Jason Sutter: Rise Of An American Rocker

jason sutter

Photo: Alex Kluft

“I’ll look out into the crowd, at the dude in the far back, and think about all the shows I’ve seen and what it took to get there, and I’ll say to myself, ’Whatever you do, remember this moment, because you’re here.’”

—— Jason Sutter

Out of the small town of Potsdam, New York, a drummer has emerged in recent years with an eye toward conquering the world with a wildly diverse tribe of musical masters. Jason Sutter is his name, a man who’s lent his touring and recording chops – and admirably humble attitude – to the likes of Chris Cornell, Vertical Horizon, Foreigner, Pink, The New York Dolls, and, currently, Marilyn Manson.

Sutter worked as hard as anyone you’ve likely ever met at his craft to get where he is today, which happens to be sipping iced tea by the pool at his art-filled house in North Hollywood, where we’ve come to pick Sutter’s brain on how he got from there to here. Fully prepared in the fundamentals of a wide variety of drumming styles and techniques, the affable Sutter was ready to strike when the iron got hot, and today is supremely grateful for his good fortune – which even to him seems larger than real life.

“I don’t ever, ever take it for granted,” he says. “With the New York Dolls, I savored every second I was onstage with one of my favorite bands ever. And to play these gigs with Marilyn Manson? He’s climbing the drum riser, screaming in my face, and I’m looking at him going, ’I’m playing with Marilyn Manson, it’s insane. It’s like, This is freaking crazy!’”

First We Look To Der Vater

Sutter’s dad was an artist and professor at the local Potsdam University – but what he really wanted to do was play the drums. His son beat him to it. Potsdam was unique, Sutter says, because there were four colleges in town, and a lot of bars. So when he was growing up there in the ’80s, there were tons of live venues, and live bands ruled the day.

Eventually young Jason got to play in those bars, and was able to see the real dudes playing with the real gear and the real amps and speakers and trucks loading their gear … and it was good.

“So, at a super young age I was seeing really great professional acts,” he says. “I still feel like cover bands in the ’80s were as professional as the professional bands. They were just so pro and so good.”

To Sutter, these local players were like real rock stars whose performances and, really, mere presence in town would inspire kids like himself to run back to their bedrooms and practice. “It also gave us a pretty clear blueprint of how we could do it on a smaller level, like high schools and grade schools – my first gig was in fifth grade, at a dance. We were playing Rolling Stones tunes, and we knew we could make them sound good – unlike other bands that were trying to play Journey or something and failing miserably at it.”

There was a great music store there in Potsdam, too, and most of Sutter’s teachers in grade school and high school were grads of the local Crane’s School Of Music. At Crane’s, a guy named Jim Peterzak became one of Sutter’s mentors; Peterzak went on to teach Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta and other top drummers. It was under Peterzak’s tutelage that Sutter started to learn to read music, and by fourth grade he was accompanying the choir, thrown in by the music director, who’d gotten him started with a basic rock beat.

“Next thing you know he’s playing piano with a bass player who’s probably in fifth grade, and I’m playing a real straight beat, and learned very quickly how to accompany – and get out of the way.”

As soon as Sutter learned how to play a beat, he was gigging, playing his first bar gig when he was 13. “And my mom was fine with it,” he says. “I’d get home at three in the morning and go to bed with my ears ringing.”

For Sutter, it was drums, just drums, and nothing else, that pricked his ears. “I went to music school and studied piano and ear training and sight singing and all these things, but I never cared about any other instruments. I never went over and was, like, trying to pick up a dude’s guitar or bass after rehearsal – they all wanted to get on my drums, always.”

Paying Homage

Sutter has roots in a lot of different styles, but even as a kid, he knew: I am a rocker. “When I first started playing in ’78/’79, John Bonham died. Well, all they did was play Bonham on the radio for, like, two months straight, and I would just record everything. Within a couple of weeks I had every Led Zep record there ever was. That changed everything.”

Sure, drummers from here to Ouagadougou cite Bonham’s enormous influence on rock. Sutter’s no exception. “There was an attitude,” he says. “John Bonham was never perfect; never too clean; but he had something like raw power, heart, and passion. It was just so undeniable.”

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If you ask Sutter about other drummers he was inspired by, you’d best be prepared for a list that goes on for miles. But that’s cool – it’s nice out here by the pool. “I was really influenced very young by Ozzy’s drummer, Lee Kerslake, who was super underrated. And then Tommy Aldridge did Ozzy’s live stuff, and it’s ridiculous, this double bass playing. Of course, Bill Ward with Sabbath for the same reasons – he’s really raw, it was passionate, and it was just so accessible to me.”

