Behold – (most of) our conversation with Kathi Wilcox of The Julie Ruin and formerly of Bikini Kill.
Q: So, how’d you end up joining The Julie Ruin?
A: Well, Kathleen just asked me. I mean, I was actually living in DC when they started playing together. She made it sound really casual and relaxed and something she was doing from time to time. It wasn’t like, “I’m starting this big new project.” She had been sick and needed something to focus on, so that’s what she was doing. Then we moved up here [to New York City], and she said, “We need a bass player. Would you ever be interested in being in a band with me again?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course.”
Q: Safe to say this version of The Julie Ruin came about around 2010?
A: I’ve kind of lost track of time, but that sounds about right. We moved here in 2010, so I think they’d been playing together for six or nine months before that, so maybe they started in early 2010? We moved here in August of 2010, so we started practicing right after that.
Q: And this is the first music thing you’ve really done since 2004?
A: I don’t really keep track of the calendar, but The Casual Dots was somewhere around there.
Q: Were you aching to get into another band when Kathleen got in touch with you, or…?
A: Definitely not. I loved being in The Casual Dots, but it was very relaxed. We weren’t, y’know, working full-time doing the band and touring the world. It was just a project we were doing because we were friends and liked to hang out. At the time, that was the perfect amount of band activity for me. Even when I moved up here, that was not foremost in my mind – being in a band. Y’know, I had a young child. I liked playing music, but I wasn’t dying to get into another band when I moved out here.
Q: What made The Julie Ruin an appealing project?
A: Well, the idea of being in a band with Kathleen was appealing to me, because we’re friends and I love hanging out with her. It was a novel idea to me, and once I met them and started playing, it started feeling really natural and fun, and everybody got along. Those are kind of the main criteria for me for being in a band at this point. Everybody has to get along, it has to be fun, and I have to like the songs. Plus my daughter is older. Being in a band with a 2-year-old is stressful, but being in a band with a 6- or 7-year-old is much easier. That was a factor.
Q: What were you doing before moving to New York?
A: When I lived in DC I had a lot of different jobs, but at the end, I was working at The Washington Post.
Q: Ah, I didn’t realize you had worked there for so long.
A: Yeah, I got started there right before the September 11 attacks. It was kind of a crazy time to start working at a newspaper. There was a lot of stuff going on: The anthrax attacks, and then there was the sniper. The time I was working at The Washington Post was like the apocalypse – every single terrible thing you can think of, high anxiety all the time. But I loved working there.
Q: Heh, that’s kinda funny, ‘cause this is totally for a website, ‘cause newspapers do pretty badly now.
A: True, although The Post just got bought by the Amazon dudes, so they’re probably doing better than most. Supposedly they’re actually hiring people. Totally the opposite trend of every other newspaper.
Q: Safe to say you haven’t done a tour on this scale since Bikini Kill?
A: Um, I guess the last heavy-touring band was Bikini Kill, although The Casual Dots did a cross-country U.S. tour, but it was for a couple of weeks. I guess Bikini Kill is the last band that did weeks at the time. Even that band was pretty lightweight for the time period. I think about other bands and their touring schedules, and I’ve never really been in a band that was a touring machine like Black Flag or something like that. Even Sleater-Kinney, when they toured, they’d tour hard. They’d tour a record and really hit everywhere. Even Le Tigre, they’d tour records for a whole year, y’know?
Q: Hm, I would’ve assumed that you couldn’t get away with a light touring regimen in the ‘90s.
A: Well, actually, it’s kind of the opposite. We liked to tour, but our band dynamic was such that we didn’t have that kind of durability. We were kind of always falling apart, it seemed like, as a band. So for us to put together a tour was this monumental task, and we definitely did some tours. But for a band that was together for seven years, we only toured the U.S. maybe three times, which is not very much if you think about a band like Fugazi that was a band for however many years and toured the U.S. I don’t know how many times. Some bands, I feel, just have more endurance for that kind of thing. Bikini Kill liked to play shows, but we weren’t Black Flag in terms of touring stamina. Record sales were such that you really could be a band and survive on record sales alone back then. Now you have to tour.
Q: Plus other bands didn’t have to worry so much about, like, anyone threatening to kill them.
