THE JULIE RUIN’S FIRST FULL-LENGTH SHOW EVER @ SPACE 15 TWENTY
“It’s fun to feel like you’re playing the best slumber party in the world,” Kathleen Hanna says to the throng of 15 year old girls in the audience as the Julie Ruin jump into “Girls Like Us.” This is their first full-length show as an actual band, ever, and the stage they’re playing on is a humble one, set up outdoors at an Urban Outfitters store complex, the cement walls behind them covered with a backdrop of tinsel and tinfoil. It’s not exactly Hot Topic, but it seems kind of perfect, almost like the band is playing a prom.
Actually, this would be a special event even outside the Julie Ruin’s presence. It’s a party for Rookie, the up-and-coming, female-forward magazine for kids that’s kind of like Sassy was 20 years ago (“I love a magazine that talks about fashion and street harassment at the same time,” says Hanna). There’s a zine/crafts table to one side of the stage, and free nail wraps, and cucumber sodas, and you have to be a registered fan of the magazine to get into the venue today—hence the exclusively young audience.
These look like the kinds of girls I went to high school with in the early 90s, including a healthy dollop of pink and green hair and vintage-y dresses. Even the founder of Rookie, Tavi Gevinson, who is wandering around with a sense of calm maturity and letting kids her own age take photos with her, is only 16 years old. That basically leaves me, a few Gen-X friends of the band, and the bouncers as the only adults around. And that feels a little weird–if you wonder why I didn’t take more/better photos, well, I dunno… I felt proud of these shimmying juveniles for just being there, vibing on cool shit, and it would have felt inappropriate to barge my way through them snapping pictures of everything with an iPhone.
Anyways, there are some surprises on stage, at least for those who haven’t been following the band’s evolution on Pitchfork: no one told me that original Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox is in the band! And though I wish Vaginal Davis could be back in L.A. to sing “Girls Like Us,” (she sang on the original, which came out a short hop and a skip ago), Hanna has pulled Fredo Ortiz, a local L.A. percussionist famous for his Bongoloidz project and his wild Afro, up to the stage today to play bongos and shakers and tambourines and such, lending a definite “Legal Man” French pop 60s feel to some of these songs.
Otherwise, it’s basically your standard full band, with guitar, bass, drums, keys, and the works. And it makes these songs actually sound better than they did on the 1998 album that inspired the whole thing.
And I’m not dissin’ the original. In its own quiet way, Julie Ruin, which Hanna released in 1998 after Bikini Kill killed itself, was as pivotal an album as Bikini Kill’s first EP. This made-in-the-bedroom personal record of vocals over beats and simple samples helped pioneer the kind of one-man-band recordings you’ll read about in any given issue of L.A. RECORD. Many people between about 25 and 40 have talked to me about how inspirational they found those songs when they first came out. And while that “intimate” feel may be somewhat diluted now by the brash attack of real drums onstage, the songs’ messages are stronger for the new approach.
And it’s a transformative one. Fan favorite “VGI,” which Hanna announced from the stage as being about “not being taken seriously about anything because you have a Valley Girl accent,” now has the cadence of a Patti Smith rocker, with the yips and yelps and Lenny Kaye-esque male accompaniment on vocals to make those “V-G-I”s sound like they’re about to roll into a cataclysmic “G-L-O-R-I-A!” Despite its drum machines, I don’t know that I could have really danced to that many of the original recordings as they appeared on Julie Ruin, but indeed, if this weren’t an outdoor venue, people would be bouncing off the walls! It’s not exactly an original sound, but it’s certainly original for Hanna, combining nostalgia-friendly Pixies drive and the occasional Sonic Youth guitar hiss with Phil Spector beats, little New Wave key flourishes (and not in a Le Tigre way, but something far sunnier), and what may have even been a wah-wah pedal in guitarist Sara Landeau’s board of tricks.
