Patty Schemel in Quarantine

This year, Girls Rock Santa Barbara has developed The Summer of Love Internship, its first ever paid internship for teen girls and gender-expansive youth, which allows the organization to continue to provide a safe, collaborative environment in which to encourage lifelong skills like positive peer bonding and self-confident resilience. The internship, which lasts six weeks and pays each intern $500, offers six exciting and arts-focused disciplines: Record Label, Recording Artist, Social Media, Journalism, Photography, and Podcasting. Audiofemme is pleased to publish the following article, written by Julia Duva and Emelie Sanchez, two interns from the Journalism program.

Photo Credit: Romy Suskin

“Sorry if my audio cuts out,” Patty Schemel apologizes as she joins our scheduled Zoom call from the passenger seat of a moving car. Introducing herself while the world flashes by behind her and the bumpy roads shake the camera, she quickly explains that she’s on her way somewhere and will only have about half an hour to talk. It seems fitting that she’s in her car, doing an interview, while already on the way to some other engagement; Schemel was never the type to sit still. That’s part of the reason why she started drumming when she was just twelve years old – it was a loud, fast, and efficient way to burn energy and work through her stress and anger. She continued with this unique type of therapy for the majority of her teenage and adult life, playing in several different bands and on countless other studio recordings over the years.

Having been in the music industry for a few decades, questioned constantly about the ’90s and her former band Hole, Schemel was excited to take a break from analyzing her tumultuous past to talk to us about her current band, Upset, how she is dealing with quarantine, and her new passion projects.

For the past four months, Schemel has been on a break with Upset, which dropped their third album just last November, after five years of no new releases. Because of the break, she has been working on other music-related ventures. Many artists are having to find new ways to make music without actually being in a room with a band. “You can really record drums so easily today,” she confirms. “Like, just play a beat, record it, put it into your software, and double it a bunch of times. It’s not so organic. You don’t hear a lot of real drums anymore.” While this new way of making music is exciting, it can have its downfalls. “It’s frustrating because I can’t just make a sound come out by…you know,” she says, while making a drumming motion with her hands. “It’s a new way of thinking about making music which is interesting and exciting. And that’s what my focus has been.”

Despite having made music with her computer, Schemel admitted that she hadn’t played the drums in a few months. Drumming has always been her way to de-stress and escape, so four months into the pandemic, she picked it up again. “You know, just on Saturday, I set up my drums and played them for the first time in months. And I forgot how good it makes me feel,” she says. “It grounds me and gets my mind to think in different ways and it’s a good workout. So I am going to start doing that more.”

Since musicians and performers rely on a gig economy, where income is based on one-shot performances or touring, the recent shutdown has affected many independent artists, including Schemel. “Right now is such a fertile time to rethink what we do as musicians and performers,” she suggests. “I think the fact that we can stream [music] and create it in our bedrooms is so great now. So we have to think: will we be able to make a living playing music? And how do we repackage it or rethink performing? Is it screens?” Schemel’s punk-oriented work with Upset doesn’t quite fit into the category of “Bedroom Pop,” but she and other artists might look to the genre which has set an example for producing and releasing music from home.

While taking the time to focus more on herself, her close friends, and her family, Schemel has been working on some more personal projects. As the population began sheltering at home, people became invested in baking bread, playing Animal Crossing, and binging Money Heist. Schemel, instead, started a podcast, still unnamed, which will hopefully be released soon. “It seems like everybody has a podcast,” she jokes. “I have just been thinking about what is gonna make my podcast unique. It is me interviewing women who play music and talking about why they did it and talking about creating their work. And how, in the ’90s, there was that wave of feminism in music and then it just sort of died down. What happened? What can we do today?”

Along with her podcasting, Schemel has been teaching woodworking to children, which she began when she met a woman through her daughter’s school that was hoping to collaborate on classes. “I like the idea of making something, working on it start to finish, making it with my hands. It’s not plastic and it’s not a screen. You don’t plug it in. It’s just a piece of wood and you put it together,” she explains. For her, woodworking was the perfect creative outlet – next to playing the drums. And Schemel loves working with kids – she describes her students as “my own group of friends who are between five and seven [years old].” She is also a drum coach at the Girls Rock Los Angeles summer camp. Though she may not have understood what she was getting herself into, when she realized she’d be able to teach young girls to play the drums, she was able to be the role model that she needed as a child.

“[Girls Rock] spoke to eleven-year-old me – the girl who wanted to play drums, who had a really hard time navigating the world as a girl who wanted to play drums, the girl who had a hard time going into the music store afraid of getting drumsticks because I was always looked down on,” she says.

