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A conversation with drummer & producer Sammy Merendino

We caught up with longtime A-T endorser Sammy Merendino at Summer Sonic 2007.

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We caught up with longtime A-T endorser Sammy Merendino at Summer Sonic 2007.

I understand you’re originally from Akron, just down the road from Audio-Technica’s U.S. headquarters in Stow, Ohio. How did you get your start in New York?

Sammy Merendino: I grew up in North Hill [Akron]. I lived there until 1980. I went to Akron North. Went to Saint Vincent for a while. Got to know Marc Lee—he was my roadie when I was in a band and he was 17. [Marc Lee Shannon is Audio-Technica Vice President, Sales.] We go way, way back. I have pictures from when we both had hair.

How did you get your start in New York?
I moved there in 1980 to play with Chubby Checker. That was my first job.

Can you tell us about recent gigs with Cyndi Lauper's recording and touring band?
Right now we’re in the middle of doing a new record. We just finished the True Colors tour, which was great. We’re going to do that every year probably for the next 5-10 years, hopefully. Cyndi’s the headliner; it’s us and Erasure, Debby Harry, the Dresden Dolls. Next year they’re going to change it to be another lineup. But it’s all for human rights, and gay and lesbian rights. So we’re doing that. We’re finishing Summer Sonic. We’re off for about two months and then we go to South Africa, I think Hawaii after that, and Australia in February, and pick up the True Colors tour again in the spring.

So you’re all over the world.

Do you like the traveling?
Oh, yeah. It’s like camp for adults. They tell you where to go, they feed you; it’s really great.

In addition to being a drummer, you’re also an in-demand producer. How did you decide to go into producing?
I’ve always had studios since I was about 18 years old. I like recording. I think producing was more just out of necessity. I would do sessions. But if you’re playing sessions, you’re kind of producing anyway, because you’re adding something to the pie. So I just started wanting to oversee and be more involved with the whole picture. I wanted to be more involved, where I could decide everything, top to bottom.

Is it tough juggling two careers?
Having one career is the hard part. Two is better than one. It’s fun. It’s nice because when I get off the road, like now, I’ll start another record when I get back home for the next couple of months. Then I’ll go back on the road for a little bit and I can get away from it.

It’s kind of a nice mix.

You don’t get sick of either one.
Never. I could go on the road the rest of my life and be happy. But the balance is good.

What musicians have influenced and inspired you?
As far as drumming goes, the three—Buddy Rich, Tony Williams and John Bonham—are my three favorite drummers; they totally inspire me. Musically—Cyndi’s very inspirational because she’s so up, always positive, musically always wanting to change. Even on stage, we’ll be playing and in the middle of a song she might want to just change and go left. Let’s just try something else. And if it doesn’t work, it’s ok, but she just wants to try it. That’s very inspiring.

Keeps it really fresh on the stage.
Yeah. We never know if it’s going to end or start; she might say, “Let’s do this like New Orleans tonight.” We do about 50 different versions of Girls. Tonight might be 51. She might just change it. She’s great.

What about Audio-Technica? What do you like about the microphones? Any mics that stand out?
I love Audio-Technica. For live, I love the Artist Series and the Artist Elite microphones. I’ve got the AE2500 on my kicks. Love it. And the AE3000’s on my toms, great. Overheads, we’re using the AT4050’s. The snares with the Pro 37. AT4041 on hi-hat. And the new one, the side address ATM450—I like those a lot. Those get out of the way. The way my cymbals are, they really fit inside where my hats are. Just sonically, I think they’re great. In the studio, I’ve got a pair of AT4060’s that I use a lot of times either as overheads, or sometimes I’ll use them as rooms. I haven’t had any problems with any of them. I’ve been using the same mics on the road, because I carry my own, since 2002. The only change has been adding the ATM450s for hi-hat. But I haven’t had a problem—not with one mic.

It helps that you’re not a metal drummer and you don’t hit them every night!
Yeah, that helps, too.

So you started drumming in Akron? How’d you get started?
Actually, I was just telling this story to the cellist from Bright Eyes. When I was 11, I wanted to take lesions. I went to the school in 5th grade and said I wanted to play an instrument. They said, “All we’re offering is cello.”

I went, “Cello? What are you offering next year?”

They said, “Drums.”

I said, “I’ll wait.”

So I waited one more year, and I started playing when I was 12. I took lessons till I was about 18.

Where’d you take them?
First I started in school, at St. Martha’s School Band, then I took from this guy, Bob Bransen at Falls Music Center. My father’s a musician, he taught there also.

What’s your father play?
He plays accordion. He’s really good. So I took lessons with Bob for a while. Then I switched to this guy Micky Eritano. He was really instrumental in me turning the corner. He made me really work.

How old were you?
I was about 17 when I started to study with Micky. If I showed up at a lesson not prepared, he would make me leave. He’d say, “Get out of here.” He’d take my money first, then he’d say, “Go home.” He got me to be more tenacious and really aggressive. He was really into attacking the drums. Not just sitting back—really being aggressive with them. I still talk with him to this day. He was the big force in me moving forward. Then I went to school for about nine months, and I was in a band that was working, so I quit college.

What year was this?
Let’s see, I graduated high school in 75. So I went to school in 76.

And then you were working from Akron before you went to New York?
I was in a band called Easy Street, and then I got that audition with Chubby in 1980. We were on the road for a year and a half with one week off. Coming from Akron, it was pretty exciting, to all of a sudden go from just playing clubs to going around the world. We went to Europe—I had never been to Europe. We had fun—played five nights a week. It was really good for my chops.

I was wondering if you have any tips for people who might read the interview, who are aspiring to be a touring musician. How do they make it to the next level?
Well, besides practicing…especially if you’re a drummer, practice with a metronome. One of the most important things is about hanging out. Some people are good at being around other people—they play well with others. When you’re on the road especially, you’re on a bus, and you’re together a lot. I think a lot of the gigs I’ve gotten, I could have been a lousier drummer and still gotten the gig, because I can hang out with people.

People skills.
Yeah. You have to have them. Most people don’t develop the people skills. They think, I’m just going to be a good drummer, but they’re just not nice to be around. With Cyndi, we’ve chosen people that we can hang with…we have a nice connection on the road and musically, too. That’s the most important thing, but also, who am I going to want to live with? It’s like you’re kind of married to all these people. Especially when you’re out for months at a time. Basically, people need to learn how to be around other people.

I wouldn’t have thought of that as being key, but it makes sense.
Yeah. It’s huge. It’s real big. And practice—get your sound together when you go on the road. That’s real important.

Another thing—people should really make sure that they are supporting the music and the artist they are playing with. It’s not about chops and/or being flashy. As a sideman, the main thing to do is make the artist feel really comfortable, and play what the music requires. Paying attention to the artist’s needs is very important.

Basically, you have to be ready. Doors open all the time. People always talk about luck, but it’s more like this—a door opens; you can walk through the door, but you’ve got to be ready. Doors are opening all the time. People just don’t always see them, or they’re not prepared when that door opens.