Interview with Patty Schemel | By Stephanie Dubick (@SteffLeppard)
When I was young and rebellious and confused, the first time I listened to Live Through This by grunge rock icons, Hole, my outlook on what I considered “good music” drastically changed. I was 16 years old and I was angry. I hated my parents for no apparent reason and I lived in the suburbs at a time when ‘popular’ music lacked any semblance of good. Popular music meant the diarrheal rap rock of Limp Bizkit, the bubble-gum plop of N*Sync, and the pre-breakdown, autotuned world of Britney Spears.
So instead of caving in to the crap, I listened to bands that channeled my emotions in ways that Powerman 5000 could not (like Nirvana), because my older guitarist brother had amazing musical tastes that helped guide me away from Kid Rock. He lent me Live Through This when my Kurt obsession has subsided for a moment and I was instantly hooked. Courtney Love’s ferocity and Patty Schemel’s power drumming embodied an attitude and sound that made sense when nothing else did. They taught me the power of female musicians, that fearlessness in the male-dominated music industry was achievable, and they introduced me to feminism and Riot Grrrl before I knew what feminism and Riot Grrrl were.
But while Courtney was the voice of Hole, Patty was the backbone. The beat. And when Hole called it quits in 2003, despite hardened times on the streets of LA, Patty overcame drug addiction to form bands such as Green Eyes, Death Valley Girl, and The Cold and Lovely, and toured and recorded with Imperial Teens, Juliette and The Licks, and Courtney Love.
Now, in her latest project, Patty lends her drumming techniques to the all-star indie band, Upset, devised by former Best Coast drummer Ali Koeheler, and featuring guitarist Jenn Prince (of La Sera). Recently, I spoke with Patty Schemel about her new band, and also asked her a few things about feminism, Twee Pop and cats. All things that are WAY better than Nu Metal.
Hey Patty! How are you?
I’m really good. My daughter had her first day of preschool today, which was a big deal. Actually, it was more of like a where-I-go-with-her-to-school kinda thing. But it was a big morning.
Did you get teary eyed at all?
No, I was with her all day at school to kind of get the flow of how everything goes. But there were no tears; I’ve been to her school before for different things, but there are two more visits and then it’s time for her to go on her own. So I’m sure the tears are on the horizon.
I saw a picture of you and your daughter behind a tiny drum kit a year ago. Is she playing the drums at all? I know she’s little, but is she expressing any interest in playing music?
Oh yeah! She can bang on the drums and she knows how to count off to four and clock her sticks, but nothing official yet as far as beats. She has a little piano like every other kid does, ya know? An instrument [for kids] is just the same thing—it’s for making noise and stuff.
Do you play a lot of music in the house for her?
Yeah. She’s been listening to the new Upset record a lot and she calls it “Mom’s Rock n’ Roll.” She’ll request it, too: ‘Let’s hear Mom’s Rock n’ Roll!’ and she’ll put it on. So she knows the record real well. And whatever we listen to, she’ll listen to, as long as it’s not something too crazy like Slayer. Maybe not Slayer… yet.
So no Black Metal or anything?
Oh no, no. That’s too intense.
Does your daughter know you’re a musician? Has she seen you play?
Yeah, she gets it. She came to Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls [in Los Angeles] in July. Upset played at lunch—we volunteered—so we were one of the lunchtime bands and she came to the lunch time concert and watched. I could see her watching for the first three songs and then it was on to some other thing, like a garbage truck or something.
I’ve always compared little kids to cats.
Exactly. It’s like herding cats when they’re in a group.
And speaking of cats, when I when I was watching Hit So Hard [Patty’s 2011 documentary], I saw that you had a dog walking business. Are you still doing that?
I do have a few clients. It’s definitely not where it was before. Before my daughter was born, it was full time busy. I still have a few clients, but definitely not as much as I did. But yeah, I still do that.
Does the fact that the internet is cat-obsessed make you angry as a dog lover?
[Laughs] Yeah, like cats on Instagram and stuff like that. There’s been so much cat stuff; it’s crazy. And then Grumpy Cat, who has his own product line. I’m sure there’s clever dog stuff out there; you just have to find it. And cat people are a whole different type. There’s definitely a difference between cat and dog people.
