Jason Sutter interview by Travis Marc.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with drumming legend Jason Sutter before Foreigners headline show at the Roundhouse in Camden Town. Although Jason is the newest member to the Foreigner line up, he is absolutely no stranger to performing on big stages as he has performed with the likes of Chris Cornell, Smash Mouth and even American Hi-Fi in the past. Here’s what the hard working American based drummer had to say -
Tell us a bit about your drumming career and what it was that originally made you want to play the drums ?
I got started at a pretty young age, my dad had always wanted to play the drums but never did, so when I started to express interest in the instrument he went and got me everything I needed to almost start straight away. I really had a lot of support from my parents from a very young age, so between listening to Kiss records and their constant support I just got turned onto the instrument. When I got to 3rd grade I was were allowed to pick an instrument to play at school so I chose the drums, at the same time where I grew up in my dad was working as an art teacher at the local college, he happened to know Jim Petersack, the head percussion teacher at the college and actually traded one of his paintings in return for lessons for me. I was able to stay with Jim all through grade school and into high school which was a really great learning experience. Jim Petersack had actually taught guys like Dave Weckl when they were young, which was really cool cause I had no idea that I was studying with someone who happened to be a really well established guy in the industry. The cool thing about the town where we lived was that because it was a college town, I soon started playing with a lot of older college kids and we’d form bands and just rock out. Ironically when I got the Foreigner gig I actually went back and listened to a lot of the stuff that I had done in these bands and one of them had actually done a version of Hot Blooded (by Foreigner) which seemed quite funny, because it seems as though I’ve almost come full circle.
Since a very young age you have played and sessioned with some really established world renowned acts (Smash Mouth, Chris Cornell, Vertical Horizon, American Hi-Fi), what has been the most memorable experience and why ?
I’m not sure you know, I’m the type of person who really tries to not take anything for granted, this business can be so fickle sometimes that I try and make everyday more memorable than the next. Yesterday we played right before “Heaven and Hell” at the High Voltage Festival, “Heaven and Hell” was a tribute to the late great Ronny Dio and it was amazing to see and be a part of that. Every experience seems more momentous than the next. Touring all over the world, getting to play with Chris Cornell or American Hi Fi, to playing Red Rocks with Foreigner, it’s just all amazing. Sometimes I feel as though my live is stranger than fiction, and the fact that I’m playing drums and able to do what I’m doing for a living is just a constant joy for me. Every gig is very memorable and I love it.
How do you alter your drummer or change your drumming style when playing for such diverse acts, whether it be Chris Cornell or Foreigner ?
That’s a great question, ultimately I’d say that I prefer to be on the side of dirt and edginess with my playing, rather than to try and be perfect all the time. A lot of my friends and contemporaries are really nice, clean and precise players but because I’m such a studied drummer I really try and forget about everything I’ve learnt and just aim for complete feel and groove. With that being said, the approach has to vary depending on the artist you’re playing for. Smash Mouth is kind of like Van Halen on steroids, so I have to play the hi-hats in a different way and try to get a really kind of stiff swing feel mixed with the playing style of someone like Ringo Starr. They have a slight swing element meets reckless abandonment thrash feel, that comes from the punk rock scene where they’re all from. With Chris Cornell it’s a bit more progressive, so I really get to use a lot more of the chops that I’ve spent so much time cultivating over the years and during my studies. It’s kind of like heavy metal fusion stuff where the sky is really the limit. For the Cornell and Smash Mouth gigs I would tune my drums really high. Foreigner is a whole other world. The drums are tuned about two octaves lower that what I’m used to having them because I’m not doing a lot of tom orientated stuff, with this gig I’m thinking more along the playing styles of the guys who were doing the gig before me, (Dennis Elliott, Brain Tichy, Jason Bonham) It’s more of a simplistic approach yet some parts are extremely technical, so it’s really like a primitive kind of vibe, which is very blues based. For me it’s all about playing as simply as I can, so that the music feels good, while still adding a little bit of flair, I have a double bass drum set up for Foreigner, cymbal wise I’m using Paiste 2002′s – they’re really classic and give that really nice buttery type sound. I’m using quite big sizes (15″ Hi-Hats, 19″ – 22″ Crash’, 24″ ride). So yeah, it’s really quite different for everyone I play with but I try to keep it rock n roll.
Do you have any specific practise, or warm up routine that you like to do before a show ?
Religiously yeah, I used to be involved with a marching/drum ensemble called the “Sky Ryders Drum Corps” and ironically Chad Sexton (from 311) played in the same group a few years prior to me. I never actually met him until a few years later though,which is quite funny because we both ended up being rock drummers. Anyway, by doing drum corps I was able to really dive deep into all these rudimental/marching type exercises. So I use a lot of those in my warm ups to creates a very systematical way of trying to work through any singles, doubles, wrists and fingers combinations. I do about about a fifteen to twenty minute warm up before every sound check and I generally do about a forty five minute routine before every gig. There’s this guy named Scott Johnson on the net, he has this thing called lick of the week, which are video clips of some really high end drum licks that he breaks down, when I was touring with Chris Cornell I would try and do one lick a week. I’d suggest checking out his videos if you’re interested in that type of thing. You’re also able to buy the “lick of the week” DVD online.
