Kathleen Hanna had a feminist awakening when she decided that she wanted to ditch the dancing and run wild in gym class.
"Before I was 10, the girls were only allowed to square dance inside together, while the boys were outside playing sports," recalls the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and now the Julie Ruin, perched on a couch in Midtown Manhattan. "I remember feeling angry, because I wanted to run. I really wanted to run. I don't know why I wanted to run; I just really wanted to run."
Eventually, Hanna's gym class made it co-ed, and Hanna and her pals were allowed to graduate from running in circles outside to the track. But she wasn't through yet.
"When I did start running against boys, I felt like I had to kick all of their asses. If I didn't, [I thought] in the back of my mind that my right to run -- my right to equality in physical education -- could get taken away."
That drive‚ and her distinctive voice, which is part playground taunt, part rally-stoking roar‚ helped make her former band Bikini Kill one of the most prominent outfits in the early '90s riot grrrl movement, which linked feminist thinking with raw punk power. More than two decades after the release of Bikini Kill's debut cassette, Hanna and her new band the Julie Ruin have released their first album, Run Fast (TJR Records). Full of determination and grit and enough dimestore New Wave touches‚ a squawking synth here, a cowbell there‚ to make it sound like a rent party in a slightly tweaked (and cheaper) version of New York, it splits the difference between dancing and running, brimming with life and vitality, even when its lyrics deal with harrowing matters.
Hanna started working on the Julie Ruin's music a few years ago, when she was recuperating from a chronic illness that cropped up while touring with her synth-disco trio Le Tigre that resulted in her feeling weak and ill. "I tried every single diet‚ gluten free, sugar free‚ all these different things, thinking maybe I had an allergy, going to specialist after specialist," she recalls. "Nothing helped."
As it turned out, Hanna was suffering from Lyme disease, although getting to the point where it was diagnosed was difficult.
The Julie Ruin's name is itself a reference to Hanna's 1997 solo album Julie Ruin; the group's first public performance was at a December 2010 show that paid tribute to Hanna's place at the leader of the girl-punk pack. That night included Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon reading Hanna's Riot Grrrl Manifesto‚ a fiery statement of purpose with declarations like "we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak"‚ and appearances by Hanna's former Le Tigre bandmate JD Samson and former Team Dresch singer Kaia Wilson, as well as younger artists who were clearly inspired by Hanna's trailblazing.
Run Fast has a looser feel than Bikini Kill's dogma-tinged party and is more giddy than Hanna's slinky downtown act Le Tigre. Hanna's former bandmate Kathi Wilcox plays bass and sings; other vocal counterpoints are added by keyboardist Kenny Melman, formerly of the downtown cabaret staples Kiki & Herb. Run Fast has a bit more of a cacophonous feel to it; Melman's contributions give Hanna's wail a new texture to bounce off (and, at times, back up), while the choruses contributed by Wilcox and guitarist Sara Landeau further fracture the atmosphere in a thrilling way.
While Hanna is pragmatic about people peeking in on the Julie Ruin's doings because of her and her bandmates' other endeavors‚ particularly in the current moment, when so much pop culture is focused on the '90s‚ Run Fast is in no way the product of a revival act.
"When we started Le Tigre [in 1998], it was with the burden of Bikini Kill on all of our backs," she recalls. "That burden was also a total blessing, because people cared. I'm not saying the Julie Ruin is going to be like Evel Knievel jumping the canyon again, but I do think I need to keep moving forward. Honoring the legacy of the past is what's keeping me moving forward."