He singles out Phil Collins as another drummer with a highly individual approach, and a drummer not generally credited for his wicked chops. “He’s one of the guys who could play on any drums and it would sound great. People will complain about his time or whatever, but they’d be missing the point – it’s the sound and the swing that he gets. That Brand X cut ’Nuclear Burn’ is still one of the sickest fusion grooves – no one’s touched it. Sometimes I’ll be doing a sound check with Manson in some arena and I’ll pull out that beat just for fun, and I’ll never know how to play it like he does.”

But then, rocker Sutter had early on widened his palette for a vast array of musical modes, figuring rightly that he had at least a little something to learn from all of it. “I started studying jazz and I got really into Art Taylor, on the more traditional side, which I could relate to. And then I got really into Jack DeJohnette, which kind of messed me up, because there’s no way I could ever play like Jack DeJohnette; I mean, he has such elasticity, he could do a drum solo for 20 minutes and it’s like a symphony.”

DeJohnette’s kaleidoscopic cymbal work made a particular impact. “That’s one of the things that bridged me over to Paiste. DeJohnette devised all these dark Sound Creation cymbals that he used on everything, like that 22" China. Another drummer I really obsessed with who used those same cymbals was Al Foster, who played with Miles Davis on records like Man With The Horn and We Want Miles, great amalgams of heavy metal meets jazz. Miles didn’t want Al to swing at all, but the dude has the most amazing swinging feel, and everything else was so creative; he would do a whole blues on a splash cymbal – Who’d have thought of that?”

He cites Tony Williams as the blueprint for a long line of later jazz and rock greats. “It’s funny, but these dudes who have this kind of crazy chop feel, turning everything on its side and the beat is coming out of a place you’d never imagine it coming from, their inspiration is Vinnie Colaiuta, and Vinnie’s inspiration was Tony Williams. It’s just Tony Williams all over again.”

Matched Grip Is For Monkeys?

If it’s not clear already, Jason Sutter is a rock drummer: So what the hell use is traditional grip to a powerhouse pounder like him?

He laughs. “In college it was always a joke: ’Matched grip is for monkeys.’ Which is hilarious, because you’d never hear that now. I’d say 80—85 percent of all drummers play matched. But when I started studying jazz, I started getting into the traditional thing. Then when I got to college I got really heavily influenced by drum line and drum corps, again for the reason that I never had that growing up. I would play ’Yankee Doodle Dandy’ around the center town for Memorial Day once a year and that was it.”

From back in the day and on up to today, Sutter has been intrigued by the rudiments of drumming. “Drum corps was a mystery – I didn’t know what it was. And when I got to music school in North Texas, it was such a big deal there, and I realized I don’t know anything about this, and I became so involved. It was all traditional playing, and I literally still have calluses from the amount of time I held a marching drum stick in my hand.”

At North Texas, Sutter became totally obsessed with drum corps playing, focusing entirely on how to play marching snare drum. But when he got out of college he realized that trad grip is not the nicest thing to do to the top of the hand. “It won’t take the abuse; it won’t callus; it’ll always crack,” he says. “I practiced all the time, and it was just always bloody and open on the top of my hand between my thumb and index finger. But with matched grip, the calluses form on the inside of your hand.”

He does still play traditional occasionally, mostly for brushes, because it feels comfortable for him to be able to get that kind of side motion with his left hand. And in clinics he’ll pull out some drum corps snare drum solos and play a portion of that with trad grip. But it’s safe to say he’s a matched-grip monkey these days.

Keeping The Focus On Rawk

As it is with the move away from trad grip, so too has Sutter evolved as a player in other areas ¬¬– head, hands, and feet.

“I’m at a point where, from studying jazz to playing with Marilyn Manson, and playing in big bands in college like my life depended on it, being able to sight-read and then forgetting it all – it’s this process that just evolves. It’s like you’re always just where you are, at that time, and where I am right now.”

And right now it’s his feet that are fascinating him most. “With drum corps, I spent so much time getting my hands to the pinnacle of where I thought they could be, and it was like, Okay, I’ve seen the best and I’m close, I can rest now. And while I still practice my hands every day, now for me it’s a foot thing: I never really did double bass. Did it for a little bit in high school and kind of tired of it quickly, said I’m going to do it all on one bass drum.”

