Music

Kathleen Hanna on the Julie Ruin's New Album, Her Childhood and '​​​Cathy'​​​

The Julie Ruin frontwoman Kathleen Hanna had so much going on the day PAPER talked to her about the band's new album, Hit Reset, she didn't realize it was the actual release date. "I didn't even know," she laughs over the phone. "I actually thought it was yesterday."

While forgetting the launch of your latest album might seem surprising to some, Hanna can be forgiven. In addition to doing press, she had a couple of videos from the album to edit and a voice lesson on the docket--not to mention prepping t-shirts and other merch for the band's upcoming summer tour. Hanna's not in it alone--everyone in the band, which includes Kiki and Herb's Kenny Mellman on keyboard, Carmine Covelli on drums, Sara Landeau on guitar and fellow Bikini Kill alum Kathi Wilcox on bass, are doing their parts too, and perhaps doing them too well.

"Sometimes I wish there was someone really lazy in the Julie Ruin so we could meet and be like 'They're not pulling their weight,' she says. The Julie Ruin is Hanna's fourth musical incarnation, since starting seminal riot-grrl band Bikini Kill in 1990, Le Tigre, and Julie Ruin (minus the "the") as a solo project. "There's nobody to bitch about in our band! There's not a weak link."

Hit Reset, the band's follow up album to their 2013 debut, Run Fast, shows the feminist punk icon sharing more personal lyrics, addressing her childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father who had a penchant for guns, and a mother who was supportive and who she credits with keeping her going. The album also came at a moment of remission from her Lyme disease, which was diagnosed in 2010 after several years of suffering. Hanna thought she was finally recovering from it around the time of Run Fast's release, only to have a relapse. (She's now recovered.)

Here, we talk about the album, what she's learned from her childhood and parents, and the problematic elements--ACK!--of '80s comic strip Cathy.


Hit Reset feels like it has a little more rawness and even a little more exuberance than Run Fast. How were you feeling when you recorded the album?

I was definitely feeling better when I was writing and recording this album, but I also have an illness that appears and then disappears. And there was always this worry that it would flare up on me again on tour or while we were recording. So that urgency, that anxiety, was something I was channeling into making music. I think that anxiety is what you're hearing. And that 'exuberance,' I think, is joy for the moment, because I knew that moment was fleeting -- 'Today, I feel great, but I might not tomorrow.' Knowing that and being hyper-conscious of it, you want to spend the time well. And to make music that makes you want to dance.

There's a stronger through line on this album about taking control -- getting rid of toxic people, facing unhappy memories and moving on. Is that something that came from starting to recover from your illness?

Yeah, admitting 'Here's where I do have control and here's where I'm going to manipulate things and do this and do that.' I ended up really looking at some of my childhood because of the illness -- it was being sick that brought that out. My illness made me feel like my body was not safe. And when I was a child, growing up in my house, my body was also not safe.

I've told people for years, about [abuse] that's happened to them, 'That's not your fault. That has nothing to do with you. You can make excuses for people and how they've treated you, you can try to understand where they were or have sympathy for them, but you need to take care of yourself first, and get rid of this feeling that you're not worth anything.' But I never really took that into my own life because I was such a control freak, and that control allowed me to feel like I could protect myself. And it's just not true.

When I was writing the lyrics, I think I allowed myself to be a little more subconscious. But it was a really great manifestation of what I'm trying to do in my life. Like, 'Look, you can't control everything.' It's like an AA thing: 'Learn to control the the things you can change and roll with the punches with the things you can't.' Actually, I'm sure that 'roll with the punches' is not an AA phrase, but it's like that.

The opening track, "Hit Reset," features the line, "Baby girl, you're just like me." The song is about your father, and I think that lyric taps into one of the fears that people who grow up with parents who are addicts or abusive face. Do you worry that similar behavior to your dad's could pop out of you at any moment?

Yes. Because it's more complicated than being abused or emotionally and psychologically put down all of the time, or being told you're a piece of crap. Or, you know, just the way women are devalued all of the time -- it goes beyond that. I think one of the most devastating things that happens with familial abuse is that, when we're biologically related to our abusers, we have to look in the mirror and see them every day. I look more like my dad than my mom. We might have the same features, but we're not the same person. He breathes air and I breathe air. But that doesn't mean we're the same person. I'm not him. I'm not going to let his abuse reach into my life and try to tell me who I am or make me paranoid. I've worked really hard not to do that.

