Rebels Without a Pause: Our 2004 Le Tigre Feature

While masses of Democrats are gathering in Boston for the 2004 Democratic National Convention, chatting about terrorist threats and John Kerry’s swift boat, the militant dance-rock trio Le Tigre gather on New York City’s Lower East Side to do a little politicking of their own. 

The first hurdle to their campaign: a very tan, very confused fabric saleswoman with a Noo Yawk accent that would give Fran Drescher’s Nanny pause. Stroking some patterned blends, the quick-talking deal-maker eyes the offbeat customers: ponytailed Kathleen Hanna, 35, in a black skirt and carrying a bright-pink backpack; Johanna Fateman, 29, rocking white socks and brown shoes, the word freedom elaborately scripted on the left side of her neck; and 26-year-old JD Samson, sporting large wire-framed glasses, tousled hair, and a faint mustache. The woman pauses mid-spiel and asks, “Just what is this for?” The band hedges, hesitant to get into a lengthy explanation, finally saying, “Matching outfits.” For what? “A performance.” 

The fabric lady presses on, and finally Fateman breaks down: “We’re singers and musicians. It’s feminist punk-rock electronic music.” The lady pauses, considers, smiles. Then, suddenly, she asks the band members if they’d like to entertain at her upcoming dinner party (yes, she’s serious). Another convert made, the trio bops outside, purchases in hand, making giddy plans to pop into a friend’s art gallery, visit another’s vintage-clothing shop, and stop by the local radical bookstore. 

Over the past five years, Le Tigre have earned a rep as tireless, feminist-organizing, queer-friendly, fun-loving DIY punk role models. And now they’re trying to add another description to this mouthful: major-label rock stars. The band’s new album, This Island, is their first for Strummer/Universal, which means the crew’s discofied anti-war screeds and rah-rah gay-rights rally chants will share a promotional budget with labelmates Juvenile, Godsmack, and Nelly. For Le Tigre, who had only recorded for small, female-run label Mr. Lady, and had been more loudly independent than any band this side of Fugazi, it’s quite a jump. 

“We thought about this a lot,” Fateman says. “We didn’t just, like, get drunk and say, ‘Yeah!’” Hanna has little patience for “hater attitudes” and jabs implying that the band has sold out. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” says the former leader of ’90s riot grrrl legends Bikini Kill, “and I’ve gotten a lot of criticism. At this point, we have to do what makes us happy, and what’s interesting to us.” 

“[Strummer Recordings] is like a halfway house between independents and majors,” says Strummer president Gary Gersh, who also signed Mars Volta and the Rapture. “I think the record has the potential to reach millions of people. Am I sitting here with expectations of it selling 5 million records? No. But I feel like Le Tigre’s moment should be at hand. They’ve made a fucking mind-blowing record, and as it gets out there, I think people are going to gravitate towards it.” 

Of the three Le Tigre ladies, Hanna has logged the most time under the microscope of public opinion. With her playfully possessed, fiercely confrontational voice at the center of the female-empowering, media-debunking, and rock-scene-critiquing riot grrrl movement of the early ’90s, Hanna was put in the vulnerable position of spokesperson for a generation of young feminists. In addition, she famously wrote “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on Kurt Cobain’s wall when he was dating her Bikini Kill bandmate Tobi Vail; scrawled words like slut on her belly (starting an ongoing trend); was punched by Courtney Love at Lollapalooza in 1995; and was patronized by critics who took issue with her glass-ceiling-shattering style. Hanna’s past always follows her, both to her benefit and detriment. 

“Some reviewer said that it was fucked-up because I’m trying to sound like I was in Bikini Kill, and it’s like, I was in Bikini Kill,” Hanna says. “It’s my voice! Sometimes I have a screamy style, sometimes I have a sweet style, sometimes I have an Annie style. But I just think it’s weird, the idea that if you did anything before, you’re parodying yourself.” 

She also has passionate supporters. There’s Joan Jett: “She’s my sugar mama,” says Hanna. “She takes me to [WNBA] games.” And Green Day’s Billie Joe, who invited her to sing on his band’s new album. “She’s one of my favorite rock singers of all time,” he says. “We were trying to figure out who we wanted to sing this one part, and she was my first choice. It was our first outside singer, and it ended up working out perfect. She was really cool. I mean, if I was to have an airplane, it would be a Kathleen Hanna 747. She’s a god.” 

Hanna’s transformation from queen of underground punk to electro rabble-rouser began after Bikini Kill ran out of steam in 1998. She got a sampler, and her music began to change. “I could take a loop that had drums, guitar, bass, everything on it—it was like a band in a box,” she says. After a brief stint in North Carolina (moving from Bikini Kill’s Olympia, Washington base), Hanna came to New York City, home to her longtime boyfriend, Beastie Boy Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz. She quickly linked up with Fateman, an artist and writer who’d once given Hanna a copy of her zine, Snarla, at a Bikini Kill show. The pair recruited underground filmmaker Sadie Benning and began producing songs with fuzzy, buzzing riffs, raw beats, and pop flourishes that recalled everything from shoop-shoop ‘60s girl groups to Public Enemy. Their self-titled 1999 debut sassed director John Cassavetes and then New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani; it even spawned a popular indie 12-inch, the bubbly pogo jam “Deceptacon,” which was remixed by the DFA. 

When the band began touring in earnest, Benning was replaced by Samson, a Sarah Lawrence student who had previously run the visuals that accompanied Le Tigre live. “I heard her in the van,” says Hanna, “and I was like, ‘That kid can sing!‘” With more sophisticated sonics, the band’s second album, Feminist Sweepstakes, laid out Le Tigre’s agenda: fun mixed with awareness. “There’s such a stereotype of what it means to be a political band,” Fateman says. “We wanted to show that there’s a full range of ways to express anger, a full range of ways to express feminism, and all these different ways to reach out to the community. It’s about celebrating what you have and what you’re building.” Says Hanna: “We’ll go through a phase where we’re obsessed with making a song that sounds like [’90s booty smash] ‘C’mon N’ Ride It (the Train).’ Then there’s other times where it’s like, ‘I really want to write about Title IX.’” 

Though Le Tigre’s subject matter is often weighty—war, sexual harassment, police brutality, clueless journalists—the band throws a party live. “It’s important for us to put on a show that wows people,” Samson says. They tour with an array of videos as a backdrop—from a teleprompter-like listing of the lyrics to the angrily sardonic “FYR” (i.e., “Fifty Years of Ridicule”) to filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin’s meditation on desire and office supplies. But the most crowd-pleasing aspect of Le Tigre’s stage performance is their seat-of-the-pants choreography—fusing cheerleader poses, Motown spins and slides, and a few nods to slick boy-band moves. “How come these huge acts with big budgets get to have this stuff and we don’t?” asks Hanna. “What’s wrong with using these same kinds of tools and tweaking them for totally different aims?” 

“There’s this unspoken rule that if you’re doing a choreographed dance, you should look like the girls in videos and fit into a certain norm,” adds Fateman. “Not only are we not women like that, [the three of us] aren’t the same kind of woman.” 

Samson, an out lesbian and the group’s most androgynous member, wears the pants in the band, and on This Island‘s “Viz,” she speaks to the pride and prejudices that come with a butch identity. “There have been plenty of anthems in the gay-male world,” she says, “but that’s one thing that lesbians don’t have, that visibility in pop culture.” 

Le Tigre hoped to push their visibility to another level at this summer’s Lollapalooza festival, but the tour was canceled amid slow ticket sales. Lollapalooza had marketed itself as more aggressively political than in other years, publicized its partnership with, featured a tent called the “Revolution Solution,” and adopted political prisoner Dr. Yury Bandazhevsky via Amnesty International. Hanna says that early on her reaction had been excited disbelief. “I heard about all the different organizations [on the tour], and I was like, ‘How is [Bush-friendly festival promoter] Clear Channel letting this happen?” 

On This Island, Le Tigre’s politics are more blatant than ever: “New Kicks” features a collage of voices from Manhattan’s February 15, 2003 anti-war rally—including actors Susan Sarandon and Ossie Davis, Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, and a chorus of protesters chanting, “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy sounds like!”—over razor guitars and a body-rockin’ beat. Of the presidential election, Hanna says, “I’m scared. I’m worried that it’s not just that there’s more people on the right, it’s that people who want Kerry aren’t going to vote.” 

If a record can entice fans to dance themselves over to the polls, This Island might be the one. Co-producer Nick Sansano (Sonic Youth, Public Enemy) has amped up the trio’s pastiche of samples, live instruments, and three-for-all singing style, and the result is thicker beats, silky new-wave hooks, and a cover of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” The Cars’ Ric Ocasek stepped in to produce the shimmering survivor story “Tell You Now.” 

“They have a different emotion and a different approach to music then guys,” says Ocasek, who has produced Weezer, Bad Religion, Bad Brains, and Guided by Voices. “They’re saying something that’s enlightening, lyrically and musically. If you’re going to do politics in songs, you better be good at it. You better be real about it and feel it, and they do. They’re all so smart, talented, and extremely confident. They were just one of the greatest, most fun bands I’ve ever worked with.”

As buses and motorcycles chug past our perch on the park steps facing noisy Houston Street, the band lavish praise on their fantastically smelly and artistically nourishing home base. “I feel like this city saved me,” Hanna says frankly. “The title of the album is a reference to the island of Manhattan,” Fateman adds. “It’s also a metaphor for being a band on an island, feeling isolated. But it’s also a utopian place because we’re making art, we have good friends.” 

For a moment, the trio considers the possibility of hearing their first single, “TKO,” far from the security of their artistic bubble. “That’d be awesome if there was a feminist band on the radio,” says Fateman. “Even if it wasn’t us, we would be happy.” 

“Even if it was one of the 50 other major-label feminist bands that are getting snatched right up,” adds Hanna with a sarcastic smile. 

But her flash of cynicism quickly gives way to genuine anticipation. “If I hear it on the radio I’m going to be psyched!” she says. “It’s going to be one of those pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road-in-the-rain, corny-movie moments.” On This Island‘s “Nanny Nanny Boo Boo,” the band lobs water-balloon gibes at a faceless batch of listeners who will “never get it.” But the way Hanna, Fateman, and Samson are grinning now suggests that they actually hope we all do.

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