Learning the Drums as an Actor: Interview with Ruby McCollister of the Horror Comedy Uncle Peckerhead

As many musicians can attest, going on tour can be a downright horror show. There’re problems with the van, bookers, money… And then sometimes you find out that your roadie is a flesh-eating monster. That’s the premise of Uncle Peckerhead, an independent horror film released this year, directed by Matthew John Lawrence. A frightful mix of gore, comedy, and punk rock, it’s perfect for viewing on a chilly October night. Tom Tom Magazine chats with actress Ruby McCollister who plays Mel, the knife-wielding drummer for the New Jersey band Duh in the movie. We talk about her love of female drummers and fictional bands, and the relationship between music and comedy.

Tom Tom Magazine: My friend [Tom Tom writer Carolina Enriquez Swan] from Brooklyn came to visit me in the Catskills. We wanted to watch a horror movie and so we picked Uncle Peckerhead because it was about music and women in a band.  And I didn’t realize Wicky [Mendoza, co-producer] was involved. I know Wicky from way back.

Ruby McCollister: Cool, that’s amazing. I love Wicky.

TTM: I saw you were playing drums and I was like, I should interview her for Tom Tom Magazine!

RM: Oh, that’s so great. I love that! Yeah, so it was a weird, serendipitous experience to be cast as a drummer because I’m not personally a drummer. But I knew that this was a comedy horror film and they were casting a bunch of my friends—like everyone was auditioning for this film.

I grew up in LA and I’m obsessed with music anyway and as a kid I always wanted to play the drums, but there was no room in the rental apartments and houses we were living in to have a fucking drum set, but I was obsessed with female drummers and I naturally listen to female vocalists and girl bands. I was obsessed with the Shangri-Las as a kid. 

I forget which show they were on, but it was the first Carpenters live television performance where Karen Carpenter is singing “Dancing in the Street” and playing drums at the same time. Maybe I was twelve at the time, but I remember that and I was like, blown away, and I was like, oh my god, I have to play the drums, but it never really happened.

I tried so many times to start bands and have female drummers. In high school, my best friend was playing the drums and I thought that was so cool. I had kind of a girl crush and was like, oh my god, Natalie plays the drums.

The female drummer is kind of like the great white whale of rock, to me. So it’s kind of weird, there is some kind of magic that happens as an actress that sometimes you do manifest these opportunities for yourself to satiate unrealized childhood fantasies that were never actualized.

And separately from that, I’ve always loved this idea of fictional bands. I was obsessed with Josie and the Pussycats. I was obsessed with the Monkees. This idea of these bands that make amazing songs, but are purely manufactured for television or film. I have an ongoing project, a web series called Zhe Zhe which is made with two of my best friends because we’re all obsessed with fictitious bands and that’s centered around a fictional band, too. My experience being in fictional bands is one of my weird skills. It’s like, hire me for your fictional band because I’m into it. I’m into that concept. Usually I sing and that was my main musical talent.

When I got the opportunity to play Mel in Uncle Peckerhead, I was like, so excited, and I started doing drum lessons. I got to an intro level. By no means was I killing it, but it hearkened back to the Josie and the Pussycats and the DVD I had with the behind-the-scenes footage of their band camp and seeing Tara Reid learning drums.

Ruby McCollister

TTM: That’s so funny! I didn’t see that!

RM: The behind-the-scenes of Josie and the Pussycat is a major inspiration. It was really part of my dreams to be in a fake band. It was kind of amazing that I got this part. Learning the drums was insane. I’m definitely not a good drummer at all, but it was a total honor to be in a fake band. Are you a drummer?

TTM: Yeah.

RM: The female drummer is the best, the coolest, it’s the ultimate seal of cool. And also female bassists.

Karen Carpenter was my first favorite female drummer even thought she definitely moved away from that, but the idea of a singing female drummer, too. I was like, oh my god, that’s the epitome of show business.

TTM: She’s technically so good and so smooth.

RM: So smooth! It’s like a dance performance almost. It’s so beautiful. I still freak out when I watch that. I’m from LA so the Go-Go’s were huge for me and Gina Schock was huge for me. I was recently watched the Go-Go’s documentary which was also huge for me. It’s an amazing, amazing documentary. Gina Schock was this serious but fun-loving disciplinarian of the Go-Go’s  and gave them this work ethic and this amazing essential part of their sound. Yeah, I love Gina Schock.

TTM: If you were going to be casting a band, like in a movie, and you could put yourself in there too, and they could be alive or dead, who would be in your fictional band?

RM: Oh my god, that’s an amazing question. This is really, really controversial—I would probably have Natalie Wood be the lead singer.

TTM: Does she sing?

RM: I don’t know if she sings.

TTM: But she could perform. She could sell herself as a singer.

RM: Yeah, she has an amazing movie from the 60s where she plays a singer who has a mental breakdown. I’m totally spacing out on the name. Natalie Wood has the range and I think she has the sadness too to be an amazing lead singer. I would cast Betty Davis the funk musician. She would definitely be in my fictional band. So would Karen Carpenter.

In the movie, I would want to play their manager. I think I would be an amazing, comedic manager, a la the manager in Spinal Tap.

Maybe Martin Short would be in it, too, but he’s not a girl.

TTM: What would he play? Oh, I could see him on keyboards, like with all these keyboards around him. I mean, I don’t want to tell you what to do in your band!

RM: That’s pretty good. I mean, I’m just riffing here. We’re coming up with this as we go. And who else? I think like, Cardi B would be the record exec or something. But the three-piece band, like in Uncle Peckerhead, I think is definitely the most beautiful, fictional number. Every fictional band should be a three-piece band. This makes me think I should really consider my casting options for this for this question.

TTM: And what’s Betty Davis gonna play?

RM: I think she would play lead guitar.

TTM: This is really important. I have to know these things.

RM: It’s really true. I think Karen Carpenter would play the drums, but that almost seems like a waste. Or maybe Mo Tucker would play the drums. We need some kind of androgyny as every musical act needs some androgynous forces always, like it’s an essential rock component.

TTM: I could see Mo Tucker on the drum kit and then Karen Carpenter could play all the other percussion instruments and sing with Natalie Wood.

RM: It’s definitely a very chic band. It’s very fashionable.

TTM: So this was one of the very important topics I wanted to talk to you about. But let’s rein it in a little bit here. [Both laugh.] So how did you get involved with Uncle Peckerhead? What drew you to the script and to the role of Mel?

RM: So basically the director Matt Lawrence is from New Jersey and is keyed into the comedy community of New York. I’m a comedian and Matt saw me at a show and then asked my representation for an audition.

It was funny because the day I auditioned, I was filming an episode for my other fictional band, Zhe Zhe, and I was like, fuck, I have this audition, I have to go uptown, I’ll be right back. Can you shoot other scenes? I’ll be right back. So I went from that fictional band to audition for Uncle Peckerhead which was pretty amazing.

It’s a hyper-genre film. That’s the most exciting thing when you get a project that’s really specific in what it wants. It makes your job much easier as an actress rather than trying to guess the vision of the director. Acting is like composing and you’re part of the composition. And part of it as an actress is knowing where the director is coming from, so I can act accordingly.

It was very clear that Matt was genuinely into music. There are some people who want to make music movies that don’t know anything about music and don’t care. It’s like they like the idea of music, but don’t really know about music or care about music. Matt definitely did and does. And it was very evident that this is a genre film so it was like this is going to be so fun because I can see it in my head already. That’s what drew me to it.

