I first saw Samantha Niss at a local Elk’s Lodge back in 2007 or 2008. At the time, she was drumming for Frankie and His Fingers, one of the most popular (and best) local groups, and she immediately stood out: simultaneously heavy and lyrical, her beats really drove the songs home. Lately she’s been taking pop-punk into space with Battle Ave, who recently released War Paint, recorded with Kevin McMahon. We went back and forth over email, and talked about Keith Moon, being more of a musician than a drummer, and the most rewarding parts of touring cross-country.
Tom Tom Magazine: When did you start drumming? And what made you want to start?
Samantha Niss: When I was about four or five and the music program started in school, I was totally into learning to play instruments. Especially since we mostly just covered Beatles or Green Day songs. I tried a bunch of different instruments and ended up most interested in the bass guitar. So, I played that for a bit. But the story goes that when I was about 6 my dad sat me down under headphones and played me The Who for the first time. I sat there for a while and listened to a ton of different songs. My dad says when I took the headphones off, I sat there for a few minutes contemplating, turned to him and asked him, “How many drummers were there playing?” He said, “Just one, Keith Moon.” I sat there for a bit more, turned and said, “Can I do that?” And from then on, all I was interested in was playing the drums, and have been playing ever since.
Who have your drum idols been?
For years and years it was all about the heavy hitters – Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Mitch Mitchell in particular. Playing along to their records is really how I learned how to play in the first place. I also always loved players like Ringo Starr and Moe Tucker. Then I was really into jazz drummers – Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Max Roach. In the last few years I’ve moved towards people like Levon Helm and Glenn Kotche.
How have the drummers you’ve been influenced by affected the music you were making at that moment?
I’ve always played with any band or musician I could. I was in a thrash band at the same time I was in a funk band in high school, and in college I was in at least 5 different projects/bands at the same time. I definitely bounced around in as many genres as I could. But I guess what has been affected by my influences, is probably the way I play/played in those situations – style and technique, intricacies within the beat, the groove, how hard I would hit. That’s definitely changed over the years depending on who I was heavily listening to at that time.
How did you get started making music with other people? And how did you end up meeting Frank, and starting Frankie and His Fingers/By Land or Sea?
Well, I went to a very interesting private school through 8th grade. Music class was 3-5 kids given instruments and put into a real band situation. We mostly played Beatles covers, but also stuff like Green Day or Radiohead depending on what year it was and what band was cool. So, I’ve played music with other people since 3rd grade. My first real band that wrote originals and played shows was with two friends from that school when we were in high school. We were a thrash/punk band called U.S. Mombs.
I met Frank McGinnis at Bennington College in late 2004/early 2005. He became one of the many musicians I was playing with at the time, and it started as me just being the backup band for the songs he had written, but very quickly became very collaborative and exciting. It was a very intuitive and easy-going situation right from the start, and we had a very strong creative connection with each other. We recorded the first Frankie And His Fingers demo at Bennington too. After our first year we both left school to pursue the band.
What did you do after you left school?
I played music. That’s all I did. Pretty much all I ever do. Almost immediately after we left school I booked FAHF as many shows as possible around Woodstock, NYC, and pretty much anywhere that would let us. After a while we got hooked up with producer/engineer Jeremy Backofen and started recording our first “real” release, “One Hell of a Skeleton.”
How did Battle Ave come about?
I’ve known Jesse Alexander for about as long as I’ve known Frank, so we’ve been friends for quite a while now. Maybe since 2005 I guess? He was in a local Woodstock band that we played with a lot and that I really liked. I also really loved his solo work. I later ended up filling in on drums for his band and recording stuff here and there for different projects and solo work over the years. After a while I wanted to do something completely different musically to what I had been and was doing, and Jesse was the first person I thought of. But I guess the concept of a band really came together when a friend of his asked him to put a band together for a show. He talked to me about it, we got a band together, got some songs together, and that was the first incarnation of Battle Ave. and it just went on from there.
You all just did a tour of the US, right? How’d that go?
Yeah, we’re trying to promote “War Paint” so we thought a tour would be a good idea. We started in Boston and went down the East Coast, went West to Austin for SXSW, headed North up to Chicago and then back over to NY. Took about a month. It was pretty awesome. Went to a lot of really cool places, met a lot of really cool people, discovered some cool new bands, and got to play music pretty much every night. We’re all pretty much broke right now.
Was there any particular experience from this tour that sticks out to you?
A lot of stuff happened on tour – for me personally and for the band. Playing every night to a new crowd, big or small, is a pretty interesting experience. Each show differs pretty dramatically. The thing that sticks out most to me though is how receptive, appreciative, and just how so-damn-nice people can be. It really makes things a lot easier. We were welcomed into a lot of friendly homes and treated really well.
But I guess playing drums every night for people is the real highlight. That’s all I really want.
Since you’ve been in so many types of bands, is there any kind of music you haven’t played, but really want to?
I’ve always wanted to be in a funk band, but old school like The Meters or James Brown. Or like Cold Blood. With horns and everything! I would love that.
Just to switch gears, did you ever run into any issues or barriers starting out as a young female musician?
Starting out I didn’t even think about the fact that I was a “girl drummer” or that that was even a weird thing. I don’t think I realized that for a very long time. I was always greatly supported especially by my parents. It just seemed normal to me – I played the drums.
I probably didn’t see, or at least understand, the fact that I was a “minority” until after high school. People’s reactions were always good to me when I played, but I always just took that as me being a good drummer not just because I was a girl. I really only started to notice it when I was about 18 and FAHF started playing shows. Especially at bars. Drunk dudes have no filter. Neither do drunk women for that matter.
Do you have favorite and least favorite parts about drumming?
Well, I really hate lugging my gear! I have more stuff then anyone in the band and it’s heavy and bulky. I also have a bad back, so it’s hard. But, that’s just part of it I guess.
Maybe sometimes as the drummer you get overlooked by some people since you’re in the back and not the center of the show, but that doesn’t get to me that much.
Well, being the drummer you kind of control the whole band in a way. Drums are the backbone of a song. If I slow down so does everyone else. That’s a neat thing knowing that.
Even though you’ve been focusing on drums, do you still find time to play any other instruments?
I’ve always considered myself more of a Musician in general then just a Drummer. I started on bass, so I know that. I picked up guitar when I was 10 and have been messing around with that ever since. Picked up a ukulele at a thrift store and taught myself that too. I have a project called “mumble mumble” that I record different stuff for every now and then that I guess showcases my “other side.” Kind of my “solo project” I guess.
So, I guess to wrap it up: any words of wisdom for aspiring drummers?
If you love something and have a passion for it, then do it. Doing what you love is the best feeling there is.
Drum wise specifically – feel the groove.
You can buy War Paint by Battle Ave on their bandcamp.
By Land or Sea’s Hell Broke Loose can be found on itunes
Interview by Rob Rubsam
Photos of By Land by Chris Rahm