Superheroes from some weird feminist alternative reality: JD Samson, Johanna Fateman, Kathleen Hanna
Life On Their Island
Oliver Hall talks utopian pop and practical politics with electro-dance bullhorn radicals LE TIGRE
Originally published in Arthur No. 13 (2004)
The October issue of Harper’s reprints something I haven’t been able to get out of my mind for days now: a passage of instructions, from a handbook for members of a Japanese student club, for gang-rape. The men of Super Free, “a now defunct club for students at elite Japanese universities,” gang-raped hundreds of women between 1995 and 2003. “Take away the woman’s shoes, purse, and cell phone so that she cannot get away before we have finished,” it says. “Take photos or a video of the rape and threaten to expose the woman publicly if she opens her mouth about what happened.”
To say nothing of rape, shame and humiliation are the secret weapons the powerful use in the everyday battles lost by women—and queers, nonwhites, the poor, weirdos. “Are you gay?” asked a girl I had just met at Club Screwball a few weeks ago; I was too drunk to articulate Gore Vidal’s thesis that “gay” and “straight” properly refer to sexual acts, not people, so I just said, “Well, not really.” “Then why are you funny? You must have been beaten up at school.” “Yes.”
Unlike Kathleen Hanna’s previous band, the great and legendary Bikini Kill, the band that inspired the thrilling Riot Grrrrrrl movement of the early ’90s even as it distanced itself from that movement, Le Tigre is not a punk band suspicious of its audience. All the members of Le Tigre, as I interviewed them independently from their locations in New York—JD Samson in Brooklyn, Johanna Fateman uptown, Kathleen Hanna downtown—spoke of their audience with a kind of awe, and I sensed that providing a special, free place for all those who have had to develop a sense of humor to live in the world, who have to cherish joy because it is a privilege rather than a right for them, gives all the members of Le Tigre a lot of pleasure.
This Island, Le Tigre’s new album and its first ever for a major label, is the kind of pop music you haven’t heard coming from your radio or TV in years—not retro, just painted in primary colors—but that’s where it belongs, making the carwash fun again. “X-out all self-supervision, get your keys out now start the ignition / We’re on the verge of. . .” what?
Rumors are circulating that there will be a Le Tigre float at next year’s New York Gay Pride parade. I begged JD to give me the details, but she said I’d just have to come see it. See you there.
ARTHUR: Your single “New Kicks” uses sounds JD recorded at the February 15, 2003 Iraq war protest in New York City. I was there, but I couldn’t get to the speakers’ stage where much of “New Kicks” was recorded. The police held us immobile between barricades, diverted the march away from the stage, and beat up a lot of people. Was the protest as fun as the song makes it sound?
JD: I think of the song as cinematic, dramatic—kind of an anthem in the sense that it’s for all the people that were there and have been protesting in the past few years, but I don’t really see it as a celebration-type song. My experience was more positive than some of my friends who were arrested and had mace in their face. I just kind of jumped over fences and tried to make my way to where I could hear the speakers. That was kind of my number one quota that day.
The part in the song where [Amy Goodman from Democracy Now]’s naming the list of places, that’s pretty exciting. That was actually from the radio broadcast of the event. When I came across that I was like, “Oh my god! What a good build.”
JOHANNA: What was amazing and made me really happy was realizing how huge it was. That’s what was sort of exhilarating about it, is that we felt really unstoppable and it was really out of the control of the police or anyone, and it felt like it couldn’t be denied because a whole huge section of the city was shut down. I don’t know if I feel like the song is a celebration of that, but we didn’t want it to be, like, a bummer song [laughs]. The song was actually played on Democracy Now. That felt good, it sort of came full circle.
Le Tigre’s appearance on Carson Daly’s late night show is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen on TV. What was that like for you?
KATHLEEN: We were really bummed when we got there, we were totally exhausted. You have to bring your equipment to that shit at like ten in the morning? And we don’t really have a crew, so we were doing it ourselves, and we got stuck in traffic for like two hours, and we hadn’t slept cuz we played a show the night before — we were just totally exhausted, and we were like “Why are we doing this? It’s so ridiculous.” And then we look on the TV monitor, and Carson Daly goes, “. . .and Le Tigre!” and we hear everybody scream! And they pan the audience, there were all these friends of ours that we hadn’t seen in forever that showed up, there’s all these girls in mustaches, and we’re like “Okay, we can do this.”
JOHANNA: To me that was cooler than our performance — the crowd shots. I think we got a couple e-mails that were like, “why the hell were you on Carson Daly? He sucks!” Yeah, he does suck, we weren’t trying to dispute that [laughs] or somehow give him some kind of credibility. It was more like an infiltration or an absurd thing to do at night.
I guess to me that’s one of the promotional kinds of things we’re gonna do that will seem like some kind of compromise to some people, but I really see it as funny, first of all. For every person who thought that was kind of lame, because Carson Daly is such a moron, there’s probably 15 people who, that kind of blew their mind. Because they never see women like us on TV. I think it could be doing something positive in the world of mass media — I don’t see it as a compromise, I see it as pretty funny and kind of great.
