Todd Sucherman is certainly no stranger to hard work. He’s been playing professionally since the age of six and for the past twelve years he’s been the solid rhythmic foundation for famed rock band STYX. Now Todd brings the knowledge of thousands of gigs, shows and recording sessions along with over three decades as a professional drummer to this useful and unique DVD package called Methods & Mechanics.
“ These are the building blocks for ideas to be used in a musical fashion on the drum set.”- Todd Sucherman
Filmed in 16x9 in High Definition this DVD should be added to your collection ASAP. Shot on location at Todd’s amazing studio you have a hard time keeping your eyes on him, and off of the lovely scenic atmosphere provided by the staff of Altitude Digital. The two disc set is jammed packed with over 5 hours worth of footage for today’s playing professional, or tomorrow’s beginner. If you don’t have the time or resources for your own private instructor this really is the next best thing. I say that because not only does it offer a huge educational value, it’s also filled with CRUCIAL advice and “Quick Tips” to help you survive in today’s business as a working musician. Points such as building a home studio, tuning, and that it takes more than talent in order to establishing meaningful and long lasting relationships when dealing with various clientele. Normally such advice can get longwinded but Todd speaks to you more as a close friend than an actual instructor which makes everything easy to digest. And even though his talent and musical technique is absolutely astounding he admits technique is nothing without the foundation of time, rhythm and groove.
While taking a few days off before his upcoming drum clinic tour we were able to catch up with Todd to ask him a few questions about what it was like to work on his very first instructional DVD.
DC: So was the DVD pretty intensive to film in the short amount of time that you had off?
TS: Yeah it was, we essentially did 98% of it in four days. And definitely by the fourth day, at least I could recognize how tired I was because we would go till about 4 o’clock in the morning every day. One of the problems with having the natural beauty in the scenic room we filmed in is the changing light throughout the day. Sometimes it would actually be too bright in there because of the windows so we had to wait ½ hr to 45min here there to let the light hit a sweet spot and then it was go time. We sort of traded the security of everything looking exactly the same like in a studio for that scenic beauty, but then we just really had to hit it when the light was perfect. So it was easier to shoot at night. When I think about the four days that we had…it was just a whirlwind.
DC: So that 4am free for all on the 4 piece was at 4am?
TS: Actually to tell you the truth – we shot some of the small kit stuff at 4am and finished up maybe at 4:30, took an hour nap and then set up outside for the cliff shots to catch the sunrise starting at six o’clock in the morning. I played outside for about 45min as the crane swooped around and tried to catch little magical scenic moments and some cool playing moments. But I was so tired when we were doing that I actually thought I was going to throw up. Have you ever been so tired that you just think “Oh my God I’m going to throw up”? That how I felt right around that time.
DC: The cinematography and everything looked really good so all the efforts you guys made were definitely worth it.
TS: Well, my hats off to Eric Dorris and the gang from Altitude Digital because they just did top notch work and it was just a joy to work with those guys, they’re just consummate professionals.
DC: I’m really interested in how you set up your drums. I know when you first started out you pretty much had a four or five piece like anybody else. But as you added on it shows from some of the overhead shots on the DVD that your setup looks like a perfect V formation starting with the 3rd tom. It makes a nice little arc for you to work around; do you look for that shape when you set up, or do you set up meat and potatoes like kick, snare, hi hat and then work everything around there?
TS: When I’m setting up from scratch like when I do a drum clinic, I have to get the kick, snare, and hi hats solidified and then build from there. I think that most people probably set up their drums to their own physicality, everyone’s physicality is unique; how they sit, or whether they’re match grip or traditional. I just try to set up to what seems comfortable and what makes sense for me. I like the 3rd rack and the 12” in a little bit over the bass drum hoop so it does kind of have that natural arc if you can imagine your left hand in a traditional grip sweeping around the kit, it does have a different shape to it. I think it’s something that develops naturally over time and just paying attention to what’s comfortable for my body to play. If you close your eyes you should be able to hit everything dead center.
DC: You mentioned setting up for clinics and I noticed you actually have a few this month and next month as well. What I admire about musicians like you is that there are tons of people signed and endorsed by all these great drum companies, but not doing their part to promote them as far as clinic events and music festivals. You’ve just recently performed at this year’s Modern Drummer Fest and now you have a short clinic tour. I think it’s really cool that you make the extra effort to go out there and educate other people. Why do you do it personally, and what do you hope to pass along to others as you connect with them in these smaller and more intimate clinic scenarios?