Now, Patty Schemel has grown comfortable being a role model. “I have had fans say, ‘Thank you for coming out, and being an out gay person in the ’90s.’ When they come up and say that, I feel good,” she says. “And other people who are in recovery like myself – I don’t drink or do drugs and I am pretty open about that, so people come and talk about that being the thing that helped them when I wrote about it in my book.” She paused and thought for a minute. “So it’s really those two things that, when I hear them, it’s a good reason to be in the world, that I did that for people.”

ONLY NOISE: In the Wake of Kurt’s Suicide, Courtney Love Changed My Life

Courtney spent her career living in the shadow of Kurt Cobain, despite her own brilliant talent.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, legendary ROCKRGRL editor Carla Black remembers how her sympathy for a grieving Courtney Love in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death twenty-five years ago sparked a decade-long journey to bring gender parity to modern rock.

Like most people of a certain generation, I remember exactly where I was on April 8th, 1994, when the news broke that Kurt Cobain had ended his own life three days before. My son David had just turned six; the previous weekend, I’d slipped the organist at Pizza and Pipes an extra twenty to play a hilariously church-like version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the giant pipe organ at his birthday party. It was his favorite song. As a part time bassist in an all-female ‘60s cover band, I wouldn’t dream of subjecting him to kid music as insulting to his intelligence as Barney the Dinosaur. Nirvana’s 1991 breakout hit, a paean to disaffected youth with its quiet verses, angry chorus, and video set in a flaming high school gym, had catapulted mysterious and shy Kurt into the spotlight. Fans and critics alike had already proclaimed him “the voice of his generation.” Now, I was hearing about his senseless death from an aid at my son’s school as I left the parking lot.

It was shocking, but not completely. Only a month before, Kurt had overdosed in Rome, reportedly an accident. Every station – not just MTV – covered Kurt’s suicide. He had shot himself in the greenhouse of the Seattle home that he and his wife, fellow grunge rocker Courtney Love, had only moved into a few months before with their infant daughter Frances Bean. Photos from the old-money neighborhood of Denny-Blaine splashed onto the screen. Kurt’s unkempt hair and facial scruff cut a stark contrast to the well-dressed, clean-shaven looks of the anchors that reported it. Grunge pilgrims flocked to tiny Viretta Park, the lot next to their home, etching goodbyes into the park bench with Sharpies and Swiss army knives. Courtney emerged from behind the gate and joined them in mourning.

As a newly single mother myself, I struggled to explain the death of David’s favorite rock star. I remember standing in front of the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble. It was Courtney, not Kurt, who graced the covers of most of the music magazines. Coincidentally – or maybe not – Live Through This, the major label debut album with her band Hole, was released the same week as Kurt’s death, and had already been getting significant airplay. I bought every one the magazines I found with her picture on the cover and pored through them, hoping to find an answer to explain Kurt’s passing to my young son.

Rock star deaths at age 27 were not uncommon. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison – “the stupid club,” as Kurt’s mother had dubbed them – perished at the same age. But those deaths were overdoses. While Kurt and Courtney were both known to use hard drugs, it was still unfathomable to think how someone at the apex of their music career could take his own life. It wasn’t long before the conspiracy theories began to emerge. Maybe he wasn’t really dead after all. He could be flipping burgers somewhere with Elvis. But the most distressing of all theories, to me at least, was the suggestion that Courtney orchestrated his death. It was sexist, trite and cruel. Kurt was endlessly portrayed as a tragic angel, taken down by a demon wife. I found every bit of it disgusting.

As I learned more about Kurt’s widow, I discovered a parallel geography I shared with her. We both lived in Eugene, Oregon and the Bay Area at the same time. And in 1987 she had the lead role in a quirky indie film called Straight To Hell in which Dan Wool, a fellow student in my voice class in the mid-’80s, was the music supervisor. I remember hearing updates about the film from Dan, which notched up my remote feeling of kinship with Courtney. But while my upbringing was conventional, hers was not.

Both Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain each grew up in what used to be known as “a broken home.” After her parents’ divorce, Courtney’s mother took everyone in the family but Courtney to New Zealand to live. She spent time in reform school, was emancipated by age 16, and worked as a stripper to make ends meet. As legend has it, Kurt lived under a bridge after his parents’ split. Kurt and Courtney were two people on their own before they should have been, bonding over a voracious passion for music and a deep need to survive. By the time of Kurt’s death, the couple were a household name, and now that he was gone, Courtney bore the full brunt of Nirvana fans’ anger and disbelief.

