AN INTERVIEW WITH JASON SUTTER
By David Iozzia
Photo by Ross Halfin
Once upon a time, two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and somebody took the road less traveled. Some take the high road and others take the low road. For some, its about the drive and for others, its all about the destination. To each his own. In drummer Jason Sutters case, hes taken the long way there, and he hasnt taken any shortcuts. His rock and roll travels took him from New York State, to colleges in Texas and Florida, to Boston, and then to his final destination in Los Angeles. Its there, in sunny southern California, that Jason found his musical prize. After receiving two musical degrees, and following stints with Juliana Hatfield, Jack Drag, American Hi-Fi, Smash Mouth, The Rembrandts, and a few others, Jason Sutter landed one of the most sought-after gigs in rock today: the drum chair in ex-Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornells touring band. Jason, whose fans and friends call him Sutter, had one heck of a 2007 touring internationally and across the United States, with Cornell and his band. In early January 2008, Sutter sat down by the pool at his home in California with his cell phone and chatted long-distance with me as I sat at home in cold and frigid New Jersey. We talked about his long drive so far and whats ahead on the musical road in front of him. In early June, we chatted again when his summer 2008 touring plans with Chris Cornell were finalized.
Dave: Hello Sutter, Happy New Year and thanks for letting me conduct this interview. Howd you celebrate New Years Eve?
SUTTER: I hung out with Pete and Yogi from Chris Cornells band at a party of mostly musicians in Studio City Hills. It was kind of hip.
Dave: Did you make New Years resolutions?
SUTTER: I guess I did. My New Years resolution always is to be not as nice. I always fail at it. I dont know if that will be a resolution for 2008 or not.
Dave: Lets stay right here and right now with a few questions about the new year. What should fans of Chris Cornell expect in 2008?
SUTTER: Chris is writing vigorously so there is a new record in there somewhere. Thats going to happen, but Im not sure of the bands involvement as of yet. Theres talk of hitting the road in the Summer of 2008 and being out for two years straight. When Chris sets his mind to something, he usually follows through. Starting July 16, were doing about 25 shows on the Projekt Revolution tour with Linkin Park, The Bravery, Atreyu, and Hawthorne Heights. Even though well be playing a shorter set, itll be fun playing in front of those bands fans. Were headlining a show at the House of Blues in Las Vegas on one of our off days.
Dave: Your bandmates when touring with Chris Cornell include guitarists Yogi Lonich and Peter Thorn whom you already mentioned, and your partner in the rhythm section is bass guitarist Corey McCormick. The band is such a tight unit, and I truly hope that Chris Cornell will use the band exclusively when he records his next album.
SUTTER: I hope so but theres nothing I can say about it. At our last show, Chris said that when a band is involved, it will be us. Thats all good stuff and I hope it happens. In this business, you never know what the circumstances are. Chris could be far away, and he could get into a room with a producer who calls other guys. That happens a lot in this business. I feel it compromises a band, or what feels like a band. Theres no denying that. If it was my choice, Id choose this band. There are better drummers, better guitarists, and better bass guitarists out there but there isnt a better band. Were the right blend of solid groundwork, creativity, and personalities.
Dave: Its the nature of the music business as any veteran musician could attest but would it still be a kick in the head if Chris decides to use a studio band instead?
SUTTER: Of course it would bum me out but that happens to everybody. Its the nature of the beast. If it works live, it will work out in the studio Yet Ive been the replacer, brought in to play drums on a record, when the drummer is still sitting in the room and hanging out. Its usually because that drummer is pretty young and still a little green. In our case, the guys in this band are not only pulling our weight, were out there making music and not just playing parts. Chris has 100% creative control and he deserves it. From what I understand, Chris wants the freedom of not being over-shadowed by the band, which is pretty hard to do when he is involved. He gets his cake and gets to eat it to because this band serves the music while bringing a proficiency level to the table that is unparalleled. There is nothing he could bring to us that we couldnt play.
Dave: Are you committed full-time to Chris Cornell or do you have any other musical projects planned for 2008?
SUTTER: Personally, I think were all committed full-time to this gig. Contractually, weve all agreed that when its time to go, well go. Whenever Im home, there is not much I can do. I might be needed to record; I might be called to do some shows. Yogi, Corey, and I have a side project called Run Through The Desert. Weve done some work in the studio, and we play an occasional gig in Los Angeles when it fits our schedule. Our debut album will be available real soon. Your readers can check us out at www.myspace.com/runthroughthedesert and at our website, www.runthroughthedesert.com.
Dave: Looking back at the incredible year you spent touring with Chris Cornell in 2007, other than the Live Earth concert, is there any one show that stands out as a highlight?
SUTTER: We just played in Chile with 15,000 kids packed into a room. From the beginning to the end, the crowd hung on every single note, word, and melody. It was intense. It was magical.
Dave: As you toured internationally in 2007, what was your favorite foreign country and culture to experience for the first time?
SUTTER: The fans in Norway are so sweet and genuine. It feels like youre playing at a family gathering. You see people from all walks of like, and so many parents bring their kids to the shows. I met a lot of Norwegians everywhere we played. I was blown away by their personalities, their politics, and their culture. Everything works just perfect. I can almost say the same thing about Australia, which is a little better as far as climate. Ive been there before, but Norway was all new.
Dave: Chris Cornell played at the Live Earth concert in Hamburg, Germany. Please share your memories of that experience.
SUTTER: While auditioning for Chris, Yogi, Pete, Corey, me, and another bass player named Joe went out for lunch. We all bonded, it was a great vibe, even though we knew not everyone would get the gig. I was already in Smash Mouth, and I joined up with those guys more to just play than to audition. But fate intervened. When we got to the Live Earth gig in Germany, we walked in and Joe was up onstage playing in Enrique Inglesias band. That was cool to see our "other member," our brother who didnt get the Chris Cornell gig, playing at the same place. To be honest though, we were already in Europe touring for a month. I had no idea of the impact, or how many people were watching. We were so far away from the U.S. culture and the advertising that I had no idea of how big it was.
Dave: The Live Earth CD/DVD was released recently. Did you get a chance to check it out yet?
SUTTER: Its an amazing timepiece, and we perform "Black Hole Sun" on both the CD and the DVD. For anybody reading this interview, go buy it. Its not only a good cause, its one of the most kick-ass live DVDs of whats going on musically right now. Im proud to be a part of it.
Dave: When you watch yourself on DVD, or listen to yourself on a record, are you young enough to still be starry-eyed? Or are you a veteran musician who gets caught up self-critiquing his own performance?
SUTTER: Im definitely critiquing myself, as is any dude who takes his musicianship seriously. Its still a kick, hopefully its always exciting, but Im past the point in my career of being starry-eyed. Im not jaded; I was there back in 1997. But Ive climbed that mountain and Im ready for whats next.
Dave: Like another year of touring the world in 2008?
SUTTER: This band has a great time touring. I think Chris other bands were just the opposite. They were probably over it, and there wasnt a sparkle in any of their eyes while traveling. Those days were probably over or they never happened. Chris gets really excited still as we play these places and festivals, and hes excited for the people around him.
Dave: Live Earths goal was to raise awareness about global warming. How does the CD/DVD of that event act as a forum to continue raising our awareness?
SUTTER: The more the CD/DVD sells, the greater the awareness about global warming. But without getting political, there has to be a follow-up. There has to be a Live Earth part two.
Dave: The Live Earth DVD includes six short films about global warming and a documentary on the making of Live Earth. Arent music fans who only download the audio and/or video of the musical performances missing the message?
SUTTER: You are so right Dave.
Dave: Modern technology does have its drawbacks. Its made it too easy for people to sit behind their computer screens and passively watch the world go by.
SUTTER: Theres no question about that!
Dave: When you first auditioned for Chris Cornell, you had to quickly learn songs that had odd meters, like Soundgardens "Black Hole Sun." Since you came from a power pop background in bands like Jack Drag and American Hi-Fi, could you have nailed the Soundgarden and Audioslave material without your formal music education background?
SUTTER: Thats a really good question, and no, I dont think so. Yet, despite my formal education, playing those songs I wasnt counting. Im more of a "feel" player. Id rather err on the side of being sloppy or loose and have it feel good. Id rather play it passionate and meaningful than play it perfect. Im more John Bonham than Neil Peart. Im influenced by stuff that is left of center. Music school opened my mind, but I think people are born to be a certain type of player regardless of what you study. I charted what I could but songs like "Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun" are unchartable. They are all about feel and odd meters.
Dave: Now youve landed the gig. As you started to learn Chris Cornells material prior to the tour, you learned many a lesson about song structure and composition. Playing the material night after night while touring, what have you learned about rhythm and tempo?
SUTTER: Thats such a heavy question; it could be a whole interview in itself. Theres a certain amount of elasticity. I learned that there are certain parts in those songs that are perfect. Matt Cameron is Matt Cameron. I learned that there is a fine line in the way that Matt played where his parts are elastic enough that I didnt have to match them exactly. Chris encouraged me to be myself. It was nice that I didnt have to follow his footsteps exactly.
Dave: Its a double-edged sword playing classic material from Chris Cornells prior bands. Youre criticized it you try to match it beat by beat, and youre criticized if you try to put your own stamp on it. What type of reaction have you received from the die-hard fans of Soundgardens Matt Cameron and Audioslaves Brad Wilk?
SUTTER: Im sure there are kids posting online with sour grapes that theres no more Soundgarden or Audioslave but Chris Cornell has moved on. Ive never had anybody come up and say my work is pretty good or bad when compared to Matt or Brad. Ive gotten a few nods that Ive stayed true to the roots of the music. Its a great compliment to me that nobodys mentioned a comparison to those drummers outright when they come to a show. I value the opinion of people who have seen and heard a show more than somebody ranting and raving online. This band has gotten the ultimate treatment from people seeing the show. Thats a testament to how much a band we are without being a band.
Dave: What type of feedback have you received from Chris?
SUTTER: Chris has always been very encouraging. I try to make these songs my own, and I think thats what Chris is looking for. If there is a pattern that Matt or Brad played and I dont feel it, I wont play it. Yet there is an essence to their playing that I have to try and capture. This band has had no problems across the board with the way were interpreting the music. We may have not been there originally but were doing these songs justice and moving toward something else and something new. We respect the songs that were covering.
Dave: The demanding material in Chris Cornells setlist forces you and the other band members to wear many different musical hats. Does Chris play a structured setlist where you know the songs and their sequence in the set, or does he mix it up nightly?
SUTTER: Chris relishes in having the freedom to put together the setlist. Hes like a little kid when he sits in his room and puts it together. We never make any suggestions. Anything goes. If somebody in the crowd yells something out from Temple of the Dog, and we rehearsed once, well pull it out. There are no rules and no mistakes. Chris made that clear very early on. That makes for a very exciting atmosphere. The other bands that Chris was in werent comfortable branching out or jamming; they werent comfortable with things off the map. They had a song, they played it through, and they went on to the next song. Chris likes the fact that he can vamp, we can vamp, and anything can happen. Thats the fun part.
Dave: Before I switch gears from Chris Cornell to your back history, do you care to switch places and ask me a question?
SUTTER: No thanks. I had that chance for the first time last year when I interviewed the famous rock photographer Jim Marshall. Im okay, I respect the side of the table youre on, and I appreciate your offer.
Dave: I alluded to your formal musical education in a prior question. Which universities did you attend and what degrees did you receive?
SUTTER: I went to the University of North Texas where I received a bachelors degree in musical education with an emphasis on performance. Then I went to the University of Miami for a masters degree in orchestral performance.
Dave: I read a quote of yours about musical education that mentioned music school and playing in a rock band, not in the context of comparing apples to oranges, but in the context of eating vegetables and dessert. Please elaborate.
SUTTER: Playing rock and roll was like having dessert after eating my vegetables, which meant going to school. My father, who is a sculptor, said that if youre good enough to do anything in the arts, youre good enough to go to school for free. That was a heavy message early on. When I went to college, there was no messing around. Those schools were the best place for me to go, I didnt pay a penny, but I busted my ass all of the time. Every night was practicing and dedication and preparing for the prize that hopefully someday will happen. With the Chris Cornell gig, it has happened, and I worked hard for it.. I ate my vegetables then, now Im eating my dessert, and Im coming in for second helpings. If you told me then where Id be right now with my musical experiences, both materially, spiritually, physically, and mentally, I never would have believed you.
Dave: Potsdam, New York, to Texas to Miami to Boston to Los Angeles. Thats a pretty diverse rock and roll highway to start your travels on. Whats the biggest sacrifice youve had to make so far in your musical career?
SUTTER: There are a lot of them. The biggest is that ever since I was a little kid, I was playing three nights a week in bars. I missed graduations, weddings, and family get-togethers because I had a gig. Also, every dude in this band is single. Its rough when youre out on the road and youre already married to something. The reality is that your love is the music and its hard to figure things out when somebody else comes into the picture. Its difficult to keep all of the balls in the air.
Dave: Whats your biggest regret?
SUTTER: The regrets are the gigs I couldve had if Id done things differently. But would I be where I am right now if I took those gigs? I dont have many regrets. Maybe I should have moved to Los Angeles earlier? I cant complain. At my age, Ive done everything Ive ever wanted to do with my instrument. I put in the effort, I trusted it, and its taken care of me.
Dave: What circumstances prompted you to re-locate to Los Angeles?
SUTTER: Los Angeles and New York were always the big prize. Boston was the perfect place at the perfect time. There was so much activity in Boston with sort of a post-Nirvana boom. Record companies were dishing out the money to young. Boston was a hotbed of music in the late 90s. The weather sucked. I became a big fish in a small pond quick but soon it was time to reverse those roles and move out here to Los Angeles. I came out here knowing no one. Los Angeles breathes music; it breathes rock and roll. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew I belonged out here.
Dave: Websites, a MySpace page, and YouTube videos are such assets to todays musician. Talk about how they helped you with auditions before youve even played one note.
