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In an industry where band drummers continue to be overlooked by the mainstream media and business elements, it’s nothing short of an industrial crime that very few female drummers are welcomed into the drumming hall of fame, to be remembered and referenced for generations to come, to serve as an inspiration to young aspiring musicians. For good reason, PATTY SCHEMEL is one of those select few. And the 2011 documentary “HIT SO HARD” (aptly tag-lined as “the life and near-death story of Patty Schemel”) pays homage to one of the best drummers the industry has ever experienced.
“Hit So Hard” was a story waiting to be told, and you do not have to be a HOLE fan to appreciate the impressive talents and struggles of a woman who found herself living on the edge, left with the ultimate choice between fighting for her life or being resigned to the tragic fate surely awaiting her at the time.
The feature openly explores the links between Schemel’s troubles and her chaotic lifestyle during the Hole years (1992-1997) as well as her internal conflict over her sexuality. We are given an indepth insight into Schemel’s psyche and her experiences as a woman cracking under the pressure of the mania that comes with intensive touring and recording.
We’re left with no doubt whatsoever that as a musician of very high calibre, she was just one of many, many victims of the patriarchal bullying which took place and still is known to go on in the music industry, Courtney Love herself in a press event for the documentary naming and shaming producer Michael Beinhorn (“still a nazi fuck”) as the cause of Schemel’s untimely expulsion from the band during the “Celebrity Skin” album recording. Particularly unfortunate for Schemel was Love’s compliance with the decision at the time, suggesting that there was a real manipulation of the band taking place with critical business decisions being passed through a lead singer who was notoriously temperamental, for the most part not entirely lucid, and out of the loop with the conspiring mechanisms surrounding her. Add to that Love’s state of mind following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, followed shortly by the tragic overdosing of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, and her concerns for Schemel’s safety in light of her worsening addictions, and the fates were already conspiring to give the band and Schemel a severe kick in the teeth.
It’s an inspiring story, as we follow Schemel’s recovery from career disaster and the depths of Skid Row homelessness all the way to her mentoring young musicians at LA ROCK N ROLL CAMP FOR GIRLS, running dog care business DOGROCKER, working with musicians including Pink, Juliette Lewis and Linda Perry, drumming for new LA band THE COLD AND LOVELY, and meeting her eventual wife Christina Soletti with whom she now has daughter. Patty Schemel is indeed one of the fortunate few – not only in terms of earning herself the status of a top-class drummer, but also in terms of saving her own life. I’m sure that she will be honoured to no longer be remembered only as “that Hole drummer” but also as a role-model to women and artists.
In the depths of the BFI Southbank building, we meet and greet Patty Schemel who is having a rare moment of chill in the Green Room. There are few people that I meet and feel a sense of awe for, but Schemel lights up the room not so much with her legendary rock presence, but rather with her smiles and grace. She has survived, she is grateful and humble for any and all support, and she’s passionate to contribute more. I sense this incredible force of energy as I shake her hand and thank her for making the time. “Hit so Hard” was at the time being screening at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and she couldn’t be prouder or more appreciative. As we sit down, the only thought spinning in my head is: this will be a moment I shall not forget.
It’s an emotional experience even just to watch the documentary. But how was the filmmaking process for you? It must have brought up a lot of memories…
During the making of it, there was a lot of footage to look through and it took quite a bit of time during one summer – the summer of ‘07 – to go through everything. So, every day I would go to the director David’s house and look through everything, and describe the scenes and footage. I’d leave there every day being transported back in time and then you have to come back to reality. Some days were harder than others, depending on the content, whatever we were looking at and the story that it lead to…
What in particular did you find emotional?
I guess for me, when I’m backstage just completely numb and altered, in the throes of my addiction… those scenes were difficult. And also, there’s some footage of Courtney in the crowd at the show in Chicago when she does one of those famous stage dives…
Yeah, that was quite shocking…
Yeah, it’s very disturbing. Back then, that happened often and I guess maybe the way things were then was part of being in that punk-rock scene. But to see it now as an adult, every time I see it, it’s so disturbing and it just affects me… like, “Whoa…”
You talk very openly about your sexuality in the film. How did the music help you to come to terms with that?
