BUST's Oct/Nov 2013 issue hits the stands today featuring the one-and-only Kim Gordon and her interview with Kathleen Hanna. Hanna, the riot grrrl rockstar who kicked off third-wave feminism, talks with Sonic Youth's front woman, Gordon, about how it feels to be an icon at the young age of 44.
In the issue we only gave you a sneak peek at the interview, below we have the unedited and extended version! Enjoy!
KG: I was trying to remember what year I first saw Bikini Kill. I think it was 1990? It was after [my band Sonic Youth] did dates with STP and Nirvana. We had just played in Seattle or something we were driving through and we knew you guys were playing.
KH: You saw us in Olympia?
KG: I think so.
KH: That’s crazy! ‘Cause I feel like if you were to come to Olympia, like, the world would have stopped. Everybody would have been like, “Oh my God!”
KG: I think we were just driving through or something. What year did the first riot grrrl ’zine come out?
KH: When the band started [in 1990] we made our first ’zine and then the second ’zine happened right before we moved to D.C., I think in ’91. Then we moved to D.C. and that’s when Molly [Neuman] and Allison [Wolfe] started the Riot Grrrl ’zine, which was this teeny tiny three-page thing. Tobi [Vail] and I wrote some stuff for it and then Allison and I went around and got people to come to a consciousness-raising meeting. That was all in D.C. Then we moved back to Olympia in ‘93.
KG: Oh OK. So maybe we didn’t see you in Olympia, because I know I saw the ’zines before I saw you guys play. And now you’ve donated your whole riot grrrl collection of ’zines and artifacts to the Fales Library at NYU! That’s pretty amazing, to be so young and already have your archive installed in a major, major institution. That’s an accomplishment.
KH: It was kind of ballsy actually. I saw that Richard Hell’s stuff was there and I was like, “If Richard Hell’s stuff is there then my stuff should be in there.” And then my friend got a job there and called me and was like, “Hey, do you want your shit in here?” And I was like, “Yeah!”So I gave them all the master copies of the Bikini Kill ’zine and a ’zine I wrote about Evan Dando and one I wrote about addiction. Plus I gave them a bunch of my writing that never came out cause I was too freaked out about it.
KG: Stuff you wrote after college?
KH: Stuff I was writing after I was in Bikini Kill that I wasn’t putting out because everybody, like, got really critical about every single thing we wrote and everything we did. I just couldn’t put that writing out because it felt too raw, and riot grrrl was really disintegrating in a bad way, I thought. I mean, I wasn’t even that much a part of it because I was on tour all the time but there was just a lot of, like, white girls fighting about who was more or less racist and it was gross. There were also some girls in the scene, when we moved back to Olympia, who were using language about sexual assault and domestic violence in ways that were really reprehensible. You know, saying that somebody bumping into them at a show was, like, assault. If you’ve really experienced assault, that’s pretty maddening. There was just all this language that women had created—like the phrase “domestic violence”—in the generations before I came of consciousness as a feminist, language that freed so many people. And to see [that language] become the bars of a new cage was really frustrating and I felt like I couldn’t talk about it because it would be fodder for the people who talked about “political correctness.” I don’t know if a lot of people know that that phrase was actually created in a Republican think tank as a way to dismantle liberalism, and yet, we all use it. But yeah, it was a really frustrating time, and I have a lot of writings I did about that.
KG: So nobody’s ever put out a book of your writings?
KH: No. But there’s an anthology that just came out called The Riot Grrrl Collection and I’m really proud to be involved with that because it contains critique. It’s not just a celebration of “oh riot grrrl was so great!” There are also women in there who are like, “I don’t feel included in this” and “here’s my issues.” Reading that book, I could tell [when things were] coming from a personal place, and it can end up being really political. Toby is amazing at that. She had this song where she sang, “I stopped talking an hour ago. I stopped talking an hour ago” and it was like, exactly—that’s what it feels like being in a room of guys who are talking about music in a way that feels totally exclusive.
KG: There’s also a documentary coming out about you, The Punk Singer. How does it feel to have a documentary? I mean, there’s a certain amount of trust that you have to give over to somebody who’s gonna make a movie about you.
