by Robyn Flans
By simply being the powerful drummer behind hard rockers Vixen, Roxy Petrucci is breaking down stereotypes and crossing sexual barriers. Female musicians in the genre are rare enough - all-female bands like Vixen even less common. Yet Vixen have risen through the metal ranks and have proven that gender needn't be an issue. They've shared the Monsters Of Rock tour with heavyweights like Poison, Aerosmith, Whitesnake, Faith No More, and Ozzy Osbourne. And tours with the Electric Boys, Ratt, and the Scorpions have either already begun or are on the horizon. The success of the latest album, Rev It Up, could really blow the roof off - they could be on the road for the next year.
But Roxy's typecast-busting doesn't stop with the fact that she's a female hard rocker. She's unmistakably a female musician whose roots in jazz and classical music give her playing a different twist than so many of her contemporaries.
Home for a few days between tours, Roxy began her tale by telling us how a career in metal might possibly start off with long days and nights jamming on ... the clarinet?
RP : There are five kids in our family, and everybody plays something. I started on clarinet, and I still play. In fact, I bring it on the road with me. I took it up in third or fourth grade. I played in the symphony band in junior high school, and then in high school I played in band, stage band, orchestra, and marching band. I picked up drums when I was about 14.
RF : How come you started on drums?
RP : My sister picked up the guitar and said, "You know, we should get a band together." I was really getting into Black Sabbath at the time, too, and "War Pigs" just didn't sound right on clarinet. What really made me decide was when I went to see the original Black Sabbath in '75, and I remember Bill Ward doing his drum solo. I just watched the people totally in awe of him, and I said, "I'm going to give it a shot." So I just started jamming away down in the basement. My parents were totally into it. My dad went out and got me a champagne-colored Ludwig kit, and I started taking lessons. At home I would practice about two hours on my drums and maybe an hour on clarinet, because I had really gotten into the drums. Plus, during school I was playing clarinet two hours a day.
I was really into jazz at the time, too, so I didn't make up my mind yet that it was going to be rock. But I knew when I saw Sabbath that I wanted to make people happy with my music. In rock 'n' roll, you have the freedom to do what you want to do. And when I went home to practice, I'd put Robin Trower, Sabbath, or Zeppelin on.
But all that came later. When I first started drums, I was just reading charts down in my basement and going through rudimental books on snare drum. Then when I started going through the set, I went through a Carmine Appice book, then The Funky Primer, and another book called The Thesaurus by Charles Dowd, and then an odd time signature book.
Once a week I'd take lessons with a teacher by the name of Gary Ashton. I didn't start out playing hard, but as I started to get more into rock 'n' roll, I started playing harder. When my sister and I decided to get a band together and we had people coming down to our basement to audition and practice, we got louder and louder.
RF : Was all that learning important for you?
RP : Definitely. It was good for me to have lessons, because Gary made me practice. I would come in and say, "I want to learn this Black Sabbath song," and he'd say, "Oh fine, but do this first. In order to be able to learn that, you have to learn the basics." Luckily, at 14 I was old enough to realize that he must have known what he was talking about. When you're really young you just think, "No, I want to do this." What he really liked about me was that I would practice the pages of the assignment, but I'd always end up doing more pages, especially in The Funky Primer, because I loved that book. It had a lot of grooves and weird syncopated beats, and I was really into that. Then after learning the pages in the book, he'd want me to practice a solo for him. I asked if I could copy one or if I had to make one up, and he said to do a combination - copy some of it and put my own stuff into it.
RF : When you were into jazz, who were you listening to?
RP : Lenny White, Buddy Rich, all the big bands, and fusion like Jeff Lorber and Ronnie Laws. I liked a lot of sax players too, but I'd always listen to the drummers.
Then when I was in 11th or 12th grade, my brother was already in college on a music degree. He told me there was a jazz teacher there who was really good, and I should see if I could get in. I was 16, but I went down to the college and said, "I'd like to take lessons from you, even though I'm not a student here." Seeing how interested I was, he said yes. He was really good, although it was very hard for me to understand. I wasn't up to that level yet, so he started me from scratch in jazz. He didn't take me through books; he would write his own things down. I would bring a tape recorder to class, and we would tape beats and I would learn from that. He taught me all sorts of things, which really helped me a lot as far as jazz goes. He taught me things like what to do with my kick drum when playing jazz, where to accent the 2 and 4, how important it is to have the hi-hat going on the 2 and 4 for feel, and how not to rely on the kick drum so much.
