Hole's Lesbian Drummer on Drug Addiction, Courtney Love & Punk Rock

Photography: Roger Erickson
Photography: Roger Erickson

Patty Schemel is admirably generous in her new memoir, Hit So Hard, which sees the Hole drummer openly recounting the chaos of her drug addiction and harrowing reality of '90s punk. Now 50 and 12 years sober, the Los Angeles musician lives with her wife and 6-year-old daughter Bea, looking back on a tumultous—at times completely rock bottom—life from a healthy, clear-eyed perspective. 

Underlining the title, Schemel's story is one of dramatic extremes, navigating the world as a queer woman from a family of recovering alcoholics. Schemel became an addict as an adolescent, finding comfort in the bottle and local punk scene—two vehicles for catharsis and escapism from her straight small town. She was an unruly, restless teen, but her talent undeniable and deserving of the fame she'd eventually experience. 

Related | OUT100: Patty Schemel, Musician, Author

When Kurt Cobain suggested Schemel audition for Courtney Love's band, the rising drummer entered a dark, dysfunctional chapter, with which she describes in great detail. Strung out on dope and crack, Schemel's rise with Hole became a sticky, sadistic web of drugs, death and deception. Her habits made Love's public reputation look petty, and ultimately spiraled until she was fired from Hole during Celebrity Skin's production. 

We caught up with the OUT100 honoree to talk more about her tell-all memoir, which is available now via Hachette Book Group. 

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OUT: How was it for you reflecting on your entire life in such great detail? 

Patty Schemel: It was really tough to relive some of the shittiest [memories], and go back in the time machine to those moments. I had a co-writer, so she and I would talk and I would write. I’d leave those sessions drained, and then feel so heavy and not be able to put memories together for the book. Well, I just talked about giving hand jobs on the streets. Of course I’m gonna feel shitty. It was hard. I’m glad that it’s over and even talking about it now is hard to do.

One of the darkest memories is Kurt Cobain’s final intervention before he died a few weeks later. Were you nervous about being so honest?

With the intervention, that was my experience with what I saw and how I felt. It was difficult to write about it because Courtney has a whole different perspective of it and so does [Eric Erlandson]. I get really concerned—even though it’s my book—with intersecting with their memory. It’s not the same, but this is what I saw. I’m sure that when Courtney read the book, she remembered different parts of one situation. Like she was really surprised that me and Kurt would sneak off and do stuff all the time—like secret drug meet-ups. Well, you were too busy smoking, so we would leave!

How was your experience growing up as a queer woman? 

I struggled because it’s that typical story: small town, I gotta keep a secret, I’m a lesbian, I’m a freak. And then I make a pass at a girl and all of a sudden it’s out. Everybody’s like, “Oh my god, Patty Schemel is a lesbian.” I found comfort in the freaks of punk rock, and my mom was supportive. I’m so grateful for that, but it was still hard. 

Going to my first lesbian bar... they weren’t playing the cool [music]. We weren’t dancing to old Depeche Mode or anything. We were dancing to Prince, which was fine, but musically there was no homo music scene. It was all straight, so I would hang out with straight people and go to straight parties and be in a straight band. It was all long hair and Doc Martens. 

Eventually, I found my first love Jen at a house party and immediately fell in love with her because she put on a Saints record. I was like, “Here’s a lesbian who is into the same music I am,” and that’s so important to me—to have that music connection. It took some time. I feel like, nowadays, there’s such a great queer music scene. 

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Punk seems to have always been dominated by straight men. Were you comfortable being openly queer? 

Once I started to expand my world a bit beyond Seattle, I would go to shows and see girls playing music. I saw Donna and she was in a band called Danger Mouse. She played her bass, and was so amazing and so intense and so right on. I knew she was gay, and it was sort of like a mental acknowledgement and then I felt really safe. Eventually when I joined Hole, I felt comfortable enough to be an out lesbian, because “fuck you” if you had a problem with it. 

