Meet The Pros - Chuck Sabo
It’s great to be able to talk to you right now, the first thing I would like to know is how would you introduce yourself?
I would say “Hi, I'm Chuck.”
You’re probably not wrong there. How would you explain what you do then?
Well, I’m well known for underselling myself.
So if I'm with someone, they’ll be egging me on saying “He’s a drummer, and he does this, that, and the other.” But I just like to get to know people on an equal level, before they start thinking of me as something other than the guy in front of them you know. But I guess an extension of that answer would be, a session drummer and a songwriter.
Producer as well, once I go I start going.
Other than drumming what do you invest into?
I love songwriting, I have a few songs released with Rhinoceros Music. I also do quite a bit of mixing, I had my own studio which I loved being in. Pretty much you know, any kind of musical creation, I’ll do and enjoy it.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
So, my friend, best friend at the time… I must have been 6 or 7 something like that, but his brother was playing the drums, and they were in a band playing outside their house, like around the back garden sort of. His brother’s name was Jesse. He let me sit behind the kit and jam with the band, and I don’t know something clicked because I knew that was what I wanted to do.
It never faltered not for one instinct, that was it, that’s what I was going to do and that’s what I was going to be. Fortunately, that proceeded to happen.
That was pretty much your spark then I guess.
That was it yeah.
Then of course you run home to mum, and you enlighten her to the fact that this was what I was going to do. You say “I’m going to be a drummer. It’s going to happen, you’ll see I’ll be on albums before I'm 25.” Blah blah blah.
She played it very carefully, and she got me some private lessons as a Christmas present, with a rubber drum pad and some sticks. I then carried that on for years before I got the snare drum. I still carried on the lessons with the snare drum now for another year, and then I woke up Christmas day to a full drum kit. We’re still talking about 9 years old, something like that.
My mum was great before I’d go outside to play football or whatever, she would be very good at saying “Did you practice yet?”
Tell us more about your musical training, how did it develop?
So as I just mentioned I had this private tutor, John Murray, in my hometown, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Then, I quite early on got into jamming with people, and then into bands, but how I would practice would be 1, with the book for lessons, the rudiments. And then 2, the other half would be spent playing to music all my favourite music at the time, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, all that good stuff.
How do you prepare for a big show or recording session?
Well preparing for a session is basically just, making sure you feel good on the day – not going out and getting wiped out. Another part of the preparation is coming prepared with all your correct tools, including a simple pad and paper. Then I’ll map it out and go in there and lay it down.
In all the sessions I've done, I've never received any material before I've got there. I get there and I hear the song for the first time. I never got anything before I went into the session, and that’s either because they’re trying to keep it close to their chest, or they’re actually not sure themselves.
But live, I got to the point where the only preparation was just before going on stage, to make myself appreciate every minute on stage – to slow time down because I found that before I came to this realisation, that its all waiting and travelling and practising and when you finally get on stage, you’re not excited that the big, huge show at Glastonbury or something, can go by like that.
Once I started making myself slow downtime, I was enjoying being on a stage like Glastonbury and taking it all in, taking every kick drum in, seeing the people. Then I came off really enjoying the whole set. That’s something I try to pass on to younger people, really try to enjoy it before you hit the stage.
When you finally get off the bus from travelling, once you finally get on stage, just slow it down, take it in, make it work for you.
Did it take you a while to get that mindset?
I think it did take a while… but fortunately, the first time I actually really put it to good use, I've mentioned Glastonbury a few times, when we headlined the pyramid stage I actually talked to the whole band about it, and from that moment on I was doing it constantly. But before then, it was just forgetting to enjoy myself pretty much.
What do you think it is that makes you not enjoy it?
Well basically being concerned with getting it right, so you’re constantly concerned with doing everything right in every moment. And natural nerves kick in as well, so it’s a combination really of just those two things, just wanting to get it right, and the nerves with that.
Not nervous of the people, not nervous of the crowds or anything, it’s just wanting to get it right I think that was the biggest nerve kicker.
As you’ve mentioned Glastonbury a few times, would you say that was one of your standout professional moments? Or does another come to mind?
Oh, I've played Glastonbury quite a few times, all the festivals, festivals were great stages to play. I've played loads of stadiums too. There are so many standouts, I just enjoyed them all.
Recording with Elton on the Lion King, that was a buzz. He was in the control room, I went in I did my take, and I came in and he said, “Oh you got it first take?” I said “Yeah,” and he goes, “Yeah me too.” One of the other people in the room, when I was recording, was Cher, she was singing and recording.
That’s a buzz too because you’re in your booth, but you can see the person and obviously hear them, and you’re finally doing what you worked so hard to achieve. You’re getting hired to play your style, you’ve gone past the days of getting hired to play someone’s parts the way they want it, or think it should be. People get to know your playing, your style, your groove, and then they call you for that, so it’s that much easier because you’re just going in to be yourself.