I was experimenting. I liked everything I was doing, but I knew I didn't want to do classical music with the drums. I played in marching band, and it was fun, but that was that. It was either rock 'n' roll or jazz. Then I got a music scholarship to go to college at Oakland University in Pontiac, Michigan.
RF : On clarinet?
RP : Yes, but I did start with the jazz band on drums too. I was playing in the wind ensemble on clarinet, where I was first chair, which was really fun. It's pretty intense because there are not that many players, so you can hear what every person is doing.
With the drums, I stayed on with my teacher, and I was doing a little bit of the jazz band. That's when my sister Maxine and I were starting to play clubs in Detroit. During the day I was going to school, and at night I was playing in clubs. I'd go to school and I wouldn't wear any makeup and I'd tie my hair up. Then 7:00 would come and I'd tell the professor, "I've got to go, I've got a gig tonight." I'd run into the bathroom, put the leather and all the makeup on, and drive to make it there by 9:00 or 9:30.
RF : You really loved both those worlds.
RP : I really did, but when it came down to making the decision where the band said, "Well, we want to go on the road, what do you want to do?" I said, "I want to play rock 'n' roll."
RF : What did your parents think of your leaving school and going on the road at 19?
RP : My dad said, "Are you sure that's what you want to do? You're throwing away your college education." I wanted a music degree, but they make you take all these academic courses, and I didn't want that. I just wanted music classes. And you had to take ear training and all that, which was kind of hard for me.
RF : So you went on the road. Was it an all-girl band?
RP : We started with an all-girl band, but as soon as we said we wanted to go on the road, they quit, so we hired two guys. We built a name around Detroit while I was still at school, and eventually started working all over the states. My boyfriend, Bret Kaiser, was in the band at the time. He was the singer. That was Madam X. We worked for four years straight.
That's the only way I learned how to play. That's where I got my callouses, and that's where I learned my road chops. And you learn how to relate to people on the road. After the show we'd go out and talk to everybody and see where their heads were at, what they wanted to hear, what they thought of the band. You have to play live. It's a must.
RF : How did the record deal come about?
RP : We played the Troubadour and Don Arden of Jet Records was there, and his first words were, "I'm going to make you guys stars." [laughs] He genuinely loved the band, but we were young and we were a victim of circumstance. When the management didn't work, we should have just moved on.
We made one album, We Reserve The Right, but to this day I don't know what happened. All I know is we came back from England to nothing. So we were in limbo. Bret was the first one to leave to go play with his brother, and I went back to Detroit to figure things out, which is when Vixen sent me a tape. I thought, "I don't want to be in an all-girl band," but the songs were good, and Janet's [Gardner] voice was really good. That's really what attracted me to it. It was in '84 when they sent me the tape, and '85 when I joined. Even though I didn't want to be in an all-girl band, when they sent me the tape, I thought, "What am I doing now anyway? I'll just go back to L.A. and rehearse, just so I can play." So I went, and they were really cool. It wasn't like a bunch of kids going, "Yeah, let's rock 'n' roll." They had their personal lives together outside of the band, which makes a difference.
So we began to work together, and they really liked me, and I really liked them. It felt right, although I thought, "We need a lot of work." It was way different from Madam X. It was very song-oriented.
RF : What did each situation demand of you as a player?
RP : Madam X demanded me to be hard and heavy and fast, which I'm glad about, because now I can play hard. I played until my hands bled with Madam X. Then when I rehearsed with Vixen, I couldn't even hear Jan [Kuehnemund, lead guitar]. I was going, "Wait a minute guys, this is too wimpy, we've got to crank it up." They just looked at me and went, "Okay, she just came from Madam X, this is understandable." I learned to adapt to what they were, which was very melodic rock.
RF : What does that mean as a player?
RP : It means I had to listen to what they were playing. Jan would do a solo and she'd stop and say, "Do you have to play so many fills while I'm soloing?" I was very open-minded, because I really felt that I didn't understand. Now I've learned taste. I knew some really cool fills in Madam X, but now I know where to place them and what helps enhance a song. I know now to really lock in with the bass player. Share [Pedersen] and I are so tight. When she has a suggestion for me, I'll listen. We both help each other. When it comes to the real heavy stuff, I'll say, "Share, I think you should just be laying on that E string, don't get all jazzed out."
RF : The inevitable. I have to ask this ...
RP : This must be a girl thing. I wonder if we'll ever not be asked a girl thing.
RF : Did people try to discourage you from playing drums because of your gender?
