Debbie Peterson

Debbie Peterson sits in a stiff, straight-backed chair at the CBS Records office in Midtown Manhattan and fidgets nervously with her necklace. “I’m quite new to this,” she announces, as I set up my cassette recorder and prepare for the interview I’ve been waiting to conduct for most of the afternoon. “No one has ever really asked me questions about drums and drumming. I mean, I get a lot of questions about the Bangles. But no one ever wants to know about what kinds of things I do when I play, what equipment I use—you know, those sorts of questions that drummers ask other drummers.” “Until now,” I offer.

Peterson and the rest of the Bangles, the all-female quartet out of L.A. that has become one of the hottest American groups to emerge this year, are in town to promote Different Light, their hit album, and to get accustomed to their new roles: genuine rock stars. Throughout the day, the band members have been sitting in front of microphones and smiling at cameras. After our talk, Peterson and the rest of the Bangles will be hustled over to the MTV studios where they will tape a guest-VJ slot. Peterson goes with the flow; she neither bathes in all the attention, nor rebels against it.

“It’s all part of the business,” she explains. “Record companies expect you to talk with the press and tell writers a little bit about yourself. So here I am. Where do we start?”

I can’t tell if the remark is made out of boredom or actual innocence, so I take the broad approach and ask her about the renaissance of the “girl group” concept in rock ‘n’ roll. Back in the early ’60s, the term “girl group” meant groups like the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Chiffons—young, pretty, just-out-of-high-school sweethearts who sang those irresistible melodies, but who rarely, if ever, played an instrument on record and who were locked into a vocal style that wilted the moment that the Beatles and the other British Invasion bands swarmed the music scene.

These days, mention “girl group” and it’s the Bangles that come to mind. With two critically acclaimed albums behind them as well as “Manic Monday,” the best-selling single that raced up the charts earlier this year, the Bangles, along with the Go-Go’s before them, have helped redefine the definition of “girl group.”

The big difference, of course, is that members of bands like the Bangles play their own instruments, and they play them well. Listen to Peterson’s performance, for example, on either All Over The Place, the group’s debut on CBS, or Different Light, and you’ll see what I meannothing fancy, true, but remarkably solid. And that’s precisely the point: Her playing is deliberately simple and straightforward. It’s difficult to imagine any other drum style working on those records. Clean, crisp, to the point: These are other words that could easily be applied to Debbi Peterson’s drumming.

“Well, that’s the way it ought to be,” smiles Peterson. “Don’t you think so?” Absolutely. And with that, we’re off and running.

RS: Bands like the Bangles are permanently altering the image and definition of a “girl group,” as well as how one is supposed to sound. Did the Bangles intentionally set out to do this?

DP: Back in the early days when my sister Vicki and I had a band going, I must admit, we really did think about the whole idea of someday having an all-girl group. We thought that having just girls in a group would not only be interesting, but it would be different. Remember, this was the late ’70s that I’m talking about; this was the New Wave era, and everyone in rock ‘n’ roll, it seemed, was striving to be different and break away from the habits and traditions of the earlier part of the decade.

RS: Did such an idea have anything to do with getting along better with just women or having the freedom to do exactly what you wanted to do without male interference?

DP: Yes, I think so. Vicki and I had a band with male musicians in it. It was called the Fans. This was before the Bangles were even called the Bangs. For some reason, the band never really worked out. I can’t say for sure that it was because there was a mix of guys and girls in the band, but it probably had something to do with it. The chemistry was wrong. I think that, when we found Susanna [Hoffs] and we evolved into the Bangs, our chemistry was much better. Having all girl musicians just seemed like the right way for us to go, so we didn’t fight it. That would have been a stupid thing to do.

RS: Like the first wave of contemporary girl groups, the Go-Go’s, the Runaways, and now the Pandoras, the Bangles are from Los Angeles. Why has this city, perhaps more than any other, given birth to so many successful girl groups?

DP: Well, there are really lots of girl groups in all sorts of different towns and cities across the country. But to answer your question, I think the reason why people kind of focus in on Los Angeles is because it is the music capital. It gets a lot of attention, and if you’re a band from there, you’re bound to get more attention than if you were from Iowa or someplace in the Midwest. But as far as influences go, I don’t think the Go-Go’s were a direct influence on us. We already had our thing going when people started taking notice of them. It wasn’t like we heard the Go-Go’s and said, “Wow, we should do that same sort of thing.”