KH: It’s never easy when someone says they want to film you. It means a lot of work for you too. But even more a part of it was the fact that I thought I was totally dying….
KG: Oh wow
KH: Because I have this illness and it was getting progressively worse. Every month I kept being told that I had one of five things. I would go to specialists and they were like, “No, you don’t have celiac”—which is what I wanted it to be—and then I was told I had mild Crohn’s disease, but I didn’t have the symptoms of that, and then the other three they thought I might have were MS, lupus, or progressive degenerative arthritis, so it didn’t look good for me at the time. My future didn’t look sunny so I felt like I kind of had to wrap things up. If the illness hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have done the documentary, to be perfectly honest. Because, you know, that’s something you do when you’re like 70. Someone takes all the archival footage of you….
KG: Well, you have been doing a lot of summing up. I mean, the writing and archiving at the Fales….
KH: Yeah. I finally found out I have Lyme disease and started getting treated after two of the worst years of my life. Now I have good days and bad days, but I can talk, I can walk. Things are so much better for me. When you think you’re…I feel so dramatic, or like people are totally going to roll their eyes when I’m like, “I thought I was dying” but when you think you’re dying you really do want to wrap stuff up so you don’t leave shit for your friends to do. I was talking to a friend about how people we knew who had AIDS before the cocktail were going out and maxing out their credit cards and then the cocktail showed up and they were like, “Oh no! I have to pay this off! Thank God I’m alive, but I have to pay off all these credit card debts!” And I kind of feel like that happened to me. I felt like, “Oh I’m dying, I have to get the archive done and I have to be in this movie, and I have to do one more record,” and then I lived.
KG: Now you have lots of stuff to do! Lots of promo.
KH: Yeah. And also, being historicized when you’re 44 is totally bizarre. As is being so associated with the ’90s. I feel like, with Sonic Youth, you guys were really able to stand the test of time. I would never associate your band with a specific time period. But I am associated with the ’90s in such a big way, it’s really weird to be historicized and only be 44. I’m like, “I’m still making work everybody!”
KG: I’m amazed by how you transitioned out of being associated with Bikini Kill, because riot grrrl was such a big movement. But you were able, in a really mature way, to go on to Julie Ruin and to Le Tigre and now to Julie Ruin again. It must have felt like an incredible mantle or burden at some point to not be overshadowed by riot grrrl.
KH: That was what the Julie Ruin record did for me, the first one—the solo record. I just put somebody else’s name on it, made what I had in my heart, and didn’t over think it.
KG: That’s the key, I guess. Not over thinking.
KH: Yeah. I feel like I got to this point with Bikini Kill where I was trying to do the right thing as a guilty, liberal, white, middle-class woman with a certain amount of privilege. And it just started getting, like, write a fucking song and let people critique it and let it be what it is because you just have to stick your neck out and see what happens and not be so freaked out. I was so scared putting that [first Julie Ruin] record out because it felt so vulnerable. I literally shoved it under the door of my label Kill Rock Stars with a note that read, “Here’s my new record,” and then drove out of town.
KG: So, on the new Julie Ruin record, how did the song writing process go?
KH: It started with me bringing stuff in, like bringing in a loop or a bass line or something, and I would sing over it. I would have a vocal melody idea and then I would give it to the band and they would change it, expand upon it, so it was really collaborative. There was a song that we tried to sell to Christina Aguilera that she rejected that we put on the record. It’s called “Just My Kind.”
KG: Do people always ask you what’s its like to be an icon? Is that your most hated question?
KH: Do people always ask you that? Is that your most hated question?
KG: It’s not my most hated question, but it falls under the category of I don’t know how to respond. I mean, I often wonder, What does that mean? Or I wonder if I’ve just been ignoring the fact that maybe people do look at me in a different way then I think of myself. Like, I just ignore all of that. Ignore, ignore, ignore.
KH: You totally do.
KG: But maybe I should be more aware of acting….
