The Magic of Melody and Live Performance: Styx's Todd Sucherman on His New Solo Album

Todd Sucherman has been an active drummer for over 25 years, touring with Brian Wilson, and a member of the band Styx since 1996, but he's a teacher and someone who pursues a number of creative outlets to keep his life in balance. Over that time, friends and family have often encouraged him to try songwriting, and further than that, to actually record songs. This Spring, his debut solo album was released with Last Flight Home, much more to his surprise than anyone else's, since virtually everyone who knows Sucherman musically seemed convinced he'd produce an excellent collection.

Co-writing and co-Producing with J.K. Harrison, Sucherman performed vocals for the first time, also laying in the drum tracks. The songs on "Last Flight Home" have a focus on authentic emotion in common, taking in the dramatic possibilities of relationships, from the title song about trying to get back to a loving family, to songs like "The Damage" and "Do You?" which explore darker internal struggles about finding balance in life.
 

You may have caught Todd Sucherman on our Tower Instagram Live show, which you can still catch here, but he also joined PULSE! to talk a little more about the songs on Last Flight Home, but also about the nuances of live performance and his biggest musical influences.

Hannah Means-Shannon: How long was the process for writing and recording the songs on Last Flight Home and when did you nail things down?

Todd Sucherman: My co-writer and co-Producer, J.K. Harrison had some sketches of some of the songs, and bits and pieces. The joy of working with someone as talented as him was that I was able to go into a scrap yard of shiny unused bits of sections of songs and work that way, or he had an idea that he viewed as completed, and we’d work on that together. I knew we’d hit on something the second night of working together when we wrote “Last Flight Home” in about a half an hour of lightning back and forth between the two of us.

HMS: Oh wow!

TS: You wish it was always that easy. It was one of those times that it came together so quickly. That’s how we worked, in general, even with bits that preexisted, or when I would change the melody, tempo, or rhythmic flow of something. We started working in July of last year and we started mixing the record by February of this year. The technological advances of being able to e-mail session files back and forth together helped, though certain things had to be done with him.

I did almost all the vocals in Los Angeles, in front of him, because that was the best way to work, instant. I did all the drums here in Austin in my home studio, and JK played most of the other instruments. It was commando recording in between all of our busy schedules, and me being on the road with the band, and me playing dates in that July to February period.

HMS: I’ve heard many tales of how hard it is to find any time to do song writing, much less recording, while touring. How did you pull that off?

TS: Everything in life is a balance. If I do one thing too much, it’s literally too much. So I’d always, in between tour dates, I’d book other things, drum clinics, master classes, events. Because that keeps me fresh going back to the band. You can burn out on anything if you don’t keep your thinking straight. But recording this was something I did largely under cover of darkness.

My own mother didn’t know I was doing this! I didn’t broadcast this because there was some small part of me that wondered if I was really going to see this through. Part of me didn’t believe it until JK and I mixed it. We actually had a little listening party for friends, which was excruciating to me, but their reactions were so positive that we knew we had something.

HMS: This is really fun for people to hear about this project and follow your experience seeing it through. The whole story, the whole journey, of you learning how to do these things, is great.

TS: No one was more surprised than I. JK had been asking me to do this for years, but I always blew him off. I felt I didn’t possess the talent. But once I started, I knew that I couldn’t be 90% into this. I had to be 100% into this.

HMS: Yes, you can’t get into a car, start driving, and then take your hands off the wheel. There’s a certain danger in that.

TS: When I play, I believe every note, and I had to bring that to this. I had to bring that to the vocals even if it involves vulnerability. It had to be there, and it had to be real, or people would be able to sense that. People can sense when it’s insincere.

HMS: I’ve heard how important melody is to you, and how that’s always been your touchstone for playing. Where does that start for you when you’re writing a song?

TS: Melody actually does something to the brain that only melodies do, that rhythmic information does not provide. I think most songs that stand the test of time have some melodic content that makes them special. With “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, you hear those first two octaves, and you know it.

Most songs take something familiar, then take that somewhere new. That’s a very difficult thing to do. I’m not really interested in songs without much melody. Melody is what takes me on a trip, and that’s what I remember from a piece of music. When I strive to do when working with others is to find the melody. It adds the emotional content. To me, anyway.

HMS: So is melody the most irreducible aspect of a song, by which you could recognize it anywhere?

TS: I would agree with that. You hear the first couple notes, and then you know what it is and where it’s going. It’s like hearing a story that you like. There’s something that is emotionally comforting about something that makes you feel. I think music that is devoid of melodic content can only reach a certain emotional point, and then it stops.

HMS: On a song like “Last Flight Home”, do you remember how that melody came together for you all?

TS: I don’t know that I remember, since JK was on the piano, and we were both humming little bits of melodic lines until we found something. And I was writing down lyrics about what it felt like to be trapped in airports for a quarter century trying to get home. And we just started piecing things together. No one likes Rock stars to complain, but I’d like to get home to see my wife and daughter just like everyone else.