RS: When were the Bangles formed?

DP: We became the Bangs in 1981. We later became the Bangles, because another band had already claimed the name the Bangs. We had all been doing our own things way before 1981, though.

RS: I had heard from someone or read somewhere that the Bangs rehearsed in the same building as the Go-Go’s. Is that true?

DP: Yeah, it is. That’s really funny. I guess that was 1979 or so. But it wasn’t intentional. It was purely coincidental.

RS: You mentioned before that there are a lot of girl groups in this country. When you’re on tour, do you get to meet and talk with many of them?

DP: Yeah, we do. They come to see us play, and they send us tapes all the time. These bands are just starting to come out of the woodwork. Maybe our success has had something to do with that. I hope so. That’s a nice feeling to keep in your mind—the fact that you’ve influenced someone or someone’s band, or inspired that person or group to really come out and go for it.

RS: Tell me a little bit about the Fans. Give me, if you will, an idea of what the band was all about.

DP: The Fans consisted of a lot of the things, musically speaking, which led to the Bangs, which led to the Bangles. It was just a young, hopeful, all-girl group.

RS: So it was prior to the Fans that you played in a band with male musicians?

DP: Yes, that’s right. The band before the Fans, which was really just a loose group of musicians—musical friends actually— had a male lead guitarist. My sister Vicki really started the band. The players were all her friends.

RS: You ultimately joined your sister’s band as the drummer?

DP: Yeah. When I first started drumming, I never said to myself, “Oh, I’m a girl. I don’t know if I should be doing this. This is not normal.” I never thought those things, and I never let the fact that I was a girl become an obstacle in my desire to be a drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. I just wanted to do it so bad. Nothing else entered my mind that would throw me off the track.

RS: That certainly was a great attitude to have. But I’m wondering if, because you were a girl drummer, you ran into biases concerning your role in the band. Drums, perhaps more than any other instrument in rock, are considered the domain of male musicians. Most people view the instrument as a physical, laboring one.

DP: Well, it’s true that there aren’t as many female drummers as there are female guitarists, keyboards players, or especially singers. Some people early on would say things like, “Hey, you’re not bad for a girl.” But these remarks would come from slimy, beer-drinking guys in the sleazy clubs in and around L.A. I ignored these comments and worked as hard as I could to become as good on the drums as I could. It paid off, because, afterwards, people would tell me that I was sounding really hot. And these other young girl drummers started saying how they really liked the way I played and wanted someday to play like me. That’s a real honor, believe me. It made all the hard work definitely worth it. I must admit, though, that there are some, people out there who will never be convinced that a girl can play drums as well as a guy can. Their line of thought leads them to this conclusion. They believe that, because a girl’s arms, for instance, aren’t as big or as strong as a male’s, she can’t play hard or solid. Fortunately, these people are in the minority. At least, that’s been my experience.

RS: Did such comments ever frustrate you, or even inspire you to prove to them and yourself that you could indeed become a respected drummer?

DP: I just accepted the fact that I was a girl; I was born that way. I had no choice in the matter. So I just did what came natural to me and tried to do it to the best of my ability. That’s all I could do.

RS: What made you want to become a drummer in the first place?

DP: Well, it boiled down to the fact that I really wanted to play in my sister Vicki’s band. For years, I had been singing in the backyard and writing dumb little songs. I had been playing air guitar and air drums to Beatles records, and anything else I’d put on the turntable. Finally, there was an opening in Vicki’s band. It was for a drummer. I had never played drums in my life, except air drums. My younger brother Dave was always the drummer in the family. He’d be the one to get out the pots and pans as a kid, and pound on them all day long, or he’d pound on his basketball. I was never into that. I took a year of piano lessons and sort of taught myself how to play the guitar. But I never really had a lot of interest in the drums or saw myself playing the drums until there was an open spot in Vicki’s band. The bass player in the band suggested that I be the replacement. I couldn’t believe it. Vicki was surprised, too. She told me that it never really occurred to her to ask me, but she liked the idea. So I got a drumset from a friend, and just tried playing a beat or two. It felt right; it really did. I think, because of all the years of playing air drums, it just came naturally. When I played for Vicki’s band, everyone kind of looked at me in shock and said, “Wow, that’s great Debbi. You’re in the band.” I was as shocked as they were. I mean, it was just one little audition, and after that, they said I was a band member. I couldn’t believe it.

RS: So what you’re saying is that you never had played drums before, you simply sat down behind a drumset and started to play, and you passed the audition?

DP: Yeah. Well, I had fooled around on my brother’s snare drum before that. I’d play little things on it. But I never played on a full set before then.

RS: That’s pretty amazing. Just the fact that you felt comfortable with the drums and cymbals in front of you and sticks in your hands is, well, quite unusual.

DP: As soon as I sat down and began to play, it was like, “Okay, this is definitely my instrument.” I mean, I was a little uncomfortable because I had never done it before, but it came to me so quickly that I just knew the drums would be my instrument.

RS: If music has always been an important part of your life even before you got in the band, and if you already had taken a year’s worth of piano lessons, why hadn’t you already picked up, say, the guitar or even kept up with the piano?

DP: Because they didn’t interest me. Well, wait. The guitar did interest me, because all along I thought I wanted to be a bass player. But there already was a bass player in Vicki’s band, so drums were really the only opportunity to get into the band. There was that open spot calling me. I used to write in my journal, “I’d love to be in Vicki’s band. I’d even be the drummer!” [laughs] I probably would have gotten involved earlier with drums had I been able to afford a drumset, but I couldn’t. Even when I joined the band, it was my sister Vicki who had to buy my first drumset for me. I worked at McDonald’s that summer to pay her back.

RS: Do you remember that first drumset?

DP: Oh yeah, sure. It was a Rogers copy. In fact, I later sold it to my brother, and he still has it. I sold it to him real cheap, because I got it very cheap. It was a used set. My brother fixed it up. It was a very small set—it had a 20″ bass drum—but it did the job. It was what I needed at the time. It sounded horrible, but I got to stay in the band.

RS: What did your parents say when they found out that their daughter wanted to be not a singer or keyboards player, but a drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band?

DP: They thought it was a nice little hobby. But they had it in their minds that I was going to be a nurse. One of the girls in the family had to be a nurse. It was just one of those things. Vicki was already into rock ‘n’ roll, so she was out of the nurse picture. But my parents gradually got used to the fact that I was a drummer. Fortunately, my parents loved music so much that it didn’t really bother them like it could have. They were bothered, though, by the fact that I told them I didn’t want to go to college and wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star. They didn’t see much stability in that.

RS: But your sister Vicki had already gone the rock ‘n’ roll route.

DP: Yeah, she did. She even went to college, but she dropped out halfway through. She was really the controlling factor in the band; she was doing the booking, the songwriting, the organizing, and things like that. It was too much for her— going to college and all—so she dropped out.

RS: Let’s go back to you, the fledgling drummer. Once you got in the band, did you take drum lessons?

DP: I took one drum lesson, and the teacher wanted me to view the drums in a certain, I guess, jazz style. Well, I had no idea of what he wanted or was talking about. He wanted me to hold the drumsticks in, what was for me, a very strange way. I didn’t like the whole experience of taking lessons, so I quit and learned by myself.

RS: How did you go about teaching yourself?

DP: I’d listen to records and go to shows. I’d watch other drummers to see what they would do in different situations, and then I’d go home and practice. I’d do anything I could to learn on my own. So all I’ve ever done on the drums has come out of me, and it’s all been by ear.

RS: Since your brother was a drummer, did you go to him for help or advice?

DP: Yeah. He was always real good at playing fast fills—something I could never do. I still don’t play them very well. I’m more of a simplistic drummer, if you know what I mean. I feel most comfortable keeping it simple and setting a groove. My brother would always play this fast Keith Moon stuff.

RS: Does he still play?

DP: Yeah, he’s got a band in L.A. called the Howling Dogs. They’re starting to get some songs together and do some record- ing.

RS: It’s no secret that virtually every critic and music journalist ties the Bangles with the mid-’60s sound of the Beatles, along with the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and the Mamas & Papas. So would you say your style of drumming has been influenced by drummers like Ringo Starr, Dewey Martin, and Michael Clarke?

DP: Oh yeah. But my style is a lot more modernized than it used to be. We have a song called “Real World,” which has a serious ’60s beat—a real 1964 Ringo Starr drumbeat. I really wanted to play that when we recorded that song, because no other drummer at the time was doing that. It was something different for a lot of people. It was also a little nod of acknowledgment, I guess, to the old drum style, which I truly loved and grew up on. I was doing that, but then it got a little too ’60s-ish, so I toned it down a little and threw in my own fills and my own style.

RS: Is there any drummer in particular who you could say has been more influential on your drum style than any other?

DP: Well, everyone always says to me, “God, do you know who you look and sound like on stage?” And I say, “W ho?” Then they return with a line like, “I don’t want you to be insulted or take it the wrong way, but you look like Ringo Starr.” So he’s the major influence. But Keith Moon’s drumming had a pretty big influence on me. So did Ginger Baker’s and Mitch Mitchell’s style, and more recently, I’d have to say Stewart Copeland. He’s just a great drummer, and I love his style. But Ringo was number one.

RS: Today when you hear old Beatles records and Ringo Starr keeping the beat on them, can you pick out elements of his drumming that are embedded in your drumming?

DP: Yeah, a little bit. I could have done it more in the earlier days when the Bangles were the Bangs, though. Then I could really pick them out.

RS: What you said about people who would come up to you and ask if you would be insulted if they compared you to Ringo Starr is interesting. Despite revisionist theories on the quality of Ringo’s Beatle drumming, which put to rest the idea that he was an inferior player, there are still some people who consider Ringo a Beatle or personality first, and then a drummer.

DP: You know, you’re definitely right. He was looked upon as a personality more than anything else. All the Beatles were personalities. But Ringo definitely had a great drum style, as far as I’m concerned. Ringo would do a fill, and you’d know at once that it was a Ringo fill. I really hope that people go beyond any female hangups associated with me, so that I’m one day respected as a drummer for my style and not because I happened to be a girl who played drums.

RS: You’d like to be known as a drummer with a refined, simple approach to the drums?

DP: Well, the Bangles’ sound does require a simple, basic beat most of the time. There’s so much going on in our songs that it would be foolish to force all these heavy fills and complex riffs into the music. I’m sure you can hear all the guitars ringing all over the place. And don’t forget, there are four voices in the band. I couldn’t play drums like Keith Moon, for example, and expect the girls to think that’s what’s needed.

RS: How would you describe your drum style to someone who’s never heard you play before, other than to say it is “simple”?

DP: I don’t know. I can’t describe my style, because I can’t separate myself from it. That’s a hard question to answer.

RS: Well, what about this one: What elements do you strive to project when you play the drums? What do you want to leave listeners with?

DP: I’d like people to get the impression that I drum from the heart and that, with me, drumming is more of an emotional thing than a techno-execution of sorts. I really enjoy performing live more than I do playing in the studio. Maybe that’s because I have more experience playing live than recording; I don’t know. But the studio still kind of scares me off a little. Plus, with all the techno-drumming coming in and everyone insisting that everything a drummer does has to be technically perfect, the whole thing takes away the human emotion for me. And that was something I always thought had to be very present and something, like I just said, that I still connect to. I don’t want to lose that element, either.

RS: Are you saying that you would prefer to sacrifice technical perfection for a sense of imperfection or human emotion in your delivery?

DP: Sometimes. It depends, of course, on the song. But I definitely tend to go for the emotional thing and the human element. Plus, all this technical stuff is getting old. We need something new and fresh.

RS: Would I be correct to assume then that you don’t use electronic drums?

DP: No, because I did use them on Different Light. We did a song called “Walk Like An Egyptian,” which we’re going to do live again. That will mean me and a Linn machine. Actually, it will mean a Linn machine with me out in the front banging on salad bowls and things. But that’s just a chance to do something different. I don’t think every song the Bangles do could ever be like that one. I also use the Linn machine on a couple of other songs as a timekeeper, because these songs require it.