TS: It’s very important for me to try to pass along useful information that can actually help musicians and younger musicians get on the right path to employment if they want to do this for a living. Again I’ve said it before but I was really inspired by Vinnie Colaiuta’s interview in Modern Drummer with the statements he made about clinics. I think he hit the nail right on the head, a lot of them have turned into vanity pieces and some sort of side-show drum antics.
DC: That’s what you’ve referred to in your DVD as drumming gymnastics?
TS: It becomes a show as opposed to a clinic. A clinic has educational connotations to it and that was very important to me and that’s also how I approached the Modern Drummer Festival. Instead of just going out there and playing some crazy solo or four or five tunes with a band-and I’m certainly not dogging those who did, that was their presentation and they’re all amazing drummers. I opted to obviously do a fair amount of playing, but I also wanted to have some personal interaction and try to pass on ideas to any pertinent questions that anyone had. Then they actually take away ideas that they can go back to their drum set and use as opposed to going out there and performing ….and WOW! I do 125 shows a year with STYX; I do my fair share of performance.
DC: Yeah, you tend to stay VERY busy.
TS: But to actually use the form to interact and pass along information that’s going to help others, that’s why I do it and that’s what important to me.
DC: Being that you do so many shows I thought it was really cool on DVD is how you shot a brief documentary about your typical day while on tour. I agree with the comment you made on taping your hands as far as playing on a daily basis that friction does happen and causes blisters. When taping your fingers how do you avoid getting blisters from the tape? On several occasions when taping my fingers I tend to get blisters right where the edge of the tape meets the skin.
TS: What sort of tape are you using?
DC: At the time I used standard gauze tape.
TS: Oh, that’s gonna kill you. If you use the 3M active strips, and it’s very important to find the ACTIVE STRIPS- they have a couple different names for the strips they make. But for playing a 2 hour show I use the 3M active strips, and then I use a double layer of the Active Tape. There’s a lycra spandex in there that bends and molds to your hands and they’re water resistant. I’ve never had a single problem EVER with those not working or hurting me in any way. They’ve protected me night after night consistently and other drummers that I’ve turned on to the 3M active strips swear by them as well. So you might want to check those out and see if they do the trick for you. Being they’re a lycra spandex in it bends naturally with your hand and I’m not even aware that they’re on my digits, which is the most important thing. It’s the same thing when you wear shoes or clothes, you don’t want to be aware of anything while you’re playing or have to change your own physicality due to some sort of fashion choice. You just kind of want to be a human body and the drums together as one.
DC: Also on your documentary you introduced us to your drum tech Paul Carizzo. You mentioned he’s been with you for six years- and that’s something most drummers don’t talk about is their tech. For someone who has been with you for so long, what is it that you look for and recommend to other drummers about finding a drum tech? In today’s business I notice drum techs sometimes get shifted around and you never have the same one every tour which can give you an inconsistent sound. Playing as many shows as you do I know it really helps to be secure in the fact knowing that your equipment is maintained how you like it. What has kept Paul with you for so long?
TS: I’m spoiled now as it’s going to be coming up on 7 years now with Paul. I wouldn’t know what to do without him because I trust him so implicitly. He knows exactly where I want everything, he tunes the drums exactly how I like them to be tuned, and he’s thought of things and little fix-it type stuff that I would never have thought of in a hundred lifetimes of touring. I consider him the Michael Jordan of drum techs. I feel fortunate that I’ve had him this long and the fact that we’ve been doing over a 100 shows a year for nine years in a row, we’ve kept most of our crew intact cause they’re pretty much employed around the calendar year. A lot of times techs change because if a band goes out for only three months then they just go out for three months, and next year the guy has another gig with another act. I look for consistency and the trust in knowing I don’t even have to check the drums. We rarely sound check, I never have to check the drums unless I feel like going up and playing a little bit-there’s just this massive trust. In all that time Paul has had to run up on stage for something…once, in almost 1000 shows. That’s pretty incredible when you think about that.
DC: Especially with some of the mishaps that can go on when performing so that’s a pretty good track record he’s got going on there.
TS: Also having a rack helps keep things very consistent. It’s nearly impossible to mess up the placement when you have the rack as long as everything stays nice and tight. He tightens things so much that I could barely loosen something if I wanted to.
DC: So is your drum kit on a rig that stays put or is it broken down every night?
TS: It’s broken down. The rack is kept intact by folding up, the cymbal arms are able to be left at their angles, and he turns the 4 tom mounts along the rack and it all fits in the road case. He can have the drum kit set up and torn down really quickly. For as much stuff that’s there, our crew is second to none and I certainly feel that way about Paul Carizzo.
DC: On the DVD you talk about the concept of “speaking rhythm” referring to certain notes as conjunctions and how you use them to form various combinations. Could you just elaborate a little more on that?
