It’s a fair assumption that when it comes to the gender divide in our local music scene drumming world seems to be dominated by men. On the stage, in the media and statistically, men are more likely to take up and continue the pursuit of drumming to a professional level.
Why are drums and percussion commonly perceived as a masculine, and why do we steer our sisters or daughters away from the sticks to something more ‘feminine’ such as the keyboard or violin?
There are a plethora of extremely talented female drummers throughout the musical world, performing classical, pop, jazz and contemporary genres just to name a few. We had a chat with some of Australia’s iconic, prominent, and up-and-coming contemporary female drummers to get their spin on what they do best.
Lindy Morrison – The Go Betweens, Xero, The Rainy Season
Lindy Morrison, best known for her eclectic and accomplished drumming with ‘80s post-punk outfit The Go-Betweens, picked up the sticks in the ‘70s in the belly of Brisbane’s punk movement and never looked back.
Inspired by the DIY attitude of punks at the time, Morrison forged her unique sound on the kit at a time when few women would.
Picking up the Sticks: “It was more the environment that allowed me to do it, rather than listening to drummers. I lived in a sharehouse in Brisbane with a group of actors and musicians. Living in those sharehouses with such creative people influenced me to take up drums.”
Inspiration: “I made a decision then I was going to make a career as a drummer, because of punk music and living in Brisbane and seeing that, one, anyone could get up and play, and two, it was a political motivation that could be reached through art, and the best type of art at the time was punk music.”
Favourite Drummers: “I love Joe Jackson Jr. who played with Al Green and I really love Hal Blaine who backed The Carpenters. More important though was a guy I had lessons of in New York called Gary Chester who taught me to play with a click because that became de rigueur in the ‘80s. I also really love ‘60s drummers. I love the way they play and when I straightened out I played with that sort of simplicity.”
Prejudice, Sexism and the Industry: “I’ve talked about it before and I’ll say it again, I dealt with a great deal of sexism. I also received a great deal of support. There are many many wonderful men who work in music, particularly the artists.”
Advice to Young Girls: “If you want to make a career out of drums, then your focus has to be entirely on that, on nothing else. You can’t also decide you want to be a photographer or a painter or a sportsperson. Your focus has to be singular, you must have no other focus but drums.”
Scarlett Stevens – San Cisco
Scarlett Stevens picked up the sticks at the age of 10 and just three years later was rocking out at SXSW with her former grunge outfit The Flairz.
Now keeping time all around the world with Fremantle indie-pop superstars San Cisco, and having also performed on tracks with Bob Evans and Illy, Stevens is one of Australia’s most exciting and prolific female drummers.
Beginning: “I started drumming when I was 10 years old. I begged my parents to let me have lessons after watching Josie and the Pussycats but they weren’t so keen on the idea. My dad manages John Butler, who was on tour with Jack Johnson in 2002. We were at a barbecue together near Byron bay and I was mucking around on a kit when Adam Topol, Jack’s drummer came over and showed me how to play a simple rock beat. After that he invited me to play onstage at the Forum for one song and again at Bonnaroo festival the following year. Then I started taking lessons.”
Influences: “When I first started playing in the early 2000s I think rock was having a big comeback, I was really into the Strokes, the Darkness, P.J Harvey, Eagles of Death Metal and classic stuff like the Ramones, the Stooges, T. Rex and AC/DC which has probably had a huge influence on my drumming.”
Favourite Drummers: “I’ve always had an affinity for other female drummers. I think because it has traditionally been an instrument reserved for guys I just naturally enjoy watching girls play – I think women bring something different to drumming. I really admire Chloe from Chaos Chaos, who has become a really good friend over the years, as well as Stella Mozgawa from Warpiaint and Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz).”
On the Gender Divide in the Music Industry: “It’s been challenging at times. From guys telling you how to play or what gear to buy or criticising how hard you hit or receiving backhanded compliments. I put up with a lot of crap in the early days of touring. It does feel like a boys club at times but I think the industry and the world is changing.”
For Those Just Starting Out: “Have fun with it and don’t be too hard on yourself and play with other people.”
Jo Syme – Big Scary
After leaving the jazz world behind, Jo Syme began playing in contemporary pop/rock bands and is now taking her eclectic style of drumming to pubs and clubs around the world.
One half of Australia’s beloved, Big Scary, Syme injects groove and feel into her playing with a refreshing less-is-more approach.
In The Beginning: “In primary school I had wanted to learn drums because my older cousin had a drum kit at her house, so whenever I went over to her house I was just hanging to play her drums. My cousin stopped drumming and gave me her old kit and that’s how it started.”
Major Influences: “In high school I had this great teacher, and she was female and was really encouraging, and because of her I also went to Monash University to study drums for a bit – except I sucked because I don’t have any interest in being that technical.
At the time I wasn’t that deep into exploring obscure music. I was loving Travis Barker from Blink 182, Tre Cool from Green Day and Andy Strachan from The Living End. Later on people like John Bonham I will eternally respect because he’s not just a hard hitter. He’s so creative in a world of rock n roll.”
