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Interview with Former Hole Drummer Patty Schemel

October 6, 2011
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Girl Germs, along with our podcast network, Fancy Pants Gangsters, is very proud to present the 12th annual Sound Unseen music documentary festival Oct. 12-16 in Minneapolis.Hit so Hard

We’re especially thrilled for a film called Hit So Hard: The Life and Near-Death Story of Patty Schemel. The documentary is a chronicle of the struggles—and successes—of Hole drummer Schemel. It features interviews with Schemel herself as well as band mates Courtney Love, Eric Erlandson and Melissa Auf der Maur (and a plethora of Hole’s musical contemporaries), plus candid, never-before-seen footage from the band’s ‘90s heyday. Hit So Hard takes a new look at the “alternative rock” movement from the perspective of those whose lives were entwined in it. It answers—and raises—questions surrounding tragedies such as the deaths of Love’s husband Kurt Cobain and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff and the consequences of the era’s widespread drug abuse.

Since leaving Hole (after conflict surrounding the recording of Hole’s 1998 Celebrity Skin album), Schemel has remained musically busy, in addition to running a dog-care business and working with a girls’ rock camp. She spoke to Girl Germs’ Dana from the Los Angeles home she shares with her wife and one-year-old daughter, and they talked about the documentary, Schemel’s experiences as a female drummer and gay musician, and—of course—one Ms. Courtney Love.

Can you explain how the idea for the documentary came about?

It started from [director P. David Ebersole, a friend of Schemel’s] suggesting that I preserve all of this Hi-8 film that I’d shot while I was touring because it was going to disintegrate in that format. So I spoke to [Ebersole]—he’s a director, a film person—and he said, “Just bring it over and I’ll hook up the decks and you can digitize it.” So I did—it was summer of ’07—and I went over there. As we set up the decks, he was asking me questions about what the footage was. I started to explain it and he said, “You know, that’s a great story.” I said, “You want to do something with it?” And so that’s how it became what it is. But I didn’t really think it would actually happen for some reason.

So were you more concerned at that point with just preserving the actual film?

Yeah, it was just about preserving that footage so I would have it. As I was describing what was on screen, I would sort of connect the dots to different things. And then the story would unravel.

When you were filming all of this, did you ever think that anyone would see it besides you or your close friends?

No, I didn’t. I thought it would be like, “this is our little project.” But it got bigger and bigger and bigger. And then it became what it is.

Do you think that the film medium—you’re obviously interested in film because you shot all this footage…

Yeah, when I was shooting it…Melissa would do this thing where she would journal every night. And I was like, “Who has the time to write stuff down?” I mean, we would be on a flight somewhere and there’s Melissa, scribbling away in a journal, you know, and photographs and collections…stuff to show your kids when you’re old. And I wasn’t doing that, so I got a camera for Christmas and decided that would be my way of documenting how everything was happening. That’s what I did, just shoot all the stuff going on between shows or have someone film the show—that kind of stuff.

How long did it take to complete the documentary?

This past March, we just barely had it done for SXSW. So in the spring of 2011 it was completed. And there was over 40 hours of footage to go through.

What was it like going through all that footage and reliving it?

It was weird, because I’d be at David’s house watching it and explaining everything, and I’d just kind of go back there to that place. Then I would leave his house everyday just…kind of numb.

Schemel Kurt Cobain

Schemel with Kurt and Frances Bean Cobain in the early '90s.

And then I’d be grateful that I was, in reality, coming to my house and things were the way they were and it was 2000-whatever. It wasn’t 1998.

I read that David was familiar with Hole, but didn’t really have an understanding of the whole scene. Is that true?

Yeah. That was one of the great things about giving him the footage to tell the story. He didn’t have any idea of who any of the detailed players were. He knew about Kurt [Cobain] and Nirvana, but he…he had no preconceived idea of anything. He didn’t know any of the drama, the stories, anything. So he came into it without any opinions. I just told the story and he put it together. I felt safe with my footage being with him—that he wouldn’t exploit certain things, like, “Let’s do 45 minutes of this Kurt stuff,” or something stupid.