Every evening, after David’s bedtime, I read whatever I could find about Kurt and Courtney and his mysterious death on America Online (AOL), which, in 1994, was how most of us discovered the strange new world of the Internet. It was riveting, and I found myself defending Courtney on AOL’s music message boards from what I perceived as blatant sexism. How inhumane, I thought, to anonymously lash out at someone who was suffering and so obviously in pain. He wrote her songs, they claimed. She was on drugs when she was pregnant, they said. She was a bad mom, they wrote. But I saw a vulnerable side of Courtney I found charming, intelligent, and even funny; this put me squarely in the minority. I loved the way she turned the only two existing female musical archetypes – waif folk singer and brash rocker – on their ear. She always spoke her mind, regardless of the consequences.

I was deeply offended by many – but not all – criticisms of her. Why was Kurt deified and Courtney vilified? Sure, she was outspoken, but weren’t rock stars supposed to be? The music world only embraced conventionally beautiful women as stars; men could be as ugly as Axl Rose. What about the rest of us? Didn’t we have anything important to add? It is an artist’s job to distill pain, and Courtney was the patron saint of the marginalized female, often giving away a guitar to a girl at her shows. I thought it sad how she was mocked by the press and Nirvana fans, but she seemed to be unfazed by it. I admired that greatly.

One night I logged on and was shocked to see posts from Courtney herself. The typing was challenging to decipher, but her stream-of-consciousness thoughts reflected an extremely high intelligence. She was pissed and had found a place to vent her frustrations. Initially her targets were indie musicians and record label executives I hadn’t heard of. But after finding the online world cathartic, she became a regular fixture – one of the first artists to actually participate with their fans virtually, not simply lurk.

I watched the daily drama unfold from the hulking desktop PC in my living room, and reached out to her in an email. After noticing I was one of her few adult defenders, Courtney and I became online friends. AOL charged by the hour in those days and the significant amount of time we spent messaging each other online racked up some hefty bills. Sometimes she’d call and we’d talk through the night. There was no such thing as a brief conversation with Courtney or an hour too late to call. When David went to bed, this was my entertainment: single mom by day, rock star confidante by night.

Soon I was adept at deciphering Courtney’s inimitable style. Threads I had been a part of began to appear in magazines, like Newsweek and Time. It was a heady experience to have access to such an important artist, and I took my role as “den mother of the Hole folder” seriously. With news spreading that its subject was a regular participant, the folder was the most highly trafficked on AOL.

I finally got the chance to see Hole and meet Courtney in person that fall when they performed in San Francisco. Courtney’s tour manager offered me comps and a backstage pass. “She wants to meet you,” he said. The performance was heartbreaking, emotional and sad. Throughout the set she looked up to the sky and yelled to Kurt, demanding to know why he left. Once the show was over, in the hallowed halls of Hole’s green room, the tour manager walked me over to Courtney to make the introduction. Tall and charismatic, she was covered in glitter makeup and still damp from the performance. “This is ROCKRGRL,” he said, referring to my screen name, which was more widely known than my given one. Courtney’s face lit up with instant recognition; our unlikely friendship was real after all. Following a long and awkward hug, she grabbed my arm and led me to an area far from the crowd so we could talk alone. But like a cocktail party on The Bachelor, the moment was short-lived and we were quickly interrupted by other admirers. She disappeared into the night.

That big moment may have been brief, but our enduring camaraderie created opportunities that changed the trajectory of my life. Inspired by her, but seeing a greater need, I created a magazine to build a community for female musicians that had never existed before. I named the magazine for my AOL screen name and the people I enlisted to write and do layout were my AOL friends. Journalists who also frequented AOL wrote about my plans – the first appearing in the Sunday LA Times – and many of those writers became contributors, too. I quit my typing job at a law firm to devote to the magazine full time.

I wasn’t exactly getting rich off my venture, but my little star was on the rise, becoming one of a handful of “go-to” experts on the topic of women in rock. I appeared on television, including VH1’s Behind the Music as a talking head, and a judge on a local singing talent competition alongside Sir Mix-A-Lot, Reggie Watts and Washington State Governor, Gary Locke. I booked gigs speaking to young women at colleges across the country and on panels at music conferences. I even reviewed the kick-off of Hole’s infamous Beautiful Monsters tour co-headlining with Marilyn Manson for Rolling Stone – the issue with Britney and Teletubbies on the cover. Without any financial backing, ROCKRGRL stood on its own as an influential publication, helping a generation of women find their artistic voice.

The magazine ran for 10 years and 57 issues, shutting its doors at the end of 2005. It can still be found in the libraries of many universities throughout the country. The archive was acquired by Schlesinger Library at Harvard (Radcliffe Institute) as part of their collection on American Women’s History in 2008. It still gets name-checked as an influence every once in awhile by a new female artist and that always makes my heart swell with pride.

