EMURG’s Unsung Heroes Series: Dusty Saxton

As music fans, we quite often focus our attention to artists with an already established presence within the music community and tend to overlook the musicians that are considered “hired guns” to aid in other artist’s work. This week, EMURG is shining the spotlight on those artists who remain in the shadows, but who are the driving force behind many of the popular bands that you have come to know and love. Starting off EMURG’s, “Unsung Heroes” series is a drummer from Lorena, Texas whose diversity and technical playing as a drummer has allowed him to lend his musical talents to many well-known artists. EMURG presents to you the incredible talents of Dusty Saxton.

EMURG: Who is Dusty Saxton? Can you give our viewers a little history about your ventures as one of the busiest touring and session drummers in the music business?

Dusty: I started playing drums before I was 2 years old. I played all through high school in drum line. I also play bass and guitar and mandolin, anything with strings really. I never really imagined growing up that a career in music was possible, playing music was just a hobby that encompassed my entire life. After high school I went to college for music business, started managing several bands and promoting local shows in my area. I had played in bands since I was 14 but after pursuing the music business route for a few years I gave it up to pursue music as a performer. Since then, I’ve toured the entire US, I’ve been to Europe multiple times, and now have built a sustainable career for myself.

EMURG: How does being a hired gun as a drummer differ from being a permanent member in a band? What are the pros and cons of the job?

Dusty: Being a member of a band is how most of us get our start. It can be very rewarding if your band takes off and becomes successful. Usually band members split all profits evenly which can add up to way more money than a hired gun will ever make, but the odds of your band becoming successful can be slim. Being a hired gun gives you more control over your career in which you can take matters into your own hands. As a member of a band, all band business affairs are your concern.  Booking, management concerns, bills to pay, are all part of your day.  I prefer to be a band expense than have to worry about band expenses. The reality of the music business that not many people realize is that band members come and go quite often.  Most people think that if you’re in a band you’re in that band forever.  They usually don’t even pay enough attention to individual band members to notice if someone leaves or gets replaced, but the reality of it is that band lineups change quite often and are many times not ever set in stone. Sometimes bands don’t play often enough to keep musicians busy enough to make a living.  To stay busy when one band takes 6 months or so off you must find another band to tour with to stay busy and make ends meet. If you play well, have a good reputation, and build up a good network of friends in the business you can have lots of opportunities come your way to help you stay busy, make a living, and climb the ladder in the music business independent of any one band. You’ll most likely never make millions of dollars as a hired gun drummer, but being able to pursue music as a freelance musician and build your own career based on your reputation can be just as rewarding and more fulfilling.

EMURG:  You got your big break with the band, “Ember”, through one of the most unlikely of places, Craigslist. How did you feel about joining the band and what has the experience been like so far with Ember?

Dusty: I spent years looking through Craigslist for bands from when I was a teenager. I joined bands as a guitarist, drummer, or a bassist. I had a hard time deciding just what instrument I wanted to dedicate myself to. You’re most likely not going to find a full time successful touring band on craigslist, but when you’re just starting out there really is no other option especially growing up in a small town like I did with no music scene. The bad thing is that most bands posting ads on Craigslist also have no other option. Taking a chance on auditioning people you don’t know and have never heard play is risky, but sometimes even some of the more professional bands I’ve been in have sometimes had to resort to Craigslist to find fill in musicians or crew members so it is possible to find good opportunities if you look hard enough for long enough.

