In the early evening of July 1st, 2016, coincidentally the day that Tom Tom Magazine announced our new tagline: Drummers | Music | Feminism with the hope and intention of being more inclusive to all kinds of individuals, this Tom Tom writer met up with Destroy who formerly went by Helen Destroy and who recently came out as a non-binary individual. You may recognize Destroy as the former drummer of the last year of Lunachicks before their hiatus, the former drummer of Lez Zeppelin and soon as the drummer behind transgender singer-songwriter Ryan Cassata.
This long-form interview will be in 3 parts.
Interviewer: Aiko Masubuchi
PART 1: Coming Out
Destroy: I’m used to teaching people because my day job is a dog trainer. My job is all about coaching people. So I have a good sense of monitoring how fast I’m explaining something because people are always taking notes based on what I say… I was born to be interviewed!
D: Really – you know it’s funny because the drummer is always the loudest person in the band and the biggest personality because we never get to talk. So our instrument is the loudest instrument and our personalities are the biggest ones because we’re kept in this tiny little box all the time. It’s always the damn singer or the guitar player who’s getting interviewed. It’s never the drummer.
A: It’s true. The drummer sees it all too because we’re behind everybody.
D: Right. You know, I used to always make this joke to myself saying “Do I really have to stare at your ass all day? Because all I can see is your butt.”
A: You’ve never said that to anyone in the face before?
D: I used to say that to my singer all the time. All I see if your ass dancing up there. That’s all I see.
A: So tell me – what are the bands that you’re currently in?
D: I’ve actually just recently gotten involved with Ryan Cassata. He is a transguy and a musician and he is an activist. Basically what he’s doing is going around to a lot of universities and colleges and talking about trans issues and also performing. A lot of his music talks about his trans experience and one of his goals was to put together a band of all trans and non-binary people. And randomly I messaged him on twitter. I tweeted him something and mentioned to him that I’m a drummer and he sent me a message and we started talking and we’re going to start rehearsing in about a week. He’s got an album that came out pretty recently. There are some big things in the works.
D: That’s going to be great too because I get to be around people who get your life journey and I don’t need to explain who I am. You can just show up and you can play. You can get all that personal stuff out of the way so there’s just the music. That is not the experience that I had in a more recent project where I actually came out when I was in the band. I realized very quickly that they didn’t want to take on the political aspect…. When you have somebody in the band who by their very existence creates some kind of controversy… if they’re not willing to go on that ride with you… (pause) So you know, definitely for me, moving forward, coming out is going to be part of who I am as a musician and explaining to people who I am and then they can decide if they can come on that ride… which they should because you know, I’m a good drummer and I’m worth it.
A: So how recently did you come out?
D: God, well I feel like I come out everyday because being non-binary — it’s not like it’s written on my face. I think that a lot of my close friends and family became aware around January/February of 2015. And then, probably last summer it was more out there but really not officially until April of this year so it hasn’t really been that long. But you know, it takes longer to wrap your head around your identity and work through it and sort it out and all that stuff.
A: So, what makes it “official” for you in April?
D: A Facebook post!
D: Yeah, I mean showing up and announcing it on social media has a big impact. That’s how we all reach people en masse these days.
A: Yeah, totally.
D: And I changed my name on Facebook and to me that was really a thing that made a difference because before then, me just saying it, I feel like a lot of people close to me, they didn’t quite get what I was talking about until I was like ‘this is my name, these are my pronouns, this is how we’re doing this.’
D: So it’s one thing for me to know it but another for me to say it and have people get it and I think sometimes it still takes some folks a while to either remember or wrap their head around it or do their own research to figure out what it is that I’m talking about.
A: So could you explain what you mean when you say “non-binary”?
D: I don’t identify as male or female. I would say I identify with masculinity but I’m very clear that I’m not male. I think what made me come to terms with it was through Youtube believe it or not. When I was doing research to do top surgery I became aware of this whole other community online and I also found out that non-binary people were not very widely represented which is why I wanted to talk about it because I feel like there are so many of us but we don’t have mainstream representation the same way that transmen and transwomen do. Obviously this conversation is still new and it’s evolving. Human beings are way ahead of our language. You know? I get “Ma’am-ed” everyday and that’s just…misgendering is a big deal.
I guess in certain societies “Ma’am” is a polite way of greeting people and there’s no neutral form of that and so no matter what I get called it’s always an issue of misgendering. So I’m waiting for language to catch up to my existence! Which really is something that I wanted to happen yesterday. But… you know… going as fast as we can I think.
I came out as a lesbian when I was 18 and I never really fully attached myself to that identity. I was never really comfortable so I thought basically I just have to suffer my whole life being a masculine woman and that I would just have to be uncomfortable with that. Discovering transgender and non-binary offered a lot of relief. It really is the main emotion. I kind of unpacked it a little bit further and the whole concept of being able to appreciate my own masculinity but not having to identify as male – that’s a huge thing as well. There’s a lot of intricate stuff in there!
A: Personally, I’m also a poet and I’m really really interested in language. Also being someone who was raised in Japan, my parents only speak Japanese, and most of my life now is spent in the English-speaking world. I always feel that language is inadequate. Language is such a big part of your identity.
D: Yeah, and if you never have to examine your identity, you never think about it. You know, when people talk about privilege, that’s a privilege.
A: Definitely. To have those words that you can attach yourself with. And I’m sort of going on a limb here but… for example, when I’m drumming, I’m expressing so much through this non-verbal form. Do you feel like something about yourself and your expression of yourself is done through drumming?
D: Well you know, and I think you would get this as a fellow drummer – the whole idea of it being very male-dominated. For me, my stage name Helen Destroy which now I just go by Destroy… it’s funny because I was given that name because I was a really hard hitter at like 15 or 16 because I was trying to prove that I was as good if not better and louder than all the boys. So, I definitely feel a primal connection when I’m drumming. I also feel like there’s something otherworldly about it in the sense that I can fully disappear into what I’m doing and it’s like the one time where I don’t really have to worry about me as a person. I’m just doing this thing that I was put on this Earth to do.
Especially when I was in Lez Zeppelin I got to play John Bonham drum parts. There is nothing better than that! I still have not topped that and I don’t think I ever will and you know, even doing original music doesn’t give me the same thing as playing Zeppelin because it was like… I got to play the drum parts through the greatest drummer in rock history. There’s so many emotions I can attach to that sentence but it was almost like an out-of-body experience in a way because it was me channeling the essence, the spirit, whatever. That’s pretty powerful shit. It was incredibly fulfilling in a way that nothing else is quite like. It was also about the responsibility of delivering it to people who are expecting to hear it and you have to be on! You have to be killing it! That stuff is not easy. There is so much emotion in the original creation of that music. You have to translate that. That’s where I totally get that music is another language. I fully believe that. It was big shoes to fill. I hope I did a good job. I felt like I did.
I’m no longer in the band and neither is the singer and the bass player who were in the band at the same time as me but we got to record our debut album at Electric Lady Studios with Eddie Kramer who produced most of the original Zeppelin records and we were in the same room as Mitch Mitchell who played on all the Hendrix stuff. My drum kit was ten feet from where his was when I recorded. There were some major spirits in that room. You know, just looking up in the sound booth and seeing Eddie Kramer’s face was like… ok… I’m playing Zeppelin and recording Zeppelin with the guy who recorded Zeppelin — you can’t really top that!
We headlined Bonnaroo. We went on in front of like 20,000 people they were all chanting “Zeppelin, Zeppelin!” You can’t beat that!
I’ll have to show you the clip of Kashmir because when we went into Kashmir, the entire place just levitated. That was before cellphones were really big. Suddenly you see cell phones lighting up in place of lighters. But that energy of that night, it was really palpable.
A: When was this?
D: 2008 which feels like last year but it’s 8 years ago!
A: So you’ve been drumming since when?
D: I was 10 years old when I started drumming and I’m 35 now. It was like the middle school choice between band and choir and I actually come from a family of singers so I think it was my rebellion to be a drummer. Actually everybody in my family is a musician.
A: So have you played music with your family?
D: Yes and no. My sister and I had an acoustic duo because I can play a little bit of guitar and we would do cover songs with just the two of us. We both sang and played guitar. My Mom has recently started to reinvent her music career so I play songs on her upcoming EP. But in terms of a family-wide performance we have not done that. My cousin is Fiona Apple. There was some talk at one point to have me play drums with her but logistically didn’t work out but she came to see me play with Lez Zeppelin and that was really amazing to have her there.
Our grandfather who is responsible for all of our musical talent played with Harry James and Benny Goodman and a bunch of other big band jazz guys. He sang and he played saxophone and clarinet. So he’s kind of the one responsible for all of us. There’s a lot of singers in my family. My aunt did some Broadway stuff, Fiona’s older sister Maude Maggart does cabaret and she tours all around the country doing cabaret show. So it’s in there! It wasn’t really a choice. It was more like what instrument. Of course you were going to be a musician but what instrument?
A: That’s a really wide river you’re a part of.
D: My parents have been incredibly supportive my whole life. They gave me the master bedroom so that I would have room for my drum kit and my band could practice in my room with me. You know, putting up with me learning how to play drums. Nobody wants to be around when somebody’s learning how to play drums. Like ever.
There were four drummers on my block and we all had the same drum teacher so he would go around house to house. We would hear the person before us having their lesson and we would be like “ok, 20 minutes until it’s my turn.”
A: So where is this place you grew up?
D: I was born and raised in Brooklyn but when I started playing I was in Princeton, NJ. My parents moved us to the suburbs for the schools. So the suburban environment was really where I was allowed to start this whole thing. I was there for middle school through high school. Then right out of high school, I had been drum tech-ing for the Lunachicks and I got a phone call one day saying that they had to replace their drummer…
[END OF PART 1]