Seattle punk rock shows were all guys in the pit, but I wanted to be in there too. I liked having people push me and feel that closeness of other people pushing against [me] because I had all of that anger. It felt good to be in that chaos and be just like another dude. I was mad and felt like I had something to prove, and that’s how I felt about my drums, too. I’m serious.

You seem like a very intense person, where everything is 100. The relationships are 100. The drugs are 100.

Yeah, I’m kinda laid back, but maybe a little moody. Pre-recovery, pre-getting clean, I used women like a drug, I used drugs like a drug. I had to be entirely enveloped in it. It had to be so intense that it checked me out of my mind, so I didn’t have to feel like I was existing because I felt like I always needed something.

There's an intense moment in the book where you address performing at the 1995 VMAs, and how everyone in Hole was strung out on stage. 

It was the end of that tour. It was the last cry, and it was horrifying.

After your performance, you describe going through a crowd backstage surrounding Michael Jackson and realizing you just had this career-defining moment and all you could think about was drugs. 

I remember when I joined Hole and how I felt like this is really important, this is huge, this is the dream. But also I never felt comfortable in that, so I had to have drugs to make me feel OK and get through it. I don’t want to sound like I wasn’t grateful because when I say “get through it,” I’m talking some bullshit fucking photoshoot at 1 AM that was supposed to happen at 2 PM, but it’s 1 because Courtney just showed up. I do the fucking photoshoot; I go back to my hotel room and get high, and then I can just breathe out and feel OK. Then again it’s on to the next day with more shit. It was never just simply music, and I’m not complaining. I’m just saying, for me to get through it, that’s what I did was get high.

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Courtney seems to have always been interested in navigating the pop industry, whereas all that excess work became noise to you. 

[Courtney] respects the person that is a business mind, and I respect them too. She loved to have those conversations and I would engage in a conversation like that on an artistic level, but I don’t give a fuck about numbers. She knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. I was amazed that, while I could not function when I was strung out, other people could. How did Courtney do it? I couldn’t get up and answer the phone and talk about how many t-shirts and what we wanted to put on them. I couldn’t give a fuck because I was high. 

Throughout the memoir, Courtney plays a big part in your life as both an enemy and friend. 

She’s always been really generous and inside the band, there’s the dynamic: I always wanted everyone to be OK and always made sure she was OK. And in turn, if Eric was riding me about something she’d go, “Fuck off Eric! Don’t talk to Patty like that.” It still happens to this day. Something will come up and she’ll just fucking go off on the person. I used to just call her and go “Guess what?” and then I would tell her and know she would go out and fuck with them. Now I don’t that, but she’s really protective. [Courtney] also doesn’t have patience [for drug addicts] because after a billion rehabs, you can’t be fucked up. She was like, I can be fucked up, but you cannot. You’re the drummer. You have to keep it together. We can’t have two fucked up people in the band. And she didn’t like that I was an alcoholic and a heroin addict, because she didn’t like that about herself. She hated it about herself, so she never wanted to hang out with people that were fucked up because I don’t like that. I’m the fucked up one.

You describe the tumultuous process of recording Celebrity Skinand how you were ultimately fired by album producer Michael Beinhorn despite writing all the drum parts.  

I couldn’t listen to it for forever. There was so much wrapped up in it. We all had an issue with it, but mine was the biggest issue. I think Eric did some of his greatest songwriting, but I don’t think he liked that Billy Corgan [of The Smashing Pumpkins] was writing on Celebrity Skin, too. It was the divide of that Courtney/Eric writing partnership that wrote tracks like “Teenage Whore.” 

...An iconic song. 

I loved that record, and Eric loved it too. It was just a special time for him. It was a definite turning point and was sort of like, OK now our management is the machine and we’re gonna make that next stop to arena rock, so this has to be all polished and shiny and we’re gonna get the big guy out here (who is actually literally a small person) to record it. So [Michael] shows up in awkwardly fitted pants, so I’m like, “Fuck! This guy?” Everybody was like, “Yeah, it’s OK this happens,” [so] of course I felt betrayed. 