Ember’s Craigslist ad had a link to their Myspace which had 4 very well produced songs. I was really lucky to stumble across the ad. The band was also really happy to find me and everything clicked. What set me apart at that time was that I had a Myspace page for a solo project that I had recorded myself playing drums, bass, guitar, and vocals for 4 songs that I wrote.  I sent the Ember guys the link to my page and that pretty much got me the gig before they had even met me. In the music business, image and professionalism are everything and if you have a website, Youtube page, Myspace, Soundcloud page, or anything that will show your talents right off the bat along with pictures and a bio, that will help set you apart from everyone else trying to get the same gig.  So it worked out that Ember had a well designed Myspace page with well-produced songs that made me want to join the band, and I had the proper materials, a Myspace page with music that showed my playing abilities on multiple instruments that made them confident in auditioning me (they actually offered me the choice of being drummer, bassist, or rhythm guitarist, I stuck to my first love, Drums). That began the next 4 years of hard touring, multiple management deals, record label offers, broken down trailers, van wrecks, and sleeping on kitchen floors all over the country and Europe. At times it was good, at times it was bad, but it definitely prepared me for any situation I’d ever encounter in the future. Now when the bus breaks down or we run into snags on the road it doesn’t even faze me.  Ember was a hard touring group of road-dogs and the fact that I survived is amazing enough, haha.

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EMURG: As mentioned earlier, you’re among one of the busiest touring and session drummers in the business with working with the likes of the Language Room, Alpha Rev, Screamin’ K Phillips, and Brandon Rhyder. What has the experience(s) been like and how do you approach each type of genre when it comes to playing the drums?

Dusty: I love playing with different artists. The challenge of learning 17-20 songs in one night and playing them for the first time on stage with no rehearsal is a big adrenaline rush for me.  Working with Language Room was like that.  I learned their set planning to fill in for some shows when their drummer left briefly following a death in his family, but they didn’t end up needing me when they thought they would. A couple months later I got a call at 2:00 in the afternoon from their lead singer asking if I still knew the songs and if I could play a show with them later that night. I got up, loaded up the drums, and headed downtown for one of the most impromptu and fun shows I’ve ever played.  Playing complicated songs for the first time on stage at a show and nailing them close to perfect is like a roller coaster ride to me. I also really try to keep a foot in the door of all different genres. To me the language of drums is fairly the same from genre to genre. Spending a year and a half playing country music with Brandon Rhyder definitely made me a better drummer.

After playing aggressive rock music with Ember for 4 years, and playing whatever I wanted since they were my own drum parts, Brandon’s music was much slower and more dynamic, and I had to learn specific drum parts off the album for the first time since having to memorize marching band halftime shows in high school. I really learned tempo control and how to play delicately and hard and loud sometimes in the same song.  I heard Screamin K Phillips’ album from a bass player friend of mine and literally begged him to let me play with him and the band anytime I was available.  He eventually needed a drummer and the dates aligned and I was able to play with him and his All-Star band of amazing musicians and songwriters. K Phillips and Alpha Rev were similar type gigs, both not being really rock bands but both having lots of soul and improvisation and no definite set lists.  No click track live meant that the groove was specifically between me and the bass player.  Alpha Rev also had a keyboard player who really carried the tempo a lot.  Most people think the drummer leads the band but I follow the bass player when I play if there’s no click.  If I follow the bass player and the bass player follows me and everyone else in the band follows me then we’re all following each other in a weird way and that’s how groove happens. Playing with so many different artists from different genres made me a better drummer overall but also helped on my next gig with Evans Blue. Evans Blue was the heaviest band I had played with. Every night on tour was high energy and full of very energetic showmanship. I learned to have fun on stage more with Evans Blue than with any other band. After 50+ shows of 110% energy on stage with Evans Blue that just became the way I played. It molded me into a high energy rock drummer. When I came home from that tour and started playing for Granger Smith, I kept that same energy. A drummer’s energy quickly infects the rest of the band. Each genre and band I’ve played with has had a way of teaching me about the others.

EMURG: You recently got behind the kit to play for the fairly well known rock outfit, “Evans Blue”, in 2012. What was the experience like playing with the band and will there be any future involvement with the band?

Dusty: I remember listening to Evans Blue on the radio when I was in college. When I got asked to play with them it was really awesome to listen back through their albums and think “holy crap, I’m gonna play drums for Evans Blue”! I had to keep reminding myself how cool it was since I have a tendency to focus real hard on the gig and kind of forget to take a step back and enjoy it. The experience was amazing. It was my first fly out tour joining a band of people I had never met. They were kind of taking a gamble on me as well. They had seen my videos on YouTube and had some recommendations from a few mutual friends (again having a well updated website is a priceless resume) but they told me a couple days into rehearsing that they were a little paranoid about what they would do if I wasn’t prepared and flopped on the gig. Luckily, I was more than prepared. We had a week of rehearsals which after the first day became more hang out time and running through the set fine tuning things. Its always a relief when people come in prepared.

