Like many teenagers, Patty Schemel started playing music because it made her feel like less of an outsider. She grew up a working-class, awkward kid in a town outside of Seattle and secretly identified as gay as an adolescent, a fact she did her best to hide from her peers. The daughter of recovering alcoholics, Schemel’s family considered AA to be church, the 12 steps to be scripture. Though that dogmatic teaching was endowed to her at a young age, Schemel herself became an addict. She had her first drink as a pre-teen, finding comfort and belonging in the bottle at a time when she felt very much at odds with what was considered normal in her town. As an adolescent, Schemel fell into her local punk scene and developed a reputation as a capable, and then great, drummer. She played in Kill Sybil and Doll Squad before eventually joining Hole when her friend Kurt Cobain personally recommended that Courtney Love audition her. With Hole, Schemel became one of the world’s most famous female drummers, but her lifelong addictions to alcohol and narcotics derailed her career.
In her new memoir, Hit So Hard, out today, Patty Schemel writes about life in the limelight and in the shadows with the kind of biting honesty that comes with surviving a period in rock history with an exceptionally high body count. A lot of Schemel’s contemporaries didn’t make it, and Hit So Hard is an intimate personal history as much as it is a portrait of the grunge era and those who were lost too soon to the same addictions Schemel battled for much of her life. It is unflinching and at times painful to read. When Schemel decided to commit to sobriety after decades of being admitted to various detox and rehab centers, she had years of trauma to unpack and many friendships she had to work to repair.
While Hit So Hard is predominantly a story about recovery, it is also a rock memoir, and Schemel is an excellent storyteller. She remembers hang gliding with Nirvana in Brazil after Rock In Rio; hours spent playing with and singing to Frances Bean Cobain when she was a baby; the two-woman band she formed with Melissa Auf der Maur when they lived in an apartment together. Schemel documented her years with Hole at length, and a good deal of the footage she shot with the band ended up in a 2011 documentary, which would be the catalyst for this memoir. Despite the fact that Schemel was kicked out of Hole during the Celebrity Skin sessions, a bulk of the memories Schemel attaches to that period of her life are positive ones of the band taking care of one another — an often dysfunctional family, but a family all the same.
Now, Schemel lives in LA with her wife and young daughter, Beatrice, to whom Hit So Hard is dedicated. Though Schemel’s lifestyle has altered dramatically in the years she’s been in recovery, music remains an integral part of her existence. She drums in the band Upset, and recently performed with them at Riot Fest where she also sat in with the reunited ’90s act That Dog. Schemel has been teaching young people how to drum, and she sits on the board of the Rock N’ Roll Camp For Girls nonprofit.
Schemel and I met for coffee in Hudson, NY, a few hours before she was scheduled to read from Hit So Hard at Basilica Soundscape. The festival just so happens to take place in a venue owned by her old friend and bandmate, Melissa Auf der Maur. Schemel talks the way she writes: with a forthcoming ease that suggests she doesn’t really have much to hide. Schemel and I talked about the amount of soul-pillaging required to write a memoir, her path to sobriety, and what her relationship is like with her ex-bandmates. That night, it felt especially pointed to watch Schemel read her memoir to a crowd of concert-goers who undoubtedly count Hole as a major influence. She chose to read passages that referenced her blundering young adulthood, as if to remind everyone in the room that we’re always in the process of becoming. Read a Q&A with Schemel below.
STEREOGUM: Writing this book seems like it must have been really difficult. How did you start?
PATTY SCHEMEL: I never thought that I would write a book. I’m not a writer. But when I did the documentary, there was a lot of film festivals and Q&As and [people had] a lot of questions, so some storytelling happens in that process. Then I started telling stories at Upright Citizens Brigade [UCB], and found out that it’s fun and I like doing it. But I tell the story, I don’t write it down. So, the publisher came to me and asked me to do the book, and that’s how it started. Then, [my editor] sort of guided me through the process and helped me write. At first, I wanted [the book] to have my voice so we would talk on the phone and she would record our conversations and then we would work off a Google doc. I would go in and write stuff, then she would go in and edit. She did a lot of the arranging.
I have so much respect for writers, and I was just sort of punk rock about it; I just went not knowing what the rules are. Now I’m learning the rules a little bit. Since the book, I just started writing stories; I’m working on a Moth story right now.
STEREOGUM: When you were putting the book together, did you have these bursts of memory where you’d just write and then sequence all of it later? Because the storytelling itself is very linear.
SCHEMEL: [My editor] would say, “begin here and let’s talk about this” — you know, like where I grew up — and then [she’d ask]: “Will you write on this?” We started at the beginning, kind of. I would just go there in my head, and as things went along it was crazy because during the difficult things, like the trauma stuff, it was hard to go there and then I’d have to come back to reality. It was like stepping back into the world from a time machine. I had to up my therapy appointments. There were some great moments and there was the hard stuff. Getting into the space of describing a scene and describing what was happening in a situation was difficult, but also I was amazed that I can remember it. I can remember what happened, I can remember what the room was like, but I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t even know I forgot.
