I met Sara Landeau, lead guitarist of The Julie Ruin, for tea at Koneko, America’s first cat café. I’d like to say that I thought of it because a Japanese cattery set in New York’s East Village perfectly encapsulates The Julie Ruin, which, drowning out the noisy din of punk nostalgia, has emerged as something completely new, vibrant, and irresistibly playful. But no. Sara suggested the spot, and knowing her for year as I have, it seemed to fit naturally with our shared cat-obsession.
“This is my dream place,” Sara says as we get comfortable on a couch surrounded by 11 rescue cats. We talk about the making of the band’s new album Hit Reset, which is set to release July 8 (“I Decide,” the first cut off the album, just had its world premiere). Sara tells me about being the first person in her family to go to college, how she first met Kathleen Hanna, her multidisciplinary pursuit of art, gear, and a lifetime of learning.
Sara is extremely modest (the Midwesterner in her), soft-spoken, a dedicated ally of female musicians at any age, can shred on the guitar, and is quick to laugh. She grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. You could say she’s the first person in her family not to go into the tractor business. Sara’s grandfather, father, and older brother all worked in the local tractor factory until its closing. Of her grandfather— who never passed the 5th grade — Sara says, “[My grandfather] had a lot of great and sad stories and is my hero. I don't have a tattoo, but if I get one, it will be his name.” Her brother started Sara on music. She says, “He was into music, but I was really into music. I was really into music. But I didn’t know I could play... I guess girls weren’t doing that yet.”
"I didn’t know I could play... I guess girls weren’t doing that yet.”
As a teenager, she slipped into clubs in Milwaukee and Chicago. At 18, she got her first drum kit at a yard sale. She bought a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus to L.A. She was following a drummer she met while he was touring— Don Bolles of a little punk band called the Germs, who let her crash permanently. At 21, she lugged that drum kit, a “'60s Ludwig,” to New York City with hopes of becoming a visual artist. She continues to play that Ludwig to this day.
For ten years, Sara worked at CBGB’s as a cocktail waitress and bartender. First, she attended School of Visual Arts to get her grades up. Then, at 25, she applied to Columbia University and got in: “It was heaven.” She studied Art History because she felt you need to know history to be a good artist. At CB’s, Hilly Kristal was like her surrogate father. It was there that she learned to play guitar and bass, as part of an all-girl, all-employees band called the Chicklettes. Sara and her bandmates would hunt other bands with a girl member—which was a rarity— and see their shows.
Of the hundreds of female students she’s taught to play music since, she says, “Some of them have started at 10, and now they’re young ladies in college and they still play guitar... they grew up that way. It makes me cry, because I’m so proud of them.” In addition to working at Willie Mae’s Rock Camp for Women and Girls, Sara teaches private and group guitar, drum and bass lessons full-time at the Brooklyn Music Studio for Women and Girls—the music school she founded in 2003. She’s coached and taught at the rock camp from the birth of the Brooklyn chapter. It’s where she first met Kathleen Hanna. In November, the camp honored the two with the Artist/Activist Buddy Award for 10 years of continuous service. According to its website, it has "served more than 1,000 girls in 58 NYC zip codes" since 2005.
Before The Julie Ruin formed, Sara imagined she’d teach and write music and probably never perform again. But she’s always loved Kathleen’s voice, and felt she was out there screaming the things Sara herself feels and believes. The two bounced around the idea of collaborating very casually for five years, until one day Kathleen gave her a call, “and said, I’m ready.”
One day Kathleen gave her a call, “and said, I’m ready.”
Their first album, Run Fast, with Kenny Mellman (keyboards), Carmine Covelli (drums), and Kathi Wilcox (bass) would take three years to complete because of Kathleen’s health. Their new album, Hit Reset, took the band roughly a year because Kathleen is enjoying a moment of relative quiet in her struggle with Lyme’s disease. Sara says with genuine awe, “She’s a pro.” Though every member of the band lives in New York they wrote Hit Reset over Dropbox, passing bits and riffs back and forth. I ask Sara if she likes writing that way, and, she says, “I do...” then her attention is pulled away by an adolescent calico cat for a good minute before she finishes the thought, “I like it because it gives you time to think.” Being in close contact with so many cats has had an intoxicating effect. Leave it to the Japanese to figure out you can get high on cats.
Readers of BUST are all pretty aware of the badass and girly appeal of The Julie Ruin. Sara is the leading girly-fying force of the band, her love of fashion is infectious to her bandmates. Aside from being a self-made woman, she is self-made up woman, sewing her own clothes (mostly mixed patterned shirts and skirts or dresses) that she wears on stage. Kathi also makes clothes for herself and Kathleen. “We’re are going shopping tomorrow for fabric for the next tour. Me and Kathi, we’re going to Mood at 10am,” Sara says, then giggles. “We always arrange our outfits,” she says. “Kathleen says it’s like playing with Barbies.” But, no matter what, “Kenny has the best outfits.” When I point out it seems like a really fun band to be a part of, Sara says, “if you’re a fashion junkie, like we are, and you like patterns and stuff. Totally. But if you’re the kinda, you know, person that doesn’t care about it, that’s fine. I care about it, I love it.” She is often very fair in this way, direct and light, and not prone to making generalizations, finding instead a secret little joke in being very precise.
“Right now there’s a [guitar] pedal and fashion magazine in my purse.” Sara has forgone the word “feminist” for “gender equality” because, again, precision. She also doesn’t think that “girly” is a pejorative. “You can look super girly and do really masculine music— masculine music? ...It’s supposed to be fun. So to me as a teacher, I tell a girl you can have blonde hair, you can be into make up... or you can not do any of that and be really into your guitar scales and your shredding.” I’d be a criminal if I neglected to mention Sara’s obsession with gear. She is constantly hunting out the right sound for her gear. To our meeting she’s carried a bag harboring a busted-out guitar pedal called Big Muff. She reads manuals cover to cover and annotates them, for fun. She's produced and engineered for the bands Penis, Mascara, The Catch, Petal Wars, and Pink Veins. She continues to draw as well— my favorite piece is a watercolor series on her blog called "Items from NY Magazine Gift Guide 2015 that I can't afford.” She also does free-form embroidery. She says her new thing is Noise Music and “experimenting with sounds, which kinda goes back to art.” Currently, she and experimental drummer Jane Boxall are forming a duo (yet unnamed) creating noise music inspired pop songs.
Sara has forgone the word “feminist” for “gender equality.”
Her passion for learning is voracious. She’s studied classical guitar and music theory at the New School and Juilliard. Inquisitiveness is the key to Sara’s art and her mission towards outreach. “I love talking to the people I work with, I think I get as much out of it as they do,” she says. “Learning instruments is really good for your brain... there’s so much there that can help you, in life.” Her secret for keeping teaching interesting for herself and for her students is to try out things she’s learning on them. “If I have gig coming up where I have to learn a cover song, I’ll go to my student, 'You like Rihanna, right?'”
It seems the oxytocin in the room of rescue cats has taken over when Sara starts meow’ing the words of a song. I ask her what’s up— “If I need to sing back... a melody, it’s always ‘meow.’ Instead of ‘la’— who wants to go ‘la la la la’, you go ‘meow meow meow...’ So I teach my students that... if you can meow it, you can play it.” Words to live by.
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Aidan Daley-Hynes is a writer of comedy scripts and articles about music, film, and strong ladies. In her spare time, she performs improv comedy and crafts videos for the internet. She lives in NYC with her husband and two cats. Read her non sequiturs on Twitter @aidandaleyh.