You don’t know the power of seeing people like yourself somewhere until you see them for the first time. Patty Schemel — drummer for Hole, Juliette & the Licks, Upset — hitting the skins in the Miss World video was, not to put too fine a point on it, everything to me at that point in my life. The entire band was, but a girl playing drums? What’s a girl who wants to play drums more than anyone supposed to feel about seeing that that isn’t, “Yes!”
Drummers tend to take a backseat. In Patty Schemel’s memoir — Hit So Hard: A Memoir, published by Da Capo Press — she makes a point of saying that they are the most replaceable member of the band. Sounds wild, but when you take into account the fact that the Beatles are the golden boys of pop music and everyone still finds time to rip Ringo apart, you’re gonna stop and rethink.
When I asked her what drew her to the drums as an instrument — and wanna say entity over an instrument, but entity would be Patty Schemel at her kit — she answers candidly. “I’d never heard of any female drummers.”
Speaking to her from my couch to hers about Hit So Hard and her time within what she refers to herself as that moment in music, it felt more like we were drinking juice and watching Netflix together. Netflix or Game of Thrones, which Patty tells me, is so good. I trust her. And also, it has dragons. You can’t go wrong with dragons.
We chatted about stuff like the having to relive bad memories, about drumming, about being a Woman In Music and the unspoken groaning of being just that and hearing those words way too fucking much.
My opening line was ridiculous. It was, “Hit so Hard really hits hard.” But it does, so I regret nothing. Was it painful to relive all of the bad stuff — addictive behaviors, losing friends, living on the street — that you went through, in the process of writing the book?
Yeah. It was difficult to go back there. It was sort of like being in a time machine.
The book was a collaboration. I would write, and then my co-writer — Erin [Hosier] — and I would work off a .doc, so when I’d go into describing something difficult, she’d make notes like, “Well, tell me more about this?” and she was just pulling more out of the scene from that memory.
It was so hard to re-emerge back into the world after writing about [that time], then just sort of feeling kinda off and realizing, “Oh. Yeah. It’s because you talked about the death of a very good friend.” [laughs] And even talking about the day-to-day things of being a drug addict; that struggle and that remembering. It never really leaves you.
Those thoughts. Like, my thoughts of having to get it. [laughs] You know, that all your world is, is acquiring drugs and that cycle. You never forget some of those things. So, to then purposely relive them, moment-to-moment, and describe them was really hard.
“I wanted to tell my story; not tell Courtney’s Story or Kurt’s Story. It was about my time within that moment in music. Some friends, at the time, didn’t make it out and I did.”
I volunteered at a rehabilitation center for a while and I saw a couple of people fall off the wagon and just like, saw them come in and out and in and out and I mean, I’ve got family members and stuff, so. It was just like, it doesn’t stop.
Yeah. It’s when I tell my story — when I talk in meetings and I share the way it was, then what happened and the way it is today — that I can see, in hindsight, how much it took to get clean and sober.
And looking and then actually seeing it in the story, you see that there is a reason why, in recovery and addiction, there are cliches like, “You have to hit bottom to get better” and “You have to lose it all…” ‘Cause that’s my story. I really had to lose everything — and, like, continually lose shit [laughs] — to realize it. You know, it wasn’t like I tried once, got clean and sober, and that was it. It was over and over again.
My goal for the book wasn’t to glorify it or romanticise it. It was about the honest truth [of being a drug addict]. I wanted to tell my story; not tell Courtney’s Story or Kurt’s Story. It was about my time within that moment in music. Some friends, at the time, didn’t make it out and I did.
In the book, towards the end, you talk about a girl you were in AA with, who died. Lisa. And you say, like, “Why not me?” Has that led to any kind of guilt or anything for you?
Yeah! I made the same mistakes that she made, so why am I here and she’s not? And, you know, she’s not more of a junkie than I was. So, I do. I guess it makes me feel, like, don’t waste the gift of recovery. ‘Cause not everybody gets to.
About the whole, you know, Pacific Northwest/Seattle/Grunge scene. You talked about how it was essentially was just your life. Like, it wasn’t this massive thing even though it was a huge part of you. Was that scene the first time you felt you’d found your people, or didn’t feel like so much of a misfit?
