The Julie Ruin: personal and artistic fulfillment

When you realize you can’t fake it

At a certain point in their careers, many musicians discover that something about their art has to be a reflection of themselves, if they want to continue on. It might sound trite or self-absorbed, but taking over the world has to come second to personal and artistic fulfillment; eventually, many musicians realize that they can’t fake what they’re doing. In order to make music that matters to other people, it has to matter to the auteur as well. That step in artistic development is a very important one, and by Julie Ruin keyboardist Kenny Mellman’s estimation, it is the one singer Kathleen Hanna discovered when she assembled The Julie Ruin and then wrote and recorded the band’s debut album Run Fast.

“The difference in making this band and the music on Run Fast, I think, is the centre from which the music sprang,” says Mellman, pensively. “Kathleen has said that in previous projects she felt the need to write songs that other people needed, and with this project she took a more personal stance and wrote songs that she felt SHE needed. There was definitely a bit of that push to it because Kathleen was sick while we were writing and so the moments when were all together working on it were very precious.

“That there was sort of ‘make it now, while we can,’ urgency sort of drove the stakes up on the process a bit, but the desire to have it be fun was definitely important too because we didn’t want anyone’s spirit to get dragged down by what we were doing,” continues the keyboardist. “That was important, but it turned out to be easy in that regard, because we discovered we all really like each other, which is a grand and wonderful thing, and sort of a testament to Kathleen’s devotion to her vision. She is very shrewd and measured a lot of variables when she starts a project; she did it with Le Tigre and she did it with us and she did it with Bikini Kill. She just has a gift for getting the right people together who will be able to see, understand, and share the idea she has and be excited to be involved.”

julieruinThere’s no doubt that Hanna’s gift for putting together the ideal crew to realize her vision was in top form when it came time to make Run Fast. The coolest thing about Run Fast is that, while there’s no doubt the album owes a debt to the scruffy, ragged and grungy music of the Pacific Northwest music scene of the nineties, there’s also no question that the sound is fresh and all new. Tracks like “Just My Kind,” “Party City,” “Cookie City,” and “Right Home” all balance the darker and more ominous sub-text of grunge just beneath a beat-centric and ragingly poppy surface layer and compose a new structure that requires both to function. There’s no way the music would be as good if it was “all-grunge” or “all-pop”; it needs both of those poles in order to punch as hard as the music does. Listeners will find they’ve quickly come to crave that two-pronged salvo as the record progresses. That development proves to be one of the most exciting things about Run Fast.

According to Mellman, that the creative process was so open proved to be really satisfying. “I can say that the process making the record was definitely unique and really interesting,” says Mellman with a laugh. “A lot of the time Kathleen would bring in a loop and say ‘Let’s try working off of this’ and we would see what we could do with it. She worked with loops a lot in Le Tigre and I think she had a bit of a revelation when she started bringing little pieces to us because they’d be a building block that we’d work with and add to. [Laughing] We’d start adding more chords and structures around the samples, and by the time we were done the sample or loop would have been phased out! There ended up not being a single loop on the record. Not so long ago, someone online contended that something we had done was actually a sample from a Cars song, but there were no samples or loops on the album; the songs were initially built with them in a way, but they’d eventually get left behind. In that way, I guess the process was really one of humanizing the loops and making them into songs. Then, as we were writing, it sounded as though Kathleen was just mumbling to fill out the melody of the song but, when she brought in the lyric sheet she’d finished for the song we’d been working on, we looked at it and exclaimed, ‘Yes! That’s the most human, painful lyric that we could imagine, but it’s also the best sort of thing we could have hoped for!’ It was the coolest thing—a really, unique and exciting experience, to be sure.”

With the album out now, drawing a tremendous amount of praise from critics and really invigorating life in rock listenership, The Julie Ruin has bowed to convention and begun touring to support the release. However, they’re not trying to stay on the road indefinitely and exhaust themselves. The band is working hard to ensure that audiences get what they want from their shows, but not going so hard that they exhaust themselves or get sick of the endeavour. “To be perfectly honest, I think we’ve already started writing a second record, but when we first got the project started, we didn’t even know if we’d be able to play live, so our expectations were different,” Mellman confesses.

“We almost didn’t book the tour that we did last September because Kathleen was worried that she might have to cancel shows because she wouldn’t have the energy to commit to doing a tour [Hanna was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2011—ed]. We told her though that nothing is ever certain. Anything could happen to any of us at any time—nothing is ever guaranteed—so it’s not just her cross to bear. Conversations like that opened up the dialogue of it being impossible to plan that way, really. One of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow too and that would be bad, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. The same is true of Kathleen’s health; I mean, she has to be careful and none of us would ever ask her to do anything at the expense of her health, but there’s no reason to not try, unless she didn’t feel like she could. She wanted to try though, so we did the first tour and Kathleen’s health was great and everybody felt really good about how it turned out, so that was the reasoning we needed to see how far we can take it.

“The first album took three years to make, but we’re already talking about writing another one. The primary concern is that we just want to keep it fun. We’re all in places in our lives that we don’t need to get in a van and disappear on tour for two years, and the fact that we know we couldn’t do that really helps us make sure we’re keeping it light and fun. That’s really important to all of us, but that it’s working out really well and everybody’s happy with it feels really great.”

The Julie Ruin on Soundcloud

[As of May 13, several sources are reporting that Kathleen Hanna’s health has again taken a turn for the worse, forcing The Julie Ruin to cancel their summer tour dates. – Ed.]

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.