I am stupidly pleased to be able to share with you this interview with Sara Landeau, guitarist for The Julie Ruin, whose frontwoman Kathleen Hanna is a name you ought to know (and if you don’t, shame on you, feminists) and whose new album is out on 9/3. Sara is pretty flat out amazing, and below, she talks about playing in co-ed bands, how she got her start, and what teaching means to her. It’s awesome.
You’ve taught and played for many years, before joining the Julie Ruin — have your previous musical projects been similar to the kind of music you’re playing now? Does teaching music affect the ways you perform?
I’ve always played with women, or co-ed, so that part is similar. And I’m still faithful to my Twin amp and distorted tones, but other than that, this has been a brand new experience. Crafting songs with a keyboardist has been exciting, I mean, all those new tones to work with. I’ve learned to lay back too, and bring the other instruments into focus, the vocals, the subtle stuff that makes it exciting. As far as teaching, well, when you’ve been doing that for a long time, you always get those dudes that know about you that stand on the side of the stage with their arms crossed, staring seriously at your hands playing guitar. I guess they’re looking for “mistakes”? Don’t they have fun at shows!? Ha. I can see you from the stage, guy. Actually I’ve been guilty of concentrating too hard on the guitarist too, just to pick up pointers really, but now I’m more conscious of it. Haha..
I love the features on your blog about the bands of your students — they remind me of my own teenage years, except that they’re much braver than I ever was and they’re playing music out in public, instead of hiding in their bedrooms listening to it like I did. How do your students influence you? What kind of teenager were you — playing or hiding or both?
Yeah, my students endlessly inspire me, the adult students even more. Its even harder for the adults to do it, but when they first play out its very emotional. The kids are always like “okay, lets just do this,” then get on stage without rationalizing. The cool thing is how passionate it all is. Plus I like how they’re still learning how to perform. For example when the young girls are done playing a song, screaming, big drum solo ending and so on, they tend to just stop and look around blankly with instruments dangling. Then I wave from the side “this is where you exit the stage!” And then they say “oh, okay” and run off. Like it never occurred to them what to do when its done. I was a quiet teenager with a plan to be a visual artist one day. I don’t think I could’ve done what they have when I was their age. But sexism in music was worse then than it is now and I didn’t have any support at their age. Thats another reason I started teaching girls for a living, to offer what I didn’t have.
Your biography says that you majored in Art History, graduating in 2002. Do you consider that you “use” your degree in any ways, even small ones? Did you consider studio art or music? Did you play music through college? Has your education shaped your career in any ways?
I continued to play live music and make art and when I was at Columbia studying, especially since I worked at CBGB’s all those years. We got to play there all the time and I could be a part of the group art shows in Cb’s Gallery. It was a ying-yang thing. Going up to that gorgeous campus and library on the upper west side then back to my bar shifts. Getting into and then attending a really good school was very difficult for me. I had to learn how to work very hard. You got used to reading 100 pages a day. Its still the hardest thing I ever did. It completely shaped the way I thought and that experience made me want to teach and do something bigger than me.
I graduated from college in 2002 as well, so I’m just guessing that you’re close to my age, and if I’m wrong, please ignore this!) You came of age at the height of Riot Grrrl. When you met Kathleen teaching, was it a kick to be working with someone who was formative in putting women out front in music in the ’90s?
I didn’t go straight to college so I’m probably a little older than you. I moved to LA from Milwaukee at 18 and saw tons of great bands there. That was definitely the grunge era. I met Caroline Rue, who was also from a small town outside of Milwaukee, and who was Hole’s original drummer and on the first album. She was an inspiration to buy a drum kit and start playing. I don’t know if I ever told her that! Then I moved to NYC a couple years later and formed a band with two women I met at CBGB’s. We got to open for everyone at CBGB’s of course, but the whole girl-rock movement never quite hit NYC the way it did everywhere else. We were an all female band dying to book nights with other girl punk bands…but there weren’t many here then. I was obsessed with the Japanese band The 5678’s and retro bands like The Trashwomen at that time so we tried to sound be just like them – a trio of women, super garagey and trashrock, opening our sets with long surf instrumentals. I’d always followed Kathleen’s career and loved her voice. I really got into Le Tigre and the fact that she evolved into a new thing, was willing to morph like David Bowie, and I had huge respect for musicians who took risks and embraced new styles. The first time I saw Le Tigre in a magazine, maybe Bust Magazine, I was like “Fuck Yeah!”
As a multi-instrumentalist, is there one instrument that you think of most as “yours”? One you prefer to play, or one you prefer to teach?
Guitar is definitely my preferred instrument because I can write with it. Drums and bass are rhythmic and totally different to me, primal, and fun. I love teaching all three instruments. Guitar is the more cerebral, I believe. I mean, I feel like I used to be able to have a few drinks and play a good set on drums. On guitar, no way, not even one beer or I’m a mess!
What’s the best thing about playing in the Julie Ruin?
Being creative with this crew is the best part.
If you had a time machine and could go back in time and see a single concert that you missed (or you’d like to relive), what show — who, where, when — would it be?
I can think of a hundred shows I want to see! So I’ll pick an important one that happened before I was born. That would be seeing The Velvet Underground perform for the first time with Andy Warhol doing the light show. That would be perfect.