I guess it was when I found Seattle and punk rock. I saw more women playing music and people dressed the way they wanted to and expressing themselves the way they wanted to, and I wanted to. Because I was gay. You know? I was a little more masculine, and so I found a place in that crowd, in that scene of music where I could be and that there were other people who were, and I guess we do all find each other.
“I also felt like a misfit and kind of like a freak because I was gay, so when I discovered drums, I felt like I was plugged into them. It felt good to hit them and to be creative and make music. And then, like a year after that, I had my first drink and felt the same sense of being at ease as the drums gave me, but it was through alcohol. Like, “Oh, now I feel like I’m a human.”
The way you talked about how ordinary that whole scene was reminded me of Patti Smith talking about the Chelsea Hotel in Just Kids. How it just was your life. Were you aware — before Nirvana or Alice in Chains had the hits — that you were part of something that was gonna be as intensely influential as it was?
No! Not at all. Growing up, Seattle was a place that big bands didn’t even stop — or barely would stop — you know, Van Halen would play a concert in Seattle. [laughs] For me, thinking that I was gonna be a drummer in a band and be a successful musician, my first thought was, “Well, that’s not gonna happen in Seattle!” And then all of a sudden, it was crazy.
In the scene of bands, there’d been ones that had some success in Seattle but it wasn’t like anything iconic. [laughs] Also, when you’re in it, it’s hard to see it as the way everyone else does. Like, when you look at a magazine that has photos of, 90s Grunge Seattle People [laughs] and then you look at it and it’s like, “Oh my God.” That was normal? But it’s actually a “look”. You know it’s like, ripped jeans and flannel and all of those typical things…
…and it’s all in the vintage shops right now.
And we wore flannels because they were cheap at the thrift store! That was why. So, everything sort of became magnified.
*It was at this point that the interview turned so Patty was interviewing me, which was both brilliant and my realization that my answers both a) weren’t interesting and b) I missed mentioning my number one British artist, David Bowie. My answers are redacted. Because I care about you all.
So, can we talk a bit about drumming?? Because I am kind of obsessed with drums, even though I don’t know how to play them. You talked about how your first drink of alcohol — the start of your addiction — and there’s that whole thing about drummers being larger than life. Do you think that loss of inhibition helped you to be a good drummer? What do you think about when you drum or do you just feel it?
I think because of the kind of kid I was — I remember wanting to play sports that boys played, and not being allowed because I was a girl — and this band came to my school and I saw the drums and I just connected with that.
I’d never heard of any female drummers and while in music, there was no line drawn where some grown-up was telling me, “You can’t play the drums because you’re a girl.” I mean, I had that problem in my band class but they couldn’t enforce it. So, I was drawn to the drums because boys were doing it
I also felt like a misfit and kind of like a freak because I was gay, so when I discovered drums, I felt like I was plugged into them. It felt good to hit them and to be creative and make music. And then, like a year after that, I had my first drink and felt the same sense of being at ease as the drums gave me, but it was through alcohol. Like, “Oh, now I feel like I’m a human.”
I felt comfortable in my body, the way I did when I played drums. But otherwise, I didn’t. So, there began the search to feel that state of comfort in existing and being in this body.
About the whole dudes drumming and stuff. You mentioned how if you were a girl, especially a girl drummer, the guy at the music store was gonna talk down to you? Are there any specific moments that you remember that really stick out to you where a guy has, like, talked down to you as if, “Oh a Girl Drummer”?
A lot at the beginning and still, even now, loading drums into a club and putting them onto the stage and then there’s the first person you see that you’re gonna work with, which is your sound person, and most of the time it’s things like, some guy putting mics up in a certain way and I’d be like, “Well, maybe you could move that a little bit over?” And then him not respecting what I’m asking. I mean, like ‘cause he “knows better”.
Even now, when I tour with my band Upset, we move gear into a club and put it down, and then, like Nicole [Snyder], our bass player, sets her bass amp down and she just put it down on the stage and went back outside to grab something else, and the sound guy is like, “You can’t put your bass amp like that!” [laughs] And I just got enraged. I was like, “Yes! WE KNOW. We’re not even done setting up, so chill.”
