Hot Topics: The Julie Ruin's Kathleen Hanna

With her health restored, Kathleen Hanna spoke to us about the return of The Julie Ruin. But with our interview taking place just days after the tragic events in Orlando, and the outcry over the Brock Turner sentencing, music was – for once – sidelined

Feature by Gary Kaill | 07 Jul 2016
  • The Julie Ruin

“Oh, I don’t know where to start,” says Kathleen Hanna. “All those letters of support – I couldn’t even make it through them. I have no doubt as to how this happened after reading the parents’ letters. How many other excuses have they made for this kid to get to excusing him for rape? I know that if it was my kid, I’d want him prosecuted, despite my best efforts to raise him correctly.”

She pauses, exasperated. “I mean, the name Brock – it just makes him sound like this ridiculous rich, white guy. You could not have a better poster child for date rape.” Another pause. “Though I don’t know how you go on a date with someone when they’re unconscious.”

It’s mid-June and Kathleen Hanna is at home in New York. It’s two weeks since Stanford freshman Brock Turner was sentenced to just six months in jail for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman. The judge in the case, Aaron Persky, ignored the jury and chose to believe Turner’s assertion that his victim gave consent. In her moving 7,000-word statement to the court during sentencing, the victim addressed Turner and began: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.” And she ended with: “To girls everywhere, I am with you.”

An online petition to remove Persky from his position has received over a million signatures. Hanna is incensed. “I really think it has to do with little more than white men and their sense of entitlement. And when they don’t get what they want, they just start blaming everyone around them because they don’t know how to take personal responsibility. Which is exactly what happened here.”

Hanna is at the start of a promotional campaign for the second album by her band The Julie Ruin, the excellent Hit Reset. Now largely recovered from the lengthy bout of Lyme disease that saw her withdraw from public performance in 2005, and subsequently cut short touring for the band’s debut in 2014, the Bikini Kill and Le Tigre founder is looking forward to promoting the new record. But events have overtaken us, and cruelly.

Orlando, guns and homophobia

Just three days before we speak, Omar Hateen had walked into Orlando nightclub Pulse – a long-standing fixture of the local LGBT scene – and shot and killed 49 people. The shock waves are still reverberating. “My heart is just absolutely broken,” says Hanna. “Watching it all unfold on the news and watching the whole ‘now we’re going to call it terrorism’ and then ‘now we’re going to call it a hate crime’ – the fact is, someone walked into a bar and murdered 49 members of the LGBT community, and we need to at least acknowledge that this wasn’t a random event.

“This was a hate crime on a massive scale,” she continues. “Whether it’s a domestic thing because he was American – and I don’t even know if he religiously practised or not but we’ll throw in the ISIS thing, which is bullshit, right, to divert attention? I mean, the day before, a female singer was shot in Orlando [The Voice contestant, Cristina Grimmie, was killed during an autograph session after a show] as well. People not being allowed to see their partners and their friends in the hospital because they weren’t married to them. Gay people not allowed to give blood. Here’s a moment when everybody wants to help – not just members of the LGBT community, but everyone. Jesus Christ – what a slap in the face to have someone come down and want to give their blood to people in hospital and to then be rejected because you’re gay.

“As you know, places where marginalised people meet are few and far between, and I hate the fact that gay people, trans people, lesbians, every time they go to a bar, they have to look over their shoulder. Cos that’s what this kind of shit does. It makes you scared to live your life. It’s really, really sad and it’s been hard not to think about it every second.”

(Continues below)

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Orlando, of course, is merely the latest in a series of gun-related murders in the US. “Absolutely,” continues Hanna. “We just had a kid walk into a church and murder a bunch of people [white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine church-goers in Charleston last year]. This is ongoing in our country. My mother’s partner of 40 years was shot in Arizona at a ‘Congress on Your Corner’ event where Gabby Giffords was shot. [Democrat Giffords survived an assassination attempt by Jared Loughner in Tucson in 2011, which saw six others die]. And he was at Kent State in 1970!

“So we’re starting to see people and families who’ve experienced more than just one of these shootings. That’s insane. And the thing that I don’t want to get distracted from is: gay bashing and hate crimes happen every day. The day to day slowburn of hostility, of racism and sexism and homophobia – people are being murdered. And we’re supposed to be a beacon of freedom?”

With the US still clinging on to its right to bear arms, it makes you wonder what it would actually take to finally prick the broader public consciousness. “Oh, seriously, I can’t imagine going into an old people’s home and killing 200 people being enough. It’s just a lot of talk and nobody changes anything. People are dying. Why wouldn’t you, as a gun manufacturer, be willing to take a hit and be cool, to help this not happen any more? I don’t get it, apart from the fact that we live in a greedy, capitalist culture. I much prefer socialism and I much prefer being in Britain, where there are barely any guns.”

Sexism in the music industry

We explore it further, and Hanna’s clear-sighted reason is, as ever, inarguable. But there is new music to talk about and we move on. A quarter-century since she began her musical career, Hanna is still making music that is challenging and invigorating. Hit Reset smartly mixes personal confession with unflinching social commentary. A highlight is Mr So and So, a pointed take-down of the shark-eyed, camera-toting gig perv (a permanent fixture on the front barrier of any female act’s show these days).

“Oh yeah. Disgusting. I hate that,” agrees Hanna. “But it’s not just the sleazy guy at the show, it’s all the underhanded compliments. You know, ‘You play good for a girl.’ So obvious. And situations where the guy comes backstage with his girlfriend but she doesn’t talk and he tells me she’s a fan.” You get that? “Yeah! And the guy never says he’s a fan. ‘Can you autograph this so she’ll be impressed and know I met you?’ This happens so many times and I’m sure many of these guys have good intentions but so often, they do patronise me. Kind of patting me on the head and like, ‘It’s really nice what you’re doing.’”

“Festivals, too. I understand that we’re not a huge band but I’m always the last person invited to a panel discussion. At the last minute. Because they realise there are no women on the panel. Or no feminists on the panel. No one talks about sexual harassment in the work place, either, and then during ‘women’s month’, women get to go to sexual harassment training and the guys get to sit at their desks while we’re told not to wear certain clothes. I hear these stories all the time. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, so I’ve seen it a thousand times. These are experiences female musicians have been having forever."

WIth months of touring to come, Hanna and her band arrive here in December. For her devout UK audience, a full Julie Ruin tour can't come soon enough. But still, selflessness lies at the heart of her art. "Well, I'm a lot better now, so I'm just working to get strong for the tour," she says. "You know, writing songs about rape and murder and domestic violence – really fun stuff like that – is one thing, but I still haven’t dealt with much of my childhood, which was pretty abusive and awful. So, I just wanted to tell the truth on this record. I’m sick of hiding stuff, being made to feel that it’s not proper dinner conversation. Because I think there are more people who might relate to my life, and growing up with an abusive father, than who grew up in a totally happy, safe, loving family. And that's what's really important."

Hit Reset is released via Hardly Art on 8 Jul. The Julie Ruin play Manchester Gorilla on 4 Dec; Leeds Brudenell Social Club on 5 Dec and Glasgow Art School on 6 Dec