The Drummer Behind Little Big Town’s Big Hit Record
by Jim Riley
I’ve been a friend and fan of Seth Rausch for more than a decade. His deep pocket is undeniable to anyone who’s ever heard him play, and he’s the consummate professional and a devoted family man. I’ve been fortunate to have my gig with Rascal Flatts for the past thirteen years, and I’ve watched as Seth has played the role of the journeyman drummer in search of a gig he could truly call home—and finally find it.
I’m also a fan of Little Big Town. Although the four incredible vocalists in the group achieved widespread acclaim for albums like 2005’s The Road to Here and 2010’s The Reason Why, by 2012 they had reached a point where they were hungry for a hit that would take them to the next level. It came that very year, with Tornado, LBT’s first album featuring its touring band. It was a winning combination for the singers and for Rausch, as the drummer’s colorful part on Tornado’s second single, “Pontoon,” helped give the group its first number-one hit on the Hot Country Songs chart and a Grammy win for Best Country Duo/Group Performance.
So how is it that this road dog with relatively little studio experience ended up playing on one of the biggest records of the year? Let’s find out.
Jim: You come from a musical family. Tell us how you got started playing drums.
Seth: My grandparents on my dad’s side had nine kids, six of whom became musicians and formed the Rausch Brothers Band. They would be rehearsing into the night, and I would just listen to them as long as I could before falling asleep on the floor. I learned so much from watching them, particularly my Uncle Joe, who played drums in the band.
Jim: How old were you when you got your first drumset?
Jim: I guess you weren’t taking lessons at that point.
Seth: No, I was just trying to imitate what I saw my Uncle Joe do with the band. I’ve always been a “by ear” player. I didn’t take my first lesson until much later. I did join band in the sixth grade and learned how to read music, and I studied some rudiments.
Toward the end of high school I started to take drumset lessons. By that time I had been sitting in with my uncles and was working on the weekends in a local bar band. Although I felt very comfortable behind the kit, the lessons helped me with some of the more technical aspects of drumming.
Jim: What were you listening to in high school?
Seth: With my dad being a musician, I listened to a wide variety of music growing up.
Jim: Any country?
Seth: Lots. I remember playing along to Ricky Skaggs and Ronnie Milsap records. But our family favorite was definitely James Taylor.
Jim: He used some amazing drummers over the years.
Seth: Rick Marotta, Russ Kunkel…
Jim: And of course your favorite, Carlos Vega.
Seth: Yes. The first time I heard Carlos, it just spoke to me. I’d always be scoping record jackets, trying to figure out who everyone was, and any time I heard Carlos on those records I knew that was what I wanted to sound like as a player. After he died in 1998, I wanted to find everything I could that he’d played on. It never mattered what he was playing—from Latin to country and everything in between, his feel was impeccable. I felt like every musical situation I heard him in was a lesson in itself.
Jim: Did you go to college after high school?
Seth: I didn’t. I moved from New York to Nashville.
Jim: By yourself?
Seth: No, a couple years before I graduated, my dad had moved there, along with my stepmom and a few of my siblings, in order to have more opportunity as a songwriter. He was already meeting a lot of people in the music business, and as an aspiring musician it seemed like a great place to move to. So I came down in ’96 to live full time.
Jim: Did you start playing immediately?
Seth: Not really. I was under twenty-one, so it was difficult to get into clubs. But I would catch some jam nights and sit in on Lower Broadway. Mostly I was practicing and working.
Jim: Where were you working?
Seth: I had a few jobs—waited tables, did factory work.
Jim: Factory work? Man, you have to be more specific.
Seth: I was working for a while at a bookbinding factory and also at this company that made screw strips for drills. Very monotonous, to say the least! At that time my main goal was to get a gig and get on the road.
Jim: And what was the turning point for that?
Seth: I would have to say when I met George Lawrence.
Jim: George is a great drummer and teacher. He was also quite influential in the life of another young player, my college buddy Keith Carlock.
