“We were ahead of our time”: Le Tigre talk politics and fashion faux pas
Formed in the late ‘90s from the ashes of Kathleen Hanna’s riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, the reunited trio are now enjoying TikTok virality and credit for pioneering the so-called “indie sleaze” aesthetic.
It’s been 18 years since Le Tigre last toured, but their politically-potent dance-punk still feels fresh. “We were cryogenically frozen in 2005 and they just took us out of the freezer,” jokes founding member Johanna Fateman.
The trio formed in New York City in 1998, when Kathleen Hanna was seeking a live band to perform the songs from Julie Ruin, a solo album she started while her trailblazing riot grrrl band Bikini Kill was dissolving. Hanna drafted in zine-maker Fateman, who she’d met at a Bikini Kill show, along with Sadie Benning, who’d worked on music videos for the Julie Ruin project. Together they started cooking up new material, and thus Le Tigre was born. Sadie left in 2000 to return to filmmaking after the release of their debut, self-titled album in 1999, and she was replaced by the band’s roadie, JD Samson.
In a 2019 interview, Hanna explained that Le Tigre’s mission had been to “write political pop songs and be the dance party after the protest”. The band dressed activism up in a disco-ready outfit, promoting feminist beliefs and empowering messages on the queer experience with a lo-fi setup of drum machines, punchy synths and scratchy punk guitars.
Le Tigre’s third and final album, This Island, was released in 2004 via Universal – making it their first release on a major label. After years of graft through DIY culture, the band considered the signing a make or break moment. A year later, they reached a hiatus due to exhaustion and burnout, but with no bad blood between them.
Le Tigre’s hiatus has been interrupted by the occasional burst of activity – such as their production work on Christina Aguilera’s 2010 Peaches collab My Girls and their 2016 single I’m With Her, released in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. And since 2005, the members have kept active in various creative fields. Fateman’s been working as an art critic, while Samson became a music professor and launched the dance music band MEN. Meanwhile, Hanna has toured and released two records with The Julie Ruin (now a fully fledged band) and has been on the road with the reformed Bikini Kill.
Le Tigre made a triumphant return to the stage last August at This Ain’t No Picnic Fest in California, and their forthcoming tour feels particularly well-timed. Gen Z kids recently have fallen in love with their music, sending their songs such as Deceptacon and Phanta viral on TikTok. Their loud, clashy and colourful outfits now look classic thanks to “indie sleaze” nostalgia, which celebrates the brashness of bands from the early ‘00s-early 2010s.
And unfortunately, the battles Le Tigre fought all those years ago are far from over. “Not a lot of gains have been made with regard to the issues we talk about,” says Fateman. “And in fact, a lot of things are much worse.”
Over a Zoom call, Le Tigre chat to THE FACE about returning to bring joy in an intense political climate.
As much as Le Tigre is about activism and politics, it’s also an outlet for celebrating femininity and queer expression. With the current political climate – Roe V. Wade, the drag show bans – how does performing music about these themes compare to when you were doing it back in the early ‘00s and late ‘90s?
Kathleen Hanna: I think we can only speak to how it felt when we played our first reunion show [at This Ain’t No Picnic festival]. It felt really healing to be in this horrible political landscape, speaking our own truth and having people be really receptive to it. People were just super supportive and like, ‘thank you, I really needed that’. I feel like bringing joy into this time period is really important, and to also stress the fact that there’s so many ways that we can be political.
Johanna Fateman: I think our shows have always felt really good to us as performers looking out and seeing the different kinds of people there. People were getting to gather in the same place to feel solidarity with each other, so I hope that it will feel that way when we’re on tour. People can be like, ‘Okay, I live in a place where abortion is illegal, but I’m in a room with only people who support bodily autonomy and that feels really good’.
These days, politics and music are naturally coming together more, because Gen Z seems a lot more interested in change and equality. Does it make you feel hopeful for where the future of art and music is heading?
JD Samson: It’s been really inspiring for me to be so in touch with what’s happening with young musicians through teaching. I’m really excited that this new group of musicians and artists are thinking politically. We were talking about this the other day, and Kathleen was discussing this idea of taking risks and being fearful of critique. I think that that does bring an interesting element into it; we weren’t living with social media, so we had a really different response to reviews because it took so long for them to come out. I think that does shape the way that younger people are thinking about what they put out and they tend to overthink things. I think that there’s beauty in saying how you feel and just not caring. That’s something I hope younger artists will get in touch with.
What do you think is key to balancing activism with taking care of yourselves and your mental health?
JDS: That is, like, the question.
