Patty Schemel

Best known as the primary drummer for Hole, grunge icon Patty Schemel is the subject of the new documentary Hit So Hard: The Life And Near Death Story Of Patty Schemel, an accidental portrait of the grunge movement, addiction, and queerness in the ’90s, compiled from years of Schemel’s own camcorder tapes. Schemel talked with The A.V. Club, before she’s present for a post-screening discussion of the new film Oct. 14 at the Ritz Theater, about the lesbian influence of grunge fashion, fans’ Kurt Cobain/Courtney Love obsession, and the anti-feminism of the Whitesnake era. 

The A.V. Club: So basically this documentary wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t started carrying that video camera around, right? How did that get started?

Patty Schemel: Yeah, the camera was just a regular Sony Hi8 that I got for Christmas. Melissa [Auf der Maur] was always journaling; she had just stacks of journals about what was going on, what she was feeling, and Eric [Erlandson] as well. But I don’t really write. So I started filming—what was happening, how I was feeling, the shows and the people, friends’ bands playing, all that stuff.

AVC: Like the camera was your way of journaling as a tactile person.

PS: Right, exactly. It was just something to have for when I got home, to show people, like “Oh my God, look at this!” And it all became more than 40 hours of footage.

AVC: Now that the film is finished, it kind of represents a cross section of the entire grunge movement. Did you think about that at any point?

PS: I know it’s really important stuff now, but I didn’t at the time, like, when it was happening. And now I’m so glad I actually held onto it. I mean, there were so many times [during the addiction] when I lost track of what were “my things” in this world, that I’m grateful I hung on to most of that footage. Then the last step was finding the stories inside of it, which I didn’t really see until I brought it to my friend David [P. David Ebersole], and as we were dubbing it, it started to become a documentary. I felt really comfortable with him being the one doing it, because he’s a friend, and he also was going to take good care of my story in terms of not exploiting certain things. He didn’t really have preconceived ideas about any of the people involved. He knew about what grunge music is and was, but he treated it with respect.

AVC: It seems, too, that because the camera was so ubiquitous in association with you, you were in a unique position to capture the people around you in a very real way, in a way that an outsider couldn’t have.

PS: Right. Like, before the show, during the show, I would ask my friend or Courtney’s assitant or one of the techs, in between guitar changes, “Can you pick up the camera and film, or can you just run up to the balcony and film us?” That was great, because there was all this stage stuff. And then I’m on camera too, talking—like the conversation between Eric and Courtney and myself about Kristen [Pfaff]’s death, like who delivered the drugs, and all that. That was just me sitting there, and everyone else got to see that discussion through me.

AVC: The film is sort of an extreme rockumentary, in that we see your rise, your fall, and then you keep falling before you eventually hit bottom really, really hard. Do you feel like you’re telling a cautionary tale, or just ... a tale?

PS: I guess my motive was to get to talk about what I experienced. There are all these ideas of Courtney and Kurt, and what they were about, and this is what happened to me. I mean, I was into some of the same stuff that Kurt did—we did similar things, as far as recreational drugs and playing rock shows—we played the same clubs, and Kristen Pfaff as well ... and they died. And I didn’t. That’s what my experience was. I mean, I don’t want it to sound like “Be careful what you wish for,” because I was blessed, and I am grateful that I got to do what I did, and that my wish came true. But I also had a disease, and that desire to be chemically altered fuelled me through a lot of stuff. I was young when [my career] started, and there was so much happening, and it was like, “This is what you do when you’re in a rock band—you drink to excess, and ... all that.”

AVC: Is that why you got as messed up as you did, because of the rockstar mystique?

PS: Actually, it was a way to handle that pressure. It was so chatoic. And it was a way to really be okay with the chaos. There was no partying and having a good time with it; that partying aspect just disappeared. There was no, like, “Whoooo!” It was just to help me cope.

AVC: It seems like everyone did their most serious binging in private.

PS: Exactly.

AVC: Obviously, some people are going to go see the film in hopes of getting a window into that legendary drama between Kurt and Courtney. What’re your feelings on that?

PS: Well, in a lot of that footage, [Courtney]’s really just herself. And nowadays that’s hard to find. It’s always been the case that people want to know more about what they were like, what Kurt was like. That’s part of why I put that in the film, like, “This is them; this is the way I remember them in the good moments.” There was actually a lot more footage of Kurt that we didn’t put in, you know, because it wasn’t about that. That was for us—I didn’t want to use all of that.

