Kathi Wilcox: The Culture Brats Interview

During the late eighties and early nineties, you probably noticed the early rumblings of DIY culture fused with practical feminism that eventually turned into what would come to be known as Riot grrrl. Back then, any number of bands took credit for or claimed association with the movement but after the smoke had cleared, there wasn't much doubt left about who was left standing in the shelled-out remains of the initial explosion: the seminal Bikini Kill.

They were the first across a dangerous musical threshold and lay down on a few punk landmines so that other women could follow suit and walk through a little less frightened. Over the years, band members and friends collaborated, stayed active, played under different monikers, and lived their lives fully and artistically.

Recently, longtime friends and Bikini Kill bandmates Kathi Wilcox and Kathleen Hanna reformed the once experimental The Julie Ruin (a side project that originated with Hanna some years ago), recorded the soon-to-be-released album Run Fast, and got ready to go on a national tour. We spoke with Kathi recently about things past and a future that looks more than rosy.

Hey Kathi, how are you today?
Good how are you?

We are here in Washington DC, and you all were on NPR this morning!
Yeah, I know! They put it up last night. We just got finished watching the VMAs and I was just checking online and Kenny from my band was like, "Oh my god, they put it up early." Because we knew they were going to put it up but they went and did it early. Yeah, super exciting.

So you guys have the new full length release planned for September 3rd, Run Fast, and the first ever national tour with The Julie Ruin with a stop here in DC at our beloved Black Cat on September 7th. There are a lot of people really looking forward to this, longtime Bikini Kill fans . I've heard the single and the album and while the old songs you did in Bikini Kill still really hold up after all this time, the new material is fresh and packs a great punch. It's great. Did you think the impact of the older stuff would remain so fresh in the minds of the people who were around for Bikini Kill and that the new material would keep attracting so many new young fans?
I have to tell you that I'm totally surprised. We have only played two full-length shows so far and it has been a lot of young people, but more surprisingly it's just when I do interviews or when I go out and people come up and they say, you know, not that they're necessarily Julie Ruin fans but that they're Bikini Kill fans and they're fourteen and they're kind of like "We just found out about it." Kathleen keeps saying this in interviews but I'm experiencing the same thing. It's like they age through it and there's always a new generation of people that find out about it. And I don't know if it's Rock Camp For Girls or maybe it just fills a void that girls kind of need or something, but I am surprised. Also, I'm happy. I'm happy that girls are finding it and feeling it and relating to it that strongly. And while I'm happy, I'm also kind of bummed because maybe that means things haven't changed very much in this other way, that girls are still experiencing all the same stuff that we were when we were girls, so that might be one reason that they are relating to it.

The Julie Ruin is a resurrected solo project of Kathleen's. I remember when I first heard of it. Back then there was so much in the mix: Le Tigre, the stuff you were doing like The Casual Dots, The Frumpies, and of course we watched Pancake Mountain. So I think the continued interest in what you guys do is cumulative. You are always in something we are listening to.
I agree. It's awesome and it feels like a family thing. This band kind of feels like a family even though I hadn't met them before. They were all people Kathleen had known and it does feel like our past lives have kind of converged in this way that just makes sense. It is true that people that come to the shows, they were into The Casual Dots and some were into Julie Ruin and others were into Bikini Kill or Le Tigre, but it all kind of feeds into this family feel. I really do feel that when we go play these shows. It's like when I meet people, they feel like family to me.

When Run Fast is released on September 3rd, it will be via the band's own TJR Records with distribution handled by DC's own Dischord.
Which ALSO feels like family.

Dischord is so well loved and respected here, they've given us a lot of great music over the years.
Bikini Kill used to live in Mt. Pleasant DC way back when.

Really? That's where I live. What street?
We lived on 19th and Park.

That is right near my house.
We lived there way back in '92. Do you remember when there was the shotgun stalker and then there was the guy who went around stabbing people? It was a crazy neighborhood.

Good times!
Yeah, good times. We were like, "Okay, just stay in the house. Lock the door."

You wouldn't believe it now. A changed place, this is.
Yeah, I know. I've been there recently we visited Ian. My husband is in Fugazi, so we visit Ian all the time and it's totally different. I loved the neighborhood back in the 90s but now...

Yeah, property values have shot up since then.
It's crazy.

So I was speaking to a young group of fans recently and we were talking a little bit about how sometimes being out front back in the day wasn't always a pleasant experience for you guys on stage. You took some knocks. The whole scene and aesthetic has had to morph into something less confrontational and probably less stressful for you out in front of the crowds. Less a battle and more adoration. Do you ever miss the raw terror of the early days?
I don't miss it. I mean, I have to tell you that it wasn't a thing, we're all a battle zone or anything like that. I loved being in Bikini Kill, I really did and I loved our shows even though they were really stressful and they sometimes felt well, violent or whatever. That part of it I didn't love. But I definitely don't miss the feeling of not knowing if something terrible is going to happen. After so many shows, it would get to the point where we were sort of... Well, we didn't have a bouncer or a manager or someone onstage. We didn't have anybody. It was just us, right, and we were in our early twenties. So it really was pretty scary to go on tour and you just didn't know what was going to happen. You're kind of looking out at the crowd and thinking, "Okay is someone going to try and jump up and attack Kathleen or something?" It wasn't like you were looking for problems in the audience, but like the secret service you would scan the crowd and you'd pick up on stuff like "That guy, you can tell by the look on his face that he's got something going on, and I'm going to keep my eye on that guy." Because stuff like that just happened and partly it was the way we presented ourselves. If you call yourself a punk band and you go on tour as a punk band, you attract people who are punks and some people think that means you have to get violent at shows. There are other people who just couldn't deal with our message, if you want to call it that. They couldn't deal with what we were putting out there and so that was part of it to. It definitely had its tense moments. I do not miss that part of it. I do love that kind of raw energy, that electric crackle that you feel at shows like that. But this band has only played two shows so I really don't know what to expect. The two shows we did play were great and we got this really positive response from the audience. It didn't feel like anyone was going to leap up onstage and attack Kathleen with a chain, which was good.