I’m kind of obsessed with my cat. He’s the best. And I could seriously talk about cat stuff all day, but I have to ask you about music! You played a show recently at the Troubadour in LA with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo’s new band, The Both. How was that?
It was really cool because Katy [Goodman, bassist for Upset, aka “Kickball Katy”] and Ali [Koehler, lead singer/guitarist for Upset] know Ted—I guess maybe they played some shows together when they [Katy and Ali] were in Vivian Girls. So it was cool to kind of watch them and they [The Both] did a couple of Aimee Mann songs that I love. “Labrador” is one of her newer ones that I love and then “Fade Me”—that one’s a little different, so that was cool. And it was sold out. It was awesome to play.
Because you’ve played in so many bands and played so many shows, do you still enjoy playing live?
I do. You never shake that initial nervousness—that’s always there. For me, after the third song I usually get comfortable. I’m trying to think of a clever analogy for it, but by the third song I’m like, comfortable.
That’s kind of like me when I do interviews (like this one). At first I sweat a lot and feel as though I’m going to vomit, but then I get comfortable eventually.
Yeah, you kind of get a rhythm down and then it feels comfy when it flows good, or whatever.
I mentioned a moment ago about all the bands you’re currently in. What is like to be in so many bands at once? You’re still doing Green Eyes, right?
Green Eyes was great but our former bass player, Malia [James], went on to be in the Dum Dum Girls, so now it’s Death Valley Girls. My brother and I were in Green Eyes, but now we sort of reorganized and started Death Valley Girls which is a garage band. So between Upset and Death Valley Girls, I have either a rehearsal or a show every night with either band. And I did some recording with Paul Oldham, who is the youngest Oldham of the Oldham brothers, and he and his wife have a group called Lucky Eyes and Larry and I sat in with them and recorded a bunch of songs for an EP that Neil Hagerty from Royal Trux produced. So that whole things was awesome.
How about The Cold and Lovely?
Oh, The Cold and Lovely, too! That’s taking a little bit of a break because Nicole [Fiorentino], who plays bass in The Cold and Lovely, is on tour with The Smashing Pumpkins.
Yeah! So she’s with The Pumpkins, and Meg, her wife, does a lot of session works and does a lot of musician/songwriter kinds of stuff. So we have an EP coming out soon that we put together quickly before Nicole left for tour. She was home for a minute and then we recorded some songs. That’s coming out, I’m not sure when, but I get updates from Meg as far as what’s happening with mixing. So that should be coming out soon.
Going back to Larry for a second, you’re both pretty close. You played in bands together when you were younger, but then stopped for a little while. When did you finally start playing again? Was it with Green Eyes?
When I started to play music more [post-Hole]—and we did some writing and had a few songs—a couple of the songs we’d written, Courtney [Love…duh] used on her solo record, America’s Sweethearts. Those were song ideas that we kind of had kickin’ around. And then we just started playing again. We did Green Eyes and now we’re doing Death Valley Girls. It’s been eight years of me being in recovery, and before that it was a pretty plush time for me. It was trying to go with the flow and attempting to get back to playing music again and becoming a normal, contributing member of society. So of course I leaned on the important people I felt comfortable and safe with.
Your close-knit relationship with your brother is similar to mine. My brother is a musician who’s kind of fallen in and out of drugs these past few years, but I keep encouraging him to try and stay sober and to stay in programs because things will (hopefully) get better.
Definitely. From my side of it, the times that the people I love said to me, ‘You know what? I’m not lending you that hundred bucks,’ or ‘I’m not letting you stay at my house’—you know, that whole cliché tough love thing? In my case that worked because I ended up losing everything. That’s where you really have to reach out for help. But just to be supportive–like you’re saying. Keep trying. Go back. Tomorrow’s a whole other day. One of those times could be the time.
When did you finally start playing music again?
For the longest time I didn’t even want to go to music. And then when I got clean again, I didn’t want to do it [play music] because of the memories it brought up in me. I wasn’t used to not sitting at my drum kit loaded and smoking lots of cigarettes. But slowly, I started to change my life and music eventually started coming back. Just playing with friends and getting excited about playing drums again and teaching at Rock Camp–and sharing that–was a big deal.
And now it seems like music is your life now, again. Things couldn’t be going better for you. I wanted to ask you about another band that you played with in June at the Experience Music Project in Seattle for the Women Who Rock exhibit. Was Bad Empressions just a one-time event or will you guys be playing together again?
