AN INTERVIEW WITH TODD SUCHERMAN
By David Iozzia
Photo by Jason Powell
Todd Suchermans musical journey began in Chicago in the early 70s when he followed his fathers footsteps by playing drums. For the last 11 years, Todd has been the drummer for the multi-platinum, classic rock band Styx. His musical journey included a pit stop at the Berklee College of Music, many laps around the studio circuits of Chicago and Los Angeles, and a few musical road trips with the likes of Brian Wilson and Spinal Tap. Between Styxs U.K. tour with Deep Purple and their Summer 2007 North American tour with Def Leppard, Todd took the time to chat about his musical career; the past, present, and future of Styx; and a whole lot more.
Todd commented during our interview that with Styx, there is never a bad show. I attended one of the bands headlining performances after our interview when Styx rolled into Red Bank, New Jersey, to play at the historic Count Basie Theatre. Styx put on a great show just as Todd promised. As far as listening to and watching a concert in a theatre, it doesnt get any better than this venue with its great acoustics, sightlines and atmosphere. The Count Basie Theatre is the perfect place to attend a concert in central New Jersey. After the show, Todd joked that Styx has unofficially played in every venue and every city in the United States and that the band is looking forward to starting that rotation all over again as they tour in 2008.
Dave: Hello Todd and thank you for letting me do this interview. Alice Cooper was quoted recently about veteran rock bands from the 70's and 80's that he watches perform while he's out on tour. Alice stated, "They're better players now than they were then." Are the members of Styx better players today than they were in the 70's and 80's?
TODD: They are certainly better players and singers now than they were then. I'd attribute it to caring about the musical collective and your own individual participation. Vocally, they know how to sing now without thrashing their voices. There are bands from the 70's and 80's that are a shell of their former self and that's depressing. What's really unique about Styx is the energy. I'm told constantly by first-time spectators, or acquaintances of mine who come to a show that have never seen Styx perform, that they can't believe the energy that our band has. I wouldn't be afraid to share the stage with any other band that's on the planet right now.
Dave: Do you and the members of Styx feel out of place in today's music industry?
TODD: I can't speak for the rest of the band, but I've always felt out of place. The things I like are not 5 million sellers. Mozart and Van Gogh were buried in pauper's graves. I feel very fortunate to be with a band for the last 11 years that will always have an audience. Styx doesn't have to do the club circuit trying to convince good people that we're cool or that we're a good band. I skipped that part with this band. Styx was already multi-platinum and I waltzed in after the fact. It's true that Styx is riding on its past glories, but what's the competition? Britney Spears du jour? Or a young rap artist with one platinum record and a movie deal? It's a different musical landscape now than it was in the 70's and 80's. Hell. It's even different than the 90's.
Dave: As an avid concert-goer, I agree with Alice Cooper that many of these bands are better players today. Yet as a music fan, I contend that there is not enough new music being recorded by the veteran rock bands that are still active today. Styx' last two records were a covers record, "Big Bang Theory," and a live record of classic Styx material recorded with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, "One With Everything." That live record included two new tracks, but from this point in time going forward, how important and how necessary is it for Styx and its legacy to release a record of all new studio material?
TODD: It's incredibly important, but it's a double-edged sword. To remain not purely a nostalgia act you have to record new material. There is a lot of writing power in this band. The last full-written studio record, "Cyclorama," is, in my opinion, one of the best albums in the Styx catalog. However, there is no outlet for music from a so-called classic rock band. Radio is not playing it. The current rock stations won't touch a band of Styx's ilk with a million foot pole. Classic rock stations won't play anything new from the classic bands. The only outlet is to hit the road, get your revenue from touring, and hopefully sell some records. The days of selling 3 to 4 million records, for almost anybody, is done. Especially for bands who enjoyed popularity in the 70's. Creatively, everybody can communicate and write on their computers to get the juices flowing. It's then a matter of getting together and putting out the record. That's a colossal labor of love, and it costs dump trucks full of money. If there was a better chance of getting the money back, bands would be more eager to record new music.
Dave: Record sales are negatively impacted by music downloading. Is that another disincentive to a band writing new material?
TODD: Yes, I would think so. Maroon 5 was on 20 television shows in two weeks earlier this year. They had the number one record, and they performed on "American Idol" in front of 30 million people. Yet, the first week out they were number one with not even 500,000 records sold.
Dave: Do you sit around in a room with your band mates and talk about lack of record sales, the slim chances of being signed to a major record deal, or the lack of support from the radio industry?