A: Well, there was that, too. I’m sure Black Flag got plenty of abuse, but, y’know, they seemed like they could take it. We could take it, too, but I’m not sure if Henry [Rollins] was getting death threats. Maybe he was, but Kathleen definitely was. So for us, it definitely wore us down a lot. For us to go on tour, it was kind of like, “Okay, we really have to want to do it, and we definitely have to prepare.” Definitely, it was a different psychological thing than a lot of other bands like Superchunk going on tour. Nothing against Superchunk, but when they go on tour, I’m not sure if they’re psychologically kind of onslaughted like we were. But that was our band. It’s not like I’m saying, “Oh, poor us,” because we were definitely bringing it, in terms of being confrontational. It was what it was.
Q: Nostalgia reunions are real big in punk. Did you and Kathleen ever say, “Hey! Let’s do a Bikini Kill reunion tour with some hired guns filling in for Tobi and Billy!”
A: Well, I wouldn’t say that we talked about it with the sort of enthusiasm that you’re using in your voice. Some friends of ours did an All Tomorrow’s Parties several years back. I don’t remember the one it was – it was before I moved up here, so it was before 2010. They were friends of ours, so we wanted to treat their request respectfully. We were like, “They’re asking us to play. How do we all actually feel about that?” The more we talked about it, the more we realized it didn’t make sense at that time. It’s definitely not something we’re hoping is going to happen, but stranger things have. In the scheme of things, it’s possible. However I will say I’m 99% certain that it won’t happen.
Q: The Julie Ruin doesn’t really sound like Bikini Kill or Le Tigre, or even the original Julie Ruin album. Was there a conscious effort to avoid that kind of repetition?
A: I think with some of the people in the band, there was a conscious effort. To me, it’s just naturally the product of the people in the band. The only people who were in Bikini Kill are me and Kathleen, so that’s a limited amount of influence, and it’s not going to sound like Le Tigre because it’s all [live] instruments. But Kathleen has a certain sound that she likes – a certain drum sound, a certain way of writing songs, and her voice is her voice. I play bass the way I play bass, and that’s going to sound like what it sounds like. But we’ve got a keyboardist, he sings, and everybody sings back up, so I think it just naturally sounds different.
Q: You did lyric videos for every song on “Run Fast,” right?
A: Wow, did we do them for every song? Our friend Brendan Kennedy did those. The ones that I’ve seen are totally great.
Q: Usually, lyric videos are the absolute worst, but those clips are neato.
A: I totally did not know such a thing existed as lyric videos, ‘cause I don’t consume YouTube or music that way. But when we were talking about doing videos, then it was also, like, ”Oh, we also have to do lyric videos.” I was like, “We do? What’s a lyric video?” So I started looking them up, and most of them are really boring. But Brendan’s got a really good visual sense.
Q: “The Punk Singer” made it look like Kathleen’s illness put the kabosh on Le Tigre. How much does her health impact this band?
A: Well, from the very beginning, we geared everything around her health and what her doctors are prescribing, and if she needs to take time off to rest, so we gear everything around her treatment. At the same time, I would say she’s feeling much better. The fact that we’ve been able to do all these shows is kind of remarkable considering how sick she was.
Q: Good to hear. Got time for a few more questions?
A: Sure. You’re in Boston, right? I think we’re going to play a show up there. Is that why you’re doing this interview?
Q: Yeah, this show’s all the way in April. Anyone reading this will be doing so a few months in the future. But yeah, that show’s gonna be you guys and Screaming Females, which’ll be badass. Anyway, I was thinking, all the bands I got exposed to on MTV and the radio growing up were almost all dudes, and even now, misogyny is a big problem in the punk scene. You’d think the punk rocker kids would be right out in front of that issue, but in my experience, that’s only the case maybe 35 percent of the time. What’s up with that?
A: If I had the answer, I would totally solve that problem. I have no idea why. I guess, I don’t know, you’d have to do an analysis of punk rock and what are the impulses and motivations in punk. A lot of it is anti-authoritarian and rebelliousness, so a lot of that probably feeds into hostility toward women, too. Misogyny is a part of the larger society, so there’s no reason that it wouldn’t exist in a subset of that, punk rock, unless people specifically address it, which is what we were trying to do in Bikini Kill. I feel like those kind of sexist values get instilled in people really early on, and not just men. Unless people are activity aware of it and challenge it, of course it’s just going to reproduce itself no matter what they’re doing.
