“We’re going to rip your faces off every single night.” – Todd Sucherman
Some familiar faces will help Utah kick off the extended state holiday weekend on Wednesday night. Styx and Foreigner – two hard touring bands who each have played many shows in Utah over the years – along with former Eagles lead guitarist Don Felder, bring their Soundtrack of Summer Tour to the USANA Amphitheatre. The concert should be like a classic rock radio greatest hits compilation as fans can expect to sing along to “Renegade,” “Double Vision,” “Hotel California,” “Too Much Time On My Hands,” and many, many more.
Sitting on the throne behind the drum kit for Styx will be one of the best drummers Utahns will see at any show this year. Todd Sucherman is an incredible talent. He was named Modern Drummer magazine’s 2009 Drummer of the Year, and has been receiving praise from fans and fellow musicians alike for years.
The Deseret News spoke with Sucherman recently by phone during a tour stop in New York.
Sucherman is 15 to 20 years younger than every other member of Styx. When he was in grade school, Styx was already selling millions of records with the albums The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, and in middle school Paradise Theater.
But being the young kid playing with a group of older guys is nothing new for him. The hard-working, well disciplined Chicago native was the youngest in a musical family, and quickly became a very in demand player in the Windy City.
Sucherman’s father was a doctor by day and a drummer by night at the Chez Parre’, Chicago’s version of the Cotton Club.
TS: I grew up with drums in the house and was in love with the drums and music since I was an infant. It was a wonderful card to be dealt in life, to be born into a musical family with very supportive musical family. I’ve been playing since I was 2 years old and very seriously since I was 4. It was something that I always loved, always knew that I wanted to be a musician. I never wanted to be an astronaut or a fireman or a baseball player. This was something that took ahold of me at a very young age. And when I wasn’t playing, I was sitting listening to records all day.
I come from a jazz background because my dad was a jazz drummer. But I grew up in the age of rock as well. To me, initially, music was music. There was just different kinds. And there might be Led Zeppelin coming out of one bedroom, and there could Beethoven being played in the living room, and Count Basie in another room. So it was nice to have a broad spectrum of different influences. One of my earliest drum influences outside of my father was always seeing Buddy Rich on television and on records, and also the record Chicago II by Chicago with Danny Seraphine on drums. I would literally sit with Mickey Mouse record player and I would listen to that record over and over again. But again, variety was the key word here because there was all sorts of different kinds of music. And having brothers that were five and seven years older than me coming home with records saying, ‘Hey, check this out,’ it was just a well spring of constant inspiration.’
To Sucherman, having a musical instrument in the house was as common as other kids having a baseball glove.
TS: I’d go over to other kids’ homes and wonder, ‘Where are all your instruments?’ It didn’t dawn on me, initially, that we were sort of a special household. I’d go to someone’s house and go, ‘You don’t even have a piano. What’s going on here?’
Sucherman’s drumming soon caught the eyes of the local middle school. It would begin a lifelong trend of playing with others older than himself.
TS: I started playing in the junior high school symphonic and jazz band from the time I was in 1st grade. So I have the dubious honor of spending eight years in the junior high school band. A record that probably remains unbroken in the Lincoln School District 74.
I’ve always been the baby in most of my musical situations my whole life. From playing in wedding bands and corporate party bands, recording sessions. And the recording sessions are really what lead to me being in the band. I went to Berklee College of Music for one year, ran out of money, came back home to Chicago, and was just taking every gig that I could and working as much as I could in different bands: party bands, jazz bands, rock bands, bands trying to get record deals during show cases and what not. And when you work with that amount of people, something good is going to come out of it and I started doing a lot of recording sessions in Chicago, which at, that time, Chicago was sort of like the mecca for jingles, music for radio and television commercials.
So it got to the point where I was doing 20, 30 sessions per month. And it was marvelous. I was making a great living and thinking, ‘Why would I move to New York or Los Angeles? This is a lot of fun,’ and it was fairly lucrative.
It was during this time that another Chicago band, Styx, a band that was on hiatus at the time, was looking to put out a greatest hits record. Sucherman knew a guy who worked with the band. He recommended Sucherman to the band.
TS: When A&M Records wanted to put out the Definitive Styx Greatest Hits, they couldn’t get the rights to the original sound recording of “Lady,'” which was their first hit. It was on a different record label then. So they wanted to re-record it, and at that time, John Panozzo, Styx’s original drummer, was in ill health and really couldn’t play.
So that was really the genesis of my situation with them. So I was called in to be a ghost drummer, session guy on a track. And then, sort of the long story I got called back about a year later to do another tune. And this time I could feel something was brewing and they were sort of taking a greater interest in me personally and asking questions about how did I grow up, what part of town and blah blah blah, as opposed to just trying to go in and do that job. And a couple of days later, James Young, JY, called me up and asked me what I was doing this summer. And that was 18 years ago now.
That first tour for Sucherman in 1996 was also a reunion of sorts for Styx, marking the first time both Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw, along with Young and Chuck Panozzo, had played together in Styx since 1984.
Was it intimidating being on your first tour with an already well established band?
TS: It wasn’t very intimidating at all because I had prepared myself for something like this. The only thing that I found a little unsettling was, at that time I was the only non-original guy. And Chuck Panozzo, the bass player, I was replacing his twin brother. And although I never met John, everyone that did always said unanimously that he was the funniest guy they’ve ever met. So it was more daunting off stage because there was this giant sort of Keith Moon personality that wasn’t there. On stage I was ready to go. But it was the other 22 hours of being with these guys that were all 20 years my senior, that was the thing that I had to sort of navigate my way into total acceptance and, you know, being a member of the band. John passed away during the middle of the first tour, which was a pretty heavy thing for everybody. So that was just a learning experience of dealing with the humanity of the situation, of being in a big rock tour with a band of guys who had known each other since they were kids.
