Spinning Platters Interview: Patty Schemel on “Hit So Hard”

by Jason LeRoy on April 29, 2012

It’s been twenty years since Patty Schemel became the drummer for Hole at the age of 25 in 1992. At the time, the band consisted entirely of co-founders Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson. The bassist and drummer with whom they’d recorded their grinding debut album, Pretty on the Inside, had moved on; Patty was recommended to Courtney by Kurt Cobain, who initially wanted Patty for Nirvana before settling on Dave Grohl. Patty had been a fixture in the Pacific Northwest indie-punk scene since the mid-’80s, but little about those experiences could have prepared her for the mind-melting, generation-defining roller coaster ride through heaven and hell on which she was about to have a front-car seat. Those explosive years, the drug-addled abyss that followed, and her hard-fought redemption are chronicled in shockingly intimate detail in a new documentary called Hit So Hard.

Directed by P. David Ebersole and produced by Todd Hughes and Christina Soletti (Schemel’s wife), Hit So Hard is a stunningly rich and multilayered documentary. Through Schemel, it tells the story of Hole, and through Hole, the story of a generation. Too restless to simply tell the story of one person, it leaps from topic to topic, forward and backward and sideways, to create a complex sociopolitical tapestry that is simultaneously a crystal-clear snapshot of a time and a place; it is just as much a tale of addiction and substance abuse as it is a celebration of female drummers, featuring interviews with such fellow lady percussionists as Alice De Buhr (Fanny), Debbie Peterson (The Bangles), Kate Schellenbach (Luscious Jackson), and Gina Schock (The Go-Go’s) — each of whom identifies Schemel as one of the all-time greats. And in addition to insightful commentary from Nina Gordon (Veruca Salt) and Sarah Vowell, it also features remarkably candid new interviews with the three surviving members of Hole with whom Schemel formed the band’s most iconic lineup: Erlandson, Love, and bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur.

But arguably the most amazing thing about Hit So Hard is the wealth of never-before-seen archival footage filmed by Patty with a Hi-8 camera during her years with the band (1992-97). The term “treasure trove” gets tossed around, but trust me when I say it truly applies here. We get a deeper and more intimate glimpse into the behind-the-scenes machinations of this storied band than ever before, with backstage moments ranging from silly (Courtney and The Offspring’s Dexter Holland taunting Evan Dando by repeatedly singing the “Into Your Arms” chorus) to grim (Courtney proudly announcing that she’d procured drugs for the evening, to which Eric replies, “Hey, great – why don’t you go die.”) The specters of Kurt Cobain and Kristen Pfaff (Hole’s bassist who died of a drug overdose within two month’s of Cobain’s 1994 suicide) loom large over the footage; in one astonishingly heart-wrenching moment, Courtney clutches a baby Frances Bean to her chest while pleading with Kurt not to “leave his girls.”

But ultimately, this is the story of Patty Schemel, whose time with the band was cut short when Courtney allowed Michael Beinhorn (the hot-shot producer brought in to mastermind Celebrity Skin) to convince her that Patty should be replaced with a studio drummer for the recording of the album. Schemel refused to go on tour with the band for material she didn’t personally record, so she quit the band and was soon living on the streets of Los Angeles as a drug addict. But she fought her way up out of the depths, and at 45, has been clean and sober for nearly a decade. Below, she sits down with Spinning Platters to discuss the film, the recent surprise Hole reunion performance in Brooklyn, the possibility of any further Hole reunions, thinking of her life story like a John Waters movie, being treated by Dr. Drew, and the Courtney Love-Marianne Faithfull connection.

How has this whole experience with the film been for you? It’s been touring the festival circuit for over a year, right?

It started March of 2011 at South by Southwest. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never made a movie before or been in one or anything like that. It was scary at first, because it was personal stuff. But the response has been really great and really supportive. A lot of people at the Q&As wanna talk about — well, it appeals to the Hole fans with the archival footage. I really wanted to make sure there was a lot of that that people could see. It also appeals to people in recovery, so there’s that conversation. And then the coming-out story, too. Those are the things people are getting from it, and I love that part of it.

It really is such a rich film. What’s it been like having people all over the world telling you that your life story inspires them?

That’s…that’s huge. Because being an addict and dealing with my disease all along, there’s not things to be proud of there. And so to come though it, and then to turn it into art with the film, is amazing. It it does anything to help anybody — that sounds corny, but it’s awesome.

Have you gotten used to having to talk about yourself so much, or is it still a struggle?

It’s always been a struggle, and one of the things the film has done is put me at ease about talking about things about myself. And audiences have been really supportive, so that’s made it easier.