I’ve always auditioned for sardonic characters even though I’m not. I’m the opposite of monotone. I’m vaguely the opposite of sardonic, but I’ve always auditioned for them and I’ve hardly ever gotten the sardonic roles. This was possibly the only sardonic character I’ve genuinely ever wanted because I was like oh, fuck, I’ll be a drummer, so I really went for it. I was like I really want to play the drums for the summer in New Jersey. That sounds really fun. It was wild because I really did start to feel like we were in a band which is also a completely other story.

 

Ruby McCollister

 

TTM: So you got the part and then you started taking drum lessons. How long did it take you till you really felt like you got the drums? Did you take to it right away or was it kind of difficult?

RM: I do understand rhythm. So it felt more like driving a car a little bit. It wasn’t the principles that I didn’t understand, but it was about teaching my body how to respond in time. I’ve dated drummers before too. So it was an emotional time—I started texting ex-boyfriends. And I was like, I can see why you were chronically obsessed with this. It took me a while to be completely on rhythm. But it definitely became really fun pretty immediately. But it was weird because I was practicing at a music school that at the time I was also working at. It was an experience to let myself be loud. Practicing was sort of awkward. It definitely immediately was fun.

TTM: It just occurred to me. Drumming and comedy, there’s a lot of timing. What’s your relationship to time with comedy and drumming?

RM: That’s an amazing question because I think like music timing is in all of us and I don’t truly believe comedic timing is. Musical timing—we listen to so much music and there is an instinct in our bodies. I don’t think everyone can be a great drummer, but as a listener you can anticipate the beat. It’s easier than anticipating the beats of comedy. I’m still taken aback by some comics timing in terms of, wow, you fucking felt that moment I didn’t even feel. But maybe that’s because I’m in comedy and that’s how you feel about drumming in terms of you hear other drummers and you’re like, how do you feel that moment?

TTM: Some are just amazing. You know, in anything that anyone does, there’re some people that are just amazing and have amazing talent. But, yeah, a lot of us can listen to music and can clap our hands—

RM: Right, exactly, there is that about it. I feel like a lot of people feel they might understand comedic timing, but even as a comedian I might not understand comedic timing. I don’t know if any comedian consciously understands comedic timing. It’s like this thing. Whereas drumming is so physical. To learn physically you have feel it physically. I’ve been doing comedy for so long and I don’t even know if I feel like a comedian could explain to you or teach somebody comedic timing.

TTM: There’s not a metronome for comedy, I guess.

RM: Exactly. Totally, and there’s so many different comedic measures or time signatures, you know what I mean? [laughs] They’re not really measurable so that’s an amazing, amazing question that I can not clearly answer. But I do think those are the distinctions. I don’t claim to know comedic timing at all. But I do think as a music lover a primal understanding of musical time and beat and rhythm.

Also my father is a music snob. All of my baby videos are him turning on James Brown and forcing me to have rhythm. That was a major thing. “My daughter needs to understand rhythm.” I do feel like I passed that test with my dad, but I also don’t claim to have the rhythm of an actual drummer. Actual drummers are magicians to me. Equally as much as comics are.

TTM: My drumming, you know, I might have a tiny bit of musical talent, but it’s more like I have to put the time in.

RM: It’s like a sport, it’s crazy. I feel like you can easily get out of shape too if you’re not practicing all the time. That’s also something I realized. This is something I could get really good at and equally as fast get really bad at it. It’s like losing muscle memory or something.

TTM: What were some of your favorite scenes to shoot in the film?

RM: I think it’s actually the first performance in the film. We filmed it in the middle of New Jersey in an American Legion. We filmed in many American Legions which I was obsessed with. It was so fun.

It was with my bandmates Jeff [Riddle] and Chet [Siegel]. Jeff was such an amazing and positive force because me and Chet were like these comedic actresses that have musical interests and musical instincts, but never toured in a band, and Jeff is a seasoned musician and has a natural instinct toward being hysterical. He was so positive, and he was such an amazing influence.

