’90s Nostalgia

09.03.134:45 AM ET

Rebel Girl, Back From Ruin

Feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna is back with a new band, the Julie Ruin, whose first album debuts September 3. She talks to Luke Malone about her long hiatus, a debilitating illness, and moving past the legacy of Bikini Kill.

“He’d better be fucking clapping,” says Kathleen Hanna with a laugh when I tell her that her husband wouldn’t stop applauding at her gig the night before. Though the crowd at Brooklyn’s Union Pool seemed grateful to see her back on stage after an extended hiatus, he was especially excited—putting his hands together not just at the end of each song, but during much of her new band’s set. While his enthusiasm could be written off as a standard show of support, the overzealous encouragement hinted at something deeper—something intimately related to Hanna’s absence from the limelight for much of the past six years.

It’s been a rough period for the feminist icon, but one from which she is emerging thanks to the formation of the Julie Ruin, a reboot of her post–Bikini Kill solo project Julie Ruin. The band, now a five-piece including Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, and Sara Landeau, marks her return to music after she and her Le Tigre bandmates called a time-out in 2007. The reasons behind their decision weren’t discussed publically at the time—a reflection of the fact that even Hanna didn't know what was going on. But now she does, and even has a name for it. “I have chronic—well, I like to call it late-stage Lyme disease and not chronic, because I like to think someday I’ll be all the way cured,” she said over lunch at a café near her Flatiron apartment. “It took me a really long time to get diagnosed, and I was misdiagnosed for a long, long time. I was very ill during the end of Le Tigre, which was kind of why that ended, amongst other things.”

The delayed diagnosis was caused by two factors, the first being the lack of comprehensive diagnostic tests made available by insurance companies. Hanna was given a cheap test (with less than 40 percent accuracy) for the illness soon after she started to feel sick, and was erroneously given the all-clear on Lyme disease. The second reason, she says, was because she’s a woman. “I’ve internalized this sexist idea that all doctors, whatever gender they are, are going to think that I’m exaggerating or that I’m crazy,” she said. “And so I won’t say everything that’s going on, and I kept minimizing it. I minimized it to my friends, I minimized it to Adam, I minimized it to myself. And minimizing it meant that I didn’t get diagnosed as soon.”

By Adam, she means her husband, Adam Horovitz of Beastie Boys fame, who was forced to watch as the bacteria crossed Hanna’s blood-brain barrier and developed into neurological Lyme, which led to seizures and problems walking and talking. “Basically, I had brain damage. I couldn’t read for two years,” she said. “People would ask me what books I was reading, and I felt so embarrassed because I couldn’t follow something, I couldn’t remember. I’d read a paragraph, and I couldn’t remember the paragraph that I had read. I was like the Memento guy.

Though Hanna was having upwards of three seizures a day, it wasn’t until she was watching Under Our Skin, a documentary about the disease, and saw herself in one of the characters that she knew, with certainty, what was wrong with her. She contacted a specialist who had appeared in the documentary and began taking regular train trips with Horovitz down to his office in D.C., where the doctor diagnosed her with Lyme disease using the more sensitive western-blot test. He prescribed an intensive antibiotic treatment delivered via PICC line—an IV catheter inserted in the upper arm that feeds into a major vein near the heart. The treatment went on for nine months, during which time she couldn’t shower properly, open doors, or pick up a box. Though it was a slow, arduous process, she tears up when recounting how grateful she was to have the support she needed to come through it. “It’s just when you think it’s over and you get a second chance on life, it’s pretty profound. You know?” she said. “And you realize who really loves you. That guy who was standing behind you, he put the stuff in my IV every day for me. He still measures out all of my pills every single day. He’s the most supportive person I’ve ever met. And you would never think fucking Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys is such a sweet person.”

Music also helped. Hanna had always planned for the songs from 1998’s Julie Ruin to be performed live, but couldn’t seem to make it work. Always one to finish what she starts, she says it felt right to return to the material when she began making music again. But rather than retreat to her bedroom with a drum machine and sampler like she did with the original record, this time around she decided to assemble the ultimate dream team to collaborate with: Wilcox, co-founder of Bikini Kill (bass); Mellman, from Kiki and Herb (keyboard); dancer and performer Covelli (drums); and Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls coach Landeau (guitar). After forming the band in 2010, there was a lot of stopping and starting due to debilitating bouts of her illness, but sheer determination and a sense of purpose propelled the process along. With the band’s album, Run Fast, being released today and coinciding with the first official date of their national tour, the adopted-hometown show in Brooklyn was an important test. “I don’t know how my health is going to hold up for the tour, which is very short,” she said. “I’m terrified, but it’s part of being alive.”

