To fans of Hole’s seminal 1994 album Live Through This, the sound of Patty Schemel behind a drum kit is simply unmistakable. As I wandered through the factories of East Williamsburg in search of the venue where Patty and her pop-punk band Upset were sound-checking before their show, I heard those blistering clicks and felt as if I’d found the north star. I knew I was in the right place.
Patty Schemel is an unusual figure in contemporary indie music. Sure, she’s one of the greatest female drummers in the history of rock, and the powerful subject of 2011’s poignant documentary Hit So Hard, but Schemel is not about to rest her sticks on the legacy of her past. After drumming for Hole through the heart of the ‘90s and playing on one of the most enduring grunge albums in the history of the genre, Schemel found herself homeless and addicted to drugs. Sadly, for many of her peers of the time, that’s where their stories end. But not Patty’s.
Fast forward to the present, where a sober Schemel is not only raising a four year-old daughter with her partner of nine years, but also actively touring as the drummer for the pop-punk outfit Upset, headed by Ali Koehler, formerly of Vivian Girls and Best Coast. When Patty met Ali through a mutually complimentary Twitter exchange, it was a match made in pop-punk heaven, and Upset was born. On the brink of the band’s second full-length album, titled ’76, I sat down with Patty to talk about everything from her love of stand-up comedy, to touring with selfie sticks, to how the Internet created a “new” ‘90s.
Hi Patty. Let’s start at the beginning, or what those familiar with your story might call a second beginning. What led you to Upset? I understand that you and Ali met over a babysitting arrangement for your daughter?
Well, we were following each other on Twitter and Ali direct messaged me and said “I like your documentary and if you ever need a babysitter...” I wrote back, “Yeah!” We became friends. I love Vivian Girls. She said, “You know, I’ve got some songs,” and she sent them to me, and then we just started playing together.
You and Ali Koehler have such a great live-show banter in between songs during Upset shows. It feels a lot like stand-up comedy.
That’s actually a huge thing, Ali and I did connect on comedy. We both just love comedy. I was doing the ASSSSCAT night at Upright Citizen’s Brigade in L.A. where you go and tell stories, so I invited her and her boyfriend to come, and that was one of our first hang-outs early on. We both bonded on having similar comedian loves. She likes Chelsea Peretti. That’s what we’ve been doing on this tour. Chelsea Peretti, non-stop podcasts. And Jenny Slate of course, who makes me cry-laugh. I’m [also] a huge Amy Schumer fan.
I know that you have a history documenting your experiences on tour. David Ebersole’s powerful documentary about your life thus far, Hit So Hard, contains a lot of video that you filmed of your days on the road with Hole. Now that technology has made it so easy to take and upload videos, do you still have that same impulse to record your travels?
Not as much, but our guitarist Lauren brought a Go-Pro camera and a selfie stick! I don’t feel as compelled to [document] unless there’s a certain thing I want to share with my family or friends.
Was that your impulse back in the 90’s? Why were you wanting to document that tour as opposed to this one?
That Hole tour was my first time traveling and going to Europe and different places. Melissa Auf der Maur is a photographer, [and] she photographed every bit. Amazing stuff. And Eric Erlandson writes, so he was writing. I just filmed. That was my way.
So much of that footage was used to make Hit So Hard. Speaking of which, how has your life changed after the movie came out?
At first, there was such a moment of “Do I want this personal stuff out there?” But I felt compelled to do something with the footage and to create some art from it. It’s changed in that when the film showed, it was a great experience and I got to talk to people about it. People had questions. It appealed to people in recovery. It appealed to people who love dogs! It appealed to musicians. It appealed to people who are fans of that era of music. It was cool to share that with people.
You and your partner are parents now. How do you balance being a touring musician with family life?
