Backstage at the Ritz in lower Manhattan, Denise Dufort sits quietly in a corner of the tiny dressing room. Unassuming and perhaps a bit shy to boot, Dufort hardly gives off the impression that she’s the drummer in the all-female, heavy metal band, Girlschool. But a drummer she is, despite her sex and her diminutive size. Speaking with a strong English accent, her words move cautiously out of her mouth. “I don’t usually speak with journalists,” she says. “Kelly Johnson and Kim McAuliffe take care of those things, you see. I hope I give you the right answers to the questions you ask.”
The questions stem primarily from a basic one, namely, what’s a girl like her doing behind a drumkit in a heavy metal band—one that’s not afraid to crank up the volume and more than anxious to let it rock. Dufort is one of a growing number of girls who have not only begun to break down the mostly male image that’s associated with drummers, but has also put a hole or two in the macho framework and “bad ass” temperment that, from the beginning, have been so much a part of heavy metal.
“Girlschool isn’t like the old girl groups of the ’60s, because we play our own instruments and are really a band,” explains Dufort. “We’re doing what the Go-Go’s are doing here in the States, except that we rock harder. Still we don’t think of ourselves as different from anyone else. I don’t think we’re trying to prove to the world that girls can play rock ‘n’ roll, too. We just want to play our music the best way we can. And I just want to play drums the best way lean.”
RS: You’re one of the very few female drummers in rock who plays in a heavy metal band. How did you get started playing the drums?
DD: My older brother, Dave, is a drummer, you know. He’s ten years older than me and has played with people like Steve Gibbons. When I was growing up, he used to have all these bands rehearsing at our house. I used to listen to them and say to myself, “That’s what I want to do—play drums in a band.” I used to practice on his drums when I was really quite tiny and everybody thought I was pretty good for a kid. So I kept at it and here I am.
RS: Did you eventually take lessons, or are you entirely self-taught?
DD: Well, I learned a lot by watching my brother play. He taught me how to use a foot pedal and showed me the basics. But then I took it from there, you see. I also used to watch a lot of other drummers play. My brother used to take me around with him all the time. I used to go with him to his gigs.
RS: Aside from your brother, were there any other drummers you especially admired and who perhaps had an influence on your drum style?
DD: John Bonham was a brilliant drummer, but I wasn’t really into him. I was more affected by Jon Hiseman, lan Paice, and Billy Cobham. I think these three drummers had the biggest influence on the way I play drums today.
RS: What were you doing before you joined Girlschool?
DD: Well, I was in a punk band in 1977. That was my first gigging band. Skin Flicks was the name of the band. We only did a few gigs, though. Later on we changed our name to just Flicks. The funny thing about this group was that we played to punk crowds and everyone considered us a punk group, but we really just wanted to play hard rock. We dressed punk and acted punk to get the gigs.
RS: Did you play drums any differently in this band because it was supposed to be a punk band?
DD: Well, I played a lot faster and anything I wanted to do was okay with everyone else. It was crazy that way.
RS: You joined Girlschool, I believe, in 1978. How did that come about?
DD: Well, I knew Kirn, the group’s rhythm guitarist. She used to be in a band called Painted Lady. She told me Girlschool was having problems with its drummer. One day she rang me up and asked me if I wanted to join the band, because the group had canned its drummer. I had just quit the band I was playing with, so I said yes. Until this time, the group was called something other than Girlschool. When I joined the band, the name of it was changed to Girlschool.
RS: Did the group intentionally strive to be an all-girl band?
DD: Yeah, I think so, because at that time the girls could have picked a male drummer instead of me. But most of the male musicians in London didn’t think girls had the capabilities to become decent musicians. I don’t think any guys would have played in the group even if they were asked. Besides, the girl I replaced was really very good. She was better than a lot of the male drummers around at the time. I think some of the guys realized this and probably wouldn’t have wanted to step into a situation where the previous drummer was not only a girl, but better as well. I was really surprised when I was asked to join the group. At the time I didn’t think I was any good. But luckily for me, they seemed to think otherwise.
