The Julie Ruin's Kathleen Hanna on finding strength through music
TOFU AND WHISKEY Before Le Tigre but after the demise of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna created a mystical lo-fi electropop solo project called Julie Ruin. It was a difficult time for the riot grrrl icon; having recently flown the Pacific Northwest coop for Brooklyn, she let the ache out in song.
More than 15 years after that record and a whirlwind of life changes later (Le Tigre hiatus, Beastie Boy husband), Hanna and a newly assembled band of cohorts — Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, Sara Landeau — reformed that project as the Julie Ruin. The Julie Ruin released its first group full-length, Run Fast, last week on Dischord.
A dancey new wave record bursting with head-bopping beats, lightning bolt electric guitars, and empowering lyrics, it's set to be another chant-along feminist anthem album. But it's a small miracle Run Fast was even made. Before she returned to music, Hanna was laid up with a then-mysterious illness for half a decade and this was her first effort back.
In the midst of a massive media blitz, including a live appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last week, Hanna and I discussed the Julie Ruin's new record, struggles with neurological Lyme disease, why Photoshop is better than beer, and her young spirit sister, Tavi Gevinson, feminist teen editor of Rookie Magazine:
SF Bay Guardian Why did you decide to return to an earlier project, but with an entirely new band?
Kathleen Hanna I guess because I was starting from a similar place. I was coming up with loops and melodies and instead of just working on them myself, I brought them to the band and expanded on them. When I listen back to the Julie Ruin solo record, I hear kind of demos more than a fully finished record — which I think is great, and I'm proud of that record — but I was like "what if I start with the same idea but it was totally fleshed out?" So musically that was a big part of the project from me.
Also a big part of the project for me was starting from the same emotional place, of, you know, I was leaving Bikini Kill when I did the Julie Ruin solo project and that was a really big change in my life. And then I'm having this other really big change in my life, which is that I haven't really made music for [nearly] 10 years. And instead of isolating and making this very private thing in my apartment by myself and feeling like I had to go it all alone, I reached out to my friends and said, "Hey, will you help me?" And luckily they said yes.
SFBG What was it like picking up instruments and working on music again after such a long hiatus?
KH It was great [and] it was weird! It was immediate chemistry with my bandmates. It felt like I was getting back to my old self.
I'd been sick for many years and my illness and kind of taken me out of things. I started doing a lot of archival stuff behind the scenes, but I hadn't played music. It's funny that I chose to do it when I was really, really sick but part of the reason was I needed some kind of hope to go on. And I didn't know if we would record or tour or any of that. I just told them, "I want to play music, do you guys want to meet once a week and see how that goes?"
But a lot of times we couldn't even meet, because I'd be sick. So it was a very slow process. But when I felt well enough to get to rehearsal I would forget I was sick, I would forget any pain I was in, I would forget I was fatigued. It would all come back to me. It was really important in my recovery process because you become all about the illness, especially an illness like Lyme disease, where there's so much work you have to do to stay well or to get well, constant pills and IVs and specialist appointments.