We’re actually doing a show this weekend at the Grammy Museum at Music Cares. It’s like a part of the Nokia Theater or Live Nation and they put on these concerts and a Q&A with the musicians—I think Stevie Knicks did it—like really heavy, serious musicians. So they asked us to come and do a set. Bad Empressions is Kathleen Valentine [former bassist of the Go Go’s], Dominique Davalos, and Shae Padilla, and we threw it together just for that situation at EMP which is why we named it Bad EMPressions, so it was a tribute to the women of rock at the EMP museum. So we decided to do it again because they asked us to come and do this little concert. We’re just doing a shortened version of Annabella [Lwin from Bow Wow Wow] doing a Bow Wow Wow song, and Kim Shattuck [of The Muffs] is doing a Muffs song and a Blondie song, and I think Kathy will sing something. But I think that whole idea is going to move on to something else and hopefully we’ll play some more shows whenever. It’s kind of a fun idea. For me it was a big, massive cram session of playing different styles. Some of the songs had swing beats and jazz beats and I hadn’t done that in years. So it was cool to exercise that.
Do you prefer playing with all-female bands?
I don’t mind either way at all. I guess it’s just—right now I play with a lot of women [laughs]. But I don’t have a preference, really.
Do you think it’s gotten better for women in music today as opposed to 25 years ago? And I know that’s a weird question, but nowadays there are so many women-fronted (and all-female) bands and it’s wonderful.
[Pauses] Ummmm, I don’t know. I just—[pauses again]. What’s great about music today is that you can write a record and record it in your bedroom—I love that. When I was growing up we would record on a 4-track and have a cassette tape. Now you can record it in your room, on your computer, and make it sound whatever way you want it to sound. Like you make it sound like its coming off a crappy vinyl record or you can make it sound super slick. You have a lot more opportunity to create with your computer and reach more people and enjoy it for yourself through the internet. I miss things like fanzines and getting vinyl in the mail and going to the record store, but I don’t want to sound like some old lady going, ‘Back in my day we used to….’ ya know? It’s just cool that you can make music in your bedroom and do it quick with someone in Russia tonight. Where it takes a minute to get it started from Olympia [WA] to Russia—it got there, I’m sure. I mean, there’s Riot Grrrls in Russia, they’re called Pussy Riot.
So it seems as though you like the recording process now as opposed to the pre-internet days.
As far as being a player, I feel more confident with my skills today then I used to. Growing up it was all about playing the cheapest. You’d find recording and it was super cheap and you’d have to hurry up because you couldn’t afford a full hour in a studio
In reference to the internet a moment ago, is it true that Twitter brought Upset together?
When I first heard Vivian Girls I fell in love with that band. They were so great. They were one of the first groups of girls to bring back that sort of Twee-reverb-pretty-pop sound. I loved bands from the 90s like Tiger Trap and all the bands off of Slumberland Records, so there was something really great and familiar about them that I loved. But they were doing their own version of that. I was following Ali on Twitter and then we met and then Ali was like, ‘Hey, it was nice to meet you,’ and I was like ‘Cool drum kit on Letterman the other night,’ or something like that—I think she was with Best Coast—and I was like, ‘That was such a great show,’ and that’s how it started.
How do you like it so far?
It’s awesome! It’s fun. Recording was great. We had Kyle come out—Kyle Gilbride [producer]—and he recorded us in our practice space, which was great. He just brought his computer and some mics. And I love the way Jenn [Prince] plays guitar is amazing and she has some really amazing influences and you can hear it in her guitar playing—and Ali, too. Their ideas for covers were great, like a Jawbreakers song and a 7 Seconds song. It’s like that really great power-pop-punk that I love. I’ve always loved a little melody in my punk rock.
And how often are you practicing together?
Once a week, pretty much, but if we have something special that we’re working on we always double it up. But yeah, once a week on a Saturday.
Because you have so much going on it’s like, where do you fit in the time?
I know! Christina, my partner, was like, ‘We have a birthday on Saturday,’ and I was like ‘Nope, not for me because I have rehearsal with Bad Empressions.’ Thank God for the Apple calendar because we’ll put everything in there and we can all share the same calendar.
