The Julie Ruin Reset and Resist

The Julie Ruin
“I feel like every time we have a conversation about sexism in the industry, that’s the sound of my songs being eaten by mice.”—Kathleen Hanna

The Julie Ruin may have started as a self-produced solo project by Kathleen Hanna in 1997, but these days, they’re a completely different entity. While an old version of the group eventually evolved to become Le Tigre, in 2016, they’re a close-knit five-piece collective. Woe betide those who box them in as Another Kathleen Hanna Project; the new iteration of The Julie Ruin have their own distinct sound, and their second record together, Hit Reset, sounds balanced and thoughtfully produced, with its personal and political aspects fully intertwined on every level. Throughout, the album eschews a heavy didactic hand in favor of emotional nuance on its bright dance-pop numbers and poignant ballads.

We sat down with Hanna, bassist Kathi Wilcox (also of Bikini Kill), and guitarist Sara Landeau over a late lunch in Manhattan to talk about how the band works together, the difficulties of channeling emotions on stage, growing older but refusing to shrink, and changes in feminist cultural discourse and feminist self-critique.

I just wanted to start out asking you guys about your collaborative process on this record. What is it like?

Kathleen Hanna: We all live in separate boroughs, and sometimes we’ll e-mail snippets of songs around to start a conversation. We Dropbox a lot of stuff. Like, Sara will Dropbox a bunch of guitar riffs, and I’ll put some lyrics in.

Do you guys have a regular practice space?

Sara Landeau: It’s in Greenpoint, where my studio is. We try to meet—we’ve been meeting twice a week and working on the ideas. Some are Dropbox, some are in the studio. Even though we live in different boroughs, it’s nice to have Dropbox, I think. ‘Cause you don’t have so much pressure, you can listen at night. Change things.

Wilcox: We definitely work it all out in the studio.

Hanna: It’s that combination of working on your own and then bringing stuff in. I think the way you write stuff when you’re by yourself—you feel a lot more uninhibited. And then if you can—we have enough trust as bandmates that we can bring really embarrassing stuff in, and if they hate it they’ll tell you.

The Julie Ruin

I find that I have actually been recording practices on Voice Memo and then taking them back and working with them on my own, messing around with it.

Hanna: We’re only a subway ride away, but we take everything.

Landeau: It’s like—I don’t even remember how we did it before iPhones. Besides the tape recorder? Trying to remember things?

Wilcox: We always try to remember what we did the week before, but it’s so easy to forget.

That can be a total mess.

Hanna: I also think being older, it’s like—I used to tape all practices, but I’d be like ‘Ugh, I don’t want to listen to this, I hate listening to myself.’ But now I can get them to play instrumentals before I leave, and then I can go home and just mess around with vocals so that they don’t have to sit there while I’m doing that.

Yeah. And it’s so hard doing vocals, too, when everyone else is contemporaneously coming up with instrumental stuff, because you’re just singing garbage. I just sing glossolalia garbage over whatever’s happening.

Hanna: Taping that garbage might be the best thing, though. Often the first weird thing I’ve tried has been the best thing. Or if I’m just following and balancing with Carmine, our drummer. He’s got a really good sense of melody, but he’s a drummer. I think he’s itching to get it out. There was one part for a song I was having a hard time with, so he made up all these different melodies, and then he sang them in my voice! I was like “Whoa.”

Landeau: We actually thought it was you when we heard it. We were like “That’s not you?” Because it sounded so much like you.

Wilcox: He’s a master imitator.

Landeau: He also processed it in some ways so that it sounded like you.

Hanna: He processed it, but he also knew my intonation. He knew my accent. He was like, ‘I want this to be Kathleen, though.’ And I was like, ‘But it is!’ Kathleen, but only better.

Landeau: We need to utilize that in the band, somehow, that skill.

Hanna: ‘Cause I always write my own melodies. I was like, ‘This is awesome! Now I can just concentrate on the words, I don’t have to concentrate on the melodies. This is so cool.’

