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Susan Royal A Way of Life in Drumming

You see her in the Barndogs Plus, the Fab Femmes, 5-time SAMMY winning C-Jack Run Revue, The Tones, Shakedown and the list goes on. Drummer, vocalist Susan Royal takes a break from the drum kit to share a few stories with us all at Sounds of Syracuse.

Chuck Schiele: Hi Susan. Thank you for doing this interview.

Susan Royal: Chuck, thank you for reaching out to me so that I could share my story.

CS: It’s my absolute pleasure, Susan. So, let’s tell this story. How did you get started in music?

SR: I feel like I didn’t get started in music. Music got started in me. …

CS: Okay, that’s the best response ever.

SR: (smiles) … My childhood was filled with various types of music. My father was my first influence. He played saxophone in the US Air Force Band. After his service, he created a local doo-wop singing group called The Emeralds. I always had music playing or being rehearsed in my home. I also have two older sisters that live in Rochester that play guitar and sing. So, I was soaking up all the wonderful sounds of vocal groups and jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis with my dad in one room.

My sisters would be in the attic practicing and playing everything from Aretha Franklin to the Beatles. Through my sisters, I learned about harmonies and songwriting structure. I can remember when they brought home the Woodstock album in the mid-1970s. That was my first time hearing Jimi Hendrix and it freaked me out but in a good way.

In grammar school, I participated in the chorus at Most Holy Rosary School that’s where I gained formal music knowledge. I was the child in school constantly tapping on my desk with pencils or tapping my feet on the floor. I just enjoyed hitting on any surface to resonate sound or a beat.

It drove everyone crazy.

So after a few years of failed attempts at saxophone and clarinet lessons, my father gave in and helped me purchase my first Ludwig drum kit from Bonnie Music. I’m self-taught on drums. Playing drums came naturally to me. Once I saw people like Karen Carpenter on television playing drums and singing it really opened up my eyes to the possibilities. Seeing the Beatles on television made me want to learn more about Ringo and his style of playing.

Then I saw Sheila E. on the American Music Awards in 1985 and I was mesmerized by her playing, showmanship, and style. I was hooked.

In my early years, I spent a lot of time listening, learning and watching what other drummers were playing. In the late 80s early 90s, I started attending drum clinics sponsored by The Music Center owned by Buke Babikian. I attended clinics held by Frank Briggs, Chester Thompson, and Omar Hakim. I would try to incorporate what I learned by viewing others into my playing. When I would go out to local clubs I would always watch the drummers’ technique. I would go to open mic nights at places like B&B’s on South Avenue or Shifty’s and sit-in with the guys that were jamming. I often heard the line “not bad for a girl.” The more I practiced the better I became. When you become good at something, you become more confident and no one can take that away from you. I’ve always loved playing simple solid grooves with a bass drum, hit-hat, and snare that drive things forward. Being solid is what keeps you working. It’s all about keeping time, having feel and a solid groove for me.

CS: How did your playing and professional progress factor into all of this action?