RP : Maybe in the industry, but not friends. My band teachers and my parents were always encouraging.
RF : Let's face it, we women aren't as strong as most men.
RP : But why does it take strength to hit a little pedal? You're not lifting a weight, you're pushing. Another thing is, if you sit beside another drummer, they're not hitting that pedal that hard. You think they are because you're sitting out front and you hear it through the P.A., so it sounds really loud and powerful, but it's actually not.
RF : You said people in the industry tried to discourage you.
RP : It was just a chauvinistic thing. There were record companies who didn't want to sign us. They'd give excuses like, "We already have a girl band." It was unbelievable. Now we just laugh about it, and the only thing we can do is just forget about it and do what we do. For one thing, people are buying our records; kids love us. We just played for two weeks in London and all around Scotland, and all our shows were sold out. You can't tell me that these kids just like the way we look. If we couldn't play our instruments, they'd leave. They can see T and A anywhere.
RF : Your folks never tried to discourage you?
RP : Never. They were very encouraging. My dad never said, "You can't do this because you're a girl." He did worry about, "Doesn't she want to get married?" I said, "Of course I do, but when that time comes, I'll be ready." You're only young once. I don't want to live my life regretting not having done what I'm doing.
As much as I loved being on the road and doing the clubs, though, I could not go back and do it again. I still remember those sleazy dressing rooms, having no money, and spending Christmas at Denny's. But just getting on stage kept us going. There were plenty of times when I thought, "What am I doing? Why am I doing this?" But you get on stage, and that's what keeps you going. If you're determined and you stick with it, something's got to happen.
If you get a deal and then go on the road for the first time, you're in for a big surprise. You have to start from the bottom, where sometimes you don't have a dressing room or there's no heat or you're playing for nobody, you don't get paid, you're sick .... I broke my left ankle and I still had to play, so I just didn't use my hi-hat or my left kick. I had the flu and passed out one time. I barely finished the song, and my sister looked at me as I turned green and fell off the drum riser, then fell another eight feet off the stage because there was no backing behind me. But I was young, and we were indestructible.
RF : You mentioned playing double bass. When did you start playing it?
RP : Around the same time I started playing clubs. I didn't take lessons on double bass; I taught myself. I looked at my books and said, "Well, I'm playing paradiddles between my snare and my kick. Why don't I split it up and do it on my kicks?" Just easy things like that. Then I was listening to Tommy Aldridge and thinking that what he was doing was really cool, so I just started practicing it and played what felt good to me.
RF : Are there songs in your current repertoire where you utilize more double bass?
RP : "Cruisin'" and "Wrecking Ball." Sometimes I'll do triplets with my kick drums and fills and things like that, but I used them more in Madam X. I definitely use it in my solo. I want to get it machine-gun fast, but I'm not there yet.
RF : What to you is a good solo?
RP : I like to keep it short and sweet, because there's nothing worse to me than a long, boring drum solo. I'm a drummer and I appreciate what they're doing, but for a lot of people it's, "Okay, it's time to get my beer now," because it gets boring. So in my solo now, I'll start with the Bonham snare drum fill to "Moby Dick." Then I go into a cowbell paradiddle groove between the kick, snare, and hi-hat. Then I stop and let the crowd yell, and I come back in with that groove. Then I start going into this snare drum roll interspersed with double kick, and then I do quadruplets - both kicks, snare, and rack toms - for a couple of seconds. Then I go right into a cymbal beat with 16th notes on the kicks, and then I go around the cymbals like that with just the kicks and the cymbals, then around the drums. I'll stop after all that, go back into some more drumming, and then I go into "Moby Dick," and the band kicks into the song.
With solos, I think to myself, "If I were out there, what would I want to hear? What would keep me interested?" And the fact that I'm a girl, I think they want to see me do something. It's like, "Okay, let's see if she can pull it off." This one guy said to me, "Yeah, you play really great and everything, but can you twirl your sticks?" Pretty soon they're going to go, "Can you do a somersault in the air while you twirl your sticks, come back down, and not miss a beat?"
RF : Was Madam X your first recording experience?
RP : Yes. I had to cut my drum tracks in something like three days for that record, and it was Rick Derringer's first attempt at producing a heavy metal band. We just went in there, and I had a click track.
RF : How did you know how to use a click track?
RP : I didn't know anything. I didn't know you could program them to have different feels. We kept it to a metronome - which made me very stiff - instead of varying it with little claps or something so I could play with a little feel.
RF : What did you learn from your first recording experience?
