Ex-Hole Drummer Patty Schemel On Kurt, Courtney, Addiction and Her New Documentary HIT SO HARD
Imagine you’re the drummer in one of the most prominent Seattle rock bands of the 1990s, fraught with the usual perils and insanity of that world. Now, throw in that your new album is released four days after your friend Kurt Cobain killed himself, and his wife Courtney Love is fronting your band. Then, your bass player dies of an overdose while people are erroneously mumbling that Kurt wrote the songs on your album. Then you tour-tour-tour, and eventually your own addictions take over your life, and you leave the band just after recording a follow-up album. Hard to imagine, right? Now picture that you’re all strung out, and then you see your old band’s new music video with someone replacing you on drums. SOMEONE WHO LOOKS JUST LIKE YOU.
You’ve just entered the world of former Hole drummer Patty Schemel, whose life of peaks and valleys are laid bare in the new documentary HIT SO HARD: THE LIFE AND NEAR DEATH OF PATTY SCHEMEL, debuting in New York on April 13th . This stark portrait follows Schemel’s life, covering in depth the pain of growing up gay in a small town in Washington state, her alcohol and drug addiction, the loss of her close friend Kurt Cobain and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, her homeless situation on the streets of Los Angeles, and her struggle to gain sobriety. That music video moment mentioned before actually happened, as Patty Schemel told THE GOLDEN AGE OF MUSIC VIDEO in this special interview.
I watched the video for “Celebrity Skin”, and the shots of you aren’t quite clear. They don’t seem to land on you at all. There’s no real drummer moment in the video, and come to find out, that’s not you at all.
That’s in the film, too. I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s so much more, so I’ll go ahead and tell you. There’s a moment in the film when I’m out of the band and I’ve succumbed. I’ve checked into heroin and coke land. A friend called me and said, “Hey, man, you’re in the video.” And I’m just out of my mind, and I say, “What video?” “You’re in the video!” “I am?” So I saw the video, and it’s Samantha [Moloney, who replaced Schemel as Hole’s drummer], but her hair is the same color as mine. It looks similar. I’ve asked about that, because her hair’s not red. I said, “What is up?” and they said, “Well, we’re not trying to make her look like you or anything.” And I’m like, “Okay, whatever.”
As if you weren’t far enough down at that point, but now someone’s imitating you on television.
When you see the film, I explain that moment a little better.
What was it that made you sign on for a documentary? Whose idea was this?
The director was helping me dub off all this stuff, so after looking at all the footage, he said, “You know, you have a really good story here,” because I would explain what we were seeing in the footage. He’s ask me, “what’s that?” or “what’s going on here?” He had no idea. I would explain things and he’d say, “this is really interesting, the stories you are telling.” He’s always been a narrative filmmaker, and he was interested in the story. It was sort of his idea to do something with the footage, so I asked him to do it. He did not come into it with any knowledge of grunge music or any of the people involved. He knew of Nirvana and Courtney Love, of course, but the rest was a journey for him to find out, so he’d listen to my stories and do research, and this project started to unfold. I felt really safe with him having my story.
Something really interesting about your journey and what you went through is not just your struggle with substance abuse, but Hole had an unprecedented and unrelenting amount of outside pressure thrown its way, which would cause someone who WASN’T on substances to probably crack in half. I can’t even fathom how much nonsense and bullshit you had to put up with being in Hole, probably much more than you ever signed on for, and it seemed like a lot to handle in a short period of time, too.
Yes. From the moment I got into the band – and we were all really young then, all in our twenties. First of all, there was the challenge of being female musicians. And there’s no complete respect for a girl drummer. And then there’s the fact that it’s Courtney’s band and she’s married to Kurt, there’s that whole thing. It was one challenge after another after another, and it’s like, “is this a novelty or is this real?” With all the drama around it, there was that extreme pressure. It just felt like we had to prove ourselves constantly.
And then you are dealing with the death of your friends while you’re out there playing.
Yes, so right after all of that, it was straight into touring, getting back to playing music, and the cracks began to show eventually. My way through was drugs and alcohol. It softened it all for me, and that began my struggle with substances.
You have interviews with other female drummers. Was that your idea?
