Invariably, anything you’ve read about The Julie Ruin focuses upon the band’s renowned frontwoman, Kathleen Hanna. Understandably so; our eyes naturally focus upon the shiniest of stars, those leaders with revolutionary zeal, the auteurs of historical import. But her real accomplishment in this most recent project might be the assemblage of a unique group of artists that use their poly-artistic backgrounds to create an idiosyncratic sound derived from numerous genres.
As they prepared to tour and release their first LP, Run Fast, (released September 3rd on their own label, TJR Records), Weeping Elvis spoke with drummer and multi-genre artist Carmine Covelli about the band’s origin story, the impact of health and age on rocking and rolling, and the songs they plan to play on tour. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript.
Weeping Elvis: Let’s start with how this all came about. Your affiliation with Kathleen Hanna dates back to work you did with Le Tigre?
Carmine Covelli: Yeah, I got asked to go on tour – actually I got asked to make background videos for them. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them live, but they used to play their backing tracks off of DVDs; they had a lot of projection going on in their shows and audio would be coming off the DVD, so they asked me to make 8 or 10 background videos for some of their new material off This Island. And so, initially, that’s how I met Kathleen. And then, they asked me to go on tour to help set up the projectors and make sure that everything was all set up and working right, plus it’s what their show was running off of: it wasn’t just video, their audio also came off of that right into the sync. And then, they offered me the job doing the lights, because I was there. But, I’m not a lighting designer so I just kind of “faked it until make-d it.”
And so, not in a drumming context.
No, I was just, really, crew. And then, there was a show in, I think, North Carolina. Kathleen got sick …. she was having some issues and decided to cancel the show and was really upset about it, so me and the sound guy and I think our merch person decided to throw together a quick, impromptu band. We got up onstage and we played for Kathleen and those guys …. We were just fooling around. But she was watching me drum then, and I think she came and watched me drum in some other band that I had been in after we got back from tour. And she’d also seen me in some other stuff .… we did a Phil Collins-themed show and a Prince-themed show, and she saw me drum in that as well.
That’s fate then, I guess…
I guess so. It was definitely unexpected; she asked me at her birthday party, which I thought was kind of funny. She approached me after we’d eaten dinner and were chit-chatting and drinking, and said, “hey, I’m putting a band together…do you want to play the drums?” And, I’m pretty sure I immediately said yes; I can’t recall exactly, I had a few drinks. But I was really excited and didn’t quite know what she meant, like, what kind of new band it would be, but I was just happy to be asked. And so, we march forward from there.
You can’t say no to the birthday girl.
Well exactly! That’s why I thought it was kind of hilarious that she asked me the night of her birthday as if I’m going to deny her [anything] that evening. And maybe that was part of her power play, (laughs) who knows!
The first edition of the project was well before that — in 1998 — and this iteration of The Julie Ruin has been ongoing since 2010. So there has been an interlude, and you’re only now releasing an album and getting “out there” a bit. Does it feel at all strange to debut something for the masses that isn’t new to you?
Well, it was definitely a long writing process, a long recording process, mostly due to Kathleen’s health issues, of which we’re all understanding, supportive, and patient. We didn’t know that going in; we knew she hadn’t been feeling well but she hadn’t gotten the diagnosis when we first got together. And so, when we first got together we were just learning the original Julie Ruin material, and that was fun, and then we just organically started writing songs. That’s when we all realized that it was morphing into some sort of new thing. Around that time she was diagnosed, which was upsetting for her and us, but we just decided that there was no rush; let’s just keep writing songs and we’ll take it as it goes.
Once it got mixed we didn’t listen to it — or at least I didn’t — for a good month and a half. And then we started getting back together to rehearse, thinking about the tour ahead, and I had to re-listen to it all again. “What fill did I use in that one part of that one song?” So, it does feel like we’re playing some stuff that has been around for awhile, but no one has ever heard it so it becomes new again because now we know we’ll be playing the songs in front of people that are finally listening to it, and that’s actually really really fucking exciting.
It would seem that – you’ve talked about the life experiences that have occurred during this – that you might be more self-aware than, say, a band comprised of early twenty-somethings. Is there any way in which you think your time in life is impacting what you have done and are planning to do as a band?
Yeah, at this age we all are in our lives, there’s a lot of “life happening” around us. I can tell you that personally, there are a lot of heavy things that happen once you hit 40. Good and bad. It’s just that it’s a roller coaster ride. I don’t know – when I was 20 I can’t really remember what the hell I was thinking; there was some heavy stuff going on then but not at this level. For all of us, I think we’re taking it week-by-week. It’s a little bit difficult to say because with Kathleen’s health, that was a big factor in how slowly we were taking it. I don’t know quite what the difference would be if she were completely healthy; I’m guessing we would probably have a longer tour planned right now. Which isn’t to say that we’re not going to plan a slightly longer tour, it’s just that we’re still in this period of holding off a bit until she’s 100%.
