For twenty years he’s been at the very top echelon of the rock and drumming worlds, largely on the basis of his scalding, unerring readings of classic Styx tracks recorded well before he joined the fray. Truth be told, that interpretation of his career tells only a fraction of the story. And anyway, there’s a hot new collection of Styx songs that the drummer owns completely, and that perfectly communicate his skills, priorities, and aesthetic. Message received, loud and clear.
It’s almost impossible to see the classic rockers Styx live and not notice that there’s some fire coming from the back of the stage. More than two decades after joining the band, Todd Sucherman still brings an unyielding energy to material he didn’t originally create but that he’s inarguably made his own.
Sucherman beefs up classic numbers like “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” “Renegade,” and “Too Much Time on My Hands” with power, precision, and otherworldly chops, and there’s no sign of slowing down. “In Styx, I’m twenty years their junior,” Sucherman says, “so I’m never going to be the one who is drag-ass, because those guys are never drag-ass.”
Maybe the non-drummers in the audience are happy to sing along with all those hits from their youth, but anyone who’s ever picked up a pair of sticks knows how tough a gig this is. Tricky odd-time grooves, big riffs, and huge power ballads are all in a night’s work for Sucherman. But don’t be surprised to hear him throw in some raging double bass that’s not on the radio version you’re familiar with, or forge a healthy slab of blazing hand technique that elevates a part to another level of excitement.
Originally from Chicago but now residing in Austin, Sucherman was honored in 2015 by the readers of Modern Drummer as the top progressive rock drummer in the world. His skills make his phone ring for studio sessions when he has free time, and over the years he’s played with everyone from Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson to Spinal Tap. He’s also an in-demand clinician, and has produced two must-own DVD sets, Methods & Mechanics and Methods & Mechanics II, which are indispensable for drummers who are serious about expanding their horizons on the instrument. Dig into those for inspiration and a reality check for how much dedication it takes to get to and maintain this level of skill and work.
And though Sucherman’s masterful playing can be found on a slew of live Styx recordings, the band is now releasing a brand-new studio album, The Mission, its first in fourteen years. A throwback to the styles of classic Styx records like The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, The Mission is a wonderful mix of knotty, ’70s-era progressive rock madness alongside the melodic power pop the band does so well. And the production just sounds like it’s from a bygone time. Sucherman might be the baby of the group, but he’s an old soul when it comes to finding the right flavor for the new material.
MD: Twenty-one years in Styx. How do you keep it mentally interesting playing the same material every night?
Todd: I realize I’m in a fortunate position. I’m in a band that sold 30 million records before I came along. A good problem to have is to have hits that must be played. To keep what I call the “Groundhog Day” effect from kicking in, you have to realize why you’re there. You’re looking out into the audience and seeing these people that paid their hard-earned money to have a wonderful evening and escape from their daily lives, or to remember who they were when they were younger. You have to perform and entertain. You see new faces every night, and the music has to be reborn and be fresh, be a living organism.
When the audience is excited after the first four bars, it fuels the band to deliver. I did Brian Wilson’s first-ever solo tour, in 1999. I’m playing songs like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Surfin’ USA,” things that have been played literally multiple millions of times by every wedding and bar band for decades. What would make this performance real? When I’m playing an exciting four-on-the-floor surfing groove, it has to feel like we’re going to the beach and we’re going to see some chicks, we’re going to drink beers and it’s going to be an awesome day. It has to have that spirit behind it and not sound like some guy who’s looking at his watch. Every song has to be a special event.
MD: The Mission sounds like a classic Styx record from long ago, and all is right in the world when an album opens with a bunch of drum breaks. Did you bribe somebody for that?
Todd: [laughs] That’s just how it panned out. Styx hadn’t done a record of new material in fourteen years, though I very much wanted to. Two years ago, the band was invited by Dr. Alan Stern and the team at NASA’s New Horizons to come by their headquarters in Virginia. After nine years, they were finally hitting Pluto, and they named Pluto’s fifth moon Styx.
Our continued friendship with the members of the New Horizons team inspired Tommy Shaw to come up with a bit of a space exploration concept. He had some pretty solid demos. It was a luxury to go to Tommy’s home studio and have a week of preproduction and figure out what I needed to change with my parts. It was recorded analog to two-inch tape at Blackbird Studio in Nashville, and I was able to do my parts in two days.
