Your abilities will never be more scrutinized than after you’ve accepted a job to replace a drummer whose playing helped define the sound of a popular band. Simon Phillips and Todd Sucherman, two monster players who know exactly what it’s like to be under the magnifying glass, are here to help you deal.
How would you approach the opportunity to replace a band’s original drummer? What if that band was a high-profile recording act with hit records? And what if the drummer you’re replacing has passed away, leaving behind an indelible mark on the music? How should you prepare—and behave—when entering the band as “the new guy”?
Not every audition you go on will have such heavy baggage attached, but by definition the situation is full of intense potentialities, both positive and negative. It just so happens that the two drummers we spoke with for guidance on the subject—guys who went through the exact scenario laid out above—earned the respect and admiration not only of their new employers but of legions of loyal fans as well. They graciously share their experiences here, providing serious food for thought for the next time all eyes are on you.
The legendary British session drummer Simon Phillips was already an industry icon when he was invited to join the Who’s twenty-fifth-anniversary tour in 1989. Can you imagine having to fill the shoes once worn by one of British rock’s most iconic drummers, Keith Moon? Several years later, Phillips was asked to replace the beloved American session drummer Jeff Porcaro in Toto, a role he held until earlier this year.
Clearly, Phillips is unafraid of a challenge. “My approach to any musical situation,” he says, “is to just play the music. I can’t think about what the original drummer played when they recorded the songs. That’s not my concern. My only concern is to go on stage and play the music the best I can with the current band. I’ve been asked to play for a reason, and that’s really the way it’s always been.
“I can only sound like me,” Phillips continues. “I can’t sound like someone else. I’m actually very bad at trying to imitate another drummer’s style. I play music very intuitively. Although, when I was learning the Who’s music, there were a couple of things that Keith did that would just get me howling, because he was so out there in left field. So I would throw in some of those bits, mainly as a tip of the hat to Keith. Other than that, I just played what I felt best fit the music.”
Todd Sucherman was well known on the Chicago-area session scene when he got his big break with Styx. “I grew up listening to Styx, so their music was part of my early musical DNA,” Sucherman says. “Obviously, when I got the call, the thought of making the music happen was the first priority. There was no need to write charts or do any extensive research, because I knew most of the material before they ever called me.
“I walked into that first rehearsal completely prepared,” Todd continues. “I’d even learned some of the old live-ending arrangements that they had forgotten. Then it became the running joke—whenever someone in the band couldn’t remember something about a song arrangement, they’d say, ‘Ask the kid!’ After that it was just a matter of jelling with the guys during those first few weeks of rehearsals. They hadn’t played together as a unit in almost fourteen years.”
Asked about his attitude toward interpreting the original Styx drum tracks, Sucherman says, “When it comes to playing the songs like the original records, no two human beings are going to play drums to a song exactly the same. On the other hand, Styx sold 40 million records before I joined the band. I respect that, and I would never put my own musical agenda before that. The material needs to sound the way that Styx fans have come to know and love these songs.
“That being said, John Panozzo was a very interesting drummer in that he was a very active player with limited technique. I mean no disrespect when I say that. He almost had a Keith Moon type of unorthodox approach. So his drum parts were interesting templates for me to examine, to [help me] capture the flavor of certain passages and fills. I also wanted to try to update them, make them a little more hip with some dense figures that only carefully listening musicians or drummers might notice. But I didn’t want to play anything that would particularly draw attention to myself in the ears of the layman.”
For Sucherman, fitting in away from the stage was more of a challenge than getting along musically. “The most daunting thing for me,” he says, “was the fact that, even though I had never met John Panozzo, everyone in the Styx organization unanimously said that he was the funniest person they’d ever met. So to have that huge personality and entity not there any longer was sort of intimidating. And to hang socially with these guys, who were all very intelligent and quick witted—and me being about twenty years their junior—it was more of a challenge to establish my place within the organization. That was a major learning experience in and of itself, aside from the musical aspects of joining the band.”
