It’s been 20 years since people first started talking about riot grrrl, a feminist movement spearheaded by young women in Washington, D.C., and the Pacific Northwest who used punk-rock music as a vehicle for their voices. Bikini Kill was a band at the forefront of riot grrrl, supplying not only a vicious, in-your-face soundtrack to the cause but also a leader in the form of frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. Though she never campaigned to take on the role of riot grrrl poster child, Hanna’s bold, abrasive and honest live performances made her stand out on the scene and inspired many young women to speak up rather than stay silent on issues of domestic violence, sexual assault and patriarchy.
Bikini Kill drifted apart in the late 1990s as its members ventured into other projects. But as Hanna told me, she and her bandmates—bassist Kathi Wilcox, drummer Tobi Vail and guitarist Billy Karren—never stopped communicating over the years. The band recently formed Bikini Kill Records with the intention of reissuing all of its material, and the first in line for reissue is the band’s debut EP, originally released 20 years ago. It’s coming out November 20 on vinyl and will include a new fanzine, photos from the band’s personal archives and new interviews with Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat) and Bratmobile‘s Molly Neuman. I recently called Hanna to ask about Bikini Kill Records, and this led to talking about why she doesn’t listen to those old Bikini Kill songs, what she’s working on now with the Julie Ruin and what it’s like to be asked constantly about something you did two decades ago.
Were all four of you involved in the creation of Bikini Kill Records?
Kathleen Hanna: Yeah, I mean, we assigned Kathi as like, the lead person, so there could be one decision maker. It’s just a logistical thing. It’s like if somebody’s out of the country and some decision about a newsletter needs to get made that’s stupid, she can decide. We are all equal partners still, we all get equal money—the whole thing.
Gotcha. Why did you guys decide to do things that way instead of just doing reissues through Kill Rock Stars?
Well, basically what happened was, I don’t know if you know anything about the history of Kill Rock Stars, but a big reason it formed, at least in my mind, was, we wanted to put out a record, and Slim Moon [founder of Kill Rock Stars] was the only person who we trusted. And he had like a real job. He was working for the state, and we were like “Oh, he knows how to do money.” [Laughs] You know what I mean? A lot of artists are just really stupid about money, and it’s really hard to find somebody who kind of thinks of shuffling money around and doing business as an art, and he really kind of was that person for us. He left the label, I don’t know, like a while ago.
I think it was a couple years ago, 2006, something like that.
Yeah, and then it moved to Portland, and you know Maggie Vail worked there, and Tobi, our drummer, worked there. And they both worked there for I think like 20 years. I mean, Tobi worked there from day one doing mail order—that was her job. And Maggie was like, whenever I dealt with them at all, she was the person I dealt with. So, they both got fired, and at that point it was just like, we don’t have anything to do with the label anymore. Like me and Kathi live in New York, and we don’t even know anybody that works there. And so we were like, “Why are we still on this label?” We kind of just called them up and said, “We want our stuff back,” and they were like, “OK.”
That seems like a pretty seamless process.
Yeah, I mean, it was an amicable split.
So it didn’t get complicated with like publishing rights or anything like that? Were they just pretty cool with swapping stuff over?
We’ve always done our own publishing, so that was not a problem. I mean the only complicated thing is like, “Where are the plates? Do we pay for the plates?” There’s complicated stuff like that that has to do with like physically getting the artwork and asking, “Where is it?” Indie labels are typically underpaid and overworked, and we understand that. So we understood that they weren’t going to be like, the next day, send everything over because they have it all in the same place. But they’ve been super nice about it, and I think they really understood that we just didn’t feel like we had a connection with the label anymore. It used to be such a big part of our lives, and it was a big part of our band.
Are the six songs that are going on the reissued vinyl EP going to be remastered at all?
No, we just wanted to put them out exactly the same as they were.
Four of these songs on the EP were originally recorded in Inner Ear with Ian MacKaye 20 years ago. What do you remember about those original sessions?
[Laughs] It’s really funny because I read what Ian wrote for the liner notes, and he was incredibly honest. He was just like, “It was totally awkward.” [Laughs] And it really was. I mean we kind of had stayed up all night for a bunch of nights, and we were really nervous. We’d never been in a real recording studio, so we were like, “Whoa, this is like, science fiction.” And I think he thought that we were making fun of it, but we were more like nervous.
How did you link up with Ian back then?
