Interview: Kathleen Hanna on The Raincoats and Building an Archive

Photographer Aliya Naumoff
November 17, 2010

There are not too many musicians who can also be considered demi-professors of academic theory, but Kathleen Hanna is one of them. Since her days in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, she’s been probably the biggest proponent, educator, and symbol of riot grrrl, a ideology that refocused feminism in a specifically insurgent but playful way, Emma Goldman filtered through Ari Up. And lately Hanna has been spending some time paying respect to other ladies and archiving that movement, donating her papers and tour fliers and set lists to NYU to establish The Riot Grrrl Collection at Fales Library. This Saturday night at MOMA, she’s DJing right before a performance by The Raincoats, a legendary post-punk band of girls from England’s 1970s scene. They’re getting together to celebrate MOMA’s exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, a selection of works by female artists. We spoke with her about The Raincoats, The Slits, Lesley Gore, and the importance of remembering the ladies.

When did you come across the Raincoats and what was your first love for them like?
I think my first knowledge of them was from Tobi Vail, the drummer in Bikini Kill. She made me a mixtape with one of their songs on it and I was like, Woah what is this?! It was the ’90s and I was listening to stuff like L7 and Lunachicks and Hole and it was just a totally different thing. Not, you know, standard verse chorus verse and it was weird. And it was women doing something weird which was even more remarkable because there’s that whole thing that you have to be really proficient at your instruments and sing a certain way and prove how good you are and what a good song writer you are. And The Raincoats just seem to turn that on its head like, We’re just going to do what we want. So that was definitely inspirational to all of us.

And there was a whole community of weirdo ladies, too. The Raincoats toured with Kleenex, there were The Slits. Was that something you thought about a lot when you were trying to develop a community in the early ’90s?
The Slits were really influential to us. You know, the sound of The Raincoats and the attitude of the Slits were really influential. We heard this interview with The Slits, where instead of answering boring questions in a standard way — questions like, What’s it like to be a woman in music? — they had a tape-recorder and they were playing back witch laughter noises. It was like, Actually I don’t have to speak back to total idiots in a rational manner, I can just use nonsense and make it entertaining for myself. So I started to think that using nonsense and non-linear thought is the way to deal with how messed up the world is.

Who else influenced you in the early days?
Lyrically, Jean Smith from Mecca Normal. She was really poetic and had feminist ideas at the core of a lot of her songs and she wasn’t ashamed of it. She wrote a song about street harassment and the male gaze, and she played at a feminist art gallery that my friend and I started. And when I saw her, I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold. But sonically I was into Black Flag and Rites of Spring.

Do you still listen to that kind of music? Do you always come back to it?
I listen to a lot of French pop and stuff. And I wonder if it’s like an age thing or what. But I like instrumental. I like a lot of Latin music. I think my taste has changed. I love this band Fool’s Gold. They reference Ethiopian music.

What kind of stuff are you going to DJ?
Well, I’m not exactly sure. If it was my party I’d probably be playing, you know, the Jackson 5 all night. It seems more like cocktail crowd. I’m gonna play a lot of stuff that I know influenced The Raincoats. And then a lot of ’80s punk, female fronted groups. I’ll play the Modettes and Delta 5. A little Bratmobile.

Do you fan out when you meet inspirations, people like The Raincoats?
Oh yeah totally. You know the people who I get most freaked out about are writers or performance artists. Kathy Acker was someone who was big to me when she was alive. And Karen Finley is really the person that I freaked out about. The other person that I freaked out about was Lesley Gore.

How did you get to meet Lesley Gore?
I was at a party at Eve Ensler’s house which, by the way, is painted all red with red furniture in it. And Gloria Steinem was there. Ahh, I’m totally making it sound like I am like hanging out with every famous feminist in New York, which is not true. Like, Yeah, like you know I was just like hanging out with her and Tina Brown and we’re having lunch. But no, I just went to this party that I was invited to by my friend Robin Morgan who’s a feminist writer. She had told me she’s really good friends with Lesley, but I didn’t think that she was going be at this party. And we were all kind of crammed next to each other and all of a sudden I turn around and I was face to face with her and I just started bawling.

You actually cried?
Oh my god, I didn’t just cry, I sobbed. And I did the whole thing, you’re trying to talk but you can’t talk and you have so much to say but you can’t say it and its like its really great to have those people.