Through the years, Courtney was a frequent contributor to ROCKRGRL. Whether it was a top ten album of the year list, kicking off a scandal about groupie abuse by all-male metal bands, or allowing me to interview her, Courtney brought positive attention to ROCKRGRL without ever overshadowing it. To me, this was what women helping each other was always supposed to look like. It was a shame Kurt’s death overshadowed her achievements.

In November of 2000, five years after the start of ROCKRGRL, I put together a conference in Seattle to discuss the state of women in music. We had panels, a trade show, and 250 female artists in all genres of music from all over the world performing throughout downtown Seattle. It took more than a year of planning, especially since I had no experience doing anything quite as daunting. I reached out to Courtney a few times to ask if she would participate but got no response. So I was surprised when, the night before the conference began, I got a phone call. “I’m coming,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”

What I had really wanted was for her to have told me this a month earlier. The staff jumped through every imaginable hoop – which included supplying her with a list of journalists in the room and creating a bag of questions she could pick through to answer. In the end, she gave a brilliant, funny and provocative Q&A to a ballroom of a few hundred female musicians, anxious to know the secrets of success, for more than two hours. Attendees got incredible advice and gossip – always a bonus – about Limp Bizkit, Stevie Nicks, Eve, Kelis and Jimmy Iovine. Courtney stayed to answer questions and sign autographs. It was sisterly, unpretentious girl talk of the highest order and an unforgettable experience for anyone lucky enough to have been there. And yes, she was completely sober for it! Her presence catapulted the conference from a cool Seattle event to an internationally recognized one (a friend vacationing in Bali said he even read about it there). But the best moment for me was her acknowledgement from the stage of my hard work, very much inspired by her.

“I had always planned to come,” she told the crowd, “But I wanted the conference to have a chance to build on its own, without it being all about a really famous person.” Then she turned to me and said the kindest thing ever, drawing tears to my eyes: “I’m really proud of what you have accomplished on your own.”

Maybe not totally on my own – I had the help of my fairy grunge mother. But twenty-five years ago, in a school parking lot, reeling from the news of rock’s biggest icon’s suicide, I never could have imagined his equally iconic widow would influence my future in such a profound way. I am forever grateful.

NEWS ROUNDUP: Alternative Beef, Cancel Chris Brown, and MORE

Courtney Love & Kathleen Hanna have had ongoing beef since the mid ’90s.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Rekindling a decades old beef, Courtney Love had some choice words for Kathleen Hanna following the news that the latter’s riot grrl act Bikini Kill would play a handful of reunion shows in LA and NYC this spring. In the comment thread of a Bust Magazine Instagram post lamenting the shows’ record sell-out times, Love referred to Bikini Kill as “the biggest hoax in rock and roll,” later adding: “Two of the band total amateurs. Hanna is a good hype man but her persona is such a diy nonsense dilettante. A big idea they cannot convey, because they suck.” Hanna has not responded and Love has since deleted the comments, but her words reminded everyone that these two feminist icons haven’t seen eye to eye since Lollapalooza ’95, when a backstage altercation ended any hope of them uniting to crush the patriarchy. We have a sneaking suspicion that Love’s dislike of Hanna is rooted in jealousy over Hanna’s friendship with Love’s late husband Kurt Cobain (Hanna is credited with inspiring the title of Nirvana’s breakout single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). We’re taking Hanna’s side on this one; Love’s comments were petty and we’re impressed Hanna didn’t take the bait.

The saga between Grimes and Azaelia Banks deepens! Back in August, Banks visited Grimes at the home of Grimes’ then-boyfriend, tech mogul Elon Musk. The two musicians were supposed to collaborate on a single, but in a series of social media posts, Banks described being trapped in the home as Musk did damage control over a tweet where he claimed he planned to take Tesla private at $420 a share. Banks says that Musk was on acid at the time, and postulated that he and Grimes had invited her to Los Angeles for a potential threesome. But because the Securities Exchange Commission sued Musk over the tweet, texts between Grimes and Banks from that time period have been subpoenaed, and Banks posted some of the exchange on Instagram; the posts were deleted, but not before someone grabbed screenshots that Jezebel was all too happy to repost (and we are all too happy to recommend you go and read immediately). We can’t get down with either going for the low-hanging fruit of insulting one anothers’ appearances, but have to name Azealia Banks the winner of this spat. Maybe it’s all the practice she’s had talking shit to or about damn near everyone on the planet, but we have to give props to the biting specificity of referring to Grimes as a “brittleboned methhead” who smells “like a roll of nickles.”