RP : It happened so fast. You just have to take your time, and you have to feel good about it. I didn't really feel that good about it, and I should have said something, but I didn't know any better. It was just, "Okay, this is it, done." It was played pretty much live. When we recorded Vixen's first album it was a big change. I played with Share, the bass player, and Jan played rhythm guitar.
RF : So you cut live?
RP : Some tracks were and some weren't. Sometimes Share and I would do them, and maybe we wouldn't keep the bass, so she'd do that over.
RF : What about the second record?
RP : That was pretty much live. Jan played her rhythm tracks, some of which we kept and some that we didn't, but Share and I played together. I had problems with "Not A Minute Too Soon" for some reason. I couldn't get into the groove. So I had to go over that one a few times, and we finally kept one take. Sometimes you just have to get away from it and come back to it. When I did it again, it felt 100% better.
"Streets In Paradise" was a cool track. I had a good time with that one because it was back to the heaviness. I'm good at that. I was good at "Wrecking Ball" too.
RF : How do the songs come together?
RP : Just from ideas. We all had brought in tapes because we knew as soon as we got off the road we'd have to start putting our ideas down on tape. I'm a horrible guitar player, but I put ideas down with it anyway. Everybody played their ideas, and then we picked the ones we thought were happening. We tried to write it together as a band, but it was taking so long because we all had ideas. So we realized it wasn't working, and we'd better divide it up. Share had lyrics and Janet had music to "Hard 16," so we said "Let's start working on this now." Then Jan and I started putting "Fallen Hero" together.
RF : How would they bring in the drum ideas?
RP : They'd just put a drum machine down and I'd do my own thing. But we all arranged the stuff. It's a real band effort, definitely. And it's cool because everybody's influences really help make it Vixen: my heavy metal background, Share's jazz background, Janet's influences are like Tina Turner, and Jan's are Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. When I first listened to their tape I thought, "They need a ballsy drummer. They need that edge."
RF : Being a "ballsy" drummer, do you need to warm up before a gig?
RP : When I was playing in clubs, I'd just go on. We'd sleep in the dressing room between sets. I didn't warm up, and I remember it was really tough to get through the first three or four songs. I didn't realize it was because I wasn't warming up. Nowadays I have to warm up. I just do neck exercises because we get SNS, as we call it - sore neck syndrome - from head banging, and I do a lot of it. I always do arm raises and little spiral turns with my arms, and I'll get down and do splits. I can't get all the way down, but I'll do it the best I can just to stretch my legs out and work my ankles. But mainly I'll warm up my wrists, just playing on a pillow in the dressing room.
RF : Do you still practice?
RP : I did between the record and the tour. I took about a week off, but I had my drums set up, and I would go in about an hour before the band would get there to slowly work the rust out.
RF : Have you learned a way to pace yourself?
RP : I have to. I had to go in about three weeks before the tour, and I still felt it. Our set with the Monsters Of Rock tour was only 45 minutes, which was no big deal, but when we started headlining and doing an hour and fifteen - oh my God, I felt it. But as far as pacing, you have to be on the road for a couple of weeks to figure all that out. I was just blowing my load in the first song, and by the time it came to my drum solo, I was a mess. But being out makes the stamina better, and my body is getting in shape.
RF : What do you hope to achieve as a player?
RP : I'm still not where I want to be. I'll go see Tommy Aldridge and think, "Shit, I'm not that good - yet." I still want to learn more and grow album to album. There's so much more to learn, and I become so aware of it when I see someone like Vinnie Colaiuta or Gregg Bissonette.
RF : Would that entail more lessons?
RP : I would like to sit down with Gregg Bissonette one day and have him show me some stuff. When Kenny Aronoff was recording "Blaze Of Glory" with Jon Bon Jovi, he was showing me some things. When I was younger I wanted to know everything, and now I want to have fun with it without getting too technically bogged down. I'm in a rock band. We're not a fusion band where a drummer like that is needed, but I would like to learn some more fills for my solo and just mature as a player, which comes from playing live and doing more records.
RF : What's your goal?
RP : Well, we still haven't gotten to where I want us to be, which is huge, number one. I want to open up Billboard and see "Vixen, #1." I was thrilled to get the gold record, but I'd like to have a platinum. We're starting to hear it more now, but it'd be nice to hear it all the time: "You're a great band," not just "a great girl band." And I want to stay happy at what I'm doing. You can lose it after a while; it can become a job. I think you always have to remind yourself that you could be flipping burgers instead.