The drummer finds balance on the road while electrifying indie’s newest stars.
For nearly two decades, drummer Sheridan Riley has worked with the intention to lead a life fulfilled as a proactive musician. From aspirations that began in middle school jazz combos that led to DIY bands comprised of talented friends throughout high school and beyond, Riley hustled by maintaining a solid endurance of skill, will, and modesty.
Now she’s proving herself to be a strong asset for the exceptionally popular Toronto-based indie-pop band Alvvays, on a run that lasts through mid September. The group is currently finishing up the tour cycle for their second album, Antisocialites, which was released in 2017. Known for their uplifting melodies and solid rhythm section, the band creates an energetic live performance that anyone can to move to.
After having been discovered while playing for Chris Cohen (solo, Deerhoof) in 2017, Riley was offered a trial show with Alvvays at the Treefort Music Fest in Boise after only a few rehearsals. Since then she’s locked in with the band, bringing forth a captivating flow of precision live. “They work with a lot of the same people,” Riley says. “And they’ve all known each other for a really long time. But it was interesting that they were willing to take this chance on someone they’d only seen play once.”
Riley started her career on the road in her final year of high school with the Sub Pop indie artist Avi Buffalo, with whom she toured relentlessly in between classes and writing sessions for two full-lengths. Now settled in Seattle, Riley has been diligently working on a solo album for her project Peg, along with recording and touring with the L.A.–based band Dante Elephante and Seattle’s Zen Mother. “I didn’t really think I’d seriously tour until a few years ago, even though I’d already [done some] touring,” she explains. “It’s something you can do if you want to. But I’m still trying to figure out the balance of how to move through life as a musician.”
Riley works to keep her creative flow consistent on the road. “When you’re on tour you kind of just feel like this utility,” she says. “You’re playing the same parts every night. I enjoy it, but I also feel like there’s a part of me that’s sort of on hold as a musician. So almost in a manic way, I’d pursue as much writing and recording work as possible, but then I’d run the risk of burning myself out and not having enough time to read books or go on walks. [Now] balancing tour and work life is about trying to find creative outlets that keep those parts of me in overdrive, and also trying to nurture personal relationships, which really matters to me.”
Riley says that her practice routine depends on repetition, and that she can’t live without a practice pad on the road. “I always try to warm up for an hour or so a day,” she says. “Alvvays’ tempos are pretty fast, and I’ve had to play louder than I’m used to. I end up pushing the beat more than I need to, so I always have that in mind when I’m practicing.”
When you watch Riley play live, it’s clear that she focuses in the practice shed on factors that make a noticeable difference onstage. With each of the many instruments that she explores—lately Riley’s been learning tabla—she embraces the tenacity required to refine her movements. “You know, when there’s a tom hit, it’s supposed to be a hit,” Riley says. “It has to carry out to everyone in this really effective, momentous way. I want the relatively simple drum parts to feel like this really propelling force for an hour to an hour-and-a-half.”
Riley insists that the relationships she builds while touring are the prime reason she remains so dedicated to her craft. “There’s a very deep level of love and support that can develop [on the road], and I think that can really inform the show, the performance, and the whole energy of the tour.” Indeed, Riley communicates a humble spirit with the power of her skills, yet makes sure you never forget that one, quintessential tom hit.
In the following Web Exclusive Q&A, Lia Braswell continues her discussion with Sheridan Riley.
Lia: Growing up, were you the only musician in your family?
Sheridan: My dad’s a hobby guitarist. Because of that, my parents were pretty supportive.
Lia: Did you envision yourself becoming a touring musician when you were starting to play more actively?
Sheridan: Not at first. I just wanted to make it into the middle school jazz band, and in high school there were other things that seemed more attainable that were just as exciting, like starting a band with the musicians I admired or with my friends. I like touring a lot, though. It’s become a bigger part of my life, but I was never that strategic about it. What about you?