And finally, Princess Nokia noted the similarities between her song “Mine” (from her 1992 mixtape) and recently released Ariana Grande single “7 rings.” “Ain’t that the lil song I made about brown women and their hair?” she asks in a video posted to Twitter (and since deleted), concluding “Hmmm… sounds about white.” Soulja Boy also chimed in, claiming Grande had ripped off portions of his 2010 hit “Pretty Boy Swag.” The opening bars of Grande’s single crib more obviously from The Sound of Music‘s “My Favorite Things;” though Julie Andrews has yet to jump on the outrage bandwagon, someone who must be a literal genius mashed up all four artists and it kinda slaps. While we’re no fan of Grande’s ongoing issues with cultural appropriation, we’re calling this beef a draw – there’s nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to hip-hop samples.

Chris Brown Accused of Rape in Paris

We’ll never forgive Chris Brown for using former girlfriend Rihanna as his personal punching bag – but we’re especially disgusted by the new lows he’s reached this week. A 24-year-old woman accused the singer and his entourage of taking turns raping her in his hotel suite at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, where Brown had been attending Fashion Week events. The French are notoriously skeptical of rape victims, so it’s no surprise that Brown and the two other men accused of assaulting the woman were released within a few days on their own recognizance; the investigation is still ongoing. Rather than lying low, Brown took to social media in an attempt to discredit his alleged victim, even going so far as to create some truly tasteless merch that plays on the unfounded trope that women lie about sexual assault.

For what it’s worth, this isn’t the first time that someone has accused his entourage of mistreating women in their periphery – there’s a pending legal case against Brown, in which a woman claims she was raped by one of Brown’s friends at one of the singer’s drug-fueled parties.

That New New

Spanish sensation Rosalía released what has to be our favorite video this week, with a clip for “DE AQUÍ NO SALES” from her stunning 2018 album El Mal Querer.

Jenny Lewis is back with Stevie Nicks-ish jam “Red Bull & Hennessey,” a drink we do not recommend. It’s the first single from On The Line, due March 22.

Broken Social Scene shared details on their forthcoming EP Let’s Try The After – Vol. 1, which will arrive next month, along with early single “All I Want.”

Sneaks, the difficult-to-define solo project of queer black feminist Eva Moolchan, returns with Highway Hypnosis, her third studio album.

Sascha Ring, who produces electronic music as Apparat, announced LP5, his first album in six years, with diaphanous lead single “Dawan.”

J. Cole is producing a comp featuring artists from his Dreamville imprint entitled Revenge Of The Dreams II; his track “Middle Child” is the project’s official first single.

Groove Denied, an electronic solo album by Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus that was reportedly rejected by his label, will be released via Matador in March. The first single is the delightfully weird “Viktor Borgia.”

Lady Lamb announced her next album Even in the Tremor will arrive April 5th on Ba Da Bing Records, and has shared its title track.

Teyana Taylor,  Lena Waithe, and Mykki Blanco vogue their way through a ballroom dance-off for the ages in Taylor’s new video for “WTP,” from last year’s Kanye West-produced K.T.S.E.

Capping off her EP trilogy in March with Blue Pine, Munya shared the first of its three songs, “It’s All About You;” all three EPs will be packaged together as a full-length LP released on the same day.

Seattle’s Dude York have released two new singles alongside two previously released singles as the aptly titled EP Happy In The Meantime via Bandcamp.

Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst have appeared on each other’s albums in the past, but now the pair have teamed up to release a surprise record as Better Oblivion Community Center.

Vampire Weekend are back with a pair of singles, titled “Harmony Hall” and “2021;” both will appear on their fourth album and first in nearly six years. Titled Father of the Bride, it’s supposedly got 18 tracks and future singles will be released in pairs as well.

Florence + The Machine released a jazzy stand-alone single and its b-side on the heels of last year’s rousing High As Hope LP.

End Notes

  • Ariel Palitz, NYC’s new Nightlife Mayor, sat down with Billboard to share what she’s learned in her first year on the job, and how she plans to support the city’s DIY music community.
  • A Michael Jackson musical is in the works.
  • The Oscar nominations are in and we’re totally rooting for Lady Gaga, who’s up for Best Actress for her role in A Star Is Born. The film is nominated for best Best Picture, alongside Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (despite some recent sexual abuse allegations against its director). Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper seem like favorites to win Best Song for “Shallow” but Kendrick Lamar and SZA could give them a run for their money with “All The Stars,” from Black Panther. David Rawlings and Gillian Welch (“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns), and Diane Warren and Jennifer Hudson (“I’ll Fight” from RBG) round out the Best Song nominations.
  • Spotify introduced a “mute” feature that allows users to essentially block particular artists from popping up on your playlists. It’s a nice compromise given their failed attempt to censor artists they’d deemed problematic, not to mention allowing folks to avoid that overplayed earworm-of-the-moment.
  • Pickathon 2019 lineups have been announced, with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and Khruangbin scheduled to headline.
  • It’s been a good week for cool band merch – check out this stuffed Ozzy Osbourne bat (with detachable head) and the new Morrissey Funko Pop.
  • We’re still not sure if it’s really the Pixies without Kim Deal, but the rest of the band are gearing up to release their seventh studio album (due in September), and a podcast about the band called “The Past Is Prologue” and hosted by Tony Fletcher will debut in June.
  • Some of hip-hop’s biggest stars, including Jay-Z and Meek Mill, have founded REFORM Alliance, aimed at much-needed criminal justice reform.
  • As the government shutdown stretches on, musicians from Kiss to Nile Rodgers are donating concert tickets, hot meals, and more to furloughed workers.

