Punk Rock, New York City, and Drums: A Conversation with Kelly Harris

 

Kelly Harris_woman drummer_Tom Tom Magazine

I typically don’t like shows unless I know a band’s entire catalogue. Little Victory, however, was different. The first time I saw them, I couldn’t stop dancing. When they finished their set, I didn’t want them to leave the stage.

As melodies flowed and tempo quickened, Kelly Harris sat in the back—ripping it up on drums. Her style was buoyant enough to be accessible, but hard enough to make me jump up and down and dance (and I typically don’t dance). A few weeks ago, shortly before the dissolution of Little Victory, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kelly about New York City, punk rock, and the joys and challenges of drumming.

Kelly Harris_ Tom Tom Magazine_ female drummer

Susannah for Tom Tom Magazine: I guess, to get started, how did you get into music and when did you start drumming?

Kelly Harris: I started playing bass when I was about fourteen (1990), and I played bass forever . . . I then lived in a couple of houses that had drum sets in them, so I would sit behind . . . [the sets] and try to figure them out. But I didn’t really start drumming in a band until about 2005.

 

Susannah: Do you still play bass in bands?

 

Kelly: Not in bands. I kind of go back and forth. It’s become a pattern where I will be in a band playing drums, and then I’ll be in a band playing bass, and then drums. So, it has gone back and forth, but I kind of always play bass.

 

Susannah: Which one do you like better?

 

Kelly: I like both. The drums have been a little bit more challenging for me because I started later, and I would get to points where I felt like I couldn’t play the things that I wanted to play, and I would have to figure things out.

 

Susannah: Cool. So, how would you say your experience learning how to play drums differs from your experience learning how to play bass?

 

Kelly: I think that with bass I was really, really nerdy about it from the beginning, and I would challenge myself and teach myself something like the circle of fifths and shit like that. And I would just figure out how to play a lot of songs. And with drumming I was just much more like, “I’m not really a drummer. I’ve never really considered myself a drummer, at all.”

 

Susannah: Oh, interesting. Do you now consider yourself one?

 

Kelly: Not really. No, it’s just what I do because it’s fun, and there is a need for it in this band. I mean, that was how I started playing with [my band] Winning Looks. My ex-girlfriend and I had to move back to New York [from California]. . . She is also a musician. And we were like, let’s write some songs and tour on the way back to make gas money. So, I sat behind the drum kit . . . but I never really considered myself a drummer. . .  I’ve gotten to certain points where I think, “I can’t pull this off at this level anymore. I need to learn something else.” And then I will just learn something else. But, with bass, I was much more disciplined . . . [When I was first learning how to play the drums] it was very like, I had bass lines in my head, and I would just play drums to whatever that bass line would be.

 

Susannah: That’s interesting. It’s almost like you were learning a second language, and you were just transliterating in your head before speaking.

 

Kelly: Yeah, totally. And then, you know, when you learn a second language it does eventually get to a point where you are not translating in your head anymore.  And that is always a weird moment in language when you are not translating anymore. You are just speaking that language fluently, and I have had those moments with drums where I’m like, “This isn’t a translation. I am just playing drums and not listening to notes in my head.”

 

 

 

 

 

Susannah: That’s cool. So, you are in Little Victory now, what bands were you in before Little Victory? How would you describe them?

 

I played bass in a band called The Fens from 2002-2005 in San Francisco that was w/ 2 of my best friends. We were very mathy. No repeats of song parts. We just kept moving forward and would write really long songs. We wrote music and lyrics collaboratively and were very politically driven. I then played drums in Winning Looks from 2005-2008 . We were a 2 piece punk band. The music was pretty raw. It was a good start for drumming because there was only one other band member. I felt like I had to be really creative and umm, loud. I then played bass for Love or Perish from 2008-2010. Another punk band. That was a really fun and challenging because I joined the band really to play bass lines that were already written. It was  fun for my brain to work that way for a little while. And then the most recent band Little Victory started in about 2009, which is stylistically my dream band.

 

Susannah: That’s cool. So how would you describe Little Victory? Its music? Its style?

 

Kelly: I would say punk because it’s the one common thread that we all have, but we don’t sound like a straight-up punk band. We are influenced by different genres of punk. Massimo and I are into like late 70’s political punk bands and have some affinity for a few DC punk bands, pop punk and ska bands. Daniel and Zan,  I think, grew up with more Riot Grrrl, and kind of early ‘90s hard rock kind of  punk. So between all of us we are a rainbow of punk.