TODD: Those topics are always discussed, but to defeat yourself like that would be throwing in the towel. We'll get to a new record though, hopefully next year. The brilliancy of "Big Bang Theory" was our cover of "I Am The Walrus," which became a radio hit by complete fluke. A Chicago radio station heard us play that in concert, and they requested a live recording to play on their station. We recorded it on a laptop at a show without any fancy tricks. As Tommy Shaw and James Young did other radio interviews, they'd mention it and more stations requested a copy for airplay. We found a loophole where classic rock stations would play something new from us through the fact that it was a cover of The Beatles. That song got us to number two on classic radio charts behind the almighty U2, and it put Styx in the Top 50 Billboard charts for the fourth decade in a row.
Dave: You played drums and percussion alongside the Contemporary Youth Orchestra at a performance in Cleveland that was recorded for a live record. How challenging was it?
TODD: It was pretty challenging. We only had one full rehearsal on that stage. Then it was roll film, start recording, and here's the show. If I could turn back the hands of time, I would've liked more rehearsal time. I was out of my element being glassed in because there where over a hundred open microphones on stage and there was a lot of drum bleed. Historically, it was in the worst-sounding outdoor music hall in the United States. Overcoming the difficulties was very rewarding because we had a lot of things going against us. It was also rewarding interacting with the kids and seeing how excited they were to be there to participate and play our music. That's evident as you view the DVD.
Dave: I think that the orchestra takes away some of the rock edge from the band's performance. Was the experience of playing with an orchestra musically gratifying?
TODD: It was a challenge, but it was gratifying and exhilarating none the less.
Dave: Pick one of the bands that Styx covered a song from on "Big Bang Theory" and let them return the favor. Hypothetically, I'll pick Humble Pie covering "Renegade." What band and what Styx song would you have them covering as your choice?
TODD: I'd like to hear Free or Bad Company with Paul Rodgers playing "Blue Collar Man."
Dave: If I asked you for Styx's defining moments on stage and in the studio, you'd probably answer that they are still to come. So instead, I'll ask for your personal career highlights with Styx, one from the studio, another up on stage.
TODD: I'll think of 10 awesome things as I lie in bed tonight. I've had hundreds of amazing moments up on stage, and I'm fortunate to be at a loss to choose which answer to give you. I'll always fondly remember my first show with the band from back in May 1996 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. You can only play your first show once. A nice moment in the studio was when we did "It Don't Make Sense That You Can't Make Peace" for "Big Bang Theory." James Young wanted to do a Willie Dixon number. As we were putting the track down, I heard a dusty, chain gang, mechanical white noise idea. I took a bunch of metal carts, a bag full of percussion, and a couple cymbals which I threw on the floor and said "roll tape." I played a pattern of machine-like white noise. and I could feel the excitement without hearing a word from anyone in the control room that I had a burst of ingenuity and that I breathed a very unique vibe into this particular piece of music.
Dave: Given Styx's four decade string of radio hits, gold records, and years of successful touring in North America and internationally, has the band received the recognition you feel it deserves.
TODD: Styx never was the critic's darlings, but it's hard to worry about that when you're the first band in history to have four consecutive triple-platinum records. I wasn't around in those days to share that part of the band's history. I feel that we're one of the most kick-ass rock bands working on the planet today. I like being in the underdog position where we can blow people away when they are so not expecting what they're about to experience at a Styx show. They don't know what hit them. The band is better than ever, which on one hand is a great thing. I like it to be that way musically. On the other hand, you're up against the ghosts of the past or preconceived notions and memories people have about the band or who is in the band. Either way, I'd much rather be playing with great musicians than playing with guys who have more accolades but can't play their instruments.
Dave: For a veteran band like Styx that's playing a greatest hits setlist night after night, how do you challenge yourselves as musicians?
TODD: We change things up from time to time but there's a tightrope we have to walk regarding what we should play. If you have hits, you have to play them. If you play obscure tracks or new things, you're still playing them to an audience who has paid primarily to hear the songs that they know. We are very healthy, and there's no shenanigans going on while we're touring that would prevent that. Regarding the doldrums of playing the same songs every night, number one, I play drums for a living and that's what I always wanted to do. My dream came true. If I have a problem with that, I have much bigger problems. Number two, every night I know that we're playing to some fans who have never seen Styx before or me play drums before. That helps keep it fresh for me. The amazing thing about this band is that there is NEVER a bad show.
