Interview: Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill

June 12, 2013

Criss-crossing the country in a shitty van for seven years to play shows at shitty punk venues, only so many people could have ever actually seen Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox and the rest of their band Bikini Kill live. But as the keystone band for the riot grrrl movement, a country-wide network of punk rock-inspired youths who formed all-girls bands, made zines and took up feminist causes, Bikini Kill's influence is felt more and more even after the band broke up in 1997 as riot grrrl itself has taken on a life of its own and become its own self-sustaining force. In response to the increasing and incessant interest in Bikini Kill, the band has been revisiting its history lately, donating its papers to the NYU library, starting its own record label to re-release their old albums, taking part in a documentary about Hanna called The Punk Singer and reforming Hanna's 1990s solo side project, Julie Ruin. At the launch for Bikini Kill's new capsule collection with online retailer VFILES, coinciding with the release of a new book about the riot grrrl movement, we caught up with Kathleen Hanna and Wilcox, who also plays in The Julie Ruin, for a trip down memory lane. Check out our interview below, and take a listen to the first single, "Oh Come On," from The Julie Ruin's forthcoming album, Run Fast.

Stream: The Julie Ruin, "Oh Come On"

For a while you guys didn’t talk much about Bikini Kill and riot grrrl; recently, though, you both seem interested in bringing it up again. Why now? WILCOX: We’ve had enough time to process it. There’s been enough distance. You have to think about it for ten or twenty years and then you know how you feel about it. Also, Kathleen was in Le Tigre, so people were asking about that. HANNA: It was really exciting that Le Tigre became its own entity—like really separate—and that we had our own fans. Some Bikini Kill fans kind of came to Le Tigre, but there were a lot of people who only knew Le Tigre and then found out about Bikini Kill later. But, you know, the '90s revival is coming back, so people want to talk to us. And we got our whole catalogue back from Kill Rock Stars and started our own record label, so we’ve been really revisiting that stuff, like digging up practice tapes, the demos we’re gonna release and a bunch of new things. It feels like the right time, but also, we’ve always wanted to do it ourselves, and not be going through our label. Finally, we’re grownups and we can do that.

I want to ask you about being grownups, since all of this interest is happening now. What's it like to look at the girl you were at 20, 21 and have it be impactful to people? HANNA: I guess I’m really happy that we chose the right medium. Kathy was a filmmaker, I was a visual artist—we really could have gone in any direction, and we kind of just happenstance-style ended up in a band, and being in a band is such a great medium. It’s really so tied to youth culture. The thing that makes me most proud when I look back at those pictures or I think about those times, is like when I was in high school, there were groups—like the punks or the new wavers or the Jim Morrison kids or the jocks who were into U2—but there was nothing for girls. I know there were girls who became friends because they listened to Bikini Kill and they had Bikini Kill patches on their jackets, and to think we had anything to do with leading young girls to feminism makes me feel super happy. So when I see those pictures and stuff I feel really happy, you know. And I was so insecure at the time, but I look at the pictures and I’m like, “Oh, that’s such a cool outfit! Why was I insecure?”

Your impact just seems to gain steam over time. HANNA: It feels really great that we did something that has legs. It feels really great that like, you know, people are discovering it for the first time and saying, “This is mine. This is my thing and it belongs to me.'" I remember the first time I saw girls singing along to the lyrics: we were in Rhode Island, and there were girls in the front row singing the lyrics and they were singing them like they wrote them themselves. And I was so touched. But I don’t think either of us sit around and pontificate about it, cause that would make you crazy. WILCOX: We don't just pat ourselves on the back and say “Good job!" I think it’s important that people stay politically aware and politically involved.

Do you guys have a favorite Bikini Kill moment from all time? HANNA: Oh god, no! [Laughs] It was really hard. You know, it was violent and angry a lot of the time. WILCOX: That was the thing about Bikini Kill: it was a really hard band to be in at the time. I mean, it’s not like it was never fun—it was sometimes fun—but the ratio of fun to extreme not-fun wasn’t that great. Looking back on it, that's one of the things I’m so glad about—that what people are getting out of the band now is so positive. But our experience being in it was totally different. And it’s not really relevant, what our experience was. I mean, until we go to write our memoirs, it doesn’t really matter what our experience was. It’s just cool that people are getting the cool part. I don’t know.