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So far so good, but now this Manson gig is heavily double bass—driven. And when Sutter was on tour with Chris Cornell, he’d tried to play single kick on tunes that Cornell had recorded with Timbaland that were heavily bass drum—programmed. It didn’t work, just too damn difficult. “So I slowly started to add double bass drum into my playing, and it made a huge difference. I would start practicing double pedal and I’d go out and hang with younger guys especially, because double bass has evolved so much from when I was younger, when Tommy Aldridge and Neal Peart reigned. I mean, they were amazing double bass technicians, but nothing like what’s going on now.”

Jason Sutter

Sutter’s Marilyn Manson Setup

Drums Ludwig Legacy Classic (Eggshell Black)
1. 26" x 14" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 8" Ludwig Classic Maple Snare Drum
3. 14" x11" Tom (in snare basket)
4. 16" x16" Floor Tom
5. 18" x 16" Floor Tom
6. 20" x 16" Mounted Bass Drum

Cymbals Paiste (Custom Black finish)
A. 15" 2002 Medium Sound Edge Hi-Hat
B. 18" 2002 Medium Crash
C. 20" 2002 Medium Crash
D. 24" 2002 Ride
F. 12" Alpha Metal Splash/16" Alpha China/16" Alpha Thin Crash (stack)
G. 20" Alpha Rock Crash
H. 19" 2002 Wild China

Jason Sutter also uses a 14" x 7" Gregg Keplinger Black Iron snare, DW 9000 series hardware and 5000 series double pedal, Remo heads (Emperor Black Suede on all tom batters; Black X on snare batter; Ambassador Black on all resos; Powerstroke Clear on bass drum batter), Regal Tip Custom Jason Sutter sticks, Kelly Shu bass drum miking system, and Puresound 30-strand snare wires.

For a fresh perspective on the modern art of double bassing, Sutter went to new-school sources like The Mars Volta’s Dave Elitch. “I said, ’Show me what you’re doing. Give me your take on this.’ And I took what he showed me and applied it to my playing, and since then have been able to be on these tours with the best metal drummers in the world, from Dave Lombardo of Slayer to Chris Adler with Lamb Of God, to Vinnie Paul from Pantera and Hellyeah, and Joey Jordison with Slipknot. Because we’re playing the same stages with Manson, I sit five feet behind these guys, and I’m learning so much from watching. It’s a whole other art form.”

Double kick technique is a way personal thing, he says, so whether he’s playing heels up or down depends on the tempo, mostly, and to an extent the pedals themselves. “I came back from tour, and I had these DW 5000 double pedals I’ve been using for four or five years, and I switched to some 9000s, and it’s like the difference between Haydn and Mozart. And I’ve evolved to this other place where those pedals now are essential to what I need to do with Manson.”

On the new Marilyn Manson album Born Villain there’s a song called “Murderers Are Getting Prettier Every Day” that features some gruesomely complex drum patterns programmed by producer Chris Vrenna, who was originally slated to attempt to play drums on the record.

Sutter laughs. “Chris said, ’I’ll never be able to play this; it’s physically impossible.’ And when I was first auditioning for Manson, I was listening to this track and he said, ’Don’t worry, you’ll never have to play this, we’ll just have the tracks flown in and have you play along with the click – I want you to be able to run around and chase girls after the show, I don’t want your leg to be falling off.’”

Yeah, but Sutter digs a challenge.

“I thought, If it takes hours and months and weeks, I’m going to play this f__king song. And as soon as I got the gig, I would spend an extra hour a day practicing double bass. Well, so far we’ve done ’Murderer’ maybe four or five times, and it’s an extra half hour that I warm up double bass in my dressing room with these silent bass drum warmup things called Hanzenfütz pedals. Then I go out onstage, and as the crew’s testing basses and moving lights and mikes around, I practice the pedal – sixteenth-notes at varying speeds. So I’m practicing double bass for at least an hour a day before the show just to be able to play these tunes like this.”

As far as the band and its fans are concerned, Sutter is one of the best double bass players they’ve ever heard. “My joke is, I’m completely fooling them, [laughs] because it’s still a new thing for me. I’ll never be as good as Joey Jodison or someone like that, because they’ve spent years at it, but I will be close someday, and that’s the goal. Where I’m at in my career, it’s fun to have something to kind of go, ’All right, this is going to kick my ass for the next five years.’”