Yes. In the original cut, there were a lot of women drummers, and a lot of women who were inspiring to me, like [GoGos drummer] Gina Schock, a huge inspiration for me, and [Luscious Jackson drummer] Kate Schellenbach as well, being one of my peers and playing a lot of shows together. These were little dreams come true, actually, a wish list of amazing women to have in the documentary. It was great that they took the time to talk about their experience.
Who is the drummer that made you want to be a drummer?
John Bonham. And Peter Criss. I know, it’s crazy…I know he’s not known as a great drummer or anything, but I was really into Kiss when I was a kid, and the makeup, and the show they put on, and the massive drum kit Peter Criss had. I was really into it.
Peter Criss? I would not have guessed that at first, but I can hear a few Peter Criss drum fills in those Hole songs.
Right, right! (laughs) And you know, that stuff seeps in over the years. That straight 4/4 of Phil Rudd from AC/DC was big to me, and bands like Thin Lizzy, and then moving into the 80s and getting more into punk rock. Those drummers were huge as well. But yeah, basic rock and roll drummers like Jon Bonham and Ian Paice.
You were in a number of Hole videos and worked with a few directors . “Violet” is very impressive.
I remember “Violet” being inspired by Joel-Peter Witkin’s photography. A Nine Inch Nails video was done in that style, and Mark Seliger & Fred Woodward got the guy who shot that to shoot “Violet” [cinematographer Harris Savides]. Those sepia tones and scratchiness, that was the inspiration. We made one for “Miss World” and one for “Gold Dust Woman”, which is supposed to be kind of gothy because it was for THE CROW soundtrack. I was thinking the other day, because there’s all this CGI in it, if it looks dated now…
Courtney’s got black hair, and it really shows how menacing you guys can look. You usually looked pretty pissed in the LIVE THROUGH THIS stuff. That era had bands you were associating with that were all very serious. You weren’t Bon Jovi, running around smiling.
That said, what would you say is the biggest misconception about Hole? It’s covered ground that you had to put up with people saying that Kurt Cobain wrote the songs, but was there anything else that people were getting wrong about Hole?
When you asked that question, I was going to say that the fact that people thought Kurt wrote our music. That was something that constantly came up and always had to be dealt with. I guess a big misconception was that Courtney was the main songwriter, and in a way I guess you could say that, but Eric Erlandson was the most prolific in the band. It’s his guitar playing and his ideas, and the two of them together built Hole and built the sound, so anything that is Hole today, it doesn’t have Eric’s guitar sound on it. You know what I mean? That sound, those two guitars together, that style is Hole.
So you would say, having been a big part of this band, that the Hole of today is not really Hole.
Right. Yes. I mean, I think Courtney’s searching, and has moved into a different direction as a songwriter herself. And searching for that partner, and searching for other people. I can’t speak for her, but I don’t think she’s looking for what old Hole sounds like, which I loved. I think that whatever that partnership between them is what Hole sounds like. She can call what she’s doing now Hole, but it doesn’t have the same….energy, I guess.
Like the people who say Guns N’ Roses isn’t Guns N’ Roses anymore, it’s just Axl and a bunch of people.
You spent a unfathomable amount of time with Courtney Love. She’s either completely misunderstood, or she’s not, or maybe it’s more complex than anyone can imagine. When you think about her, with whatever bond you had, what is the thing that sticks out — her mind, her heart, her talent? You guys were really tight.
I guess you could say she’d an intense force, whatever she’s directing out. If it’s creativity, there’s that. If it’s venom or anger toward a situation, it’s that. Whatever situation, there’s always a force involved, turned up to its maximum. That’s sometimes a difficult situation to be in, you have to have the ability to kind of roll with whatever it’s going to be that day. It’s interesting and scary at times too.
I can’t help but think that when you’re in a band situation that intense, and you’re recording, you can hear that intensity. Your drumming is solid and strong to begin with, but the drumming is furious on those recordings.
Yes. There’s so many magical moments too.
Are you thinking of something in particular?
I’m thinking that after a while those moments became few and far between. And that was so much of the pressure of everything, and trying to find that in other places. Trying to find that in people, reaching out beyond Hole to find that, just different things, trying to get that magic.
