Rock-n-Roll High School: An interview with Sheridan Riley of Avi Buffalo

Avi Buffalo on a couch.

While many of their peers were receiving acceptance and rejection letters from various universities, the members of Avi Buffalo were asked to join the coolest post-high school academy: Sub Pop Records.

Thankfully, they accepted. And now we all have the pleasure of toe tapping to their gem of an album, Avi Buffalo, which exudes a sunny, lush vibe that’s poppy without being overly “cute.”  Call it “surf-folk prog-rock”—all shimmering guitars, sprinkling piano and experiments in tempo thanks to Avi Zahner-Isenberg’s intricate guitar leads and drummer Sheridan Riley’s reign over the kit, balancing decorative rhythm and driving force.

Currently on a European tour, Sheridan—the youngest member of Avi B—answered some questions via e-mail about drumming idols, recording a full-length album, and those darn good fills of hers (so ’70s glam!)

Sheridan Riley at the kit.
Photo by LAist. (www.laist.com)

Full Name: Sheridan Riley

Age: 18

Hometown: LBC!

Currently live in: Long Beach

Past bands: Time of Wolves, Fort Wife

Current bands: Avi Buffalo, John Michael Quartet

Day job: None, though I wish I did have one. I’d like to buy more cymbals.

Tom Tom Magazine: First off, how long have you been playing the drums and why did you get started? Did you take lessons?

Sheridan Riley: My dad plays guitar and loves ’70s blues/rock. He played Led Zeppelin very frequently and ever since I heard the opening drum break for the song “Rock n Roll” I knew I wanted to play. I’ve been playing the drums for six years and over the years I’ve taken [lessons] with four people. The crowning thing my first teacher Brian Mahoney taught me, I think, was bass drum/hi-hat independence. [After three years off of lessons,] I studied with Ronnie Ciago for just a month, but he taught me so much in that time. I remember he asked who my favorite drummer was and I said “John Bonham!” and he laughed and said “Well then let’s do some triplets!” Because of a tight schedule and money, I didn’t take lessons again for another year. In that time I met my first ever in-person drum hero, Dylan Wood. He played in Avi’s old band, Monogram, and when I saw them play I was awe-struck. Dylan kind of took me under his wing. We had first period music class and we bonded over our love for John Bonham. He also gave me helpful tips for rolls and beats. He recommended me to his teacher, Greg Paxton, who taught me so much about feel and developing an ear … The most important lessons I took, however, were from Steven Nistor. Steven’s kit consisted of just a kick, snare, hat, floor and ride. But it was so incredible what he was doing with everything. He let me play his kit and it was tuned so beautifully. I took only three lessons with him last year. He taught me the importance of achieving a full sound out of the kit, relieving your self of that choppy, unbalanced sound. When we’re done touring for a while I want to take with him again.

What kind of kit do you play nowadays?

I am currently playing our very generous bass player’s Catalina Maple with a Mahogany C&C snare drum.

How has Long Beach shaped your relationship to music? How would you describe the current indie music scene down there?

Long Beach is very diverse, with enough people and variety to be a city, but a fair distance from Los Angeles so as to encourage it’s own kind of vibe. We also still have a music program in all of our schools, and that’s becoming more and more rare in California because of how messed up the budget is here. Because there are still programs, especially like jazz band and jazz combo, kids here have an easier way of getting introduced to a variety of music. The current scene is pretty DIY, consisting mostly of house shows and a few coffee shops. It’s very close—everyone knows each other pretty well and there is a lot of support. There’s only one all-ages venue here that I think every single high schooler has been to at least once.

Avi Buffalo originally started as a one-man ordeal. Can you explain the freedom (or lack of freedom?) you have in writing drum parts?

Avi writes all the songs, but he never stifles me. He’ll tell me what feel he wants, if it’s getting too busy or too boring, and I’ll work with that. We’ve been playing together off and on since we both started playing our instruments in middle school, so we know each other’s playing and expectations pretty well. But we also try and ignore that, since you don’t want to get predictable. He’s very much about the shows being a collaborative effort and that’s one of the reasons why I like working with him the most.

Describe your drumming style in 3 words.

In the process.

What’s the most challenging thing about the drums?

So much! Laying back is tough, playing fast and laying back is even tougher. When we play shows I’m always thinking, “Is this too much, is that too little? Could it have killed you to sneak in a fill there? Wait, where are we again? Oh!” Being in the moment, but being prepared. It’s not my forte.

What’s your proudest drumming moment?