I think it was the first official musical scene, and I was so freaked out. I was like, I don’t know all of the fills to this song. I can keep on the beat, but I don’t know the fills and there are so many fills. Matt was like, “You don’t need to know all the fills. This is like improv, just instinct, just go for it. We’re not recording your actual drum takes so don’t worry about it. Just feel it and commit to it.” And I remember I was like, wow, it was that feeling of actually performing where you’re like, here goes nothing. I’m gonna just do it. It was so fun. It was some of the best footage, I think, of me drumming. And it just felt great. That was my favorite drumming experience.

We had so much fun as an actual team. It was so much gore and so many weird locations and late night shoots. We were covered in weird concoctions of what was supposed to be blood and guts. We were dirty all the time and covered in weird substances. And that was always really fun.

Me and David [Littleton], who plays Uncle Peckerhead, and Jeff and Chet were always in the van that we shot in. It actually was our home base. We were always hanging out before shoots if we could. We genuinely all liked each other, and we actually went on weird adventures and we ended up doing weird stuff. It really did feel like a tour. And it was really just the crew and us. We were just chronically hanging out. That was amazing. It was really fun.

TTM: So you got that chemistry and cohesion?

RM: Yeah.

TTM: Are you a horror fan? I know you do comedy and you’re a music fan, but what about horror?

RM: Umm….I’m from LA so I feel like naturally every Angelino is addicted to horror on some level because LA is the scariest place in America. But, I don’t know if I’m necessarily a horror fan, but I do enjoy being scared. And I am a paranormal girl. All of my favorite horror films are vaguely paranormal more so than gore, but David, who played Uncle Peckerhead, is a massive horror fan, and so many people on the shoot were leaning into the gore genre which I don’t claim to have a huge knowledge of. I was obsessed with ghost films growing up. I was specifically into Hollywood ghosts which is a completely different conversation.

TTM: So, fancy ghosts?

RM: I was into fancy ghosts. That’s just because I grew up in LA and I needed a way to relate to my hometown.

 

Ruby McCollister

 

TTM: Before my friend and I watched the film, we had dinner and we were talking about horror films and she was talking about misogyny in horror films, especially in the 70s and 80s.

RM: Right!

TTM: And we were talking about what we’d like to see in horror films as feminists. When we watched Uncle Peckerhead, we were like, hey, this doesn’t seem douchey at all. I mean, there was a douchey character.

RM: Yeah, yeah.

TTM: But we were like, there’s a female gaze and Judy [Chet Siegel] was kind of giving guys that look, like, “are you kidding me?”

RM: Right, yeah, there was definitely a lot of female perspective and a respect for the female characters. It beautifully articulates the male-dominated world of music, I think. Judy and Mel are some of the only women you actually see in the film which I think is truly accurate in a lot of people’s experiences. Especially the minute. I think people accept how misogyny is pervasive and subtle in all industries. It’s definitely articulated in Uncle Peckerhead because nobody’s like, whoa, you’re a girl, basically they’re saying whoa you’re a girl in so many ways, but not explicitly, but everyone is dancing around the fact that in the movie, which is accurate to my experience as a woman in my own field.

TTM: That’s what we thought watching it. It had a feminist perspective.

Punk bands and comedy have this kind of DIY ethos. Did you think that when you were in a fictional punk band you saw any correlation between that and being a comedian and doing your own web series?

RM: Yeah, the relationship between musicians and comics has a historical legacy. Matt came at this because he came up with Chris Gerhard, a New Jersey comic who is very musically inclined. He started in New Jersey and went to New York and started The Chris Gerhard Show which has a musical element to it.

TTM: My old band played on his show. On Manhattan public access.

RM: Cool, he’s amazing. So I think Matt was approaching it through that lens of sort of that punk/comedy crossover that I think more recently Chris Gethard kind of fathered into our consciousnesses. But it’s historical and you know, like, Reggie Watts is also a comic who’s a musician. Eric Andre low-key studied at the Berklee School of Music. So many of my comedy friends started touring, opening for musicians. Like Zack Garifinakis.