The Graveyard of Empires Tour was my longest continuous stretch on the road. I was gone for 7 weeks straight and then a 2 and a half week second run. It was really awesome being able to go to states I’d never been to and play packed shows with some of the craziest most hardcore rock music fans on earth. I literally can’t express how impressive and amazing the Evans Blue fans are. In a band who’s no stranger to lineup changes the fans were all very welcoming. I also got to play festivals with Eve 6, Switchfoot, Coheed and Cambria, Our Lady Peace, Offspring, Garbage, Flogging Molly, Awolnation, POD, and Korn. I got to hang out with Ray Luzier and all the members of Korn and POD which was awesome too.  The Evans Blue tour felt like my reward for a lifetime of uncertainty and 5 years of hard work. I still keep in touch with all the guys in the band and I hope they will call me to work with them on future albums and tours. My take on the whole thing is that I am just a huge Evans Blue fan who got lucky enough to become the drummer.

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EMURG: Who inspired you to play the drums? How did these influences push you to become the drummer you are today?

Dusty: I have many, many influences.  My earliest influence that I can remember is my mom waking me up when I was like 3 or 4 to watch Jacob Armen playing on the Johnny Carson show with the tonight show band.  I think Jacob was 8 years old at the time so seeing a kid on TV close to my age playing drums was definitely a huge inspiration.  After that my influences in high school were Tre Cool, Adrian Young, Abe Cunningham, Danny Carey, Carter Beauford, and Brad Wilk.  Later, I became influenced by Jeff Porcaro, Abe Laboriel Jr., Vinnie Colaiuta, Thomas Pridgen, Dave Elitch, Aaron Gillespie, Alex Rodriguez, and pretty much everyone else.  Sevendust as a whole has been a big influence on me, not just Morgan Rose.  I feel like all the music I listen to influences me in some way.  I feel like it’s important to be open minded as a drummer.

EMURG: What kit(s) are you currently using live and while recording? Why do you prefer this set over other brands?

Dusty: Currently on the road I play a Gretsch New Classic kit. I also have a Gretsch Renown Maple kit that I used with Evans Blue. The renown maple was perfect for Evans Blue, the drums sound big and huge like Dave Grohl Nirvana drums. The new classic kit has a little more control to it and less overtones that makes it more appropriate for country music, although Granger Smith shows have gotten so high energy that I think I may switch back to the Renown Maple. I’ve always played Gretsch since I started with Ember.  I bought my first Gretsch kit out of Musician’s Friend just because I thought it looked cool and I had played Gretsch guitars before that I really liked. I got an endorsement deal with them in 2009 and I’ve always been happy with them.  They have always believed in me and supported me like a rockstar from day 1. If I have a question about a drum I can call up the guy who makes them, if I need a drumset in Phoenix for a music video shoot, they’ll find one for me and have it sent out. If something breaks, they’ll overnight me a replacement part to the hotel I’m at the next day.  I also use all Sabian cymbals, Evans Drumheads, and Vic Firth sticks. Their support is priceless to my career.

EMURG: What are your views concerning the music industry in regards to musicians making a name for themselves? Is it a business worth getting into as a career? Why did you choose to become a musician?

Dusty: The music business looks very exciting and attractive from the outside. I have drummers all the time asking me for advice on how to make a name for themselves. The only thing I can tell them is to not give up and never stop. I’m still trying to make a name for myself and I’ll probably never stop.  An old friend once told me “If you can imagine yourself having any other career, then a career in music is not for you.”  I’ve survived and gotten to the level I’m at today simply because I still enjoyed my job even when I was making $50 a week and sleeping in my car in mall parking lots. Most musicians give up because they see their friends in other occupations succeeding at life and ‘surpassing’ them. Something inside me wouldn’t let me give up. I also had a family who supported me and never doubted me. I had played drums since I could walk so I’m sure my family would probably be worried if I WASN’T pursuing a music career. The thought of having a job I hated was scarier than being broke and sleeping in my car. That’s what kept me going.

