Sex Cymbals: 6 Austin Drummers Breaking the Gender Barrier
Meet powerful women smashing the notion that drumming is a man’s game
By Tobin Levy
Photographs by Jackie Lee Young
The late, great jazz drummer Buddy Rich once said, “Every drummer that had a name had a name because of his individual playing. He didn’t sound like anybody else.” Note the masculine pronoun. While the annals of music history are rife with female drummers—Karen Carpenter, Viola Smith, Sheila E., Moe Tucker and Cindy Blackman, to name a few—drumming has traditionally been treated as a man’s game.
Texas Music Hall of Famer Paul Minor likens the obstacles faced by female drummers to those faced by women in the military. “I can imagine people similarly doubting whether women have the kind of stamina or strength required to do the job,” says Minor. “But I feel like that mindset has been overcome, at least in our community.” Indeed, Austin boasts more than a few topnotch female drummers, who transfix listeners with their signature styles and warrant name recognition.
They include Karen Biller, Karrie Sheehan, Lindsay Beaver, Lisa Pankratz, Masumi Jones and Nina Singh. We brought them together at Arlyn Studios to talk about their experience in the Austin music scene.
Karen Biller’s career as a professional drummer spans more than 20 years, reflecting both an affinity for challenges and a deftness at vaulting among musical genres. In addition to Rosie Flores, she plays full time— as Karen “Scaren Killer” Biller—with Pretties for You, an all-women Alice Cooper tribute band.
“When I first started playing drums, it was all hard rock and heavy metal. I feel like I’m definitely a rocker at heart,” says Biller. Growing up in Indiana, she was often told that girls couldn’t play drums. “I was pretty rebellious as a youngster and I loved playing drums, so I decided that’s exactly what I was going to do.”
Her parents, neither of whom are musicians, were supportive, enduring countless hours of Metallica and Megadeth on their daughter’s behalf. Biller went on to earn a degree in classical percussion from Indiana University, where she also played with a jazz big band. Then, in 1994, Biller moved to Austin. The weather was right, the rent was affordable, and “you could go out and play every night and learn your craft,” she says. She plied her trade at venues up and down Sixth Street. “I was able to develop all these styles of music that I hadn’t developed at that point.” This included country, swing, roots and surf music and led to performing with folks such as Cornell Heard, Johnny Bush and Teisco Del Rey.
Today, Biller performs with Rosie Flores and Pretties for You, as well as pickup shows with musicians such as Lara Price and Chaparral. When not drumming, she’s samba dancing. In just a few years, her favorite pastime quickly morphed from something she “wanted to try” into glittery costumes, feathered headdresses and a place on center stage at the Austin Samba school. “To me, dancing and drumming are the same thing,” she says. “It’s all rhythm. I love it!”
Being a percussionist in a male-dominated field has had its annoyances. The falsehood that women drummers can’t hit hard persists. “I’m like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’” says Biller. “No one has ever had to ask me to play louder. I’m going to play what fits the music. I play a lot harder than a lot of men do. And I have a lot of energy, so I have to kind of hold myself back sometimes.”
This isn’t the only myth she confronts. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘You’re the only woman I’ve ever seen playing drums,’ and I’m like, well, do they not go out very much? Because in Austin there are a lot of great female drummers.”
Biller is a captivating force, with thousands of shows to choose from when asked for the most memorable. Gigs stand out in different ways, but it’s the Country Cruise she circles back to. One particular show coincided with 40-foot swells: “So I’m at a 45-degree angle trying to play drums and I have all these other musicians watching me. That was fun.”
Karrie Sheehan displays an uncanny ability to remain optimistic in torrential rain, like the time she rode a February nor’easter up the East Coast in a Ford Transit with country singer Bonnie Montgomery. “It was scary, but fun,” she says. “It’s what I love about touring. You kind of lose yourself in it and forget all of the mundane things. You’re just in this very creative world. You see all these different places, meet all these different people. And when you get good responses, it’s just really heartwarming. It really reaffirms why you do what you do.”
Besides Montgomery, Sheehan also plays with Summer Dean, Ella Reid, the Rollfast Ramblers and Fire Women (an all-female tribute band to The Cult). She has performed with local favorites such as the Texas Tycoons and Dale Watson, playing everything from Western swing to gothic rock. She even plays djembe drum at her yoga studio in Buda, where she lives. “I aim to play as many genres as I’m able with whoever asks,” says Sheehan, who’s fiery, fearless and seemingly tireless, teaching drumming and working two part-time jobs on top of her regular gigs.
The 39-year-old took up drumming at 24. Starting relatively late in life presented far more challenges than her gender. “Early on, if there were times I wasn’t taken seriously, it was because I wasn’t where I needed to be skill-wise,” she says. “It might sound weird, but I don’t really feel like I have a gender when I’m playing. I do want to feel like I’m representing [women] well, of course.”
Some of the best advice she’s received came from women drummers, including Lisa Pankratz, who offered invaluable insight soon after Sheehan moved to Austin from her hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Gearing up to play with Kathy Valentine’s all-female band, The Bluebonnets, Sheehan admits that she was nervous. “And Lisa, who’s one of my favorite drummers, told me, ‘A hit with intention means a lot more than a hit that’s on time but doesn’t seem like you meant to do it.’ So, basically, no matter what, play with confidence. And I took that with me.”
Sheehan speaks with enormous gratitude for the friends and fellow musicians who’ve offered sage and supportive words. Part of what she loves about drumming is honing the art of listening to bandmates and connecting with an audience through sound. She’s hoping to do the same in Europe one day. “I’ve just got to keep going at it,” she says. For Sheehan, there’s no doubt about it: it’s just a matter a time.
Lindsay Beaver is a blues-rocking, soul-singing drummer, songwriter and bandleader. She’s the first Canadian to be signed to Alligator Records, a label she shares with one of her heroes, Texas legend Marcia Ball. Four years ago, friend and mentor Jimmie Vaughan introduced her to his hometown, where, at 35, Beaver has made a career on the stage’s foreground, standing front and center at her kit. “A friend likens it to yodeling while playing soccer,” says Beaver of singing while drumming. “And it’s kind of true.”
A classically trained vocalist, Beaver’s passion for drumming was accidental and instantaneous. She was 19 and singing in a jazz band. Rehearsals were at her house. Rather than have the drummer shuttle his kit back and forth, Beaver’s father gifted her one.
“I started playing and was hooked,” she says. Initially, she maintained a kind of split musical personality, relegating her vocal skills to jazz gigs and saving her drumming chops for a regular blues jam.
Beaver, who went on to study jazz drumming in Toronto, has spent the majority of her career fronting bands rather than working as a side person. Nonetheless, she’s grown accustomed to people automatically deferring to the first guy who walks into the room as opposed to her. “My bandmates have always been wonderful in that they always say, ‘You know, I’m not in charge. Go talk to her.’”
Still, she’s learned to send a sheet detailing the stage arrangement to venues beforehand.
“I’m the front person and I’m 5-foot-1, and sitting in the back just doesn’t work. My kit has to be in front. It’s not a vanity thing, it’s a sound thing. But I’ve had to fight over it so much, and I do think it’s because it’s a gender thing.”
For Beaver, if wishes were free, “the gender thing” would be a moot point in the music industry. “It’s the playing that has to come first, and that’s always been my mandate. Forget what I look like. How do I sound?”
Beaver’s commitment to sound is why she fell in love with Austin. “I remember coming here in November to do my first record, and I fell in love with the city. I fell in love with the fact that it wasn’t freezing in November. And I fell in love with how many great musicians there are. This city is full of so much talent, it’s insane.”
Beaver balances a gloriously noise-filled life with the quiet of Driftwood. This spring, she’ll head into Austin at least once a week for a not-to-be-missed Tuesday night show at Antone’s.
At 52, Lisa Pankratz has established herself as a premier roots drummer and a side musician with the magnetism of a frontwoman. She toured with the late rockabilly icon Ronnie Dawson and has been performing with the Grammy-winning Dave Alvin for more than a decade. She’s played Carnegie Hall, the Grand Ole Opry and “Austin City Limits,” the latter many times over.
“No one ever told me no,” says Pankratz when talking about her musical journey and a running theme in fan commentary. “I never expected how many people would get in touch just to say thank you for inspiring them. It’s because at one point in their life they were literally told, ‘You are not allowed to do this. Period.’” The “this” isn’t always music-related and the people reaching out include men and women.
Pankratz, who was born in Austin, grew up watching her father play drums with his reggae band at the Armadillo World Headquarters, where, as the toddler of a young musician, she was a regular. Her childhood memories include the aroma of biergarten chalupas and an enviable list of live performances by Dr. John, The Pointer Sisters and her uncle’s band, Greezy Wheels. As a teen, she was sitting in at gigs at Liberty Lunch. “I had a lot of good opportunities living in a wonderful town and coming from a family that really embraced music,” she says.
Growing up, Pankratz wasn’t immune to cultural skepticism about female drummers. “The idea that you need to be a boy to play this kind of music, we would joke about it quite a bit, because at a certain point you got to get past that stuff and realize it’s about who can play and who can’t play.”
Pankratz is, however, amenable to the idea that being a woman or, more specifically, having “women’s intuition,” has its stylistic advantages. “I might take slings and arrows,” says Pankratz. “It doesn’t mean it’s better [to be a female drummer] or anything like that. But I do think there’s an empathy to the song and to the musicians around me that helps me be a musician and a side person. If part of that has to do with the fact that I’m female, then so be it. I’m sure there’s a flip side of that, to bringing the experience. Ultimately, we’re all speaking the same language.”
When Masumi Jones was 14 years old, she was living in Fukuyama, Japan, dreaming of life as a drummer in a pop band. She hadn’t yet heard of Austin, Texas, or taken a drum lesson. Now 47, Jones radiates gratitude for realized dreams and all things music. She’s a staple at the Elephant Room, playing Tuesday and Thursday Happy Hour with Sarah Sharp and Mitch Watkins, respectively, and every first and third Wednesday with the Jitterbug Vipers.
Jones’ trajectory from hopeful adolescent to drumming virtuoso is a colorful one. She spent her teenage years in a medley of Japanese punk and pop-rock cover bands and under the musical tutelage of a drummer who introduced her to jazz. From the moment she heard Count Basie, she was hooked.
From there, it was Waseda University in Tokyo and an all-female big band, followed by Berklee College of Music in Boston, where Jones formed a Japanese female trio, Groovin’ Girls. Featured in a short documentary screened at SXSW in 2017, the group played jazz festivals, made records and formed a reunion tour.
Because gender roles are more strictly defined in Japan, Jones’ primary obstacle as a female drummer was social scrutiny.
“Society, mostly old people, doesn’t like women working at night. Especially when they are mothers, working at night is a scandal,” says Jones, a working mom who returned to Tokyo after Boston. “I was fortunate my family understood my situation and helped me a lot, but working late nights—in concert halls, bars or at studio sessions—was very tough mentally.”
In 2008, Jones moved from Japan to Austin, sight unseen. Her friends back home are still skeptical. “They think outside of Japan is very dangerous—guns, drugs, crimes,” she says with a laugh. So far, aside from the heat, the surprises have been good ones. “People are so kind here,” she says, “and there are so many venues with live music.”
In Austin, Jones has her tentacles in music at all times. “My nickname is Tako, which means “octopus” in Japanese. People say I play like an octopus.” Though far outnumbered by drums and cymbals when she plays, her arms reign over her instrument, even when her eyes are shut, which they usually are.
“A lot of people ask me why I do that,” says Jones. “I heard that processing what we see uses up to 80 percent of brain energy. I think I’m closing my eyes not to waste energy, and to concentrate, to listen.”
With a career that spans more than three decades, Nina “the Queena” Singh is a straight-shooting 5-foot-2 force to be reckoned with, offering a wealth of industry insights and tales from the road. Her musical moniker, petite stature and playing style have earned her a trove of affectionate nicknames. Gordie Johnson, of Grady, with whom she played for many years, anointed her with the royal designation. Musician Davíd Garza affectionately calls her Funky Niña, but Singh likes to throw folks off with a less decorous descriptor. “I like to say I’m a drum ho,” she says, “because I’m a jobber, meaning, as a drummer, I play the field and perform with a bunch of different bands.”
Singh often fields questions about life as a female drummer. “I always just say I don’t know anything different,” she laughs. “But whether or not something is going to come easy shouldn’t matter. It should be, if that’s what I’m passionate about, that’s what I’m going to do.”
When it comes to her career, Singh’s obstacles were cinematic. Her father was a head Sikh priest at the Golden Temple in India. He moved his family to Vancouver, where Singh was born, to lead services at a new temple. “The chances of a Sikh priest’s daughter going out and becoming a rock-and-roll drummer are very slim. It’s unheard of,” she says.
As soon as she was old enough, Singh left home for Los Angeles and landed her first big touring gig. “Everyone but the saxophone player tried to make a move on me,” says Singh, who was the only woman on the tour. In her experience, that kind of touring nightmare is the exception, not the rule. But at the time, her references were limited, so she put down her drumsticks, moved back to Vancouver and quit. And then she went stir-crazy. “I started imagining myself as an old woman,” she says, “like being all crotchety and mean to people because I never followed through with my so-called dream and my ambition.”
Singh returned to Los Angeles and stayed for seven years. “In Hollywood, it felt like everyone working a regular job was dissatisfied and waiting to be discovered,” she remembers. “When I started visiting Austin, I thought, ‘Wow, these people are just happy to be working—at H-E-B, Planet K, wherever. They are just really friendly and grateful. This is where I belong.’”