It’s kind of amazing how once you get something like that, firing on all cylinders and millions of people love it, whatever you do after that, the people or the artist always go back to it.
Yes. You know, I didn’t really know how respected LIVE THROUGH THIS would be. When I was talking to the producers of the record, and them saying it was a cool art record. (laugh) And then we’ve got, Nirvana and what happened to them right up against us, so it was a crazy skewed perspective. Not everybody makes record that sells ten million copies and you’re catapulted, maybe you’re making an art record. I mean, I didn’t know what it was going to be. We didn’t stay in five star hotels, and Eric would be like “we can’t afford car service”, and not really getting it. You see Nirvana money going around.
What would you say is the legacy of Hole?
Great songs. A female rock band driven by female musicians, excluding Eric. The feminist position of Hole. There were some great feminist bands at that time, but Courtney really did point people in that direction. And the music is the legacy. I hear from people in their adult lives that the record meant so much to them. They’ll say, “It really spoke to the angry teenager in me,” those things that are good to hear. I hear it even more now that we have the film and at Q&As. These women and men are grown now. They are talking about what it meant to them, because you know, the film is a look back behind the scenes, and it shows the way it was, and the way it is today.
I don’t imagine many people are telling Peter Criss that in the same way.
(Laughs)“Strutter” and “Firehouse”!
“’Christeen Sixteen’ meant so much to me!” Yeah, not so much.
The whole Love Gun record! [Patty begins speaking in a depressed teenager voice]“Yeah, man, it helped me get through my parents’ divorce. It helped be go through my grandparents’ death.” (laugh)
What bands are you listening to right now?
The Belle Brigade from Los Angeles, kind of folky. Best Coast is great. Bleach, like Clorox.
And speaking of Bleach, back to Nirvana. What’s the real story on you almost being the drummer for Nirvana? Did you audition?
No, there was never a moment where I auditioned. Kurt did reach out for me for Courtney’s band to play drums for Hole. He introduced us. We played together a log. We’d get together and jam. Kurt, Courtney and I would play, and that’s the next thing. All the stuff on cassettes, tons of cassette tapes that need to be digitized, and it’s us. Kurt’s playing drums, I’m playing guitar, then he’s playing guitar and I’m on drums, Courtney’s on bass. We’d just switch around. All audio, I’ve done all the video digitization, and some of that is in the film. We’re actually going to show some footage at the New York screenings – my home movies. The audio I have to go through and preserve it.
I was just listening to the clip of your Hole show in Amsterdam when people were yelling horrible stuff at Courtney, and she walks off and the last thing we hear is you calling someone a fucking bitch as you left the stage. Is that still a vivid memory?
Oh God. Yeah, I do remember, and it was my birthday, I remember that. I was like, “My God, whaaaaat?” We’d been on tour for almost a year, we’re in Europe, just aaaaaaaah!!! I just wanted to go home, and then that happened. I remember getting to that boiling point, you know?
Tell me about the Cold and Lonely.
That’s my new band with my friend Meg Toohy, who’s been a side player on a bunch of things. She’s built of a bunch of songs that she’s written, and her wife is Nicole Fiorentino, the bass player in the Smashing Pumpkins. Nicole’s played in a bunch of bands, like Spinnerette with Brody Dalle, and Veruca Salt. We were working together at the Rock Camp over the summer, mentoring, and Meg gave me some of her songs, and so we went into a studio and did some drum parts. We recorded that stuff, and that’s coming out soon. We have to get a temporary bass player when we go out because Nicole is touring with the Pumpkins, so we got Leah Randi, whose father Don Randi was in the Wrecking Crew. She’s an amazing bass player, so I asked her because I know she can learn an entire set in two days.
You’re getting ready to go out on the road. You haven’t done that for a while. You have a baby now, so that will be a bit different, right. When was the last time you were on the road?
Maybe in 2004, 2005 with Juliette and the Licks. It’s a whole different thing, not just going out on the road and missing her, but it has to be financially smart. Going out in a van like I did, where we’d get enough money for Denny’s and some gas? That’s not going to fly!
HIT SO HARD begins its run at Cinema Village in Manhattan on April 13th, with Schemel in attendance and some cool extras each night the first weekend. Check out their website for all the latest on the film.