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Back in the 1990s, Kathleen Hanna kicked off the riot-grrrl movement and kicked ass on the male-dominated punk/hardcore scene with angry albums from her group's self-titled Bikini Kill (1992) to PussyWhipped (1994) to Reject All American (1996). Now Hanna is back with the all-womyn electro/punk-rock trio Le Tigre, a group whose French, feline name signals a sexier, slinkier sound. Still the band's bite is just as sharp.
"Definitely the riot-grrrl movement has played a part in our personal history, both in terms of who we are as political thinkers and who we are as artists, but we're not individually active in the riot-grrrl chapter," says Le Tigre's multi-instrumentalist and sometime vocalist Johanna Fateman, speaking in an almost valley-girl bounce (she grew up in Berkeley, California) from her home in New York City. "We also have friends who are involved in those communities," gently interjects J.D. Samson, another Le Tigre vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who also is on the line. "It's just a part of our subculture. I think riot grrrl is continuing under that name but has also graduated to different things. Our feminism encompasses all the things we believe in and are political about."
That broader view of oppression is captured in the title of Le Tigre's Feminist Sweepstakes. The band also takes on the seemingly extrafeminist theme of trigger-happy cops in the song "Bang! Bang!," on the From the Desk of Mr. Lady EP. Fateman explains, "I mean, police brutality is a direct result of racism and militarism in our culture, which are both often tied to the oppression of women and queers."
That doesn't mean Le Tigre has seceded from the queer nation -- the band members just want everyone there to have a good time. Album Feminist Sweepstakes opener "LT Tour Theme" swings on a synthesized piano hook while a staccato, processed drum beat backs the chorus: "For the ladies and the fags yeah/We're the band with the roller-skate jams." If that shoutout isn't clear or funky enough, on "F.Y.R. (Fifty Years of Ridicule)" the band chants, "Feminists, we're calling you!" against a trippy jungle beat and screeching synthesizers. If you're still not getting the message, well, then there's the sample-heavy "Dyke March 2001." Over canned beats and synthesizer beeps, looped voices proclaim: "Marching naked ladies/We recruit. We recruit/Resist, resist/Feminist fury."
The group's synthesizer-heavy songs recently led to an inevitable followup: the remix compilation. "There was some interest from DJs and dance-music extraordinaires to remix some songs," says Samson. "We were so excited by that because we just love when people dance to our music."
The remix EP -- which should be available on vinyl just in time for Le Tigre's February 24 appearance -- features six selections from the band's catalogue, reinvented by the likes of Reid Speed (from NYC 2step), Analog Tara (house producer and creator of pinknoises.com), Swim with the Dolphins (Fateman's alias), DJ Ham and Cheese on Rye, Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy, and Lauren Flax. The dance record seems a logical step in the Le Tigre aesthetic but may only add fuel to the fire of critics cranky because the group's feminist message comes in a fun-loving package. "That's like saying feminist music needs to be angry and discordant or overly earnest folk music or something," Fateman responds. "It can be those things, but it doesn't have to be. Being a feminist encompasses a lot more than that."
For Fateman feminism also means making music. "I think at a certain point in your life, growing up as a girl, you have certain ambitions," she observes. "I knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind. Just trying to do stuff, you confront the obstacles of sexism and misogyny and, at some point, overcome those things. You learn how to do what you want to do in spite of it. For me, becoming a feminist sort of happened simultaneously with becoming an artist."
"I agree with Jo," adds Samson. "For me, when I was coming out as a lesbian [at the age of fifteen], that was like a double coming out, as a lesbian-feminist. I'm a lesbian," she says in an earnest tone that gets Fateman laughing. All the band members are, in fact, out.
If feminism is a given, the band actually began as a fluke. When Bikini Kill officially broke up in early 1998, Hanna moved from the group's Olympia home base to the Big Apple. "I think it was something that just happened because people were ready to move on to new projects," Fateman speculates. Hanna's project was a homespun solo venture she called Julie Ruin, released on Kill Rock Stars later that year.
With the idea of putting together a touring band for Julie Ruin's protopunk New Wave songs, Hanna asked Fateman -- with whom she had played in pre-Bikini Kill groups in Portland -- to back her. Fateman agreed. Noted indie-filmmaker Sadie Benning came onboard initially to provide a video or slide projection as a backdrop for the performances. "Then the project just kind of evolved," says Fateman, "and we began writing new songs. Sadie decided she wanted to be involved in the music production, so it just ultimately became Le Tigre."
In 1999 the band released Le Tigre on the North Carolina-based Mr. Lady Records and took to the road for a short tour. "Sadie felt like she really couldn't commit to such a full-time endeavor, so she left the band," says Fateman, "and then J.D., who was already becoming part of the band and had been on tour with us as our slide projectionist, joined."
The Mr. Lady EP that followed in 2001 was Samson's first-ever recording project. "I didn't play music before this," she admits. "I was actually in college for visual arts doing film and video. I mean, I had played music with my friends, but I was never in a band. It was all supernew to me. I've been learning so much ever since I started."
So what if Samson came in with barely a scrap of musical ability? Le Tigre still ascribes to the antivirtuosity of punk rock that spawned Bikini Kill, giving the finger to macho rock myths by empowering nonmusician chicks such as Samson and Benning to pick up an instrument. That's a message that comes across no matter how catchy Le Tigre's hooks or contagious the dance beats. "You hope there's a response and a dialogue," says Samson, "and you hope that it sets off ripples of positive change everywhere. Obviously you can't practice any kind of mind control, but that's just fine with us. We hope people like our music or get something out of it."