BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | ROBERT DOWNS PHOTOS | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Don’t let his friendly demeanor and disarming smile fool you—Todd Sucherman is a ferocious beast when he gets behind a drum set, capable of tearing your musical mind to shreds with his sharp command of snapping backbeats, polyrhythmic four-limb independence, and blazing-fast ride patterns. But he will also be the first to tell you he can always get better, and even the master clinician behind the renowned Methods and Mechanics educational DVDs, who has toured the world with Styx for the past 24 years, had a moment of self-doubt during the making of The Mission, the band’s first album of new music in 14 years.
“I thought the drums were a little far back in the mix, and definitely a little ’70s-sounding,” says Sucherman, the 49-year-old self-proclaimed “baby” in a group of classic-rock icons. “My first thought was, Boy, I hope they’re happy with what I did. I hope they’re not trying to bury it.”
But then it hit him: They were going for the sound of records made when he was a child. On records in that era, drums weren’t typically set in the front of the mix. “It took me a little bit to realize that they were completely making it seem like it was this lost album from the vaults—we found this lost album from 1978.” And incredibly, that’s exactly what it sounds like.
In classic Styx form, The Mission is a concept album about a voyage to Mars in the year 2033. It’s chock full of sweet harmonies, catchy guitar riffs, and ripping, deceptively proggy odd-time drumming. The lyrics don’t mention email, politics, or anything else that hints at the modern era. The whole thing was recorded analog, start to finish. It was released on vinyl. In today’s download-driven, auto-tuned, sample-heavy music landscape, there’s no way this album should have worked in the pop arena. And yet, when it was released in 2017 it peaked at #45 on the Billboard Top 200, the highest mark for a Styx album since 1983’s Kilroy Was Here.
“It had all the makings for critics to samurai sword the thing into a million pieces,” says Sucherman. “I really think we shocked everybody.”
From the start, the plan was to capture that classic Styx magic. “There’s only been a couple times when I recorded to tape, but the times that I have, you’re reminded, Oh, yeah, that’s wonderful,” says Sucherman. “Listen to the toms, how warm they are. You hit a crash cymbal and it’s like the ocean—just a soft wave in Hawaii kind of crashing over you. It really is something special.”
He adds, “That helps you get inspired when you’re recording because you can’t wait to listen to playback.”
After listening to some demos from guitarist Tommy Shaw, Sucherman sat down and got to work at his home studio in Austin, Texas. Three weeks later when the band gathered to record at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios, he had the parts almost completely composed. “Basically,” he says, “I did the whole record in two days. Because I was just bang, bang, bang, bang—I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I knew exactly what snare drums I wanted to use, and what cymbal changes.”
CHANNELING TOM WAITS
Even though the album sounds like the band had jumped into a time machine back to their old rehearsal space from their golden years, one of the few modern touches on the album was the drum set. “We had all vintage gear, but the drums were modern Pearl drums and Pearl snares,” says Sucherman. “I think I used a Stanbridge on a couple pieces, and a Joyful Noise on one or two. But it was just the way that it was captured.”
Sucherman also got a chance to bust out his Waterphone—a handheld, spaceship-like, saucer-bottomed instrument played by bowing its tines and swirling it around so the water in its base radically alters the timbre—for an otherworldly contribution to the album’s shortest composition: an 18-second segue called “All Systems Stable.”
“We were talking about some weird space-sounding stuff and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this Waterphone, let me record some bits and I’ll send it to you,’” he says. “So that’s how that worked out, and I got one-third of a writing credit on that record.”
Sucherman does have an affinity for experimenting with gear, and relishes the moments he gets to play with the percussion toys in his studio. “I don’t have time to sit at home and get all my Tom Waits soundscaping things together, but I do love that stuff,” he says. “And there’ve been a couple Styx records where I picked up a case full of shakers and some metal stuff and slammed it on the floor for some soundscaping effects … I do enjoy doing that and wish I had the opportunity to do more.”
Having an acoustic arsenal at his disposal comes in handy when looking for inspiration on a session. “I might be working on a track where all of a sudden I might think that a talking drum would sound cool. Or that I hear some sort of pattern, or pull out any sort of weird metallic percussion things, or Keplinger ching rings, just hitting those together. It can take on a flavor of its own.”
