Riley Breckenridge: Thrice Basher

Riley Breckenridge

Thrice’s Drummer Wanted To Play A Club Gig, But Changed His Life Instead

By Andrew J. Nusca Published In DRUM! Magazine's January 2008 Issue

If you’re looking for Riley Breckenridge, you might want to check the insane asylum.

Each morning, while the rest of the world sleeps, the 32-year-old Thrice drummer inevitably finds himself confined to a small, rectangular room — alone. The stark, almost-uncomfortably white walls are nearly equidistant from him when he sits in the center, roughly seven or eight feet to each side, and a faint smell of gasoline and oil seeps from the floor. There isn’t much padding on the blanched walls — and there isn’t much in the way of windows, either. The temperature usually hovers around 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The room is so small, in fact, that during visiting hours, the rest of the band is virtually standing on top of each other.

When Breckenridge is in this room — a little slice of isolationist heaven that’s of the band’s own doing — day turns from night to day without much fanfare. When he sits in his favorite corner of the secluded room on an unassuming street in a cookie-cutter suburb of Southern California, he is closed off from the rest of society — lost in the depths of his own thoughts.

Today, Breckenridge has an unsettling smile on his face — call it relieved — and his shirt is saturated with sweat. The reason? For the last four hours, he’s been beating an inanimate object senseless, his forearms flexed and taut from the unforgiving battery of force. His forehead is streaked with sweat. Mutilated hickory litters the floor around his feet.

It’s the kind of moment that makes you wonder where the straightjacket is — and how close your hand is to the doorknob.

In reality, the sanitarium of Breckenridge’s dreams is actually an old two-car garage, repurposed into a small studio, and the inanimate object in question is really a clear, acrylic Orange County Drum & Percussion drum kit, adorned with pure Zildjian bronze. Before Thrice began writing for Vheissu, their last full-length album, the quartet pooled their resources together and converted the detached garage adjacent to the house where guitarist Teppei Teranishi and his wife lived. The Teranishis have since moved out (they still play landlord), and Breckenridge has moved in to conduct his personal experiment in solitary confinement.

“It’s kind of semi-torturous, but I like it in a way,” he says. “To have the studio here to be able to play whenever I wanted to, it helped out so much, even in the writing process. We do a demo for a song and do it to a click, then they pull the drums out, leave the click, and I’d essentially have an entire song to mess around with. I feel bad if I’m always trying out a new fill and make the guys go through it. On my iPod, I could run through a chorus until I got sick of it.”

Now, on the cusp of releasing the first of two new albums, The Alchemy Index Vols. I And II: Fire & Water (Vols. III And IV: Air & Earth will follow on its heels), Breckenridge is hunkering down in his disguised bunker of sound, going through the motions behind a real, full-size kit — no V-Drums or practice kits here — and writing.

“I’m constantly writing everything, almost obsessively,” he says. “I have [music production software] Reason at the house, I’ve got the studio at my disposal, I’ve got [recording software] Garageband and I’m sitting in my room messing with my guitar and bass.”

The mad scientist couldn’t be happier.

From Dreams To Drums. Riley Breckenridge started playing drums in what many would consider the most unlikely of ways: with a seriously injured leg, thanks to a flag football play that went horribly awry.

“I went out on the deep route and the QB overthrew me,” Breckenridge says. “As I came down on my right leg, somebody hit me. My knee bent the wrong way and I tore two of the major ligaments in my knee.”

Since as long as he can remember, Breckenridge was an athlete to the core, playing baseball, basketball, football, and soccer throughout his childhood. But joining a summer passing league before his senior year of high school would change all that. “I ended up completely destroying my knee,” he says. It also forced him off the field for ten months to a year. So with an athlete’s impatience and little mobility, Breckenridge decided to turn to music.

“I needed to do something or I was going to go crazy,” Breckenridge says. “So my Mom and I went and bought some crappy kit out of The Recycler, some sort of crappy Craigslist thing. I think I got it for $100. I didn’t even know what kind of kit it was. It was a complete piece of crap — but that’s fine, because I was crappy too.”

As soon as he was able, Breckenridge started his own punk rock band, with Bad Religion, NoFX, Slayer, and Iron Maiden as inspiration. It was a modest but faulted start. “I never really took lessons, so I started to develop bad habits,” Breckenridge says. “Just playing tense, which I’m still fighting. Learning how to separate your limbs a little bit more. Realizing that you have a left hand. It was like, ’Whoa, I have a whole other limb here, and thinking that fast was the only way to play.”