STEREOGUM: There’s a part in the book towards the end where you’re in rehab, and the therapist says something like: “This is going to take you a very long time to unpack.” That stuck out to me — I underlined it. This whole book is kind of like an unpacking, and the process of writing it must be a story in itself.
SCHEMEL: Yeah, and because I’m an addict and alcoholic, my go-to is immediate: I want to fix it immediately, I want something to make whatever this is stop. And when you start working on shit in recovery or in therapy, the changes are so small. It’s not an immediate thing. [It’s like] working on my marriage; the triggering of each other’s shit, and working on changing how we react to each other. It’s so — not to be all negative — but it’s a lot of fucking work. Some days I don’t even wanna deal, I just wanna check out. I wanna get into my Netflix. Some days I’ll be like, “I’m just gonna Game Of Thrones today, I don’t wanna deal, just Game Of Thrones-ing.”
For people in recovery, if you wanna fucking sleep all day, go ahead! As long as you’re not on drugs or alcohol or whatever, you can sleep all day. That’s cool. For now.
STEREOGUM: In the memoir, you don’t describe finally getting sober as a big “come to Jesus” moment. It reads as though little moments and changes in routine slowly stacked together to create a new life. What were some of those moments?
SCHEMEL: I guess they were things like when I got my job at the dog care facility. First of all: getting a job. And then getting up and going to work. A week of getting up and going to work and getting there on time… those things were little tiny pieces of gold that you can put in your pocket, then your pocket starts to fill up, and you just need to build that self-esteem. I needed to [regain] that esteem from those kinds of things instead of being the best drummer or playing Reading Festival. It was that job, and that people trusted me to have the keys to a building [laughs] and it just sort of grew from there. I never had a moment in time as an adult or since I was 12 years old as a person that was clean and sober for a long amount of time. I started to figure out who I was, like, “I like knitting,” you know?
STEREOGUM: Do you?
SCHEMEL: Yeah, I’m learning. You know, I like to go to bed at eight at night, I like Antiques Roadshow, and I like brushing out my dog on Friday nights. Those things, nurturing that stuff. Getting married to my wife and then having a daughter, which is so… I never thought in a million years [that would happen]. Melissa [Auf der Maur] and I were talking last night, like, “I can’t that believe both of us are now like… we talk about our kids!” She said, “I’m amazed that you’re here [in Hudson], let alone that you’re here, and that you have a child.” [Sobriety is] thinking about the world and sharing that with my daughter and making things interesting for her. Doing scary shit like standing up in front of a bunch of people at UCB and taking chances and getting through it, those kind of things make me feel good. There has to be a reason why I’m here. Why did I live after 20 years of attempting to get sober and a billion rehabs, like why am I here and that person’s not?
That was another part of writing the book: talking about that time. I don’t know why it took what it took for me to get clean. There’s a part [in the book] about the girl Lilly, [who I met in rehab], and she died. If I’m here, might as well fucking do something and share that story. There was the documentary and now there’s the book. Like, OK, I’ve talked about it, and now I just want to continue to write, but about other stuff. I want to teach drums still and I want to play in bands.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever have a period where you just weren’t playing music at all?
SCHEMEL: Yeah. During like ‘98 to 2001? And then…
STEREOGUM: Was that after you were kicked out of Hole when Celebrity Skin was going down?
SCHEMEL: Yeah, all that. And then in 2005 when I got clean, I just sort of put [drumming] away for a little bit, about a year. But it’s just such a part of my life because I’ve been doing it since I was 11. It’s something I discovered that helped me get into my body, sort of, and feel better, so I realized I needed to do it to feel better. So I still do it.
STEREOGUM: That’s great that music for you wasn’t inherently connected to all that darkness you left behind. I feel like it would be hard to re-enter the industry, because you know… rock ‘n’ roll, sex and drugs.
SCHEMEL: It was and it is, but it also felt like I still had to prove that I’m a drummer. That’s what I do. I’ve always had this drive to play. I still have to do it.
STEREOGUM: Hole was and still is a really important rock band for a lot of young women. There are a lot of instances in Hit So Hard where you talk about sexist comments made by men in the industry and there are times when you mention that sometimes your sexuality became a bigger topic of conversation than your playing. But when you were touring in the ‘90s, do you ever remember any instances of kids, especially girls, coming up to you and just being like, “Hey, you’re changing my life right now”?