When it came time to go asking for interviews, you obviously had to open those doors for David. What was the status of your relationships with your band mates at that point?

I had kept in touch with Courtney, and she agreed to it, but just getting her to sit down in one place and actually do it was another story. With Melissa, we’d talked here and there, and she said yes immediately. Eric, I was most estranged with. It turned out to be my favorite interview. I wasn’t there for it, but…to have our relationship changed through it and to be in contact with him more was such a gift of the film. I feel like I was such a kid then, you know? And now I’m an adult…I can be a better person and a better friend to people than I used to be.

It’s so strange when you’ve been in such close quarters with people for so long, to be apart and come back together after such a long time.

Right! And then to be in your youth—of course, looking at some of the footage, it’s like, “Really? You’re going to talk to somebody like that?” Or just being so…I guess, just so…just really dangerous with words. Just to be so stupid. To be filming, like here we are in Barcelona at the Gaudi Museum, but no, I’m going to make a funny video about how I can stick my arm through this thing. Just to be so carefree with stuff. You sort of take things for granted when you’re a kid, just like, “All this shit’s coming by way all the time.”

It wasn’t until the MoMA premiere in New York that the band members had all had been in the same room together for a while, right?

Yeah, not all of us at once.

How was that experience?

There was so much pressure before that moment. And of course it was interesting, because it was just like the way things used to be. There was so much pressure before we played a show about things that were not about our music. There was always this pressure to prove ourselves as a band or as musicians, and try to go beyond all that crap with music. So there was that pressure of being all together again: Is Courtney going to show up and do this? There was that, and then that old dynamic comes into play like when you’re with your family. Everyone has a certain role. And then to be conscious of that role now that we’re adults and not try to play that role anymore. Like, “I’m not going to be the one that’s trying to calm Eric down because he’s mad because Courtney’s being rude and late,” or whatever.

Hole 1994

Hole's 1994 lineup. L-R: Kristen Pfaff, Eric Erlandson, Courtney Love and Patty Schemel.

You said in the film that you started playing drums because it was a guy thing to do and you didn’t see women playing…

Yeah, I didn’t see a lot of women playing growing up except for Gina Schock [The Go-Go’s] and Mo Tucker [The Velvet Underground]. So I really wanted to play hard and be just like the guys. And then once I discovered punk rock, I was drawn to that. It was fast and [there was] energy, and being with other people I felt were like me—that were gay or didn’t look like everyone else or were expressing themselves their own way.

From your perspective, do you think there’s been any sort of shift in that paradigm, where it’s a more welcoming atmosphere for women to get into that world?

Yeah, I totally think there’s a lot more female drummers and there’s also a lot more programs for girls to play music and to feel comfortable playing. I [teach at] Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp for Girls, and it’s about giving girls confidence. You can choose to play drums, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s about being confident. You can play drums but…I don’t  know, it’s like giving you self-esteem through music…it lays out a map of how to start a band and how to make a fanzine and how to make T-shirts and just be self-sufficient. A lot of times growing up and playing drums, there was the sort of, let’s say, “I want to explore this sort of drum.” I’d go into a music store and they’d be like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” sort of thinking I was stupid. Or [in] school band, getting relegated to the xylophone. That kind of stuff…not really being supported. So Rock Camp gives girls the chance to get the knowledge they need in a safe place and ask the questions they want to ask. There are so many great bands out there that have girl drummers that girls can look up to and want to be.

In that same vein, when the whole Michael Beinhorn Celebrity Skin issue happened [Schemel was phased out of the recording process and eventually completely replaced by a male session drummer on Hole’s Celebrity Skin album—a decision prompted by producer Michael Beinhorn.], Courtney claims in the film that it was not a gender issue, but there seems to be some debate over that. Eric mentions that the drummer who replaced you wouldn’t even play with women in the room. What’s your take on that?