Like, it’s constant. I mean, there are times when it doesn’t happen and sometimes, we’ll go into a club to set up and the sound guy will know who I am and then be respectful because I’ve already done this. [laughs] I feel like — I try to have so much humility, but also — you should respect me, Sound Kid. You should respect all these women! But then there’s also those great moments when we walk into a club and a woman is setting up all the mics. So we’re all like, ”Awesome!” And I see that a lot more than I used to, so that’s cool.
“Being a rock star is not what it’s cracked up to be.”
That is way cool. I also had no idea what had happened with Hole, like how all of that went down. How damaging was being let go from your band to you?
At the time, it felt like a huge betrayal, but my part in that story — I’m not pointing my finger at anyone else in my band, I know I had a part in it — I could have been so much more prepared for that time in the studio. But also that we, my band, agreed to work with a producer who would do that. Like, being a band that was supposed to be feminist and we had moved into this sort of time in our career as a band where we had a big management company that was, you know, Metallica’s, and they were saying we needed to move onto this next step, which was arena-style, so that means using this producer that they’re recommending.
I guess I felt betrayed because I didn’t really have much of a say in that decision to work with him and then also, that they let it happen. And then walking out of the studio, at that time, being a drummer and playing drums was my whole identity. So, I felt lost after that. I mean, that was sort of the ultimate, last thing to go before the homelessness and, you know, drug abuse.
So, how do you cope with escapism? You worked at a dog groomers and then started a dog-minding business — Dog Rocker! — and the dogs made you feel better, what other things do you look for to escape now? Good things.
Yeah, my dogs make me feel real good. And drums make me feel good again. Playing music and writing new things. My daughter, my family, but also — and I wish I could say that I don’t — but the addictive drive still exists in me. And instead of picking up a drink or a drug, I’ll just eat. So, I have to apply all of my recovery stuff onto food. [laughs] Because it’s just one of those things that’s pleasurable. So it’s a constant thing, and now I’m like, “Fuck!” You know, now I gotta keep that in check.
But yeah, some days I wanna just shut off and escape and so that’s like, Netflix! [laughs] Something like that!
What do you like on Netflix? (She asks, with a deep and probing interest, having already finished Stranger Things).
Let’s see! I just finished that show Ozark, with Jason Bateman. It was good, it was okay. And then, this isn’t on Netflix but Game of Thrones.
“Sometimes it’s the simplest thing, like having a daily routine that you do. Like have your coffee and do your dishes and do your laundry, those are the things that give me a peace of mind.”
I haven’t seen Game of Thrones. I feel like the only person!
It’s so good.
What’s the most valuable life lesson you’ve learned in coming out from the darkness of addiction and loss and all of that? Not that the darkness ever really goes, but something you learned in or from those dark times?
I don’t know if it’s a life lesson but sometimes it’s the simplest thing, like having a daily routine that you do. Like have your coffee and do your dishes and do your laundry, those are the things that give me a peace of mind. And that the things that get wrapped up in, like, being a rock star, are so flimsy and bullshit. When I start to get any kind of ego, I start to feel like I should be of service to somebody and do something and not get wrapped up in that. I just think that– and to put it simply but it might sound weird — being a rock star is not what it’s cracked up to be. [laughs] It sounds so simple that way but for me, it isn’t.
Yeah! Sometimes simple is the most impactful. That’s supposed to sound wise too, but it didn’t.
I’ve found that there was so much more to me than I ever thought. When I got clean and sober and I started to discover who I was and what I like and what I’m interested in. Like, “Oh yeah! I like knitting.” [laughs] YES. KNITTING. You know, or whatever. You just have faith that–
Like when you mentioned not turning the Indigo Girls off on the radio…
Hit So Hard is not a further avenue to learn about Nirvana or the grunge/Seattle scene. It’s a book that doesn’t serve the purpose of filling in blanks; rather, Hit So Hard is a book from the perspective of one person who went through it all, took similar paths to others who didn’t make it on a different trajectory. This book is about Patty Schemel: one hell of a drummer and one excellent human being. Patty Schemel is a woman who survives to fight and fought to survive, and her memoir is a recommended read for anyone that’s ever felt just that little bit different.
You can find the Hit So Hard at all good retailers from Tuesday, October 31.