Hole Is a Band

While the Courtney Love saga continues, her group proves that a rock & roll act is the sum of its parts

Hole during 1995 MTV Video Music Awards Show at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, New York, September 9th, 1995. Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty

Eric Erlandson was sitting on a beach in Mexico when the headline caught his eye. Hole's guitarist and co-founder was vacationing with his girlfriend, Drew Barrymore, and thus deliberately out of the loop. After nine months of touring, he was on a much-needed break, his last before the summerlong playground of Lollapalooza.

He should have known better. Given that Hole's other founding member is one Courtney Love, Erlandson's blissful, worry-free escape simply wasn't to be. The day-old newspaper beckoned him from across the sand. "Hole Singer ODs," the headline read. That was all he could make out. His thoughts swirled from annoyance to concern to confidence that everything was surely all right before settling on a slightly jaded "Wouldn't it just figure if Courtney died while I was on vacation?"

A quick look at the story revealed, of course, that Love was just fine. (What was initially reported as an overdose was eventually termed "an adverse reaction to prescription medication.") His worst fears put to rest, Erlandson was skimming the rest of the article when it hit him — a development that was somewhat surprising and most definitely pleasing.

It was the nature of that headline: "Hole Singer ODs." Not "Courtney Love ODs" or "Grunge Widow ODs." Nope, "Hole Singer."

The circumstances might have been strange and unfortunate, but that headline symbolized some kind of progress. Erlandson had quietly awaited this particular Zeitgeist shift for three years, ever since Hole's music and meaning were firmly subsumed by the irresistible Love star force, with its limitless aura of spectacle, tragedy and provocation. Conventional wisdom has suggested that a random gathering of cabdrivers, grandmothers and Vanity Fair subscribers would be able to peg Courtney Love in a police lineup, no problem. But no one would be able to pick out mug shots of Erlandson, drummer Patty Schemel or bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, let alone figure out what "Hole" is.

Hole provide a definitive answer in this year's Lollapalooza program book. Paying homage to Blondie, their page is emblazoned with the proclamation, in big rococo letters, that "Hole Is a Band." A band that definitely intends — in between Love's inevitable rants, stage dives and column inches — to speak very loudly for itself every night on the Lollapalooza stage.

If Hole's popularity were based only on celebrity, they would have sold a lot more records by now. Instead, with promotion, marketing and life as they knew it shattered by the successive deaths of Love's husband and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, Live Through This moved only about 100,000 copies — initially. Then the freak-show aspect subsided, and after Hole added Auf der Maur they went about the business of playing music. The record topped nearly every '94 critics' poll and — despite never charting higher than No. 52 — was certified platinum in April.

That makes Hole, for the moment at least, the best-selling act on the Lollapalooza main stage, and one gets the feeling Hole would be the chief attraction regardless of sales figures — as was expected, a portion of the Lolla crowd is departing before headliners Sonic Youth take the stage.

Certainly, Hole's million-or-so fan base still includes legions of the merely curious as well as loopily obsessive Love worshippers and kids who see the band as only a legacy. The rest of Hole's audience might feel those things, too, but it also relates intensely to the music.

"The most frustrating thing for me is that people view most female artists as this single person," Erlandson says. "The thing is, I know for a fact that we're more of a band, and we've always been more of a band. I don't want to be in a 'backing band,' and Courtney doesn't want that, either. That's not the way we work."

***

So allow me to introduce you to the four members of the band Hole. Except that I can't, because none of them have materialized in the appointed place (an obscure Manhattan hotel) at the appointed time (3 p.m.). When they do turn up, one of them is missing. We were supposed to conduct a joint interview, something that can't be done without Love, who spends her day shopping and napping.

We regroup in the evening, as the band heads over to Electric Lady Studios to do the syndicated radio show Modern Rock Live. Love walks through the hotel lobby, spraying herself with perfume, and is immediately confronted by two fans. She blows them off cold but not because she's in a bad mood or anything (although she is).

At Electric Lady, Love takes off her shoes, asks Auf der Maur to make room on the couch and Schemel to give her a light, then splays out, feet up, with a book (C. David Heymann's Elizabeth Taylor biography) and a pile of magazines. The TV is on, and Love switches channels to Larry King, whose guest this evening is Barbra Streisand, resplendent in the televised wonders of a Vaseline lens and soft-soft light. "Is that the lighting they're going to give me when I do my Barbara Walters interview?" Love asks. As air time approaches, she tells the band she's cranky and tired and doesn't want to answer all the on-air calls, even if they're directed at her.

After the show we're supposed to take another crack at that four-on-one interview, but Love doesn't feel like it. I'm not too concerned, but Erlandson says he really wants me to observe the full band dynamic. I can't help wondering what he's after. Were they planning a pseudo-orchestrated demonstration of band democracy? Was I going to glimpse a legendary Erlandson-Love blowup? Or perhaps it was just a subtle way for the other three members to say, "Look what we have to put up with!"

I get a big dose of the latter feeling the next day at the photo shoot. Love sleeps the whole way to Coney Island, in New York, in the front seat of the van. Her cosmetician tells me, perhaps indiscreetly, that she prefers it that way come make-up time because a conscious Love is a manic and fidgety Love. As the day wears on she comes alive again, though during one break she manages a fully clothed half-minute doze right on the beach. Between takes she entertains herself by reading the Globe out loud, saying that tabloid stories are almost always exaggerations of something with a grain of truth in it. It's obviously a subject she knows about. Later she apologizes for putting me off. "I don't want you to think I'm a diva," Love says.

Naturally, Love then proceeds to throw a Kathleen Battle-like fit that's impressive in its steadfastness and serenity. It's nearly 10 p.m., and the band is supposed to have a quick dinner before finishing the shoot. But Love says she's returning to her hotel room for a nap first. There's no tantrum, no argument, no drama, just a sense of "this is the way it's going to be," even though everyone tries to dissuade her. The overall vibe is how one might imagine things are between Prince and his band mates, albeit with less subservience: a group of distinct, individually talented people responding to its erratic, visionary fireball leader with a slightly patronizing blend of wariness and admiration. "Sure, Prince, whatever you say."

This is not a theory that the members of Hole will confirm for me. All of them are outspoken, bright and funny under ordinary circumstances but a lot more guarded when the subject is Love. "I'm used to it by now," Schemel says. "I accept Courtney exactly, everything she does." Generally speaking, they brush off Love's unabashed Loveness as part and parcel of the ordinary lead-singer trip. But Love's not your average lead singer. It's kind of like four gorillas saying, "Hey, we're just an ordinary quartet of gorillas. Never mind that one of us weighs 800 pounds."

***

If you were ever to visit Eric Erlandson's hotel room, there would be a 50-50 chance your knock would be answered by a certain well-known actress. You might find this prospect amusing. You might even suspect that the actress would be aware of this and answer the door on purpose.

This is not the case. The reason Drew Barrymore lets me in is because Erlandson is in the bathroom. "Hi, I'm Drew," she says politely, if unnecessarily. The O.J. trial is on the television, and the sweeter-than-you'd-ever-suspect couple tell me they were unnerved to discover attorney Barry Scheck on their flight from Los Angeles. They figured that, karmically speaking, the odds of a crash go up with him on board, and he's not someone you want to share recirculated oxygen with in any case. Barrymore retreats to the bedroom while Erlandson and I talk.

Erlandson is tall and affable with dyed-blond hair that hangs in his eyes and a loose, almost nasal Los Angeles-native drawl. One of seven children in a close-knit Catholic family, he actually hails from San Pedro, Calif., the recently reanointed punk-rock Mecca a half-hour south of L.A. Erlandson's boyhood paper route included the home of Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, but Erlandson missed out on his hometown scene at the time, preoccupied as he was with good old '70s rock.