Seth: That’s right. A family friend took me to Fork’s Drum Closet, where George taught regularly at the time. I began taking lessons with him when I was eighteen.
Jim: What did you work on?
Seth: Everything. The first thing he did was help me get better at reading. Then he would just play a bunch of cool stuff and write it down for me to practice. George really took me under his wing. He began referring me for some local gigs, mostly club gigs that he was too busy to do.
Jim: You must have been coming through for him, if he kept recommending you.
Seth: I guess so. This went on for the next few years, until about 2000. George was playing with a group called the Wilkinsons and had gotten another gig, so he recommended me and they hired me sight unseen. He gave me the board tapes, and just like that I was out on the road.
Jim: The Wilkinsons did really well when they came out. You must have felt like this was your big break.
Seth: Absolutely. It eventually slowed down and just kind of went away. But it wasn’t long until a friend of mine called me to go out with Brian McComas.
Jim: You and I first met when Brian opened up for Rascal Flatts. We played a lot of hoops on that tour. You were a beast. Did you play basketball in high school?
Seth: Growing up in New York, it was kind of a necessity! I played varsity ball for my high school.
Jim: Well, that explains a lot. But as we both know, that gig didn’t work for the long term either. How many different acts have you played with since 2000?
Seth: Twelve or so.
Jim: So that’s like having to find a new gig almost every year. Was that frustrating?
Seth: At times, but I actually enjoyed the variety of work. One gig would slow down, and another would come up.
Jim: You played drums for acts opening for Rascal Flatts three times in ten years. The third, of course, was Little Big Town. How did you land that gig?
Seth: I was playing for Phil Vassar at the time, when LBT’s drummer, Steve Sinatra, decided to get off the road to focus on his session career, and he recommended me for the job. I still had to audition for the gig, but in the end they hired me.
Jim: Then came the big leap—how did you go from being on the road with LBT to recording? As sidemen, we know that doesn’t happen very often.
Seth: At the time that I got hired, LBT were promoting their album The Reason Why and were looking to go in to record a new album sometime the following year. They were looking at producers for it, and I guess thankfully for me they hired Jay Joyce. Jay is an old-school producer and very much a fan of bands. After hearing us play, he suggested the idea of using LBT’s live band in the studio, and they were very receptive.
Jim: You guys didn’t just show up on tracking day to record, which is very common on Nashville master sessions. You did some preproduction.
Seth: We did our preproduction rehearsals at Jay’s home studio. We were there for three days, and the goal was to make the final choices of what songs we should cut the following week. We would sit in the control room and listen to demos, and each time we found a song that we wanted to consider, we would go downstairs to the tracking room, mess with different ideas of how to approach the song, and decide whether we wanted to record it. Then we would put it aside and move on to the next song.
Jim: How many songs did you run through?
Seth: By the end of the three days we had twelve songs that everyone felt good about.
Jim: Where did you guys cut the record?
Seth: Sound Emporium in Nashville.
Jim: What time did you start tracking?
Seth: We’d get in there at about 10 a.m., set up, and start to get sounds.
Jim: How long did you take to get sounds?
Seth: Not too long. We just found the sounds we were looking for and started running through some tunes.
Jim: When you say you were running through tunes, I assume you mean you started recording.
Seth: No, we actually didn’t start recording until much later in the day. Jay wanted to catch the energy of doing a live show, so he wanted us to be playing the songs at night, when we’re used to making music together. So we’d go to dinner, have a drink or two, come back to the studio, and start tracking.
Jim: What drums did you record with?
Seth: Well, it was funny—when I showed up to the preproduction rehearsal I had my ’70s Gretsch kit in the car, but Jay’s partner, Giles Reaves, had a Gretsch kit from the same era in the same sizes— 12″ tom, 16″ floor, and 22″ kick—already miked up at his house. So I brought my snares and cymbals in and used that. We felt great about the sound at Jay’s, so we brought the same setup to Sound Emporium.
Jim: What’s the first song you cut?
Seth: “Pavement Ends.”