The music industry today is becoming less about selling albums and more about touring, which is awesome from a musician’s standpoint.  I think the power is slowly shifting back into the hands of the artists/musicians.  Just like any job you have to put in the time at the bottom to work your way up to the top, the difference between a job as a musician and a day job is that there’s no minimum wage for a musician.  When you start at the bottom as a musician you start that the absolute rock bottom and you gotta enjoy it there or you’ll never have the patience to stick it out.  Progress up the music industry ladder happens gradually, so gradually that you don’t feel like you’re making any progress at times, then before you know it 3-4 years goes by and you look back and see that you have made some progress.  Then if you’re dedicated you think, “Imagine where I could be in 3-4 more years.” If the idea of ‘3-4 more years’ scares you, then you’re not cut out for a job as a musician because like I said, progress happens so gradually, and it’s a roller coaster too.  You’ll play awesome festivals and great venues with green rooms one week and the next week you’ll be right back in the dive bars and dirty clubs downtown.  You have to just enjoy it for what it is and know that the idea of “paying your dues” never ends.  You will always keep paying your dues in the music industry.  I like to imagine that the spirits of all dead rockstars are all testing us to make sure we’re always learning and humble and thankful to be lucky enough to have the talent let alone make a living playing music.

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EMURG:  What is the best piece of advice that you can give musicians who are trying to break into the music industry, especially drummers?

Dusty: Don’t give up. Make all the friends you can. Be artistically open minded. Don’t be one of those musicians who ‘only plays one type of music’. If I had never left Ember to play for a country band I would have never lasted long enough to have the opportunity to play for Evans Blue. Learn multiple instruments. I spent 4-5 years of my life before Ember as a bassist and a guitarist. I played with some awesome drummers and some horrible drummers. I think the most important thing for a drummer is to know how it feels to play with a drummer from the other side of the kit. I don’t consider myself a great guitarist but I do consider myself a decent bass player. I think this has made me always lock in with other bass players, which is one of the most important things in a drummer’s job. Also, it’s easy to look at bands on big stages and think they have it easy and think they didn’t work for it. You have to remember that the reason they make it look so easy is because they sucked it up and worked hard for who knows how many years.  Being a musician is a lifestyle.  If you adopt it as your lifestyle and learn to enjoy even the bad days, the spirit of rock and roll lives within you and only then will the Rock Gods bless you with success. That’s the way I look at it that keeps me encouraged and motivated.

EMURG: What is next for Dusty Saxton in the world of music?

Dusty: I will continue to destroy stages with Granger Smith this year in support of his new album. Granger loves high energy shows and is always encouraging us in the band to take our performance to the next level whether it’s firing CO2 cannons on stage, hanging upside down from the ceiling, or smashing guitars onstage. I want to bring the energy of rock drumming to the country music world. I grew up in the country so country music definitely feels like home, but I’ve decided that I’m going to rock as hard as I can in any band I’m playing in, it’s that fun loving Evans Blue rock and roll spirit coming out in me.

As part of the Granger shows I also have been getting really into electronic drums, integrating Ableton Live into my setup, using live effects on my drums, and I’m working on an EDM project where I’ll be doing the job of a DJ involving drums and triggers and MIDI controllers mounted in my kit. I think it would be really exciting and entertaining. I also have some rock albums in my sights this year that I hope to play on and hopefully some country sessions as well.  If nothing comes up I’ll create my own projects.  I’d love to do a clinic tour someday but the more I learn about drums the more I realize I don’t know, so it may be a while before I feel like I have enough knowledge to offer to do a clinic tour. I hope it works out in the future that I’m able to tour with other bands.  I’d love to tour with a pop R&B artist like Bruno Mars or Sade.  I’d also love to tour with a legit metal band.  I pretty much want to do it all, that’s my only downfall, because I can’t be two places at once.