I read somewhere– I think it was on the Don Giovanni website–that Upset is putting out a split album with Waxatchee and Screaming Females. Did I read that correctly?
Yeah, we’re all doing a Guided By Voices cover.
I saw that on the Facebooks the other day. Actually! Speaking of Facebook, how big of a Twitterer/Facebooker are you?
I’m a Twitterer if I need to promote something. I might have a funny quip, but I’m no John Wurster.
Oh geesh, this is embarrassing. I know who that is but I forget. Please refresh my memory.
He’s the drummer of Mountain Goats….
Oh yeah. Duh.
Drummer of Superchunk, drummer of Husker Du, and he’s the most hysterical person, the most amazing drummer, and is the funniest person on Twitter. Are you on Twitter?
Indeed, but I don’t Tweet really because I have no idea what I’m doing. Hashtags are still foreign to me.
[Laughs] Yeah, I can do it. And my wife, that’s her jam. That’s what she does for a living–social media– for a company. So I don’t know a lot, but if I need help with something I go to her. Instagram is for taking pictures, Twitters’ just saying something in 140 characters, and what else is there? I haven’t worked my way up to a Vine yet.
People are actually making like, six-second music videos on Vine now. It’s pretty crazy. But I was wondering about what it’s like to work in a band with another drummer. Does Ali ever suggest things to you considering she is a drummer herself?
Not at all. She’s never said one thing to me. She just said, ‘Here’s a song, do whatever you want.’
So the music writing process for Upset is pretty much everyone writes their own parts?
Yeah, Ali has the song idea; the foundation of the house. Then Jenn puts some guitar parts on it to flesh it all out. And then Jenn brought in a song and she has a song on the record that’s really cool.
Was there a Chris in the band at one point?
Chris Roberts was our first bass player. He was so great, Chris. And then he got married and moved to London.
He was this great bass player, but it wasn’t really his thing; it was like one of those secondary things. To me, he didn’t act like he played his bass at all, but he would pick it up and just be amazing. He had other things going on but he also played bass. I know how to play bass as well.
You also play guitar, right?
I play guitar a little bit. I might be able to play different songs, but not really.
Switching topics here for a second, do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yeah. When I was growing up I was a girl playing an instrument that I didn’t see a lot of girls playing, so I thought I had something to prove. So in that, because I had something to prove as a girl, it made me a feminist. I was in this band with all these boys and it was as punk rock band and we all went to go see the Beastie Boys. They [Beastie Boys] did this thing where they poured beer on the stage and these kids were screaming because they love them, and they pulled some girl on stage and said, ‘Here, you can mop it up’ like, clean up the beer. The guys in my band were laughing and I was not laughing and got pissed. I knew that minute, on the way home from the show, that definitely things needed to be done about that. So I needed to find some like-minded ladies who felt the same. It was just a series of events like that that made me a feminist.
So is that what appealed you to Hole?
Definitely. I felt really safe in that band. I guess I was pretty lucky not to have a lot of sexist experiences as far as Hole goes. But there have been times when I’ve played in situations—like this one time, I was in a situation where a guy just busted out a laptop and went, ‘Boobs, check it out!’ and there was porn and whatever. And shit would go down where I would be like wow, if that happened when I was in Hole, that guy probably would’ve been kicked in the teeth and fired. So I was in pretty good with Hole and we all had like-minds.
Is that what it’s like with Upset?
Oh yeah. First of all, we all have the same sense of humor—so that’s important.
Ok, so I hate to do this, but here comes the clichéd question of the half-hour: What do you see for the future of Upset?
[Laughs] We haven’t even started to show the world what these songs are yet. But in the future I’m sure we’ll collaborate on more songwriting. Who knows?
Also, you should put some Upset records on Youtube. I can’t seem to find any.
There should be one. I think I saw something on Twitter. Somebody did a little blerp–I don’t know if that’s a word, or one I just made up.
I think it sounds cool.
[In a jokey, awesome voice] I just made up a word. It’s a short Vine and it’s called a “blerp” [laughs]. We did some video outside of an Aimee Mann show.
Blerp: coined by Patty Schemel.
It’s spelled b-l-e-r-p.
Exclamation point? Why not?
Yeah [laughs]. BLERP! Look for the t-shirts soon.
Upset’s new album She’s Gone out October 29th on Don Giovanni Records.