That’s really crazy and incredible and cool. What are you guys most excited about with this record? I know that’s kind of a vague question.

Wilcox: My two favorite songs have always been the two songs that Kathleen wrote, full stop. It was a loop, and she’d already written all of it. “Be Nice,” and “I Decide.”

Hanna: I thought you hated “I Decide.”

Wilcox: No, I didn’t like it, I loved it! But I wasn’t sure I could play it. ‘Cause it’s in 7/8 time or something.

Landeau: 7/4.

Wilcox: She just chopped the loop off before it made a full eight-count. So Carmine and I had to practice that, just him and me, for a while. I mean, we added stuff to it. It’s not exactly like the loop. But when they came in, I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s awesome.’

Landeau: Those are two of my favorites as well. I liked them because I got to have fun with the guitar stuff. I just got new pedals, so I got to go crazy. I don’t really know how I’m going to recreate it on stage. I’m excited for that challenge, with the new pedalboard. I’m excited about all my pedals on this album.

The Julie Ruin

What pedals are you using?

Wilcox: There are so many. But mostly Big Muff and different kinds of phasers.

It’s cool to integrate the phaser back into things. I feel like I don’t hear a whole lot of contemporary indie rock or punk bands using it.

Landeau: I like “Let Me Go” too. That one is sad. Really sad.

Hanna: Yeah. It’s really sad. Performing it is going to be a challenge, because I feel like if I cry, I crack. If I do a lecture or something, I have to practice and practice and practice, because I can get really emotional, talking about a certain time period, or something personal to me. So I have to practice so that I can be laid back and talk about it and not get teary. And I have to have an escape route, so that if I need to cry I can go in another room and just deal with my business. On that song, though, I was even crying in the studio, and I had to keep stopping. I’m interested in perfecting it technically so that I can let the right amount of emotion come out and it still sounds good. That’s a technical thing for me to work on.

That’s a really hard thing to master. There are a couple of songs on the last record that my band wrote that are really, really personal and very hard to do. Every time I would perform them, I would find myself shaking, and I’d have to run off stage immediately after because I was so overwhelmed. Learning not to do it—not dissociating while you’re doing it, still being able to be present—that’s such a difficult technical thing to do.

Hanna: It’s like the way you try to take your political content and put it together with really great music—you have to balance it, so it isn’t just a political statement and it’s not just riffing.

Wilcox: “Run Fast” is such a tearjerker.

Landeau: In Poland I broke down crying. I mean, I don’t know.

Wilcox: I can’t really listen to the lyrics of that song when we’re playing it live.

Hanna: That one’s a little technically hard, too, because screaming like that is one of the hardest things you can do. So I had that to think about. I think the time I got emotional about it is when you [to Landeau] told me you really liked the lyrics, and then I realized someone else knew what the lyrics were.

Landeau: I think a lot of people relate to the lyrics of that song.

Hanna: I mean, I really did have a friend who would put a lock on her door with a butter knife.

Yeah, that’s a hard balance to strike, too.

Hanna: Yeah, ‘cause you don’t want people to just hear your record and start crying.

As cathartic as that can be.

Landeau: Singing and crying, that’s ok.

Hanna: I mean, you have to have the right pitch, you have to have the right tone to it. And then there can be a little bit of weepiness somewhere, but you still have that round sound. I just started working with Barbara [Hanna and Landeau’s vocal coach] again, as you can tell. Talking about round sounds.

Landeau: She’s about 80 now, I think? Just had her 80th?

Hanna: I love her. I love her so much.

How did you find her?

SL: She was Justin Bond’s singing coach, and Diamanda Galas’, I just realized. Diamanda Galas brought her up on stage with her the other night, and I realized ‘Whoa, this is my voice teacher.’ She’s like [pinching her fingers] this tall.