Chain at your head show in LA, scary story.
That was bad. That kind of "you never know what's going to happen," I don't miss it. Ultimately, I don't.

You talk about watching the VMAs last night and I had to watch that and it made me sad. I am old enough to say I went to the very first one, with Bette Midler no less. Now I watch and I'm like, "What's the point?"
That's what we thought. It looks like the Oscars or something, it's so overblown. I'm like, "Is this MTV?" Not like I even know what that means any more to be MTV because they don't even show videos. Isn't it supposed to have some kind of cultural edge, something? It's supposed to appeal to young people in some way. It just seemed so super pageantry, I don't even know what it was. Overblown and super boring at the same time.

The safe processed packaging of the whole thing, I wonder if the better production values and the mega marketing of the whole thing, is it worth it for these artists? I spent more time talking about the dirty Chuck E. Cheese furry bathing suit that kid was wearing than anything else. Well, maybe I should call it an angry Chuck E. Cheese.
You don't want to offend any Chuck E. Cheese executives.

I'll get fired.
You'll lose that Chuck E. Cheese sponsorship.

The new album is great and I feel like the live shows are going to reflect the hunger for this type of music. It's got punch. People are looking for this type of thing which fuels the demand for the shows. There is huge buzz here in DC.
Cool, I'm really excited to play DC. I mean, I lived there for twelve years and Bikini Kill lived there during our first and most formative period of time, I would say. I have massive love in my heart for DC, it feels like home to me in a big way. Even thought I live in New York now, I feel like DC is always going to be my home away from home.

Now we are talking twenty years between Bikini Kill and The Julie Ruin, which seems like an impossible number to associate with music and people that seem like they happened just yesterday. The exposure you got back then was huge and I've always thought that the legend of those days or yore sometimes eclipse the actual reality of the band and what it was like being in the glare of a certain spotlight. Your relationship with the music magazines and other promotional type medium seemed adversarial at times. Maybe not what you wanted back then but it happened. Do you just accept that from this platform you can reach more people and do more things?
You mean now or in Bikini Kill?

Now. I guess because back then it seemed like something you tried to reject.
Back then there were lots of reasons we weren't into it. The culture was totally different then and the way that the major labels were coming in and not so much wrecking scenes, but we felt like we were kind of under siege a little bit and so we were really skittish about engaging with culture on that level. It also wasn't our scene, we were just into fanzines and it felt more local to us. We would go tour and that was the way that we were getting our message out. There was no internet, you know what I mean? It was sort of like, you either did your thing or you talked to Spin magazine and there wasn't a lot of in between. Now I feel like it's really different, the scene is different and I think we feel a lot more in control of it. The people that we're picking and choosing the interviews we do with, we kind of feel like the people that we talk to get it a little bit more. Back then we would do interviews and they would write these articles that were so bizarre and kind of sensational and talking about what we were wearing but in this really kind of pervy way. It totally missed the whole point of our band and so we were just like, "Fuck it, there's no point in doing this." We didn't see any point to it and that's why we didn't do them but now I feel like since that band has happened and since that whole media thing happened, people have thought about it and now we get to approach it like "This is what we're doing." That's what we did and this is what we're doing now, it just seems so much more straightforward.

Having more control is probably the key.

Can you tell me a little bit about TJR Records?
It's exciting. We are doing this whole thing ourselves. I mean, it started out Kathleen really wanted to put this record out ourselves. She didn't want to be on a major label, she didn't even want any of that. We thought about being on an independent label but quite honestly their aren't very many independent labels left. And at this point we figured there was no real point in being on a label if you can do it all yourself and we felt we were in a really good position to do that ourselves and we started the record label and we're doing it. Also, we were sort of taking the lead from Bikini Kill, because we took back all our records from Kill Rock Stars and started our own record label to re release our material so we could have control of it. You realize, "Wow, we can totally do this. We are at a point now where with the internet and digital music and everything where this is completely doable so we should do it."

The whole DIY mindset is really taking off due to the state of the music business, which is basically in shambles.
The upside of that situation is that if you have a little bit of capital at your disposal, you don't even need that much money if you record everything digitally. Completely doable now for artists to put out their own music if they want to. It's a lot of work, but you definitely can do it. You always could do it, but back then it was a lot more work and it cost a lot more money and you needed more resources and know-how. It seems like now, with the way that you can release music online, it's easier.

Everybody has that studio in the basement now.

We're excited to see you guys come to DC in a few days. Take care.
We're excited too. See you.

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