By Todd Sucherman
I received a great gift last fall from Los Angeles session drummer, Matt Laug, when he emailed me out of the blue. Matt and I have only met a handful of times, but we share many musicians we both count as close friends. One September day, I came in from my studio and checked my email to find one waiting for me from Matt. He wrote that he was contacted by this guy from Hamburg, Germany about playing on his record. Matt went on to say that the material was not really his forte, and that he thought I’d sound great on these songs, and asked if I’d be interested in doing it. Intrigued, I began to play the first of three pieces of music he sent. Within 90 seconds my wife Taylor, (a stellar musician herself and a great barometer of what is hip) chimed in from the kitchen: “That’s cool. What is that?” I told her about Matt’s email and as I played each track she would remark from the other room: “That’s great. You have to do that.” And I agreed.
So, I replied to Matt, thanking him and letting him know that I’d love to do it. Matt informed me that the artist’s name is Georg Hahn and that he’d pass my info on to him. All of a sudden I found myself eagerly checking my email every day, hoping that I would hear from Georg, and within a few days I finally did. I was really excited as the three songs I heard had little slivers of mid to late-70’s Genesis, Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree and a host of other unique melodic prog bits. Georg and I traded a few emails and we were off to the races with a date set to tackle the three songs at hand–“Ghost,” “Remember Me” and “Tears of a Million Lies.”
I’ll go through a track-by-track rundown in the order they appear on the record, but I must mention this detail: In our emails and FaceTime conversations, I came to understand that this would be his very first record. For a couple of decades, Georg was a very successful jingle composer and producer, working in films, sound scaping, scoring for corporate events and the like.
This is the first time he was ever able to create the music that he wanted to without some other entity standing over his shoulder. He’d had many of these songs and demos in the chamber anywhere from one to several years. I could tell there might be some severe “demo-itis” possibilities at play here. For those who may not be sure what I’m talking about, I can frame it this way; he’s been hearing these songs with his exact drum programming for years. The snare sounds, the drum sounds, the choices of fills, everything. So when an artist finally hears the songs with a different drummer, with a different snare sound, different feel, different ideas, everything is different! It is hard for them to comprehend it because it all sounds crazy. Their ears perk up with every bar with a ‘what’s wrong?’ type of feeling. For them it’s like seeing the Eiffel Tower painted orange or the Mona Lisa in pink and blue. This can be tough terrain for the session musician to navigate at times.
For example, with “Ghost” being the first track I recorded, we sent him the reference mix to check out and waited for him to FaceTime us. And by us, I mean myself and my engineer, JR Taylor. I met JR through Eric Dorris when I did my “Methods & Mechanics” DVD in 2008. JR has been my engineer here in Austin ever since. Anyway, with “Ghost” the main verse is in 11 (a bar of five and a bar of six).
When Georg finally FaceTimed us, after an uncomfortably long time, his face was fairly stoic. “Todd,” Georg said, “you played the hi hats opening on beats five and six for the ends of the phrases but I had programmed them open on four, five and six.”
“Oh boy,” I thought. What had I gotten myself into? I tried to explain to him that the way I played it had a more natural approach, and that his idea sounded, well, programmed. There was a long pause … “OK, then!” he finally responded. Whew! Even though there were several fills that I had taken liberty with, I knew I had to pay microscopic attention to the main grooves of the demos from this point forward.
After recording the initial three pieces, I was happy to learn that Georg wanted me to finish the whole record. Working with him was an immense pleasure and he was tough all the way through the process, carefully considering every bar. JR and I would sit there after we sent the reference mixes we had toiled over. Our sounds that we were sending back to him were stellar and we knew it. And we’d wait and wait.
Finally, we’d hear back from Georg who would often stay up very late because of the time difference between Austin and Hamburg. He would reply with various degrees of enthusiasm because it was so strange for him to finally hear real drums on his music. There were only a handful of times he sent us back in to re-do a section. His demos were largely 90% of the final recordings. There were odds and ends recorded after my tracks, but the drums were one of the last things to be done, if not the very last.
One thing about being a session musician is that you always put the final result in someone else’s hands, obviously, because it’s their project and their vision. I had a particular vision with the sounds that we recorded and Georg and his mixer, Frank Reinke, had a different vision. So, it’s like a reverse demo-itis in a way! I had to get used to their sounds which were darker and dryer than what we had originally sent. Also, I send my references with the drums a bit louder than they should be in a final mix and sometimes I get used to hearing a piece in that perspective. (Shouldn’t the drums be the loudest thing?) So, it can be a trip to hear the final mixes. The ultimate objective is that the artist is happy and Georg would take his time before finally giving the green light and letting me know that he was indeed happy.
