On the Run with Kenny Mellman
Wed. February 25, 2015 by Gregg Shapiro
I think that my secret is that I really just want to amplify what is great and interesting in the people that I collaborate with.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Kenny, you have a history of great collaborations, from your work with Justin Vivian Bond as Kiki & Herb to Stephin Merrit to Kathleen Hanna in The Julie Ruin– what's your secret to playing well with others?
KM: (Kenny Mellman) I think that my secret is that I really just want to amplify what is great and interesting in the people that I collaborate with. I think I have an ability to zero in on their strengths and allow them to bloom.
GS: The first Julie Ruin record was essentially a solo effort by Kathleen Hanna – how would you describe your role in the evolution of The Julie Ruin into a full-fledged band?
KM: We began playing together by covering Kathleen's back catalogue. Slowly we began to write new songs and it was always in my mind to expand the sound and not just remake Bikini Kill or Le Tigre, so I tried to pull things in different directions. A lot of Le Tigre and the original Julie Ruin album were based on samples and though some of our songs began with a germ of an idea in a short sample of something else, it was important to me to be able to expand the structures of songs beyond that restriction. There are no samples on the album except for the voice of Kathleen's mom on "Party City"!
GS: What can you tell me about the songwriting process that occurred between you and Kathleen?
KM: After we came up with a basic song structure, Kathleen would look at me and be like "okay so after I sing this line you go "da da da dada da" and I would write some lyrics that fit that rhythm. I think we both are very good at figuring out a chorus so that became easy. Everyone in the band is such a great musician, each with our own strengths, so even though it took us a long time to record and finish the record, writing came fairly easy to us. The one time Kathleen had a hard time writing a lyric for a song, I went away for the weekend and recorded a demo lyric and it ended up on the record as "south coast plaza". I was envisioning Kathleen singing it but the demo vocal ended up on the album!
GS: Kathleen sounds like the kid sister of Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry on the amazing "Just My Kind."
KM: That was the one song that Kathleen brought in pretty much complete. She had written it as a demo for Xtina and when she turned it down, she brought it to us. I think it is one of Kathleen's best lyrics and one of my favorite love songs.
GS: "Cookie Road" is reminiscent of Kathleen's Le Tigre period. How important was it to the band to have that musical style represented?
KM: I think it was important not to completely avoid sounding like Kathleen's other bands but to expand and grow from those styles. So "Cookie Road" has a full on musical breakdown, something that Le Tigre did not approach. But I loved Le Tigre, saw them in many, many countries as Kiki and Herb was on tour the same times as Le Tigre, so there was no need to shy away from that sound.
GS: Are there remixes for "Cookie Road" in the works?
KM: We shall see!!
GS: "Party City" is full of musical references, from white label remixes to Frankie Goes to Hollywood. What's the story behind that song?
KM: Basically, the only lyric that I knew was the chorus of the shouted "Party City". Kathleen would often sing nonsense words in practice so she could get the rhythms and pitch of her vocal lines and then fill it in. So I wrote those parts of the song thinking that the song was sort of about partying. Turned out when Kathleen brought it the finished lyric that it was more about death. So in some ways the references to Frankie Goes To Hollywood make even more sense to me since AIDS was such a part of that time in music.
GS: There's an interplay in "Kids In NY," "South Coast Plaza," and title that is reminiscent of Exene and John Doe in X – was that the intention?
KM: I mean, X are probably my favorite band in the world, so when it became evident that Kathleen wanted me to sing on the album, that was probably one of the references to me. Also Richard and Linda Thompson.
GS: Not surprisingly, there is a political element to the music, exemplified on the title track and "Kids In NY," for example. What is the role of politics in the music of The Julie Ruin?
KM: I think it was important that the politics were just folded into the rest of the things going on in the band. Kathleen wanted the freedom to write songs that she just wanted to write and not worry about writing the songs people wanted. I think that the politics of the various members of the band shine through in various ways. My queerness is just a key part of my identity so I think it is just there.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.