‘Women who break the mold are just following their hearts’

Patti Lanigan’s favorite childhood toy was a turntable, a clear indicator of a love for music that would carry on throughout her life. Her obsession was with the drums, but it took her a while to get to where she is now – an accomplished drummer who has played with a number of popular Maine bands and who has opened for national acts.

“Girls didn’t play drums when I was young, so I played clarinet and sax with one eye on the drummers! I loved the rhythm section and used to sneak-play a guy’s drumset in the band room and borrow a friend’s bass to fiddle around with,” recalls Lanigan, 54, of Topsham, originally from Woodland.

She played sax and percussion at the University of Maine and became interested in dance. After college, she spent 10 years studying various dance styles and performing in studio shows and in Oxygen Debt, a spinoff company of Ram Island Dance in Portland, where she stayed until she got a day job.

“I went straight to the music store and bought an electric bass and a small amp, with the goal of one day playing a gig at Geno’s,” she said. “I really wanted to play drums or percussion, but I had roommates, so I needed something I could play through headphones. “

She did play at Geno’s in the 1980s, in a band called Eddie and the Erector Set, and went on to play bass for Portland bands Low 90, Bamboo Taxi, Too Much Truth and Carol & Patti. She opened for the Del Fuegos at Raoul’s and was one of the opening acts for Queen Latifah at Bowdoin College. But the drums still called to her.

“I had long dreams in which I was playing huge drum sets with gongs and African drums with lightning flashing around me,” she said. “And I had been reading Modern Drummer magazine for years trying to get into the minds of drummers.” So she dabbled, taking drumming classes, and eventually “combined djembe, congas, percussion toys and a small digital drumset, and played cover tunes with a local band called Jubdjub, and then congas in the Portland wedding band The Coronados.”

Her partner, Lance Burpee, a professional drummer and drum teacher, presented her with a drum set about 10 years ago. She started playing with Reverend Groove, an original dance club band. “When we played for a big Halloween party at The Asylum I got to play on my own riser with big monitors, which felt like a rock dream come true!”

After that band broke up, she joined a cover band in central Maine called Susie & The Smelts, but playing professionally began conflicting with her day job as a copy editor and proofreader at a Portland ad agency, so she had to quit. Now between bands, she sometimes subs on gigs and plays at jams. She continues to pursue her love of funk, hip-hop and world rhythms and she’s studying up on how to play like some of her drumming idols. She also teaches Zumba twice a week.


What do you think are the top characteristics of an innovator – a woman who breaks the mold?


I think women who break the mold are just following their hearts. They just happen to have a love for something that is a bit unusual and have to follow it. I also think they are somewhat driven to persevere and to find ways to pursue their dreams.


Who are your role models?


I am a huge fan of James Brown, the musician. He was the consummate entertainer and bandleader. He could sing, write songs, play drums, play the organ, dance and get people going like nobody. And he lived by his motto, “Always look like someone they’d pay to see.” Frank Zappa is a big role model for me in terms of being true to himself and saying what he wanted and just being a pure musical genius. I love so many drummers it would be impossible to list them all, but I admire James Brown’s and Frank Zappa’s drummers for their groundbreaking work: JB’s in laying down the first funk and hip-hop beats, which are still sampled today; and Frank’s for chops, and melodic and rhythmic playing at a level surpassed by few. And I love Ginger Baker’s groove and his pioneering work combining jazz, rock and African in his playing. And almost every day I think of the great modern dancer Twyla Tharp because in her book, “The Creative Habit,” she talks about how she doesn’t think about whether she wants to work/dance that day, she just gets up and does the same ritualistic routine to get started, and before she knows it she is connected to her work and not questioning whether she “feels” like doing it. I sometimes feel so drained from working and commuting that I don’t think I have it in me to play drums or dance, but if I just show up, the magic usually takes over and I get lost in the moment of the groove.


Do you or have you had a mentor, and how significant has this person been in helping you achieve your goals?


My partner, Lance Burpee, has encouraged me on drums since Day 1. He got me my first real kit and has been in my corner all along. I might never have owned or played a real drum set in a band if it weren’t for him. He is always there to listen when I have a bad gig or a bad practice, when I feel like I fall so short of playing like my heroes that I might as well quit. He was my connection to both Reverend Groove and Susie & the Smelts. He knew they were looking for a drummer and had a hunch that I might be a match. And he helped me make the connection and is always willing to listen to me play and give me feedback on what’s good and how I can improve.

I also took lessons with Dave Henault of Sly Chi for a while, and he was instrumental in helping me achieve better independence with my four limbs, which enabled me to start playing the hip-hop parts I was dying to play.


Have you been thwarted by sexism at any point?


That’s a hard question to answer. I have always been friends with guys and hung out with guys in bands. But I have sensed that boys like to be boys and hang out with the boys. I’m not uncomfortable with them, but sometimes they have said they feel like they have to behave differently when there is a woman there, change their language, etc. At times I have been twitted for “being a girl” if I get too nervous or don’t want to try a song I don’t know very well in front of people. I sometimes wonder if I’d get more work if I were a guy, but I haven’t really tried to make a living as a musician, so I may not be the best to answer that question. As far as the general public goes, there is a fair amount of sexism about women playing in bands. I don’t think I’ve ever entered a club carrying gear that someone hasn’t asked if I am the singer, and I’ve had people call me a good little roadie for carrying my own gear. And then there have been some weird, inappropriate comments from men in bars who have a hard time seeing a “chick” in the rhythm section.

But as the younger generation has been coming out to bars, I’ve also had lots of positive comments and encouragement from both young men and women.


What can mothers do to encourage breaking-the-mold thinking in their daughters?


I think they need to instill early on in their daughters that every person is unique and has specific talents and interests that can be pursued and developed. I think they should encourage them to be true to their inner nature and to follow their real dreams, even if they are dreams not traditional for their gender. That said, they should tell them that following a path that is different from the expected path can be difficult and disappointing. Sometimes it’s even harder to make time for unique pursuits outside of work if you can’t make a living in your chosen field; it’s hard to go against the pull to follow the crowd and just go out and party instead of practice by yourself or go to classes. But if you really love something, you can’t just quit, so you might as well just give in and let it take you where it will. I’ve tried to quit dance and music, but they always come back and tug at my heart. And I’m usually glad I got involved with them again because of the intrinsic rewards of playing and dancing for fun. I think for young girls today there is so much information available, it’s somewhat easier to find role models in almost any field. But the path still might be difficult and require creativity and finding an open window if someone slams a door in your face.

Patti Lanigan

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