Interview

Riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill: ‘There is nothing more punk than a menopausal woman’

The band’s feminist swagger and on-stage rage fuelled a Nineties rock revolution. Helen Brown speaks to frontwoman Kathleen Hanna and bassist Kathi Wilcox about balancing soundcheck and misogynists, navigating interband friction, and an infamous brawl with Courtney Love

Saturday 01 June 2024 06:22 BST
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Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill: ‘There was no HR in punk rock. Nobody is here to step in, step up for you’
Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill: ‘There was no HR in punk rock. Nobody is here to step in, step up for you’ (Lisa Darms)

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Like putting my head in a toilet and flushing it a hundred times,” is how Kathleen Hanna describes the process of writing her memoir Rebel Girl. Written in short, fierce, punch-to-the-point chapters, it’s a book that won’t leave readers in any doubt about why 55-year-old Hanna ended up as a lightning rod for feminist punk frustrations as frontwoman of riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill in the 1990s. “The writing process was retraumatising,” she tells me over a video call from her home in California. “On a physical level I was revisiting terrible experiences I’d shoved deep down or because I thought that’s just what you had to put up with if you wanted to be a woman in the music industry. After some writing days I was unable to speak to my family, I just got into bed and cried.”

Active from 1990 to 1997 and now back together for a third reunion tour, which kicks off this weekend at Barcelona’s Primavera music festival, Bikini Kill are credited with coining the phrase “girl power” in a 1991 zine. When they toured the UK in 1993, fans were screaming out for their scuzzy three-chord anthem, “Rebel Girl” (produced by Joan Jett), whose defiant lyrics celebrate female liberation and friendship. Hanna would clutch her mic and yowl in celebration of a girl who’s “got the hottest trike in town… when she talks I hear the revolution… They say she’s a dyke, but I know she’s my best friend!”

Having noticed that women at punk gigs were often left at the back holding drinks and coats while the men hit the mosh pit, Hanna would cry “girls to the front!” to shift the dynamic and allow female audience members to rock out. From the outside, Bikini Kill seemed superhuman.

Yet Hanna’s memoir, out now, was a surprise to many of their fans who might have assumed the band’s hard-girl image meant they hadn’t endured some appalling experiences at the hands of men. For one thing, Hanna was raised by a violent, alcoholic father who spent the Seventies and Eighties repeatedly waving his shotgun in the faces of his wife and daughters. She was later raped by a man she’d come to think of as a friend: an experience fans heard reflected in their 1993 song “Star Bellied Boy”. The lyrics include the lines: “He said Why won’t you f*** me/ And then he said Do me Do me Do me/ And then he said I’ll be your best friend/ And then I said/ Why?” I remember playing that track at the time and thinking it reflected some situations I’d been pushed into by boys and wishing I were tougher, like Bikini Kill. I had no idea it was about abuse that my heroines today tell me they had “sucked up” too.

The abuse went on long after the band became leaders of the riot-grrrl movement. Gen Zs who lionise Bikini Kill’s “pioneeringly abrasive” stance on the feminist scene don’t seem to know that the band were battling for space against a culture which, Hanna tells me, “saw us sexually harassed on an almost minute-by-minute basis in some of the clubs we performed in in those ‘oh so cool’ legendary 1990s”.

The shows were often painful, she says. “But at the time you thought: there is no HR in punk rock. Nobody is here to step in, step up for you. So this is what you have to do if you’re a feminist making music,” Hanna explains. “You have to put up with this s*** and there is no point in complaining. Every day is going to feature a series of sexually harassing situations with people at the club before the show and then with bandmates dealing with extremely homophobic incidents before getting yourselves ready for soundcheck and fighting for your sound.”

Hanna was up all night yesterday. She confides that the snoring of her husband Adam Horowitz, aka Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, was to blame. She is as much of a fun chat as fans would hope her to be. After all, this is the woman who wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Kurt Cobain’s wall, giving Nirvana the title of one of their greatest hits. Has she considered recording and sampling Horowitz’s snores? “Ha! No! But we did think about recording his farts and selling them for charity during the pandemic…”

She, bass player Kathi Wilcox and drummer Tobi Vail – who famously opted out of Nirvana to join the band – formed Bikini Kill in the 1990s after meeting at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Given the awful catalogue of male violence that Hanna experienced as a child, it’s not surprising she ended up in punk. But Wilcox, described in Hanna’s book as “the gravity of the band”, strikes me as a less likely rebel. Was she really angry enough about gender inequality to go on the rampage with the band?

Speaking over Zoom separately, Wilcox laughs. “I know you what you mean. I ask myself the same questions because, as Kathleen says, I am pretty level, pretty chill.” Her parents divorced when she was seven, which opened her eyes to harsh realities early on. “Even at that young age, I could see things weren’t fair. Watching the struggles my mum faced as a single mom with two kids… that kind of thing politicises you. My mum was a feminist for sure, even if she wouldn’t have used the word. My dad definitely wasn’t,” she says. “That’s maybe why they got divorced.” She grins and tells me that, unlike Hanna, she’s always been able to keep her anger about social injustice “locked down”. “I was more a fan of “alternative” music than punk, so I used that as a way to channel how I felt. I loved The Smiths growing up.”