AVC: Watching you drum in the film, it’s clear that your style is quintessentially grunge. How did you develop that style?

PS: Definitely part of it was being as aggressive as possible. Being a girl, I thought I had to do that, to compensate or something. Another big thing from that style is the idea of loud and quiet: repeating the same part, but playing it quietly in the repeat—that if you make something louder, it sounds different, there’s more anxiety to it. I listened a lot to Dave Grohl, to Danny Peters of Mudhoney. ... I would go out nightly to listen to bands in Seattle—and to watch them, too. Seeing live drummers is so inspiring, and it helps you actually see, and internalize how they do what they do. Even in the ’80s, watching punk influenced me a lot. There’s such a physical aspect to drumming, and that was especially true in those genres. That appeals to me.

AVC: What was your role in actually writing the music you played?

PS: I write actual drum parts ... they help give more structure to things, like a steady backbone for what’s about to happen. As far as Hole goes, we would all jam together for a lot of the songs, work out the parts together. On some of the songs, like “Violet” and “Doll Parts,” everything was already written, but usually it was a collective experience. I mean, Hole was first band that I joined and got paid to be in. That was super special to me.

AVC: The film touches briefly upon the idea that grunge “fashion” came from what lesbians were wearing in Seattle in the ’90s—the sort of backwards-androgyny thing—people with shapeless clothes and long hair, where you couldn’t tell what was going on under the clothes. Did you feel like a trendsetter?

PS: Yeah, I mean, it was just what we did. Back then especially, the logging industry was such a big deal out there, so you would go thrift shopping and you’d get your flannel, and then thermal underneath the ripped-up jeans, because it’s cold. [Laughs.] I haven’t heard a lot of people make that connection, but Phranc says that in the documentary, and Phranc would know. 

AVC: The film talks a little about the role of women in music, and how different it was then.

PS: When I was in the school band, my teacher put me on xylophone, because it was like, girls shouldn’t be playing the drums. But that’s why I liked them; I liked the agression of playing them. But it meant I had to be as intense as a guy to be allowed to play, or I thought I did. Back then we had a few women drumming—Gina Schock is in the documentary—but it wasn’t like now, where you have girls’ rock camp, like the one I volunteer with. Then again, maybe that made me who I am, you know? I wouldn’t have had the same life if I’d had a million role models growing up; I may not have played like I do. I had to figure it out as I went along.

AVC: Did you think of Hole as a “girl band”?

PS: For me it was more about the fact that the band was a safe space. Courtney was all about that female agression and being in-your-face onstage, but inside the band, she was really good at creating this safe space where we could all just be ourselves. We didn’t have to be something or act a certain way. I mean, we were around each other all the time, so it was like family, and it felt like that, like a family. A weird, fucked up family, but still, a family that was there for each other.

AVC: That must have made it all the more difficult when Michael Beinhorn brought in “Johnny One-take” (as you call him), the studio drummer who replaced you on Celebrity Skin. Didn’t that fuck up the safe space?

PS: Well that was weird, right? I mean, he represented a totally different era of rock ’n’ roll. I mean, he was from Whitesnake, like, this old machine of all men, with the groupies, that whole thing, what do you expect? [Laughs.]

AVC: Did you and the band joke about it?

PS: Well ... now I do. Then, it was like, “What?” I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. There was so much going on in the band at that time; we were going through this change, like we’d gotten so big, and the next step was arena rock, semi trucks and Learjets. I kind of thought, if it takes using Johnny One-take to get there, then fine. But do I really want to be a part of it? It was a crazy time all around, and that was the start of me really losing touch with reality.

AVC: These days, you still play music for fun, with your brother, who’s in the film, but you have a whole new life and career. And you have a kid now.

PS: Yeah. She’s my new project. [Laughs.]

AVC: Now that you’re putting your story way out there, are you rehearsing how to explain it to the kid?

PS: When we had her, I knew she’d see it someday. And I mean, she’s still a baby, so we’ve got some time to figure it out. But that’s my story, and I mean, I survived. Here I am. I did all that, and some of it was shitty, and some of it I’m really proud of. I’m grateful to be here to tell the story.