Usually you figure the rock star doesn't want to be asked about his guitar solos--that it's old hat, something he's had to pontificate on countless times in his career as a professional musician, each time getting closer and closer to slipping into that glazed autopilot mode familiar to anyone who's ever talked to a professional musician. That, or he'll sort of sigh with another glazed look and tell you how he doesn't really know where the inspiration comes from, that he just plugs in, steps into the spotlight and waits for his moment to shine, when something greater than him courses through his veins--for what is assuredly the second time that night--and dances his fingertips across the fretboard, pulling breathless magic from metal and wood and wire. Hearing it for the 50th--shit, even the second--time is a little much, so you gradually learn to avoid the question, filing your curiosities away to be quenched some other day, when Cameron Crowe makes some other movie about some other young journalist pestering some other tall, hairy professional musician.
That's why I haven't asked the three women of Le Tigre about their guitar solos. At first I think that's a pretty fair shake, given the unconventional nature of their band. Formed in 1999 by former Bikini Kill front woman Kathleen Hanna, veteran fanzine editor Johanna Fateman and experimental filmmaker Sadie Benning (recently replaced by experimental choreographer J.D. Samson), Le Tigre captured the hearts of feminist- and progressive-minded music fans throughout the U.S. underground with its self-titled debut album. That record was a thrillingly presented (and humanely considered) treatise on feminist- and progressive-minded politics built from the ground up with the tools of the new underground: samplers, sequencers, drum machines, keyboards and their own seemingly inexhaustible voices.
Somewhere between a Gloria Steinem lecture and an episode of The Monkees, the record did what many thought improbable: made a Gloria Steinem lecture sound something like an episode of The Monkees. The album seemed so far removed from hoary rock-revolution clichés--at a time when the corpse of the MC5 was being exhumed daily and the fruit of a once-potent gangsta-rap had fallen far from N.W.A.'s tree--that as we're sitting over lunch in a homey Manhattan health-food joint, I don't even think to ask them the Almost Famous questions. My mistake.
Le Tigre with Sir Douglas Phillips and Panty Raid
"Sometimes I start getting confused by how little people ask about the music," Hanna admits as I go on and on about what it's like to be in a band based in progressive politics but currently finding itself embraced by an increasingly hip, fashion-conscious audience. "A lot of times we get long runs where it's like every single question is, 'Why do you like being a feminist?' Sometimes I'm like, 'Is it because I'm a woman that I never get asked about my music? Is it something that really freaks people out that we actually sit down and make this stuff?'"
It's a good question, of course, and one I've stumbled directly onto. In my mind I haven't avoided talking about gear and the songwriting process and practicing because I'm afraid of what they might say, but who knows? It is true that they operate as a band, that they do practice--"10- and 12-hour days sometimes," Hanna says--that their new record Feminist Sweepstakes is as musical as anything by any number of bands that don't write songs, as Le Tigre does, about RU-486 and everyday workplace oppression and "marching naked ladies." In fact, Feminist Sweepstakes, though not the blitzkrieg bop the group's debut was, shows off a band really digging into its own sound, approaching cut-and-paste punk rock as an experiment in pop art.
Songs like "Fake French," which welds a slinky soul vamp to sloganeering call-and-response vocals, and "On Guard," which juices a Bikini Kill one-string guitar line with canned beats and a killer one-hand keyboard part, illuminate the options open to creative musicians on the hunt for new sounds in an age with plenty of them. Like last year's From the Desk of Mr. Lady EP (which climaxed in an a cappella re-creation of the shots fired to kill Amadou Diallo), it's a more serious distillation of the digi-punk fury introduced on the debut, dedicated more to righteous indignation and self-education than to the celebration of womanhood that defined earlier songs like "Hot Topic," which literally namechecked a laundry list of wave-making females from the past century in time to an economy-sized groove that must've sounded like a manifesto to young women (and men) desperate for something other than the prefab gender roles coming down ye olde mainstream-media pike.
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In those ways, it's music suffused with the same kind of excitement Bikini Kill oozed during the riot-grrrl movement of the early '90s, when kids of all technical proficiency were picking up instruments and forming bands--whether or not they'd taken a single lesson or perfected that 12-minute guitar solo--and writing songs about what was important to them, what they weren't hearing elsewhere. As Le Tigre sings on "F.Y.R.," a scrappy two-and-a-half-minute collision of double-time Casio beats and shredded electric guitar that is virtually the definition of do-it-yourself 21st-century punk, not as much has changed since then as we might like to think: "Ten short years of progressive change/Fifty fuckin' years of calling us names."
As the waiter brings more soup, I think that perhaps this is why people don't ask the band about its music, that with so much on the table something's gotta take priority, and more often than not it's gonna be what Le Tigre aims its instruments at, rather than how it aims them. Happened to N.W.A., happened to Marilyn Manson, certainly happened to the Sex Pistols--and not all of those artists even made music worth talking about outside of its cultural context. Still, that doesn't mean Hanna doesn't have a point.
"We work really, really hard on this stuff, and it's a really big part of what we do," she explains. "Searching through records and picking stuff out and sampling stuff and truncating stuff and deciding what instruments to use and writing lyrics and structuring it--all that kind of stuff is pretty labor-intensive, and I do sometimes wonder if it's because we're women that people don't ask us more about the music. And I wonder if we weren't a political band if it would be something else, like if people would be talking about our clothes, our hair, our eyes, which so happens. Nine out of 10 interviews I've ever done by myself have begun with a description of what I look like--before, if ever, getting into my music. It's a lot about my Valley Girl accent and what I look like."
Usually you figure the rock star doesn't want to be asked about her guitar solos. But usually the rock stars aren't Le Tigre.