From making connections, mastering your art, and playing for the music, Todd Sucherman, throne-man behind STYX, lays out invaluable keys to having a full schedule.
OLD: Growing up, did you have a strong desire to play drums? Your father was a drummer. Did he push you to play the drums?
Todd: My father didn’t push me at all. I was mesmerized with the drums for literally as far back as I can remember. He was more an encouraging factor than a domineering factor. I remember a few times when I was around 6 or 7 when he was teaching me to read at a point I became frustrated with the formal lessons that we had. Basically because, just like any kid at that age, I just wanted to play. I didn’t want to go through the Haskell Harr books, but of course that was one of the most important and long lasting things he could have done for me.
OLD: By the time you started learning to read, your playing ability was beyond your reading ability. How did you cope with that?
Todd: I saw my father play gigs where he was reading charts, and he would play some musicals and whatnot, so I knew that it was ultimately an important thing to have in my wheel-house. It was a matter of making the translation from math into music. I knew what quarter notes were because I could feel that in the pulse of 4/4 music. It was just a matter of my young mind wrapping around things that I knew I could hear and feel, and then intellectually see what it was on the written page.
OLD: I’ve heard some drummers who put down reading music notation. How important is it?
Todd: It was a critical part in my career and any success I’ve achieved. Not to skip ahead from age 6 until now, but I wouldn’t have gotten the STYX gig had I not been able to read. Not because I read anything in the band STYX, but because what lead me to that gig was doing sessions for years in Chicago, and you had to be able to read to get that work.
Choosing to not be able to read music and touting that is like saying I wish to be illiterate, and I’m proud of it. Being able to read the rudiments … that’s our alphabet. We put sentences and paragraphs together using our alphabet, whether you’re talking single-strokes or double-strokes or whatever, that is how we put our language together. So, I’m dumb-founded by people who champion the fact that they can’t read. It’s not very hard to do. There’s only so many ways to write out rhythms.
Learning your instrument and learning the history of the instrument will not take any of your raw or unschooled qualities away. You’re going to play the way you play. The more you know, the more you know.
OLD: You spent some time at the Berklee College of Music. What are the benefits of attending a music school?
Todd: There were some pros and some cons, but mostly pros. It’s like a little microcosm of the music world where there might be certain cliques that you would like to get into or certain people that you’d like to play with. It’s kind of like if you want to talk to a famous musician at The Baked Potato. Well, here you are at the Berklee cafeteria. Now you’ve got to go over to some person’s table and say, “excuse me…”
It’s kind of a little safe microcosm so-to-speak of a situation like that.
Meanwhile, hopefully you’re studying with multiple people, playing in some labs and in your free time with other musicians. You’re in a situation where you’re living, eating, breathing and sleeping music 24 hours a day.
OLD: How do you make and maintain connections while on the road?
Todd: Anything that’s ever facilitated my career in an upwards trajectory has come at the recommendations of other musicians, and to be more concise, other non-drummer musicians. It’s been a bass player, a keyboard player, a multi-instrumentalist, and specifically with the STYX gig, the guy who handled my gear for sessions was the guy who recommended me to the guys in the band.
You have to be pals with more guys than just your drummer buddies. We all have our drummer pals. I’ve never been recommended by another drummer for something that had moved my career forward.
The more guys you know the better. The more people you play with, you’re putting yourself in the pathway of opportunity to be seen and heard and hopefully recommended for other things.
As far as making connections, you have to have the right tools for the job, show up on time, prepared, nail the job and ultimately leave everybody happy that you were there. It’s a very simple formula, and it’s a formula that not everyone gets correctly all the time.
OLD: You have two Methods & Mechanics DVDs out. Are you considering any other DVDs in the future?
Todd: You know, I never say never, but I’m not sure what else I have to offer. Basically, the two DVDs sort of go hand in hand. Everything that I have that could help other drummers musically and professionally — there’s a lot of things in there I wish someone would have told me when I was younger — encapsulates everything technically that I do and employ in my playing. Obviously, there are solos and performances, but all the career navigation advice, and the topics on being a working and travelling musician peppered throughout the presentations in both DVDs, anything more that I would do would be a vanity project, and I’m not interested in that.
I think it’s our duty to pass on the knowledge that we’ve acquired to the next generation. It’s sort of all I have at this moment. Who knows down the road? I might have some other ideas that I’d like to share.
OLD: We have a great clip of you one-bar-trading with Jim Garrison posted on the site. What are your thoughts on this technique?
Todd: I should preface, that particular gig was never meant to be a filmed presentation. We were jamming with friends while everyone in the crowd sends up shots of tequila and beers to the guys playing in the band. So, it’s much more of a fun fest in that regard. If anything musically cohesive that was anywhere decent that came out of that clip, then I’m happy.
In that instance, I’m playing with Jim, we have fun having a musical conversation where we might play certain figures, and I try to mirror that a little bit. It’s all in the spirit of fun. But, it’s also in the spirit of trying to say something musically back and forth. It’s not just sheer wankery. In that case, he would start a one or two bar phrase, and then we would trade off. So, it was within that context that the clip exists, I suppose. We were trying to be musical, and maybe a little cute, or whatever, but we were just having fun. It’s all about having fun.
You just have to listen. You can’t think about what you’re going to say while the other person is playing. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. You have to stop and listen and be open to what’s going on and react the way you do in a conversation. It’s completely that simple, but I think a lot of times people are loading up their gun with certain things that they know they can pull off and it might not necessarily fit with what another musician is playing. So, listening is the key, and then being able to compose on the spot what your idea is and what you’re trying to say on the instrument.
OLD: If you had to choose one decision you made that really set your career in the right direction, what do you think that would be?
Todd: I think making the decision that versatility is the key to being a working musician. I looked at guys like Steve Smith and Vinnie Colaiuta who could play serious rock and roll music and also play very serious jazz, and other genres as well. I knew that — back when I was trying to break into the studio scene and just playing with as many people as possible in the late 80s early 90s in Chicago — that all I ever wanted to do is be a working musician. So, how do I fill my schedule? If I just put all my eggs in one basket with one band, I’m creating a very long road to hoe for myself. If I knew how to play jazz, if I knew how to read, if I knew how to play different kinds of rock music, if I knew how to backup a female singer, if I knew some Latin music … I knew that I could fill up my schedule, be a working musician and pay my bills doing nothing but playing. So, yes, being versatile is really the key if you want to have a full schedule. Putting all your eggs in a basket with one band is like buying a lottery ticket.