When I was young, I knew I was different because I was gay, and I chose the drums which was such a masculine instrument to pick – I wanted to be a drummer, and that was my outlet for all of that confusion and anger. Punk rock was where I went to find other people like me, so having that outlet for all that confusion and those feelings was really important. Also, having my parents that were supportive of me…
Yeah, your mum seems incredibly supportive from what we see of her in the film…
Everyone loves that part in the film! But, even though she was saying, “It’s ok to be gay,” it was so tumultuous within me to talk about it and to think, “Will I ever fall in love? Will I ever get married?” – and I did.
You talk so frankly about your addiction and your recovery. That must have been very tough for your mum – how familiar was she with the issues?
She was familiar with addiction and the process. There are a lot of parts of the interview that didn’t make the final cut, where she talked about how she didn’t expect me to live through it… She’s very supportive today of course and relieved, and she helps other parents as well.
Wow, that’s very cool. In the film, you openly admit that the drugs came first with you back then. But reflecting now on those dark days, how important for you is your health, family and love?
At this point, I’m so grateful that I had my career with my band and played music and that I still play music, but the simplicity of a day at home with my family is so important, and I love a schedule – that’s what early recovery gave me, like: “Get up, have the coffee, do the dishes…” All that stuff is so important, you know… my job is to go out and walk the dogs, and then have my shows at night…
Do you think it’s important for young people to have cultural role models? And for musicians and artists to come out if they can?
Yes! Yes! Because when I was growing up, I looked to people I talk about it in the film like Patti Smith, Klaus Nomi, David Bowie and Boy George, who were playing with gender, and those were the people I was drawn to. I needed to know that there were others out there, and to find those other people like me – and these people were cool! And so today, when I talk about being gay, it doesn’t identify me 100 %, but it’s a part of me.
How does it feel now being referred as an icon or a musician role model?
Yeah… it’s uncomfortable… just simply put!
It’s not what you went out of your way to achieve…
No, no, no!
How important do you think it is for artists to be open about addiction and to help other artists?
I give back to another group called Musicians Assistance Program that fundraises for other musicians that don’t necessarily have funds to get in to treatment. I think it’s important to show that you can survive drugs and alcoholism in your chosen career, that you can survive through and continue to be a musician in that environment.
Talking about “giving back” to the music community, how important is it for those who have been through the industry to mentor young women and warn them of the traps?
Extremely important. For me, what it does is it brings me back to the beginning when I started to play drums and reminds me to stay grateful for what it gave me – it took me around the world and provided me a sort of focus and release, and introduced me to a whole new world of people and music. And what I’ve been doing with the girls rock camp (www.rockcampforgirlsla.org) is to share that with girls that are beginning to play. Mentoring them with other girls shows them that it’s about playing music, but it’s also about communicating with other women and that shared excitement about creating together – it’s about networking.
So what we do is we give them the opportunity to get to know each other and ask them, “What would you like to do in your band?” and they sort of find each other in that. One girl might say, “I’d like to write a song about skateboarding” and another says, “Me too!” They silkscreen their own t-shirts, make their own fanzines and come up with their own identity as a group.
How has the process of being in a band changed for girls since your day?
In the ‘90s when we were playing, touring and just starting out, everyone had their fanzine – it was about touring and passing out your fanzine, mail order, PO boxes… Nowadays, it’s online, so everyone communicates on Tumblr or they write on Facebook: “Hey, I’m looking for a girl guitarist who’s into Siouxsie and the Banshees.” You can find people that way, or you can create your music online with other people and then put it out, never even needing to be in the same room. So, in a way, the Internet provides a great avenue for girls to find each other.
But face-to-face interaction is definitely important…
It is! It’s important for the girls to see each other, even down to what kind of style they’re wearing, like “Those boots are cool…”
After all your experiences, what advice would you give to musicians inspired by you?
Oh, that’s tough… If I could tell myself back then, I would say: Practise more – definitely! And really try and experience everything that comes your way – really experience it, don’t forget the special stuff, and be grateful.
And stand up to pushy producers?
Yeah! Don’t be a doormat!