Looking back, is the state of the world and it's treatment of women better than it was when you first started? HANNA: Well, it’s scary because there’s still a constant assault on women’s reproductive rights. You know, gays and lesbians aren’t allowed to marry, there’s a lot of transgender people who are being denied their rights—there’s still a lot of really bad things. But then there’s Rachel Maddow on TV, which wouldn’t have happened twenty years ago, you know what I mean? And having gay marriage be even on the national radar, and how many kids I meet being on tour with Le Tigre who are like, I started a gay/straight alliance at my school. When we were in high school, that just wasn’t even a thing that ever happened. I think when I was younger and when we were in the band, I focused a lot on what was fucked up, and I didn’t really realize that things in this country change very, very quickly. But progress isn’t always linear, and things like the Tea Party crop up and are really, really dangerous.

A lot of people talk to you guys about politics obviously, but I think sometimes people forget to mention how you guys were a crushing band. How do you guys feel like you stand up as a punk band? HANNA: That’s actually a great question, because since we’ve been doing the record label, we’ve had to release practice tapes and stuff, and it’s just fun to hear us change and experiment. And in our hearts, that's what we were trying to do a bit—just experiment. Even listening to like a bunch of live stuff and like weird spoken word that I used to do in between songs... WILCOX: That’s the thing that nobody knows: in the early days, Kathleen would do just impromptu fucking spoken word. She wouldn’t tell us. She’d just start going, and we’d just kind of wait until it was over, and then be like, Okay, I guess we’re doing the next song now. HANNA: And then after, it would be really quiet backstage and they’d be kind of like, Hey, guess what? You could have actually mentioned that you were going to do fucking spoken word, because we just had to stand there and do nothing. WILCOX: Or you’d be like, I’m going to do bass on a song now. HANNA: I still can’t believe I did that shit, but I always kind of considered myself a feminist performance artist who was performing as someone in a band. Which really freed me up to do whatever I wanted on stage.

Seems like part of the mission of Bikini Kill was to knock the things you hated. What did you hate when you started the band? HANNA: Oh my god! So much. The band is a snapshot of the things of the era we hated. WILCOX: We hated so much. When we started it, everybody was so angry. We really hated Twin Peaks, so we had this song “Fuck Twin Peaks!” We lived in this apartment building where everybody would have these Twin Peaks parties and bake a lasagna. HANNA: And they didn’t invite us! WILCOX: Well, they didn’t invite us, but we wouldn’t have gone anyway, because we were just like anti the whole thing. HANNA: Well, we were like, Oh, it’s based on a dead girl. That’s so fucked up. It’s based on a beautiful dead girl. And then one night in particular, some people were having their Twin Peaks party and a certain person that was in Bikini Kill went out on their roof and ripped out the cable. And then you could hear, in the apartment, everyone go “Ohhhhhh!” [Laughs]

Are you guys as angry and oppositional as you've always been? WILCOX: Oppositional personality disorder. [Laughs] HANNA: I don’t know. I feel like I try to focus more on the positive now, but I get so pissed off. There were these fucking guys, I was in New Jersey, and they had these posters of Obama with a Hitler mustache on it. We went to get eggs, my husband and I, because we were going to egg them, and we went back and they were gone. I mean, I was happy they were gone, but at the same time, I just get so pissed! I get so pissed about people who are anti-abortion and bring their children with them to protests. I just think that’s so despicable. Like, if you have that political view, that’s fine, but to bring a child with you and be holding a sign of some fucked-up dead baby fetus kind of thing? So yea, I feel like the same shit happens now that did then, where I’m like, It’s 2013. What the fuck?

For me, at the basis of Bikini Kill is a really urgent need to communicate. What is it that you feel like you've spent your life trying to communicate? HANNA: I guess just that, if you’re an artist, that’s really important. You can change culture from the ground up. You don’t have to be a politician who’s actually changing legislation, although if you want to do that, please, please, please do. But if you’re a creative person and you’re an artist, that’s a serious thing. It’s not bullshit. You can actually make a huge difference. And, like, if you like what you’re doing, that’s enough. You don’t have to have the rest of the world liking it. And if people hate it, you’re on the right track.

Interview: Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill