The Unstoppable Emily Rems

Emily Rems Amazing Girl Drummer NYC

Emily Rems, writer and managing editor of Bust magazine, went out on assignment to cover the first ladies rock camp in New York six years ago, and came back a drummer, replete with band and all. Being a drummer, it seems, had always been in the cards for Rems. She was simply waiting for her rhythmic stars to align, and finally they had. When Rems was in high school, she asked the one drummer she knew if he could teach her how to play. He showed her a basic punk beat and told her to come back to him when she could do it. By the time Rems had the exercise down, the two didn’t live in the same city anymore. But when she got to rock camp and was given the chance to play the drums, Rems already knew she could be a drummer. You can currently find Rems on a Saturday night wailing on a kit with her band the Grasshoppers.

In the last interview you did with Tom Tom, you talked about how you went to Ladies Rock Camp to cover it for Bust, and you wound up learning to play the drums and starting a band. Before you headed out on assignment, had you thought about that possibility?
I hoped I would have a chance to play the drums. Because I was there covering it, I didn’t know if they would give me a student slot or not, but when they offered it to me, I jumped at it.

I also read that you had always wanted to play the drums. Had you thought about trying to learn before.
It just seemed so untenable, living in the tiniest apartment in the world in the East Village. I didn’t know really about practice spaces that you could go to and touch drums. And even if I could touch drums, what would I do with them? It seemed like someone thinking about being an astronaut.

Last time Tom Tom spoke with you, you were in Royal Pink, and the Grasshoppers were on the horizon. How did that transition happen?
I love Royal Pink and I was devastated when it ended. I understand that things have to end, and the reason that it had to end is because Karen, who was our lead singer—she wrote all the lyrics to all the songs—was going through a major transitional period in her life. And our songs were all pop punk; they were really upbeat. They were really funny and sassy and sexual. And she was feeling, at that point in her life, that she wanted to sing sad, heartbreaking, country songs. I had never been in a band before I was in Royal Pink, and I had no idea that it would be so much like a breakup.

I totally get it . . .

love my new band and everything about it, but being in an all-girl punk band is something I treasure so deeply. But Erin from Royal Pink and I are now in the Grasshoppers with my boyfriend Logan, and a friend of Erin’s. So, most of the rhythm section of Royal Pink emigrated. There’s this long continuity, and this feeling of us playing music together now for so long.

Did the Grasshoppers start right away?
It happened in stages. My boyfriend was doing an electronic music project, but he really wanted to be in a band with actual instruments. So, for a while he was writing songs and a few times we went to a rehearsal space, just the two of us, and I would play behind him while he noodled out his songs. And then Erin said that she wanted to be in it, and we were, like, “Ahhh!” It was the three of us for a few months until Erin’s boss said to us, “I have this kid cousin, he’s just dropped out of music school to move to New York. All he wants to do is be in a band. Do you need a guitarist in your band?” And we really, really needed a guitarist in the band.

That’s amazing.
At first we were, like, “I don’t know . . .” But he came in and was a virtuoso right away; he’s an unbelievably accomplished musician.

And then everything just fit into place. Not that long after that we were ready to play out.

How did you develop your drumming style?
When we had our first gig I think I’d been playing for, like, six days. So, out of necessity I started out playing as simply as I possibly could without sounding like an asshole. And out of that, a style emerged.

I remember around that time, when I was really first trying to figure out what it meant to be a drummer in a band, I saw the White Stripes play a free show in Union Square. It was too loud and the parks department unplugged them, and then Jack just kept going with no amplification, and Meg kept wailing away with no amps, and everyone was freaking out; it was amazing. It was one of those things where she made it look easy, even though it wasn’t. But she did it in a way where I understood that there didn’t have to be a million drum fills to really serve the song.

It’s hard not to have an inferiority complex when you’re a woman playing an instrument that women aren’t known for playing, when you feel like you’re under scrutiny, when you started off in your thirties, when there are all these other bands before you with kids who were given drums when they were children; it’s hard not to just get frozen up with your own anxiety. But I think my style just came out of the fact that I’m always serving the song and keeping it simple.

When you were first starting out, what was the most intimidating part of playing the drums?
I’m actually so relieved and happy to say that the most intimidating thing is getting a lot better for me now, which was that I had the most crippling stage fright. I can’t overstate it. On more than one occasion, I vomited onstage and had to hold it inside while playing.

Oh my god!
For most of Royal Pink the question wasn’t if I was going to throw up, but when. Would it be before, during, or after? It was that way at the beginning of the Grasshoppers also, and somehow through—I’ve actually been wracking my brain trying to figure out what changes I’ve made—because I know I was still throwing up at the beginning of the Grasshoppers. But for the first time in my life I’m not throwing up during shows. I can be present. I can look at the audience. I can listen. If something goes wrong, I don’t completely fall apart.

Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to add?
I just want to say something encouraging to girls of the world. I want people to know that drums are not like other instruments, and that if you can keep time, it’s such an amazingly generous, forgiving instrument where you can literally just sit down and play what you feel.
By Jesse Sposato

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