That was definitely a gender issue. Besides the whole other agenda of how the guy was lined up already [before recording], I totally disagree with that idea. I think Courtney said that because

Hole Celebrity Skin

'Celebrity Skin'-era Hole. L-R: Love, Erlandson, Schemel, Auf der Maur.

she…you know, Hole was this band that was pro-feminist or whatever. But then for something like that to happen—that’s the hypocrisy of it. That’s what happened, you know?

Did you hold that against her at all?

You know what, I don’t in a way because I just felt like…honestly, I feel that she’s pretty honest about all the stuff she does. She can contradict herself or she can go one way because she thinks it’s cool, and then change her mind the next day. She is what she is and you know it’s not all good.

I suppose you’ve known her long enough that you know how to deal with it.

Totally, right.

That aspect of her personality comes across…

Yeah, it does come across, and I don’t think in my film it comes across. I think it comes across in a lot of other things she does. So it’s not necessarily that I’m calling her out on it. She is always saying one thing, and then her actions are entirely different.

Like you said, she is what she is.

And that’s her prerogative to do.

It seems like—at least in the film—Eric and Melissa were often the voices of reason. Was that the case in the band?

We confided in each other a lot, but ultimately, as far as whatever happened in our band, it was what Courtney wanted to happen. So we would all have to be like, “Really? We have to play that show?” or whatever it was. We were all each other’s voice of reason.

Your mom is adorable, by the way.

Thank you very much [laughs]. Yeah!

I thought your coming-out story and how she told that was really moving. Do you think it’s any easier for young gay people to come out? Do you consider yourself a mentor or a role model in that respect?

I do in a way. I don’t want to sound like that person who says, “In my day, we had to have a special knock on a back door in an alleyway…” but there are a lot of programs for kids today where they can come out and be with other like-minded kids. There’s the Internet. It would have been amazing to have that when I was a kid. But then again I think about the music that I made and was part of—would I have felt the way I did if I was able to feel OK about myself? Some of my music and some of the power behind my playing was about that frustration. I like to hear when I meet people that are grown now, “It was important to me when you came out in Rolling Stone magazine.” [Schemel came out publicly in a 1995 Rolling Stone article about Hole.] That was important for me to hear, because in the interview I didn’t really think about making it an issue. It was just me. I felt very grateful to be in the band I was in, and to be part of the movement that I was in because it was about being whoever you wanted to be. It was about making music that wasn’t like anything you’d heard before on the radio.

What are you doing musically right now? Are you still doing Green Eyes?

Yeah, Green Eyes is a band with my brother and it’s named after a Husker Du song from Flip Your Wig. It’s a kind of psychedelic-kraut rock band. Then there’s a project called Psychic Friend with Will Schwartz from Imperial Teen…actually the last song you hear in the film is a Psychic Friend song that Will and I wrote together. I just finished some drums [for] a band called The Cold and Lovely [with] Nicole Fiorentino from Smashing Pumpkins and Megan Toohey…there’s also talk about a soundtrack coming up, but I haven’t seen the film yet. So I don’t know what that’s about; there’s just some rumbling as of now.

You said toward the end of the film that you always knew music would take you somewhere and it did. Would you say that where you are now is anywhere close to where you ever imagined it would take you?

In my dreams, yeah! You know what it did? What I thought I wanted totally changed. I thought I wanted what you would imagine. You know when people say that ridiculous phrase of “living like a rock star,” which is so stupid? Finding out the life I have now is better…I don’t know, it sounds so cliché and corny, but yeah. I’m glad that I got to go the places and play the shows and meet the people and all that. But I’m glad that I’m here today, and I live in this house with a baby and a wife and four dogs.

Hit So Hard makes its Minneapolis debut at the Ritz Theater Friday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. as part of the Sound Unseen festival. Local band Pink Mink will play a set before the screening and a post-reception featuring complimentary food & beer PBR will be served in the Ritz’s back dance studio. Patty Schemel will be in attendance for a Q&A following the screening. 345 13th Ave. N.E., Mpls.;

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