This is the first time I’ve been away from my daughter for this long. Upset went to Australia last summer with White Lung for two weeks, and this is a three week-long tour. The balance is a struggle, because so much happens in a day for a kid who is four! So I want to see those things, and I want to be a part of that, but she understands that my partner works and I stay home with my daughter and play music at night. She understands when I go to leave for rehearsal. She understands when I go play shows. She’s seen me play a couple times at daytime shows. And I teach drums, so she knows when I leave the house to go give lessons. She has her own drum kit, and she can play a little bit, but I don’t want to push her.
I was just going to ask you about that! I understand that you teach drums to kids for a charity organization?
In the summer, I teach at Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls. It’s a great organization for girls to go and learn how to not just pick an instrument to play but also how to make your own t-shirts. Learn self-defense. Learn how to make buttons. Write a song. Every part of being in a band and making music. That’s what you can learn in rock camp and then you play a show at the end of the week. It’s so cool. It gets me back to basics of beginning to play drums and why I love doing it. I remember that feeling of getting so excited about learning something. Last year, my daughter came, even though she was three. She got to hang out while I taught. It’s such a great spot for her to be in and see the women and girls doing stuff.
How would you feel if your daughter expressed an interest in playing in a band?
[I’d] let her lead the way. I would try to stay hands off and not get too involved. Of course, I’d worry. I would love for my daughter to play music with people like, say, the girls in Upset. I would love her to be in a band with them, because they’re awesome. I think she’ll find her way to those people.
Who are some of your favorite female drummers right now?
Ashley Arnwine from Waxahatchee who is also in Pinkwash. She was in Bleeding Rainbow, too. Top favorite right now. I really like Laura Kelsey from Death Valley Girls. Super awesome in a Cramps-y kind of way. There’s this girl named Candace Hanson in a band called Yawn from Orange County. She’s just like a drum aficionado, and I always grab her and say, “Show me some stuff. What have you got?”
How do you feel about the current female-fronted music scene in Seattle? I know bands like Tacocat and Childbirth have a bit of a crossover with Upset. What’s it like to see women playing music in Seattle now as opposed to during the infamous days of grunge?
It’s so hard to step back and see it as a scene. Even back then in the ‘90s, it was so hard to step back and see it that way and the same goes for now. But I love Tacocat! And Childbirth and Chastity Belt. The name and the concept? Amazing. We’ve been listening to them non-stop. Now I can see Seattle in that sort of way, being this far away from it. I guess I would say it’s more supportive now.
’90s nostalgia seems to be really prevalent right now, especially with millennials. What do you think of all the weird cultural appropriations of this era, after having been so intimately involved with it?
Ali or the other girls in the Upset will say something like “Oh, that’s so ’90s.” This outfit or something. I can’t really grasp it. It’s hard to step out of it and see it.
There’s almost a kind of new ’90s, like a re-imagined idea of what the 90s were.
Yes! Like pastel goth or soft grunge. Are these things that people are making up on Tumblr? I guess that’s cool. It blends it all together.
Does that offend you?
Not at all. But what does offend me is when people say something like “Sublime was such a great band.”
What? Who says that?
Do you find it hard to separate Patty the drummer of Hole from Patty the drummer of Upset?
I feel the same always when I sit behind my drums. I always feel that I still have to prove myself, no matter if I’m in Hole or in Upset. I always have that drive to prove myself, maybe because I’m female. To myself and to the world as a musician. I’ve never arrived. I just have to keep pushing and trying and changing always.
Have you always had that mentality? That’s a common way of thinking for people in recovery.
I guess maybe back then in pre-recovery, I was always sinking way down in that feeling of not thinking that you’re good enough. Constantly trying to push it and push it but eventually just ending up taking drugs and saying fuck it, to put it lightly. That cop out to give up or whatever. Or “I’m just going to check out.” It’s scary to be in that place of being on stage or having people listen to you. I am still afraid sometimes, but my choice is not to take drugs anymore.
On a lighter note, I heard a rumor that Upset played a secret set at the Lisa Frank factory in El Paso. Please tell me this is true.
(laughter) Let’s just keep that one rolling.
This guest post was written by Bryn Lovitt
Image via Variance Films