Q: It takes a little bit of work to deprogram yourself.
A: Yeah, exactly. You have to be a somewhat self-aware and a thoughtful person, and not everybody’s a thoughtful person.
Q: The punks who just want to break stuff probably aren’t very thoughtful.
A: Exactly. It’s probably the kind of thing where punk rock also attracts people who maybe have a lot of aggression, and a lot of that aggression is toward women, and maybe it just channels itself into punk rock because that’s a vehicle that’s there when they’re 14 or 15. Who knows? I have no idea. It is surprising to me how much of it is still around. But it’s a global problem, not a scene problem. In another way, it would’ve been really surprising if suddenly there was no sexism in punk rock. Then it would be like, “Wow, that was easy! 20 years later, it’s gone!” It’s like racism. It’s a big problem, and people have to chip away at in any way they can.
Q: I’m thinking of suggesting a really cliche headline like “Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox: Grown up, but still Pissed off!” Are either of those statements actually true?
A: Uh, I don’t know. I mean, I hang out with her a lot. I don’t feel like we’re pissed off. What do you think? You’ve listened to The Julie Ruin record. To me, those don’t sound like pissed-off songs. Some of them, maybe, but by and large, they seem like more well-rounded emotions than just anger.
Q: It’s definitely a really fun record. The title track and “Goodnight Goodbye” stuck in my head, just because they have this reflective, introspective aspect to them I thought was interesting.
A: Yeah, that’s the thing that I think about when I listen to the record, in terms of the juxtaposition between upbeat music and lyrics which are, by and large, either sad or angry, or thoughts about mortality. They’re pretty heavy lyrics for such upbeat music.
Q: Yeah, there’s that one line about being 40 and looking back at the person you were when you were 20.
A: Right. Getting older.
Q: There’s that, but I feel like you can’t be entirely grown-up if you’re in a band.
A: You can’t be a grown-up if you’re in a band? Really? That’s interesting. Why do you think that?
Q: Well, I don’t necessarily think of being a grown-up as being emotionally mature. It’s more like having a nine-to-five job and being boring. And you’re not doing that.
A: That’s true.
Q: So I gotta come up with a new headline?
A: Sorry! You’re halfway there. The angry part I don’t know about.
Q: What’s your definition of grown-up?
A: I don’t know. I was just talking with my daughter about that. She was like, “When are people grown-ups?” She was saying, “I think at 20,” and I said, “Definitely not at 20.” I remember 20, and I was definitely not grown-up. I’ve never met a 20-year-old who was grown-up. Maybe there were people like that in the ‘50s, but not anymore. We settled on 27. I thought maybe 27 was, like…some people never grow-up, of course, but once you hit 27, you’re no longer in your arrested development, adolescent stage. You’re kind of officially a grown-up at that point.
Q: I think I buy that.
A: But you can’t go by a nine-to-five, especially not in this economy. Who has a nine-to-five job? Y’know what I mean? There’s got to be some other criteria for being a grown-up, I think.
Q: Now that I think about it, I really only know two people with nine-to-five jobs.
A: They don’t exist anymore. They’re like unicorns. What about Bob Dylan? He’s certainly a grown-up. He’s got to be in his 70s, right? He’s probably never had a nine-to-five job.
Q: You could say the same about countless other famous musicians.
A: Yeah. Maybe it’s a behavior thing. You have to act like a grown-up in order to be a grown-up.
Q: Maybe it’s hard for me to envision rock musicians as grown-ups, just ‘cause rock ‘n roll is supposed to be for teenagers.
A: Yeah, of course nobody listens to rock ‘n roll anymore, especially not teenagers. Isn’t it true that nobody listens to guitar music anymore?
Q: Well the EDM thing is big with the kids now, but that comes and goes once every five years. I’m sure guitar music will be back around sooner rather than later.
A: You think so? I guess we’ll see.
[Photo Credit: Jamie McCarthy]