Dave: You're so right about that Todd. I saw both Foreigner and Styx for the first time in 1977, and it was 25 years before I would see them again. But I went back to hear how the new lineups interpreted music from my youth as well as to see the chemistry and energy that the new band members bring to the table.
TODD: I believe that humans, in general, gravitate to the music of their youth. Nursing homes today are playing Glenn Miller because that was the music of that generation's youth. I think that will always be the case. Unless this generation of kids growing up now actively seek out good music, they'll be devoid of that musical experience. What are they going to do, play 50 Cent records at their nursing home in 55 years? The affect of a melody on a brain is more powerful than seeing a photograph. Being devoid of melody is a very sad thing for today's youth. It's like being devoid of human touch or contact.
Dave: The original Styx drummer, John Panozzo, died in 1996. Talk about the process and your efforts in landing the job as their new drummer.
TODD: When the band was re-recording "Lady" for an A&M greatest hits package, John Panozzo was in poor health and unable to play. I was enjoying a very successful run in the studio scene in Chicago. The gentleman who handled my gear for recording sessions had worked with Styx in the past, and he recommended me as a ghost drummer for John. I did that recording session in March 1995, and I recorded another track with them the following February. As they started planning a reunion tour, it was apparent that John couldn't play 2+ hours of rock drums every night so they asked me to do the tour. Subsequently, John passed away in the middle of that tour and I've been around ever since.
Dave: Was there any prejudice or negative bias, or were you immediately accepted by Styx fans?
TODD: Honestly, I was having a blast, and I didn't care or notice. I didn't make fan reaction a concern of mine. I walked into a situation where I was in a rock band that was flying around to every show and staying at fancy hotels. I wanted to do a good job and I wasn't intimidated musically. But I'm sure every fan out there wanted the original guy.
Dave: Let's switch gears. Share a Spinal Tap moment.
TODD: They are three of the funniest guys you'll ever meet. They are all mild-mannered, and they look like they can be your accountant or dentist. Then they put on the Spinal Tap clothes and holy smokes! Playing in Spinal Tap will always be a career highlight. As dorky as this sounds, we took a daytrip to Stonehenge on the recent Deep Purple/Styx tour. I had my i-Pod with me and I have a version of me playing with Spinal Tap on the Jay Leno show doing the song "Stonehenge." I played that song on my i-Pod through my Bose headphones as I stood at Stonehenge. That was a ridiculous moment.
Dave: Talk about your musical relationship with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. How did the two of you first hook up?
TODD: A producer who Brian was working with at the time had used me for sessions. He called me in at the end for two songs on the record. They asked if I was interested in doing a little touring and Styx was on a little hiatus so I said sure.
Dave: Many music fans and music critics would list the Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds" as one of the top records of all time. As a musician who played some of the material from that album, how would you rank it?
TODD: I firmly believe that it's one of the all-time greats, and it's also one of my favorites. If I was around at that time the record was released, I would appreciate it on a much deeper level. I met and fell in love with the woman who would be my wife, Taylor Mills, during the rehearsals for that tour. She's worked with Brian the last nine years. To fall in love with my future wife, surrounded by Mr. Wilson's beautiful soundtrack, is almost more than the soul can bear. It was a wonderful time that has a very special place in my heart.
Dave: Brian Wilson's "Smile" won a Grammy and it's been critically acclaimed. From your perspective as a musician, does a record like that need radio hits to make a list of all-time great albums or can it make the list regardless of airplay?
TODD: Lists are lists and they are indigenous to whomever is creating them. I view artistic success as being completely happy and proud with the music you've created. But as every artist knows, it's subjective. Some people will like it and others won't like it. I can't attach financial gain through sales to artistic success. Usher's record probably sold 6 million more copies than "Smile," but does that make it a better record? I'm the wrong guy to ask about airplay and Top Ten lists. I don't concern myself with it. Sales and making money are nice but my bottom line is this: All I ever wanted to do and all I ever wanted to be is a working musician. Anything else on top of that is gravy. I've been in love with playing drums since I was 2 years old and now it's my profession. That's all I'm concerned with. I'm thankful for the opportunity every day and everything else is just trivial.
Dave: Taylor Mills has a new album out called "Lullagoodbye." Before you talk about her musical talents, how difficult was it for you to co-produce a record being made by your spouse?
