Sugarman’s Lesson Lounge: Dan Sugarman on teaching and collaborating remotely
Shreducator and lead guitarist of heavy metal quintet Ice Nine Kills discusses working remotely with multi-platinum, grammy nominated producer Matt Squire to bring their album-closing track Farewell II Flesh to life and how he continues to use LISTENTO to run virtual guitar lessons.
Can you give us an introduction to who you are and what you do?
Absolutely! My name’s Dan Sugarman, I’m 31 years old and I’ve been playing the guitar for probably about 17 years now; which is to say more than half of my life – damn! Since that obsession with guitars kicked off, I’ve had these goals to get into bands and do the touring thing.
In my senior year of high school, I got the opportunity to join an internationally touring band called As Blood Runs Black, leaving my band Fallen Figure behind. I wrote, recorded, and toured with ABRB for about eight years, which was my kickoff into the industry. From there, I had to create other streams of income for myself. Not because the band was in a negative spot, but because at that time, and especially in that scene, money wasn’t falling off of trees. I had to develop other income streams for myself based on things that I’ve been wanting to share with people. That was the beginning of me really caring about giving guitar lessons and other elements such as composition, songwriting, and producing – all so I could work with other musicians and artists.
My obsession with digging into the background of the process of making music continually leads me to new and cool opportunities.
Awesome! It sounds like a lot of the imagery/branding for your projects is centralised around iconic horror movies. Would you say that’s reflective of the band’s sound?
The old names for both of my old bands sound pretty horror-themed. Neither of the bands actually were, it was just super heavy and technical death metal – I guess looking back, you’d call it deathcore now. But Ice Nine Kills is unique in that we use that horror imagery in so many different ways.
This project has been about for about 20 years now, our vocalist has been doing this since he was 14! The band has evolved and changed a lot since then, and it’s become more concrete and solidified in its imagery, sound, and lyrics. Especially in the storyline that we used on the last record ‘The Silver Scream’. All of our imagery is indicative of what we do and every single one of our songs from ‘The Silver Scream’ onward is based on a different horror film. All of the music videos are super entrenched in the lore of whatever that particular film is about. This also bleeds into our live show, which comes together to create this really engaging, interactive show for the fans.
I would definitely say the imagery is indicative of our sound, but at the same time, we really hold fast to the notion of having huge, catchy melodic choruses inside of all of that super heavy stuff we love so much.
Your album ‘The Silver Scream II: Welcome to Horrorwood ’ was released in 2021. Could you tell us a little more about that record and how it came to be?
The pandemic was an interesting time. We were on tour with Papa Roach in Europe when the pandemic hit. We were finishing up the actual recording and writing for the first single on that record ‘Hip To Be Scared ‘ from our tour bus.
Was this a play on ‘Hip To Be Square’ by Huey Lewis?
Exactly, Huey Lewis actually had to listen to the song and sign off on it before we could release it! We paid homage to the synth breakdown that the song has. Huey Lewis is awesome.
That was the first song that we did, then the lockdowns hit. Our bass player at this time was living in Boston and I was living in Austin, Texas. We decided to move back to California with our girlfriends and got a place together, which was about 15 minutes away from our vocalist Spencer’s house. We spent like five days a week, six to ten hours a day in my studio or upstairs in Joe’s studio, just like working and hammering out the song ideas. Effectively, it was three dudes locked in a room trying to figure out if we should wear a mask or not. It was a super memorable writing experience looking back for sure.
It came down to Spencer having a really solid concept for what he wanted, and coming together to bring that to life. He works closely with a producer named Steve Sopchak on finalising lyrics. He also mixed the song we did for PUBG games series called Hunting Season. Steve is awesome. But yeah when you’re writing, you have no idea which songs are going to speak to the fans, so it’s such a fun thing to watch that unfold as the songs get released.
At what point did the process become remote?
We did the pre-production for the closing track on the album Farewell II Flesh completely remote. I believe it was the second or third idea we had for the record. Spencer had this rough GarageBand version of it that he’d put together. It had the intro and a core outline for what the song would eventually become. We wrote like 15 choruses for that song but we kept hitting walls. We tried out so many different ideas and then decided that we needed someone else to be that outside final filter to help us make the best chorus we could.
We contacted our buddy Matt Squire who’s a phenomenal producer! He’s got more credits than I can list, be sure to look him up. He was the one that told us to get LISTENTO. Once we were all set with LISTENTO, he would send us a link to show us the ideas he had on his side, we’d tweak that and then send him our LISTENTO streaming link and let him use Zoom’s remote screen control to work on the arrangement. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life. Watching someone else editing the MIDI on my computer remotely, and hearing exactly what I’m hearing in real-time. Without that, it would have been impossible because this was at the height of the pandemic.
Awesome! How would you compare that workflow to working in person?
Dude, I’ll say it like this. I could be just wearing a t-shirt right now and you wouldn’t know! It really comes down to the fact that Matt Squire could be making lunch for his kids and I could go for a run with my dog and we could come back and be in the mix within three minutes, you know? You could still be in your pyjamas eating a bowl of cereal and it wouldn’t matter.