Who are your main influences as a drummer ?
Bonham is at the top of the heap, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette from the jazz world. Simon Kirk, Cozy Powell, Ian Paice, Tommy Aldridge. I guess a lot of the seventies guys because as far as I’m concerned that’s where the book was kind of written. Terry Bozzio because you simply cannot touch the stuff he did with Frank Zappa. Bill Bruford is fantastic too. There’s a couple great great drummers in L.A at the moment, one guy names Toss Panos who is simply unbelievable, he plays with Robin Ford and tours a lot. The other is named David Elich, an amazing drummer who I take double bass lessons from when I can. He just finished touring with the Mars Volta. Lastly there’s a guy named Nate Wood, he’ll blow your mind. It’s amazing because as soon as you think you’ve seen it all you come across all these new drummers. I just did a tour with Todd Sucherman from Styx, and Phil Ehart from Kansas and I’ve learnt so much from guys like them. Brian Tichy is a great rock drummer, in fact he’s one of the best, he’s just gone on tour with Whitesnake. At the moment I’m really into a lot about the guys who’ve been able to make a career out of it, guys like Cozy or Aldridge, you have to tip my hat off to them because they always managed to be themselves even though they’ve played with so many people. That’s a real challenge because it’s really hard to stay busy in this business of ours.
How did you land the Foreigner gig, and what advice could you offer up and coming players on how to get involved with touring bands ?
Basically I got the Foreigner gig like this – I was going to play tennis with this friend of mine who is the bassist for Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. He said that we were going to have a doubles game with Yogi the guitarist from Chris Cornell’s band, and a keyboard played named Michael Bluestein who I didn’t know at the time. Anyway I got to the game a little early Michael Bluestein was already there, we got talking and I asked him who he played with and he said Foreigner, I told him that I was a huge fan and mentioned to him that if the gig ever opened up that I would like to audition. We really hit it off that day and would get together every now and then to play tennis or have some coffee or whatever. Sure enough about two months later I got a call from him because Brian Tichy was leaving the band and they were looking for someone to fill the gap. Bluestein had mentioned me to Brian, and Brian thought it was a good idea which was great because in a way it was kind of like they had both recommended me to the rest of the band. So I flew down to Texas for a show that they were playing with Brian and landed up being one of the first guys to actually audition for the band. It was a pretty stressful time because I had to play on Brian’s drums and I had to learn eleven songs, “Jukebox Hero” is about twelve minutes alone ha ha. All in all it went well and everyone seemed really happy so it was pretty great. Interestingly I had been offered the gig with Smash Mouth again, because Chris Cornell was on a break and I had put word out that I was looking for a gig, so I explained the situation to the Smash Mouth guys and luckily next day Foreigner called me to offer me the gig, so I didn’t take a lot of time away from Smash Mouth by making my decision. As far as getting gigs – the biggest thing is that if you really want something you need to channel your energy towards that goal. With Brett (my buddy who plays for Brian Wilson), I had kept saying that I really wanted to be in a band that was established and could go back and fourth to and from America and be smart about it and busy at the same time, he kept saying to me that I would get it because that’s where I was putting my energy, and in the long term it happened. I think you need to put things out there, tell people what it is that you’re after and let your goals be known without getting to pushy. I know people who have walked up to their idols on the street, mentioned what big fans they were and next thing you know they’re getting auditions to play in their bands. I think anyone who wants to do this needs to have good people skills and should try and be located in a big city where things are happening. Then you can get out there and get as much playing experience as you can. No one is going to sell you as well as you re going to sell you so just go and put the word out. It’s amazing how many opportunities will come up if you tell people what you want. Besides that I’d say that you ultimately need to be prepared and ready should the opportunity come knocking on your door.
What has been the most important piece of drumming advice you have ever received and why ?
While in college I was given a really great piece of advice from Sony Emory (Earth, Wind and Fire), while I was studying. He said – “practise now, as much as you can in an environment where you have a room and the time to actually practise, because once you leave that environment and land up in the real world, you’re going to get hit by reality and have to deal with all this stuff that will actually get in the way of you being able to practise and develop. Those words made a lot of sense and really stuck with me, so I’d really work in my practice room every chance I got. Keith Carlock’s practise room was right next to mine and if we were on a roll and practise was going really well we’d actually turn off the lights in the practise room, so that who ever was locking up the facility thought that the rooms were empty, then we’d wait for them to leave and once they had gone just keep on practicing. We worked really hard and I’m so thankful, because now days there’s not a lot of time to practice by myself, it’s more about listening and playing with other people, which is great but I’m so thankful that I spent as much time practising as I could when I was younger.
Any last thoughts or advice ?
Yeah, work as hard as you can, get out there, and be as versatile as possible, thanks.
Jason uses Paiste cymbals, Ludwig drums, Vic Firth Sticks, Rhythm Tech percussion, Protection Racket Cases, Remo drumheads and DW Hardware and Pedals. For further information check out www.jasonsutter.com