Kathleen Hanna – The Collapse Board Interview
KATHLEEN HANNA: It’s really exciting for me to play music with her again! It all just came together. When I needed a break and I told the members of Le Tigre (which was the band after Bikini Kill), I was like, guys I just really need a break, I’ve been touring since I was 19. I was in my 30s and I needed to just be in one place. I was really, really, really in love with my boyfriend, who I am now married too. I really wanted to hang out with him and I really love New York. I wanted to spend time in New York, I wanted to just be a person and not always be away.
During that time I thought, what will my next project be? You know just before you go to sleep and you think, what could be the best thing that could happen tomorrow? I was like, god I’d love to play music with Kathi again. I’d loved to play with Kenny from Kiki & Herb which was a famous project he was in. One of the reasons I even moved to New York was because I saw their show and I was like, this is where I need to be! Carmine used to be the lighting guy and documentarian for Le Tigre. I heard him play drums and was like, you are fucking amazing! Plus he is super fun to hang out with.
I read a blog post that Kenny did recently saying that you sang with him at a Kiki & Herb show on New Year’s that you went to. He mentioned that you sang a song from Annie.
KH: Yes! [laughs]
And he said, full disclosure: Kathleen is obsessed with the musical Annie.
KH: [Laughs] It’s totally true. My big start in show biz was when I was nine years old and me and my best friend Maureen Gaines went to the auditions for our grade school play Annie. At the time I sang Christmas carols at home by myself but I didn’t think I could actually sing, I had nothing to gauge it next to. She really wanted to go to the audition and I was her best friend so she took me with her. The music teacher made me sing and then gave me the part. I was like, oh my god! What? It was a total shock. Do you mean that compared to other people I can actually sing? I got the 8-track of Annie and learned all the songs but the really sad thing was something happened at our school where they thought it was sexist that it was Annie and that almost the whole cast was female besides Daddy Warbucks so they changed it into a mixture of Annie and Oliver.
KH: I know! This kid became Oliver and I was like the lead and I thought it was my big break out moment and I had to share it with this kid. It was a mish mash, it was an early mash up, an Annie-Oliver mash up live at a grade school.
I don’t think that is something I ever want to see. I love Annie! I used to watch it pretty much every day after school, that or the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
KH: Are you a singer as well?
I am. I’ve put together different bands over the years but now I just make my own stuff at home for me. One day I will perform.
KH: Well you have to do it the way you want to do it. That’s the whole thing. I’ve had time periods where all I have wanted to do was be on stage. Now I just want to hole up and write. We’ve written so many songs for this album because I just want to keep writing. I took a really long break from writing almost anything and then all of sudden I was really excited about it again. In Le Tigre I thought that I had said everything that I wanted to say. I took a break and had a life for a while. I was like, oh I actually have something else to say.
That’s like with my interviewing. I’ve been doing it since I was 15, that’s over 17 years. At times in my life I have tried to take a break as it became overwhelming or certain people in my life thought I should quit and get a ‘real job’ but, I always find myself coming back to it.
KH: I think that the thing that you’re meant to do just finds you and you’re kind of stick with it [laughs] for better or for worse. It’s usually for better though.
You’ve recorded 19 tracks for the record so far. When did you write most of them?
KH: Over the course of the past year or so. We got together once a week and played. Kathi wasn’t in the band at first because she lived in [Washington] D.C. We learned a bunch of the songs off The Julie Ruin record because I’d always wanted to perform those songs live. Le Tigre actually started because Johanna [Fateman] from Le Tigre and I were trying to learn the songs from the record but we couldn’t figure them out [laughs]. I’ve always wanted to do them live. I wanted to flesh them out and change them because they always felt like sketches of songs rather than fully realised songs. I started working with them on it and it was super fun. We naturally started writing other stuff. Kathi came to New York and I was so scared to ask her to be in the band. We didn’t have a bass player. If she said no [pauses] … we hadn’t worked together in so long and because it ended kind of weird, I didn’t know how she felt about it. She said, “Oh yeah sure. That sounds fun”. It’s been really great, it’s nice to work with people that come over to my house (I have a home studio) and we hang out, chit-chat and have a really fun time. It doesn’t feel like a bummer.
I read a comment from you that said there are vocals sort of inspired by Lydia Lunch?
KH: Well I hope there is. There is this one sing called, ‘Oh Come On’. I was really thinking about Lydia Lunch when we started writing. We wrote a song that was like if Lydia Lunch was singing a Stooges song. I was really proud of it and loved the practice tape of it. It just sounded like the way she clips stuff at the end of phrases and yet sounds like she’s doing this total wild abandonment. It just sounds out of control. That’s actually the last song that I need to record. I recorded it once but it just doesn’t have that same feel as in practice. I’m working on it. I’m hoping that it comes out with a little bit of a homage to her because I’m a big fan. I don’t want to copy what she does. There’s a lot of references of other singers on the record. I love that.
What other singers?
KH: Lesley Gore. A lot of 60s girl group stuff. There’s a little bit of Bikini Kill-era Kathleen coming through which was completely unexpected. I’m referencing myself when I was younger which is probably the most narcissistic, creepy thing I could do [laughs]. We were playing a song for somebody and they were shocked because they thought that the way that I was talking about it was like, oh you know, I’m really exploring my soft side [laughs]. They heard it and they said, “It sounded like you’ve always sounded — loud, pissed off and projecting”. I thought, oh well, I guess I always just go to that sweet spot. There’s definitely some anger on the record.
It’s funny that it’s taken us so long to finish it. We’re just working at our own pace so it stays fun and doesn’t become a 9 to 5 job. I’ve been in bands that have been like 9 to 5 jobs and they always become a drag and end. I just don’t want to be in that kind of band anymore. A lot of the things that I was angry about that I was singing about at the beginning of writing the record, I’m not angry about anymore. I wrote the songs and have been singing them and as corny as it sounds, I kind of worked it out through the songs.
That’s awesome! That’s one of the greatest things about music I think.
KH: Yeah! I’d heard of it happening [laughs]. It actually does happen in real life! I’ve had to experience a lot of times where I’ve written songs that I don’t really understand why I was writing it but then five years later it became completely clear why I was writing it.
I’m so excited to hear the new record! I’ve been trying to piece together through different things you’ve said in interviews or blog posts what it might sound like. There’s “sexy rockabilly” guitars that you’re really happy with?
KH: Oh my god Sarah is such a good guitar player! I love rockabilly guitar and I love surf guitar, love it! She does too. She’s somebody that is very technically good and a total distortion pedal and amp nerd, I say that with total admiration and respect. She knows when not to play and when to play. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah I sure do. Silence and space in music can be just as powerful as a burst of noise.
KH: Yeah! When she plays there’s something really sexy about her playing. I know that might sound gross [laughs]. It just makes my hips shake and makes me feel ecstatic and happy. It’s a really visceral experience. I worked with her at Rock Camp for Girls, it’s where we met. We were coaching a band of girls between the ages of 11 and 17. Watching her work with them and having such a fun time with her through that experience, she became a person that when I was going to bed at night I thought, I want to work with her. When I heard her play it was completely over. I didn’t care if she was the biggest douche bag in the world (thank god she’s not); I just wanted her in my band.
What’s one of the biggest challenges to you in regards to songwriting?