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Hanna lies on her back as she performs in Bikini Kill in Hollywood in November 1994
Hanna lies on her back as she performs in Bikini Kill in Hollywood in November 1994 (Getty)

Hanna was raised by a tough feminist mother and her father, a welder who made it into building management. Her mum, she says, took a long time to break free of her dad due to his violence and alcoholism. By the time she did escape him, Hanna and her sisters were in their teens, and the damage was done. Hanna’s book is brutally honest about the highs and lows of her life, including in the band. The cast of Bikini Kill battled through disagreements and friction. When I tell her that today we sometimes struggle with the idea of women being allowed to disagree, she laughs. Hanna also famously had a brawl with Courtney Love during the annual travelling festival Lollapalooza in 1995, which Hanna argues was mostly initiated by Love.

It wouldn’t have made a difference if I’d have gone in and given blow jobs to everybody in those clubs

Kathleen Hanna

In Rebel Girl, Hanna writes about the relief she felt in telling Wilcox she had been raped. “She just believed me,” sighs Hanna now. “It was a load off.” Did Wilcox feel the moment to be equally important? “Yeah. It was huge to me, too, I mean… I knew the person involved at the time, so it felt horrifying. Heartbreaking. That [Hanna] had been sitting with that and not feeling she could tell anybody felt so terrible to me. We had a relationship in which we all shared things like that, but that situation was... such a terrible breach of trust. It was hard to hear that one.”

I tell Wilcox that recently, a woman’s description of rape had met with blunt dismissal at a local parents’ group near my home in Essex. “It’s so disheartening that the knee-jerk response is to shut those women down,” she says. “I wonder if it comes from fear, denial, from people who don’t want to grapple with it. Literally every woman I’ve known has told me horror stories from their lives.”

Hanna on stage with Bikini Kill at The Hollywood Palladium in 2019
Hanna on stage with Bikini Kill at The Hollywood Palladium in 2019 (Debi Del Grande)

That said, Hanna has also argued against the hashtag of BelieveTheWomen when it comes to assault accusations. She doesn’t think women are innately any more credible than men. “You’re not arguing that all women should be believed without question, right?” I ask her. “You just want their accusations listened to with proper respect, in the understanding that they’re talking within a patriarchal culture?” She nods. “And add: ‘In the context of a white supremacist system’ because it’s that, too.’”.

Hanna is sharp on gender inequalities. She notes that while her husband “got to behave like a musical John McEnroe, smashing his racket and yelling ‘F***!’” backstage at his gigs, she “wasted time going around and shaking hands, trying to introduce myself to every a**hole in clubs and thank them for having us…” If she had her time again, she wouldn’t waste it networking. “It wouldn’t have made a difference if I’d have gone in and given blow jobs to everybody in those clubs,” she says.

Hanna also regrets all the mental energy she spent asking herself over and over: “Is this guy being sexist or is he a jerk to everybody”? Sound engineers were often the worst – they would regularly gaslight the band by telling them they’d moved faders they hadn’t touched, assuming they had a better sense of how Bikini Kill should sound than Bikini Kill themselves. Navigating soundcheck, Hanna says, was so draining that it felt like “being up on a balance beam eating spaghetti while people were firing Nerf guns at me”.

Bikini Kill perform at The Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles in 2019
Bikini Kill perform at The Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles in 2019 (Debi Del Grande)

Both Hanna and Wilcox feel that the “state of emergency in American politics” means their forthcoming 2024 gigs are as “urgent” as ever. “People used to tell me that feminism was ‘done’ but after Roe v Wade was reversed, they can’t say that,” she says. “It’s appalling. And I would widen out the issue even further: so many good people in America can’t get the medical treatment they need. I’m talking about people with families and jobs being told their healthcare insurance doesn’t cover their cancer screening and cancer treatment.” Hanna exhales in fury. “This thing that we said was about women’s bodies [being controlled]? It’s about everybody’s bodies! The government is trying to get control over us all and we should all be punks about resisting that!”

Wilcox agrees. “I feel as angry as I’ve ever felt and playing Bikini Kill music on stage brings me an astonishing level of joy in my fifties,” she grins. “Once a woman’s oestrogen has cleared out of her system she can see the world even more clearly. There is seriously nothing more punk than a menopausal woman!”

Bikini Kill are on tour from June to September, including Primavera in Barcelona on 1 June and the O2 Academy in Glasgow on 14 June

Rape Crisis offers support for those affected by rape and sexual abuse. You can call them on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, and 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland, or visit their website at www.rapecrisis.org.uk. If you are in the US, you can call Rainn on 800-656-HOPE (4673)

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