Entre Nous: Talking to Patty Schemel, musician and author
by Marcelle Karp
I saw Hole when they toured Live Through This. We’d already started BUST, we were awake, we were fans. Seeing Patty Schemel on drums, the reinforcement of Third Wave, the girl in the back backed by a girl at the front. It was the ultimate coalescence of everything I loved—fierce, angry, emotive music by women. Patty driving. Living the dream. (If you haven’t seen the documentary Hit So Hard I highly recommend it, it is so sublime in the way it captures what it was like watching Hole play live, oh the thrill of it.) Until, as she says in her exquisite memoir Hit So Hard, “word was out that I was a mess.” What made Patty a mess was heroin. Hit So Hard is the story of Patty’s life yes, and the journey into her addiction and her way out of it, yes, but it’s also the story of survival—of being a daughter to divorced parents, of being gay, of being in a seminal band and then not being in it. It’s a look from the inside of the Seattle rock scene in the early 90s. Now married with a daughter, Patty continues to make music, is on the board for the Rock ‘n Roll Girls Camp and is on tour promoting her book. If you’re in LA, she will be at Stories in Echo park, in conversation with Clea DuVall at 8pm on Thursday November 16. Go
Your parents were leaders in the sobriety community. Knowing how much sobriety meant to them, why did you take that first drink?
I don’t know why my tiny child mind thought. For me there was such a mystery around it because it had affected their lives so intensely, but also sort of fascinated by what it was all about, wanting to know. They’re both from Brooklyn; maybe it was part of their culture. It [drinking] was something that I saw other kids parents do—have a beer with dinner or whatever. I wanted to find out what it was all about. I was curious but I thought that it was going to be different for me I wasn’t going to let it take over my entire life.
Also at twelve, there’s no inherent understanding of the consequences of addiction. You know a lot, but not that.
Somewhere inside I knew I was just like them. From the moment I tried it, when I had my first drink, I knew this is what it’s about. I get it. I feel like I am finally in my body whereas I’d always felt awkward before and not part of the world. I felt that with drums too. With alcohol, I felt at ease with the world. Oh, okay this is what it’s all about. I’d look at my parents and I’d think they were just so plain. That’s what they wanted to be. They wanted to get out of that drama of what their lives were and just have this quiet life. They went all the way across the United States to get away from that. They ended up in Seattle. They moved in the sixties. It’s like the complete total way out in the woods. They were such diehard New Yorkers; you know, all about the food. To leave and to start over in a complete way-backwards sticks-town?
How amazing to be in your fifties, living the life your parents found, after the whirlwind of your youth.
Yeah and you know it’s constantly in my face—parenting—especially lately in talking about my old self. Melissa [Auf der Mauer], she comes out here for the spring and I go out there in the summer, and she has a daughter that’s a year younger than Bea. We’re always saying to each other would you have ever thought that we would be sitting here while our kids are playing? I just did a sort of a book party reading with Nina [Gordon] and Louise [Post] from Veruca Salt. Nina’s daughter and Louise’s and my daughter were all playing together while we were rehearsing. They were running into the room and we were like, just a minute we’re going to run through this song.
It’s hard to believe we’re still standing sometimes.
I try to stay conscious of that. I’m grateful that I’m here today, that there is a reason to be here, there is a reason why I made it through my addiction. What was really important for me to talk about [in Hits So Hard] was to describe and tell the story of my addiction, from the beginning and through my life and making it out the other side. Not to be so clichéd but that thing of when you’re in it and you’re an addict and you’re hopeful-less, there is recovery. You can make it, you can do it. It took me so many times in and out of rehab. Sometimes the thing you think is going to put you over the edge—like losing your career as the drummer in a famous band—if you don’t have that, then you’re nothing? Actually that was the beginning of my rebirth, getting away from that old identity and starting over again. Discovering myself. It’s letting go of old stuff and having hope that you’ll be able to get clean and sober.
Do you feel connected to that part of yourself?
When I do work with kids—I’m an assistant to a Waldorf teacher in an art studio—I connect with the kids that have those struggles because I understand that feeling, that struggle, that anger. I feel that because of my what I had gone through I can relate to those feelings so much I can access them and I can help and I feel like that’s what I have to offer that understanding.
The way you describe addiction, of your body really being the driver of everything, was the first really clear description I’ve read in all my years of reading memoirs about the journey of addiction.
Thanks. I want to relate that to the reader. I don’t want it to be romanticized at all because it’s not ever pretty or cool. I was a failure. I wasn’t like a smooth hustler out there. I wanted to tell that story. It’s not a cool junkie story, like Jim Carroll or Lou Reed or anything like that.
You also document the trajectory of your romantic relationships. You seem to have always been involved with someone.
