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From Zuzu's Petals to Filthy Friends, drummer Linda Pitmon has kept indie rock's finest in time

Filthy Friends, with Linda Pitmon (far left)

Filthy Friends, with Linda Pitmon (far left) John Clark

When Linda Pitmon was asked to join the alt-rock supergroup Filthy Friends in 2017 to replace their original drummer, Bill Rieflin, she wasn’t exactly stepping into a totally unfamiliar situation.

Not only did Pitmon know two of the band members, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey, but all three of them are in another group, the Baseball Project, and have frequently worked with each other on various side projects. Because of their many shared connections, it’s hard for them to not run into each other. As Pitmon explains: “Scott was like, ‘Linda, I always know where you're going to be, because you’re usually in the van with me.”

A New York resident who is originally from Minneapolis, Pitmon has become the go-to drummer for some of alt-rock’s heavy hitters for about the last 20 years. In addition to the Baseball Project, she has collaborated with Golden Smog, Freedy Johnston, Alejandro Escovedo, Amy Rigby, and the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn (who is also her husband). Pitmon and the members of Filthy Friends—which also includes Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Fastbacks’ Kurt Bloch—are releasing their new album, Emerald Valley last Friday, which they’re following with a brief tour. “I'm excited to play these songs live,” Pitmon says. “It's going to be amazing.”

Although Pitmon has been Filthy Friends’ live drummer following the departure of Rieflin (who is now with King Crimson), she makes her recording debut with the band on Emerald Valley, the follow-up to their 2017 album Invitation. Given the nature of this project, Pitmon wanted to do right by the recording. “I was pretty shy at first to being the new voice in the band,” she says. “But once I realized they were open to everybody's suggestions, I really enjoyed contributing to that part of it.”

Tackling current events topics such as the border crisis and the oil industry, Emerald Valley showcases Pitmon’s versatile style: adroitly energetic on rockers like “Last Chance County” and “Only Lovers Are Broken,” understated or subdued numbers such as “Angels” and the title song. “Playing with Linda Pitmon on this record is such a joy,” says Tucker. “She’s really talented and brought a lot to the recording in fleshing out the songs.”

As a child, Pitmon built drums sets out of Quaker Oats canisters and coffee cans and played along to her siblings’ records. She later participated in school band and once dreamed about being in a professional orchestra. “But I wanted to learn how to play a drum set,” Pitmon says. “I was living in a suburb of Minneapolis, [and] my parents were like, ‘No, the neighbors would kill us. But you can play at school.’ I didn't actually get a drum set until I was in college, and that was when I really taught myself to play.”

By the mid-1980s, Pitmon was immersed in Minneapolis’ thriving music scene. “I got to see lot of amazing local bands, getting to know the people in the scene before I actually started playing,” she recalls of hanging out at venues like Whole Coffeehouse, the precursor to today’s Whole Music Club on the U of M campus. “I didn't start playing until a year or two later.”

After a stint in England for a year, Pitmon returned to Minneapolis and worked at the Global Cafe, whose previous employees, Laurie Lindeen and Coleen Elwood, were in a band called Zuzu’s Petals. “I would go see them play and be the supportive friend,” Pitmon remembers. “I told them, ‘If you ever needed a drummer, I would do it. It would be fun.’”

As luck would have it, Zuzu’s drummer at the time decided to quit. “We were in the middle of recording a single in Madison, Wisconsin with my old roommate Butch Vig,” says Lindeen. “Co and I conspired to ask Linda to become our next drummer as she had experience, unlike the rest of us. We were shocked when she said yes. Adding her to the lineup was transformative.”

Zuzu’s Petals recorded two albums, 1992’s When No One’s Looking and 1994’s The Music of Your Life for Twin/Tone, and the trio toured relentlessly throughout America as well as in England, developing a following. “Those were really special years,” Pitmon says. “We spent 4 to 5 years in a van together, mostly driving ourselves town to town. Back in those days, you had to build an audience to prove you can sell some records. We slept on floors. We ate at Taco Bell. Eventually, we really started to get some good turnouts and real feedback from people who were like, ‘Yeah.’”

After Zuzu’s Petals broke up in 1995, Pitmon decided it was a time to make a big move, even though she already had a built-in life in Minneapolis. She reconnected with singer-guitarist Steve Wynn, who’d begun a solo career following the Dream Syndicate’s breakup in 1989; their friendship goes back to when Zuzu’s opened for his show. “He told me he had moved to New York, and I thought that was interesting because I had been toying with moving to New York,” she says. “He said, ‘Well, toy away with that idea because I may need a drummer. So stay in touch, let me know. That worked out--I got a husband out of it.”

Pitmon has been heavily involved with Wynn’s records as the drummer for his band, the Miracle 3. The couple also play in the Baseball Project along with McCaughey, Buck and fellow R.E.M. alum Mike Mills. (In case you’re wondering, Pitmon is a huge Twins fan.) The Project’s last album, 3rd, came out in 2014, and they performed this past March at the Innings Festival in Arizona. ”We're trying to find the right time to make another record and get back to [touring] again,” she says.

Even after Filthy Friends finish their tour with an appearance at Barcelona’s Primavera Festival on June 2, Pitmon won’t be taking a long break. Having already worked on the new Arthur Buck record with Peter Buck and Joseph Arthur, she’ll be touring with Scott McCaughey’s band the Minus 5. Most recently, Pitmon started rehearsing again with her Zuzu’s Petals bandmates, though nothing has been booked. (Their last formal gig together was in 1995.) “It was magic,” Lindeen says of that recent experience. “Linda was always late, could charm anyone, and play the drums like the bad-ass goddess that she is. I was not surprised in the least that she has become greatly-in-demand drummer.”

As for forming her own project, Pitmon says she’s received encouragement from both Wynn and Buck to do a solo record. “It's going to be a matter of me buckling down to do it. I do want to be pretty involved in it. If I can ever get off the road long enough, I can go through all my old lyric books when I was 19. That was when I did all my writing. So I can go through there and pilfer my 19-year-old self.”