Jim: And that ended up being the first song on the record as well. Hey, the first discernable voice on the record is you counting off the song—I think you deserve some credit as a vocalist!
Seth: [laughs] Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Jim: Did you guys use a click track on that song?
Seth: No, Jay didn’t feel we needed it. He wanted the song to have a live, sort of raucous feel.
Jim: You definitely got that happening. You have some different sounds on this record.
Seth: From the beginning of the recording process, Jay was looking for alternate ways to express the time that I was playing in my right hand. You know, get away from the typical voicings of open and closed hi-hat and explore some different timbres. I think he felt that the frequency of the cymbals was right on top of where the female voices were, and that by avoiding playing an overabundance of cymbals we would create much more space in the mix. The first thing we tried on “Pavement Ends” was laying an old banjo on the floor tom and playing that.
Jim: Are you serious?
Seth: Yeah, but that didn’t create the sound we were looking for, so we found this roasting pan and put a few rattles and shakers in it. Just before we started tracking, I put my car keys in there and found that it provided just enough of a metallic bite. It’s pretty far back in the mix, but it’s definitely different.
Jim: I can hear it. It’s very cool. Let’s jump to the big hit song, “Pontoon.” What’s going on at the beginning? It sounds like a party before the song starts. Was that real, or was that sound effect flown in to make it sound like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”?
Seth: That was what was happening in the room. It was feeling like a party! We did the first take, finished it, and while everyone was talking we just stayed in “the red.” Jay yelled, “Do it again,” so I just counted it off amidst the chaos, and what you hear is the result. Jay’s whole thing is having the vibe be right. If it feels good and has a good energy, then vocal bleed or whatever doesn’t really matter.
Jim: As you said, Jay wanted you to find some new sounds and nontraditional voicings, and you certainly did that on “Pontoon.” Tell us how that came about.
Seth: Jay had me play along with the loop from the original demo on the tracking session, and it had a very lo-fi “clap”-sounding snare. This gave me the idea to lay a splash on the snare and strike it with the stick, which I did on the verses. It’s a great way to get an electronic-type sound in an acoustic environment. It works great live as well.
Jim: I remember seeing Johnny Rabb do that years ago when he was living in Nashville. It’s a great sound. Did you have that on a side snare or on your primary snare?
Seth: On my primary snare. I used a piccolo snare on that track, and it’s the only snare on the song.
Jim: Did you overdub the verses with the cymbal on the snare?
Seth: Nope, I had to take the splash off the snare on the fly as I was playing the song, so the snare hit just before the chorus is played by my right hand as the left hand is moving the splash off the snare. The same going back into the verse.
Jim: It seems crazy that that’s you way you did it, for a major recording like this.
Seth: Well, that’s just the way Jay operates. The more that can be played down live, the better. After tracking Jay might add parts that he feels would enhance a song, but if major instrumental overdubs, including vocal overdubs, can be avoided, all the better. Most of us were all in one room, so you hear an energy on this record that you don’t hear on more “produced” recordings. I never punched in on any of the tracks on this record. The tracks I played are the tracks you hear.
Jim: At times your playing on this record is sparse. That must have taken a lot of discipline.
Seth: Somewhat. I’ve always aspired to be a player who tries not to give the song more than it needs. At the beginning of the project, though, Jay did mention that he wanted me to leave space for the singers, and the concept resonated with me.
I played very few crashes on the record. Instead I used a sizzle effect on my ride and hit that, which gave me someplace to go at the beginning of phrases. I played the right hand on the rim on some songs, and floor tom on others. Most of the songs have no tom fills at all.
In the absence of loud cymbals, Jay was able to bring the drums way up in the mix. You can hear every ghost note, and yet nothing about the drums gets in the way of the vocals. We had three or four mics on the snare at times to highlight different nuances of the performance, and yet there was minimal use of the hi-hat mic because the other mics were so hot that it was rarely needed. On “Pontoon” the hi-hat on the verse is all played with the foot on the upbeats, leaving the kick and snare room to be heard clearly without the hi-hat playing over the top.
Jim: You did that same thing on “Sober.”