KH: For me, playing shows is the antidote. It’s really fun to dance to our songs, and when I’m on stage, I feel like I’m shaking out a lot of demons. It’s kind of a therapy for me and I’ve been hesitant in the past to ever say that. There’s always this critique of any marginalised artist that we don’t have original ideas, we’re just spewing our problems. Which is not true, obviously, but it is therapeutic and I’m not gonna deny that it is for fear that somebody’s gonna say ‘Le Tigre’s not a real band’. I love therapy and a lot of people can’t afford it, and if I find it therapeutic to be on stage, I hope that other people find it therapeutic to feel validated by some of the things that we’re singing about, and by dancing with a group of people who so often are shut out at indie rock shows.
JDS: In terms of the emotional labour of being an artist, and specifically being a marginalised artist, I think one thing that’s really helped me is just feeling like we’re a team together. If I’m feeling shitty, Jo and Kathleen are always there to make me feel supported. That’s been super therapeutic, and also just reminding each other that we’re not politicians, we’re artists. People expect a lot of us sometimes and it’s okay to not be able to give that to them.
JF: Something that I really like about Le Tigre is – and I really felt this way at the show we played last summer – we have created a little universe with our own aesthetic and visually on stage. We were wearing bright colours, Kathleen shot a lot of video footage that was used, and we had our lyrics up. It does feel like we’ve created a world and it’s not an escapist world where we don’t still need to dismantle white supremacy, or we don’t still need to save the world from rapidly spiking temperatures. All of that stuff is still in our world, but we have a frame around it. We’re kind of dealing with it within this framework so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming, it feels like something that we can name and cope with, and get excited about how to fix it.
Earlier this year, the culture writer Jill Krajewski tweeted that Le Tigre was key to the so-called “indie sleaze” fashion movement. Do you have any fond fashion memories that you look back on fondly, or have there been any fashion faux pas?
KH: I think this is, like, one of the best questions we’ve been asked!
JF: I think so too!
JD: I mean, our eyes lit up for sure.
KH: Every Ocean Hughes made some of our very early costumes and we were really into the idea that the costumes could change like transformers to more than meets the eye. JD had these orange and red pants that were very ill-fitting and had zippers on them and then in the middle of the show, [she] would unzip them and they’d become shorts. We were like, ‘we’re so technological!’, but now when I see them, because they’re in my garage, I always chuckle.
We didn’t have any money and so we sewed sequins on t‑shirts and stuff like that. Now, to be able to make different decisions about our costume is super exciting. We actually worked with a stylist for the first time, Shirley Kurata, who pulled clothes for us. She worked on the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once that got a bunch of awards.
JDS: I think we were ahead of our time mostly. I loved that we were matching, sometimes we went to parties and wore matching outfits, which I thought was really cool. It brought a really active spirit to us all. It felt like we were kind of like animated creatures which I really thought was fun. I also just loved being absurdist with it.
JF: It’s like the faux pas was the goal!
The last record you put out was This Island, which was released through Universal Records. For some people, it may have felt like an odd point to leave things. What are your memories of that era?
JF: It was an experiment, we had been doing things in this very DIY way, but we had grown beyond what a DIY infrastructure could handle. We were interested in having a budget to record and making a different kind of record. In that sense, it was really successful and fun and we got to go to all these different studios, work with different producers. I think we learned so much, but also we were under a lot of pressure from external forces to make a hit and I don’t think that’s a very healthy atmosphere to put yourself in as an artist. I think that we are at our best when we’re just being ourselves.
JDS: For me it was an interesting reality check. I remember we were asked to do a full page ad and we were like, ‘we’re not gonna do it unless you say feminist and lesbian’, and they were like, ‘we’ll say feminist but not lesbian’. We were testing the waters in a lot of ways and I remember in some ways, it felt really empowering and in some ways it felt complicated and sad. But I will say that there was something really interesting about all the connotations of signing with a major and having all these suits around and stuff. There was some of that, but there were also a lot of feminist and queer people working at the label. So there was an element of it that was fun.
KH: I wanted other marginalised artists to be like, ‘the world is my oyster and I don’t have to stay underground’. A lot of the time, DIY culture ends up involving a lot of female volunteerism and a lot of people who have very little resources doing tons of work and not getting paid for it. One of the things that we wanted to do is be able to pay people we collaborated with, be able to pay ourselves, be able to have health insurance. The DIY community, if it stays in opposition to the major label situation, it’s just gonna be a bunch of rich kids playing shows. Having said that, we made more money when we were independent. I loved touring in a van, I have very fond memories of when we toured in a van and we made wads of cash!
Along with the tour, will there be any new music on the way? Or are there any other projects you’re excited to share?
KH: I have a memoir coming out next year. I don’t know when, but I’m still waiting to get that email. But that’s kind of the most exciting thing on my horizon besides playing shows with Bikini Kill and my t‑shirt company.
JF: We don’t have any new music, but there will be some special surprises in our shows.
KH: Hopefully people will come because we might not be back, like come down, come to the shows!
JF: And also see how fashionable we are!
JDS: I really look forward to everyone seeing how cool we are.