Toughie, because there’s either a good show, a “meh” show, or just a terrible show, and after a while you don’t remember specifics. I can remember one instance though. In ninth grade I didn’t make the jazz band because I couldn’t read the charts. The less powerful co-instructor of the jazz band liked me enough and knew I wanted to play desperately, so he started a jazz combo. For our last song at our fall concert we played “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and I was given a little “four bar solo at the end of the song before you give the band a wink and cue them back in” sort of thing. I was very anxious and felt I had to prove something to the other jazz band instructor and the whole entire student body of Millikan High School. I did it: I managed to put my elbow on the snare and roll around the kit. I think I made it longer than four bars, because I felt entitled. The whole auditorium seemed to roar and all the senior jazz cats liked it, even Avi and Dylan Wood! Technically I’m a better drummer now, but I don’t have the confidence that I had back then. I would never take a solo now, let alone double the time allotted, yet at that point in time I did, and people responded to it. Hopefully one of these days I’ll tap back into my overzealous, elbow-on-the-snare, stick-twirling self—but this time with a bit more humility and taste.

Ghost Sheridan

Getting signed to Sup Pop straight out of high school is a huge deal (and so awesome!) Did getting signed change your original after-high school plans at all?

Thank you! And yes, it definitely did. I intended on applying to some schools in Oregon and up the California coast. It wasn’t until this September when we toured for a week with Beach House that I realized that I couldn’t do both for the time being. And I felt relieved, because, while I do want to go back to school, I felt so happy to know that I could devote myself fully to music, something that I haven’t been able to do while I’ve been in school. I want to learn piano, and get to the point where I could jam with others, and most importantly practice drums for as much time as I please.

Do you ever have to deal with people constantly commenting on your gender or age as a drummer? Which do you anticipate you’ll have to address most often (if at all)?

It’s mostly the age that we deal with, but I’ve also been noticed because of being a girl, too. It sucks, because often the first thing they’ll say is “I love girl drummers!” and it’s really nice, but sometimes it feels like they wouldn’t say anything about what they heard if I wasn’t a girl. It’s a funny thing, I’m all about girl power and women being in music, because there is a distinct voice from males and females that needs to be heard. I just don’t like it when it ends up defining your talent, you know? However, the age thing happens a lot. I’ve lied about my age in some interviews just so we can avoid the question because it affects the way some people listen and interpret us. We can’t really hide it in any other way than that. Usually my zits do me in.

Who are your favorite drummers?

Well, John Bonham was my first drummer love. For me, he is rock drumming. I also love Glenn Kotche from Wilco. His pocket is so tasty and solid, and his solo percussion work is really amazing. It’s inspiring to hear his searching—he makes all kinds of sounds and rhythms from so many percussive objects. I saw this interview where he used a condenser mic on a fruit bowl and it sounded so neat, and it was so cool to see him really getting into the sounds around him. In middle school I listened to the Killers a lot, Ronnie Vannucci is so good! Elvin Jones, Zigaboo Modeliste, and Greg Saunier [of Deerhoof] are who I’m listening to the most right now. Elvin’s playing just has a life of its own—everything on A Love Supreme is so powerful and relevant to what everyone is playing. I saw Greg play last year and that changed my life. He’s all over the songs—his energy is contagious.

What were some of the challenges or surprises in tracking the drums for Avi Buffalo? Did you record live?

Every song I recorded, except for “Where’s Your Dirty Mind” was done live. It was more comfortable, but next time I’d like to see what it’s like to lay down a track and come in with a more planned part. But not for every song, I just want the drums to be a bit cleaner on the next record. I never really wrote out parts for each song, I’d just go along with them, which sometimes works fine. But I’d really like to plan some parts next time.

What was your favorite song to record off of this album? What about your favorite song to play live?

Probably “Can’t I Know.” It’s a quieter, darker song, and it was fun to feel that vibe. Aaron Embry kindly provided me with a 1930s copper/nickel Ludwig snare for the song, which sounds great. Live, I also still like playing “Cant I Know” but also “Remember Last Time” and “Jessica”. Each change a little every show depending on what everyone’s thinking, and they’ve also evolved a lot. It’s neat to see where they take you.

Your fills are fantastic! I struggle with fills. Any tips for practicing them? Sheridan, how can I jam out and be totally awesome like you are in “Remember Last Time?”

Oh man, thank you! I don’t really know, I learned most about fills from my dad, “Sheridan, do one of those galloping, ‘Crossroads’ fills!”

Anything else you’d like to add about what you love most about drumming?

Good vibrations!!! Thanks a lot, Melanie!

Link to Avi Buffalo’s music video for “What’s in it For?”

Tom Tom Blogger Melanie Glover is a freelance writer and arts administrator based out of Sacramento, CA. She played drums and sang for the now defunct surf-pop band Buildings Breeding., and has been published in SN&R, The Sacramento Bee, Sactown magazine, and other publications.  She enjoys gaining rhythmic inspiration and advice from the women at Tom Tom–both interviewees and staff–and is forever a student of words and vibrations.

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