I was able to manage my guitar lesson schedule around our sessions. The ability to manage day-to-day life around the sessions allowed the writing process to be much more organic and less stressful. That flexibility and vibe is definitely going to lend itself to better, and more fluid music.
You mentioned there about your remote guitar lessons, you’ve also done guest teaching on RiffHard. What was the inspiration behind starting that?
I actually started teaching guitar before I was even in my first band ironically. It was inspired by my first real guitar teacher. I was maybe like, three years into it and he said I was developing quickly, and that the best way to maintain that speed of growth is to teach what you’re learning. If you can teach and explain something simply and effectively, then you understand it inside and out.
At any point in your life, there’s always someone who’s like one step behind you. Who needs that help to get to where you are. Once I recognised that it wasn’t about how “good” I am, or needing to be impressive no matter what – that’s when it started to click for me as a teacher and student of the guitar.
My goal was to create a personal connection with whoever I was working with and figure out exactly what it was that was keeping them from getting to where they wanted to go. So yeah, the motivation for me getting into teaching was purely because I wanted to give back so that I could grow faster. It’s sort of like, giving in order to get, if that makes sense.
What’s your LISTENTO setup like for your teaching sessions?
There are a couple of ways that I use it, depending on what I’m teaching, as I also help my students with songwriting, production or just helping them figure out how to track themselves. A really cool thing is that a huge amount of my students have ended up getting LISTENTO subscriptions on their own, just because of how useful we’ve found it to be in our lessons. Just because it allows them to send me a link so I can hear the better quality version of their playing, which helps me give better notes and direction for them as a teacher.
With songwriting sessions, for example, the first session will be expanding on my students’ ideas and fleshing them out. Then, it would be me teaching them how to quickly get their ideas down into the DAW. We’ll then look to quickly expand upon their idea vertically (the layers of the part) before we go horizontally and into the structure of the song. I find that fully fleshing out the initial ideas in the front allows you to gain a different kind of momentum as you move forward. For any songwriting mentorship that I’m doing, my students are always going to have a LISTENTO link, so they can hear exactly what I’m hearing in my DAW, on my side of the screen. There is no discrepancy in quality, even if they’re thousands of miles away!
What would you say are the benefits of being able to teach in this way?
Not being forced to only teach in your area was a luxury that Skype and Zoom somewhat afforded. However, the kicker with them was that there were always audio quality issues. For instance, you’d be trying to explain a really intense arpeggio idea let’s say, but your mic is picking up sounds from around your room – and that’s just not helpful to hear during such a detailed type of lesson. Having that direct line of high-quality audio is super helpful. Even if it’s just a practising session with a student, I’ll still run my guitar through Logic and send a LISTENTO link.
It’s completely upped the fluidity and flow of how an online session can be. I’m not gonna lie, low-quality, online sessions with audio cutting out and glitches don’t excite you to come back. So this workflow gives you a better likelihood of retaining students and generating that mentality to do something great together.
Do your students often send a LISTENTO link back so you can hear them too?
Absolutely. So typically, the students that have LISTENTO are normally the ones that are working on their record with me or I’m helping them get deeper into the songwriting or composition game. I would not be surprised if sooner rather than later, the majority of my students are using it. Just because why am I hearing a terrible mic, that’s badly micing a terrible speaker, which is running a digital amp? It’s just like the sound is degraded three times over. So it’s definitely going to solve a lot of that miscommunication that can happen.
Finally, where’s the best place to go if people are interested in getting guitar lessons, and learning more about you?
I have a couple of different ways that I’m doing this, and one of them is leading into the parent education company that I’m starting called Slipstream. The idea of it is to have each teacher set up with their own lesson lounge; mine is Sugarman’s Lesson Lounge. Then inside each lesson lounge, the teachers will be developing their own communities and lesson content.
I currently have over 1000 students in my Lesson Lounge, and they’re constantly engaging and helping each other out. Besides blogs/vlogs, mini-lessons, Q+A sessions, and getting direct help from me on the things you’re struggling with, there’s a bunch of super fun interactive games that we do in The Lounge. One game we’ve got is Simon Shreds, where I’ll play a lick, talk about it, and teach you how to piece things together more efficiently and effectively. So it becomes this space where people are being led towards more challenging things, and sort of growing into themselves. It’s really just a long-time dream come true, to be able to connect with this many people, and it’s been an absolute blast to be testing so many ideas with such an awesome group of guitarists
If you want to check that out, head to dansugarman.com/lessonlounge. If you want more one-on-one-style, private lessons with me, on that same page you’ll see a button at the bottom for Skype Lessons. Once you’re there, you’ll see a cell phone number where you can text me to talk about what you’re looking for and if I’m the right teacher for you, and if so – we’ll get into it. I also have a bunch of tab books available on sugarmanshop.com for those of you who just want to dive in on your own.
If you’re looking to work with me directly on some music – head to dansugarman.com for info on producing, mixing, or having me do MIDI/drum programming, etc.