Take one look around the walls of dozens of gorgeous snare drums lining his home studio, and it’s apparent that Sucherman has a love for gear. It’s only the fact that he’s physically running out of space that keeps his Gear Acquisition Syndrome—an affliction many drummers know all too well—in check. “I’m a huge gearhead,” he says. “I couldn’t fit another snare drum or another drum set in my room without having to step around it. There’s no vacancy at my place now.”
And, of course, he always has multiple drum sets at the ready. The most recent acquisition is one even air-drummers would drool over the chance to play: A 1978 Premier concert tom kit. “Those are the ‘In The Air Tonight’ drums,” says Sucherman. “I’ve been having fun doing tom overdubs by just putting two omnidirectional mikes out. Basically, it’s a Premier Octaplus kit, and it’s Phil Collins’ tom sound.”
His main kit is a massive 2018 Pearl Masterworks Studio Series, which has four plies of maple with six plies of gum and 60-degree bearing edges. Four long Rocket Toms, four mounted toms, three floor toms, a gong bass drum, and a 12″ x 4.5″ secondary snare surround the main snare, with two 22″ x 16″ bass drums (one slaved with a wide open sound)—all topped with Remo Clear Ambassadors (Coated Ambassadors on the snares) and hit with Sucherman’s signature SD330W Promark sticks. There’s plenty of Sabian bronze over the wood too, with two sets of hi-hats, two china cymbals, three splashes, four crashes, a ride, and a bell. And, naturally, the hardware is all gold-plated, right down to the double bass pedal.
For contrast, there’s always a vintage 4-piece jazz kit at the ready. Not surprisingly, that’s often where Sucherman finds himself when he’s facing drummer’s block.
“My first kit was my father’s last,” he says. “It was a 1969 Slingerland with an 18″ bass drum, which is very rare for Slingerland. He had an old Turkish K ride, a Paiste 602 crash, and 14″ Zildjian New Beats, and a Rogers Powertone chrome snare drum. And that was my first drum kit.” Not a bad starter kit for a six year old, and no surprise it resides today in his studio.
The 18″, 12″, 14″ setup is classic jazz, and Sucherman plays it as fluidly as any kit he sits behind. To him, it’s more than just an instrument—it’s a source of inspiration.
“I have all that stuff because I grew up in Chicago, and my father used to take me to Drums Ltd. and Frank’s Drum Shop,” he says. “And the feeling of those elevator doors opening up and looking and seeing all those drums, that was the best feeling in the world to me as a kid.”
He continues, “So when I open up my studio door and I see all those drums, that’s how I want to feel. And if I go in there, and I’m playing and nothing’s coming to me, and I feel like I’m trying to put a square peg in a round hole, all I’ve got to do is look around. And if my heart doesn’t start to beat fast, put a bullet in my head, ’cause I’m done—nothing’s going to excite me.”
STARTING WITH STYX
Sucherman started playing drums early, at age two. His father was a big band drummer by night and doctor by day. His mother was an actress. It makes sense, then, that toddler Todd started playing drums before his feet could even reach the pedals. By age six he was in a family band, playing his first paid gig as a member of The Sucherman Brothers, and he’s never looked back.
He later attended Berklee to study with renowned teachers like Gary Chaffee. He left Berklee after one year—“I ran out of money,” he says—and began gigging in the Chicago area in 1988. He hooked up with Styx in the mid-1990s filling in for founding drummer John Panozzo, who was ill at the time.
“The first tour was the reunion tour, and I was the only guy who wasn’t an original guy,” says Sucherman. “You know, John Panozzo was in ill health and he subsequently passed away in the middle of that first tour.” He pauses, collecting himself before continuing. “Got time for a little story about that?”
Yes, Todd, we definitely have time for a story about that. Please continue.
“That very first tour, we were in New York City and we got the call that John had died, and we all met in Chuck’s room. Chuck was his twin brother, the bass player. We had a meeting about what we were going to do, and what the arrangements were going to be.
