my I felt like I was a waitress. Like, would you like some more coffee? [laughs] I was just writing these…"
Service songs?
KH: "Yeah! Plus, I was in my 40s, and the fans were still 18. And now, with The Julia Ruin, I’ve been able to trust myself as an artist and just write songs — to let each song be what it wants to be, and to trust that my core values are gonna come out in whatever I make, so I don’t need to sit around and write about specific issues. I could write about cookies. [Ed note: She pronounces “cookies” with a long “oo” sound, like Cookie Monster, and it is adorable.] Or euthanasia — we have two songs about euthanasia on the same record!"
Why euthanasia?
KH: "Well, I had really late-stage Lyme Disease — and people just don’t get it. I had to have IV therapy. I was having seizures every day. It got into my brain and I couldn’t read. It was really serious. So, for me to be able to get a Harper’s magazine and read an article, and comprehend it — that just makes me so happy. And the fact that I walked here in these big shoes is huge, because I had such bad balance for a while that I couldn’t walk without falling down! So, I started thinking about the right to die. I didn’t know what was going to happen to my health. Also, all of our parents are getting older and you never know what’s going to happen. My mom used to tell me, 'If anything happens to me, I want you to pull the plug!'"
That’s a heavy thing to say to a kid! Sure mom, I’ll kill you someday. No problem!
KH: "I know! She’d say, 'You’re the only one I trust,' and I’m like, I’M NINE!"
Photo: Courtesy of VFILES/Alan Yuch.
So, I’ve heard rumors that The Julie Ruin album is very close to done.
KH: "It’s done now! It’s coming out in September. We recorded it right here on Canal Street and at my house. It took us two years because of my Lyme Disease — I would be in bad shape for a couple weeks, and whenever I had a good week, I’d do vocals. And my bandmates were like, 'Let it take two years. We’ll reschedule practice; just feel better.' It was so important to me to have that support, and to have something hopeful in my life to look forward to. In the bad times I would think about this record and be like, 'I have to finish it. I have to finish it.' I’m really proud of this record."
Will there be a tour?
KH: "We hope! We’ve planned shows, so I’m hoping I’ll have a medication vacation so I can do these shows. I’m trying to get strong right now, going to Lucille Roberts [laughs]. Lyme Disease is kind of like Brigadoon — that movie about this island that shows up for a certain amount of time and then it goes under water. I’m Brigadoon! I can go to an event like this and be fine, and then go home and have a seizure — and that’s why a lot of people don’t understand the disease. But I’m in a really good place right now. I’m in remission, so knock on wood."
Okay, one last question: We feel like you guys are sort of unacknowledged style icons.
KH: "I think so, too!"
So, what do you think was your greatest style moment?
KW: "Oh, can I tell Kathleen’s? I loved that dress you used to wear with the Speedo man on it! And the white, ice-skater leotard with the bloody vagina drawn on it in lipstick. It was super gross from the waist-down, but from the waist up it was super pretty!"
Is the '90s fashion revival weird for your guys?
KW: "Totally weird!"
I mean, there are ringer tees for sale in there — it looks like the Bull In The Heather video!
KH: "Oh my god, I should have worn my hair like that! [Bunches her hair into pigtails] Right?"

Watch VFILES' and The Henry Review's video of Kathleen Hanna reading her Riot Grrrl Manifesto here.
Shop the Bikini Kill for VFILES Collection here.

Buy The Riot Grrrl Collection at The Feminist Press.
Listen to The Julie Ruin here.

Photo: Courtesy of VFILES/Alan Yuch.

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