SR: I’ve been playing in bands locally since the early 90s. I’ve always had an eclectic taste in music so I would try to learn as many different types of rock and blues or R&B songs when I first started to get into various local bands. I’m really grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given to play in Syracuse. I’ve been a drummer for many years with the C-Jack Run Revue owned and operated by producer Charles Jackson. The Revue in 1997 was a 5-time SAMMY award-winning collective of R&B artists in the Syracuse area. We opened for Najee, Jay Z, Montell Jordan, Jody Watley, and various other R&B acts. During the same time period, I played in an original female power-pop trio called Mighty ISIS with bandmates Jessica Rudy of Guardrail and Natalie Neal. By the 2000s I had played in another original rock and blues project called Ology with lead singer Robyn Stockdale. (Creative director and owner of Graphik Nature Studios) By 2004 I joined a modern rock three-piece band called The Bufftones later renamed The Tones with Dave Rockower, Nick Reitz and Matthew Zych. The Tones had a power punk sound and played originals and covers. We gigged at CBGB’s in New York City and various clubs in the Boston area. By 2008 I was a founding member, drummer, and vocalist with The Shakedown. The band consisted of Sean Patrick Taylor, guitar and vocals, Shane Kelsen, keyboards, guitar and vocals and Matthew Zych on bass, guitar, and vocals. We played Americana roots rock ‘n’ roll music. The Shakedown was my last original project to date. We recorded our album Wild and Free with producer Doug Easley of Easley McCain Recording in Memphis, Tennessee. Easley has worked with Sonic Youth, Townes Van Zandt, Guided By Voices, The White Stripes, Modest Mouse, and various rock acts. The band shot a video for one of its songs entitled Blonde (In The Wintertime) at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee in July 2010. Unfortunately, the Wild & Free project didn’t quite hit the mark that we were aiming for. But it was a life-enhancing experience I’ll never forget. I learned a lot about working in a real recording studio and the importance of preparation and working with a great producer and sound engineers. As a band, we grew closer together as people. We covered a lot of miles together trying to promote our record. It was my second time doing a mini-tour of playing shows in clubs in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Boston, Vermont, Virginia, and Memphis. The Shakedown is currently on hiatus but whenever we get a chance to get together it’s like a musical family reunion.

During 2011 and 2012 I played a few shows with two amazingly talented women Kate Kolb and Missy Ragonese in a three-piece rock n soul cover band called MISS 3. We played everything from 4 Non Blondes to the Pointer Sisters with a little Hendrix mixed in. Playing with Missy and Kate really kept me on my toes and challenged my drumming and singing skills.

CS: With whom are you working, these days?

SR: Around 2013 I was invited to join The Barndogs PLUS tribute to the Allman Brothers Band as part of a tribute to the largest concert gathering in history: SummerJam ‘73 at Watkins Glen NY featuring the Allman Brothers Band, The Band, and The Grateful Dead. The band members are Andy Comstock, Mark Westers, John Kapusniak, Pete Szymanski, Tim Robinson, and Jerry Tarolli. I knew drummer Pete Szymanski because we both attended Bishop Ludden High School together. He’s really a phenomenal player and a wonderful person. I was honored to join the band. I love the Allman Brothers Band material and getting the chance to jam live with another drummer was like a dream.

I also like to make time to perform in events that benefit non-profit organizations. Since 2014 I’ve been honored to be a part of The Ladies Night at The Palace Theater program produced by Black Bag Productions owned by Joanna Jewett and The BeatleCUSE productions created by local musician Paul Davie.

The Ladies Night event takes place in November and highlights the enormous talent of local female vocalists and musicians recreating songs by artists from the 60s through the 80s. A part of the event proceeds benefits the Vera House organization. The BeatleCUSE event which wrapped up in 2019 was a massive event of local musicians individually and collectively recreating various songs from The Beatles catalog of albums. I played drums with the girl group the FAB FEMMES comprised of Anna Lopez, Jess Novak, Sharon Allen, Sheela Tucker, Cathy Lamanna, and Sue Karlik. It was always a humbling experience working with various local drummers to prepare percussion and drum parts for these shows. Part of the proceeds for that event would go towards various charities ranging from the Carol Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund or military families.

CS: Do you play instruments other than drums?

SR: I play guitar. When I try to come up with song ideas I often find it less difficult to create them on guitar first. Sometimes I come up with a melody and lyrics before I think of a tempo.

CS: Tell us about the music that moves you and what inspires you?

SR: The music that moves me often is the songs with universal themes about the human condition. I saw Stevie Wonder in concert a few years ago and heard him perform Love’s In Need of Love Today and it made me cry. The poetic genius of that song is so

beautiful and overwhelming when I think about it. Blackbird by Paul McCartney is another song that’s very heavy and meaningful. It’s a song he wrote acknowledging the unrest going on during the Civil Rights Movement in America. It was his way of being in solidarity with black people in our struggle to truly be free.

