Photos by Shervin Lainez
“I read about this thing, this drug being developed for people with PTSD that would just selectively erase their bad memories,” Kathleen Hanna tells me over the phone, about an hour into a conversation that feels more like catching up with a friend.
Would she take it? “In a fucking minute,” the Julie Ruin frontwoman, 47, says with a laugh. “That’s what I’m trying to do, take the pill without taking the pill.”
I can't help but be a little surprised, given that the feminist punk icon is the type of performer who, in the past, has fearlessly spoken—or, screamed, rather—out against injustice and sexual assault, putting on a bold face even in the wake of years of threatening hate mail.
That an artist like Hanna, who once scrawled the word “slut” across her torso as she called for “girls to the front” of the room, and whose bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre helped take down sexism and patriarchy one show at a time, would want to forget the tough stuff, seems contradictory to her entire ethos.
But as the erstwhile 90s riot grrrl explains it, the ideas aren’t mutually exclusive; as an artist today, she’s more interested discovering who she is beyond her traumas, rather than allowing them to hover above her and her work for the rest of her life.
“I really needed this record to process some of the stuff that happened to me, and to stop shoving everything in this box,” Hanna says of The Julie Ruin’s new album, Hit Reset, which is out today on Hardly Art. The Brooklyn art punk quintet, an offshoot of Hanna’s 1997 solo bedroom project Julie Ruin, formed in 2010 in the wake of Le Tigre, which hit an extended hiatus in the mid-00s after Hanna contracted Lyme Disease.
The illness, an infection spread by ticks that can affect the brain, nerves, eyes, joints, and heart, went untreated over six years of misdiagnoses, leaving Hanna bedridden and addled by pain for months at a time.
Unable to keep herself from making music, Hanna gathered ex-Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox (bass), along with Carmine Covelli (drums), Sara Landeau (guitar), and Kenny Mellman (keys) in her now home, New York City, at a time when seizures were a daily reality, reactions to handfuls of medications left her fatigued and disoriented, and visits to the hospital were frequent.
The group's debut, 2013’s high octane Run Fast, captures Hanna’s experience learning to allow others in and support her through her illness. Now, after making a full physical recovery, Hit Reset details the subsequent process of learning to support herself, and to confront other, more existential factors impeding her well-being.
“I’ll have needed to go to the bathroom for the past two hours and I won’t. That’s like, what a three year old does,” Hanna says of her self-destructive workhorse tendencies, which she tackles alongside toxic relationships, abuse suffered at the hands of her father, and her experience as a rape survivor on the new album. Hit Reset is the result of Hanna finally facing her traumas and talking back to them; it’s about “finally being able to write songs about my own personal anger, not just about my political anger,” she says. “I’ve really had to relearn how to exist.”
The depth and detail with which Hanna delves into her personal history marks a departure from both Run Fast and the rest of Hanna’s decades-spanning body of work. Ranging from plucky, doo-woppy, anti-love ballads (“Rather Not”) to synth-heavy post-punk (“Time Is Up”) to the fervent, battle-ready rock of “I Decide,” Hit Reset boasts a smorgasbord of sonic textures that makes you want to riot one second and dance the next, all the while glimpsing, unflinchingly, into Hanna’s vulnerabilities.
The record took shape in late 2014 inside Greenpoint’s Figure 8 studio, where the band spent the better part of a year working with Run Fast producer Eli Crews. After becoming closer with her bandmates through touring, Hanna finally felt comfortable inviting them into the memories of her childhood in Portland, Oregon, and teen years in the Washington, DC suburb of Calverton, Maryland. “Calverton,” the final track on Hit Reset, is a piano ballad dedicated to Hanna’s mother, who first encouraged her to put herself and her art out into the world. The album’s title track, meanwhile, details the fearsome home environment her physically and verbally abusive father created: “Deer hooves hanging on the wall / Shell casings in the closet hall / Drunk from a mug shaped like a breast / Punching the people he loved best.” As the band worked together to craft new tracks around Hanna’s lyrics, she often found herself crying, having to stop mid-rehearsal.
“I’ve written about my personal bouts with illness, abuse, sexism and how hard it is for me to walk away from people even when they are toxic Tasmanian Devils before, but not in this way," Hanna explained in a statement about the new record. “It’s rare to work with a group of people you feel okay doing that with.”
Some of her most challenging songwriting arose from the aftermath of being raped by her best friend at 25, while fronting Bikini Kill. Beyond a brief mention on her personal blog in 2012 in support of the Jennifer Baumgardner film It Was Rape, Hanna has remained largely silent about the experience for nearly two decades, too intimidated to breach the subject.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me, because I was in Bikini Kill! And I was like, this angry feminist. It almost worked to my detriment,” she says. “It makes me feel kind of fraudulent or something—not that feminists can’t get raped, that’s ridiculous—but there’s a part of me, especially when I was younger, that I wanted to live up to people’s expectations. I wanted them to think that I was a super strong person who, like, didn’t associate with a person like that, because this was a friend that I chose.”
Hanna is fully aware of the irony, and that her sense of shame stems from a larger culture of victim blaming. “We’re up for this Miss America pageant—are you a one or a ten treatment—every day we walk down the street,” she says. “Don’t wear a short skirt, don’t get drunk, don’t have a beer at a party, don’t wear scrubs while you’re walking to your job, don’t wear a cowboy outfit, don’t wear a pant suit…Of course we feel fucking disgusting about ourselves and we don’t take care of ourselves!”
She continues, “Even going through the illness, I was like, ‘I must deserve this for some reason.'”
When the disease eventually forced her to give up performing—the one role she knew how to play—Hanna was left to grapple with who she was, if not the loud, aggressive, feminist punk icon the world knew her to be. The ensuing combination of hopelessness and debilitating pain prompted her to pen “Let Me Go,” a track about the prospect of euthanasia. “I was thinking, wow, is my past all there is?” she says. “Am I supposed to sit here and think about memories, no futures?”
Today, however, the future is very much on her mind. Since wrapping the album, Hanna and her bandmates have kept plenty busy: Earlier this year, Mellman reunited his drag cabaret act Kiki and Herb for 22 sold out shows at Joe's Pub in New York City, while Wilcox toured with semi-supergroup punk side project, The Casual Dots. Covelli, meanwhile, performed with actress, cabaret star, and comedienne Bridget Everett, and Landeau continued to work with Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Brooklyn (where she and Hanna first met). On July 14, the band heads to Chicago to kick off a North American and European tour that will keep them on the road through December.
Hanna may not be taking that magic pill just yet, but recording Hit Reset has, in many ways, helped her begin to move past the bad memories. “I’d be interested to see who I’d be without it. I just wanna know,” she says. “I’m not gonna be on this earth that much longer, so I should have this other half of my life to figure it out.”
Artemis Thomas-Hansard is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.