TS: When you’re learning rudiments, hybrid rudiments, compound sticking and these things that we all practice as drummers you could be sitting there wondering “what can I do with this?” But really, they’re like words that you could use to string in a sentence. You could take a myriad of ideas whether it’s a paradiddle, inverted paradiddle, Gary Chaffee stickings and just string things together. Maybe something that would string one idea to another would just be a simple triplet conjunction of RLL to come up with these musical phrases. A lot of times drummers will see this long, fast, two bar flurry but if you really break it down and think about what each part of the sticking is….it makes sense. The same way you can read a beautiful sentence written by an eloquent author and sort of marvel at how the sentence is constructed just by looking at the words. This might seem a little esoteric, but that’s essentially how you can break down longer passages to understand them and build your own.
DC: It was really good, especially how you break down complex time signatures like 21/16. You teach it in such a practical manner which makes it speak out a lot differently and also makes it easier to understand.
TS: I’m glad that resonated with you because you can really break down anything. Something like 21/16, once you’re counting you start feeling that pulse and you start recognizing that it has its own pulse. Then you can get more adventurous with different phrases within that structure. Sure there are going be times when you’re not going to make it or you get off the 21 and play something else. You just need to recognize that, fix the issue, get back into the pulse, record yourself and check your work. Before you know it something scary like 21/16 is in your bag. Like I said, those time signatures are very rare and you’re not going to be doing a club gig and get handed a piece of music in 21/16. But it’s a nice thing to work on to enhance your own rhythmic vocabulary and knowledge. There have been a handful of sessions where I had a couple crazy bars of things thrown in there, so I was happy that I spent a bit of time to internalize some of those more complex time signatures.
DC: I also liked your explanation of how to break time signatures into 2’s and 3’s. A lot of people just try to count it out and get stumped by not focusing on the 2’s and 3’s or they’re always trying to accent the “1”. When that happens it makes the beat seem robotic as you mentioned earlier because coming back in on the “1”becomes a crutch for them, so it’s nice for drummers to get it from another perspective. A lot of people who play 4/4 funk really well but can’t play the 5/4 against the 4/4 to add that extra element of syncopation.
TS: And it’s really just a blank canvas for each individual player to kind of interpret it and take the music where they want to go with it.
DC: In some of your bonus footage you promote traveling and mentioned that it makes you a more interesting person and musician. While having the privilege to tour the world what has been the most beneficial place you’ve visited that has made you a better musician?
TS: That’s a hard question to answer really. I love London, Paris, I spent eight days in Hawaii which was incredible….let me think about this for a second. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of cool experiences but I remember the first or second Mardi Gras after Katrina we did a show with Journey in the Superdome. There was a Journey float and a STYX float, and during Mardi Gras we were on the float throwing beads to people and I was just thinking “This is really a crazy but wonderful experience.” You could feel the healing, or partial healing was happening in New Orleans even though that city has a long way to go unfortunately. But that was a moving experience for me. So wherever you are, getting out and walking around a town and getting a feel for the uniqueness of the area is important. I was just in Montgomery, Alabama which is Tommy Shaw’s hometown and I went for a walk and saw where the slave trades were and all these historic buildings. You get a sense of the American history in the south and it’s so different from walking around Stonehenge in England. Each city has its own flavor and if you’re lucky enough to get to travel to these locations to get your ass out of the hotel room and experience it.
DC: Some of the other things you’ve experienced in your career have been some work playing for TV commercials. Something I think about when I watch TV is whether it’s a computer program or live musicians, and if so how do I get that gig? You never see any commercial credits so you never know who’s playing what so it’s kind of like they’re unknowns, but in fact most of these people are famous musicians such as yourself. How did that door open up for you and what is the process when you do commercial recordings?
TS: Here at my young tender age of 39 I’m going sound a little bit like an old guy, but those days… at least for me and a lot of people are gone. I was doing all the jingle work while I was living in Chicago, and had a really fantastic run from 1990-1997 when I moved to Los Angeles. But in ‘96-97’ the amount of work was tanking fast due to technology and slashed budgets. Back in those days there would be $5000 budgets for demos. That would pay for a live rhythm section to play for a production house. And then with the growth of digital workstations came single programmers that could play everything and they would say “I’ll do the whole thing for $1500.” So the ad agencies were like “Why are we spending $5000 when we can spend $1500 for this guy?” Quite frankly not too many people care if it’s real drums or programmed drums for a 30 second Budweiser spot.
DC: So then it became all about the budget?
