Helene Stapinski's childhood in the poor and polluted streets of Jersey City was not an easy one, overshadowed as it was by a violent grandfather who once tried to kill her whole family. Her refuge was playing the drums. "When you play drums, you're surrounded, the drums play you," she says. "That's what got me. With my background, I could offload all my pent-up hostility and anger on the drums. If my grandfather had played the drums, he wouldn't have been a murderer. There's nothing to compare with banging things with sticks. I was a very angry young woman."
As a child, Stapinski used to bash out a rhythm with chopsticks on her mother's pots and pans, using her father's metal ashtray as a Hi-hat, but at school, only boys were allowed lessons on drums: the girls were taught to twirl a baton. Not a natural cheerleader, Stapinski would sneak after school into her brother's room, a male sanctuary full of baseball mem orabilia and monster models, to practise on his set of pearl-white Ludwigs.
Years later, Stapinski played drums in a New York band called Stephonic, and she has now written a book, Baby Plays Around, charting the musical and emotional intensities of the experience. She recalls how she grew stronger as a drummer while bashing out her inner turmoil and sexual frustration. There are moments when the music really takes off, but there are times when she grapples with nerves, feeling exposed and feeble as all five foot of her struggles to assemble the kit: " 'If you can't screw on a Hi-hat nut, maybe you shouldn't be playing out,' I thought. What was I doing here?" She does not gloss over the unglamorous side of her chosen instrument - the heavy lifting, the muscular pounding, the knee damage.
Worse than the physical side was the battering her ego took. A female drummer, taking what is perceived as a male part, always has a lot to prove. "When I was in high school I would say I played the drums and the boys would laugh at me. It was sort of a joke. When they realised I could play, they were completely intimidated."
To most of us, it is baffling that a woman would want to play drums in the first place. The image of a drummer is of a geeky bloke in shorts with arms like a weightlifter. Nobody pays attention to drummers - except other drummers. "A girly girl would not want to play the drums," Stapinski concedes.
Stapinski maintains that women often have a better natural sense of rhythm than men, and explains her passion: "Drums are the driving force of the band. Without the drums it's not rock'n'roll. It's all about the rhythm. You're not the centre of attention but you are the back beat."
You may not be the centre of attention, but you're still being judged. On your looks, as well as your skills. "As a female, you really undergo scrutiny when you're playing drums. You have to look good as well," says Stapinski. "When Led Zeppelin were playing, whoever said, 'The drummer's really ugly'?"
For all her feisty attitude, being female ultimately brought Stapinski's drumming career to a halt. When she joined the band, the female singer asked her to play softly, and she, being sisterly, complied. "You don't want to be soft as a drummer," she says now, laughing. "As I got stronger, I got more confident and louder. That's why I got kicked out of the band." The other thing that happened was that she got pregnant, and a doctor advised her that drumming could damage the baby's hearing.
Even without this biological obstacle, being a drummer can be a tough career choice for a girl. Emma Gaze, who plays with arty all-girl Brighton band Electrelane, believes a lot of potential female drummers get discouraged: "You're constantly striving against a barrage of criticism and a lot of women do give up."
Female musicians habitually run the gauntlet of blokes in music shops, magazines and studios who subscribe to the view that women know nothing about music and shouldn't even try. Female drummers in particular, trespassing on male territory, often experience a sneering attitude. "I never got over the problem of buying stuff in music shops," says Stapinski. "Those guys are just frustrated musicians who take it out on you."
Gaze found the experience excruciating. "You'd ask for a drum skin, and they would just try and confuse you with brand names, to make you feel like an idiot even if you knew what you were talking about."
When she took up the drums as a teenager, Gaze suffered the full derision of siblings and classmates. "They just thought it was hilarious," she says. "It was just cruel. They still do - my sisters come to the gigs and I hear them in the audience, pissing themselves."
Electrelane have had to get used to rude and sexist comments. Men would accuse them of having slept with the producer to get a record deal. "Standard stuff," says Gaze. "People have to have a little dig. 'You don't deal with these fills, you're not doing paradiddles ...' Well, my style isn't like that. You don't have to show how many times you can go round the kit. Our songs are very complex interwoven sounds, and I see my job as keeping that going, not muddling it all up."
Like Stapinski, Gaze is not the girly type, longing to be out front in full make-up. She never hesitated about wanting to play the drums, which allow her to play on stage without being overwhelmed by nerves. "It's like my protection. I really enjoy it when the guitarist stands in front of me. For me, it's a constant battle, being scrutinised for 40 minutes. I could never be standing at the front."
Contrary to popular perception, women drummers are not short of role models. Today's aspiring drum mers can look to Meg White of White Stripes - although the band is mainly focused around the charisma of Jack White. But there have been women drummers since Karen Carpenter and Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground - although Tucker herself said: "Everybody was so drugged back then that they didn't notice I was a woman."
Nobody could fail to notice Sheila E or Cindy Blackman, both glamorous divas (Blackman's website shows her posing in a revealing red gown astride her drum kit, which I doubt anybody ever asked John Bonham to do), although both are perhaps better known as percussionists. Even they have to deal with reflections on their gender: Sheila E played on Prince's Sign o' the Times tour and film, in which he follows a searing drum solo with the sly aside, "Not bad - for a girl." Blackman once opened for James Brown, who wrote on one of her cymbals: "To the female king: you're too awesome to be queen."
After being replaced by a drum machine in the Beastie Boys, Kate Schellenbach supplied the mellifluous beat behind all-girl band Lus cious Jackson. Schellenbach feels it is her duty to be visible and talk about playing drums as a woman: "I know I needed to hear that and see that when I was young, and wanted tobecome a musician," she told Drum magazine. "I took piano lessons when I was four or five years old, and I remember sitting in the waiting room and these little boys had drumsticks and were banging away on a table. I was like, 'God, no one asked me if I wanted to do that!' "
The soft-voiced singer and drummer Georgia Hubley, of New Jersey underground band Yo La Tengo, intriguingly cites Keith Moon as her inspiration. "Not that my drumming is like his," she says, laughing, "but the way his personality came through his playing, his expressiveness ... I thought that was so cool. He showed me the dynamic quality of what a drummer could be in a band."
Hubley was going to a lot of clubs, seeing a lot of bands, and found that her attention invariably focused on the drummer. "It looked like it would be fun to play. I was very casual about it ... I started to play drums, and it didn't seem that far-fetched. I knew people who were not very good drummers."
Hubley was fortunate in having a supportive, if somewhat unorthodox mother, who let her set up her drum kit in the Manhattan studio where she ran a business by day. Hubley practised at night, much to the annoyance of the neighbours.
Yo La Tengo have been described as the inheritors of the Velvet Underground mantle, so it's only fitting that they have a woman drummer. Hubley's approach to drumming is less mechanistic than many muscle-bound men's. "I look at the drums as a musical instrument, not just providing measure for someone else. It's very expressive. I approach it in a melodic way, as if I were playing a guitar."
She occasionally comes out from behind her drum kit to sing lead vocals, so she feels equally comfortable being centre of attention, but this is something that she has gained with experience. "I can remember when we were starting out, it wasn't so much fun, we weren't very good ... the confidence has taken a long time to build."
Schellenbach points out that women tend to be less confident to start with, but with persistence, a female drummer can exploit masculine preconceptions: "It can sort of be an advantage that people underestimate you all the time. You're constantly impressing people."
· The Power Out by Electrelane is released on Monday on Too Pure. Yo La Tengo will be touring the UK from Feb 28 to March 11.
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