MOVIE REVIEW: Hit So Hard (The Life and Near-Death Story of Patty Schemel)

I’ve been on a bit of a grunge binge lately. It could be that the onset of certain anniversaries, observed by nearly everyone who cared about music in the mid-nineties, turns collective thought to the anti-heroes of the genre who destroyed themselves in the process of creating it. But for all the stars that burn out, there are some who reticently fade away – at least, until now. One of those stars is Patty Schemel, drummer of Hole. I was lucky enough to meet Patty (along with bassist Melissa Auf der Mar and guitarist Eric Erlandson) at a book signing just a few weeks ago, and it was there I became aware of another Hole-related project – a documentary entitled Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel.

Hit So Hard is certainly unique in its focus. Though a drummer’s playing is the heartbeat that propels any song, drummers are so often pushed to the back of the stage, hidden behind a shiny kit, while more prominent players soak up the spotlight. Renowned in Seattle circles for her powerful drumming long before becoming a part of Hole, Patty Schemel struggled with alcohol abuse while exploring her sexual identity, and with that came a deep pain that made her work as a musician that much more honest and immediate. With very few female role models in her situation (the handful of them, including Alice de Buhl of Fanny, Debbie Peterson of the Bangles, Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s, and Kate Schellenbach of Lucious Jackson, are interviewed in the film), Patty fearlessly blazed new trails with each twirl and flourish of the sticks. But as Hole began their meteoric rise to rock stardom, that very trail became a treacherous one, filled with tragic death and out-of-control addictions.

Schemel’s story packs a huge punch, but filmmakers David Ebersole and Todd Hughes don’t present it with a flow that’s concise enough, fidgeting around from subject to subject with jolting affect. Schemel’s extraordinary life is offered in dissected segments which fail to render her life cohesively. The sophomoric use of hot-pink title cards in punk-rock fonts are intensely grating and make the whole film feel like a series of movie trailers for a documentary that never happens.

That being said, the doc has two things going for it. First, the breadth of interviews with those who were closest to Schemel is commendable, including her bandmates from Hole (even Courtney Love appears in all her plasticized “glory”), friends from the Seattle music scene, and some very candid commentary from her family members. Secondly, parts of the documentary focused on the most nostalgic era of grunge are culled from personal footage that Schemel captured with a camcorder she was given while on tour. But the footage she captured is not just tour footage – there are hours of heart-rending home videos of Kurt and Courtney just after the birth of their daughter, Frances Bean, filmed when Patty lived with them in Seattle. We see the fragility of this family unit, knowing the future in a way the subjects could not when the footage was shot. It is equal parts beautiful and tragic, and serves as a reminder of how integral Schemel was to the drama that would later play out.

And while most can give at least a brief summary of the somber fate of Kurt Cobain, original Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, or many of the other heroin casualties of that era, Schemel’s story has been obscured for years. Hole’s popularity went through a resurgence after the release of 1998’s Celebrity Skin, and while Schemel was featured in promotional photos from the era, punishing producer Michael Beinhorn took the drum parts she had written and replaced her recordings with those of session drummer Deen Castronovo.  Understandably, this sent Schemel into a spiral of self-doubt resulting in her departure from the band, followed tragically by relapse, homelessness and prostitution. As someone who idolized this band, listened to that album on repeat, and never knew that Schemel had been replaced by a hired gun, this was the one thing that was extremely shocking to me – I’d always thought I was listening to Schemel on the record, not some beefed-up jock completely unconnected to the compositions or the group dynamic. I felt almost ashamed that I hadn’t even noticed the awkward doppelgangers standing in for Schemel in music videos, and was appalled that none  of her bandmates stepped into help her while she was living on the streets and Hole was living it up.