The new originals are good too, and sound just as confessional as Julie Ruin, seemingly about love and relationships and arguments and commitment and the lack thereof, all the song topics that Le Tigre specifically disavowed in their manifesto and which Bikini Kill was more prone to snarl at than to get sappy with. But hey, besides the rampant success Hanna has made for herself in the rock world since the 90s, she’s also been in a successful relationship for 17 years, which would be a triumph of hard work and determination even if she wasn’t a celebrity (and her husband is the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock, no less!). I want to hear what she has to say about such things, not because I think she’s “earned” the right to sing about love after years of singing about the patriarchy, but because maybe I can learn a thing or two from her experience! Let’s all agree: maybe now that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore broke up, we can let Hanna and Horowitz become the new couple-of-stability for fractured and rootless 90s orphans like myself to project our mommy and daddy issues onto?
But actually there’s a more immediate relationship that interests me, which I hinted at up there talking about Lenny Kaye: it’s that Hanna has a new musical partner. He’s singing many of the vocals along with her and even taking the mike for one of his own songs. And yes, “his” is the right pronoun: it’s a dude, Kenny Mellman, a tall, long-haired, gruff-voiced guy who looks like he could be straight out of the Butthole Surfers.
Hanna has sung with plenty of men, and Men, in bands before, but I’ve never heard her do so live. And it’s an interesting combination, especially considering how gravelly and loud, almost atonal, Kenny Mellman’s voice is here (apparently that’s a deliberate choice—Mellman has a long history of singing and playing piano in a Tony-nominated drag cabaret duo thing, but put that out of your mind for the purposes of this visualization and just think “middle-aged long-haired gruff dude”). He even sings an original song that I think he wrote, which he introduces as being about “euthanasia,” or “youth in Asia,” or “rosacea,” some such topical and brash thing. The combination of Mellman and Hanna singing together in tandem, or doing call and response with each other, makes me think quite a bit of X, or the Centimeters, or the Jefferson Airplane, or one of the many great bands in which male and female vocals take center stage, blending in a style of leadership that kind of heals the need, albeit temporarily, to address gender inequality, like the snakes crisscrossing each other on that damned pole of Asclepius.
And when Hanna and Mellman aren’t just singing together, the five official members of Julie Ruin will all get on mike together and sing at the same time: what could be more democratic than that? Granted, these aren’t exactly Beach Boys’ style harmonies, more like something from a Clash song, or a soccer game, or perhaps a cult! But they still count as five part harmonies, something out of psych-pop left field that I don’t think I ever expected to hear from a Kathleen Hanna project. This development strongly suggests that the Julie Ruin isn’t going to be a solo project after all, but a meeting of near-equals, in which Hanna’s leadership and voice admittedly shine out just a little more equally than the others (“I can’t hear myself,” she says early on, about the venue’s piss-poor monitors. “But whatever, I’m sure I sounded fucking great anyway!” Cue the most adorable giggling I’ve heard from an audience of young ‘uns since 1991, when one of the Ninja Turtles said “damn” at a screening of The Secret of the Ooze).
And I am giggling along with them! If only all of life could be about laughing, and good-natured bravado, and trying new things, and enjoying the kind of entertainment we’re feeling now, seeing a damned fine band that feels, in a weird way, like a breath of fresh air after the projections and polyester of Le Tigre. Looking at all the young kids before us, boogaloo-ing their way into adulthood to these tunes, I realize that while these kids are listening for Kathleen Hanna to drop clues about how to grow up, I am listening for clues on how to look back and assess my life—and for both situations, the music totally works! And in part, I think that’s because Hanna by her own admission isn’t done growing herself, isn’t done trying new things or quitting old things or allowing herself to make mistakes.
And maybe playing a weird Urban Outfitters with no monitors for your first real gig could be considered a mistake, but I’m damned glad the Julie Ruin are here. This modern life is getting to be a tough moral map to navigate, and the compass is confusing, and not enough bands are willing to acknowledge that and plunge ahead anyway. It’s good to know that whether it’s you, or me, or a bunch of teenaged magazine readers, or my own young readers, or old readers, or my young nieces and nephews, or wizened old friends, or anyone in between, there’s a great new crew of musicians hitting the road who are going to be along for the ride with us—and they know how to harmonize.
-D. M. Collins