RS: In London in the late ’70s, were there many female drummers around?
DD: Oh, maybe two or three other than myself, but not more than that. We were all spread about, too. People at the school I went to used to think I was a bit crazy. When they would ask me what I wanted to do when I left school, I’d tell them I just wanted to be a drummer. They used to say, “Girls don’t do that.” It was a very weird thing for a girl to want to be a drummer in a rock band. I suppose it’s still that way.
RS: Did that mentality ever bother you to where you might have considered, say, playing another instrument?
DD: Oh no. My attitude was that if guys could play the drums, so could girls. Why not? It was also very helpful that my brother Dave was around to give me support and encouragement.
RS: One of the things that strikes people as being unusual is not so much that you play drums, but that you play in a heavy metal band. The whole concept of heavy metal revolves around a hard-edged macho image. How do you deal with that?
DD: I don’t deal with it; I ignore it. Heavy metal doesn’t have to be just for guys. It may be a new area for girls to get into, but that doesn’t mean we can’t handle it. We do get mostly guys coming to our shows, but lately we’ve been getting girls as well. That’s a good sign, I should think. It probably means that other girls will eventually get groups together, too. Unfortunately, too many of them come to the gigs and just sort of stare at us; I don’t think they believe that we are just a bunch of girls up there on the stage playing the music we want to play. When we played with Quiet Riot a few months ago, the lighting person swore we were guys dressed as girls. When someone told him to put more light on “her,” he said, “Who?” Later on he told us he thought we were all blokes. He was very embarrassed.
RS: Have you come across any resentment because of the fact that you’re a heavy metal drummer?
DD: Yes. Some people expect us to dress in suspenders and stockings, and project our bodies as much as our music. But we’ll never do that. We want to be known as good players in a good band. I just want to be considered a good drummer, regardless of my sex. I mean, once I get to that point, I think I’ll be quite happy.
RS: Listening to Play Dirty, your latest album, and watching you play live, you play a lot harder than I thought you did, and you’re not very large in size. Where does your power come from?
DD: Good question! [laughs] A lot of people would like to know the answer to that one, including me. I do know that I come off the stage half dead every night dripping with sweat. It’s all in the wrists, isn’t it? But I don’t even use my wrists properly because I’ve never had a drum lesson. I never was taught the best way to play with the right kind of wrist action. So everything I play comes right from my arms, [laughs] And this wears me out, you know. I should have more muscle in my arms than I do. I don’t know why I don’t. It’s the same thing with my legs. I don’t ever use my ankles properly. It all comes from my leg muscles.
RS: Have you ever considered changing your style, so that it would be easier for you to play and less exhausting too?
DD: Yes, I’ve thought about it. I mean, I don’t think it’s too late or anything like that. But there doesn’t seem to be enough time to sit down, make the change, and practice enough so that I can play well on stage. Also, I must say that I’ve tried once or twice in the past to switch my style, but it was so frustrating. I don’t know which is worse, actually—playing improperly or battling the frustration over trying to change.
RS: I notice you use double bass drums.
DD: Yeah, I do. It’s becoming more and more important because we’re writing songs in which I get to use both drums. I like the way a kit with two bass drums looks on stage. Right now, though, I must say they’re mostly for show, because most of the time, I only use one of them. I use both drums on three songs: “Come On Let’s Go,” “Emergency,” and “Demolition.” But like I said, the new songs we’re writing call for the use of both drums.
RS: How would you describe your style of drum playing compared to other heavy metal drummers.
DD: That’s a hard question for me, actually. I have problems describing my style in words. I mean, I know what I do, but I can’t really ever pick the right words to describe what I do. I play as hard as I can, that much I can tell you. We used to hang out with AC/DC, so I think a lot of what we do is influenced by them. That goes for my drumming as well. AC/DC has always been my favorite band. I think most of the girls in the band feel the same way. A couple of new songs we’ve written were directly influenced by them, and my drumming is very similar to what you’d hear in a typical AC/DC song.