Well, I grew up listening to Molly Hatchet and shit. A lot of my punk-rock learning about music and stuff came from Tobi making me mixtapes, but I didn’t really know about Minor Threat or Fugazi or whatever. And [Ian] came up to us after our show in D.C. and was like, “I wanna record your band.” And I was kind of like, “Who’s this creepy guy?” This is really fucked up to say, and I’m sure it might make Ian feel really weird, but we were so hated on our tour by guys. We were so damaged from all of the bad stuff, the whole way that a lot of males had treated us, so this dude walks up and says, “I wanna record you,” and I’m like, “He’s gonna give us an address, and we’re gonna show up, and he’s gonna murder us.” I think I was pretty rude to him actually. I was like, “Oh yeah, you have a recording studio? I bet you do. Where? In your bedroom?” I thought it was a trick.
Have you ever told him that?
I don’t think I told him the thing about like, I thought he was gonna take us somewhere and kill us. [Laughs] So we were super nervous, and you can hear it on the record. We were really at this place where a lot of what we did was like, we just wanted it to sound live, and I have some regrets about that. But you know, I didn’t like very much shit put on my voice because I thought reverb was like airbrush for your voice. And we just kind of felt like the pimples needed to stay in place. And that’s part of the reason why we left it how it was, like we could have remixed it, you know what I mean? But it is what it is.
How do you feel when you go back and revisit those songs now?
Well, I mean, I haven’t listened to them…um…ever. [Laughs]
I think I listened to it on accident, one song, once. There are certain songs on certain records that I may have also listened to. But it’s difficult for me ’cause it brings back a lot of memories of stuff I was going through at the time. I was a really rage-full person. And our band was always on the verge of falling apart, and I think it’s that tension and that feeling that made our live shows really great. I’m not sure it made our recordings that awesome. I’m just being honest. Maybe I should sugarcoat this a little.
In the last couple of years, two books came out—Marisa Meltzer’s Girl Power and Sara Marcus’s Girls To the Front—that have tried to give riot grrrl some historical context. Do you have any theories about why there was this seemingly sudden interest to revisit that time?
I think a lot of that has to do with just the ’90s being back. When I was in high school, the ’60s were back. And then, you know, the ’70s came back, then the ’80s came back. Now that’s waning, and the ’90s are back. And we’re heavily associated with the ’90s because we were a band in the ’90s.
Did you ever worry that all Bikini Kill did, all you guys did to advance feminism especially among young women, did you ever worry that it would be forgotten?
Yeah. Of course. Our band not only operated in a time where there weren’t a lot of women in bands; there weren’t a lot of women in bands specifically saying, “We’re feminists.” And I don’t discredit any of the bands who didn’t wanna say that or who weren’t into that thing as a part of their band, because now I understand that when you do come out and say you’re a feminist, it puts you in this weird league where you never get asked about your music.
The thing that was interesting at that time was, we were thinking a lot about the male gaze and postmodernism and all this kind of stuff. And I was hugely influenced by Karen Finley, who at the beginning of her shows would put up her hand and say, “Take down your cameras. This performance only happens once.” We didn’t want men at our shows taking pictures of us and stuff like that. When I look back, I’m like, “God, I wish we would have had somebody on tour with us, filming us.” I think all feminist artists worry about erasure, because it happens every generation where it’s like we have to rediscover X-Ray Spex and the Raincoats and even Crass. I think the internet is really changing that. But people will remember the ’90s as Nirvana unless we insert ourselves back into that history.
You mentioned positioning yourself as a feminist band early on, and I’m sure in interviews you’re constantly asked about feminism and riot grrrl. Do you ever get tired of rehashing something that happened in your life 20 years ago?
Oh, yeah. I mean, totally. It’s like, I wanna talk about stuff I’m doing now, or just like, something else. I’d rather talk about the fucking weather than riot grrrl at this point. But it’s also just journalists doing their job. The thing that’s most frustrating for me is when people are like, “Tell me what riot grrrl is.” And it’s like, “There’s two books about it. There’s a Wiki page.” It almost feels like when men would come up to me and be like, “What’s feminism?” And I’d be like, “Go read a book.”
Are you working on any new music? Anything with the Julie Ruin?
Yeah, that solo project that I did as Bikini Kill was breaking up that came out after we broke up, I always wanted to do that as a band. And Le Tigre actually started as me and Johanna [Fateman] trying to make it into a band, but we couldn’t figure out how to play the songs. So I always have that in the back of my mind that like, that’s my next project, is doing like a full five-piece band where we learn these songs and I do a tour doing those songs. And kind of the same thing happened as Le Tigre. Not that we couldn’t figure out the songs—we figured out all the songs, and then we just started writing. It just started happening, and we couldn’t stop, and now we have 19 songs, and we’re whittling it down to 13 so it’s reasonable. And James Murphy is working on one of them right now. It’s been a lot of fun. And I’m working with Kathi from Bikini Kill.
Oh nice. Do you think Bikini Kill will go on any sort of a reunion tour to coincide with your reissues?
I wouldn’t put anything off the table, but there are no set plans.