 

Susannah: Cool. So, what is your songwriting process like?

 

Kelly: Very collaborative. The band started as Massimo and me. We were in Love or Perish together. I played bass in that band. One day at practice, I think that our drummer wasn’t there yet, so I just sat behind the drum kit and started playing, and he picked up the bass. And that is just how we started. So it’s always been that we start with rhythm, but that has changed a lot over time. But it is always a collaborative process. We write together. We’ll just get in a room and start playing something, and somebody will be like, “Keep doing that.” It is my ideal band situation.

 

Susannah: Have you always been into punk or part of a punk scene?

 

Kelly: Yeah. When I was around about eleven or twelve years old I found my brother’s Clash and Sex Pistols records, and that was pretty much it for me. I just found more. And I grew up so close to the city that I would get on the train and come here to go to shows. By the time I was sixteen that was pretty much all I was doing.

 

Susannah: Were there any particularly memorable shows?

 

Kelly: There was a string of shows at the Ritz that I saw when I was fifteen, before I really had a group of friends here. Some of them were kind of reunion shows, but they weren’t really that far past their prime, looking back on it now—like I saw the Damned and The Exploited. I saw Public Image Ltd. at The Paladium and Then I saw bands that were sort of on the more industrial end of it, like Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails, after Pretty Hate Machine came out. Oh I saw Sisters of Mercy at The Ritz,  too! One of my first shows was the Cure, and they were touring with the Pixies and Love and Rockets. That was the first time I heard the Pixies and I was pretty blown away. I later saw them at The Ritz in 1991.

 

Susannah: The Cure and the Pixies, that’s awesome. What year was that?

 

Kelly: I think that was ’89. The random shows at the Ritz came a little later. I saw Janes Addiction there, too, in 1990. So those were the bigger shows that were very like, “This is what I want to do; this is really what I want.” I saw the Dead Milkmen at least 7 or 8 times. I loved that band. Then I made friends with a bunch of kids from the city, and we would all go to shows together at places like bond st. cafe, abc no rio, smaller early 90’s nyc venues. A lot of my friends were in really amazing bands. Music in that time was so creative and fun.

 

Susannah: So did you pretty much move to the city after high school?

 

Kelly: I dropped out of high school after I turned sixteen, and I moved there.

 

Susannah: And have you been here ever since?

 

Kelly: I left a couple times. I lived in Boston for a year when I was nineteen (1995), and I lived in San Francisco for three years, from 2002-2005.

 

Susannah: How would you compare the punk scenes in Boston and San Francisco to the punk scenes in New York?

 

Kelly: Oh God. Boston, when I moved there, one of my first realizations about that city is how segregated it is . . . But I saw a couple of good shows there, worked at Tower Records and I met some of my closest friends there . . . it was really fun  . . . but the scene was really masculine.

 

Susannah: So, what was the scene in San Francisco like?

 

Kelly: I didn’t really go out much when I lived there but I did play in a band there. I played bass in a band called The Fens.  It was a very small community of really amazing people. We played with a lot of great bands there, and everybody was really nice and super political.

 

Susannah: That’s awesome.

 

Kelly: I had a really good experience there and met a lot of great people.

 

Susannah: So, you mentioned, when you were talking about Boston, that there was kind of a masculine thing going on. Is that something you have found throughout the punk scene?

 

Kelly: Yeah, I don’t know, I always hung out with boys. I always preferred hanging out with boys. Like, I always had a group of really good, solid friends that were female, but I also always preferred hanging out with boys . . .

 

So at that point when I was really going to a lot of shows in the early 90’s in NY, it was mostly boys. There were maybe like two or three other girls and we hung out, you know, and I loved that they were there. I don’t remember thinking like, wow, there are so many guys here, which is now what I think about. I can look through a room at a show and think, there is only one other girl here, or like, everybody is white, what is going on?  And I didn’t really have that when I was fifteen years old. I didn’t really see it like that.

 

Susannah: That’s understandable.

 

Kelly: And there were a couple bands at the time that had women in them, not that many, but there was this band called Summer’s Eve that used to play . . . and they were just like, a really fucking rad all girl punk band. (They would throw winged maxi pads into the crowd and all the guys w/ mohawks would stick the pads to the sides of their head. )

 

Susannah: That’s awesome. I have a couple of questions about gender because, well, this is for Tom Tom, a magazine for female drummers. First off, what’s it like being a female drummer? Are there any barriers?