When you’re spending that kind of money at a studio, and because I’ve always groomed myself to be a session musician, you have to do things quickly. I was driven to save my organization money, because we were doing it the old-fashioned way, going into a big studio that has a million-dollar microphone collection. People say you can do records on the cheap, but everyone lives in different cities, so there are flights and hotels—and did you ever buy dinner for eight people? And if you do a record on your laptop, it’ll sound like that. The Mission was mixed like a classic ’70s Styx record and really does capture that vibe.
MD: Did you record with your normal live setup, or did you experiment with some 1970s-style gear too?
Todd: Actually, I did use some beefy snares, tuned down, with Moongels. I used a 15″ snare on some tracks. I knew we were taking a leap toward that vintage sound, and they nailed the pillowy puff of the ’70s for sure.
MD: What’s that hi-hat thing you do in “Overture”?
Todd: There are four hi-hat notes in a row, the first one stepping with the foot, the second with the left hand, and a pair of doubles with the right. Then there are ghost notes and a tom hit and a bass drum hit. The lick went perfectly with the ascending riff that was happening. I can’t believe they let me get that in there, because it’s a pretty out, unique-sounding, rattlesnake lick.
MD: What were you thinking on the Latin-y beat on “Trouble at the Big Show”?
Todd: The song had a bluesy, Jimi Hendrix–type vibe, so I thought of a not-quite–“Manic Depression,” Mitch Mitchell type of thing. If I straightened it out to a classic jazz pattern but played it with a rock attitude, that might be an interesting flavor. In shaping a piece of music, I always try to give each section its own flavor and vibe and think of the hills and valleys and dynamics. That way it could be a smooth listening experience…hopefully. [laughs]
MD: On “The Red Storm,” there’s a cool odd-time pattern with ride-bell hits, plus those solo breaks later. That might be the most involved drumming track.
Todd: I knew that song would be the drum feature on the record, if there was one. It’s very complex. It goes from 5/8 to 6/8 with bits of four in there. The whole middle section has bars of 9/4 and 5/8, and the drums would start and stop with this stutter effect. In the initial groove, there’s a polyrhythmic thing happening over the five, where the right hand overrides on a closed hi-hat on beats 1, 3, and 5 of the first bar and on 2 and 4 of the second, which then repeats. And contrapuntal to that, I’m playing quarter notes on the hi-hat with the foot, but every other one is an open slosh. I took that idea when it kicks into the verse, and I go to the ride cymbal to take it up one notch. And I play a couple rhythms every four bars on the bell of the cymbal against that. It went perfectly in between the vocal line, so it ended up being musically effective. [For more on “The Red Storm,” see the Style and Analysis at the bottom of this interview. Includes video breakdown by Todd!]
MD: Let’s talk about progressive rock in 2017 and how your new music relates to the music you grew up with.
Todd: I let the music inform me of what needs to be there, what works, what feels right. In the context of this new record, it definitely has roots in the band’s past, specifically The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight and that era. But it’s also the human beings that make up this band now and where we came from. That’s what makes this stew so unique, where you can taste hints of this or that.
With drums, there might be a moment where there’s a little splash of Vinnie, a little splash of Steve Smith, or a little of Queen’s Roger Taylor, or …And Then There Were Three–era Phil Collins. Because that’s the stuff that informs me as a musician and what I can bring to the table when I’m free to do what I want to do. And that’s the way it is with Lawrence [Gowan, keyboards] and Ricky [Phillips, bass]. We all take our experiences and the things that we like, and what comes out is something only the five of us could have done.
MD: And at this point, people can say, “That sounds like Todd.”
Todd: I hope that’s the case, but that’s for others to decide. I just want it to be good and be proud of it.
MD: So why make a record in 2017?
Todd: Every year I’ve been asked if we were going to make another record. My answer has been that it’s not my money to spend. But at a certain point, we had to do something. It’s nice to have this experience and to present something. With Universal on board, it’s a rarity for a musician or band to feel this way, in this landscape. It feels like the old days. With any art, some people are going to like it, and some people aren’t going to like it. This came at a time when we’re all feeling creative, and it puts some wind in our sails to go and play shows and try to sneak a couple pieces of new music into the set. Hopefully that won’t be the bathroom and beer break. You have to do it, or you’re just a heritage act.
MD: Styx tours a lot, and you’re also doing sessions here and there. How do you juggle the road and family?
Todd: It is a peculiar way to live, doing a hundred shows a year with one band. Now being a father, it’s a constant, delicate balance dance. Frankly, I’m not home a lot. There’s FaceTime, there’s the telephone, but that’s not the same thing as being here as a father. My wife is home with our daughter, and she’s doing an amazing job. I’m out there supporting a family, and bills will never stop, and this is the life that I and we have chosen. I get back and there are appointments and things that need to be done.
But the other balancing act is I have a studio full of drums waiting for me. I’ve just been gone for nineteen days in a row, and it’s very hard for me to say, “Hey, girls, I’m going to go in the studio for a couple of hours.” But there’s part of me that’s driven to practice and play and get better, and I can’t do that on the road. You simply cannot practice and get better on the road outside of the music that you’re playing every night. You’re not going to get better on the hotel bed or a practice pad in the dressing room.
MD: You mean you’re not working out your new left-hand-lead exercise while your tech is setting up your kit?
Todd: Well, when we do a soundcheck, I’m very conscious not to play and annoy our crew. And even if I did, I would have five minutes. But when I come home, I’m thinking, Hey, man, you need to practice, because the rest of the world is. But then I tell myself to relax and enjoy this moment and help my daughter eat her ninety-minute lunch. [laughs]
MD: Now what about the rest of the world? Your gig in Styx seems to be secure, but time is going one way. How do you grapple with a possible future when the band hangs it up?
Todd: I understand that at some point this carousel is going to come to a stop. The only things working against us are time and health. It is frightening to think that one day I won’t have the security of this band. I hustled for so long in my youth to get to a certain point, and I don’t know that I would have that in me down the line. I don’t want to be sixty-five years old and haunting the halls of NAMM. All I ever wanted to do was be a working musician and play good music with good musicians, and I hope that continues once the inevitable happens with this band. But like twenty years ago I couldn’t envision what the landscape of the music business would be like now, I couldn’t possibly fathom what it’ll be like ten, twenty years from now.
MD: Do you go on YouTube and check out up-and-comers, or are you just on your own trip?
Todd: I keep my eyes and ears open, and I love a lot of what new, younger drummers are doing. I don’t know if I’m part of the older generation, because I don’t feel it, but it’s our duty to pass on information to the next generation. I’m impressed with what the next generation is doing, but at the same time I like the pace that I’m evolving at, and certain things that I’m becoming aware of that I intrinsically knew but now I’m paying attention to.
MD: Give an example.
Todd: I was doing a recording session in Toronto where I was replacing another drummer, and the music was all done. The information I was getting through the music was that it was Foo Fighters meets Queen meets Quadrophenia-era Who, and I really bashed the hell out of the drums. And when I went in and listened to playback, although the parts were correct, no one’s head was bobbing. There were no smiles or high fives in the room. It was like a hamburger from a hospital. It’ll do the trick, but there’s no love cooked into that burger. As a session musician, you have to go through the Rolodex of your mind, like, The problem is me right now. How do I fix this?
MD: No one was giving direction or tips at that moment?
Todd: It was ice silence in that room. Then I thought, sometimes drums and cymbals can only get so loud. So I decided to play the drums much quieter. I went out again to play this anthemic, screaming song, and I played the drums like I was at a cocktail party. I went back into the control room and now everybody’s heads were bobbing, there were smiles, the drums sounded bigger. You could hear the snares rattle, the bottom tom heads; the cymbals were an oceanic wave hitting you in the face. And somehow the guitar lines became clearer. And now it sounded like a record.
But that’s what won the day on that song, with those drums and those microphones, and where the drums were in the room. The next day it could have been a different story. That’s the magic sparkle of “shit just is.” There’s an inherent magic of why things work at any given time. I’ve had an Acrolite with a Pinstripe and tape on it win the day on a session over a rack of $1,000 snare drums behind me.
MD: But what’s the tip for an aspiring session drummer who might go into the control room, feel the ice storm, and go back in to do a take with tons of fills to generate excitement?
Todd: You have to become sound-driven and let your ears dictate exactly what and how you play. There was no other choice in that session. The drums sounded thin. The cymbals were brittle. The vibe was not happening at all. Making the choice of playing softer was the only conclusion I could come to—letting the drums and cymbals breathe more by not bashing them, letting some air in the sound, which made the drums sound huge and the cymbals more dramatic. I was fairly certain this would work, and it did, and the difference between the two takes was astonishing.