The process of making this film got the members of Hole communicating again, and a few weeks ago you all performed together for the first time since you left the band in the late ’90s. What was that moment like?

That was pretty special. It was planned all along that Melissa, Eric, and I would get together and play some music. We had not expected that Courtney would come out, but it was good support for the film. And when she showed up backstage, we were all like [widens eyes theatrically], uh, surprised. So she comes in and then she just starts asking for the chords to “Miss World.” And all of a sudden we all go back to our old family dynamic! Me and Melissa like [mimes giving each other concerned looks], I’m trying to lighten the mood, Eric’s trying to give Courtney the chords, she’s yelling at Eric… [laughs]. But as soon as we get on stage, it all comes together. It went really well.

Watching the video gave me chills, even though it’s just shaky fan footage.

I still haven’t seen it! I hear there’s some guy singing along, and he’s getting it all wrong?

Oh yeah. He almost ruins it. But I probably would have gotten carried away and done the same thing.

[laughs]

Did you have a favorite Hole song to perform back in the touring days?

I really liked playing “Beautiful Son.” That was the first song I recorded with the band, and it was before we had a bass player. It was me, Eric, and Courtney; she played bass on it, and guitar, and she sang. We did it at a studio in Seattle where I’d recorded a ton. It was the studio where all the Sub Pop bands recorded. It was called Reciprocal; now it’s Word of Mouth. But it was just like home, a studio where I’d recorded a million times. It’s such a good song, and I love playing it live.

I feel like I have to ask if there’s been any talk of new collaborations.

You know, before that night in Williamsburg I’d pretty much always said no, but I don’t know now. It’s still the same, but maybe that door’s open just a titch more.

The archival footage is so incredibly revealing — for you obviously, but also for Courtney. Did she review it before signing off on it?

When she did her interview for the film, my wife Christina [Soletti], who’s also the producer, just kinda put some paper in front of her and she signed it. She didn’t really look at it, but she didn’t really have to. I would never do anything to disparage anyone in my band, and she knows that. And then she and Eric signed off on all the publishing. The movie couldn’t have been made without that gift. So it wasn’t really a question for her. The first time she saw it was at New Directors New Films in New York, when we were all together for that. And everybody was pleased with it! There were no issues.

Do you know if Frances has seen it?

[pause] No, I don’t know.

Have you had surprised responses from family and friends who didn’t know your full story?

Some friends, yeah. It’s kinda like what Nina Gordon says in the film, that she didn’t know how bad it had gotten.

Any word from Michael Beinhorn? Has he seen it?

No. I don’t know.

How do you feel about Courtney’s explanation in the film about her decision to replace you for Celebrity Skin?

She has always been — professionally, she’s always been the most honest. She will just say it. And I expected that from her, but…[pause]…but not from Eric and Melissa. I didn’t expect that. Courtney is pretty out about what her motivations and goals are, and this was a decision that was managed by a machine — a monster of rock! And it was their decision, this producer. So I guess if this is what you do to get a platinum record, that’s what you do. So that’s how it went.

It’s so eye-opening. I had no idea how frequently drummers are replaced in the studio until I saw this film, and the more that I ask my friends in bands about it, they’re like, “Oh yeah, it happens all the time.”

You don’t really know. I know studio drummers who will be like, “Oh, I played on that record and that record and that record.” And you’d have no idea.

The term “Johnny One-Take,” which you use to describe the studio drummer who plays on the album, is stuck in my mind forever now.

[laughs] Right? That term actually came from Courtney. She said that when we were doing Live Through This and I recorded “Jennifer’s Body.” We ran it once as a practice, and then I ran it again and nailed it. And she was like [in Courtney voice], “Well, look at Johnny One-Take.” So I was like, “Right here. Johnny One-Take. Special gloves and shoes.” [laughs] We are constantly, me and David and Todd, quoting the movie. Like, I grew up quoting every John Waters film there was, and now we quote our movie like it’s a John Waters movie. Like, constantly.

Do you know if John has seen your movie?

Yes! He saw it at Provincetown. That’s his film festival that he curates. So he saw it and liked it! He was just really supportive.

Was that surreal?

Huge! Huge. Unbelievably amazing.

I noticed in the film that you do these really hilarious exaggerated impressions of yourself, but they tend to be at really dark or vulnerable moments. It’s so interesting, that impulse to bring some levity to it, being able to laugh at the absurdity of it after all these years.