But Schemel’s story ends on a happier note; these days she passes on her drumming skills as a music teacher (several of her students are interviewed, which is kind of mind-blowing) and rehabilitating stray dogs. She’s survived the storm of making it big in a heroin-addled rock band and lived to tell the tale. Even if her story is presented in a somewhat sloppily cobbled package courtesy of the filmmakers, it is still a compelling piece of rock-n-roll history well worth telling.

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Hole’s Eric Erlandson Talks “Letters To Kurt”

There is one question that every music connoisseur dreads, and though it is often innocently asked, can be astoundingly difficult to answer. It might happen at a party or an intimate dinner gathering, on a first date, or on the fiftieth. But inevitably, as a means of qualifying your musical tastes, future, past, or present, it’s perfectly natural for a friend or acquaintance or romantic interest to casually wonder “What’s your favorite band?”

 For some, the question doesn’t invoke a desperate clamor or sheepish backstory; the answer is permanent and enduring and needs no defense whatsoever. For others, such as myself, it can be a bit more tricky. It’s not that I’d deny my sonic proclivities, but my musical obsessions have been known to shift from one moment to the next. That doesn’t necessarily make my love for any of these acts less deep, but I do end up with a quite a long list of sometimes obscure material that sort of leaves the original query unanswered.
Throughout most of my life, I’ve sort of maintained a Top Three essential acts that I feel provide a definite framework from which most of my musical interests can be gleaned; with these, I try not to mention anything too obscure or recent so as not to alienate anyone or pigeonhole myself. Typically, one or two of these might rotate, but for the last several years my go-tos have included Caribou and Animal Collective, which I don’t think are really much of a stretch in terms of their similarities to one another, and pretty representative of the sort of genres I tend to explore nowadays.
And then there’s my longtime, all time, most favorite band ever, which isn’t like either of the others. As my interests in music have evolved, there’s one constant which so completely informs so many aspects of my personality and my past that it will never be ousted by any other act, no matter how experimental, challenging, or prolific they seem at the time. That band is Hole.
Now, I am fully aware that Hole’s early and mid-nineties contemporaries offered far more in terms of innovation and contribution to the history of what was to become alternative rock, a genre that I hold responsible for my eventual introduction into independent music. But I look to their presence in that movement as a whole to act as a sort of stand-in for so much of what was important to me at that time. They existed at the confluence of grunge and riotgrrl, two forces that offered me a precise blueprint for the way I would form my opinions, express my emotions, and live my life from that time forward; the center of the wheel from which all spokes of my being would radiate. If you think I’m exaggerating, I assure you, I am not. Even my aesthetics as a young artistic hopeful were indelibly shaped by what these bands, and Hole in particular, offered to the world at large.
She warned me it would be this way; I remember the specific moment I heard Courtney’s gravelly premonition: “Someday you will ache like I ache.” I saw her black-and-white heartbreak over the loss of husband and rock idol Kurt Cobain, writhing in crumpled bedsheets each time MTV aired the video that accompanied “Dollparts”. My bad skin thankfully wouldn’t last for the rest of my life, but it ensured I’d never be the prom queen on the cover of Live Through This, an album so blistering and beautiful it felt like the truest thing in my life.
I felt a kinship to Courtney Love, an ugly-ish girl obsessed with vanity and needing to be heard, to be appreciated, to be loved, and able to see the loveliness lurking in hidden, sometimes unattractive places. I watched her trashy glamour transform into Celebrity Skin, a glittering piece of pop-rock perfection with just a bit of a bitter underside. It arrived in an era where girls my age were pimped for Total Request Live, their bare bellies and pouty lips so far from anything I was interested in being or seeing, their horrible songs the last thing I wanted to hear. Instead I pumped “Awful” with a knowing smirk, in on the joke even if no one else laughed with me. Courtney’s impeccable aestheticism in film, music, literature and fashion felt specifically curated for me alone, and it was with her recommendations that I explored cultural boundaries not typically tested by other girls my age.
But I don’t often go into these lurid details when someone asks about my favorite band, for it seems too detailed an explanation. If I align myself with what Courtney once was, I feel I have to amend it these days; she’s become a sad, drug-addled train wreck incapable of her former brilliance as a lyricist, performer, or songwriter, her tastes questionable though at one time I saw her stamp of approval as essential. And I’ve grown out of the need for an idol, especially when that idol has grown into a joke.
One of my biggest regrets is never getting to see the band perform live, never standing before Courtney with her leg propped on the monitors, her skirt hiked up and her guitar swinging brazenly. Her solo releases were kind of pathetic, and last year when she revived the Hole moniker as a desperate means of selling records and concert tickets I only briefly contemplated buying in. It would simply not be the same without Eric Erlandson’s prolific guitar or Patty Schemel’s thunderous drumming, and though she wasn’t an original member, Melissa Auf der Maur’s angelic backup a deft bass seemed essential to the equation as well.