Let’s move to the album itself. You kick the album to a start on “Oh Come On,” which perhaps has more of a Sleater-Kinney feel than the electronic kinship with Le Tigre that permeates a lot of the album. A bit of a rock opera sensibility first appears on “Party City.” Its sort of dramatic narrative performance and its attendant vibe seem to connect the multi-genre artistic background of you and some of your bandmates, back to, say, artists like Jim Carroll and maybe even “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Does that seem accurate at all?
Wow, hearing “rock opera,” is really surprising. We definitely didn’t create – we weren’t out to make the album thematic or rock opera-esque. One thing I do remember us kind of talking about is that each song should stand on its own. We recorded twenty songs and pared it down to thirteen, so it was more about paring it down to those thirteen songs that sounded like they should be on the same album together. And, then, the sequencing — “why start with ‘Come On?” – that was many weeks of deliberation of band meetings, sitting in Kathleen’s apartment and listening back to the tracks, moving them around, figuring it out, saying, “ok, well this one ends with a splayed out cymbal thing and then the next one starts with a peak cymbal.” There was really no science to it, it was more of a gut feeling: “I feel like this one goes well with this one, it’s in this key and this one is not in that key, or it is,” we didn’t really think about the context of the songs and how that would lead into the next one, so, I guess….that’s inaccurate?
I should probably clarify what I meant there; I don’t mean that the entire album is like a “rock opera,” but rather that some of the songs have a vibe, a dramatic narrative, and are telling a story in a sort of theatrical way.
Ahh, yes, Well, Kathleen is pretty theatrical herself, and her lyrics are…I think she’s a great, great fucking lyricist. I read some of her lyrics and I’m always very impressed and blown away and thinking, “I’m not sure that I could really write something like that.” A good lyricist, a good poet, or just a good writer in general is able to pick the right words to describe something. Kathleen had obviously gone through a lot of heavy stuff — thinking about her life — and through it all she has a really, really healthy sense of humor, which I think is what helps her get past all of this, along with the support of her husband, her friends, and her family. But, you know, a good laugh when you’re feeling shitty can do a lot to help you. And so, in her lyrics, she’s definitely relaying what she was going through when she was writing that song or what the song makes her feel, and it’s pretty descriptive. Even if some of it is somewhat encrypted, if you read it, I think you can get it without her hitting you over the head, which to me is what a really good lyric is.
In terms of the contributions from yourself and your other band members, do you feel that your background in a variety of artistic experiences informs what you’ve brought to the project?
Hmm, yeah. Actually, yes. The fact that Kathleen asked this group of people — that alone I thought was a pretty genius move on her part, because we all have somewhat overlapping but distinct and different backgrounds. I come from punk/hardcore/metal/psychedelic/whatever, and then Kenny [Mellman] comes from classical piano/cabaret/pop/Kiki & Herb-style craziness, and then you’ve got Sara [Landeau] who plays surf guitar-style stuff and was in a lot of bands that had that sort of sound, and then Kathi [Wilcox] was in Casual Dots and some other sort of low-fi indie stuff, and then Kathleen, her range includes Bikini Kill-punk/rage to the total dance mania of Le Tigre. So, to put all of that together sounds like a total recipe for disaster. But, somehow, it turned out ok!
As you look at the live performances: you have thirteen tracks on the upcoming album, Run Fast, you said you recorded twenty, there are some from back in the 90s I’d think as well…are you playing them all? Are you adding any others into the mix? What’s on the set list?
The set list is kind of interesting. We’re certainly playing a good number of songs from the new album, but we — I guess it’s ok to say it — we’re going to play some old Julie Ruin stuff. We’re really pumped to rehearse that. I think there have been a lot of requests on Twitter about Bikini Kill songs, but I don’t think we’re going to do that this time around. But we’re definitely playing old Julie Ruin with the new The Julie Ruin. It’s a good mix of that.
You have stated personal interests in technology and alternative energy, interests I share. Is there any specific way in which these sorts of intellectual pursuits impact your relationship to your art or music? With drumming for example, you see a lot of people incorporating a traditional drum kit in with synth drums.
Growing up I had a real aversion to incorporating technology with acoustic instruments for some reason; I thought that was a big no-no. I’m not completely against it, but as far as drums, I’m just playing a straight-up acoustic drum set. I don’t have any triggers or samples to hit. Kenny is hitting some samples on his end. That’s not to say that we won’t incorporate that in the future, but I really don’t have any experience doing it. I do like technology and I’m of a tech mind, but for some reason I separate those two worlds when it comes to drumming. I like to do as much as I can on a simple drum set. Just a simple three-piece drum set; you should be able to crank out some jams with that.
Tangentially, what excites you in those two worlds (alternative energy / technology)? What scares you?
There’s not much that scares me about either alternative energy or technology, other than it being repressed in some weird way by big corporations. I tweet and post and spend a lot of time thinking about alternative energy and the future. I’m not sure why; I just find it really fascinating and interesting. It kind of boggles my mind that we don’t harness certain things. Why we don’t create energy ourselves is beyond me. I guess there’s an infrastructure problem, but even on an individual level I’m always fascinated with trying to figure out ways to do something that I guess is considered unorthodox but really is completely logical.