"How many famous women drummers do you know?" Hit So Hard: The Life and Near-Death of Patty Schemel is a no-punches-pulled portrait of the life and times of hard-hitting drummer Patty Schemel. The film tells a raw, intimate story about openly gay Schemel, and provides an up-close look at her struggles with being different, addiction, the deaths of her close friends, her near-devastating descent into drugs after a major betrayal, and ultimately her journey back to a clean, new life.
Though she is most notably known as the drummer of the alternative rock band Hole from 1992 until 1998, she has also played with Juliette Lewis & the Licks, Pink, Imperial Teen, and currently has two new bands, one with her brother Larry (Green Eyes) and the other with Will Schwartz (Psychic Friend).
We recently spoke with Schemel from her home in Silver Lake, California, to find out more about her amazing life and her documentary, which screens tomorrow night, Friday, October 14, at the Ritz Theater as part of the 12th annual Sound Unseen festival (see my article on Sound Unseen from this week's paper here).
Schemel herself will be in attendance at the screening, and the evening will open with a performance by Pink Mink, who will be playing a set of Hole covers.
How did Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death of Patty Schemel come to be? Was it your idea or Hit So Hard director/writer/editor, P. David Ebersole's, or both?
Patty Schemel: Melissa [Auf Der Maur] and I would make home movies . . . we didn't think they would be part of a documentary, ever. This film began in the summer, 2007. Someone said I should preserve the Hi-8 footage. We were dubbing the films, and I went to David [Ebersole], a friend of my wife, Christina, and he said he wanted to do this story.
Hit So Hard has a lot of tough stories. How did it feel while you were interviewing for this film? How did you get through this?
There were moments of 'I don't really wanna share that.' But I trusted David. And there are special friends in this film. I liked that he was doing it because he didn't have ideas of what was going on at that time; he had no preconceived notion of that time period. He didn't focus only on the suicide of Kurt Cobain, and the story of Kurt and Courtney. The story wouldn't be complete without telling those moments of the hardest times.
What are your hopes for Hit So Hard?
felt the need to tell my story. David was talking about all the footage that existed, and how that should be in a film.
I wanted to talk about what happened around the Celebrity Skin record. That's still sifting around. I would hope the telling of the story helps me with coming to terms around that. I like films that give a glimpse of someone's life that turned out to be different than you'd expect. Also I wanted to see the archival stuff. I got to see myself both as observer, and being part of it.
Regarding Celebrity Skin, it's awful that they made you work on drumming 8+ hours a day on that record. It sounded like the decision was already made that they were going to replace you with another drummer on that album? I may be naïve, but I didn't think that happened in the indie music industry.
The decision was made before I went in there. I was naïve, too. I've learned it happened to others, but not in our area of music, punk, grunge, etc. Not to artists such as those who were on K-Records, a label featuring artists that did what they wanted. I didn't think it happened to those artists.
Did you reconcile with what happened with Celebrity Skin? Where did you go when you left after you found out you were being replaced?
Not right away. It was a great excuse to get back into drugs. I was pretty young then. Many years after, I got better. But I remained addicted for a long time. I turned to drugs and alcohol, and I lived there.
I started this film at two years clean and started working through my resentments and beginning to like being clean again. It was cathartic to work this out via the film. I wasn't responsible for what happened to me, but I was responsible for how I handled it. The film brought me back to my bandmates. I didn't want to talk to Eric [Erlandson] at first. Now I call him often. I didn't expect Courtney [Love Cobain] to ever change. Our relationship has never changed. It's always been like that. I expected that crap from her, but not Eric or Melissa.
Was it always this way with Courtney, the money thing, e.g. her saying, "Melissa cost me 1.5 million on that record. Patty would have cost me $2 million . . ." putting a cost on individual bandmembers?
She's always been like that. Always like, "this is going to be a hit song, and it will be our house in Hawaii, or Stevie Nicks' swimming pool . . . "
You're not like that. Drums are your passion. Tell me about how and why you started?
When I was young, it was doing something that women didn't do. It was attacking it, not being dainty about it. When I discovered punk rock, I found there was more passion in it. I could be anything! It was the time of punk rock that I was discovering being gay and finding others who were gay, and different. It was about finding your people. That was 1982, '83, '84.
The time of your band, Them Milkbones. Members of your band got beat up a lot then.
You've had so many struggles with addiction, and got kicked out of a few bands, kept joining bands, kept trying. How did you find the strength to live, to make it through?
It's a tough question. I just kept going. I don't know why I was spared, why I kept going to recovery, and others didn't. I kept saying, 'I'll give sobriety one more chance.' I realized there was more to me than being a drummer in a rock band. Now, it's having a passion for dogs as much as music, getting married, having a baby, finding things I enjoy, helped me with getting clean and enjoying these things.
