Riot grrrl emerged as a force with a simple goal: to carve out a space for women to feel safe at punk shows often categorized by violence. Among others — including Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Sleater-Kinney, and L7 — Olympia, Washington’s Bikini Kill was instrumental in developing the social and musical movement. The band provoked audiences with socially consciously and challenging anthems helmed by charismatic frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, and utilized a prominent DIY ethos that continues to be echoed within musical communities today.
After the band dissolved in 1997, Hanna created a solo record entitled Julie Ruin, which dabbled with electronics behind sharp feminist lyrics, and formed a synth-heavy trio, Le Tigre, to conceptualize the songs live. Now a full-fledged band since 2010, The Julie Ruin includes former Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox, and new members Sara Landeau, Carmine Covelli and Kenny Mellman. The fivesome released a debut last September, Run Fast, to positive acclaim. Not quite resounding completely with Bikini Kill’s jittery punk or Le Tigre’s new wave-ing sensibilities, The Julie Ruin is an amalgamation of everything that made these movements so special – immediacy, relatability, and fun all the same.
It’s not so much that riot grrrl is experiencing a revival now, but rather a revitalization. The resonance is seen through the anthologies of riot grrrl zines, a strong documentary about Hanna entitled The Punk Singer, and how musical communities continue to carve out the spaces of the Internet, which while have brought out issues of misogyny to light, it can also create a culture of hostility that makes it more important than ever for musical communities to establishing safe physical spaces for all to participate and share the unity of music. We spoke to Kathi Wilcox about staying off the Internet and reflecting on riot grrrl 20-plus years later.
The Julie Ruin performs tonight, Wednesday, April 9th, at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall.
It’s great speaking to you today! I saw you perform last summer in New York with Body/Head.
Oh yeah! That was cool. I think that might have been our first show. We were pretty nervous, since that was our first time really playing. Before then it had just been this kind of Rookie Magazine event out in LA, which was also super weird. But it didn’t really feel like a show because it was outdoors and part of a festival Rookie was doing, and she only invited 50 people. It felt more like a slumber party, it was fun! But the Body/Head show felt like our first real one, even though we only played like six songs.
How’s the reception been on this tour? Is it reminiscent of the vibe at Bikini Kill shows?
The shows are really great and have been run well. Everybody’s been really been really sweet. It’s similar to Bikini Kill shows in that people are really, really responding to Kathleen [Hanna]. And people that were super Bikini Kill fans show up, and people come up to us and tell us how much we’ve meant to them and that their lives have changed and just really heavy emotional stuff like that. The difference is that on this tour, we don’t get people yelling that they want to kill us and trying to get onstage and punch Kathleen. There hasn’t been any kind of negativity like that. Bikini Kill tours had more of that. That’s been great that hasn’t happened on this tour.
Yeah. I saw The Punk Singer recently, and it’s pretty insane how riled up people get about something that’s meant to be so simple – like bringing girls to the front of shows. That just makes sense to me.
Yeah. I mean, especially at those kinds of shows it was so hard for women to be at, where they were getting pushed around physically and it wasn’t safe to be there with all those guys. Even something so small as that was threatening to so many people. You know? A totally minor thing. Just make it okay for girls to be at the front. It’s not a big deal. But it was. It was a huge, big deal. You know what I mean? They wanted to burn the building down. It’s like we were horrible people.
Yeah. And I mean, unfortunately it still happens. I was at a Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks show about two months ago, and was still getting pushed around physically and violently jostled by dudes there. I wasn’t even that close to the front to the stage. I was very taken aback by it.
That was another weird thing. There’s this sort of unspoken idea that the punk community – or alternative, whatever you want to call it – is super open-minded, challenging all of these things about society. But one little thing like that – challenging the way a show might go – is so mind-rattling. Some people could handle it, but many others weren’t. They’d be like, “Fuck that! Reverse sexist now, you can’t do this now, this is America!” It got like that. It was eye-opening for us – this is our super open-minded punk community. Not that open-minded.
For trying to embrace alternative lifestyles, the punk rock community can still be close-minded.
Right. People who feel like misfits in society can create a club for them but only in this one certain kind of way. Well, what about women who don’t fit in this way? We changed it to feel more included. But I think it’s better. It happens at certain kinds of shows, but just implanting that idea in people’s minds – making them feel aware of how other kinds of people might feel in this space – just not me and my dude friends jumping on each other, how’s that making women in the room feel? Just that idea. Hopefully that will percolate down to the Stephen Malkmus shows. [Laughs.]
How does riot grrrl resonate for you now that you’ve stepped away from it for so long?
I’m really proud of what our band did and what we were able to achieve. I’m really happy that people were inspired by that and that that feeling has still lived on. That it didn’t just happen and evaporate. I feel like there were a lot of bands back then that happened and were really meaningful to people back then and then you never hear about them anymore. I think about a band like Babes in Toyland and others that were so important to us back then and got erased or something. I’m glad that riot grrrl, what we were doing then, continues to translate through the years. I’m grateful that people can still get something positive out of that, and it’s not just a footnote in music history.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that much of the experience of being in Bikini Kill itself was marked by violence, anger and negativity. What kept you in the band despite that, and would you have done things differently?
