by Ashley Macachor
Thirteen years ago, Denver, Colorado native Susan Lucia inherited her grandfather’s snare drum. As if a backlit door to the unknown was left slightly ajar and caught her eye, her interest in drumming began as a curious step through that door, not knowing where it may lead. She would soon find herself coming home from school, heading straight for her drum and before she knew it, hours had passed, like entering a time warp. Today, not much has changed. Now living in Portland, Oregon, Susan still plays with the inquisitive eagerness she began with. Currently playing drums in two genre-breaking bands, her trio Human Ottoman and performance group March Forth, she is constantly traversing the boundary line, seeing where else she can venture to musically and having a great time along the way. After all, she’s in it for life.
Tom Tom Magazine: What’s your first memory of being drawn to the drums?
Susan Lucia: I don’t really have memories of being drawn to drumming. I decided to try it out and suddenly realized I had been practicing five hours a day for several months. I guess it’s true that time flies when you’re having fun.
I heard you started learning on your grandfather’s snare drum?
Yes it is true! After he past away we found a 1960s Rogers Silver Sparkle kit in his garage. At first my parents only brought home the snare. I feel pretty lucky that was my first drum set.
What do you love about playing the drums?
I love that playing the drums is both a mental and physical workout. Using your whole body to express yourself is extremely satisfying and I also love the mental math involved in drumming. More than anything, the feeling of playing a groove in the pocket, for me, is like a meditation. This feeling allows me to just be present for a change. I do not have the most outgoing personality but when I am behind a drum set I can say anything. It is really nice to get to freely express yourself without a filter.
That’s interesting you mention the meditative aspect of drumming. I recently read that roots of drumming go back to the drum being used as a tool in ritual music, the goal being to bring a person to a heightened awareness. It sounds a lot like what you describe you experience and what I’ve heard other great players say they experience. Any thoughts on that?
Drumming makes me feel free. It can put you in a trance-like state. Occasionally, in music school, I would actually fall asleep while practicing and wake up five minutes later to the metronome clicking endlessly.
Being a part of something that has been happening for so long makes me feel connected to the people who have come before me. In Zimbabwe they play mbira at ceremonies, during which they ask questions to their ancestors, connecting past and present.
What continues to inspire you?
I am inspired by musicians that are creating new and creative paths. I am always excited to hear new sounds, ideas and collaborations. I strive to find a unique voice on the drum set and stretch the limitations of the instrument. I am inspired by polyrhythmic-based music. When writing for my trio I often split two meters between two instruments with the drums playing both parts to dovetail them together.
I also play mbira, a Zimbabwean thumb piano. Mbira music layers polyrhythms between several parts, locking in with another person to create something more complex. It is similar to cooking Thai food, mixing all the ingredients together to create a more complex flavor.
Like so many artists, I am continually inspired by the beauty and wonder of nature. I’m pretty sure it is impossible to avoid this feeling while living in Oregon!
That’s awesome you play Mbira, too! How did that come about? Do you find that your drumming influences how you play Mbira and vice-versa?
I just happened to find an mbira at an estate sale! It was being used as a decoration. Actually my drumming is most influenced by Brazil, I am completely obsessed with their music. I love that the Brazilian feel creates an irresistible urge to dance. I also love afro-Peruvian music and afro beat. When people are dancing to your drumming you have established a connection with them and that connection is a beautiful thing. There are so many cultures out there with deep roots in rhythm and unique feels that I can’t help but explore them, even if I am only scratching the surface.
After 13 years of playing, do you still practice regularly? Anything you are working on at the moment?
Yes, I love to practice and try to make time everyday! A student once asked me how long it would take to master the drums and I responded with: your entire life. That is not what she wanted to hear as that was her last lesson. Always having something to challenge yourself is essential! Part of what pushes me forward is that we are all perpetually becoming better musicians, constantly changing and developing as we grow.
Lately I have been working on pushing a concept beyond just an exercise and exploring the environment in which I can use it freely. I often work on a certain rudiment, for example, within an exercise and feel great about it but do not really have it in my vocabulary yet. I have been working on phrasing with a combination of different numerators/denominators and implied metric modulation.
I also recently have been playing double bass for the first time. It is really fun!
When you started learning how to play drums, did you have an approach if something was challenging?
When learning something challenging my approach is to make friends with your metronome, slow the tempo way down and repeat ad nauseam. You cannot rely on intellect alone. When I was first learning to drum I spent countless hours playing along with old jazz albums to try and get the feel of it. The first album that I really got into playing along to was Art Blakey’s, A Night in Tunisia.
Do you make a living as a drummer? Do you teach?
I am currently making a living as a drummer and teach drum lessons as well. I am hoping to get more students but am on tour so much that it ends up becoming difficult to schedule.
How can people keep tabs on what you’re up to?
You can sign up for Human Ottoman and March Fourth’s mailing lists or visit www.susandrums.com
If you could choose one word to describe your playing, what would it be?
Snare: 13 by 7 Tribes snare with wood rims
High hats: Istanbul 15″ Om series
Ride: old 20″ Zildjian
Crashes: two 16″ cymbal & gong