The Julie Ruin/Facebook

Then there are the expectations of Hanna’s fans, not to mention her detractors. Now regarded by many as one of the most important musicians of her generation, one almost forgets what an incredibly divisive figure she was in the ’90s. While reviews for the new album, which was made available for streaming on NPR last week, have been relentlessly positive, her earlier work didn’t always garner such acclaim, and it’s jarring, considering her commandeering stage persona, to hear how much it affected her. “When you’re in your 20s, if somebody tells you you’re a bad person ... you take it to heart. You don’t think, no, actually, you’re an asshole who is just trying to put me down because of your own insecurity or your own problems,” she said. “Whether it be from the girl in the grocery store who walked up and called me a conceited bitch and told me I was ruining music or from being physically assaulted at a show, or from reviews that called me a fat, retarded slut—that person’s words, not mine—but any of those things, I really, really took them to heart.”

Thanks to the efforts of riot-grrrl and queercore frontrunners like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, the Butchies, and Team Dresch—and Joan Jett and Suzi Quatro before them—the musical landscape has seen some change. Hanna has also had time to process things in the intervening 20 years, which goes some way toward explaining the timing of her new project. In her groundbreaking treatise The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Shulamith Firestone posits that there was 50 years of ridicule—the inspiration behind Le Tigre’s “FYR”—following the introduction of what would come to be known as first-wave feminism, and that it takes this long for people to recognize and appreciate the work undertaken. Hanna believes it’s something closer to 20 years. “Part of the reason for the 20-year thing that happens in feminism is that, for me, I felt all the damage that happened in the movement or scene that I was a part of, I healed from a lot of that,” she said. “It takes a 20-year cycle to be able to deal with that damage sometimes, and it takes a 20-year cycle to be like, whoa, what we did was super fucking important. Look at all these other people who were influenced by what we did.”

At the height of her illness Hanna did two things to ensure that her body of work would not be forgotten: she gave her papers to New York University’s Fales Library and agreed to take part in a documentary about her life. Now, a few years later and on the path to recovery, she cringes at some of the rawer, more embarrassing material in there—having originally agreed to archive her zines, diaries, and letters because she thought she was dying—but ultimately recognizes that it’s just one half of the story. “I don’t want to be an historical action figure or treated like I’m dead. Like one of those people where they go, ‘Oh, isn’t she dead?’ And then I walk up, and they’re like, whoa,” she said, and added later, “I can’t really complain ... because I’ve made myself into an historical action figure. I was like, yeah, come on in! I did, I historicized myself when I was 44. But I still haven’t written the book. I’ll do that in my 60s. And then you’re going to hear the really crazy shit.”

In the meantime, however, punters shouldn’t expect her to take them by the hand for a stroll down memory lane. “You feel like people are looking at you like, I wanted the old Kathleen. Where’s the old Kathleen?” she said. “I felt that way in the beginning of Le Tigre. I felt people were like, ‘You’re not angry enough anymore.’ People still ask me that. ‘Are you still angry?’ I’m like, about what? About that question? Yes.”

Though proud of her past, Hanna is at pains to stress how much things have changed (“I don’t listen to ‘Rebel Girl,’ and I don’t want to write ‘Rebel Girl,’ and I don’t want to write ‘Deceptacon’ again”). She recalls wanting to serve an underserved audience in the early days, figuring out what was missing and writing songs in an attempt to fill that gap. But it eventually got to the point where it began to feel like a service industry. This time around, with the Julie Ruin, she’s not overthinking things quite so much. “I don’t need to do it again. It’s already there. If you want to hear Bikini Kill, go buy a Bikini Kill record. This is me at 44. Some of it’s looking back, some of it’s looking ahead, and some of it is in the present,” she said. “There’s definitely a song that’s very nostalgic about the ’90s, but also about what it is to be 40, what is it to think if you met yourself when you were 20, your 40-year-old self, would you like that person?”

I ask her if she would and she begins to cry. “I would love myself,” she said. “I would think I was the coolest person in the world. I really would, and I’m not afraid to say it ... I think that’s why when 14-year-old girls come up to me and say how much I mean to them, I get it. Not because I know I’m awesome, but because I’ve been through a lot, and I made it out the other side.”