RS: You don’t do any drum solos. Is there a particular reason for this?
DD: It’s not that I’m against drum solos, but every heavy metal drummer, or so it seems, does a solo these days. I don’t want to do one because everyone else does one. That doesn’t mean I’ll never do one; I just want to make sure that when I do start taking solo spots in our set they’re the best I can do. Ten-minute drum solos are so boring. They’re even more boring when the drummer doesn’t deserve to take one because he or she simply isn’t that good. There’s no point in wasting people’s time with lousy, boring drum solos. Don’t you agree?
RS: Absolutely. Do you find a noticeable difference between English heavy metal drummers and those from America?
DD: No, not really—at least, none that’s striking or even noticeable to the average fan. I think English drummers try to sound American and American drummers try to sound English. In the end, everyone winds up sounding pretty much the same, [laughs] Actually, that’s a horrible generalization, isn’t it? But I think you under- stand what I mean.
RS: Describe, if you will, the most awk- ward position you’ve ever been in on stage, and how you handled it.
DD: Well, we came to America a couple of years ago and were supposed to do a live radio show. I broke my foot pedal. Actually, I broke both of them. There was a ten-minute gap of silence while we tried to get them to work again. I had to try to talk to the audience, you know, to keep them interested. The band had to stop playing. There wasn’t anything else they could do. So I tried to tell a joke or two, but nothing seemed to work. And all this was on the radio, mind you! It was so very embarrassing.
RS: You don’t seem to be the joker type, either, [laughs] Do you prefer playing live more than working in the studio?
DD: I prefer doing live gigs, but I do like working in the studio almost as much. I like the idea that, if something I play doesn’t come out quite right, I can do it over again until it is right. We usually go into the studio without fully written songs. We just have ideas for songs. So it takes a while for me to get the proper feel for our material.
RS: What’s the proper feel?
DD: It’s just something that’s inside me that says, “Yes, that’s it.” I think all drummers have that ability to pick it out when it comes around. It doesn’t have anything to do with perfection, you see. A thing that I do in a song could be less than perfect, but it could still be right. If I had to worry about technical perfection all the time, I’d probably never get anything accomplished.
RS: How much do you contribute to putting together the songs in the studio?
DD: I guess as much as I want to or as much as I can. Most of the time, the girls will leave the drum part up to me, but if I’m having problems coming up with something suitable, I’ll ask for their help and they’ll give it to me. Other than that, I mean, I don’t actually do the composing of the songs. With some songs, I prefer that the writer suggests what I should play. It’s easier that way. After all, I wasn’t the one who wrote the song; I’m not positive about what was in the person’s head when the idea came up.
RS: Your drum approach is essentially simple and straightforward.
DD: Yes, it is. I’m a believer in the idea that simpler is usually the best approach. I didn’t always think that way, but I do now.
RS: Why the change?
DD: Well, I don’t know, actually. I think it’s just a case of my getting more experience and more playing time than ever before. It used to be that I’d be going all around the drumkit. But now I sort of keep things pretty straightforward, as you said. The sound of the drums is much heavier when you keep things simpler, anyway. People would come up to me and tell me that the band sounded harder and more direct when I kept my playing simpler. Producers told me that as well.
RS: Can you name any distinct disadvantages you’ve come across being a female heavy metal drummer?
DD: Endurance. No matter how strong I get, I think guys can carry on longer. Also, no one wants to look at a 50-year-old woman drummer sitting behind a kit on stage, [laughs]
RS: Can you think of any advantages?
DD: Oh sure. If I were a guy and tried to make it as a drummer in rock ‘n’ roll, I suspect I’d be just another drummer in the crowd. I don’t think I’d have gotten as far as I have. But being a girl has helped me get a little more of the spotlight. There are thousands of male drummers out there in the world, but there aren’t that many female drummers. So the odds are with us girls, you see.