The people that you work with, it’s just a bonus, that they’re famous and cool.
What mistakes do you remember making over the years?
I made one. I don’t make mistakes, but for this show, it was with a French artist and it was at the Zénith which is like 8,000 people.
I get a lot of my tempos by singing the chorus of the song in my head, then I have the tempo. Well with a lot of his songs, first of all, I wasn’t speaking French, so I couldn’t really get it in my head. Anyway, one night I got the tempo so wrong on this song, I played it like double time.
Fortunately, I think this was the third tour I did with him and he’s such a nice guy, Etienne Daho, that he just laughed, and he tried to sing it double time. So it was fortunate that it was with someone like that, but that’s the only time.
Do you have any other funny stories you can share with us?
Well, my first gig in London, I was living in New York at the time I came on tour with a new York band and we were playing Dingwalls, nice pothouse. We did the show, got to the last song and I stood up, I was on a drum riser but didn’t realise how close to the edge I was. So I stood up, picked up my gear, fell right back on my ass, feet over myself, and I thought to myself, I'm just going to stay down here till everybody leaves. But I couldn’t, I had to get up because there was an encore.
That was my most shameful moment I think, but you know I think I'm the only one that really felt ashamed about it, everyone else was going about their business like it didn’t happen.
Well, we know guys like you can often get offered to perform private gigs to kings, and royalty, have you had any experience like that
I have heard about them, but no. You would think with someone like Natalie we would have but no.
I know Elton’s band had a few of those, you know where you walk in, and the drummer gets a gold watch just backstage, it’s crazy. But no, I didn’t get any of those though.
Do you notice a difference between audiences country to country, and do you have a preference?
No, if you’re doing well, if the bands doing well, if the songs doing well, the audiences are very similar. There isn’t any place I would say is particularly great, or particularly bad.
I love them all, for real.
What are the best parts of being in a band?
There’s the obvious friendship that forms, and you get to feed off of each other’s energy, both in rehearsals and certainly at shows.
There’s a communication that happens that doesn’t involve speaking, and… that’s a great thing, it’s a great thing and that’s why music therapy is so helpful and a very cool thing, because they utilise that conversation that happens between musicians, with people who have problems to deal with, and it can really help pull people out of themselves.
So, the obvious club, and closeness, and family… and of course it’s just a good workout as well. Don’t forget the days before you have techs, and you have to do all the carrying and loading and setting up and carrying again, you know it’s a good workout.
I bet you haven’t had to carry your own gear for a while, have you.
Oh, fortunately not. You know, when that starts happening it’s like “Oh man, so this is what I heard about.”
Then, of course, the family broadens, you’re getting the crew involved and the family gets bigger and bigger.
What do you think are the biggest challenges being in a band? Have you ever had to deal with egos?
Well you know, people are people, whether it’s in a band or a classroom or down the pub. But no, there aren’t really any difficulties that aren’t in any workforce.
It’s like with anything you really want, you need to work for it, you need to work, put in a lot of practice. Splitting your time correctly between practising and still having some social activity. I couldn’t say anything negative really.
Do you have any advice then to young people coming up through the music industry?
I would say… dear boy… you cannot fail, you can only give up. If you don’t give up you will succeed there are no two ways about it.
The only thing you can do is give up, and that if taken correctly is the best advice someone can give, because there are a lot of knockbacks - you need to be thick-skinned, but if you believe in what you’re doing and that’s what you want, then it will happen as long as you don’t quit.
There’s often the debate about what’s more important, talent or drive? Do you think ones more important than the other?
They definitely go hand in hand.
Probably… ultimately talent will help with not having to drive quite like the next guy, but still, no matter how good you are it’s still tough out there, and you have to be the right player for the right job. You have to be willing to work for nothing just to get your name around, don’t always think about the money you know just get out there to play.
Some amazing gigs have come from jobs I‘ve done that were free… I’m thinking of one job in particular because the load in was down steps and it was no money, so I don’t call up my drum tech I just turn up with the smallest amount of drums I can. And from that session, and very soon after it, I got a session with Brian Eno, and if I hadn’t done that session for free and gone “Oh I’ll carry all my drums down the stairs,” that wouldn’t have come to fruition and in fact, it turned into 3 sessions with Brian through production.
So yeah, drive and talent, you need them both. You need the drive to get the talent as well.
Leading on from that, do you see there being a big break in your career? Was there one gig, one session that led on to you being a part of this inner world?
It felt like… I can’t place it to the one band or one session but, it’s a feeling that all of a sudden you kind of wake up to the fact like “Oh it’s happening, it’s happening now.”
It’s a great feeling, but it’s not like an “Okay I can stop working” type of feeling, even at that point there are peaks and valleys, in the best careers. You might think your tour comes off, then you’re on a session, then another tour, and it’s going to go forever. Inevitably there will be a valley, to the point where you’re thinking “I should check my phone is it actually working? What’s going on here?”