In The Mouth Of The Machine

From Smashmouth to Vertical Horizon to Foreigner to New York Dolls to Chris Cornell and Marilyn Manson, Sutter’s basic “John Bonham” drum set (26" bass drum, a 14" mounted tom, 16" and 18" crashes) for live work is pretty much the same for just about everything he does. When he records he uses whatever’s there, but for each job he’ll approach those drums differently, adding a different drum or cymbal here or there to create a particular kind of sound. Live and in studio with Manson, he’s tasked with creating a “mechanical” sound that will match a gnarly mass of triggered electronics and samples fed into the drum parts. “That’s a whole new world I’m having to become familiar with,” he says. “All the drums have triggers on them, and it’s blended in, and then I’m playing along with tracks, counting everything off. On tour, we have a giant refrigerator rig behind us with a drum tech who’s running all that. I start the tracks, but basically you’re playing with a whole other instrument.”

He could really care less about the electronic side of the band’s sound, frankly, preferring to keep his head in the sand about all that. He relies on the soundman, or the front-of-house guy and his monitor guy to help his head wade through the Manson band’s wall of noise.

“For the monitor mix, though I need to basically just feel the drums, I always need to hear the taste of the snare drum – the actual pitch of the snare balances everything out for me. But ultimately I’ve got to have Manson’s voice in this gig, and the tracks and the click are pretty hot. What’s great is, I have Twiggy [Ramirez, bass/guitars]’s amps next to me to my left, and I have both guys in my mix but not blasting. So now I’m getting the sound of these guys from the stage, and it’s great ’cause there’s a lot of interaction and swing going on. I’m not a slave to the grid.”

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His time spent touring with Foreigner was an entirely different beast, sound wise.

“With Foreigner, the monitor mix was all about Mick Jones. There were no drums at all, no clicks, guitar and bass blasting, and just Mick, every note. You want to be right with him because he’s a very elastic player, so you’re going to have to ride that bull the whole night.”

Jones also favored a thud-y, vintage drum sound, so Sutter’s tuning couldn’t go any lower; with Foreigner he used coated Ambassador heads that he had to change after every show (“Because they’re thin and just asking for it”) and the snare was big and round and mushy.

With Manson, Sutter plays on those black Remo heads that are famously a little bit dead ¬¬¬– all the better to muffle a trigger you might want to place on it.

“With Manson it’s more attack than tone,” he says, “and they’re blending the trigger in anyway. But I still tune those drums up pretty high. When I say high, the bottom head is usually a third or half step or even a full step higher than the top head, and they’re both tuned pretty high.”

Closer To The Sun

When Sutter was touring with Foreigner, it was one of those gigs where they’d go out for a month and be home for a month. Pretty cushy, eh? Hold up: It seems that when Sutter was home on those breaks, he was practicing like mad, shedding his double bass and brushes and general technique, and doing drum clinics, too. So it was a very technical time for him, even though he was playing pretty simple rock tunes with Foreigner. “And then I went out with The New York Dolls and it was like, forget all that crap. It was punky, snotty, raw, and I thought, I’m just going to let that technical thing go. It’s a conscious effort to fight to get close to the sun and all that information, and then back off. I don't want to ever be too conscious and too proficient; what I get hired for is a feel.”

In other words, when you start to get too technical you veer toward Neal Peart, and when you’re able to let that go you can get back to your inner John Bonham. “But you can pull that Peart out if you need to,” he says. “And if you have that under your belt, it comes through in your playing without having to play it.”

Yeah, but in order to get to that special spot on the Peart-Bonham spectrum, you’ve got to practice, which Sutter does every day when he’s off the road. “And honestly, I feel like I’m constantly relearning how to play the drums. I never ever go in there and feel like, ’I’m killing it now.’ And when I play gigs and people are like, ’Dude, you’re killing it!’ I’m like, ’Yeah, I’m not even close.’”

You Want It, You Got It

Not to say this cool dude Jason Sutter is, like, a drumworld geek or anything, but consider this: “I remember going to college and it’s a vacation and I stayed and practiced. There’s no one around and I’m practicing and I’m like, What the hell am I doing? Am I going to be doing this in ten years? And then ten years later I’m in a practice room at eleven at night to play for three hours, and I’m going, ’Am I going to keep doing this s__t? Am I ever going to get good enough to just be done?’”

The answer, it seems, is no.

“I’m always going to be evolving. And you can tie it in with the drum corps stuff and all that. I was willing to temporarily sacrifice drum set, which was my passion, knowing it would be a means to getting me somewhere else down the road. And it did – I got a scholarship next year to go to North Texas because I could play snare drum! How? I lived, ate, and drank it. I didn’t play in any rock bands, I didn’t hang out with chicks, I went and did drum corps work every day at 8 A.M. and got my ass kicked. And it was awesome.”