My dad used to laugh at me when I cried. I remember being at Disney World with him as a little kid, and we were on a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. It was a submarine and, as part of the ride, a big fake octopus starts attacking the submarine. I was just a little kid and got really scared. I was begging him to get me off the ride and he just laughed in my face. I was so desperate to get off the ride, I was going up to other people, asking them to help me. They were just confused, since I was there with my dad. I remember just sobbing and staring at him in the eyes, begging to take me off, while he laughed. In hindsight, I was having a panic attack. And he sat there and laughed? Who the fuck does that?

So to not only have to deal with that crap, but, additionally, having to worry that I'm going to be like that to someone else? Fuck him, man! I'm nothing like him. If I were in that Disney World situation now, I would hold that kid and say 'stop this ride, my child is having a panic attack.' And I would say to my child, 'I'm so sorry I took you on this ride.'

I know who I am. I'm not going to let my dad's abuse make me think any different.

"Hit Reset" also includes the lyric, "I don't think you're sorry at all." There's something so hard about realizing your abuser or your parent--in this case both for you--are not remorseful for things that caused you a lot of pain. Or aren't capable of giving you a meaningful apology. But it also seems like there could be something freeing in it, to move on knowing you'll never get that acknowledgement. What was your experience like with that?

Yeah, you start out thinking you're going to get that call. Or that letter that details the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea incident, and everything he did wrong there. But all I'm ever going to get from my father, I already got. And that was him saying, 'I know I wasn't always the best dad.' That's what he's capable of, so I just live with that. I haven't seen him in twenty years, and, you know, he can fuck off. I hope he has a great life -- I totally do. There are some wonderful, wonderful, generous, amazing things about my father. I hope that part of him is shining right now with his friends, because it makes me happy to imagine that he's showing that part of himself to other people. He just wasn't capable of showing that part of himself to me.

The song "I'm Done" takes on abuse from less personal sources, namely internet trolls. How do you avoid that stuff or ignore it?

I don't even understand why there are comments -- I have them turned off on my website. For me, this is is a one way conversation. This particular art form is a one way conversation because I've decided it is. Part of that song is just dealing with the frustration of one person writing one fucked up thing about you. You don't always have the thick skin to be like, 'This has nothing to do with me. I shouldn't take this personally.'

That's been a big part of my identity, of being like, 'Look, we can argue, it's nothing personal.' And that doesn't mean not being vulnerable. That means being able to weed through what is real criticism and what is fake criticism. There's this article by '70s feminist Jo Freeman about being trashed, by other women, even. It talks a lot about what's the difference between real criticism, which is criticism that you need to know to be better at what you do, and fake criticism, which is just meant to tear you down and which you can't do anything about. If I get criticism that my voice is out of tune on something, I can work on that if I want to. If I get criticism that my arms look flabby and I don't dress my age, it's like, 'Fuck you, what does that have to do with anything?'

I can choose not to look myself up, or to not look at comments or Twitter. You see awful, awful stuff. People in the wake of the Orlando massacre, a hate crime on such a massive level, and during pride month no less, got a hashtag trending on Twitter about 'heterosexual pride day.' Fuck you. Why don't you learn about something that has nothing to do with you? Fuck off. Can we just be accountable for our privilege and realize we don't know it all? I want to find places on the internet that feed me with good information that I can share with people. I want to read books. I want to read the Atlantic. I don't want to be on the Internet all day.

Track "Mr. So-and-So" is about a certain kind of male fan who shows up at your performances and wants to talk sexism. Is "Mr. So-and-So" someone you're still encountering?

Yeah. When you're in a band there's always a Groundhog's Day element. The one positive, nice thing that I encountered over and over, every town, every country, was 'When I was 15, Pussywhipped changed my life.' Same sentence every time. Why Pussywhipped? Why 15? Is every 15-year-old handed a copy of that album? It was so weird, but it's sweet. That's the positive aspect of it. But the other end of that, is that you meet the same 'guy.' There's always the guy who knows more about sexism than you do. Or the guy who wants to tell you 'my girlfriend is really into your band,' but says nothing about how he actually feels about your music.