Hanna: She tells me these stories about—the neighborhood’s so different, she’s talking about New York decades ago—’You know if it’s gonna be a good day based on what color the condoms were. If you saw a black one, it’s gonna be a good day.’ It’s totally great to see a normal 80-year-old woman, not the stereotype of, you know, grandma with spectacles with the afghan on in the chair. She’s just a normal woman. If I can be working and singing the way she is at her age—at any age, really.

Landeau: And she’s so funny, too. She’ll mock me back when I’m doing it wrong. I’ll be like “I can take it, I can take it.”

How do you think the feminist conversation has changed over the decades? How are you feeling about that? How are you feeling about where we are now?

Hanna: Have you read the Andi Zeisler book?

Yes!

Hanna: I’ve flipped through it, I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing. It’s really interesting. I found myself stopping and nodding in total agreement at some parts, and at some parts I’ve gotten really upset. I was like: “It should be cool! It should be fun!” Because that was originally part of the whole thing that I was initially pushing for, you know what I mean? This needs to get spread around to everyone. It needs to be accessible to everyone.

Wilcox: It shouldn’t feel like an elitist academic stance. It should feel more normal.

Hanna: But that might be an argument against the few little things that I’ve read, so I can’t really comment yet. But then I also have all these side art projects going, like a roll of paper with a design on it that says “Girl Power,” and it just goes straight into the shredder right after it shows up. [A friend] was passing the playground and she saw a little girl in a Gap t-shirt that says “G-R-L P-W-R.”

Wilcox: Oh, but you know who designed those? Ellen DeGeneres. I think she was behind that. Which is another interesting twist. Does it change if it was designed by a celebrity?

Hanna: It does to me. I actually have a song in that campaign. It was meant to be about more gender-neutral clothes, not just Gap for Girls. Like clothes to skate in that they could color themselves, stuff like that. But I also totally agree that you can’t just slap a Girls Kick Ass sticker on and make everything go away, like what’s happening in North Carolina. So I totally appreciate [Zeisler’s] scholarship, and I think it’s going to be a big part of what we end up talking about, as people read it.

That’s like the ongoing commodification of all political movements, too, is just like—once commercial interests realize that people are behind a thing, they realize that they can repackage it and sell it.

Hanna: There is that. And there is also the idea of having things in culture that are out there that you’re proud to be associated with, that you’re proud to support, and how necessary that is. So I really need to read the whole book. She had really complicated, nuanced arguments, so I’m excited.

She and I are Internet friends and we’ve both had a lot of separate conversations about that sort of thing, especially about the ongoing dialogue of ‘Is this x thing feminist or not?’ And how destructive that is. Because processes are feminist. People are feminist. Discrete objects are not.

Hanna: It’s a verb, not a noun.

Exactly.

Hanna: I don’t know. I think when we first started I was trying to talk about intersectionality, that concept—but that promise was never really realized in Riot Grrrl. And I think that people are so much more involved now in investigating how forms of oppression work together, and how to not be single-issue—you can be a feminist and not be single-issue. It’s gotta be nuanced. You can’t just go ‘We’re gonna be inclusive! Anti-racist! LGBT!’ and not do the work. You have to acknowledge the history of, say, lesbians in the movement until now. And trans people in the movement. It’s gotta be—these issues have to be talked about in reasonable and productive ways. I feel like a lot of people get caught up in—people are angry, they have so much rage, that makes sense. But sometimes the productive conversations get cut off because there’s so much emotion. And that’s so sad, because there are so many things that would be great to address if the environment surrounding the dialogues that we should be having [is so fraught]. We don’t have to feel safe or that nobody’s going to get mad, but…

The Julie Ruin

Right. They have to come from a base position of respect. We’re all involved in this for similar reasons, we all care about the same basic things. That’s something that’s been really frustrating and hurtful for me over the last 20 years, people coming at it from this real power-struggle sort of thing, like ‘I’m gonna unseat you!’ It’s very self-righteous and competitive. You don’t come at it like we’re even all talking to one another as equals.