Experience with Sexism: “I think it gets better once you get to festival stages, because the crew knows that are experienced to be there in the first place. I was reminded of what it was like starting out because we [Big Scary] just got back from America, and in the States we’re still playing tiny clubs and the crew have no idea who you are. I had this guy in San Francisco treating me like such an idiot, asking if I was the girlfriend and acting as if I didn’t know what a lead was. You have to prove yourself. They assume you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.”
Young Girls Getting Started: “Good on them firstly for picking it up. It’s so primal and fun, so do it if you want to. Get into bands as quick as you can, even if you feel shit. You’ll get so much better. One hour of playing with friends is worth ten hours of practicing by yourself. You’ll learn more about your strengths and what kind of player you want to be.”
Carolyn Hawkins – Chook Race, Pronto
Drawing inspiration from the ‘80s garage-punk scene, Carolyn Hawkins attacks the drums with a ferociousness and energy, full of power and passion. Hawkins is the blistering backbone to Melbourne’s garage power punk outfit Pronto, who are proving to be one of Australia’s fastest and catchiest garage-punk bands.
Getting Into Drumming: “When I was eleven or twelve I started to get super obsessed with music. I was never really that into drums as an instrument. I think I ended up playing them because one, I wanted to play in a band, and there were already about 1000 people I knew that played guitar, and two, I was totally obsessed with Meg White.”
Influences: “Mo Tucker from Velvet Underground and Peggy O’Neill from the Gories showed me early on that energy, feel and rhythm are way more exciting than doing heaps of fills and showing off, and they also looked like total badasses when they played. I mainly get excited about seeing local bands play – Sequoia from The Clits (now broken up), Steph Hughes from Dick Diver, Skye from beNt, Monika from Love of Diagrams – I would say that these drummers (and so many more from the local scene) give me the most inspiration when I play.”
Focussing on the Positives: “The most positive thing has been the experience of NOT feeling like a ‘female drummer’’, that is, token or gimmicky. Mostly when I’m playing or talking to people about band stuff, I feel like just another band member, because I am, and that my contribution is taken seriously. Of course there are always annoying convos or patronising comments, but I try to focus on the positives. There are so many women making cool music around Melbourne, and so much awesome work being done by groups like Listen, that I feel like its a really exciting time to be a girl involved in music.”
Getting on the Skins: “Do it. Think of how many dumb boys can learn an instrument – you can definitely do it.”
Ashleigh Wyatt – Little Desert
You hit it, it makes noise. You hit it in time with the music, you’re a drummer.”
Ashleigh Wyatt was drawn to the immediacy and primal nature of the drums and wasted no time getting on the stage. Wyatt has been thrashing the skins for Melbourne’s ‘70s punk inspired Red Red Krovvy and provides a thundering pulse for the dark and moody sounds of Little Desert.
Making A Start: “I began drumming in 2009 when my then boyfriend wanted to get his music going. He taught me how to do a basic rock beat and off I went – the first show we played was one week after I first picked up the sticks. I never considered playing drums before that, but it turns out drumming very much suited my short attention span and need for immediate satisfaction.”
Influences: “Jen Tait (Go Genre Everything) Cinta Masters (Useless Children) and Sarah Bradbury (Little Killing) are local drummers who I think are consistently underrated, yet have all played a massive role in inspiring, influencing and supporting me as a drummer. Jen is fast, unique and tight, Cinta is ferocious, and Sarah hits hard, using repetitive, hypnotic beats. They’re a pleasure to watch, and are clearly an integral part to the sound and song-writing of the bands they played in.”
Favourite Drummers: “I think Rey Washam (Scratch Acid, Rapeman) and Dale Crover (The Melvins) are very impressive drummers. Otherwise I don’t really idolize drummers.”
Experiences in the Industry: “I’ve had a bunch of shitty sound guys roll their eyes at my taped up gear, or some jazz nerd old dude trying to impress/intimidate me with all his expensive gear. And lots of “Oh wow it’s great to see a girl giving it a go!” Or a music review that focused on how ‘cute’ I was.
When I was younger I had a real chip on my shoulder about being a girl. I viewed my femininity as a weakness and I think I even blamed it for fucking up at a show or something. I used to try and hit as hard as I could all the time and stare down the audience to try and seem tougher, and validate myself as a ‘female drummer’.
Now I feel much more comfortable in my own skin and try not to see myself as a female drummer, or a ‘female drummer who wishes she was a big tough-guy drummer’, just ‘a drummer’.”
Starting The Drums: “Just do it. If you’re lucky enough to know people who wanna play as well, play with them! Get lessons if you want to, but you don’t have to. Playing music is fun. Making loud noise is fun. There is an air of mystery around people who play in bands, as if they are extra special talented people. Most aren’t! It’s hard work but it’s fun work, and if you want it, you can do it.”