Then, the next peaks come but, it’s an odd self-employment situation, as most are I should imagine.
What do you like to listen to in your own time when you’re not working?
I will generally listen to music in the car and, I’ll just try different stations on different days and see what’s going on out there. To relax, I’ll listen to classical, that’s sometimes the nicest thing to drive to, and give your ears a rest.
But during the day I'm generally out in my studio, creating my own things or working on other peoples tracks, session drumming. I have a few videos and singles out on Rhinoceros Music, I have another one that’s meant to be coming out in about 5 weeks (of recording 15th Jan).
And I'm really enjoying that as well I get to write because I do quite a bit of mixing anyway, but it’s now getting, even before COVID, its getting pretty cut-off with online session work and everyone’s got their own little studios and its not the community it used to be. So at least when I'm writing my stuff, I get to involve other players again, people I have worked with for years. Not only is it great to get their talent and their creativity towards the songs, but it’s that comradery as well.
That’s interesting I’m fascinated by the idea of remote collaboration. Do you think it works? Does it work just as well as being in the room with someone, or is something lost when you don’t have that instant real-time connection?
Well, what you first learn is that you need to not only be the player, but you need to be the producer because you send the track and… that’s it.
You have to play on the track, listen to it as a musician and then listen to it as a producer, and feel if it’s the best way. Now that takes some practice and getting used to, and also it’s more time consuming than just putting down a drum track with the artist/producer in the room because it’s a yay or nay situation and then you’re done. But you’re now playing that exact role as well.
The downside of it is, that the sending of files back and forth and the waiting for the reply, instead of it being done just there and then in the second… it could take days to get the reply back, do a little change and send it back.
But now there is some software which will allow us, it's called Listento by Audiomovers, it will allow me to play to the client in real-time, right there. Or we could even work on zoom, it can seem to take being done and hear in real-time, no latency. So, it's going to speed things up and take it that much closer to the days when everyone was just in the studio together. More and more people are starting to use that now, but you need everyone involved to have it that’s the thing if I just have it, it doesn’t work, the client needs to have the Audiomovers software as well. But it's pretty amazing.
The other thing is, as a drummer you need to have a studio that sounds great, that is soundproofed. You need to have a multitude of microphones, preamps, all this stuff whereas a singer or bass player, you can pretty much get away with a room in your place, you know treating it a little bit.
That’s the thing, a lot of artists that are using online remote players now - first of all, they just think everything should be done for free, but that’s not going to happen - but they still can’t see the difference of a drummer, and what they need to get to give you really good quality sounds, compared to a guitarist or bass player. So, it's a little bit of a learning curve all round still, but I do like it, I like it a lot. That’s playing and getting paid, 2 things I like.
So you touched upon some projects you’re working on, some videos and songs you’re writing, are there any kind of other unfulfilled ambitions? Like, where do you go once you’ve headlined Glastonbury? What do you want to do still?
Well, I’m quite happy. I would like for one of my songs, at least to get the recognition I had as a drummer, I guess that would be the next step.
I used to write for other people, I was signed to BMG music as a publisher and writer for a while, and now I'm just doing it for fun. I've even done a couple of videos of me, and you know a man of my age should stop that but, I'm doing it for fun.
I have a video out for the last song I did called Lockdown Train, it's got about 32,000 views on YouTube. I have a few songs out as I said, The Politician, Lockdown Train, This Cowboy Ain’t Going Home, they’re out there, they’re out there on streaming platforms, 1 or 2 people heard them, and I think they liked it. We’ll see how that goes.
What are your opinions on software samples and electronic triggers? Do you incorporate a lot of that in your setup?
Yeah, there certainly is a place for it.
When the drum machine first came in, everyone was kind of worried and you know, talking negatively about it, and then it quickly found its way in - to the combining of the drummer and the drum machine, and now the drummer and samples. Yeah absolutely there is a place for it, and I use it a lot. It just gives you much more variation in sounds and field direction and dynamics.
Otherwise, I basically work with Yamaha and Zildjian drums, I'm endorsed by… [audio cuts because my internet was great on the day, could you please add to this for us thanks]
Is there a song that you’ve worked on that is your favourite to listen? If so why?
Actually one of my favourites records to listen back to is the XTC album, and one of the songs We’re All Light is one of my favourite tracks to listen to.
Funny enough, I don’t listen to a lot of the stuff I've done except if I hear it on radio, but that is something I pull out occasionally the XTC album, Apple Venus Volume 2. I also like Torn, when it comes on the radio, I like the groove to that.
I actually taught Torn at school for a little bit. I was teaching on the Bachelor of Music degree course at ICMP, the institute in Kilburn, for about 9 years, I was only part-time. I don’t actually have a bachelor’s degree myself, but I was teaching the course because they were interested in getting teachers who were more experienced, had the knowledge of the experience rather than the degree.
That was cool, I enjoyed that. Classrooms of drummers you know, that was good.