[When I was doing] Le Tigre, we'd find 'the death stars.' In the middle of the crowd, in most cities, there'd always be a guy standing there with his hand in his coat pockets the whole time. We'd get freaked out. You never knew if it was going to be like a slow-motion situation of, 'I love you Kathleen' while hurling a throwing star at my head. So we were always sort of watching the death star out of the corner of our eyes during those shows, trying to keep smiles on our faces.

And, yeah, there's also the tokenization. You get asked to play on the dumpster stage and have your name misspelled on the flyer because they thought of you at the last second. They didn't have enough women or gay people, and Kenny's gay. Let's put them on! That crosses off two boxes. I think girl bands and bands that are marginalized in different ways have similar experiences.

You also mention the comic strip character Cathy on this album, in reference to trying to be in some way the ideal feminist spokeswoman and the pressure that comes with that.

Yes. I do. I have to be careful, because [Cathy creator] Cathy Guisewite is very litigious.

Really?

Yes. She's sent me cease and desists before.

You've gotten a cease and desist from the creator of Cathy?

Yeah! Haven't you? No, it's insane -- Cathy's a cartoon! I was like, 'What, is there going to be a paw print on the end of this document' An imprint of her bangs? The heart from her heart sweater?'

Kenny gave me a Cathy doll that perfectly explains it all. She has two faces. On one side it says 'I am Invincible,' which is a quote from Helen Reddy's 'I Am Woman,' one of the first hit feminist songs in pop culture. So I hope Helen Reddy fucking sues her over that, first of all. At least Helen Reddy is a real person and not a cartoon. Then, you flip over to the other side of the doll, and it says, 'I'm lonely.'

So the message is, 'if you think you're invincible and you walk through the world with confidence, guess what's going to happen to you? You're going to be alone.' On one side, you're a feminist on the other side you're lonely. Like, 'Nobody really wants to be a feminist. Just like people don't like girls with glasses!'

This is a real Cathy product?

Yes! And that's why I'm allowed to talk shit on her.

Cathy was confusing to me growing up because I didn't understand what was funny about her trying on a bathing suit. Nothing really happened in it.

It is kind of like the slowest-moving, stationary-camera-type comic. Like an endurance performance piece. It would be like, 'Ugh, Irving isn't calling me!' Ok, so what? Or, 'Ugh, I just put those brownies right on my thighs.' It's this feminist/anti-feminist confusion. This thing that's described as 'feminist' but is so anti-feminist.

Like, 'well, she's a working girl. At least she has a job!' But her job sucks. And she's always thinking about how fat she is, and not having a husband and her mom is always hassling her about getting married. Then she's freaking out about cookies! She cant stop thinking about cookies! She's not going to move ahead in her career like that! She's just sitting in meetings daydreaming about how much she loves sassafras cookies! And everyone is like, 'Cathy, this meeting is about whether the company can afford a helicopter or not!' And she's just like, 'butterscotch cookies!'

Cathy is actually the feminist anti-christ.

You just want to get a matching cease and desist.

The album is bookended by your parents. You close with the song "Calverton," which is such a lovely tribute to your mother. Has she heard the album at all or that song?

I'm not sure. I keep meaning to send it to her, but then I get freaked out. I don't know. What should I do?

Send it to her!

Can you send it to her for me? I mean, I don't know. I don't want to put her on the spot. What if she hates the song? I just keep thinking, 'If she wants to hear the record, she'll listen to it.' But I feel like sending it to her is kind of presumptuous. I told her in advance that some of the press was going to involve our family and we had a big talk about it. So once that happened, I could step away and now she can process this on her own time. I think that's why I haven't sent it -- I want her to wait until she's ready.

But I do know she's read some of the press. I know she read my Bust cover story -- I called her ahead of time and warned her, 'You're mentioned, dad is mentioned.' But my mom is super-supportive and a lovely person. And she's really intelligent. We've worked through a lot of the stuff that happened and I'm so lucky to have her in her my life. It was hard to put that song out because it's so unbelievably corny. Like, Frozen-soundtrack-level corny. But I had to do it. I had to write a song about my mom.

Hit Reset is out now. The Julie Ruin plays NYC's Panorama festival July 23rd. More tour dates here.

Photo by Shervin Lainez


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