During the process of recording each track I did a “recording session video tour” for every song and posted it on my YouTube channel. There is a link here after each song so you can see the chosen gear and listen back to samples of the drum tracks after they were recorded. I hope you take a moment to check these out as the sounds are pristine and loud enough to hear all the details.
Here’s a track-by-track run down of Life is a Killer by Finally George
1. “TEARS OF A MILLION LIES”
This piece has some definite Steven Wilson influence so I kept my pal Gavin Harrison in mind while recording this, but I simplified the main pattern as it seemed to work better for the music. I found this to be true on the entire record over all. Simpler and more obvious playing seemed to serve the pieces better even if there was room to play more. That’s often a sign of good material to me. The main verse pattern is tricky but doesn’t come off that way–lots of wheels in motion but the result sounds easy and breezy. There’s an open hi-hat played with the foot in the pattern and a flat ride is overdubbed with the metal end of a brush on the “& a 3”. That’s the only “metal” in the pattern that’s all toms, bass and two snares. I overdubbed Rocket Toms [Pearl’s version of Octobans] with mallets that are mixed behind the main intro and verse grooves. There’s an 8-bar interlude after the first chorus that I just love. I was thinking of a Mark Brzezicki inspired groove composition behind the David Gilmour/Chris Rea flavored moment from the guitar. Gong drum and the Rocket Toms were overdubbed and become part of the feel that only happens once in the song. It’s a great lead off track and gives you a glimpse of the type of ride you are in for.
My longtime Pearl Masterworks kit was used on the entire record but snares and cymbals were constantly being switched out for the best choice for each song. On “Tears,” I used a 14” x 5” Joyful Noise Black Bird model and a 12” x 6” Pearl Masterworks off to the left. Both snares were used in the main pattern which you can see and hear in this video:
2. “WALK WITH ME”
Every now and then a track materializes exactly how you envision it (and sometimes exceeds that vision.) This is one of those tracks for me and why it is included in this issue of Drumhead for download. There aren’t any real “drumnastics” here, but in my opinion it’s a great composition and arrangement. I simply adore this piece of music. Georg’s demo had the same bass drum and snare sounds all the way through but I heard three different kits for this song. The main intro and verse sections are all in 4/4 but its phrased 3-5 and it took me a minute to realize it was all in 4. For those sections I used a 14” x 6.5” Schagerl brass snare drum from Austria and the regular Pearl Masterworks bass drum with a pillow inside. The groove has two hi-hats (panned in stereo at 10 and 2 o’clock) with the closed one on the right playing constant eighth notes while the left hand plays the snare back beats, regular hat, floor toms and most crashes.
On Georg’s demo, the crashes were short and almost electronic sounding so I chose a peculiar assortment of Sabian cymbals for those sections as there was a lot of cymbal activity. Some of the cymbals included a 19” Manta Ray, 15” Studio Crash, 14” Compression Hat bottom as a crash, 14” prototype crash and a few others along those lines. The short sounds worked and the 12”, 14” and 16” toms were heavily muffled.