There are definitely things I would have done differently, but not in the way that our band was. I would have done things differently in the way that we were to each other. We just took on too much, in hindsight. We didn’t have a very good model for how to run a band in the midst of what we were going through, so I would have advocated for a booking agent or a manager or something. Not something super industry professional, but just another person in our group that could handle a lot of the static. We didn’t have anybody. We would take a friend of ours maybe to sell t-shirts, but we didn’t have any kind of buffer between all that negativity.
So it really eroded our personal relationships with each other, because we were so stressed out and we weren’t coping very well with what was going on and with each other. Once you lose that connection in the core of your group, it’s very difficult to keep going. Morale was very low. I mean, lots of people loved us but even that was kind of stressful. Like….14-year-old girls coming up to you, crying, telling you horrible stories about being raped. It was super stressful. You know you meant a lot to this person, but you were still absorbing all of these really awful stories. And it takes a toll on you. It really does, day after day.
In hindsight we should have gotten more help with the day to day stuff, so we would have had more strength to cope with the really intense stories, the hatred from the dudes. We would have had more energy and resources to deal with it. Now, as a grown-up, I can say what happened. But when you’re in it you try and take it one day at a time. We were really young, but we dealt with it. We were a band for a really long time as well, but it ground us down by the end of it. We were really burned out.
Those experiences will definitely weigh on you.
And it makes you angry. It makes you feel super angry. Then you start absorbing other people’s stories and you start to feel this…global depression about the reality of women and you’re really happy that you’ve given someone the tools to deal with how they feel and some hope, some ability to connect with their own anger, but you realize the scope of it is so much bigger than your own personal experience. Half of the world is totally suffering, you know? It’s tough. It was a tough time.
That gets at the heart of something else too, that feminism is still a loaded term for a lot of people. There’s a sense that if you claim the term “feminist” you’re angry and belligerent, when really you’re just…advocating for human rights.
We just want to be able to live and not be tortured! It’s kind of like…bad spin on the word. It’s weird because if you start talking to someone and they say, “I’m not a feminist, but…” they say a bunch of stuff and it’s like well, you’re a feminist. I just believe that women should not be raped and tortured. Well yes, of course I believe that – you’re a feminist. You know what I mean? That’s what it is. What do people think it is?
I don’t know. There’s a negative archetype there. But it’s the worst when women knock on other women for advocating feminism.
That was a lot of what our band was about, too. Not just being angry at male oppression but just treating each other better. It was like, hey. We need to be friends. We’re in this together. We need to get rid of this competitive thing and jealousy….like competing for male attention, or whatever. We need to recognize our solidarity together. I think the culture creates an atmosphere of that, where it breeds that kind of competitiveness. It discourages women from finding commonalities.
You were a filmmaker before going full-steam into Bikini Kill. What kinds of images were you drawn to?
I was a film student; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was a filmmaker. I studied film in college but pretty much I stopped doing it to do Bikini Kill. I still have my film camera and everything. I was super into feminist filmmakers like Yvonne Rainer, so I was kind of probably emulating them too much like students do. So my movies were vaguely about identity politics. But it was really fun, and I liked making movies. Hopefully I can get back into it. I had them all transferred, but the last I ever saw of them was maybe in 1992. Maybe they’re better than I remember.
I’ve read that you actively try and stay off the Internet. Why have you consciously made that decision?
Well…someone talked me into joining Instagram recently. But I can’t deal with social media. I’m a super private person. I’m not shy, but I’m not into sharing. I’ve staked out my life and it’s private. My friends? That’s fine. But I’m not going on Facebook and I’m not going to tweet. I value my privacy more than anything, I don’t want people to know what I’m thinking. Also looking stuff up on the Internet, people look themselves up and it’s just…there’s so much garbage out there and you’re absorbing other people’s energy. If you start looking for that shit, that’s just crazy. I’m not going to go looking up other people’s weird shit about me or my band. I don’t need it in my life. I like having clear air all around me, in my mind. I can read a book and just thing about that. So I try not to poke around too much.
Do you think that rock music is still privy to the same kinds of injustices or bullshit that you guys were pioneering against in the early 1990s? Do you think it’s improved?
Well, I only have my own perspective, but it seems to me, from where I am, that it’s gotten better for women. There seem to be more women and more women playing guitar music that not to like…make it privileged to our music, but there has always been women in dance music. But there were so few girls in rock bands it seemed so few and far between, like a novelty, people would comment on it. Now I feel like there are so many girls in bands and women out there playing guitar that it’s less unusual. Just that in and of itself is going to be better. Women won’t be treated like a unicorn when she walks in to do soundcheck at a club. It’s like oh yeah. A woman. In a rock band. Of course.
Have you been moved by anything as of late, musically or otherwise?
I like the Body/Head record. Kim [Gordon] is amazing. She was inspiring to me before Bikini Kill. There are lot of us that looked to her as a really cool role model, a way to be a woman in music that was powerful and cool. She just keeps doing more and more interesting things as the years go by.
If you could impart advice to young women interested in starting in rock music, but maybe aren’t sure, what would you say?
I would say trust yourself. Trust your instincts and get people around you that are supportive and not a drain. Make sure to take care of yourself and trust yourself.