“So I went out that night with a dear friend of mine in New York City and when I went back to the hotel, I walked in the lobby, and the elevators were to the left and the bar was to the right. And I hear JY’s voice—James Young’s voice—from the bar. And I thought, do I go in there? I kind of could peer in there and see they were all sitting in there at a table in a circle. I said, Do I go in there, or would I not be welcome? Is that just—should they grieve? Should I let them grieve by themselves?
“I thought, nope, I’m going to go into the bar. I’m going to see how everybody’s doing. And I didn’t know if I was going to get a murky reception, [or if] I was a reminder of their friend and brother who died. So I walked up to them and it was immediately, ‘Oh, hey Todd, come here, have a seat.’ And they pulled up a chair and I sat with them as they told stories about John and they laughed and they cried, and had several rounds of drinks. And I think maybe that was the thing that solidified a seat at the table with them.
“But ultimately that was a reunion tour, and when I said goodbye to them at the end of the last show, I literally thought I might never see these people again. This might be goodbye. And then they called me again in 1997, and they called me again [after that], and that’s how it’s been since then.”
THE TEACHING BUG
Aside from Styx and his session work, Sucherman is also a passionate educator and engaging clinician. At the time of this interview, he had just returned to the US from a masterclass in Singapore to give a clinic at PASIC the next day. Add to this a slew of recent online instructional projects, and his love for teaching becomes apparent.
“It’s something that I could see myself doing hand-in-hand with playing,” he says. “There’s the joy of playing music, which is seriously soul-fulfilling, and it’s an absolute necessity as a human being. But also, when I’m able to see another student finally understand something and have that light-bulb moment, that’s incredibly gratifying to me.”
This month, the educational website Drumeo released a 26-week rock drumming online course by Sucherman. They had worked together on a series of videos released in 2017 and when the time came to start working on this major project, Drumeo founder, CEO, and teacher Jared Falk was happy to ask one of his favorite players to work on this 14-hour set, which dives deep into the history of rock drumming over the past 60 years.
“It’s hard to find a drummer who’s at the top of their field, and is equally good at explaining what they’re doing,” says Falk, who has worked with both top players and teachers at Drumeo headquarters in Canada. “I think that’s what makes him special—he is one of those rare drummers who can do both at the highest level.”
He adds, “Personally, I think he’s one of the greatest drummers of today. He’s got such a solid foundation of theory and technique. You see a lot of rock drummers smashing and bashing, then you see Todd playing drums in a way that just seems effortless.”
Sucherman not only has a passion for making other drummers better, but for making himself better, as well. “I want to be better tomorrow than I am today,” he says. So much so, that even after more than 20 years in Styx, he still records the show each night with audio from the soundboard so he can review it the following day for errors.
“I have a tendency to play on top. And I play in a band where the guys tend to play on top. So now I have to walk a very tight line, because most of the songs in this band begin with another instrument. There’s very few songs that I count off, actually,” says Sucherman. And for the most part, he is the metronome. “There’s some click on some of the new stuff but for all the classic stuff, for decades [it’s been] five guys onstage, no click, no background help—what you see is what you hear.”
Musicians with perfect pitch can struggle to enjoy a concert if it’s not performed well, and Sucherman has a similar situation. “I’m sort of cursed with being able to hear perfect time,” he says. “And when I don’t hear it in myself, which is most of the time, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. The best way to improve is to record yourself and make mental notes.”
What drives this never-ending quest for perfection? “When I actually play something exactly how I wanted it to be, and that’s exactly how I wanted it to feel, that’s the greatest feeling in the world,” says Sucherman.
It’s a quest for a high that nothing can beat—the perfect musical moment. “There are times when you feel that this magic is happening,” he says. “I just want four bars, or eight bars, where I don’t want to jump off the highest bridge. I just want a simple fill to feel exactly the way I want it to feel, and when I do that—that, to me is the drug.”
Todd Sucherman’s fingers were starting to freeze—playing drums in icy rain will do that—but he had to see it through. The Styx drummer, along with Drumeo founder Jared Falk, had taken two helicopters and a drum set to film for an upcoming Drumeo lesson series in a remote mountain range in western Canada, and nothing was going to stop them. After all, drummers are routinely expected to play in less-than-ideal conditions—whether it’s a cramped stage, spotty monitor situation, or encased in a clear plastic box away from the band—so Sucherman wasn’t going to let a little inclement weather rain on his parade.
Fortunately, the process for filming the lesson series itself at Drumeo HQ went a little smoother. “Filming went great because Todd was very prepared,” says Falk. “He had super-detailed notes. I don’t know if it was hundreds of pages, but it was definitely up there.”
He had been working on the project on the road with Styx, in between rock shows. “It was a lot of work,” says Sucherman. “I remember laughing, because I would get on a roll writing on the road and I would have to get ready to play the show and I’d be like, ‘These damn rock shows are getting in the way of my work!’ [laughs]. And I’d close the computer and now I’ve got to warm-up and to put on the rock costume and play in front of 10,000 people. And now that that’s done, I can get back to writing the lessons [laughs].”
Being the master clinician he is, and author of two highly regarded educational DVDs, Sucherman wasn’t about to take the 26-week lesson assignment lightly.
“I’m completely pleased with Methods and Mechanics I and II,” he says. “[But] if I had to critique myself, I moved a little quickly. I felt like, Okay, I think a lot of people already understand a lot of these things so I’m going to move along at a rapid pace. And I wish I had slowed down a little bit more. I feel like this Drumeo project is giving me another chance to basically do Methods and Mechanics 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, all in this one package, and slow down and really try to get others to understand where I’m coming from. So I was very thankful for this third chance, as it were.”
Unlike a DVD, this lesson pack allows those who sign up in the first month to ask questions and even send videos of their playing for Professor Sucherman to respond to during his open-ended office hours. It’s closer to a university course than an instructional video set, and Drumeo even refers to it as a “semester.” Says Falk, “We found that in doing the courses this way, the engagement level is super high. People are watching the videos, commenting, and talking tons about how they’re practicing.”
Just as DVDs replaced VHS, online videos are now replacing physical media. One benefit for drummers is the connectivity of the internet, which creates an interactive, two-way platform where students can communicate with instructors and fellow students right on the screen. But there’s still nothing like getting out there and playing in front of an audience—without a screen as a buffer.
“There’s no substitute for getting out, meeting people, getting on the bandstand, and playing music in different situations,” says Sucherman. “That’s the one common denominator that’s never going to change. So however you get there, that’s where you’ve got to get—you’ve got to get on that bandstand.”
1. CHECK YOUR GRIP
“I think that most drummers try to grab their sticks too tightly. And I try to emphasize a space between the thumb and the first finger. Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to play certain things, like a fast jazz ride cymbal beat.”
2. LOOSEN UP YOUR BODY
“I find that most drummers have problems starting at their grip, and how they sit ergonomically at the drum set. If you tighten up from your neck down and try to do something physical, you’re never going to be able to get past a certain point. You’re never going to be able to get past a brick wall because you physically can’t do it. Once you’re able to relax mentally and physically, that’s the only way you’re going to be able to bust through that brick wall and get cleaner, get more clarity, get more flow. People self-impose a lot of mental and physical things on themselves, and they get in their own way.”
3. GO SEE LIVE MUSIC
“If you live in a city where people actually come to play, go see them. Go see Tony Bennett. He’s not going to be around forever. Go see Jack DeJohnette. Go see Roy Haynes. Go see some of these legends while they’re still here because you’re never going to say, ‘I’ll always remember that clip of Jack DeJohnette I saw on YouTube.’ You’re going to say, ‘I’ll always remember that kickass night I went to a jazz club and saw Jack DeJohnette melt my face off.’ And that’s something that you can carry with you for a lifetime. And you can’t get that off of YouTube.”
4. REMEMBER: THE AUDIENCE IS ON YOUR SIDE
“In the masterclasses, it’s interactive—I have everybody play. And everyone’s scared in the room to play. And I try to instill in them, Is there anyone here that was hoping that the other students would fail? No. The audience is always on your side. It doesn’t matter what the venue is, if you’re auditioning for a band, or a college placement, or whatever, the audience is always on your side. Once you truly accept that and realize that that is fact, you realize that the audience is not a panel of judgment that thinks you suck until you prove them otherwise. There’s the mental relaxation part: I’ve got nothing to be frightened of, nothing to be scared of or nervous about.”