TTM: Fred Armisen has contributed to Tom Tom Magazine a lot.

RM: Fred Armisen is a perfect example. Also a peer of mine who works with Fred Armisen is Ana Fabrega. She’s on a show called Los Espookys and she’s an amazing drummer. She’s actually a trained drummer. Yeah, I don’t know any comic who isn’t into music. And I don’t know any musician who isn’t into comedy. So that’s interesting. Like, if you get one, you’re going to get the other. Also, I think music offers so many ways to be funny. There are so many musicians that are definitely comics. Their lyrics are so funny. It’s definitely a harmonious relationship between the two, for sure.

TTM: I agree. It was so fun to be on Chris Gerhard’s show.

RM: Oh my god, how was that?

TTM: It was just so fun. That guy in Uncle Peckerhead who was in the coffee shop. He played a fish guy or something.

RM: David Bluvman.

TTM: He wore swim trunks and he was shirtless and had on flippers and goggles and he danced in the background. And Shannon O’Neill was on the show, too. 

RM: Yeah, it’s the best. It’s just so harmonious. Like, one of my best friends, Sarah Sherman, does a comedy show called Helltrap Nightmare that I usually tour with once a year and we always have musical guests on our traveling shows. Local bands. It’s the fucking best. Music and comedy are harmonious.

TTM: Yeah, I think so. Have you played drums since filming?

RM: I do occasionally. It’s so funny because of covid, it’s so hard to remember what I did before then because it’s just been a lot of teaching myself new tricks. I am writing music. I’ve always written. I’m an incredibly musical person. I have musical acts that are comedy acts. I play musician characters sometimes on stage. Ever since filming, every time there was a kit, I would play it.

TTM: That’s awesome. I was reading about you and I saw that you have an interest in fashion. Did you notice behind the kit, like ergonomically, what clothing felt better to wear? In one scene you were wearing overalls and playing and I was like, I could just see that strap falling down my arm.

RM: It’s really interesting that you say this because as an actress you don’t really have…it’s about the look. It is fashion-oriented and they were going for this really, yeah, right, very punk aesthetic. Like a very suburban punk aesthetic. Which also happens to be an LA punk aesthetic. So when I was growing up, I worked at the Smell which is a punk venue in downtown Los Angeles. So I felt like I was dressing as those girls that were playing the drums there, but I found out that if I was a drummer, I would never play in these shorts. Ever. [laughs] They always had me in cut-off shorts and I was like, nope, I don’t want that.

TTM: Were you sticking to the seat? Why would you not wear the cut-off shorts?

RM: Because I would want the feeling of pants. I don’t know why. Like a tight pant or a compression pant would be better to connect me more to my foot. I think this is getting into weird, hyper detail. And I would never wear overalls because, like you said, the strap. Interesting. But it was essential for the look.

TTM: Yeah, no, I thought you looked really cool. I said that to my friend: “It looks like she’s really playing the drums, but I don’t think a drummer would wear overalls.”

RM: Yeah, totally, also if I was a drummer I would wear—this is so not exciting—I would probably wear athleisure wear, which is so narsty in terms of it’s the most exciting thing to wear. But I’d probably wear a sports bra and the current Adidas with athleisure wear. Thats probably what I would want to drum in.

TTM: Yeah, it’s so hard, because your shoes needs to be a particular kind…

RM: I’d wear Keds and athleisure wear. I’d wear a thin shoe. Or Reebok with the a high ankle for ankle support. Maybe Converse high tops. Connect that ankle.

TTM: I wear Converse. I will say though, that touring in the middle of summer when it’s really hot, you do want the cut-off shorts. Sometimes you just need that air.

RM: Yeah, because you can get so hot performing. It’s insane.

 

 

Rebecca DeRosa is a contributing writer and editor for Tom Tom Magazine. She teaches yoga and plays drums in the band Fisty.

Previous Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *