That's why we haven't asked the three women of Le Tigre about their guitar solos. At first we think that's a pretty fair shake, given the unconventional nature of their band. Formed in 1999 by former Bikini Kill frontwoman 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, progressive 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.
"Sometimes I start getting confused by how little people ask about the music," Hanna admits, as we go on and on about what it's like to be in a band that's based in progressive politics, but is 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 we've stumbled directly into. We haven't consciously avoided talking about gear and the songwriting process and practicing because we're afraid of what Le Tigre 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 that's really digging into its own sound, approaching cut-and-paste punk rock as an experiment in pop art.
Songs such as "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 such as "Hot Topic," which literally namechecked a laundry list of wave-making females from the past century.
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 so 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, we think that perhaps this is why people don't ask the band about its music; 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. 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.