 

Kelly: At this point in time, I really don’t know. I think that we are definitely looked at differently, but I don’t know if that difference is negative. I’ve never gotten, “You’re good for a girl drummer.” I’ve been recognized as a female drummer.  I’ve been told by people that they really like how I play . . .  I think I used to get negativity due to my gender more when I played bass, like dudes telling me what kind of equipment I should be playing out of. And that happened to me so often where guys  would be like, “You should play out of, blah-blah-blah. “ And really I just didn’t have the money to be playing out of blah-blah-blah. I didn’t have a nice bass or bass amp until I was in my late 20’s.

 

Shopping for gear is often an awful task because of the attitudes of the men who work in music stores. Generally music stores are run by extremely condescending men who refuse to treat women like equally intelligent and capable musicians. I have found only a few places that are exceptions to this painful experience of shopping for gear: 2 of which are Main Drag Music (Brooklyn) and Sam Adato’s Drums (a San Francisco drum shop).

 

Susannah: That sounds awful. Is that maybe why more girls don’t go into drumming? Actually, why do you think more girls might not go into drumming?

 

Kelly: At this point in time, I don’t know. When I was in elementary school I wanted to play drums in the school band and I got told I couldn’t. They were like, “You should pick something else, like the flute or clarinet.” So I did because I got told that I couldn’t play drums . . . I picked the clarinet when I really wanted to play drums. And I don’t know if that shit happens anymore. I feel like it might be phasing out a bit, but I do think that it might be harder for us, that we aren’t recognized as much as musicians . . . I’m also seeing this from inside the punk community, but outside of that . . . I think that if I were to decide that I wanted to be a jazz drummer, I think that might be a little different.

 

Susannah: That’s interesting. How so?

 

Kelly: Well, it’s just more male-dominated. At this point I feel like we’ve really gotten a hold in the punk scene, and if we aren’t accepted in a certain area, we create our own area.

 

Susannah: Totally. And I guess my last gender-related question is, what advice do you have for young girls who want to start playing drums?

 

Kelly: To just go for it, really, to just do it, to find a place where you can play drums or just air drum until you can get behind a kit. There are so many resources now to figure out how to make a beat; ask a friend who plays drums how to do it, watch drummers and don’t be intimidated if there are forces coming up against you; to really have much faith in yourself and believe in yourself; if you want to do something, make it happen for yourself and don’t let anything keep you from doing that.

 

Susannah: That seems like good advice for so many things in life. So, I saw on your Facebook page that you guys have been on tour.  Are you in the midst of a tour now?

 

Kelly: No . . . we are playing tonight in New York and then we are playing in DC tomorrow.

 

Susannah: What was the tour season like?

 

Kelly: I personally love touring. I love traveling. I always have, since I was really little . . .that’s  part of why I left school at such a young age . . . I was so antsy, and I just needed to figure stuff out and see places outside of New York. I couldn’t sit in one place anymore, so for me, tour is a happy place.

 

Susannah: Where have you guys been?

 

Kelly: We’ve been . . . mostly we’ve been on the East Coast, South, and Midwest. Yeah, we haven’t been to the West Coast at all.

 

Susannah: What were some of the highlights?

 

Kelly: I always like Philly, and I completely fell in love with New Orleans when we were there about a year ago, January 27th-28th. We played there to a crowd of people where we didn’t know anyone, other than like I had e-mailed them to book the show. But we never met any of them, and we walked in, and it was like one of the most punk shows I’ve played. It was so awesome. It was like super-fucking punk, and it totally made me feel like I was fifteen again.

 

Susannah: That’s awesome.

 

Kelly: I remember being afraid that they wouldn’t like us or our music because we’re not just straight up punk. Anyway, so, we played this show, and we were like, let’s just play really fast. Let’s play all of our songs really fast, because we can do that.  We can change the pace of our songs and it will sound like us, but we can make our songs really hard, so we played really fast, and it was just the most amazing time, like everyone was going really wild and dancing and moving, and we had also just come from this area in the south where people don’t move. They like stand the fuck still. I don’t know why that is, but people don’t dance in the south.

 

Susannah: Did you play any rural shows or were you mainly playing in the bigger cities and towns?