RS: You don’t find the recording studio comfortable. Yet you’ve done two records already. How do you prepare yourself when it comes time to record? What strategy do you employ in order to get things done without having your inexperience or trepidation ruin the session?

DP: For Different Light, I went to the studio saying to myself, “Okay, now I know what happened last time. I know what to stay away from.”

RS: And what was that?

DP: Well, I wanted to be more open-minded. I wanted to do different things, like using the drum machine. But it still was very hard for me to record. I just have a hard time recording, for some reason. I think it’s because everything is so blatantly there, you know? You listen to the drum track, and it’s there. You’re naked. It’s coming out in the control room, and everyone is listening to your drum part. For me, that’s nerve-racking. I haven’t quite got it down yet, so that I can feel comfortable in the studio.

RS: Do you like what you hear on Different Light in terms of your playing?

DP: I don’t like the drum sounds too much. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for. The same is true with our first record for CBS, All Over The Place. Hopefully, on the next record, I’ll get the sound I want. I know my drumset sounds good live, because every time I play a show, someone will come up to me and say, “Your drums sound so good. They sound big and full and great.” Now I need to get that sound in the studio.

RS: What do you attribute this to? Is it your inability to find the elements that will give you your live sound in the studio, or is it something else?

DP: I don’t know. Maybe I haven’t found the right producer for the sound that I’m after. I think that’s the main key. See, with the Bangles, you’re talking about various sounds and various styles. So I’d like to have at my disposal different drum sounds to meet these. Sometimes a song calls for a hard drum sound, and other times a song will call for a light drum sound. Well, on Different Light, I felt like everything I played sounded the same—a little mushy and even a little wimpy in some places. I don’t want to sound wimpy, because I don’t think I play wimpy. A lot of people say I pound the drums, and that really cracks me up.

RS: Since you brought it up, I think the drums on Different Light occasionally sound as if they were weakly recorded. They seem very much in the back on a couple of songs.

DP: I know. And that’s not the thing we were going for on the record. On the first record it was, because we were definitely going for a ’60s sound—guitars up front and the drums in the back, which they couldn’t help in the days of 4-track. Back then, the drums got buried. So this time, on Different Light, I really wanted to get a solid bass and drums sound going. But we couldn’t get it. I’m not pointing a finger at anyone. I just don’t think the producer was right for this particular rhythm section. The Bangles have a really good rhythm section, and I think it deserves a bit more attention on the next record. I think it will get it, too, because we’re definitely going to make the effort. If the next producer we get doesn’t work out, we’ll just find someone else. See, if you heard us on record and then heard us live, it would be very different. We sound a lot more exciting live. The new record is a bit more down-played than we like.

RS: Yet the record has received excellent reviews.

DP: Yeah, I know. That’s nice to know.

RS: What kind of drumset have you been playing?

DP: I’m using a Gretsch set. I’ve got a 14″ snare. It’s a deep snare; I guess it’s 8 1/2″ deep. I also have the Super Tom series, which consists of, essentially, bigger, deeper toms. I’ve got a 12″, 13″, and a 16″ floor tom. I also have a 22″ bass drum. It’s just a five-piece set.

RS: And cymbals?

DP: I use Zildjian cymbals—the Platinum Series. They’re really cool. People say, “Oh, the cymbals look great. Why are they so shiny?” “Well, they’re platinum, kids!” It’s nice because they look great, but they sound a lot like the gold ones.

RS: Did you go to the Platinum Series for its visual effects, or for both visuals and sound?

DP: For both. They look especially good on stage. But if I was only interested in the sound of my cymbals, I’d probably go back to my old ones.

RS: Did you use your Gretsch set in the studio when you recorded Different Light and All Over The Place?

DP: I used the Gretsch on the new record and a Ludwig set on the first record. I had a black Ludwig set, very close to the Gretsch set, except that the bass drum was bigger— 24″—and the toms weren’t as deep. What I enjoy doing in the studio is experimenting with all different kinds of snares.

RS: When the Bangles are in the studio working on new songs, what is your role in determining what goes into a song and what doesn’t?