Now 32, a fact he gives away freely but sheepishly, Erlandson was a late bloomer. He attended college at Loyola Marymount, where his father was a dean, and also held down an accounting job at Capitol Records. Then he caught the punk-rock bug. "I started late," Erlandson says. "I didn't really experiment with anything bad for you until I was 27."

What exactly happened when you were 27? Fall in with some kind of "bad girl," didja?

Erlandson laughs. "Yeah, you could say that," he says.

You could, and Love frequently does, announcing from the stage, "Eric was my boyfriend once. He won't admit it 'cause I'm too ugly." She also refers to him as Eric Barrymore. He usually responds to this by giving her the finger, if he responds at all. Erlandson is a soft-spoken sort, the steely guitarist who's content simply to make his music and hit the town with his (very young, movie-star) girlfriend. Within the band he's known as the Archivist, the guy who keeps track of all the live tapes and jam sessions. On a musical level he's the guy who really gives the songs their crackle. He played most of the guitars on Live Through This, while Love concentrated on lyrics and vocals.

Like Love, Erlandson is a Buddhist, though after she introduced him to the religion he became the more devout practitioner. All in all, unlikely rock-star material, but then, what fame Erlandson has is not entirely his own. "Yeah, it's ironic," he says. "The two people in my life are like these people that are everywhere. It's pretty sick for me to go to a newsstand." (At the time, Barrymore's Rolling Stone cover was out, as was Love's Vanity Fair.)

Erlandson met Love in 1989 when he answered a free classified ad (no, not the personals — the Musicians Wanted) she'd placed. "She called me up and talked my ear off, and I was like 'Who the hell was that?' " Erlandson recalls. "We met at this coffee shop, and I saw her and I thought, 'Oh, God, oh, no, what am I getting myself into?' She grabbed me and started talking, and she's like 'I know you're the right one!' And I hadn't even opened my mouth yet."

There were many false starts, but what basically kept them together was a love of god-awful clattering. "We were one big, screaming mess," Erlandson says. "I was just like 'OK, this is cool, this is noise.' I was always into the No Wave thing, but it never caught on in L.A. I was like 'Wow, I finally found someone who's into doing this stuff.' " A pair of singles followed, one of which was on Sub Pop, and then came 1991's Pretty on the Inside, co-produced (with Don Fleming) and heavily influenced by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. What's often forgotten is that Pretty on the Inside was pretty well-received and not a half-bad record. Love's vividly scabrous lyrical tone — part self-immolation, part outwardly directed paroxysm — was well established, and beneath the cruddy goth-punk caterwauling there were hints of New Wave sense and songcraft sensibility.

The band on that record — Love, Erlandson, drummer Caroline Rue and bassist Jill Emery — didn't last very long, but even through the period in which Love was most famous for whom she loved, Hole got it back together. In 1992, Erlandson and Love signed with DGC/Geffen and eventually roped in Patty Schemel.

The first thing I learn about Schemel is that she gets cranky when she hasn't eaten in a while, which is why we head for an Italian restaurant. As she digs into some gnocchi, we chat about supermodels; she's particularly fond of Kristen McMenamy. When Schemel is done eating, New York's new anti-smoking law forces her to step outside.

Auf der Maur is along as well, as is Schemel's girlfriend, Stacey, who in a touching testament to the faith and folly of mixing business with romance also works as Love's assistant. Merely for her platinum hair, Stacey is always mistaken for either Barrymore or Love by people on the street. Schemel recently got her own apartment in Seattle, but during the past year, when the band wasn't on tour, she was living with Stacey at Love's house. The band was almost always on the road, though. And it's a big house.