Here’s what I find a lot of drummers may not be paying attention to: Over the last couple of years, I’ve had about forty drummers take multiple hour-long lessons with me. Every one of these players plays professionally, whether doing tours or playing on records or playing at their stadium church, or they’re just weekend guys. So many of them are not thinking about the balance and the sound they get on the drumset with just bass drum, snare, and hi-hat. They’re not pulling a good sound out of the drums. Most of them are very weak on the bass drum, the snare is overpowering the bass drum, and they’re not paying attention to how or why they’re hitting the snare. And very few of them are playing on top of the hi-hat; they’re barking into the edge. A very lumbering, cumbersome sound, which is a thing that works musically if that’s the choice you’re making. But this is their default way of playing.
There’s so many of these things that I thought were basics, but maybe they’re “not-so-basic basics.” You can show someone the Moeller technique or what’s involved with the mechanics, but how do you teach a vibe? How do drummers shape their heartbeat and be true to themselves? I try to tell them to play simple time, a simple groove that sounds good on its own. That’s music. Other musicians hear that and they want to play with you, because you sound good and you make them sound better. Building from the bottom up, if you’re playing 2-and-4, Western-based, backbeat music. A good, strong bass drum. Push the same density of air and sound from your bass and snare.
MD: How to strike the hi-hat is probably not what most people are thinking about.
Todd: In my first Methods & Mechanics DVD, I talk about getting different sounds out of the hi-hat, and I demonstrate what I call the shank-tip motion. This is one thing that separates the men from the boys. Think Jeff Porcaro playing a 16th-note one-hand groove, à la “I Keep Forgettin’”—that’s what I’m talking about. That motion is an “in and out” motion and not an up-and-down motion. Well, three out of these forty students knew what that was and had it in their bag. And they sounded “pro.” But the other thirty-seven sounded like stiff drum machines at best. All hunched over to the hi-hat side and looking pained as they played.
I asked all of them if they watched the shank-tip hi-hat section. “Oh, yes” was the reply from all. Well, just watching something doesn’t mean that you know it. You have to take the time to implement these things into your playing. You must exaggerate the motions, learn them slowly, internalize them, and then—and only then—will this become your default hi-hat playing motion, because it sounds better. And when you use your ears and become sound-driven in your choices, you will sound like a guy who plays on records.
MD: How about clinics today?
Todd: I was talking to Jojo Mayer when we did a clinic tour together in 2015 in Australia, and he said, “Remember drum clinics in the ’80s, when they would rent out hotel ballrooms and there’d be 300 to 500 people there?” And I replied, “Absolutely, I was one of those kids.” And he said, “Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore.” And it dawned on me that nowadays, if you get a hundred people at your clinic, that’s pretty good. But it used to be much more. Why aren’t people coming out anymore? Well, while it’s a wonderful thing that we can sit in our kitchens and see whatever we want on YouTube, it’s a very different thing to go out and experience someone playing live, being able to ask them questions, listening to other questions. It’s a bummer if someone knows [a drummer] is coming to town but they’ll look at someone’s shitty phone recording and decide to stay home and watch Dancing With the Stars. You have to go see artists while they’re alive and on this planet. Buy a ticket, go—you’re not going to regret it.
I used to go see Tony Williams six or seven times a year at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, and it was a long drive, and it was expensive, and I was sixteen. But those are some of my most cherished musical memories. How lucky was I? People need to get off the couch and check stuff out, especially if you’re a drummer and you want to do this. Go see a drummer you don’t know anything about. You’re bound to learn something.
MD: Do you see a trend from people at clinics or students toward a certain direction musically?
Todd: If anything, there’s a slight trend of asking about things that aren’t really important. Double bass. Things geared too much toward technique, and not the music or the “why.” If you learn something as an exercise, then it might sound like an exercise. But if you think of what you’re learning as music, hopefully it will come out sounding like music.
MD: Are you doing anything differently nowadays to get people out or keep people’s attention?
Todd: My clinic is normally two hours. I’ll play to some songs, do a big solo, and make mention of certain things that I think can help people sound better on the instrument. Then there’s a good forty-five minutes to an hour where we’re having a discussion, like hanging out in a living room. And there are no dumb questions. I tell them the only dumb thing is if you walk to your car and wish you’d asked a question.
We’re all drummers, we’re all friends. The camaraderie and brotherhood amongst drummers is unlike anything else. The clinic unfolds organically, whichever way the individuals who attend want to go. We can talk about the music business, gear, technique, whatever. Ultimately, it inspires younger players to be excited about music and the arts and doing this. When I see the kids all lit up and they can’t wait to get to their drums, that’s what it’s all about.
