Chris McHugh: How Sweet It Is

Chris McHugh: How Sweet It Is

By Andrew Lentz // Photo By CJ Piper Originally published in DRUM! Magazines September 2009 Issue

It’s midafternoon before a Keith Urban concert. Techs are fussing with microphones while soundmen check audio levels in the echo-filled space of Scottrade Center in St. Louis, another in a long line of arenas on the Escape Together tour.

Despite the racket, it’s not enough to distract Chris McHugh from setting the record straight. “Anyone who’s a real country purist would say I’m not much of a country drummer. I grew up in New Jersey and I don’t really know anything about country music.”

It’s a shocking revelation from a man who’s been working in the studio and on the road with Urban for a decade and, more recently, recording with country juggernaut Rascal Flatts. If that’s not enough to establish his hayseed bona fides, McHugh has literally hundreds of recording credits with everyone from Pat Green and LeAnn Rimes to Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood. Music City snobs be damned, McHugh knows what it takes to be an A-lister in this competitive town. “You have to have an ability to interpret a song quickly,” he says. “People go, ‘You’ve got to be able to read,’ and reading’s great. Being able to cognitively perform a song a minute after you hear it is really what it’s about.”

Although he has worked on no fewer than five Keith Urban albums, the workaholic McHugh surprises drummers with each release, including the slick new Defying Gravity. “We try anything that elevates the song in any way. That whole ‘we can’t do that because that’s not country’ — that does not exist.”

In the early stages of an album, Urban might demo himself playing guitar alone, but just as often he writes using a drum machine. “Some of the patterns that he comes up with are not necessarily what a drummer would play, and the thing is to take the type of motion he has going and transfer it into the kit,” McHugh says. Take “Sweet Thing,” an up-tempo number in which Urban’s dance-y energy was conveyed by “not making it a dance song,” he cautions, “but so that the rhythm percolated all the time.”

For this tune, McHugh two-handed the sixteenths on the hi-hat to make it more “machine-y,” citing a Jeff Porcaro instructional video that parses the finer points between one- and two-handed hat work. “Also, velocity-wise, I can’t play that hard just with one hand. If I was playing for maybe a female artist and it needed to sort of be a bit ‘float-ier,’ then I would do it with one hand.”

When he wasn’t using different kits on Defying Gravity, McHugh experimented with environments. “Hit The Ground Runnin’,” “Kiss A Girl,” and “Til Summer Comes Around” were recorded in a dry-sounding booth. Additionally, the snare drum was tuned low, and instead of cracking the rim, the head was struck dead center to get a “frosty” ’80s sound he likens to Sports-era Huey Lewis. “It’s almost like when you eat wedding cake — there’s so much sugar on there you can feel it on your molars.”

While McHugh describes his playing style with Urban as “finesse-y,” Rascal Flatts has more of a good-friends-jamming-together vibe. “Their whole thing is like a party,” he says, pointing to the rhythmic relationship between himself and bassist Jay DeMarcus as the engine behind the butt-kickin’ Southern-fried rock of Flatts’ new Unstoppable. “You’re in the trenches there together, just trying to make the thing feel ‘money.’”

Touring behind country’s reigning superstar is a thrill, but the studio is where McHugh is happiest, and to prove it, he won’t hesitate to hop a red-eye from L.A. or Toronto to get to Omni Sound, Ocean Way, or whatever Nashville studio he reports to in the a.m. The source of this zeal? “Aronoff,” he says without hesitation. “He’s the one that’s, ‘Man, if you can get there, do it!’”

The strategic advantage of taking any work that comes your way is old news to career session men, but McHugh believes there is something more fundamental to burnishing a drummer’s reputation. “It’s being a team player, you know? Learning to play nice. All that stuff we learned in kindergarten.”

Age 45
Birthplace Camden, New Jersey
Current Releases Defying Gravity; Unstoppable

Drums Craviotto
Cymbals Sabian
Heads Remo
Hardware DW
Sticks Vater
Percussion LP
Electronics Yamaha, Roland Accessories SwirlyGig Stick Holders

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