By the end of the new documentary The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna, you’ll want to be Kathleen Hanna’s best friend. Hanna, the vocalist for the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, is always engaging and funny. Even when she’s talking about her former frustrations with fronting a band in a male-dominated press, there is a generous, optimistic person who seems to internalize that the world is getting better, not worse. But Sini Anderson’s documentary — debuting Friday in New York and L.A. — is more than a traditional biopic or an early history of the Riot grrrl movement. Hanna stopped performing in 2005 because she developed late-stage Lyme disease, which had a significant impact on her health for years. For a moment, it seems as if the disease got the best of her, but The Punk Singer ends with Hanna playing with her new band The Julie Ruin. And it only gets better after the documentary wrapped up production: the band had a short tour in early September, and Hanna’s voice is as killer as ever.
When our conversation began over the phone, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how friendly she sounded.
In The Punk Singer, there’s a big section where you talk about how you abandoned press and mainstream media. How has your relationship toward the press changed?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that things are a lot more permeable. It’s not so black and white: not every journalist is a jerk and working for the Man. Also, in the 1990s there was this whole idea of “indie rock versus major label.” In the particular scene I was in, if you even thought about being on a major label, it was like a thought crime [laughs]. I also think [nowadays] people are way cooler because it’s been a while since even Le Tigre. Journalists aren’t asking the same rude questions they asked back then. When I was in Bikini Kill, we did do press people would say, “So you used to be a stripper?” or “You must have been sexually abused” or “You must be a man-hater.” Even in Le Tigre, we were asked questions about JD’s gender and they were totally offensive.
Another difference is that we have publicists now. Working with other people and not just doing it yourself means that people get vetted. You know, you’ve probably at least seen the movie and have a real website. When we were doing it ourselves, people could just come to us and not even have a fanzine or whatever. They just wanted to say mean things. [pause] I’m a grown-up now. That’s the official answer.
I’ll take it! How did you feel, health-wise, after The Julie Ruin tour ended?
I felt great! I felt great the whole time. When I look back on it now… I’m actually in treatment right now as I speak to you, so that’s one of the reasons I’m a little spaced out. The medication I’m on makes me a little bit… slow. I was fine after the tour. I still have two more treatments after this one, which is basically a hardcore anti-biotic. It’s similar to low-level chemo, so I’m talking to you from bed. But I’m way better than I was. [The treatment] means four days of being sick versus, like, months and years. Once I do these three treatments, I’ll be on maintenance and I’ll be able to do a lot of touring around April and May. Right now I’m trying to do stuff in between my treatments. I wasn’t on treatment during that whole tour, so I felt great.
I was actually at your show at The Black Cat.
That’s awesome! Did you like it?
Oh, yeah, I had a great time. I was kinda surprised you didn’t play “Ha Ha Ha.”
Oh, yeah! That’s a really hard song to sing live. It’s really hard because everyone in my band wants to end with the song, “Run Fast,” which is five minutes long and has a lot of hardcore singing in it. The verses are all “LALALALA” with no time for breath. As a singer, it’s really hard for me to do those two songs right after another. Here’s the easy answer: I didn’t sing it in order to maintain my voice for the next show. I was preserving.
In the documentary, you describe how easy it was to hit your notes and how one day the easiness was gone. Was there a similar struggle during this tour?
Not at all. I had surgery because I had polyps on my vocal cords, and I basically had to relearn to talk. This was before I even knew I had Lyme disease. For some reason, I thought once I got those out I wouldn’t be sick anymore, but [laughs] I was still sick. Even since that surgery, I haven’t had a hard time with my voice at all. Like any singer, when you start out a tour you play two shows and your throat is sore, and then after a day your throat isn’t as sore so you can play another show. By then, it’s back to [regular] use.
Wasn’t the Black Cat show toward the beginning of the tour?
Yeah, it was very close to beginning. We were just finding our footing, but we were also practicing a lot. I didn’t feel totally acclimated until we were on the West Coast and I thought, “Wow, this is really happening.” We were at the grocery store, buying food together, and later we were thrift store shopping in Portland when it dawned on me, “I’m in a band again.” This is what tour feels like: going thrift store shopping on your day off. I think that’s when I started realize, “This is fun! This is what it’s supposed to be like. It’s supposed to be fun.” Our shows just got better and better every single night, so it just made me excited to do longer runs in the future. If we don’t play for a long time and do one show, then we haven’t hit our stride. But DC is always such a great crowd, so you always feel like you’re in the middle tour even if it’s the second night. They just carry you through the set.