KATHLEEN: I remember stuff actually happening on TV, in the 70s and early 80s, like weird shit? Bands doing weird things, like the Talking Heads or Patti Smith on Saturday Night Live, and being, as a kid, really blown away. And feeling, when live television would still happen occasionally, that anything can happen. And having that “anything can happen” feeling, and having that feeling of “I just saw the punkest thing, or the weirdest thing, I’ve ever seen.” I have such a nostalgia for that, because it made me feel like there was something outside of the suburban townhome I was in. And I still have this fantasy of being that for someone else.
That’s one thing that has really disappointed me about a lot of the new, hip rock bands. When they appear on TV, they seem happy to obey the unspoken rules of showbiz.
KATHLEEN: Some [new] stuff seems kind of strictly retro—like just cuz you have the best record collection doesn’t mean you get to be in the best band. Everybody’s just referring to stuff that kids of this new generation missed. I’m sure they’ll remake Fame, cuz none of the kids now will have seen it. And they’ll redo it with, like, Hillary Duff. Because they’re like, “Oh, this generation doesn’t know about Blondie, let’s get Hillary Duff to redo a Blondie song. We know it’s a hit. We don’t have to spend any money on writers.” They just kinda keep recycling things.
We get freaked out sometimes cuz people are like, “You guys sound so ’80s.” I think in the beginning we were using a lot of equipment from the ’80s, cuz that’s just what we had access to, so it sounded ’80s—it wasn’t like we were consciously trying to be like Depeche Mode or something. I have a nostalgia for a lot of the mainstream bands from the ’80s, just because it seemed like the mainstream bands in the ’90s were all like Limp Bizkit, or even now, those monster-men sounding bands, really not interesting. The thing that was cool in ’80s was there was actually stuff that seemed kinda gay-friendly and girl-friendly. It wasn’t like “I hate you, I wanna kill you, I wanna skeleton face on a pole.” It seemed open, even like U2 being big in the ’80s and kind of political—now, the only stuff like that is, again, like Hillary Duff. Which is fine, but it’s for four-year-olds, you know? So I have a nostalgia just for a mainstream that isn’t completely reprehensible. But I don’t wanna be in an ’80s retro band.
Some of [This Island] sounds, like, referencing classic rock [laughs]. There’s one song that’s a total Billy Squier ripoff. “On the Verge” has a riff that’s similar to “Everybody Wants You” by Billy Squier. The song doesn’t sound anything like it, but I feel like the guitar was kind of referencing him. Hopefully we’re “on the verge” of a new president, on the verge of things being at least semi-alright again. Man, Clinton looks so good right now. I love how you can commit to a side on people who didn’t do anything [laughs], and no one cares. You can go against the Geneva Conventions and torture people, you can steal an election and no one cares, but you get your dick sucked and that’s the biggest crime on the planet? It’s so insane!
Me and Jo have merged so completely I have no idea if this happened to me or Jo — I think it was Jo when she was in school, and she would always put radical politics in her art. Someone said something in one of her classes, that was like “You can’t really talk about homelessness in your art, that’s so ’80s!” [laughter] We were like, that’s such a good statement, cuz people are like, Well, you know, Barbara Kruger was already the political artist, or Jenny Holzer — like that was just a fad. Yeah, but homelessness has just increased, it didn’t go away. It’s not like it’s on vacation or something; it’s not a fad.
How would you formulate your objections to Bush?
JD: When I watch him speak I do not think that he understands what he’s talking about at all, and that makes me really scared and upset. When I saw Fahrenheit 9/11, that was exactly what I wanted — I feel like Michael Moore was doing that exact thing, just showing how juvenile [Bush] is. The whole playing golf moment. . . that’s it, in a nutshell. That’s all you have to see.
JOHANNA: I was so emotional during the Republican National Convention here because part of me feels like everybody should just be able to rationally understand that he’s taken this country — not just this country, led the world on this path to total ruin. But there’s no way to present my case to everyone. And I find that agonizing — it’s just such a frustrating, powerless feeling. And to go between protesting during the day, and then coming home and watching the convention on TV, it was such a total mindfuck. You know, being in these huge crowds of people who agree with my point of view, more or less, at least in the sense of being against Bush, and feeling like that’s the whole world, and then watching TV and being like, “No, that’s the whole world.” It drove me nuts. Still drives me nuts.
KATHLEEN: What really bothered me a lot was the way he’s treated New Yorkers, cuz that’s where I am, and I’ve been here for a little while, I like to consider myself a New Yorker now. And it was really awful, after September 11th, when everybody was already really scared, he came here, and went down to the rubble and used it—now it’s like the most prominent footage in his campaign, the thing of him with the construction workers—I mean, he’d never been on a construction site before then obviously. But him with the little bullhorn—just that whole scene was so disgusting to me.
The first thing the title of your new album This Island made me think of was that the Beatles, at one point in the 60s, wanted to buy their own island, with four separate houses connected by underground tunnels.
JOHANNA: Yeah, that’s sort of a fantasy we have too, in a way — it’s kind of like our reality! It’s not physically true, but it’s kind of the way we live.