HMS: Maybe if Rock stars complained a little more, people would have a more realistic view of them and what life in music is like. I know people want the mythology, but it’s good for them to realize that this is a hard job, too.

TS: It’s one thing to be throwing a tantrum because your Lobster Bisque is cold, it’s another to be sitting in airport thinking, “I should have been home two hours ago and I’m still in Denver.”

HMS: And you can’t get a drink, and you might have to eat out of the vending machine…

TS: And I might be sleeping here tonight.

HMS: There’s a specific stress associated with flying that somehow only flying can bring.

TS: And yet, somehow, I miss that too, right now!

HMS: That may be the only thing I don’t miss right now.

Is this album a catch all for songs that have been simmering in you for a while, or is there a structure on the album in how the songs relate to each other?

TS: It was important that the collection of songs worked together as a full album. We’d recorded 12 or 13 songs and I whittled them down to 10. There was a song that, when I listened to it, I found my mind wandering, and I thought, “If my mind is wandering, what is everyone else’s going to do?” So, I cut it. It was good but in the flow of the collection, it didn’t work. I thought 10 songs was a nice number and doesn’t overstay my welcome my first time at bat.

The best thing I can think of, is if this music has helped anyone during this time, and has become part of their Spring or summer, that’s really what music is for. I’m honored if that’s the case. Maybe it will bring people some peace or relief in this crazy time.

HMS: That’s the reason a number of musicians are releasing albums right now rather than waiting for a later date.

TS: That was certainly my intention. I also didn’t have any plans to tour for it because I already had so many Styx dates. I don’t have my sights set on becoming a singing celebrity. If people like the music, that’s awesome, but I’m very comfortable being hidden behind the metal and wood of a drum set. I love playing drums for Styx, and I love doing sessions and playing on other peoples’ records. That’s what I hope to continue to be able to do.

HMS: I saw the video for “The Last Flight Home” and I’ve also seen the video for “The Damage” and they really are quite opposite and seem like the two poles of the album. “The Damage” is a darker song and video, with a harder edge. It seems to have to do with Rock ‘n Roll tradition and the music lifestyle, in my mind. Is that what you were thinking?

TS: Yes, that’s a fair assessment. “The Damage”, to me, is a character that’s a bit of a wrecking ball, and is flummoxed at why his life is a disaster. Part of him regrets being that way, and part of him enjoys being that way. The sentiment is, “I wish I wasn’t responsible for the damage around me.”, but then there’s that smile at the end. It could happen again.

HMS: Like he’s not committed enough to that remorse to stop it from happening again?

TS: Exactly. That makes it an interesting character in the song, and an interesting piece in the collection, because the song right before that is probably the most earnest and honest love song on the record. “Perfection”. Then it goes into “Timebomb”, which is about betrayal and womanizing, and friendship wrecking. I like a record that’s going to have landscapes, but if they can all be part of an overall picture, that’s what I was going for.

HMS: Yes and presenting only one perspective on relationships and lifestyles isn’t as true. It’s good to give audiences things to think about.

Because that romantic song was just beforehand, it made me think, “Okay, but these are still the possible directions that even great relationships can take, depending on the choices people make.”

TS: It’s a similar idea, but presented differently, in “Do You?” when the character is trying to be upstanding in a relationship, but just can’t, and it kills him to the point that he doesn’t even know who he is.

HMS: There’s an interesting pattern when you look at these songs together where you’re contrasting characters’ intentions versus their actions.

TS: I think that’s normally a more interesting concept than, “Gee, isn’t everything great?” But it’s nice to have a little of that, too. “Perfection”, for me, encapsulates the idea of realizing, “Right now, I’m falling in love, and I wasn’t expecting it, but I can’t screw this up.”

HMS: You have talked previously about how you want the song to be the star of the show, when writing or performing. Do you think that’s a common attitude or hard to come by?

TS: I can’t speak for other people, but for me, that’s what matters. If you don’t have a song, you don’t have anything. You can put as many dancers behind you, or flashy lasers and screens, and the song isn’t anything, then there really isn’t anything.

HMS: So, otherwise spectacle?

TS: Which is fine, but let’s call it what it is.

HMS: Sure, I go to a lot of live shows, and spectacle is expected and a big part of the experience. But if you have that without music, it won’t be a complete experience.

TS: We’ve all seen shows where there are musicians, but it’s unclear how much of them you’re actually hearing. You may not be hearing any live vocals at all. If you break it down, it’s a dance party to a record.

HMS: [Laughs] Yes.

TS: Then you hear a band. Then you hear the air between their mouths and the microphone, you hear the air in a bass drum, the strings of a guitar, and you are connected on a molecular level to something that is real. That’s happening in front of you. I’m over 50 now, I can be opinionated.

HMS: What you’re talking about is that people want a sense of reality. It means things can go wrong, but it’s a risk that comes with a big reward.