Lia: As soon as I saw other bands doing it right after high school, I thought that it was the most fascinating thing to be able to play music in different places every night, meet new people and explore new land, or just get better at playing music. The movement itself of being in a new venue with a consistent environment, you have this intention to bring something to the people showing up. I want to give people the feeling that I had going to a show or going out of my way to go to a show in another city.
Sheridan: Growing up in Southern California, there are a lot of opportunities to see live music. It would be interesting touring through places that are much more remote, and have much less built into the community, and experiencing how live music is not common there. One of my favorite venues—it doesn’t exist anymore—was the Bottle Tree in Birmingham, Alabama. They had award-winning vegan chili, and I guess I don’t think of Birmingham as having a thriving vegan community, but this place really wanted bands to come. It was a good-sounding room, they were hospitable, and people came out. You could tell that it was an important entity to the city. Growing up in Long Beach, it wasn’t hard to find a show to go to, which was great but different.
Lia: What made you decide that Alvvays would be the band that you would tour most with at this time in your life?
Sheridan: I wanted to find a touring situation that was sustainable. I imagine you had this as well, where you’re balancing your role as a drummer with the satisfaction that you get, along with the inroads that you get in terms of making a living, but also needing creative outlets.
Lia: Did you know about the band before joining?
Sheridan: Yeah, I did. I was really surprised when they reached out. I got connected with them while I was on tour with Chris Cohen. We were opening for Andy Shauf in Toronto, which is where they’re from. So they emailed Chris and said they were in need of a drummer. I didn’t meet them in person until six months later playing Treefort Fest as a one-off audition.
Lia: Wow. Did you rehearse with them before the shows?
Sheridan: We had four or five rehearsals, but I was surprised by the whole thing.
Lia: It’s very telling of your musicianship as well. To perform without intending to get a gig like that but then impressing the right people.
Sheridan: Yeah, it was comforting. But it just happened at a point in my life where I wanted a different job situation. Alvays has their act together and they’re very nice. All of us have toured a lot over the years, and they’re really into doing tours in a very sustainable way—emotionally, psychologically, creatively. They try not to have plastic in the green rooms. I was twenty-five when I started playing with them, so I was at this turning point of growing up in Long Beach and playing in a bunch of DIY bands all of the time, but then started to ask myself, How do I keep growing and make it sustainable for myself? Alvvays is really committed and I like that.
Lia: How do you balance your tour life with your life at home?
Sheridan: When I would be on tour and then come back home, I’d be on that travel energy. I’d line up recordings or studio time for myself to balance things out. It’s nice to be able to practice again. Balancing tour and work life is attempting to find creative outlets that keep the parts of me in overdrive on tour working, but then also trying to nurture personal relationships, which really matters to me.
Lia: That’s hard to do when you’re traveling all of the time.
Sheridan: Our merch guy inspired me. He’d buy postcards and send them to people, and I thought, Oh that’s nice! It made me pay attention more to where I was, thinking, What part of Normal, Illinois, would I want to send to so-and-so back home? Little weird things like that make a big difference.
Lia: It shows people that you’re thinking of them, and they’re also mementos, which are super admirable! We [A Place to Bury Strangers] put them on our riders, especially in Europe. We get three local postcards with local stamps so we can send them out without stressing.
Sheridan: That’s so smart! Carry, the keyboardist in Alvvays, would send her nieces and nephews international postcards. I was endeared! She’s like the little bohemian traveling auntie. [laughs]
Lia: So about going in overdrive, I think that’s something a lot of us can relate to as musicians. Unless there’s the intention to change things up all the time, you’re pretty much playing the same songs, and to the same audience. How do you make everything worthwhile or creative? Is there anything you do in the car, like write music or lyrics, practice rudiments, or have different approaches to the live show?
Sheridan: Well, I always bring a practice pad. They ask me to play simple drum parts, and I want it to feel like this really propelling force for an hour and a half. I feel the pressure to make sure it’s something I’m doing every night. Oddly enough, I don’t get tired. I don’t get bored of playing those parts. It feels like a challenge.