JD: Wow. That is so rad. Being in this band is totally like living on an island, it’s like this utopian place where we can do whatever we want and be around people that we care about a lot. But that it’s also kind of intense and scary sometimes, because we’re doing this crazy project and we only really see each other, and what is the rest of the world like? But it’s really exciting. And the title’s supposed to be a reference to Manhattan, that’s what the song “This Island” is about. But we just thought it would be really great to give it, like, a double meaning.
KATHLEEN: We already have a Le Tigre island, it’s called Manhattan? And there are underground tunnels, called the subway? [laughter] So I guess we kind of beat the Beatles on that one.
But you know how an island, the idea that it conjures in a lot of people’s minds, it’s two kind of different things? One is like palm trees and vacation and whatever, and then there are also islands that are colonized by foreign powers and taken over, and maybe also the feeling of being isolated from the mainland, and so people maybe aren’t as connected to the mainstream of what’s happening. There’s all different kinds of things, and we thought it really represented what it felt like to be a feminist band in this cultural time period. There’s something kind of utopian about it, because the fact that we feel isolated from our contemporaries in certain respects makes us create our own world. Our whole thing, in our van when we’re touring, we kinda become these weird worlds that are inside this bubble, and we create our own fantasy of the way the world is. We’re so strong in our identity as friends in a band, and that’s kind of like our island, or something.
You’re these three spies out there operating. . .
JOHANNA: Or superheroes, or living in this weird feminist alternative reality.
Kathleen has an interesting quote in the press release about the sound of This Island “making our message something you can feel in your body.” It reminded me of Emma Goldman’s famous quote about not wanting a revolution she couldn’t dance to, and an interview Greil Marcus did with Gang of Four, where the band members argued about whether enjoying their music was the same thing as understanding their politics.
JOHANNA: We wanted this record to sonically pay off. It’s not like I think our past records haven’t been appealing sonically, but to me they felt more conceptual in that they were kind of like ideas of songs that appealed to people, and this feels not like a sketch but like an actual painting. And that really was more about technical stuff, like richness of frequencies, choosing sounds more carefully rather than necessarily the sense of immediacy that our first record has.
JD: A lot of times we make our music, and we never think about what we’re writing about, or why, or who it’s for, or anything like that, but it just seems so natural that when we get to our venues and play our shows that the community of people that’s there is so exactly what we want, and what we could only ask for. It feels really good to create that space for people to move and enjoy music and enjoy politics and enjoy that space to be whatever you wanna be. That’s what we get really psyched about when we’re on tour —letting people appreciate the music and feel it and enjoy it in that bodily way.
KATHLEEN: We get asked a lot, “What’s more important, lyrics or the music?” or, “Does it matter that people just come and enjoy the music and don’t care about your politics?” I don’t give a shit. If people come and enjoy the music, I’m totally happy. I think most people, when I look out at our shows, are people who in a lot of ways are disenfranchised in this society. And I think it’s completely political for people — for actually anyone, in a way, to feel joy in a joyless culture. I feel like that in itself really is doing a great service to the planet, by having people dance and feel — especially women and queers of all kinds, feeling like, “We get to be in our bodies now, and we don’t have to feel shame and feel like people are looking at us or laughing at us,” or women not feeling like straight men are ogling the way they’re dancing, that they can just be in themselves and have a good time. That to me is totally just as political as getting behind the message of a political lyric.
Can it be radical just to have fun at a Le Tigre show?
JD: There’s something about being at a protest that’s so intense and angry, and that’s beautiful, because you’re together with so many different people, and you’re fighting for what you believe in. We really want our music to be the happy music for the people who have always been political but have tended to stay unhappy. We wanted there to also be this space to really enjoy yourself also, after the protest, or while you’re just hanging out with your friends, or walking down the street with your headphones.
JOHANNA: We’re not positioning fun against principled living—those things are the same thing, or can be the same thing.
KATHLEEN: At a lot of our shows there’s a community feeling, and a feeling of being in a room with like-minded people who aren’t gonna beat you up or fuck with you? Not to say that there’s never been a problem at a Le Tigre shows, it’s not like we have the power to create this total utopia. But I remember being at bars in Olympia dancing at shows, and guys coming up to me and hitting on me, or when I left, being like, Oh, I really liked the way you dance, and then I’d feel kind of humiliated, like they thought I was dancing for their eyes or something? And being like, “God, I just wanted to move around, and have a good time, and be in my body,” but it always gets taken as, “Thanks for the show.”
For me, I love the feeling of being onstage and knowing that there’s women in the crowd that don’t have to feel that way at our show, and that we’re being part of creating a space like that, cuz I really wanted that. I really still want that. I love going to a Sleater-Kinney show and feeling that way. It’s really different — a lot of people haven’t had that. I didn’t have that. That’s what in a way is great about the little amount of progress that does get made over the years. Cuz things are really different. When I first started out, it definitely was not like it is now.
I don’t know how seriously radical it is, I mean it’s not gonna change any laws [laughs]. I wish we could hook the dancers up to a machine [laughter], and then that energy would go into actually changing legislation and getting Bush out of office!