TS: It makes things real. I played with Brian Wilson, and my wife Taylor was in Brian’s band for 12 years. I did his first ever solo tour, and if for whatever reason he didn’t like what was happening, he’d yell, “Stop, stop, stop!” For most bands, that would be an embarrassing train wreck. But when Brian did it, it was, “Okay, do it again!” and the audience felt like they just saw something really cool and special. Rather than seeing a mistake, they felt like they were able to peer behind the curtain and see something special.

HMS: I totally agree with you on that. I’ve seen that happen at two big concerts in the past year or so, one was Ozzie, and one was The Who. And I think you’re into British Rock, so maybe you’ll like this example. At Madison Square Garden, The Who had a number of technical and instrument problems, and they just spoke to the audience throughout that, like you said Brian did, and it became this very open experience. They turned it into an ongoing narrative about what was going on, and they were laughing, and the audience got to be a part of it.

TS: That makes that particular evening memorable. And for the fans, they can say, “I was at the gig where…” As opposed to the artist who goes up and lip synchs for two hours. There’s the difference right there. I was at the Styx show in 1983 where the film projector didn’t work, and the tour that year began with a 14-minute movie. They cancelled the show and they sent the audience home. I was at that show! I’m able to say that.

HMS: Wow! There’s a flip side of that where I think bands feel like they have to go on even if it might not be a great idea. I was at a Killers concert once where Brandon Flowers did a great job, but obviously had a cold or flu or something, and I felt bad. He powered through, but I feel like I would’ve understood if they didn’t play that night.

TS: We’ve all played show with food poisoning, or colds or flus. I did four shows with Salmonella poisoning, though I didn’t know that’s what I had. The show must go on unless it can’t. I remember having horrific food poisoning in Milwaukie and being almost in tears before the show wondering how I was going to do this.

Then I imagined the way I felt when I was a kid and would buy a ticket to see a band that I loved. And I’d have that ticket for four months. I imagined there was someone excited to see me play the drums, and I put all my energy on this imaginary kid, and it got me through the show. I was almost too weak to get dressed, how was I going to play the drums?

HMS: I have no idea how you did that, and I have no idea how musicians get through that stuff. But you’re right about what it means to people, and maybe this is the one show they can go to in a year.

TS: It always was a huge deal for me, and it still is. They are always great memories. I still have every ticket stub, including my first concert when I was about 7 years old.

HMS: That’s wonderful. Tell me more about your British Rock fetish. What are we talking about in terms of influence?

TS: Three bands I could cite, The Beatles, The Who, and Genesis, all eras of Genesis. Those are three, in particular. There’s also Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Blue Nile. If I had to pick a holy trinity, though, it would be The Beatles, The Who, and Genesis. There are things they do that make me feel a certain way, and I only feel that way in life, when they are playing. No other bands can make me have that same feeling.

HMS: That’s a great way of putting it! Talking about tradition, you’ve been playing for long enough now, that you’ve been through several eras of music. When you want to write songs, how do you decide what styles or what elements to draw from?

TS: I try not to contrive it. Something has to reveal itself, then that evokes a certain spirit. The song, “An Invitation” from the record has a madrigal aspect, then three eras of Genesis. I completely stole Phil Collins’ groove from “Snowbound” and it fit. It helped dictate the flavor. “Sacred Book of Sacred Days” was one where I came up with the song title the last time I ever took acid in 1992. I knew that song title was going to eventually exist somewhere, and because it came from a psychedelic place, that manifested in a psychedelic-sounding piece of music. A bit of Beatles, a bit of XTC, a bit of Jellyfish are in there, and there’s a bit of Beatles in all of them.

HMS: It seems like, also, if something is good, it’s good. So if there are elements from Classic Rock, or previous decades that are good, they might fit with another good element from another era.

TS: Absolutely. It’s been interesting to me to find out what others hear in the album, from Brian Wilson, to Jellyfish, to Coldplay. I’m more interested in what others hear in it. That’s a cool thing. I’ve always worn my influences proudly on my sleeve, even from a drum perspective.

HMS: Having learned all these things about how to make a solo album, like a kind of boot camp, what might you do now? What are some of your goals for the future?

TS: I’m not sure because all the sudden we were catapulted into this world we are in right now. I assume, at some point, as I always have, that I would do some kind of Jazz fusion record. That’s one reason this record took a lot of people by surprise is that they expected a drum-centric instrumental release. Maybe that’ll happen someday. But everything that’s happened to me in the music business has always been a delightful surprise. I like floating around and letting things float to me, that way it’s always interesting. Life’s a wonderland if you’re open to it.

1 comment

I have been following Todd for a while on FB and as you all know he is incredible behind his kit. Now he breaks out the vocals! I really enjoyed listening to your posted songs thank you very much. I look forward to more originals with your singing , you are very good. What a talent 🇺🇸

Matt johnson August 01, 2020

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