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‘There’s no rules’: Le Tigre bring feminist protest back to the dancefloor

Le Tigre - the electroclash band formed by Kathleen Hanna post-Bikini Kill - are back. They're giving feminists a place to think and sweat together.

Feminist electroclash band Le Tigre (l-r Kathleen Hanna, JD Samson, Johanna Fateman) in 2004

Le Tigre (l-r Kathleen Hanna, JD Samson, Johanna Fateman) in 2004. Photo: Leeta Harding

“One step forward, five steps back,” sings Kathleen Hanna on Le Tigre’s F.Y.R. It is the eternal lament of the progressive. The initials in the song’s title allude to an argument in seminal feminist text The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone, in which the radical activist describes the ‘fifty years of ridicule’ American women had to bear between getting the right to vote in 1920 and the book’s publication in 1970. Three decades later, in 2001, Hanna’s electroclash band was once again facing the fact that every time we get a win, reactionary forces are right there with the backlash.

Here in 2023, on a video call to Big Issue to mark their reunion, Kathleen Hanna is reflecting, with bandmates Johanna Fateman and JD Samson, on how painfully on point that sentiment remains. With its references to equal pay, equal marriage, nationalised health care and reparations for Black people, F.Y.R. rails against many of the Fox News talking points / Republican party wedge issues that still dominate US politics today. Like much of Le Tigre’s work, its finger remains on the pulse – and like all their music, it’s a total bop.

“It’s actually kind of terrifying how right on the lyrics are, yeah,” says Hanna.

“I think people have been yearning for this dance-infected, kind of protest vibe. You know what I mean?” Samson agrees. “It’s been exciting for us to come back and be in that space, sweating with people who are thinking and people who are political and feminists. We’re really excited to bring the lyrics to the dance floor again. Personally, I’ve been missing that. And I know a lot of people have too.”

Coming out of New York in 1998, Le Tigre formed after the dissolution of Hanna’s former band, riot grrrl innovators Bikini Kill. Le Tigre were louder, brighter, more playful, more fun – and more political – than the rest of the studiously cool NYC crew. “I feel like we’ve proved as a band that just providing a cultural space that’s different than the mainstream landscape is important and does make changes,” says Hanna. After three albums of danceable revolution, the band were facing burnout and called it quits in 2007. They mostly been on hiatus since then – bar a single in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and one-off collaborations with Pussy Riot and Christina Aguilera.

But as Firestone knew in the 70s, a feminist’s work is never done. Almost 20 years on from the last Le Tigre album, their songs have been going viral among young women on TikTok (“I love seeing what people do,” says Fateman, “I’m like, Oh, you’re listening to Deceptacon and making candles? Cool”) and the band have once again taken up microphone, guitar, synth and drum machine to rally the troops. In June, they arrive in the UK for several hotly-anticipated live shows, following on from a triumphant return to the stage at California’s This Ain’t No Picnic Festival last August.

“I live in Pasadena, which is where the show happened,” says Hanna. “So I saw people out and about, and everybody was like: ‘The lyrics, the lyrics, the lyrics, the lyrics. Wow, they’re so relevant.’ I was very shocked that that was the comment. At first, I was like, ‘oh, did we suck, and they’re just trying to think of something nice to say?’ And then it was so overwhelming, that I realised people were really genuine.”

Kathleen Hanna performs with Le Tigre at This Ain’t No Picnic Festival
Kathleen Hanna performs with Le Tigre at This Ain’t No Picnic Festival. Photo: Derrick Lee

Weirdly, Le Tigre’s cultural footprint has only got bigger in their absence. The last time I saw them, it was 2005 and we were crammed into Glasgow’s tiny, 300-capacity King Tut’s. This time, at least six times that number will be across town, piling into the legendary Barrowlands. It’s great their return is “not just a retro thing”, says Fateman. “There’s something about the reunion dynamic that is exciting to people. But I also feel blessed that our music has had a longevity. I love that for teenagers now it’s almost part of their rite of passage for coming into their adulthood and feminism and queer identities.”

Where young feminists today might debate and connect over TikTok, ’90s riot grrrl was very much powered by photocopiers. The creators of feminist punk zines – Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman influentially among them – highlighted marginalised voices and harnessed the printed medium for social change. “I saw riot grrrl thing change things. People were talking about their identity and feminism and a lot of different things and making friends and starting groups,” says Hanna.

At the same time, across the pond, The Big Issue was starting out – with a very similar attitude, albeit with our main focus on ending homelessness, rather than dismantling sexism. That shared DNA is why Le Tigre chose to speak to us for one of their few UK interviews, says Fateman.

“I think what your magazine does is amazing,” she explains. “There’s a really intense housing crisis here in the United States, both here in New York and in Los Angeles, where Kathleen is. It dovetails with a lot of our concerns with immigration, domestic violence, global warming, climate. It’s the intersection of all these things that we really care about.”

Much as we may need a space to party against oppression, the Le Tigre reunion isn’t forever. In fact, the band say this might be the last time they play the UK. So if they’re passing the baton to the next generation of feminists, activists and creatives, what message would they like to give?

“I mean,” says Fateman. “I just like to tell young people there’s no rules and you don’t need permission.”

Le Tigre play the Troxy in London on June 3; Albert Hall, Manchester on June 5; and Glasgow’s Barrowlands on June 6. More info at letigre.world.

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