And what about the fans? Phillips says he experienced a unique transformation in being accepted by Toto devotees. “When we arrived in Holland for our second show,” he recalls, “there were people waiting for the band outside the hall when we arrived, and it struck me that this was a big part of the gig that I hadn’t considered. The band had a very close relationship with the fans that I had never experienced. I believe this is one of the biggest differences between English bands and American bands. But as I watched the fans interacting with the band members, I wondered how they were feeling about me being in the band. I’m sure most of them had no idea of my background and really didn’t care, because they’re not musicians and could care less if I had played with Gil Evans or Jack Bruce or Jeff Beck.
“In the beginning,” Simon shares, “the fans were very respectful, but not really sure if this ‘new guy’ was going to work. And they really missed Jeff. But I remember going back to Holland a year later, doing some drum clinics, and the reception was amazing. When I looked into the audience, I recognized a lot of faces. All the hardcore Toto fans were at the drum clinic. That’s when I realized that they had accepted me into the band and had become very supportive of my new role in Toto. Also, when I started taking my own band out on the road in 1997, all the Toto fans were there, listening to my instrumental fusion music. And to this day they still come out and support me on my solo tours and clinics.”
Today Sucherman can be proud of his acceptance by Styx fans, but, hearing him talk on the subject, it’s clear that he’s quite aware of the potential negative aspects of public scrutiny. “I thank my lucky stars that I joined Styx during the pre-Internet days,” he says. “I would not want to be the new guy replacing a drummer in a high-profile band today, having to be subjected to the verbal abuse that’s unleashed on Facebook and YouTube. You have to develop a thick skin and understand that everyone has an opinion and not everyone is going to like what you do. You can read a hundred glowing comments, and then there’s that one guy that posts a negative comment, which is the one that usually sticks with you. So I don’t read them anymore. I focus on the thousands of smiling fans at our shows.”
Phillips recalls the day that Toto bassist Mike Porcaro, Jeff’s brother, invited him to be a permanent band member. “About two weeks into our second tour,” Simon recalls, “Mike asked me how I would feel about joining the band. At this point in my career I had pretty much given up on the idea of being in a band. I had tried being in a few bands in the ’70s and ’80s, and they had all been disastrous. You’d be amazed at some of the bands I was in for about two seconds. [laughs] That’s why I got into production and studio work. But Toto was a great organization and I enjoyed the music, and I got along well with everyone in the band. So I signed on the dotted line, and for twenty-one years it was a wonderful experience.”
In the end, Sucherman explains, being the new guy is less about the “old” guy than it is about you. “I’ve always treated every professional situation the same, whether it’s a platinum-selling artist or a local bar band,” he says. “The best way to approach any gig is to always be on time, be prepared and have the proper tools for the job, nail the music, and leave everybody happy that you were there. If you can do that, you’ll find an easier path to success, whether on a local or international level.
“I approached the Styx gig and the Brian Wilson gig in the same way,” Todd goes on. “I’ve been in Styx for eighteen years now. I know I will never be the guy that played on those famous records. But what I can do is help bring those songs to life and make them fresh and new, every night. That is my job as the drummer in Styx, and that is what I must deliver on a very high and consistent level, every night.
“There’s room to have fun and improvise without sacrificing the integrity of the music. Tommy Shaw plays different guitar solos every night, based around the theme of the original song. That makes it more fun for all of us, because there is an element that we can do whatever we want, within the parameters of the song. In recent years I’ve been able to step out and surprise the guys with some rhythmic ideas and take some liberties that I may not have been comfortable with in my early years with the band. I know my boundaries within the music, and it’s nice when I play something and Tommy turns around and gives me the ‘rock nod of approval.’ That inspires me to think of other ideas that might work the next night we play. I don’t want to get in a routine of playing the same things night after night, because then it turns into Groundhog Day.
“I’ve groomed myself to be well versed in all styles of music and have made a point of being as professional as possible on every gig I’ve ever had,” Sucherman concludes. “And, fortunately, it’s paid off when I’ve put myself in the pathway of opportunity. When preparation is met with a little luck, as the new guy you’ve got to be ready to go.”