Stick Control is also a main source of practice. I can zone out way more when I’m on the road. Time kind of flies by, whereas when I’m at home I practice differently.The things I rely on are the strong, personal bonds on tour, immersing in that, and practicing. I’ll keep track of personal developments, such as, “My forearm is doing great at 170 [bpm] today, last week it wasn’t.”
Lia: I really respect that. I’m quite the opposite, where I’ll think, Dang! You missed that snare hit! or You dropped a stick today, what’s wrong with you! [laughs]
Sheridan: I mean, is there anything worse than dropping a stick? [laughs] I have a stick bag, sticks on the rim of the kick drum, a little table set up with my in-ears and DI for the samples—I have other sticks lying there. I try to visualize, If I drop a stick, where will I grab it from? It’s never really come to my aid when I’ve dropped one, because then I just think, No…!
Lia: [laughs] Right, it doesn’t make the feeling of it actually happening that much better.
Sheridan: I appreciate that it means something to you, that you don’t have this cavalier, indifferent attitude. You think, No, that snare hit really did matter. The minute you feel indifferent to it all, that’s a bad sign. Even if it’s draining to care that much, I think you should.
Lia: For the first few shows, my body is tense and I get a ton of blisters. How do you break out of that in the beginning of tour and throughout the rest of it?
Sheridan: I practice keeping in touch with the control that I do have, and mindfulness. I feel lucky because we all get along really well. Their collective energy can be a very grounding force, knowing that we all want to do the best we can, knowing that we all believe in each other.
Over the years I’ve realized how important it is. I used to think, It’s all up to you. But I really think there’s a lot to be said to have supportive people around you, who push themselves but see the best in you and are patient with you, and can bring those qualities out of anyone. That’s the really nice thing about touring: the relationships you build with who you’re on tour with—if you get along! [laughs]. Also accepting that I’m on tour, and [being grateful that] while I have free time, I can look up Atlas Obscura and find this weird, unmarked statue and be excited about that, but also be grateful that I am going to play music tonight. It changes all the time. It takes staying in a good place emotionally, and feeling the gratitude for your bandmates, knowing that you’re all working hard on this, reveling in the team spirit of it all.
Lia: How do you take care of yourself on tour?
Sheridan: I try to do cardio most days. I started taking a jump rope on tour, and that’s been a game-changer. It’s portable and you can do it anywhere. I also stay sane by finding a park to run to. That’s been part of my ritual. It helps in most ways. I sleep better when I exercise.
Lia: How long have you been touring?
Sheridan: I first started going on tour with Avi Buffalo in the fall of 2009.
Lia: Wow, ten years now.
Sheridan: Yeah, off and on since then. Van tours mostly. Alvvays had a bus for part of last year and that was interesting.
Lia: Do you feel like there is any significant change or difference in how you approach touring from when you first started and where you’re at right now?
Sheridan: I think I’m a lot happier with it. I’m a lot better at staying out of my head and have struck a better balance at being an extrovert rather than an introvert. It took me a while to feel alive and present. One way you could look at it is that it’s really overstimulating. You’re in a new city every day. You’ve seen the many mountain ranges. For a while I didn’t really know how to appreciate it in the right way. But over the years I’ve ended up making really good friends by talking to locals after the shows, and I always have a good book. Just taking advantage of where you are—I do that more than I used to.
Lia: What about adventures on days off?
Sheridan: We usually don’t go as a big group, but some of us will wander off. I usually do that. I also don’t have to sing for an hour and a half. Molly is really conscious of not exerting her voice during the day. In the summer, I check out swimmingholes.net. Great resource.
Lia: In terms of musical influences that you’ve integrated into your style, are there any drummers that you feel most connected with?
Sheridan: I like a lot of drummers from our generation, such as Greg Saunier. I saw Deerhoof live for the first time when I was a junior in high school, and I was mesmerized. I hadn’t heard drums played that well. It felt really spastic and off the grid, but also totally driving. There is a sense of time but it isn’t what you’ve been programmed to think. I also really love Glenn Kotche from Wilco. He has got such a good rock pocket but he also does a lot of tricks with contact mics reminiscent of Steve Reich compositions that are really inspiring and cool. He does the drummer thing really well but then goes totally out there.
Listening to Talk Talk really got me into repetition. On their album Laughing Stock the drummer was so repetitive but kind of in this insane way. There’s really something intense to minimalism, like Can or krautrock. I used to think of simple as being boom bap, boom bap, but it’s this really intense commitment to being bold.
Lia: What are you working on now?
Sheridan: I’m working on finishing an album for my songwriting project, Peg. I started that when I was living out in Long Beach and I was playing guitar and fronting a five-piece. Then when I moved up to Seattle I changed it to a trio. It was fun learning how to play guitar and how to get a good amp tone, but it was also nice to remember that I’m most comfortable as a drummer. I’ve been making soundscapes out of a Korg Monologue synth that has a cool sequencer on it, making backing tracks with sequences and sound collages from voicemails or field recordings. It’s been a good excuse for me to think about rhythm more, and composition. I’ve also been taking tabla lessons. That’s been fun but also super intimidating.
Lia: It will pay off!
Sheridan: I remember Chris Cohen saying something about that. He loves to think of everything that he does in his life, whether it’s musical or not, as contributing to what he has to say creatively. He thinks of everything as [part of] a larger body of work, how this is going to inform something else down the line. Considering how much I love his music and am fascinated with all the music he’s made and how he has done it all of these years, it was interesting to hear that that’s his ongoing perspective. He doesn’t seem too worried about an immediate result. It’s this comfort with where you’re at now and enjoying it and believing in it.
Lia: That’s something to live by.
Sheridan: Part of me wants to go to music school and be that thirty-year-old doing counterpoint and being really confused. Another part of me thinks that that ship has sailed. But I feel like when you go to any art school, you’re immersed in the expectation of, “This is how you’ll keep doing this,” but it’s really easy to be let down, or for things to not go as you think they will. I’ve felt lucky, always having a little bit of freedom to feel flexible with what happens. It’s a matter of setting goals by having this flexible relationship with expectations and results. It’s easy to feel defeated or jaded if you’re looking for a certain outcome. It’s like you said earlier, when you can’t appreciate the magic of playing a show for people who really want to be there. When you get the respect of musicians you really respect, or the validation, acknowledgment, or encouragement, that’s what really keeps me going. It’s certainly not about, “Here’s your rent.” [laughs] There are these other more formless but ever present energies that are the guiding lights. It’s important to always work to improve, and as cliché as it is, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. It’s really just about enjoying this show right now, or being happy to sit at a drumset after not being able to sit at one because of restrictions. It’s those things that really keep me going.
Tools of the Trade
Sherridan Riley endorses Ludwig drums and plays a Club Date set with 9×13 and 16×16 toms and a 14×22 bass drum, with a 6.5×14 Copper Phonic snare. She also has a 1970 vintage Rogers kit with 9×13 and 16×16 toms and a 14×20 bass drum. Her cymbals include an Istanbul Agop Mel Lewis and Idris Muhammad Signature rides, Traditional 18″ crash, and 15″ Traditional medium hi-hats, plus a pair of vintage mid-’60s Zildjian “super thin, very papery” hi-hats. For sticks she chooses between ProMark Shira Kashi 5As and 747s. (“With Alvvays it’s usually the 747s—they really never break!”) Her drumheads include Remo Coated Pinstripe tom batters Ambassador Coated resonants, Controlled Sound X snare batter, and a Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter. (“With other projects I usually use Emperors,” Sheridan adds. “And I really like the Vintage Ambassadors quite a lot, especially in the studio.”) She uses Roots EQ tone controllers and Big Fat Snare dampeners.
Also on the Road
Michel Langevin with Voivod /// Rob Rolfe with Enter Shikari /// Larry Herweg with Pelican /// Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, and Jeremy Stacey with King Crimson /// Jay Weinberg with Slipknot /// Jeff Simon with George Thorogood and the Destroyers /// Andy Woodard and Jola with Adam Ant