And I’m often asked about what people can do to get to a place they want to be. And I say there are five things you can do starting right now that will enhance your chances to be a working musician. Number one: Always be on time. Be early and be reliable. Number two: Be prepared. Learn the material you’re presented with. Know what you’re going to do. Number three: Show up with the right tools for the job. Have great gear choices for the music you’re going to play. Number four: Nail the job. Play the hell out of the music. Number five: Leave everybody happy that you were there. Be a good guy. Help the other musicians load out.
Put all five of those together, do that for a year, and see what happens. I guarantee you—only good things are going to come.
The Prog According to Todd
Night After Night
In 1981, Paul, my older brother—and a brilliant keyboardist—handed me Danger Money and Night After Night by U.K. and instructed me to “check these out.” I had already devoured all the Rush records at this point, but when I heard Terry Bozzio on Night After Night, it was a giant game-changer. Tom runs infused with flams, patterns phrased in odd groupings, double bass ideas galore, and marvelous symphonic sections in delicious proggy odd time signatures. It’s just phenomenal music and brilliant playing that helped shape who I would become as a player.
Seconds Out features Chester Thompson on his first tour with Genesis, and when Phil Collins isn’t singing, he’s ruling behind the drums. The fire, energy, and excitement still make me feel like a kid again whenever I hear it. That’s the power of majestic music. A great place to start for anyone unfamiliar with their glorious catalog. When I was discovering this music, I would put on my headphones and be transported away from my seemingly dull suburban bedroom—which was idyllic in reality—to large country houses with manicured lawns to have tea with these English lads as I’d be entering strange worlds and meeting creatures they created with their adventurous progressive rock that was very much like classical music at times. I’d read every liner note, study the artwork, look for hidden meanings and messages. I couldn’t get enough.
While this record may not meet the stereotypical notions of “prog,” I think there’s truly progressive material here. Masterful songwriting, brilliant performances, and astounding sounds and production fill every second of this seventeen-track masterpiece. Still, after all this time, I hear new things in this record. There’s a mix of Brian Wilson influence infused with a sour, British upper-crust thing, and the outcome is unique. Dave Mattacks’ drumming is sublime. So deep, so hip. There’s a beauty in the simplicity. “My Bird Performs” is a masterpiece. XTC’s Andy Partridge called Mattacks “the king of the one-note drum fill.” Dave and I met when we played the Chicago Drum Show together and he said to me, “With songs this good, all I had to do was not screw them up.” Well, his playing on this record informs me every time I sit behind the drums. The record requires proper time to digest, and it will slowly reveal things over time, until one day you’ll think to yourself, This is one of the best records ever made.
Style and Analysis
by Brad Schlueter
Todd Sucherman has become a top drummer by possessing a rare combination of ridiculous technique and superb musicality that pushes boundaries with challenging grooves and mind-boggling fills. The latest release from Styx, The Mission, is a progressive-rock concept album that showcases Sucherman’s inventive odd-meter approach and includes a fair share of crazy fills.
Sucherman starts this fill at 0:14 on the “&” of beat 4 with fast sextuplets between his tom, snare, and double bass, and then he plays a quick run down his kit before ending with a crash.
This next fill, at 0:46, phrases sextuplets in nine-note groupings with a hi-hat substitution and tricky stickings. Sucherman alternates the first note of each nine-note group between the toms and snare while moving the tom orchestrations up the kit.
“The Red Storm”
At 0:22, Sucherman plays a 5/8 groove with alternating hi-hat splashes and closings that create a 5/4-against-5/8 polyrhythm.
At 0:51, Sucherman plays two double paradiddles followed by two paradiddles that quickly move around the kit before landing on an embellished version of the previous 5/8 groove.
In the second bar of the fill at 3:02, Sucherman plays three polyrhythmic quintuplet fills that start on beat 1, the “&” of 2, and beat 4, with the final one played slightly slower than the first two.
The fill at 3:16 incorporates rudiments, linear ideas, double bass, and polyrhythmic elements at a breathtaking speed.
“Gone Gone Gone”
In the third measure of the fill at 1:05, Sucherman reverses the lead hand and plays a linear figure that ends with his left hand on the snare to set up the following crash.
At 1:49, Sucherman’s challenging sticking pattern creates an ascending and descending melodic tom groove with soft snare notes placed between hits on the gong drum, kick, and toms.