SUTTER: If you dont have a prior gig, its a Catch 22. Having a website with a photo and a bio is the first step. If people dont know anything about you, theyll google your name, and you have to at least show up. Websites and MySpace pages are tools you have to have. Thats how I got the Smash Mouth gig. The auditions were already over and they were into the callbacks. I got the ear of the tour manager from my drummer friend who was leaving that band. When he visited my website, saw my photo, and saw that I played with American Hi-Fi, he called me in. I got that gig because my website got me in the door. MySpace is a great way to meet your fans. Thats how you and I met. You proved that youre werent insane and that you wanted to meet up before a show. Thats never a problem but everybody wants an autograph; everybody wants something. Its hard to give something to everybody. Meeting up and talking with somebody who made prior arrangements is a lot easier. MySpace is also a great way for young bands to get their songs heard in todays crazy music industry.
Dave: Not burning bridges is important in any business, especially the music business. Is the door open for you to return to Smash Mouth?
SUTTER: Not really. Its all worked out cosmically for everybody involved. Its a good time for the drummer there now to hold on to the gig. I used that band as a stepping stone and they made me a much better player. They are one of the best live bands that you could ever, ever see. Go see them if they ever play near you. They dont need me and I dont need them. Thats a wonderful thing.
Dave: You mentioned another one of your previous bands: American Hi-Fi. Is it true that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards hand-picked the bands name?
SUTTER: No. That was a complete fabrication on the bands behalf as a joke.
Dave: During your tenure in American Hi-Fi, the band was signed and subsequently dropped by Maverick Records. A few short years later, you have a gig that many musicians would kill for. What advice can you offer young musicians about keeping things in perspective despite the many highs and lows of the crazy music business?
SUTTER: Play with people you love and play music that you love. I dont know how many record deals are going to be out there in the future. If you can get a deal, sign it. If there is a bunch of money on the table, take it. Dont give up any you dont have to give up, like your publishing. The days of trying to take the high road are over. Im out of the loop are far as the independent label market.
Dave: You also did a tour drumming for The Rembrandts. Legend has it that they sit around all day on the tour bus counting the royalties they received since the television show "Friends" went into syndication. After all, one-hit wonder, "Ill Be There For You," is the shows the theme song.
SUTTER: They are the biggest rock stars that Ive ever toured with. It was a really fun gig. They do have a few more hits that would surprise you when you hear their whole set. Those guys are old-school rockers from southern California. Phil Solem gave guitar lessons to Randy Rhoads. Danny Wilde hand-picked Joan Jett out of a lineup to join The Runaways. They have all of the stories. Its all about the big white limos and the big parties with those guys. They know how to do it. It was intense, and Im very thankful for the few months that I played with them.
Dave: Speaking of southern California, whats it like when your cell phone rings and Steven Spielberg is calling?
SUTTER: Thats freaky, even though it was just his assistant. Spielberg did direct me for a split second, and I got in the credits for his film "A.I."
Dave: You name John Bonham as one of your biggest drumming influences. Have you seen or heard his son Jasons performance at the recent Led Zeppelin reunion concert. If so, what did you think?
SUTTER: I saw it and I think he sounds fantastic. There are a lot of killer drummers out there who channeled the Led Zeppelin thing, like Steve Gorman from the Black Crowes, but Jason is the best man for the job. I met Jason for a second at NAMM last year, and I forgot to show him some photos I had on my phone from Jim Marshall that had never been published.
Dave: Im a 70s punk rock fan. I missed the boat on the Seattle grunge scene and bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. Songs by The Ramones, The Clash, The Jam, and Talking Heads would be on the soundtrack to my life. What bands would have their songs on the soundtrack to your life?
SUTTER: Black Sabbath and a handful of bands from the 70s. If it could be played on vinyl pretty much sums it up. Nothing current, other than The Mars Volta. Theyre cutting edge and one of the best live bands out there.
Dave: Thanks again for the interview Sutter; that was my final question. Unless you have anything Ive neglected to cover that youd like to promote, feel free to end the interview with closing comments for your fans.
SUTTER: Wear earplugs! Be nice to your parents! Stay in school! Youre only here once so follow your instincts. Do it and make it happen.
Full Name: Jason Sutter
MySpace page: www.myspace.com/jasonsutter
Birthday: July 15, 1969
Birthplace: Potsdam, New York
Favorite beverage: the "Arnold Palmer," a lemonade iced tea
Favorite food: Mexican cuisine
First record you ever bought: "Destroyer" by KISS
Last CD you purchased: The Mars Voltas "Frances the Mute"
Favorite U.S. city to vacation: when Im not playing, being anywhere in California is like being on vacation
Favorite international country: a toss-up between Japan and Norway
Favorite venue yet to play: Budokan
Favorite film: "The Godfather"