Schemel's parents were New Yorkers who still have the accents to prove it, but they moved to Marysville, Wash. (about an hour north of Seattle), before she was born. Dad still works for Pacific Bell; Mom was at GTE ("We're a communications family," Schemel says). Schemel took up the drums when she was 11 "because it was something girls didn't do," she says, and to this day her mother still complains that Schemel doesn't project enough good cheer when she plays. "We played this show, and my mom is up in the VIP balcony hanging over the edge, waving, like 'Smile!' " Schemel says with a laugh. "Flashback, I'm 11 again, playing the school recital. After Unplugged, she called and said, 'Not much smiling, but you sounded great.' "

Otherwise, Schemel says, her parents were always supportive of both her music and her sexuality. "My dad was always instilling that if you can do your art, your passion, and also get paid to do it, that it's a great accomplishment." The rest of Marysville wasn't so accommodating on either front. "There were all these cowboys, and then there were rockers — no punk rockers," Schemel recalls. "Punk rock was a good place to go where there were other people who felt like me."

Seattle beckoned. The only genuine Rock City scenester in Hole, Schemel ran with such nascent luminaries as Sub Pop honcho Bruce Pavitt, checking out the pre-grunge scene and forming a band called Sybil with her younger brother. They didn't get very far, but Schemel established her reputation as one of the city's best drummers. She would have to be, what with that tattoo of John Bonham's rune (the triple circle) on her arm.

Schemel's only mistake was missing out entirely on the local explosion. When Erlandson and Love tracked her down in 1992, she was living in San Francisco, where she'd moved two years before, "thinking that was the next big city," Schemel says. She tried out for Hole on her 25th birthday and spent the rest of the year learning the old songs and feeling out new ones with Erlandson.

Given the varied psychosexual meanings implicit in Hole's existence, Schemel adds an extra dimension to the mix. Hole have something for everybody, regardless of gender, preference, fetish or taste. Schemel's not on a pedestal about it, but she says it feels good to be a role model in a band that connects so profoundly with its audience. "It's important," she says. "I'm not out there with that fucking pink flag or anything, but it's good for other people who live somewhere else in some small town who feel freaky about being gay to know that there's other people who are and that it's OK."

***

Melissa Auf der Maur is sitting at the bar of the alterna-hip New York watering hole Max Fish. Melissa Auf der Maur is also on the wall of the Lower East Side hangout. See, a year ago, Melissa Auf der Maur — OK, so a simple she would probably suffice at this point, but what fun would that be? — was just a third-year photography student playing in a Canadian indie-rock band, and tonight one of her many self-portraits is part of an exhibit here.

Auf der Maur was quite happy back in Montreal, too, which is why when Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan told her she should try out for Hole, she thought he was out of his mind. This is probably what sealed her fate, at least from Love's point of view. "Billy was going on about this hot babe who could really play, and I was like 'Yeah, right, you're giving her the girl leeway,' because Billy is sort of a pig," Love says. "But I thought I would try her out, and I pursued her a little bit, and what I thought was hot was that she said no. I thought that was really cool."

"That's a thing to like, I guess," Auf der Maur deadpans. "That's attractive. Yeah, I was just, like, in my space, in my life, with my band. I had been at the New Music Seminar handing out my demo tapes and putting my 7-inch together. I was like 'No way, I've got my life — what, you think I wanna leave my life?' " Soon enough, however, she realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so she went to Seattle to audition. Two weeks later, she was playing in front of 80,000 people at the 1994 Reading Festival. "I felt nothing," she says. "I was like 'This is just a reflection of what I'm about to do with my life.' "

Only 23 years old, Auf der Maur had already led something of a storybook life before joining Hole. Her mother was never married to her father ("She barely knew the guy") and was living with Frank Zappa (platonically) during the pregnancy. Mother and daughter spent their first two years together in Africa and London, living with a zoologist friend. Dad, meanwhile, is a high-profile Montreal politician and journalist. "For my entire life I was Nick Auf der Maur's daughter, and all of a sudden he's Melissa Auf der Maur's father," she says. "He gets such a kick out of it, that little kids are reading his name."