KH: Maybe you should act more like Kim Gordon? [laughs]
KH: Well, when we hang out, you’re completely unaware that you’re “Kim Gordon.” Like, people will be circling you and trying to get closer to you and you never notice. On one hand, it’s really cool, but on the other hand I worry about your safety. Not like someone will hurt you, but just, like, someone might sit down and start saying fucked up shit just to get your attention. Does that ever happen to you?
KG: Yeah, sure, I guess. But not very often. I always feel like that more when I’m with you. Women always want to take an aggressive edge with you. You’re a much purer icon [laughs].
KH: The icon question, it’s impossible. When I moved to New York and I was on the bottom and totally broke, I would get interviewed for stuff and people would say, “Oh, you’re such an icon!” And I would be like, I’m broke. I’m eating oatmeal every day. This is totally fucked up. And then one day after Le Tigre started, I had a total nervous breakdown outside of Dean and Deluca on Broadway. We were walking across the street, and it was when Flava Flav had that reality show that was really bad and made him look like he was on drugs or something. I was such a big Public Enemy fan that seeing that show was really sad and depressing. So I was walking across the street having a nervous breakdown, and I was yelling, “I’m a fucking clown! I’m the Flava Flav of riot grrrl! I’m ridiculous! I’ll never do anything again!” People on the street thought I was totally crazy. But I was like, “Why am I broke? This is crazy. I don’t have any money and everybody is telling me what an icon I am. How do people do this? How do you turn it into, like, actually being able to support yourself? Because everybody thinks that if you’re an icon you have a wheelbarrow full of gold. Where’s my wheelbarrow?” But I just kept chugging along and eventually earned a living from Le Tigre. We stopped playing $5 shows and started playing $12 shows, and I deserve it, I’m a good enough artist. Having that freak out about being an icon was actually a positive experience but I don’t sit around and look at pictures of myself and say, “Oh my God, I’m an icon.” Actually, even listening to the new Julie Ruin record, I’m like, “Whoa! That’s me? I sing like that?”
KG: I find that when someone wants to write a profile about me, they don’t really want to talk about my work or anything. They want to talk about my personal life. How do you deal with that?
KH: I think it’s always hard as a female artist, especially as a feminist artist, when people always want to associate you with men. Like, I get this validation because I was friends with Kurt Cobain, or because I married a Beastie Boy [Adam Horovitz], you know what I mean? Actually, yesterday, I did an interview where the person asked me what Adam was doing and I was kind of like, “Why don’t you call his manager and ask him for an interview?” It’s really weird when people try to get at him through me.
KG: I think it’s a testament to how much of an icon you are that most people don’t actually know you and Adam are a couple. Or maybe it’s the 12th thing down on the list of things people say about you.
KH: See, I thought everybody knew, because he’s so prominent in my life. But I totally talk about him openly now because we just really went though this rough illness together and he took care of me throughout the whole thing and it was a really beautiful learning experience for me. I was likening it to that scene in the movie Evita, where Madonna as the dying Eva Peron sings “you must love me.” I felt like that whole entire time. He was plugging my IV in and staying up with me all night when I was really sick and cooking for me and cleaning for me and helping change our diet. He did everything and to get that kind of support, you have to look at yourself and be like, I must have something going on with myself because he’s willing to do this for me. I must be loveable to someone. Artists have really low self-esteem because we do what we do because we’re trying to get love. I felt like I got over that with Le Tigre where I didn’t need the audience to validate me anymore. But then I still had issues in my personal life where I couldn’t really understand why people wanted to hang out with me, because I didn’t think I was entertaining or charming. With new people who I’ve never met before, I’m afraid I’m a constant disappointment becauseI’m a totally different person on-stage than off. I can be really shy. All my friends are people who I’ve known for years and they don’t care. There was a time when Adam and I were like, “We should have more celebrity friends.” But like, how do you do that exactly?
KG: That seems like a lot of work.
KH: Is that what happens to you when you go to the Hamptons? [laughs]
KG: I wouldn’t know.
Photographed by Emily Cheng
This interview appears in the Oct/Nov issue with Neko Case. Subscribe now.