 

Kelly: We were in bigger cities for sure, but there was a very clear change from New York, Philly, and DC, and Baltimore where people were going really wild and doing a lot of dancing, and then we got to Atlanta, and people just stood there. We were like, Do you hate us? What’s happening? Why aren’t you moving? Afterwards people would buy records and/or tell us they liked our music so we sort of realized that people just don’t really move there.

 

So, by the time we got to New Orleans, it was really amazing, and we befriended everyone in the bands that we played with . . .

 

Another highlight was last summer at Idapalooza, which is in the backwoods of Tennessee. We played in a barn and camped there for a few days. Some of the best few days of my life.

 

Susannah: That’s sounds awesome. So what have been some of the other highlights of your music career?

 

Kelly: I think that every time we play, I have a really good experience. I just love being on stage and I love when people are into our music and I love looking out while we’re playing and seeing people dance, or  like, making out with someone while they’re dancing, things like that. It just makes me really happy. It makes me feel like this is what I should be doing with my life. It’s totally worth it, like every sacrifice that I’ve ever made for it is totally worth it . . . even if it’s like a room of twenty people. I also get really excited when young people come up to us after we play, like teenagers, I don’t know, that makes me happy. I’m like, “Yeah, punk is still alive. And this is ok that we have a female drummer and everyone in this band is gay and there are young punks coming up to us.” I feel like this movement is still alive, and it is only getting better and better.

 

Susannah: That’s awesome, and I feel like something that doesn’t always happen. So, we’ve talked about the past, and present, what do you see in terms of your future in drumming, and music? The future of Little Victory?

 

Kelly: The future of Little Victory is always rocky. It’s been rocky since the day that we all got into a room together. Really. We’re a very volatile situation.

 

I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I just want to keep playing. And I want to play with different people and work with different projects, and I would like to start playing bass in a band again. I’m a little bit antsy to do that. I’ve been getting more and more into wanting to learn how to play different drum styles. I’m very self-taught, so I am very limited. So I am always like, “I want to play this drumroll.” I will listen to marching band drums, and then I will try to play that kind of thing. So, I think just like, challenge myself while I’m playing, and to branch out. Maybe get a little more nerdy about drumming like how I did when I learned bass. Start thinking of myself as a drummer?

 

Susannah: That’s awesome. So, is there anything else you’d like to add?

 

Kelly: I don’t know. Do you want to talk about other drummers at all?

 

Susannah: Sure.

 

Kelly: That is pretty important in how I play drums. I am very self-taught, and I have learned a lot from watching other people drum. There have been quite a few women that I’ve shared stages with who are really amazing drummers and I will watch the stuff that they do and the next day I will go into the rehearsal space and think: “How the fuck did they do that?” and then ’ll try to figure out how it’s done. So, the first band that I played with was called Winning Looks, and we would play with Love or Perish a lot before I was in that band, and the original drummer for that band was Molly Neuman.

 

Susannah: Oh, she’s written for Sadie, my online magazine.

 

Kelly: Yeah, she’s an amazing drummer. So I would watch her a lot. We would play a good amount of shows with them, and I would just watch her and be like, “How does she do that? How does she do that?” Also, Angie Boylin, she plays in a band called Aye Nako and is probably one of my favorite drummers.

 

Susannah: That’s awesome. So, I know we talked a little bit about your early influences. Do you have any other influences, musical or otherwise? Drumming or otherwise?

 

Kelly: I think that the drummer that influenced me the most that I never saw play, but whose music I have always loved since I was little would probably be Penny Rimbaud, who was the drummer for Crass.  His drumbeats are very snare oriented, almost militant. Also, When I was in Winning Looks and I was really just starting to play drums we played a lot with this band from Boston called Turpentine Brothers  and their drummer’s name is Tara McManus—she also played with Mr. Airplane Man and she was an amazing drummer. We played with them a bunch and she was definitely one of the drummers that I would watch and then try to figure out how they played beats. There is this thing that she does that I haven’t figured out. . . she plays sixteenth beats on her hi-hat by opening and closing it . I never figured out how the fuck she does that, but it’s really amazing, how does she move her  foot that fast?!?!

 

Susannah: Wow. That’s impressive.

 

Kelly: I feel like I could site other drummers, but those are the main ones that I learned a lot from just watching them and studying their movements or freaking out to Crass records. That is the style of drumming I had in my head when Winning Looks (and I on drums) first started. That is what a drumbeat is to me.

 By Susannah Wexler

First photo by Erwin Caluya 

All other Photos by Bex Wade

 

 

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