Do you want talk a little about why those people, and the archive in general has become so important to you? The narrative of punk often includes killing your idols, but you seem happy to build an archive. You even donated your papers to NYU.
Well I mean, along side of being a punk I’m also a feminist. And I’ve read books like, How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Rush and even just reading a Guerilla Girls poster in the '80s was enough to scare the shit out of me. That everything we were going to do was going to get erased. Even in the ’90s, Babes in Toyland was a band that was hugely important to us and we were like, God if only we could play awesome shows like Babes in Toyland. And now, you know, I meet girls who have no idea who they are. And I watch them be erased. And the internet moves so fast that we could be in every single article today and then tomorrow nobody remembers who we are. It’s not so much that we want people to remember our names, but one of the most important things for me always was to fuck with the generation gap that makes it so that feminists from every era would have to reinvent the wheel. And a big part of what we were trying to do was create a continuum between the second wave to what became the third wave. So it wasn’t like, we hate the second wavers and they were anti-sex and we’re pro-sex. It was more like, we’re trying to recast what you’re doing through our punk rock colored glasses and make it make sense to us. So it could breathe new life into the ideas instead of destroying them. And I felt like that’s the whole thing with the riot grrrl archive. It’s not so much about nostalgia, it’s about leaving a record so that people can view things in the future. I think of punk rock as more of an idea than a genre, and I don’t see it as antithetical to the notion of building on things. I didn’t have a grandma who like, left me a trunk full of shit. I always wanted to leave that trunk full of shit for someone else, you know? Feminism created a family structure for me.

And the archive is alive. There are so many bands that are way older, and younger people go to their shows.
I think that’s great. I had an intern who was so excited when The Raincoats played last in New York. I had to go out of town so she bought me a button. And these girls are in their 20s. We started the Bikini Kill archive blog and I thought, Oh all these people in their late 30s early 40s are going to write in like, Oh I saw you guys play and blah blah blah and this crazy thing happened. But it’s all been like 13-21 year olds who are like, I just discovered your music because you sang on the Green Day record. And they’re being influenced by it as if it was happening today. I think that’s like The Raincoats. People got a hold of their music and thought, This is my jam, this is my band.

Is your vinyl collection really awesome?
I do have a good vinyl collection. I think I might just bring some 7” and my computer to DJ though and just go back and forth because I just don’t want to carry 12”. I would just have to bring so many and I’m into 7” right now.

Are you super obsessive about your record collection, too? Is it obsessively archived?
No, I’m a total slob when it comes to stuff like that. I mean, I listen to mp3s on my computer more than anything,

But how long did it take to make your archive for NYU and did you like the process?
It took like 6 months. I mean, I had everything, it was just a matter of organizing it and going through. Bikini Kill broke up in ’98 and it was 2009 or 2008 when I started working on it. So that’s 10 years and I hadn’t looked at any of that stuff. I had my intern Kate help me and sort through everything and I just sat in my office and looked through every piece of paper and had to make decisions. I did a lot of writing that I never showed anybody back then. About what I thought about the scene or what was going on within riot grrrl. That seemed too inflammatory at the time, but now I included all of that. But I’m happy it’s for scholars, not everyone in the world. The fact that the collection is meant to be viewed as a whole, you have to sign a piece of paper saying you’re not going to put it on the internet, you can’t go in there with chocolate or BBQ sauce all over your hands.

It’s interesting that you say you want scholars to see it.
I mean I’ve been in that same position too, like even in the 90’s. We were all reading bell hooks and her whole thing was being this super smart interesting intellectual who wrote books that most anyone could understand. And I think that we learned a lot from her. And it was like, How do I turn this into a punk song? And for us, that really addressed the question of theory versus practice. That was how we bridged that gap and how we answered those questions for ourselves. And you know, my sister and me were the first generation in my family to like, go to and finish college. So I always felt like it was like my duty to make sure that people who didn’t necessarily get to go to college, which was an amazing experience for me and I always felt lucky I got to go, that I could share. And not to dumb them down, but to put them out there for people that weren’t academics. Just because you’re not an academic doesn’t mean you’re a dumbass.

Interview: Kathleen Hanna on The Raincoats and Building an Archive