Your mom, interviewed in Hit So Hard, sounds supportive . . .
My mom and dad were really supportive of me, when I came out, and of my music.
I thought the part in the film about the Saturn return, that so many artists have died when that hits (age 27 - 29), was a really interesting observation.
Melissa talked about it and David went with it. It's surprising to see so many on that list. And now, Amy Winehouse, too, unfortunately.
And Kristen Pfaff, Hole's bassist. That's very sad. You dealt with it initially, clean. Was that sort of a turning point for you?
I did deal with it clean, but not for very long. I still miss her. I felt guilt, wondered 'why her and not me?' I've done some work around it.
I'm glad you included home video clips of Kurt Cobain. You were very close friends. Please talk about those, and some favorite moments with him.
wanted to show a private view of what I saw. In the film, I talk about those favorite moments. I miss playing music with him. He really liked to play drums, more than guitar with me. So I'd pick up and play whatever was around. We made music - it doesn't matter if I can't play guitar . . . we were playing music together.
There was a moment, a year later, we were touring and in Paris, playing a TV show, nearly a year to the day. There was a boy with a paper in his hand - he was handing it to me, and telling me something in French, saying "Patty" over and over. He wanted me to read it. I picked it up later and had Melissa read it to me - she could translate it, as she's French. It was a fanzine from the time of Nirvana's In Utero. The interviewer talked with Kurt Cobain about songs from In Utero in it, and they asked about his wife's band, Hole. He said, "My wife can speak for herself. But she has a great record and a really great drummer."
It was like he was talking to me again. And having Melissa there, able to read it to me, because she knows French, that meant a lot. There were those little messages along the way that were really special to me.
Did Hole change after Kurt's death?
It changed after he died. There were so many things around Courtney and Kurt. It overshadowed everything. She brought that on stage. I felt protective of her at first. People would shout things at her, and I'd shout things back. But she baited people. I didn't want to share in that.
Your album, Live Through This, was released four days after Kurt's death, and then there was the tour so soon after . . . how did that feel?
That overshadowed the whole time when that CD came out. The heaviness of Kurt's death was more in my thoughts than the music. The tour happened fast; we had to find a bass player so soon after Kristen's death. It was a difficult time jumping back into the music right away. It felt crass to be doing the tour. It felt like we needed time to breathe. But at the same time, I loved to play.
After Celebrity Skin, and you went into a downward spiral. Did you have any glimmer of hope sustaining you? What about the moment seeing the drums in the church?
Getting to that next hit, shot or drink - that was the goal that kept me going. But one day, I felt nothing from those, there was nothing. Then, I made a call and got into rehab. After a long stay in rehab, I was in a sober living house. We were required to get a job. I began dog day care, and discovered I was a responsible person, responsible for these dog's lives. This provided some estimable acts that I could be more than a drummer in a rock band. And yet, I'm still a musician.
You are a mentor at Girls' Rock and Roll Camps. Tell us more about this.
A person on one of my dog walks knew me as a musician, and asked if I could help do a rock camp for girls. I went to help teach drums and got involved with teaching. It brought me back to the beginning of playing, and the excitement of learning.
What would you advise young people, aspiring artists, people who feel different or outsider somehow?
There are places you can go, where you can find your own people. There are like-minded people. There's music, and ways to express yourself. If there was the Internet when I was a kid, I might have done things differently, joined a gay youth group or something.
How did you feel about being in Hole overall?
I enjoyed it! I liked the music and where we went with it. It was a real job, and special to be able to perform in a band for a living.
I liked Eric's observation that drummers seem to be natural comedians. What do you think?
[laughs] Yes! Totally true! Some of the funniest people I know are drummers!
How do you feel about coming to Minneapolis for the Hit So Hard screening and post-film Q & A?
I'm excited to come back to Minneapolis! My favorite album is the Replacements, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. And I loved ALL the bands on Twin/Tone record label. They were amazing and very important in my life.
Playing First Avenue (with Hole) and the Entry, those were huge! And, seeing Babes in Toyland . . . I loved them. I love Lori, am friends with her and Kat.
You and Lori both like to play drums barefoot. Why do you prefer drumming barefoot?
I feel I could play faster barefoot, and by moving my feet and toes.
What bands are you in now?
I'm in Green Eyes, with my brother Larry. It's named after a Husker Du song on their Flip Your Wig album. I was in Cold and Lovely. I'm now in Psychic Friend with Will Schwartz (who was in Imperial Teen). The last song in Hit So Hard is a Psychic Friend song.
Anything you'd like to add?
I'm glad the film turned out the way it did, and that I got to tell my story.
HIT SO HARD: THE LIFE AND NEAR DEATH OF PATTY SCHEMEL screens this Friday, October 14, at 7 p.m. at the Ritz Theater (with opening performance by Pink Mink). $15. All ages.