Once you’ve heard one too many “everything was better back when…” rants from music people trying to convince you (and probably themselves) that their heyday was more exciting and important than it really was, it’s easy to forget how to address the past with thoughtful, honest reflection.
But Kathleen Hanna remembers.
“It happens when you’re not 20 but 41, and you have to sink into the person you’ve now become,” she sings, in an uncharacteristically gentle tone, on the otherwise sprightly “Goodnight Goodbye,” off last year’s sort-of debut from The Julie Ruin. TJR hit the Sinclair Thursday, alongside New Jersey shred squad Screaming Females.
“Will the teenage sneer that you so cultivated sneer back at you and make you feel so hated?”
That poignant commentary on adulthood stands as the most somber moment on “Run Fast,” which otherwise plays like an off-kilter rock ‘n’ roll party record. The title track’s dreamy keyboard melody grants it enough pensiveness for Hanna to look back once more – this time at her adolescence and her era as de facto, somewhat-reluctant spokesperson for the Riot Grrrl movement at the helm of Bikini Kill. However, references to emotional abuse, escapism, and getting “told we weren’t real punks by boys in bands who acted like our dads when they were drunk” distance the track from any Gaslight Anthem-esque sentimentality.
Then again, Hanna needn’t bother romanticizing her own life – director Sini Anderson just did a remarkably convincing job with the 2013 documentary, “The Punk Singer.” Maybe Hanna and bassist Kathi Wilcox miss a few things about the ‘90s, but they’re probably happy that no one threatens to kill them anymore.
Although it’s only a tiny part of the story told in “The Punk Singer,” the homicidal posturing Bikini Kill inspired in a few chauvinists seems significant just because this was well before Twitter. Back then, famous people didn’t often receive death threats from anyone who wasn’t necessarily a crazed stalker. While the mainstream propped up grunge and its supposed commitment to apathy, Riot Grrrl bands severely ruffled patriarchal feathers.
The scope of Riot Grrrl’s legacy went global a few years ago when the imprisonment of members of performance art troupe Pussy Riot let the rest of the world know that Russia thinks fascism is kinda groovy. Asked how she feels about her old band inspiring a historic protest, Wilcox balks at any direct comparison.
“We had one song called ‘George Bush is A Pig’ [sometimes referred to as ‘George Bush Is No Hero’], and we were never worried about being thrown in prison,” she says over the phone from her home in New York City. “Not to say that what we were doing wasn’t important or something. We definitely got plenty of shit from people, but we were never worried that George Bush Sr. was going to lock us up and throw away the key.”
Aside from one 2004 album with a Washington DC-based project dubbed The Casual Dots, Wilcox kept a relatively low musical profile after Bikini Kill fizzled out. Meanwhile, Hanna kept busy, first as a solo artist with the original “Julie Ruin” low-fi, electronic long-player in 1997, and then with political alt-pop brigade Le Tigre. As revealed in “The Punk Singer,” Hanna’s poor health forced her to abandon music in the mid-’00s. Although continuing to struggle with chronic Lyme disease, serendipitously, Hanna had recovered enough to start a new band right around Wilcox’s 2010 relocation to New York.
“I was not aching to be in another band,” she recalls. But her enthusiasm for the material, the prospect of working with her old bestie Hanna, the low-hassle atmosphere, and the fact that her daughter hit grade-school age and required a bit less attention all swayed Wilcox into joining the full-ensemble incarnation of The Julie Ruin.
“Those are kind of the main criteria for me for being in a band at this point in time – everybody has to get along, it has to be fun, and I have to like the songs,” she explains.
While a Bikini Kill reunion tour could potentially ride the wave of ‘90s fetishism into a higher tax bracket, Wilcox foresees dim chances of that ever happening. Which fits. It doesn’t seem as though anyone involved in The Julie Ruin – rounded out by Sara Landeau on guitar, Kenny Mellman on keys, and Carmine Covelli on drums – feels a creative need to return to the well. Not unlike fellow ‘90s luminaries Mark Lanegan and Mike Patton, Hanna rarely retreads with her latter-day endeavors. Bikini Kill was probably too confrontational to have ever recorded an album as much fun as “Run Fast”. Maaaaybe Le Tigre could’ve pulled it off, but they would’ve had to dial back the gloss and play guitars, and then they wouldn’t have been Le Tigre anymore.
“I think with some [TJR members], there was a conscious effort not to do that, but to me, it’s just naturally the product of the people in the band,” says Wilcox, asked if TJR made a deliberate effort to avoid aping their front-woman’s prior material. As much is rightfully made of Hanna’s status as a feminist icon, she also deserves credit for not repeating herself, even while singing about things that already happened.
[Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez]