You grow, grrrls


August 5, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


Leading a band that was credited with launching an entire movement is a hard act to follow, but with Le Tigre, former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna has not only continued the strident politics credited with giving voice to the "riot grrrls" of the mid-'90s, she has crafted a much more enticing musical setting for her potent message.

Bikini Kill's purposely raw and ragged punk rock could be nearly unlistenable at times, but over the course of five albums -- including last year's "This Island," the trio's Ric Ocasek-produced major-label debut -- Le Tigre has perfected its cheeky, computer-driven, abrasive-but-melodic brand of electroclash/synth pop.

"This record was really different in terms of how we made it, mostly because it was a deeper collaboration," says J.D. Samson, who joined bandmates Hanna and Johanna Fateman in the summer of 2000, adding choreography (she was a founding member of the dance troupe Dykes Can Dance), electronic music-making and artwork.

"The three of us all started in the same place with Pro Tools, and that is what we used to make the record. Because we all started in the same place with this brand-new computer thing, and all learned on our own with hints and tips and shortcuts and stuff, it was just a constant process of mastering a new instrument. Another thing is that we had time to do it: We didn't rush it, and we wanted to make each song stand on its own. We really felt like we grew as musicians, both sonically and structure-wise. It was important to us to grow and not remain naive."


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As a paradigm of underground values and indie-rock ethics, some fans were shocked when Le Tigre signed with a subsidiary of Universal Records, but Samson sees it as a natural part of the band's progression.

"We wanted to grow up. Some people definitely want the first record again, but that's like saying to a 20-year-old, 'You were way cuter when you were 12.' We don't want to keep making the same record over again. We want to build and we want to grow.

"That was one part of it, but we had made about three-fourths of the record when we decided to make the move to Universal, so we didn't make a slicker record because we had more money; we made it because we were making the record we wanted to make. We thought, 'It's possible we could be on a major label with this record, so let's push it, let's study pop structure, and let's get somewhere with this. Let's have a co-producer [Ocasek] we want to work with.

"I think up until the day we signed with Universal, we still could've signed with plenty of other indie labels, and it just happened to be the day and we thought, 'All right, let's do this,'" Samson concludes. "If this will be our chance to spread our love to more people, let's do it, and ever since then, things have really been the same as it always was. Universal has been great to us."

Indeed, with songs such as "Nanny Nanny Boo Boo" and "Don't Drink Poison," the group didn't restrain its feminist politics at all (though Le Tigre tends to treat the subject with much more humor than Bikini Kill ever did). While Hanna remains the obvious riot grrrl godmother and the band's feminist firebrand, Samson has attracted a lot of attention because of her intentionally masculine appearance and her own outspoken views on sexual politics.

Art Forum magazine wrote that, "butch and gorgeous, [Samson] threatens to be the most interesting sex symbol in the music world." The musician laughs at the attention she's generated by dressing in men's clothing and adopting the term "herm" to describe her sexuality.

"I think it's interesting that I've developed this persona as a sex symbol. At first I was like, 'This is rad, because I'm a lesbian and that can't exist onstage, period.' And then it was like, 'Wow, these 15-year-old lesbians think I'm hot; that's so funny!' And soon enough, it was 15-year-old girls who were straight, and their straight boyfriends. It was like, 'Wow, what's happening here? What have I created?' But it is really exciting.

"When we used to tour, we'd travel with myself and some other butch lesbians, and we had some 'herm pride,' which was kind of this joke we made up about being butch and going into truck stops and stuff. We used it in the song 'Fake French'['I've got herm choreography / I've got a conceptual stunt double / I've got a deviant scene, I mean / I've got multiple alliances'], and I guess that's sort of an inside joke to us. But I definitely feel like my gender identity and my expression is different from Jo's and Kathleen's. Not that I should be treated any differently, and I guess that is the point I'm trying to make: Any woman or any person whose gender identity doesn't fit the gender binaries should still be treated like a regular person."


Time to catch up on our rock reading with two of the year's best music books.

Second in influence among England's original punk bands only to the Sex Pistols, the Clash have been the subject of numerous biographies, but Pat Gilbert's new Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash (Da Capo, $18.95, above) is the book they've long deserved: thoroughly researched, sharply written, extremely insightful but unafraid to question the group's many contradictions. Even if you think you've read enough about the band, this one is well worth your time.

A revolution of a different sort is charted by William Duckworth in Virtual Music: How the Web Got Wired for Sound (Routledge, $24.95). An electronic composer himself, Duckworth begins with the history of "interactive music," including artists such as John Cage and Erik Satie, and rockets into the future with pioneers such as Brian Eno and Moby, exploring the many ways the Internet has changed the mode of distribution for artists, as well as the unique opportunities it presents for a sort of virtual studio and a creative tool unlike any other in the history of recorded sound. A bit dry and academic at times, the book is made more accessible by an accompanying CD.