TODD: I wouldn't say it was more difficult, but I did have to choose my words more carefully. Any producer has to try to get the best possible performance out of the artist he is producing. Some days the magic is more evident and sometimes you have to pull a little more out. That is when things can become tricky. I never lost sight in the studio that it was my wife and best friend out there on the other side of the glass. We really are two happy people, but we created a joyously melancholy record that lyrically from beginning to end follows the arc of a failed relationship. Artistically, it was very interesting and highly rewarding. It's probably my favorite project that I've ever done and it's one of the things I'm most proud to have been involved with.
Dave: I'm a 70's punk rock fan and I'm stuck in a 70's and 80's time warp as far as the music I choose to listen to. I'm not familiar with too many new artists. Talk a little bit about Taylor's music and her current album.
TODD: Taylor sings beautifully on "Lullagoodbye." The record is a slow burn, it's like an impressionistic painting. You really have to look at it. It's not a record that you could listen to once and think you've got it. With multiple listens, things reveal themselves to the listener and a deeper appreciation and understanding seeps into you. People have told me what their favorite song on the record is and they call back the next day with another choice. That's gratifying because those are the records I enjoy. I like putting on a record that intrigues me, makes me want to hear it again, and makes me fall in love with it by the third listen. I firmly believe we accomplished that with "Lullagoodbye."
Dave: Does Taylor write all of her own material?
TODD: She's written some things, but she nor I wrote anything for this record. My co-producer Scott Bennett, who's been in the Brian Wilson Band with Taylor for nine years, wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs. My friend Nicholas Markos wrote three songs, and there's a cover of a song from a band called The Blue Nile. They are an obscure Scottish band and the song was a B-side to a CD single.
Dave: Does Taylor plan on doing any touring to support the record?
TODD: That's really hard to say right now because of her allegiance to Brian Wilson and my allegiance to Styx. With the record being released in late May, it would have meant quitting our jobs to load up the van. We might be too old and comfortable to do that at this point but we're not ruling out touring somewhere down the line.
Dave: You attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. What advice would you offer to young musicians that who thinking about attending a music school such as Berklee?
TODD: If you pony up the dough to attend a music school, don't waste your time and try to really get the most out of your experience. When I went, I only had the money to go one year. I had a great time, I made a lot of good friends whom I stay in touch with to this day, but I always made sure that I got my work done. My time was limited and I tried to make the most of it while learning as much as possible. Music is something you really want to do. Don't go to a music school because you think you might want to try music. I has to be down to the bottom of your soul. If I won a Powerball lottery, I'd still schlep my drums through the kitchen of a hotel or through an alley behind a seedy club. It's what I do, I play the drums. You have to do it because you love music, not because you hope to be rich and famous.
Dave: I read in your biography that you grew up in a musical family; your father was a physician by day and a drummer by night. Your two older brothers also played music. What's the main lesson that you learned from your father about musicianship that has had the biggest impact on you?
TODD: You have to make the music feel good so that people want to dance. It's got to swing!
Dave: How have you adapted as a musician to the radically different music industry of the 21st century?
TODD: You have to continually adapt if you want to survive and remain relevant. I'm in the process of building a recording studio in my house. That's one way of adapting. Nowadays, if somebody wants to record you for a session, they e-mail you the file, you record it at home, and you send it back. I have a lot of gear to learn in the upcoming months. I am planning to create and release an instructional DVD in 2008. Stylistically, I have to be open and aware of all musical styles and the changes and certain grooves happening at any given time. Any good musician is on a constant journey to continue to learn and improve. Once you sit back on your laurels, you're dead in the water. There's no spiking the ball in the end zone when you're working on something artistic or trying to master your chosen instrument.
Dave: Thanks again for the interview Todd. If and when Styx calls it a day, have you given any consideration as to what will be the next steps in your musical journey?
TODD: That is a day that will certainly come, but I'm not sure what my first steps will be. It'll be dictated by the events that surrounded the end of the band or what's happening in my life at that time. I plan on continuing playing and making music and striving to be a working musician long after the Styx carousel comes to a stop.
Full Name: Todd Sucherman
Websites: www.toddsucherman.com | www.styxworld.com | www.taylormillsmusic.com
MySpace pages: www.myspace.com/toddsucherman
Birthday: May 2
Cubs or White Sox: Cubs!
Favorite beverage: water
Favorite food: sushi
First record you ever bought: I don't remember
Last CD you bought: "Black Holes and Revelations" by Muse
Favorite U.S. city to visit: my house
Favorite international city: Paris
Favorite venue to play: can't name just one