Within a year’s time, Breckenridge was off to Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and with his injured knee fully healed, he put down his drum sticks in exchange for a decidedly bigger hunk of wood — a Louisville Slugger. He began playing baseball for the school, but became increasingly disappointed in the playing time he was getting. A car crash involving friends was the final nail in the coffin, he says, and he trekked back home after only two years.

“I had three friends die in a single car accident,” Breckenridge says. “It kind of freaked me out. One of them was my freshman-year roommate at Pepperdine. I decided to come home and be close to friends and family and play baseball.”

After a short stint playing ball for Golden West Junior College in Huntington Beach, California, Breckenridge enrolled at Long Beach State, but was plagued by the same problems he had at Pepperdine. “I realized that I was getting poor playing time there, too, and I put away the baseball glove and bat,” he says. “My whole life I wanted to be a pro baseball player. I realized that that wasn’t going to happen. I broke up with the girl I had been dating for five years too — realized that wasn’t going to happen. I thought, ’What am I going to do with myself?’”

Place And Time. As the cliché goes, it would turn out to be just the right twist of fate. Breckenridge regrouped with his brother Eddie — who at the time was skating with Teppei Teranishi — and high school friend Dustin Kensrue to start a band.

“I hadn’t played much drums in college, so I thought, ’Yeah, might as well,’” Breckenridge says. “Plus, I got an English degree from Long Beach State in 2000 after a year-and-a-half hiatus — that’s another reason I asked myself, ’What am I doing?’”

The newly formed band played “wherever we could,” from house parties to garage gigs — even via youth groups Kensrue was involved with at the church he attended. “We really played anywhere someone would let us plug in and play,” he says, adding that one of the first places the band played was Orange County favorite, Chain Reaction. “One of our early goals was, ’Man, wouldn’t it be great to play an actual show in a real club?’”

According to Breckenridge, Kensrue met former Final Conflict singer Ron Martinez through his job at Greene Records. The band anointed Martinez as head cheerleader, securing themselves a handful of gigs at Chain Reaction. It made all the difference, Breckenridge says. “The promoter there kind of took notice of us. We were playing at Chain Reaction every couple of months. Once we built up a little fan base there, we started branching out to other clubs. People liked what they heard, and kept coming out.”

Encouraged by the solid turnout at their gigs, Breckenridge and the others got together and laid down their first recorded tracks on their own — a “horrible” seven-track EP, Breckenridge says, named First Impressions. “I think I still have a couple copies floating around in my parents’ garage that I’m going to burn when I get off the phone with you,” he says, only half-jokingly. Martinez pushed them to record a full-length album, and the band obliged, recording “in some dump somewhere.” The early recordings would become the dry runs for 2000’s full-length Identity Crisis.

“For Identity Crisis, we hooked up with Paul Miner, who used to be in Death By Stereo,” he says. “We got in the studio in Orange County and recorded it and put it out on a label called Green Flag Records — which was started at the indie record store Dustin worked at.”

With a new manager, the band started getting Identity Crisis out to the local scene, including a local publication named Scratch. A writer at the magazine, Ashley Rose, connected the band to Hopeless/Sub City Records head Louis Posen, and Posen had the band signed by 2000. It was a quick but difficult transition.

“I was working at a golf course, in the pro shop, for 40 to 50 hours a week, waking up at 5:30 in the morning to deal with golfers,” he says. “We started getting offers for tours. One of the first tours we got to do was with a band named Flickshoes. I remember having a really hard time getting off work.”

With three members still in college, Thrice made the decision to drop everything and support their music full-force. With newfound freedom, the band ventured outside the county and state, playing weekend shows as far away as Las Vegas — “a home away from home,” Breckenridge says — and signing on as the opening band for the Hopeless/Sub City “Take Action” tour in 2001, which featured such acts as The Alkaline Trio, Cave In, and Hot Water Music.

“That was probably, for me at least, the defining moment of the band,” Breckenridge says. “Not only because it was our first U.S. tour, but because of the bands we were playing with and the crowds we were playing for. We started to understand what it was really like to be in a band — a touring band.”

The experience helped Breckenridge mature from being a wide-eyed, inexperienced drummer. “It doesn’t matter who I’m on tour with, I’m always copping fills,” he says. “J.R. Conners of Cave In and the Doomriders — he was just an unbelievable player to me. I know Dave Grohl likes Cave In, and when Dave Grohl likes you as a drummer, you’re frickin’ good. That is the moment that I am waiting for — the moment to meet and shake Dave Grohl’s hand.”

But it was a milestone show the year before that truly solidified Breckenridge’s realization that Thrice was becoming more than a weekend hobby, he says. “The first time I ever realized it — and I think it was same time that our parents realized it — was in 2000, when we played a show at the House Of Blues in Anaheim. It was the biggest show we’d ever played — the capacity was 900 or 950, when the clubs we were playing before were more like 400. So we took a leap to try to play a bigger venue. We thought we were going to play a half-empty club, but we ended up selling out. To have all our parents there to see that made us realize that we might have been onto something. It was a really cool moment.”

With significant touring under their belts, the band members reentered the studio with producer Brian McTernan to record their second official full-length, 2002’s The Illusion Of Safety. The album’s 13 blistering tracks garnered positive reviews across the map. After that, it was the kind of serial success that garage bands dream of. With major-label attention, the band signed with Island Records, releasing the major debut, The Artist In The Ambulance, in 2003. After two years of exposure on MTV and elsewhere, the band released Vheissu, a marked departure for the post-hardcore band that includes strings, electronics, and other instrumentation.

It would be the band’s first taste of something greater.

Capturing The Elements. For a band that’s trying to complicate its music as it matures, breaking things down into its individual elements seems counterintuitive. But that’s exactly the objective for The Alchemy Index, Thrice’s new, sprawling opus that pushes the experimentation of Vheissu to the forefront. Split into four volumes across two albums — Fire & Water, Air & Earth — the project explores the extremes of the band’s sonic palette.

“The idea for the concept was actually something that Dustin came up with when we were on tour for our last record,” he says. “What if we were to approach the writing and arrangements and lyrics for this next record or records with a specific writing goal in mind, as far as sonic and lyrical themes go? We were all kind of into it. It’s important to challenge ourselves in some ways every time we get around to making a record.”

In the first installment, Vol. 1, Breckenridge pushes his own abilities to the maximum, combining the balls-to-the-wall physical assault of Fire and the explorative percussive electronics of the pensive Water. For all the complexity, mulling over minutiae — the band’s signature habit — was exactly what they tried to avoid.

“We tried to make the recording and writing go as quickly as possible,” he says. “We’ve definitely been in a habit of overthinking stuff and beating stuff to death before it gets to tape. We tried to avoid that this time and kind of record on the fly.”

The truncated process also helped Breckenridge temper his signature studio moment: the mid-session freak-out. “I have a meltdown every recording session,” he confesses. “This time around, the meltdown was far more manageable. There’s such finality to recording, and I beat myself up a lot over parts, which makes it even harder to play because you’re overthinking stuff. Once it’s on tape, it’s done. You can’t fix it.”

But the process of creating the lengthy, divide-and-conquer project — cumbersome for any band short of Led Zeppelin — has been especially influential on Breckenridge. An admittedly apprehensive drummer, Breckenridge says the development and relaxation of his technique behind the kit is at the heart of the evolution in the band’s heavier sound.

“I think I’ve always been a really tense player in a way, and I think it’s kind of twofold — one reason being the kind of stuff we started out playing, the fast punk stuff,” he says. “When you’re young, fast is always better than anything else.”

Breckenridge remembers that producer Steve Osborne’s feel for rhythm was particularly influential during the Vheissu sessions. “When he was moving his head along to a beat, it moved in a totally different way than ours was,” he says, adding that The Alchemy Index is just further exploration into that territory. “It’s much more groove-based,” he says. “As our music has gotten slower, it’s important to try to focus on having a good feel and letting things breathe. A lot of that is electronic and programmed stuff.”

Nowhere is programmed percussion more evident than during Water, where laconic bleeps and bloops pitter-patter and swirl around the stilted swing of Breckenridge’s textured playing. In some ways, Water plays to Breckenridge’s strengths — slyly imitating a metronome shouldn’t be so hard for a tense drummer, after all — yet it provides the ultimate challenge for a musician who usually turns the aggression up to a scorching 11, especially in a live setting.

“The song ’The Whaler’ actually came from a beat I was messing around with in sound check on tour, and when we got home I ended up flipping it into Reason and seeing what I could turn it into,” he says. “When we play it live, I’m actually going to be playing over the loop. That’s a whole other monster — playing live to a click, playing live to loops. That’s something that’s helped me transition from playing fast stuff without a click to playing slower stuff with a click. It’s having it there to keep you grounded and knowing how much space you have between beats — using it as a guide, but not being a slave to it.”

And if someone were to stand right next to Breckenridge during the muscular “Firebreather,” harsh “Backdraft,” or massive “Burn The Fleet” on the preceding Fire volume, they might get singed. “I really like playing the Fire stuff because I feel really comfortable and really enjoy just bashing, as counterproductive as that is in being more relaxed behind the kit,” he says. “I’m trying to learn how to relax and bash at the same time.”

Moving Forward. When it comes to hitting the road, Breckenridge has one thing — well, seven, actually — that he takes to remind him of home: an Anaheim Angels baseball cap. “I’m an Angels diehard,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve missed — on TV, on radio, in person — a single game. I live about five to ten minutes from the stadium. I was born and raised in the Angels stand. If the Angels win the World Series, I’m going to be stoked and losing my mind in a sports bar in Anytown, USA. That’s how ridiculous of a fan I am.”

So ridiculous, in fact, that during a 2002 show in Minnesota (home of rival team; the Twins), Breckenridge wore an Angels shirt while he was onstage — “just to piss them off. I represent my team,” he says, laughing.

But when the Angels somehow can’t be reached, Breckenridge has something else that few other musicians (with the exception of Alex Van Halen) have on the road — his brother Eddie. It’s an incredible asset. “Having a brother there — it’s been awesome,” he says. “When I went away to college, it was rough for both of us, because we were really, really close growing up. That weird high school time — I wasn’t there for that. So it’s so cool to be able to experience this all with a relative. It’s such a cool, unique experience — to be able to have someone you know your entire life to be there and to be there every step of the way, makes being away from home a little less rough.”

It’s all that much the harder for the Breckenridge parents, who have to deal without both of their boys. “They’re dealing with empty-nest syndrome,” he says, laughing. “When we’re home, my brother and I go over to the folks’ house for dinner every Sunday night. I go to Angels games with my dad. I talk on the phone with my mom. They’re always out to every local show we play. They were supportive from the beginning.”

But Breckenridge says this year’s tour will be different. With new members of the extended Thrice family hanging around — both Teranashi and Kensrue have newborn children — the upcoming tour might become a little more of a family affair. “We make it work on tour,” he says. “This is actually the first tour we’ll do since they’ve had kids. That’s going to be interesting.”

No matter how high the Thrice trajectory gets, Breckenridge says he’s constantly reminded that the original vision for the band was endearingly modest. “The fact that we’re doing this at all is amazing to me and incredibly meaningful to me,” he says. “We didn’t start a band to get signed. We didn’t start a band to tour. There was no goal. The goal was, ’Wouldn’t it be cool to play a show in a club?’ We were just kids that started a band. The fact that we made a career out of it is definitely a blessing.”

Breckenridge’s Kit

Drums: OCDP Acrylic
  • 1. 24" x 20" Bass Drum
  • 2. 14" x 8" Snare
  • 3. 14" x 10" Tom
  • 4. 18" x 16" Floor Tom
Cymbals: Bosphorus Stanton Moore Series
  • A. 15" Hi-Hats
  • B. 20" Crash
  • C. 22" K Ride
  • D. 21" Crash
Electronics: Roland
  • E. SPD Sampling Pad

Riley Breckenridge also uses Vater sticks, Remo heads, and DW hardware and pedals.

Groove Analysis

Thrice’s Challenging Odd Meter Workout

Thrice’s formula combines catchy heavy riffs, pop melodies, and an ample dose of atmosphere. On the band’s new release, The Alchemy Index, Vol. 1 & 2, Riley Breckenridge’s powerful drumming helps ground the band’s progressive leanings. Their song “The Arsonist” puts this skill to the test with an opening riff in 6/4, on which Breckenridge plays a slamming drum part while punishing his crash cymbal. He uses thirty-second-note double bass ruffs to bring out count 4 of the pattern. He follows the guitar riff in the eighth bar, but adds a lot of fills to kick up the intensity. At 1:06 Breckenridge changes the groove, still with lots of offbeat accents and often playing his snare drum on count 1, which keeps the pattern from feeling grounded until the following section. Here the time signature shifts from 5/4 to 6/4 and Breckenridge plays a sloshy hi-hat groove with a consistent snare hit on 3 and a similar bass drum pattern for each measure. The last two lines show the frantic two-handed sixteenth-note hi-hat groove that Breckenridge uses to drive the band into the next break.

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