For the chorus sections, which reminded me a bit of Genesis’s “Afterglow” vibe with a bit of Beach Boys meets XTC, I wanted an entire scene change. It’s mostly in 7 with bars of 4 at the middle of the phrase and at the end of the choruses. I went with a 15” x 5.5” Beier steel snare tuned way down into beefcake territory and used a wide open Dunnett 22” x 14” steel bass drum. I changed ride cymbals to the V-Precision ride for a strong stick sound and overdubbed a tambourine part mixed in the background. All the toms in the chorus were the Pearl Masterworks and then I went back and layered them with my ’78 Premier concert toms (Phil Collins style) so there’s a major scene change happening all around. Back in the verses I layered a few snare drum hits with a 14” x 6.3” Solid Drums snare from Switzerland for a minor effect. After the second chorus there’s a lengthy interlude that builds with piano and strings. I went with a softer ride cymbal and went back to the Schagerl snare for this section. Originally the solo section that comes after the interlude had a saxophone solo, which is what I heard when recording my part. Georg was on the fence about it and a few of his musician pals didn’t like it. I didn’t mind it but I think when Taylor weighed in with her opinion, it was scrapped. Georg had this incredible guitarist named Erlend Krauser play on the track “Way Home” and I suggested that he give Erlend a shot at it. He was already a step ahead of me as he told me that he had already booked Erlend to record it the very next day. The results were spectacular and Erlend’s solo gave it that extraterrestrial thing that just soared–Holdsworthian legato with Steve Hackett-type note choices, but it’s all Erlend really. I just fell in love with his playing. Again, you subscribers get this song download and you can see the session video here:
This multi-sectioned song was a real challenge to record as there’s a lot of shifting gears. The intro section on Georg’s demo was very unique in how he programmed the anticipations. The main riff has accents on the “ands” of beats 3 and 4. Sometimes they were caught, sometimes left alone and sometimes only one of them was accented. I actually wrote out what was on the demo and played it almost note for note. I usually don’t like to read if I don’t have and instead prefer to learn everything and know it backwards and forwards if possible in a context like this, but this was a really peculiar part and I knew that Georg would want it played as he programmed it, even though he did not express that to me. There’s a couple progressive sections and if finally concludes with a whole new section with a CP-70 piano part. I’m a sucker for a CP-70 every time. The whole “And after all you’re sitting in your room” vocal part of the song is so Peter Gabriel to me that during the session I FaceTimed Georg and sang that part in my best Peter Gabriel voice and Georg laughed so hard he almost fell off the chair! The song ends with a long section that to me is very cinematic. While there was room to play more than I did, I liked the idea that the character in the song sits alone with a broken heart; his girl is gone. So, it’s a repetitive numb slog and I wanted that effect from the drums. I used a Rat Rod 14” x 6” snare drum made out of beams from the original Pabst brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on this song. You can see the session video here:
As I previously mentioned, this was the first song I recorded for Georg, so it was a big test to see if I’d be tapped to play on any of the other songs. This is another multi sectioned song with the main intro and verse in 11. It shifts into 6/8 and launches into a synth solo section that has a ’77/’78 Tony Banks vibe. While remaining in 6/8 it goes to a pizzicato section that’s phrased more like 6/4 and builds into a heavy guitar army section. Then it launches into a Floydian 4/4 guitar solo and back into 11 and then ending in 6/8. There’s a lot of wheels spinning on this song but again, it just sails along very easily. Along with the ever-present Pearl Masterworks kit, I used a14” x 6.5” A&F brass snare for “Ghost.” Check out the session video here:
5. “REMEMBER ME”
This was the second song I recorded for this record. It begins with a very delicate 7/4 and Georg’s vocal delivery is very reminiscent of David Gilmour to me. The 7/4 changes to a pre-chorus in 6/4 and then the big chorus is in 5/4. I followed some of Georg’s programmed phrasing in the choruses as it was pretty interesting. It’s great working with an artist who has an intrinsic feel for what’s cool for the drum parts, because conversely, it can be a bummer deciphering nonsensical ideas in the demos and figuring out what to play, what’s physically possible, or what could be better choices. Those sessions can be hard work. But when you have demos with clarity, everything is just easier.
Again, the character of this song is about to have his heart shattered, but right before that happens, there’s this madrigal section that is like a walk through a magical romantic forest. I heard a few ideas for this section that were not on the demos. First was a Hammerax Lash hit with overdubbed Pearl Tang Tangs. Then I composed a section in 6/8 with a gong drum, Rocket Toms, cabasa, sleigh bells, finger cymbal, clave and ride cymbal. It gave the section unique flavor that only happens once. Then there’s a guitar interlude in 7 where I chose to use the gong drum as a bass drum, a different clave for the back beat and a flat ride with rivets. The song then heads to the last verse and chorus before ending in a huge section in 5. I chose a Quilted Maple Goodman snare and some heavier cymbals for “Remember Me” and you can see the video for the session here:
6. “I’LL BE THERE”