Hanna: That’s capitalism: the idea that I’m more productive than you and that we’re always in constant competition. Trying to prove you right instead of trying to get something done.

Wilcox: Or even trying to see someone else’s point of view, even if you don’t agree with it, you’re trying to understand where they come from without being adversarial.

Hanna: That’s a privilege, you know—being able to listen and not get immediately defensive. And so if you have that ability, I feel that it’s important for people to be open and to listen to as many different perspectives as possible. Real criticism is a gift. We all know the amount of fake bullshit criticism is a mountain of foil balls we’re out there trapped under. Real valid criticism from someone who has a basis of love, respect and feminism? I’m all for it.

We have to be able to talk critically, respectfully to one another. ‘Hey, I’m bringing this up to you because I want to have a conversation with you about it, it’s something that concerns me.’

Hanna: Plus all this stuff going on with this publicist guy, Internet stuff—someone wrote to me recently about how they wanted to interview me, and it was all women-in-the-music-industry horror stories. And I was like, ‘I’m really sick of educating people about sexism in music.’ They always ask, like, ‘How’s it changed?’ I know you’re talking more philosophically, that’s different. I wrote this response, I actually sent it earlier today. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be in your article, here’s why.’ I was going to let them quote it. And it was just like—I feel like every time we have a conversation about sexism in the industry, that’s the sound of my songs being eaten by mice. Why don’t a bunch of straight white dudes, with all the vast resources available to them, read a bunch of books and then start coming up with solutions? We’re already working. Have conversations among one another about creating an open and inclusive atmosphere at work. Have conversations among one another about diversity in hiring. Find venues that are hiring people of color to do things other than be bouncers and talk to them about it if it’s so hard for you. There’s actually things that can happen, and it’s not for me to do. It’s for you to do. It’s not up to me to hand-hold these dudes who all of a sudden want to do some good deeds. Read some books about people who are different than you.

And ask questions, too, of women in music—what are your positive experiences? What do you love about playing music? What are the friendships that are important to you and nurture you? Women in the music industry—that coverage is never positive. And we’re never going to get to the other side if you don’t even acknowledge that it can be positive.

Hanna: Right. The good stuff! That’s a thing. I ended [the email] with “This is the year of sunshine and butterflies for me, so—not in this life.”

That’s a really great way of putting it.

Hanna: I’ve been through enough shit. And I applaud the women who are OK having their tragedies used as content, but I just can’t do that right now. I just can’t. And it’s the same old thing over and over. Let’s all tell our bad stories, let’s all tell our bad stories. And then there’s no upshot, there’s no ‘things you can do in your town.’

It’s not consciousness-raising if it’s just going into this pit where people are capitalizing on those stories.

Hanna: And it’s already there, it’s already there! The article’s been written 25 million times. Go on the Internet and read that Jessica Hopper thing where she asked people about women being marginalized. She did some lecture, and she also talked in the lecture about having positive experiences with women that she worked with. Let’s find out more about that! Let’s find out how they did that. That’s the next article that needs to be written.

Landeau: Starve the other articles, keep feeding those ideas.

I definitely wasn’t trying to feed that negativity.

Hanna: Oh, no, no! As far as changes go—transgender issues have really come to the fore, obviously. That wasn’t even really a word that was common knowledge when I was in college. So there’s that. And the lack of inclusion in feminist movements. That came up in Riot Grrrl, the failures we had addressing race. You know, all of these things are things that are being addressed and talked about, and that’s really great. It seems like in the past we identified that things should be intersectional, and you talk about it, but then it doesn’t happen. For lots of reasons. And now we’re at the part where we’re actually putting all of that into practice. How can we practice this in the world instead of just having a bunch of quotes about how important it is? We can do that. We’re through that.

—Jes Skolnik

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