LE TIGRE with Mary Timony and Miss Barbrafisch at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Sunday (August 25). $15. 416-466-0313. Rating: NNNNN
Meet the new Charlie's Angels for the 21st century. Post-riot grrrls Kathleen Hanna, J.D. Samson and Johanna Fateman may spend days diddling samplers and scribbling patriarchy-slamming lyrics, but the Le Tigre punksters are actually amassing ammunition for their next superhero stint.
"We're really obsessed with justice," an excited Hanna discloses on the line from her home base in New York City. "We want to get people out of prison who haven't been given fair trials because of class and/or race issues. All this new DNA technology has opened things up to free people who've been wrongfully accused, but not everyone has equal access to it.
"We came up with the brilliant idea of becoming investigators. We sent away for our detective kit in the mail, and we've been talking about starting a feminist detective agency.
"We'd basically be the anti-Charlie's Angels! We'd have this great undercover thing where people'd think we're a band. Really, though, we'd be coming to your town to get to the bottom of that unsolved crime!"
Until they work out the kinks in their ass-kicking plan, the Tigres are pretty content spearheading their own brand of danceable revolution. When they roared onto the scene in 1999 with their self-titled debut, the band "for the ladies and the fags / with the roller skate jams" (to quote their tour anthem) had critics and fans drooling on the dance floor. Two albums later, including the latest, Feminist Sweepstakes, the momentum's still building.
It's hard to believe that this crew of unabashedly nerdy radical feminists have become the It Girls for the hipster set. Or maybe it's not. In the early 90s, Hanna penned a fanzine manifesto entitled Dorky = Cool. Pissed off at mainstream mags, she decided to put the lie to their smug assertions that feminism was for losers.
Hanna hooked up with Fateman and experimental filmmaker Sadie Benning (the other original Tigre) while working on experimental pop project Julie Ruin. Something clicked, and they started fighting the evil forces of misogyny and prejudice with funked-up, punked-out sampledelic electroboogie tunes.
By the time they began recording their second disc, 2001's well-received EP From The Desk Of Mr. Lady, Benning had left the group to make more films. J.D. Samson, a founding member of performance artists Dykes Can Dance, signed on as the newest Angel -- oops, Tigre.
Le Tigre aren't cagey when it comes to their politics. Tunes like Hot Topic (a virtual roll call of ball-busting femme heroes throughout history) and FYR (which argues that every decade of feminist progress is followed by 50 years of ridicule) shake a Girl Power fist in your face, while other tracks take the piss outta ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani and racist NYC cops.
They don't dumb down their shit, either. Who else coos sweetly about post-binary-gender chores over squelchy bass riffs?
Hanna's effusive about electronic music's potential.
"You can use samples as an homage-slash-advertisement. There are so many nerdy listeners who want to know where the samples come from and what we're referencing. I'd love to have enough money to clear samples and pay other radical musicians, to bring them to the attention of an audience that doesn't know who they are.
"There was this really great Portland band from a while back called the Obituaries. I've always loved their singer's voice. What if we were able to sample that and actually pay her a royalty for it? Then she could get credit for it and people might be inspired to go check out her work. Sampling can be community-building.
"Then there's the opposite approach, where we can take sexist or offensive material, things that are shoved down our throats, and do something like slow it down and play witch laughter over it. Through sampling, I can play something about killing a woman over and over again and layer my own commentary over top of it."
Hanna's political credentials have developed over a decade, starting with her pet project, a women's co-op art/performance space, a variation of which she and co-Tigre Fateman plan to revive. She yowled her way to fame in Olympia estro-powered punk band Bikini Kill and played midwife at the birth of the riot grrrl movement before she founded Julie Ruin.
The philosophy from those Bikini Kill days remains the same, but the music has changed. And Hanna has developed a new, much more guarded public persona. She claims it's something she picked up almost a decade ago from the late seminal feminist punk writer Kathy Acker.
"Just 'cause you're a woman and political, when you're touring around with a band and getting even a small amount of media attention everyone thinks you're a bitch," she insists.
Hanna used to counter that hostility by being "super-nice to everyone," but says it was exhausting and futile. She's smart and receptive during our interview, but does not suffer fools gladly. She's exchanged superficial sweetness for terse honesty (see sidebar, this page) that's gotten her dissed as difficult in the press, not that she gives a damn.
The Third Wave icon has always been upfront about her history as a survivor of sexual abuse. In her punk rock days, she worked at a women's shelter and played benefits to stop domestic violence. On Le Tigre's newest record, the track Keep On Livin' is a self-help anthem inspired by The Courage To Heal -- the abuse survivor's bible. The Courage To Heal Web site includes Hanna's own narrative and a variety of resources.
But Hanna says she's struggled with establishing boundaries as an after-effect of the abuse. Did her decision to become a performer in the first place stem from her abusive history?
She thinks about it. "I've been trying to develop a new performance identity through my involvement in Le Tigre. I don't want to be as vulnerable as I was in Bikini Kill, 'cause some of the things I did in that band were really unsafe. I think a lot of performers have someplace deep in their core where they feel very unloved, and they seek that love through anonymous strangers.
"It's sort of the same idea as drinking salt water till you die 'cause you're so thirsty -- you're never gonna get what you want."firstname.lastname@example.org versus tigre
Hanna's big mouth got her into trouble with Munich-based performance art/synth punks Chicks on Speed (www.chicksonspeed.com) when she slammed them for falling short as feminist artists because they were still collaborating with male producers.
In a 2001 interview with NOW, Chick Melissa Logan griped about how Hanna'd dissed their authenticity, whining, "The feeling is that if you're a girl you should do everything yourself. Whatever.
"I have a big problem with the idea of artists having to slave away, working as their own managers, record label owners, producers and graphic designers. All you do is work yourself to death."
It seems they've made amends, since the Chicks are releasing Le Tigre's Feminist Sweepstakes on their own Chicks on Speed label in Europe.
Hanna half-denies that she dissed the Chicks, but then suddenly pauses during our interview to take a call on the other line.
"That was Melissa from Chicks on Speed telling me to go to hell!" she laughs. "I think they're great and fun to hang out with, although I hope they get more into making their own music.
"I probably said that it's weird to get compared to them. So much of what we do is trying to learn how to make our own music and demystifying that for other women by showing that it's not some mysterious, super-hard thing, which is what a lot of expert-style men want us to believe.
"Being lumped in the same category as people who are working with producers and acting more as conceptual artists makes me feel like there's sexism going on, 'cause we're employing ourselves to make music." SL