I’m really moved and inspired by the honesty and colorful storytelling of singer-songwriters like Smokey Robinson or Bob Dylan. I enjoy listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album in the winter. Blue is my curl up in a blanket and rides out the storm album. Lately, I’ve been listening to new artists H.E.R., Brandi Carlile and J.S. Ondara. I also enjoy Beck’s new album Stratosphere. It reminds me of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

With the recent passing of drummer Neil Peart, I’ve been sadly going down memory lane listening to RUSH albums recently like 2112, Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves, and Signals. He was so innovative in his approach to playing drums and a true wordsmith at crafting lyrics. The rock world lost a giant. I’ve always been inspired by drummers like Ringo Star of the Beatles, Questlove of The Roots, Adam Deitch of Lettuce, Will Calhoun of Living Colour, Stewart Copeland of the Police just to name a few because of their unique style of playing.

CS: Please share with us your favorite career highlights?

SR: A huge career highlight for me was recording at Sun Studio with The Shakedown. Stepping in that studio you really feel the weight of the giants that created some great rock ‘n’ roll records. Their spirits are everywhere in that studio. It was a very emotional experience. It was exciting to record in the same room as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison as well as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner. The birthplace of rock n roll.

Throughout the years of performing with the BeatleCUSE production I’ve shared the stage with songwriter-producer Mark Hudson; Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and Paul McCartney and Wings; and Joey Mulland of Badfinger.

Playing with The Barndogs PLUS Allman Brothers Tribute band I’ve had the pleasure of opening shows for Blues Traveler, The Outlaws, The Marshall Tucker Band, and Candlebox.

CS: How has the CNY music scene treated you? Thoughts on the music culture and community here …

SR: I’ve been treated very well by the CNY music community. I have so much respect for so many bands that are out there rocking out clubs every weekend. I believe others give me mutual respect for my journey and my accomplishments.

CS: What would you tell anyone entering the music world?

SR: The advice I would offer anyone entering the music business is to learn the difference between the bar business and the music business. Make up in your mind which avenue you would like to gain traction in. Learn as much as you can about marketing yourself. Practice your craft and have fun with music. Be humble. Be prepared and step boldly into your opportunities. If music becomes tiresome or not fun anymore step away from it for a bit and give yourself some time to recharge your creative energies. Walk in the sunshine. Pray. Read books. Sleep in. Fall in love. Fall out of love. Write about it and eat lots of chocolate chip cookies.

CS: Is there anything you’d like to see change or develop in the music world around here, or in general?

SR: I would really love to see the return of the Syracuse Jazz Festival. I’m hoping that our community will support its return in the near future. We desperately need its cultural resurgence to happen.

CS: What’s in your near future musically?

SR: I’m looking forward to working with Jess Novak on a festival project called F.I.R.E. (females inspire, rock, empower) Music and Art Festival March 20 at Maxwell’s in Syracuse. My bandmates in The Tones are re-releasing our music on various internet platforms in February. If you want to see what musical adventures I’ll be embarking on you can always check me out on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/susan.royal1

CS: Thank you so much, Susan. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing your story.

SR: Thank you, Chuck. My pleasure.

Revue Review

REVUE REVIEW #2 Took place on December 4th with the three killers we had in Syracuse’s very own John Cadley: Anna Troy from Brooklyn, NY; and Mikal Serafim from Auburn. Each of these artists displayed a deep and vast cornucopia of rich musical and songwriting ideas.

John Cadley wowed the audience is expected, promised fashion as his quality for thought always prevails. In my own opinion, John views the world like he could be riding alongside Kerouac, and delivers what he thinks about it like he’s chilling with Mark Twain. And while that is wide territory it is still a very focused one that lives well in the way John spins his story.

Anna Troy rode the train up from Brooklyn to jump into this show. With her, she brought the blues. A blues that remains respectful to the masters she’s studied while wearing the badge of her generation in a way that coexists successfully by way of relevance. She told stories that provided excursions of thought that kept the audience giggling throughout.

Mikal Serafim woo-ed us with jazzy, bluesy sultry songs that featured his prowess for guitar and masterful vocal handling of the lyrics he was singing … also offering a body of work that featured relevant substance.

Stay tuned for future announcements on REVUE REVIEW.

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member of SaltCityChill.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.