On the eighteenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, I realized how truly essential these people were. Though I’ve made a pact with myself never to patronize evil bookselling empire Barnes & Noble, I had to make an exception that evening – Eric Erlandson was releasing his book of prose poems, Letters To Kurt, and would be joined in conversation with Melissa Auf der Mar. The discussion was warmly and expertly led by journalist Katherine Lanpher, and I was pleased as punch that Patty Schemel was also in attendance. Through the course of the evening, Erlandson fielded questions pertaining to his writing methods, the hardships he had been through both during his time in Hole and the period after they’d disbanded, and even touched on the state of American economics, politics, and music. The conversation was punctuated by both musical performances from Melissa and Eric as a duet, and readings from Letters to Kurt.
Eric opened with a shimmering banjo solo, joking that Hole had been known for their use of “traditional” instruments; his picking became more urgent and darkly tinged as Melissa introduced and began singing “My Foggy Notion”, a track from her first solo album, Auf der Mar. For later numbers, they would cover Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribund” (better known as “Seasons In The Sun”) and close with The Smiths’ “Paint A Vulgar Picture”, songs chosen for references that had been casually inserted into Eric’s writing but also for the relevancy to the somber anniversary at hand. When Patty Schemel joined the group on stage, the three of them shared memories of the impact of Kurt’s death, and Patty related a beautiful story about the first anniversary of his passing, in which Hole was on tour in Europe. A Parisian youth was waving a fanzine around desperately trying to get the band to read Kurt’s interview within, and Melissa had to translate it from French. It turned out to be a blurb about how much Kurt had loved Hole, foundLive Through This to be a brilliant record, and thought Patty to be an exceptional drummer.
That’s the thing that made the evening (and the work presented) less salacious and more authentic than one might expect – it seems impossible, almost unreal, but these people were there, as an integral part, of music history in its making. They had a hand in writing some of the most dramatic, chaotic and prolific chapters in the story of rock music. But until now, their voices had been drowned out by the loudest, proudest widow of the bunch, who wore her pain on the sleeves of her babydoll dress. Almost two decades later, Erlandson has presented a body of prose work that attempts to approach and possibly relieve the pain that surrounded him and his band, and reproach the mistakes made not only by his muse, but those made by himself as well.
Which brings us to the “letters” contained in Erlandson’s book. They are seething & surreal, hallucinatory free-associations densely packed with metaphor and memory, lifting references from pop culture and self-help manifestos, as incantatory as spells that threaten to rouse old ghosts. He delivered these pieces with a sarcastic snarl, but in reading each short chapter it’s apparent that anger is not the only emotion he is attempting to excise and examine – there is suffering, empathy, sadness, love, wonder, admiration, envy, bitterness – each present in varying hues to different degrees. They feel like relics from another era, and it’s true that not everyone will grasp each inside joke or obscure reference, but that is hardly the point.
Erlandson was handed, by his own admission, two things by Courtney – one that would kill him and one that would save him. The latter refers to his own dark experimentations with drugs, and the former to the Buddhist path he has followed since becoming clean and staying sober. More than anything, Letters To Kurtpresents us with a portrait not of the titular muse but of Erlandson himself and the journey he has been on in the aftermath of rock stardom. The book is evidence of whatever peace he has reluctantly reached, snapshots taken from the path he is still on as a means of coming to terms with the past and meeting the future head-on. He’s finally stepped into the spotlight, however reluctantly, and raised his voice, and the results are captivating.
Like Erlandson, Auf der Mar and Schemel have moved on from Hole but have respects to pay to this period of their lives; Schemel documentary Hit So Hardopens in New York on April 13th, comprised mostly of material shot while touring in the mid-late nineties, and Auf der Mar has recorded a new solo record and is heavily involved in the renovation and reopening of arts and performance space Basilica Hudson in Hudson, NY.
For all the time I spent idolizing Courtney Love, attempting to justify her antics to her detractors and to myself, emulating her bravado and feeling her pain as though it were my own, I realized on this night that so much of what really and truly resonated with me was not her histrionics, but the music itself. That truth had been obscured by her blazing star, and only now, long after that comet trail has faded into oblivion, I was able to see the earnest and authentic people responsible for the true magic which still captivates me to this day. While the front-woman who led them to fame and ultimately destroyed the band was trying to be larger than life, there were always three other band members with their feet on the ground, diligently playing with skill and grace, waiting for a time when their own brilliance would become apparent. I can no longer deny their place in my own journey, but I can thank them for shaping me, and I can share in the pride of their survivals and successes.
You can download my full recording of the conversation HERE.