Yes, it’s the desire initially to be safe. Drugs gave me the sort of blanket, like I could exhale and feel comfortable; having a woman in my life gave me that sort of blanket too, of that safety. Drugs made me feel okay and not alone and so did women. I needed that, (I’m sure we could go really deep abandonment issues from my childhood) always needing something to fill whatever it is. It’s all addicts—there’s food, there’s women. I honestly have to say I struggle with food all the time. That’s my drug of choice. I have to work on that. You’re never done. When things are difficult—especially right now, doing all the press for the book and reliving this stuff and talking about it—I could eat a chocolate cake in one sitting. That’s where it takes me. That part of me is still alive, I’m not going to reach for a drink today, I would definitely go hit a meeting before I would do anything like that.
Food is so insidious. And when you hit your forties, fifties, your relationship with food changes, it becomes complicated, it’s connected to overall health issues. And of course, the way your body feels, looks, it’s evolving, it’s turning into something familiar, like your parents’ body.
Yes! Exactly! Middle age. And like I look at myself, and I’m like, This is my mother’s body! I’m seeing my mom right now. So yes the struggle to be a middle aged lesbian mom. [laughs] I just did a photo shoot for Modern Drummer. It’s important that I do this because someone’s going to open the magazine and go look it’s somebody’s mom in here. Yeah exactly! It’s important for a middle aged woman to be in the pages of Modern Drummer magazine.
How long did it take to write Hit So Hard?
About three years. I worked with Erin Hosier who helped me in the process. I was really kind of punk rock about it: just start. Just do it. Then it would be too much and I would just put it away for a while and then start back up again a little while later. When my mom was sick, I took a break and then dealt with that. It was intense when she passed. When I was packing up my mom’s place, I discovered she’d saved a lot of stuff—she’d made a scrapbook. She had the scrapbook with dates and everything. I had some regret that I hadn’t saved any of the things because of my addiction; I lost so much memorabilia. It was kind of nice to see that and to have that moment, to see she was really proud.
So even while you were struggling with addiction, she was always in your corner.
Yes. She was a recovering person. I’d call her and ask her for money and sometimes she would help and sometimes she wouldn’t. It’s hard to do the thing our program tells us to when it’s someone in our family. It was good to be able to make an amends to her and to win her back and for her to see I’m okay. Within the last year or so of her life, when I talked to her about things, she could kind of retain that information. She was in the late stages of dementia. She got to see Bea and she got to see me as a sober person and a mom and a wife.
What attracted you to drums?
I wanted to do what my brother was doing. In sports, I wasn’t allowed on the boys team but when it came to music, there were no rules. No one could really enforce that I couldn’t play drums. When I chose drums—since day one sitting down at my drum kit—I knew I was doing something that I’d only seen boys and men do. I felt I had to prove myself consistently over and over again. Being in a crowd with all guys, all the time. Listening to that and not being able to ever feel equal. I felt like I had to play harder and be louder. Punk rock brought a little bit more of a level playing field for me. I saw more women playing music in more women bands and that’s where I felt naturally comfortable.
Your feminist legacy is very entwined with being a musician. Did you define becoming a drummer as a feminist act or more of looking for my place?
I’m looking for my place but also not really understanding that there was any difference. I just thought, well that’s how it is, you’re a female and this is how it is. Not understanding that I could stand up for myself as a feminist, that other women feel like that. I started to read and I started to listen to music and see art that women were creating. The light bulb went on for me. There’s a moment I describe in the book, one of the first times when I felt feminist in my rage: I was in a band with three guys who were nineteen and we were in a hardcore punk rock band and we went to see the Beastie Boys. It was during the License to Ill tour. Murphy’s Law (a hardcore band) was opening. The Beastie Boys pour beer on the stage and some girl goes up the just because she wants to be onstage with the Beastie Boys and she mops it up and it’s like a joke. On my way home, I went off. They were like, whatever it’s cool chill out. I just could not contain myself. I was like, Do you guys understand why its wrong? That began my being mad which is good. It’s good to be so angry. And then to start an all female girl band and be loud and talk about it. That’s why programs like Rock Camp for Girls are so important.
Right. It allows girls do to be around other girls making music. Has your daughter gone yet?
I’ve been bringing her since she was two years old. She’s sort of the unofficial mascot. She’s around women that are changing guitar strings, fixing electronic tech pedals, running sound, playing guitar. She sees it and it’s natural and normal. She knows that playing drums is what her mom does. Those are the things that are important, that girls feel comfortable. And know that you can’t tell me that I can’t do that because it’s not what girls do. I grew up with my mother telling me it was so important; for her to point out things like, there’s a woman driving a dump truck or there’s a woman climbing a telephone pole, point those things out so I could see them. I think my mom knew that that’s the path I was taking.
And you can now, with your wife, guide your daughter towards that as well. I feel like we’re in a very Girls To The Front moment again.
Yes. Definitely. What’s happening in entertainment right now with the women coming forward? I just feel like all of us women are saying okay this is enough. This is a female led rebellion right now.
Follow Patty on Twitter!
And pick up Hit So Hard at your local bookstore or order it online!