At a casual glance this song could appear to be a love song, not too far from a Lukather/Toto type ballad, but in reality, Georg wrote this for one of his sons that battles depression, so there’s gravitas and a deeper emotional element with that in mind. There’s the odd bar here and there that you usually don’t hear in a piece like this and that’s a nice surprise. Jeff Porcaro and Steve Smith were on my mind for the recording of the drums, which may be obvious while hearing the piece, but those two are ballad kings. I also kept in mind the true meaning of the song and tried to emotionally attach myself to it for every bar. The snare drum choice for this track was the tremendously beefy 14” x 8” Pearl Hybrid Exotic Fiberglass/Kapur, which sounded perfect for this track. This song also features a lovely, lyrical guitar solo by Ralf Bittermann. You can see the session video here:
7. “TIME STANDS STILL”
Here’s another multi-section track that is really hard to describe. I must admit that this was a track I really wish we had mixed ourselves…but that’s show biz. The intro and verses are in 7 and the chord structure inspired me to compose some percussion parts using a clay drum, a darabuka, finger cymbal and a couple of Keplinger Ching Rings played with the hands. The choruses are a heavy slow 6/8 and launch into a very Bowie-esque bridge. The whole back half of the piece is a tension build that finally erupts at the conclusion. It’s one of those pieces that feels slower when you go to play it than when you are just listening. I had to really hold it back! I chose a 14” x 5.5” stave Victorian Blackwood snare by Red Rock Drums Australia to complement this piece. Check out the session video here:
8. “WAY HOME”
Nothing says “progressive rock” quite like robots and space travel, right? Well we have that in spades on this track. Switching back between 4/4 and 6/8, this piece has a nice easy flow. I had intended to record all the drums on the first half of the song minus the hi-hat and use Georg’s programmed 808 hat in its place. Being that it was a sci-fi song, I thought the programmed hi-hat would add that electronic element. I did just that, but when Georg heard our reference, he wanted a real hi-hat as well. So, I went back and carefully played an overdubbed hi-hat that would work with and contrapuntal to the electronic hat. I like this effect through the first half. I also layered all the toms with the ’78 Premier concert toms for that “soggy” sound. The concert toms and 808 hi-hat disappear in the string section bridge in 7/4, and then the bombs come out as it launches into Erlend Krauser’s spectacular guitar solo. I just love all his note choices until the last audible moment and the end of the fade. Beautiful playing. Check out the session clip here:
When I first heard the demo for “Human” I immediately thought, “Oh no…don’t do the Auto-Tune thing!” But…it really works in the context of this song where the character in the song laments that he “doesn’t feel human”. The 6/8 intro and verse sections I learned almost note for note from Georg’s demo as I thought it was a great pattern. I broke up the snare drum part between two different snare drums. The main drum was a Dunnett 14” x 6.5” Magnesium and off to the left was a 13” x 5.875” Stanbridge made from Pau Ferro and Cocobolo. There were also some programmed toms interspersed in these sections and I liked the feel of a human element along with an electronic feel, which went with the context of the song. The choruses ramp up into an energetic 5/8 which again, I based some of my playing on Georg’s interesting accents. The bridge section goes into an ethereal section that reminded me of some sounds and textures from Genesis’s “Home By the Sea.” Then all hell breaks loose with sections that shift between 5 and 6. I switched to a third snare for the bridge which was a 14” x 5” Copper VK to add a little extra bite. This was so much fun to record as we layered Rocket Toms and the ’78 Premier concert toms for a “question and answer” moment through this high-energy section that abruptly stops and goes back into the re intro. This one is one of my favorites on the record. See and hear the session clip here:
10. “LIFE IS A KILLER”
The last song is the title track which is haunting and cinematic. Gorgeous piano and strings are prevalent in this delicate piece that has several sections. I used four snare drums on this track but two were used for the majority of it. I had a Pearl Masterworks 12” x 6” off to the left and the main drum was a super beefy 14” x 8” Evetts with a Tasmanian Blackwood shell with a Blackheart Sassafras veneer inside and out. For the first verse and chorus I cop Georg’s programming for the exception of some human hi-hat activity. There’s a programmed tom part–sort of an 808 thing that I simulated by putting rags (or tea towels, Ringo style) over the toms–that’s played and mixed in lightly under the main feel. The song opens up into the string section with the full deep snare. The two-part bridge cascades into a 16th-note hi-hat part that helps build tremendous tension that finally releases into a delicate moment before an apocalyptic, cinematic moment that ends the record. Georg originally sent me back in to “play more fills and have more activity” for another take of the entire end section, but ultimately he went with my first instinct of take 1. I thought only a few sparse, simple fills was more effective in the long run. Session clip:
When this record came back from mastering, I sent it to Mover as I thought he’d really enjoy it. Seems he did as he asked me to write this little session diary about it, so thanks, Mover!
There should also be voluminous thanks to Matt Laug for the recommendation, to JR Taylor (pictured here with me) for his engineering mastery, and to Georg Hahn [Finally George] for trusting me with his amazing music!
I hope this provided some insight into the sessions and a deeper listening experience with Finally George – Life Is A Killer.