If Love is, for better or worse, the aggressive female role model of the band, then Auf der Maur would be the favorite of Hole's Y-chromosome following. Apparently she attracts crushes the way Love attracts headlines. "She's amazing," Schemel marvels. "So many boys, it's like, God." It's not too difficult to figure out why: While Auf der Maur is self-possessed enough to compare herself (convincingly) to Botticelli's Birth of Venus in her self-portraits, she's so graceful and open that there's nothing off-putting about her.

"Melissa's like a well-bred, quiet, pretty version of me at her age," Love says, though it's unclear what exactly would be left of Love with those caveats. "She's a bit of a Heather. Everyone else is a geek. Patty was like a chosen geek, and me and Eric were born geeks, but Melissa's well-mannered and ethereal and very spiritual, but she only knows about astrology."

That actually helped Auf der Maur before the audition. "Before I met them, Eric called me up, and he's like 'I have three questions to ask you,' " Auf der Maur says. "One: 'Are you a drug addict?' No, far from it. Two: 'Do you play with a pick?' Yes. And three: 'What sign are you?' Pisces. And Pisces being the most emotionally full sign, it was perfect. I'm definitely drawn to emotionally full situations, so it made sense to me. I've always been told that I'm too sensitive or too aware of other people's things, so I was like 'Well, finally I'm going to be able to use that to my advantage.' "

***

If you're gonna sit here and call that a valentine, I'm gonna kick your ass!"

At long last I've been granted my audience with Love, and I've made the innocent mistake of uttering the words Vanity Fair. Apparently she's a bit sensitive to charges that her recent VF cover story was, shall we say, clean — so clean that Love's breasts were likened to "great cakes of soap." I'm told that if I want to see a real valentine, I should reread this magazine's Drew Barrymore piece. "That girl will never need toilet paper again in her fucking life," Love gripes.

It's safe to assume that Love and Erlandson and Barrymore don't spend a lot of Saturday nights together renting movies and popping popcorn. What's irritating, though, is the way Love's self-made feminist iconoclasm leaves room for an old-fashioned cattiness that borders on misogyny, usually directed at people who aren't dissimilar to her — such as Barrymore or her old friend Kat Bjelland from Babes in Toyland or a laundry list of female rock critics who've faced the same sexist groupie stigma Love has.

But everything that Love does is half acting out, half conscious manipulation and half practical joke. (Yeah, that's three halves, but who says Love adds up?) She's astoundingly intelligent, maddeningly contradictory and a total force of nature — it's exhausting just being in a room with her. "I fake it so real I am beyond fake," goes the oft-quoted lyric from "Doll Parts," and it's clear the line was meant to resonate at every possible level — as truth, as irony and as a mockery of both herself and her audience. With Love it's a question of how much she can get away with and how much she decides to give away.

Take Jeff Buckley, for instance. Right now you're probably thinking to yourself, "How did Jeff Buckley get into the middle of this Hole story?" Relax — there's an answer to every question, and you can't very well have a Hole story without the presence of at least one cute and slightly famous rocker boy.

Buckley has been on Love's mind a bunch the last couple of days. Supposedly, Auf der Maur met him in Canada and has what Love calls "a minicrush on him. I'm just sort of putting her in her place." So Buckley and Love have been trading phone calls and answering machine messages, trying to get together — friendlylike, don't get any ideas. And most of these phone calls have been made in front of me, the unobtrusive, all-seeing journalist. And Love ... well, she's not the type of person who does things in front of the media by accident.

Now we're in the middle of our interview, and time is at a premium because Love intends to catch the Broadway production of Hamlet with her prospective pal. So she calls him two or three more times in front of me to nail down the plans. And then he comes to her hotel room while I'm still there. And then they go to Hamlet, and brilliantly, Love stops to ask directions from — get this — a professional photographer. By intermission — go figure! — the paparazzi are already about. In the next couple of weeks, the nonexistent couple gets items in USA Today, the New York Post and People. Buckley ends up being thoroughly freaked out by the experience — so much so that he calls me from England to try to clear his name. Buckley is a sensitive sort and more than a little naive. "Who the fuck am I?" he wanted to know. "I'm not like a Dando. I went out for one night, and I'm thrust into this weird, rock-star charade heavy thing." He feels used.