SCHEMEL: Yes, there was a lot of that and there were a lot of girls who would come up to me after shows and say, “thank you,” and, “you came out in Rolling Stone magazine and that was important and special.” That’s also why I still wanna play drums today, because even today when I’m touring with Upset and we’re in the van, and we set up at the all-ages show in Seattle, WA, girls come up and say, “your band changed my life.” Those are the things that make me feel good and make me feel like what I did with my art is worthy and it did something. I think about my daughter and how I want her to see women doing things like [playing in rock bands]. I talk about it in my book, how my mom would always point out, “that woman’s driving a dump truck.” I do that with my daughter, I say, “look at that lady over there, she’s climbing a telephone pole,” or whatever and I bring her to Rock Camp and she sees girls work on guitars and change strings and do sound. When I go out on tour I see girls doing sound, and I also have situations where the sound guy will be like, “you can’t put your bass amp like that,” and I’m like, “she just set it down, we’re not even… fuck you, dude!” My work is not done, obviously.
STEREOGUM: Do you think things have changed at all?
SCHEMEL: It’s tough… Shirley Manson and I were talking about this and she was like, “all the stuff we did in the ‘90s, we should’ve really tended to that,” because, I mean, now women can get assaulted online just in the comments section of your YouTube video. Just… fuck.
STEREOGUM: I want to talk a bit about what you mentioned earlier, “how come I’m still here and other people aren’t?” This memoir involves a lot of different individuals. Did you ever feel anxiety writing about people like Kurt Cobain or Courtney Love or Layne Staley? There are some really poignant stories… did you ever pull back and think, “I don’t know how much I should reveal about this moment”?
SCHEMEL: Going into it, I was writing from what I experienced, and I don’t wanna talk about anybody negatively, you know? [Some of] it’s not my story to tell. You’re asking did I hold back?
STEREOGUM: Or if you didn’t want to reveal certain stories involving other people out of fear it would invade their privacy.
SCHEMEL: Yeah. But there was never a situation where I wasn’t gonna… it’s not like I have secrets. I don’t know if Eric [Erlandson] knew that me and Kristen [Pfaff] were having a thing, so that cat’s out of the bag, stuff like that. But then there’s everything that people know: Courtney shot heroin, so did Kurt; people know that, so there’s nothing new to reveal.
STEREOGUM: In many rock memoirs there’s a lot of shit-talking, and I can’t remember an instance of you talking outright badly of someone in Hit So Hard.
SCHEMEL: I don’t wanna walk around with a bunch of resentment about shit that went down. I just feel like I grew through stuff. The beginning of getting my shit together was looking at it like, “well, I’m not gonna point the finger at you because it starts with all the shit that I did. Of course you did that to me because I was nodding out during a recording session.” You know what I mean? I’m not gonna talk shit and put everything onto you when it starts with the shit I did.
STEREOGUM: Even when you weren’t on the greatest of terms, Courtney reappears throughout the memoir almost like a fairy godmother figure. Asking you if you want to play in new bands and checking in, but she’s so often demonized by people!
SCHEMEL: I know! A lot of people are saying like, “I actually like her after reading your book.” That’s kind of the dynamic within [Hole]. It was kind of like a family dynamic, and it still happens to this day where she will be my protector. She would jump in and be like, “fuck you, don’t do that to Patty,” you know, it just happened two weeks ago! What I used to do was call her up and be like, “guess what,” and we would bitch. That’s the thing, when we’re all together it goes back to that old family dynamic… it’s sticky, so I don’t know. Maybe in a way that’s what made our band great. When people ask, “are you gonna play a show again?” I don’t know if we could all do that again. I don’t know if we could be all in the same room again. Not that we’d scream at each other, I just don’t know if it’s a good thing.
STEREOGUM: Some things you just have to leave wherever it left off.
SCHEMEL: Right where it’s supposed to be.
STEREOGUM: Do you still hang out with the members of Hole?
SCHEMEL: Melissa and I do because we both have kids and, you know, we’ll fly out and hang out. Every spring she comes out to LA and stays with me.
STEREOGUM: It’s unclear whether or not you two had a reconciliation or not at the end of the memoir.
SCHEMEL: Yeah, I think that too. I know she had a lot of anger and resentment about my drug abuse and what it did to her. When I got clean, everybody was a little bit apprehensive like, “lets see how long this will last…” and then you sort of live your way back and the people that you love and care about come back around because they see you’re actually gonna be OK. Eric, I see him around sometimes, he’ll be at the farmer’s market or a show. And Courtney, she’ll text now and then and we’ll just talk about whatever’s going on. Lately it’s been Lana Del Rey, I’m like, “I don’t know much about Lana Del Rey, where should I start?” And she’ll go and list it all.
STEREOGUM: Has Courtney read your book?
SCHEMEL: Yeah, she would text me while she was reading it and go, “oh my god I forgot about that,” and, “I didn’t know you and Kurt snuck away all the time.” There were times where I would drink or do drugs with Kurt privately or whatever. She’s working on a book right now, too. She’s like, “I need help remembering things,” and I’m like, “Well, I got a ton of stuff for you.”
Hit So Hard is out today via De Capo Press.