But I had a big part in that. I had just walked out of rehab two weeks before I walked into pre-production [for Celebrity Skin]. It was the same fucking story for me. Me not ready. I didn’t sit down at my drums. I will not say that it was all done to me because maybe I could have changed everything if I was more prepared. Usually, [Michael] gets on a project and then he wears the drummer down. Then the drummer goes “fuck this, I’m leaving,” so then some studio guy comes in. 

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That’s upsetting because the magic of Hole is really about women creating incredible rock music.

Yeah, and suddenly it was like, This is a bunch of shit. All these guys are here? Fuck! But I love Billy Corgan and when we did the songwriting with Billy, it was great. I enjoyed his ideas. I enjoyed the newness and the different style of writing. He and Courtney work well together. I just wanted to play good songs and wanted to make a good record.

You worked closely with Courtney on her solo album, America’s Sweetheartwhich was widely criticized. Pitchfork called it “collapsible, frantic and depressingly repulsive.” I think it’s incredible. 

Right? I look at the record, like, if I had a catalog of the band I really liked and then there’s the least selling record and it’s always my favorite. The artwork is terrible. Courtney will fully admit she wasn’t making great decisions—the artwork, number one. I mean that thing went on and on and on—like different version of songs and hours and nights in the studio. We recorded that record everywhere. It was crazy. 

I really liked “Hold On To Me”—that song was so cool. And “Mono” was something I put together with my brother. It was right when The Strokes and The Hives came out. That guitar riff was an idea we’d always kick around, and [Courtney] was like, “I want to write a song like The Hives.” And I was like, “Oh, I got this,” and that became “Mono.” That album was a crazy train out of control without a conductor just battling down the fucking rails. 

Courtney called the album “a mistake.” 

Generally, I would never refer to anything I’ve created as a mistake. The difference for [Courtney] is how many records sold and [the album] probably has a bunch of memories attached to it that she doesn’t like. So she thinks it’s a mistake. I’m sure there are times if she would ever revisit it, she would be like, “Oh that’s kinda good.” But she never likes to go back. She never even wants to perform old songs. When we would get together to play live shows and run through the set, she’d be like, “Fuck, I have to do that?” She just wanted to get into the new stuff. When we would write and play a part for a long time, she would always want to stay in the song. She liked being in there, and not an old song. It had to be a whole new thing. I’m interested in what she’s going to do musically. The last time we talked, she said, “Do you know how to make beats with a sampler?” 

How do you feel about contemporary electronic music as a means of responding to the world with rage in the same way you did through punk? 

Electronic music—I get it. I just get frustrated that it’s not as physical as an actual drum kit or a guitar. I’m not saying that as a judgement at all. I just feel like I need more of a release from my music. But let’s say Chemical Brothers—I love that shit, and the energy and movement of it. I’ve been experimenting a little with a sampler, and just trying to get new ideas because it’s cool to try new things and not get stuck. 

Looking back on your drug addiction, how do you feel about everything today? 

It’s hard to talk about it because I feel like I’m so far away from it now, but that person is still me. I feel like I’m a galaxy away from those days. Sometimes, I’ll be at my daughter’s school, dropping her off in the morning and all the parents are standing at the coffee cart and I’ll think to myself, Oh my god. All this stuff is in my book, and they all know I wrote a book. So I’m gonna be standing next to this mom drinking a latte and she’s gonna know I used to shoot drugs up my big toe [laughs]. Back then, I never thought I’d be a mom, be married, and have a house with a washer and dryer. I never thought into the future at all. I just turned 50, so I’ve been telling everybody, “I’m halfway done.” But it’s almost like this is the last configuration of myself. Maybe as an old old lady I’ll be someone different, but it seems like time goes so fast.

Photos Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

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