Jim: Speaking of “Sober,” on that song you’re playing brushes. What brushes and what drum were you using?
Seth: I was using the big blue Monster Brush that Vater makes. The snare was Jay’s. He calls it the trash snare. It was basically some ratty old vintage drum with a half-busted head that just sounded right for the tune. It seems like on a lot of recordings nowadays, much of the nuance of the music can be buried—like everything below a “go for the ceiling” backbeat gets lost. So I tried to over-accentuate the notes other than the backbeats on this song.
Jim: I think with those big blue brushes you almost have to over-accentuate the inner beats.
Jim: You mentioned that one of the songs on the record was actually taken from the rehearsal.
Seth: Yeah, “Front Porch Thing.” This was the second song on Tornado that we recorded without a click. We actually got great takes of that song at Sound Emporium, but ultimately they felt that the performance from the rehearsal at Jay’s studio was better. It just had that first-take magic, so we used it on the record.
Jim: So rehearsal was multitracked?
Seth: Yeah, fortunately we multitracked everything we did at Jay’s.
Jim: Talk about the pressure being off! I mean, you had no idea at that moment you were cutting a record.
Seth: When they told me that they were using that take, my first thought was, I hope I played something cool. As I listened back at Jay’s, I remember thinking at certain points in the track, That was a good idea—I should remember to play that on the session. But as it turned out, I didn’t have to.
Jim: As I listen to Tornado, I hear another common thread in terms of the timbres you’re using. I’m in the middle of writing a drumset book now, and one of the concepts I write about is what I call groove progression—for instance, if in the first verse you play a specialty sound like the floor tom or the rim, when you go to the second verse you sometimes choose to play hi-hat instead.
Seth: Sure. Many times I felt like after going to the hi-hat on the chorus, it would be too far of a step back intensity-wise to go back to the original sound, so I would choose to play closed hi-hat on the second verse to keep the intensity up.
Jim: When you finished recording, did you have any sense that Tornado would be as successful as it’s been?
Seth: We all felt great about what we’d done, but it was very different from anything LBT had put out before, and we hoped the fans would like it.
Jim: Well, everyone certainly did like it! You guys have been on a whirlwind of success. How does that feel?
Seth: It feels great. I’m very thankful. I really believe that we don’t accomplish anything on our own, though. We pull from all that we’ve learned or acquired from others along our journey. I’m happy for LBT, and I’m very grateful that they gave me the opportunity to share in the making of this record and the success that’s going along with it. Over the years, as one gig went away, God had a way of giving me another. But at this point I would say this has been one of my best experiences. To be able to make great music with even better people is very gratifying. I’ll always be content behind the kit, though, whether in the studio, on a big stage somewhere, or just sitting in my basement.
Drums: Gretsch Brooklyn series in satin ebony finish, including 9×13 tom, 16×16 floor tom, and 18×24 bass drum, plus 4×13 Gretsch USA Maple piccolo side snare and 8×14 Brady block snare
Cymbals: Paiste, including 11″ Traditionals Thin splash (used to set on side snare for effects),
15″ Twenty hi-hats, 20″ Twenty Masters Collection Dark ride, 10″ Twenty Mini China stacked on a
10″ Twenty splash (on bass drum mount, used for effects), 22″ Twenty ride, 22″ Twenty Light ride with Pro-Mark sizzle beads, and 20″ Traditionals Medium Light Swish
Sticks: Vater Power 5A sticks and Monster brushes
Heads: Remo, including coated Vintage Emperor main-snare batter and Hazy Emperor bottom, Coated Ambassador X side-snare batter and Hazy Ambassador bottom, Coated Ambassador X tom batters and Black Suede Ambassador bottoms, and Black Suede Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter and front head; RemOs dampening rings used for deader sounds on certain songs
Accessories: QwikStix cup and stick holders
Electronics: 13″ MacBook Pro running Ableton Live for click and auxiliary tracks fired by Akai MPD18 pads
As we went to press, Rausch joined the Zildjian artist roster.