For Sucherman, it’s been non-stop with Styx since that tour. He and the others now play staples such as “Come Sail Away” more than 100 nights each year.
TS: The music sort of gets reborn every night. That’s a very good question I often get asked: How do you keep it fresh? Well, for one, there’s people in the audience that have never seen the band before. There are people in the audience who have never seen me play drums before. Just there, that gives you the inspiration to give it your all and make the show fresh every night. The consistency of this band is really incredible. There’s never a bad show. And everybody leaves it all on the stage every night. For all the bands I’ve played in my entire life, this is the only band I can say that. There’s never bad show. Some are more magical than others. But there’s never ever been a night where we walked off stage and said, ‘What the hell happened?’ I think the fact that everybody who walks on that stage is giving it their all, I’m not going to be the one that phones it in that night. We all inspire each other on stage to our greatest heights, and it’s this unspoken thing. We’re going to rip your faces off every single night. And that’s just a thing that happens. And it’s just an incredible energy that just is. Basically. that’s how things stay fresh and focused every night.
The Soundtrack of Summer Tour has just been a wonderful experience so far. Everybody in all the bands, all the techs, all the crews are not only nice guys buy tops in their fields. And there’s such a great family feeling. And it doesn’t always happen to this extent. Everyone is just getting along and laughing and having a great time. There’s just a really great family feel from within this whole tour. It’s just a great night of music. If I wasn’t in the band, I’d buy a ticket to this show.
When you have 75 minutes to play and a catalog that deep, it’s always a hard thing to come up with a set list. But I think we found a great balance of playing a lot of the essential hits and doing two deeper cuts in there that make some of the more hardcore fans happier. (including one never played on a summer run).
When asked whether Styx will ever release a new album, Sucherman was cautious with his answer.The problem, as many other artists have also noted, is that the state of the music industry today finds bands putting out lots of money to make records only to have them shared for free.
TS: I hope (we’ll make a new record). But it’s not my decision to make and it’s not my money to spend. This sort of ties in with the sad realities of making a record that you spend $200,000 on a record that only X amount of people are going to buy and X amount are going to get it for free. Unless someone feels like burning a quarter of a million dollars. And that’s not to say it wouldn’t be a good artistic endeavor. But to make a record properly would take us off the road for months. And the offers are there to play shows. I would love to see us do another record. The writing and playing prowess is there in spades. But taking a lot of time off the road and spending a lot of money to do it without likely much reward at the end of that other than complete artistic indulgence, which while in concept is nobel, fiscally it’s not a responsible move at all.
Sucherman also became a father for the first time recently.
TS: It’s obviously it’s going to be a whole new deal now. She’s 4-months-old now and can’t say, ‘Daddy, please don’t go,’ But I’m sure the first time she says that she’ll break my heart and I’ll walk out of the house in tears. But this how I make my living. And quite frankly, and quite sadly, there aren’t a lot of ways as a musician anymore to make money that don’t involve leaving the house and traveling and taking your show to the people. Music seems to be free now and you can just pull it out of the air. And even songwriters who would make a lot of money, aren’t anymore, much less musicians, or budgets to make great new records or great new studios. So if you want to continue to be a musician, playing live is the only experience that can’t be shared or downloaded or snabbed up for free. This is what I’m going to have to do, and it’s not going to be easy. But many many people have done this before me and raised families and put kids through college and that’s just the way it’ll have to be and I’ll figure this out as I go. But it’s nice to be able to provide the security…you know, my wife doesn’t have to work so she can stay at home with our daughter and we’ll jump of that bridge when we get there.
Sucherman also has a pair of instructional videos called Methods and Mechanics. He said it was a way to pass along all the lessons he has learned to the next generation of aspiring drummers.
TS: When I made the first Methods and Mechanics in 2007, I sort of wanted to be a galvanizing voice to other drummers in the next younger generation of drummers. Having the vocabulary and playing music was the most important thing. There seemed to be this sensationalism of You Tube clips of drummers with 37 pedals and twirling sticks that are on fire and no one in the world is hiring for that. Who do you play music with? Who hires you? You’re a You Tube sensation. And the fact that they are a sensation I think is scary for the next generation of drummers that can’t make it happen on a four piece kit or are able to play at a wedding. I taught a couple of kids, and they wanted to know all this difficult stuff and how to play in 19/16 time signatures with double bass drums, and they couldn’t play four bars of a simple groove without it sucking. So that was the original impetus for me to go, OK, I have to try and do something to save the next generation, as heavy handed as that thought it , I have to try and do my part. And I believe that it is our responsibility to share knowledge and information with the next generation of musicians.
It was important for me to document the 40+ years of things that I’ve learned. And it goes beyond just drum instruction. There’s philosophies to navigate your career. Etiquette for being in bands in recording sessions. And all these little quick thoughts and vignettes that are peppered throughout both Methods and Mechanics I & II that move it along so that there’s nothing completely laborious to make people go to sleep. And I did my research before I filmed these to find out what information had been presented and what hadn’t. Everyone had a remote control so you don’t have to show the same lick 75 times for 15 minutes. They can go back if they don’t get it. So I tried to keep things moving along and keep things interesting. Some of the greatest feedback I’ve received from drummers, they can actually sit with their wife or girlfriend and they can actually watch it for a little bit (laughs) and to me, that’s one of the greatest compliments I can get. I’m not making those DVDs to get rich. That’s not how it works. It’s a labor of love.