DP: It varies. It depends on what’s brought into the studio in terms of ideas. Usually Vicki or someone else will come to rehearsals and play some song ideas on guitar. She’ll play a guitar part, and I’ll hear it and play a beat to it. But sometimes she already has a beat in mind. I’ll hear what she has to say and then add something to it. So it depends on a lot of things. We all work together as a unit when we put down a song. Everyone has a say, not just in what she plays, but in what others play as well. Sometimes it gets chaotic, but we always work it out.

RS: Does the group ever put any pressure on itself to continue that mid-’60s sound that has got the Bangles this far?

DP: I don’t think so. It gets a bit tiring hearing the comparisons to mid-’60s groups all the time. But I think it can’t be helped because people tend to pigeonhole bands into categories. Someday, though, I’d like for people to think we developed into a band with our own sound and style. I think the more we record and the more our sound matures, the more our style will be our own.

RS: And what are you doing as a drummer to get to this point?

DP: I’m trying to learn to play more different styles and play them well. It doesn’t make sense to attempt a jazz style, for instance, and do it half-assed. But I need to become more versatile, because on our next record—who knows—we may stick to folk. That wouldn’t be bad, come to think of it, because folk and rock are the two categories I think I fall into best. But, as I kind of mentioned before, I would like to get a harder edge to my drum sound.

RS: What do you consider your strongest area in terms of playing?

DP: Well, let’s see. I tend to do “cow-beats,” or country beats, pretty well. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because Vicki would always write songs that required such a beat.

RS: Have you put pressure on yourself to improve as a drummer now that you’re in a position where a lot of people hear you every day on the radio, in clubs, etc.?

DP: I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s been that way right from the very start. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I tend to push myself a lot. I tend to keep saying, “That’s not good enough.” I’m very critical of myself. I try to criticize my playing before anyone else does. I want to get at myself first. [laughs] I think I’ll always be hard on myself.

RS: Do you consider that a blessing?

DP: Yes and no. It’s good because it pushes me to grow as a drummer. But it’s bad because I think it stops me from being more adventurous and creative. I sometimes think I should loosen up and let myself make a bunch of mistakes. That might sound a bit weird, but this is the way to learn more about your instrument and about your ability to play it.

RS: How much do you play your drums when you’re off the road?

DP: Unfortunately not much, because I don’t have much of an opportunity to play. I haven’t had a permanent place to live in a while. When we start rehearsing, I show up an hour or so before everyone else and rehearse by myself. This year, we’re going to be on the road for a long time. I think we have maybe a week off. So it’s really hard to sit down and practice as much as I would like to.

RS: Let’s talk a little bit about your songwriting. Songs of yours can be heard on both Bangles records.

DP: That’s right. I’m better musically than I am lyrically.

RS: What instrument do you compose on?

DP: The guitar—that’s the easiest for me. In fact, now I have one of those mini-studios, which are really great. I’ve got to play around with it more, but I love programming drum parts on it, figuring out bass parts, and then layering guitars and voices over them. It’s great fun.

RS: You also sing. Do you find it awkward to sing and play at the same time? Does your playing ever suffer because of your vocal responsibilities?

DP: The only time I have a hard time is when my adrenaline gets a little out of control. When that happens, I have a hard time catching my breath. Then there are the technical problems with the equipment and mic’s—you know, feedback with open mic’s and all that. But to me, there’s really no difference between playing drums and singing and playing guitar and singing. And people do that all the time. Also, I have to say that, if I think too much about what I’m doing, then I lose it and start fouling up.

RS: Lose what—the singing or the drumming?

DP: Either/or. If I don’t think about what I’m doing, things just seem to work out much better for me.

RS: When 17- or 18-year-old female drummers come up to you after a show and ask for advice, what do you say?

DP: Basically, I tell them that, if they really want to be drummers, then they should stick to it and not give up or stop because they’re females. They can’t let that bother them. They have to think of themselves as drummers, not female drummers. There’s really nothing else to tell them.

RS: Five years from now, what kind of drummer do you hope to be?

DP: One that can play wild and crazy and fast stuff, and who can throw in all kinds of interesting fills when a song calls for them. I know the opportunity for that kind of drumming with the Bangles is not too common, but maybe on a different project I can use it. I’d love to be able to execute more complex drumming. I’d definitely feel more like a complete drummer if I could realize that goal.