"Y'know," Love had said to me before Buckley came to pick her up that night, "sometimes I would love to just put out my music and have people leave me alone so I could go to see Hamlet with Jeff Buckley, and you might not hear a word about it."

Ordinarily, there's only one response to such an utterance. That response is "Yeah, right." But Love is more complicated than that. She doesn't have to distinguish between the crazy things that happen to her and the crazy things she makes happen. She's perfectly capable of encouraging photographers herself and then feeling put upon when they start taking pictures. Both emotions are genuine to her. Even this article raised her contradictory hackles — she was very concerned that Rolling Stone give the band its due instead of focusing on her, but at the same time, after brushing me off for two days, she fretted that I hadn't spent enough time with her.

Which is why, just like Erlandson, concern was not the only thing running through my head when I heard about Love's airplane OD incident. What actually came to mind was "more publicity." Many people, including some who have worked with the band, say half-jokingly that they no longer pay attention to Love's headlines because they seem so well planned, almost military in their precision.

Plus, during our interview the week before, Love had told me, rather matter-of-factly and contrary to the party line, that "I don't do drugs very often, but I do."

Nevertheless, three days after she left the hospital, Love leaves me a message at home, so I call her up to find out what happened. In a nutshell: "I was on an airplane, and this doctor gave me some pills before I left because I always take pills to fly, to sleep, and then we had a layover, and I just accidentally took too many. I woke up and there were tubes in my nose and things in my mouth, and they thought I was suicidal, and I just fucking went ballistic. They wish."

Maybe it's because of the airplane incident, or maybe it's just the usual, but during this conversation, Love is a bit less brazen about the subject of drugs. "I'm not putting it down, I don't think God necessarily put us here to be sober all the time, but I also don't think he put us here to be junkies," she says. "Besides, nobody would deal to me. Like, if I wanted to do drugs, I couldn't get them, because I'm me, and it's too much of a risk [for the dealer]. It's not that I want to be dealt to, but I think that four months ago this one evening I did, so, y'know ... I can be a little naive about saying, like, what my drug usage is because you're supposed to say that you never do anything, blah blah blah."

***

"Melissa and I were talking – just hypothetically, not real life – and we decided there's not really anybody on Lollapalooza that I wanna fuck," Love says. That will probably come as a relief — just hypothetically, not real life — to Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. But Love is actually making a larger point here. For all its underground hipitude, the show is somewhat lacking in rock & roll star power — star power in this case being that combustible combination of mass popularity and massive sex appeal. (No, Beck does not qualify.)

"Rock is really about dick and testosterone," Love says. "I go see a band, I wanna fuck the guy — that's the way it is; it's always been that way. I love competing with that, but I didn't come in here to, like, change that. So I just feel like [Lollapalooza] is dickless, straight out."

Initially, Hole did not want to do Lollapalooza, but the back-to-basics lineup drew them in. Still, as the tour began, Love had a big problem with this year's slate of bands. "It's all Sonic Youth approved," says Love. "The Sonic Youth butt-kiss nation. Even us — we're Sonic Youth butt-kiss nation because they produced our first record. Still, I would rather be here with Sonic Youth. I don't want to be out there in the world with Billy and Trent and Eddie."

With Lollapalooza, Hole have plenty to prove, the latest trial by fire in a year that's been full of them. When they play and the music is allowed its own space, everything else falls by the wayside. Some of the moshing, screaming fans might respond most strongly to Love's antics, but many others are rapt, coiled and reverent, feeding off the music's introversion and aggression simultaneously. The audience really can look at them and go, "Oh, yeah, Hole is a band."

"We've stayed together because we're good," Love says, "and when we play together, we know we're good."

"As far as Courtney's celebrity compared to our band, there's this gap," Schemel says. "But within this year of playing out and being a band, that gap's been getting shorter. Every time we play a show, people are blown away by the band."