TS: Yeah, it became ALL about budget. And then, the trend turned into them paying six and seven figures for “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin to be in a Cadillac commercial but if they were looking for original music they would try to pay the least amount that they could-and there was nothing but hundreds of musicians willing to do it cheaply. That sort of killed a large part of the jingle business. Now obviously there are still ads, commercials, and full symphonies and what not. My friend just did all the United Airlines stuff and conducted a whole symphony orchestra and Herbie Hancock at Capital Records. There is still work but it’s not like the old days. If you were lucky enough to break into the scene you could be doing at least a session a day and that’s how it was for a while. Like I said on the DVD, everything good that has ever happened to me has been at the recommendation of other musicians, and this is my own unique experience. From my perspective it was a matter of a few musicians sticking their necks out for me and recommending me to producers when they couldn’t get their regular drummer. It was a matter of coming into a situation having the right attitude, gear, being able to read the chart and get the job done very quickly- hopefully in one or two takes, not causing any problems and NEVER, EVER, EVER being late. Or even having some sort of funky vibe. You could be the greatest player in the world but if no one wants to be around you guess what? No one is going to be around you.
DC: Right! And you’re going to be playing by yourself.
TS: I was very fortunate that I had a few musicians stick their neck out for me. Soon the snowball effect grew and I kept getting called back, as you’re your reputation builds other people hear of you and then they start calling you. I sort of long for those old days cause that was such an exciting time for me when the phone was ringing and I never knew what I was going to be playing. It would be some sort of Pearl Jam sounding Pepsi spot, then there would be a symphonic spot, Dixie Land, or up tempo BeBop.
DC: So it was real spontaneous?
TS: It was a different challenge every day and you never knew what was around the corner, I sort of miss those days.
DC: So they basically just gave you charts to read and you laid it down in a couple of takes as you explained?
TS: As long as the producer or clients aren’t changing anything around, once they’ve green lighted something and give you the chart you just have to do it. Time is money, you get something done very quickly and everybody‘s happy and hopefully you’ll get called back.
DC: Since time is money when it comes to the jingles do they already have a kit set up or do you get to bring your own drums?
TS: It depended on the music house. Some music houses rented out some of the big studios where there was a kit and then there were some other places where I used a ddrum 3 rig in the 90's. I also had a cartage guy so it was a bit of everything. I had my own drums carted in, the ddrums, or I used the studio kit. Back then you could have two or three sessions in a day so you had gear flying around to different studios. Most of the studios in Chicago were within a three or four block radius so you could park and just walk over or drop your gear off. Those were great days.
DC: So your dad was your first drum instructor, then you went through schooling until completing your first year at Berklee. Did you just take advantage of your time to learn as you were younger or did you consider studying anything more on an academic level after attending Berklee?
TS: Most of my learning had come from just working things out on my own. My father taught me how to play/read music and then I had older brothers that sort of paved a way for me through Jr. High and High School. I was playing professionally with my brothers since I was six. Through that association I got into the Jr. High jazz band and symphonic band from the first grade on. So actually, I spent eight years in the Jr. High band. Through all those years I was playing weddings, parties and what not so that was all very educational for me. In High School I was playing a resort in Wisconsin that would have different shows and comedians, singers, magicians, and a lot of them had these old yellow charts from the 50’s and 60’s. So that’s a trial by fire as far as education, being a young guy playing in a bandstand with older men having to read shows. That was an experience I was so fortunate to have, it was almost like four years of college in itself.
DC: That’s good because a lot of people don’t take advantage of that time and it slips by them or it’s not a skill they keep up with. I really need to brush up on my reading because I’ve really slacked off since college. Now it’s to the point where I read at a beginner/intermediate level.
TS: Well it’s one of those things that if you don’t use it you lose it a little bit, but as long as you’ve learned to read it’s always there. It’s really just a matter of refreshing your eyes and your brain a little bit. When you’re playing shows you have to keep an eye on the music, the conductor, and the stage. Again, that really prepared me for my year at Berklee… reading wise. And then I sought out some materials to become an even better sight reader, and that prepared me for the session work in Chicago when I was reading charts on a daily basis.
DC: How would you like to be remembered?TS: I hope I'm remembered period! But I hope that I've brought enjoyment to all I've encountered in person or otherwise. I hope folks enjoyed my humble contributions to our shared art. You know, we drummers are a special breed and the camaraderie we share is a special thing. We enjoy sharing information-and it's really our duty to do so-and pass the information and history we've learned to the next generation. That's what was so important to me about this DVD. It's my legacy,so far, and I look forward to learning and improving as the years go by.
For more info on Todd and to purchase this amazing DVD visit http://www.toddsucherman.com/