Yeah, to be able to look back on it, that’s sorta still my way of coping with it. Now I can look back on it and make some humor out of it, whereas when I was closer to it there was no possible way. I look at my disease of addiction, and it’s this life-or-death thing, and I understand how heavy it is. I understand how close to death I came, but I also have to have some sort of levity about it.

When I first saw a Hit So Hard screener, it was a year ago for Frameline, and it didn’t have this incredible epilogue about how you’ve gotten married and had a daughter. When I saw that yesterday, I was like, “Whoa!” So congratulations!

Thank you! It’s been pretty amazing this past year. My wife and daughter have been coming along to a few of the festivals. She’s seen me play a few times, but, you know, she’s just a toddler. She knows “drums.” So we just say, “I gotta go to work!”

Is it interesting to watch the movie and see yourself at two years sober, then three, four, five, six? When you see yourself at two and three years sober, can you tell that you were still closer to it?

I remember the feeling of not wanting to play drums at two years, still feeling really vulnerable and very protective. I remember thinking that’s how my life was: “I do my work with dogs, and that’s me now.” And then that sort of changing over the years. In my mind, I never really saw the “end” of the documentary. It was something that was just always around, a project in the works…

It must be an odd thing to be like, “Well, I guess this is where the story of my life ends.”

[whispers] I know! “Closing the chapter…”

So you once did a small project with Dr. Drew for his VH1 show Sober House

He and I had run into each other a lot of times when I was in rehab. He wasn’t even on TV, he was on this show called Loveline on KROQ. So I can remember being in detox and him coming in, being the doctor who had to check out your vitals and stuff. He had to say stuff like, “This is how Jim Morrison died.” And I was like [stoner drawl], “I fucking hate The Doors, man! I don’t care, you idiot! God!” [laughs] And then later on, I came on because a lot of the folks on Sober House were entertainers, so I was there to talk about how when you’re early on in recovery, you should maybe consider doing something else for a minute, until you kinda get your sea legs.

He gets a lot of flak for his media exposure. Do you think he does good work?

He knows a lot about addiction in the medical sense. So if that helps anybody, that’s great.

Your coming-out story in the film is very poignant. Have you considered working with It Gets Better?

No, but I’d love to do a video.

I guess the movie kinda already is one.

Yeah, with my PFLAG mom in there. [laughs]

How does it feel to look at everything happening with gay teens right now from the perspective of having experienced it in the early ’80s? Doesn’t it kinda seem like it should have gotten easier by now?

I think about what it was like then, and it’s so hard to say, “It gets better,” to say that phrase to kids. Because I couldn’t have hung with that. I’m glad I got through it, but how do you tell somebody that? It’s tough.

Have you given any thought to turning your story into a book? Or do you feel like, “Here’s the movie, I’m done talking about it.”

There’s been some talk about it. Maybe more in-depth about my year on the street, that’s been suggested. But I’m not a writer in any way, and that was sort of the reason for making the film. Back then I documented everything through my camera. Eric wrote in journals, Melissa is a photographer, so this was my way. My then-girlfriend gave me a camera to film, and that’s how I did it. But I never rule that out. That would be a great thing to actually do now, to write a book.

Speaking of books about musicians who go from successful recording careers to living on the streets as addicts, have you read Marianne Faithfull’s book, Faithfull?

No, but I know Courtney did. I always saw it sitting around. I got to meet her!

[gay gasp]

We did Jools Holland’s show together in the ’90s. I remember we were set up at the BBC and Courtney had her own dressing room area. And she went in and — you know, every room she goes into she just kind of takes it over, but this was different in a way. She set up all of her perfumes and just really set this mood, because she knew Marianne Faithfull was coming in, and wanted to make it this special place, putting out things that she wanted to share with her. And then Marianne came in, and there was this moment…

That is amazing. I always thought Hole should cover “Why D’Ya Do It.”

Ooh!

I just always thought that would be a really killer cover.

Oh, yeah! That’s a really good idea! I’m gonna go home and listen to it today.

It would be interesting to see what you could do with the tempo, since it has that kinda reggae vibe.

Yeah. [pause] Maybe it would be sort of what we did with “Gold Dust Woman.” Changed that one a little. I don’t know how Mick Fleetwood felt about that, but I just kinda wanted to pick it up a little bit! [laughs] Courtney wanted to do it that night in Brooklyn, but we really would have had to pick off the cobwebs on that one. But yeah, “Why D’Ya Do It.” Maybe we’ll do that if we ever get together again.

Hit So Hard is playing at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco through May 10. Click here for ticket and screening information.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gordon April 30, 2012 at 9:40 am

Awesome interview!

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