They remind me that everything is total bullshit, and it doesn’t matter. I’m not an icon; I’m just a loser who has to fill their food bowl.
Yeah, I had a great time. It was a great double bill with you and Swearin’.
They’re really sweet kids.
You said it felt great to be in a band again, which made me think of the scene in the documentary where you said your identity is too wrapped up in the bands that you’re in. To what extent is that still the case, if at all?
It’s not a problem because I have a really rich personal life. It started when I was in Le Tigre, and what became difficult about [being in the band] was twofold: one was my illness, and I didn’t want to be away from home because I was very much in love. I wanted to be with my boyfriend, my dog, and my cat. I didn’t want to leave New York, and I’ve never been homesick, ever, in my life. I went to theater camp, and I never understood the kids who cried into their pillows at night because they missed their family. I was like, “Thank God I’m on reprieve from my family.” I was the same way in Bikini Kill; I was always excited to travel. So it was really weird in Le Tigre because I got super home sick which was really difficult… That probably wasn’t the question that you asked.
It’s a good answer. Are your pets really supportive of you during your treatments?
Oh, my God! So who do you have at your house? You must have pets.
No, I don’t. I wish I did.
I’m so surprised you’d ask me that question. Well, yes, my dog would actually help me walk in the house. She’d help me get up when I couldn’t get up. That was really amazing. Taking her for a walk was great because she made me feel sturdier than I usually did back then. And cuddling with a cat while you’re getting an IV is one of the best things you can do for your blood pressure because it’s really stressful. Even when I was familiar with whatever I was taking and it was going directly into my heart, it’s still a really creepy feeling. It takes your mind off things when there’s a cat in your lip and he’s purring while you’re petting him.
What are their names?
Davis and Bobby. You have the exclusive scoop on this! No one has asked me about them and they’re really important in my life. The only time I mention them is when someone asks me, “Do you consider yourself an icon?” I always think of Davis and Bobby. They keep me honest, you know? They remind me that everything is total bullshit, and it doesn’t matter. I’m not an icon; I’m just a loser who has to fill their food bowl.
I wasn’t going to ask you about being an icon, but there’s something I’m curious about. So there’s been sniping in the press between young female pop stars about what it means to be a feminist.
I haven’t been following the story because I’ve been sick the past few days. I’ve had my head buried in other things, without much chance to come up for air. Plus, I’m moving and I don’t have internet right now. I could read about it on my phone, but why should I bother? You should tell me! I’ve heard a little bit, but if you could give me a quote…
I don’t have anything offhand. Basically, Miley Cyrus is saying she’s a feminist because she embraced her sexuality and she’s empowered, while Lily Allen has a song suggesting Cyrus is a corporate pawn. [This is a broad, broad summary about the story, by the way.]
Sure. Well, I’m glad the word “feminist” is being talked about and that influential pop stars are bringing up this conversation. If she says she’s a feminist, then who I am to stop her? I’m not the feminist police. I don’t get to determine that. I’m happy that young women are embracing that term, for whatever reason it means to them. Maybe for her it’s about freedom of sexuality and freedom of expression. For other people, it’s about ending oppression against everyone, not just women, but you’re starting from a woman’s perspective because that’s what you’re interested in. You know your feminism isn’t about white women climbing the corporate ladder. So maybe Lily Allen’s feminism is different from Miley Cyrus’, and there’s room for everyone at the table.
We just need more voices, and not just from pop stars. Where are the voices of women who are trapped in a cycle of poverty? They’re just trying to get enough money to survive. I’m not hearing from them, you’re not hearing from them, and you’re not interviewing them because they don’t have the leisure time to make art. That’s what worries me more, even though these public debates are awesome.
In the documentary, were you surprised by what your friends said about you?
Yes [laughs]. It surprised me when Carrie [Brownstein] described how surreal it was to be in the audience at a Bikini Kill show, and how she never really saw someone talk to the crowd from the stage. I was really happy she got that because that was one of my objectives as a performer. I was really shocked that Kathi Wilcox, my bandmate from Bikini Kill and The Julie Ruin, said that I was such a good front-person and singer. I didn’t realize she thought that. You never say that your friends, you know? What opportunity are you going to have to turn to your drummer and say, “You’re a really good drummer.” Although we’re such a corny band that we actually do that.