Deer Park Avenue: An Interview with Stephanie Snyder

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The past couple years have been filled with much-deserved milestones for Deer Park Avenue, a talented rock duo comprised of sisters Stephanie and Sarah Snyder. They won the Hard Rock Cafe Battle of the Bands competition on the east coast and then travelled extensively in Europe, playing shows in many different countries. They attended the GRAMMYs® for the first time and only a few months later unveiled their debut self-titled album “Deer Park Avenue.” It is a collection of highly energetic and melodic songs that showcase the talents of both sisters, with Sarah’s versatile, driving guitar technique accompanied by Stephanie’s explosive and intricate drumming style. The sisters share vocals and lyrics, delivering memorable imagery with voices that span a sonic spectrum of smooth and heartfelt, to fierce and highly emotive. Dixon Drums got some time with Stephanie to get her perspective on Deer Park Avenue’s new release, and what it’s like playing drums on the road, in the studio, and beyond…

DIXON: You have a unique two-person band comprised of yourself and your sister, Sarah. What individual strengths do you both combine when creating new music?

SS: I love being part of a team with Sarah. There’s something special about making music with family. She is my favorite songwriter, singer, guitarist—she just has this amazing talent for drawing out melodies and creating arrangements, layering together all these unique sounds and styles into a complete, really rocking song. One of my favorite parts of songwriting is the lyrics, the freedom and power of words. I love laying them over a melody line, working with their rhythm—which is my other favorite thing about songwriting, creating the drum parts! With drums, there are so many options for creating whatever mood or atmosphere you want. It’s like painting with sounds.

As a singer, Sarah brings so much energy to the front of the song, and it’s really fun singing the backing vocals and harmonizing with her. We also have similar tastes in music, but different enough that we’re able to draw from a bigger pool of inspiration. I think we bring out the best in each other.

DIXON: When did you first start writing songs for this new collection?

SS: This album was really cool to put together. It had been a while since our last Deer Park Avenue release, Stop & Go, but we had continued writing songs since then. So this collection comes from that time, up until when we started recording, different years and perspectives, and it was amazing to see how much had changed in that time. Some of the songs on the album were started during one phase of life and finished years later, in a completely different mindset and circumstances. I think these songs changed and grew with us.

DIXON: This album has an excellent spectrum of moods, tones and pacing. Would you say there is a single element or theme that connects them or is each song contained?

SS: We realized when we were making the final cut of songs for this album that they told a story—our story. They were written during our travels, both as a touring band and in our personal lives. We wrote about what we saw on tour, people we met, ways we changed. In a way, each song represents a different chapter in our lives and the album is how they all worked together to make us who we are now, as a band and just as people. I think that truly represents who we are today—Deer Park Avenue.

DIXON: What did Deer Park Avenue go through in terms of funding for the project?

SS: We did our first crowd-funding campaign through PledgeMusic and loved it! We surpassed our goal over 200 percent! With PledgeMusic, fans go behind the scenes on the whole project from start to finish, and it was so cool to be able to share it with them and have so much great support and feedback along the way.

Deer Park Avenue | Photo by Rob Shanahan

DIXON: What is the lyrical process like for you and Sarah? Do you approach lyrics the same way or do you each have different methods?

SS: As a drummer, I often let the drums speak first! Sometimes I’ll have a groove in my head and let that tell me what kind of melody and words the song needs. Usually I’ll write lyrics based on what I’m feeling most in my life at the time and hope that other people can connect with that. I once heard that good songwriting takes those experiences everyone faces and expresses them in the words they wish they could find. That’s my aim in writing lyrics.

Sarah’s approach as a guitarist usually comes from the melodies, either coming together on guitar or piano. Both of us learned piano very early on, when we were four or five—sometimes I still write on piano too. Sarah usually creates these very hooky melodies and very strong guitar parts or chord progressions, and then the rest of the song builds itself from there.

Most times we both have running lists of lyrics and phrases and rhymes on our computers, cell phones, in notebooks. We try to have something on us at all times because inspiration usually strikes when it is least convenient!

DIXON: Can you choose a single lyrical phrase that you hope sticks with people after listening? What was its inspiration?

SS: Hard question! One that stuck with me in the writing process was a line from “I Know”: Fixers and breakers, Givers and takers, Heroes, destroyers, and cheap money-makers.

This has been our experience with people we’ve met in recent years, and especially as a band. We’ve met amazing people who have helped and supported us more than we ever thought possible, and others who have tried to break us. Some people seem to be born fixers, and then others break the things they touch, or try to take everything you have. There are breakers who become heroes, fallen heroes who become destroyers. It’s the human story. I think everyone crosses over into all of those categories at some point. We all have the power to help or to destroy, and we can all change.

DIXON: Tell us about anyone else involved in the production of Deer Park Avenue. What expertise did they bring to the table?

SS: We got to work with some incredible people on this album! We recorded and co-produced with Matt Bissonette, one of our musical heroes/mentors, who is currently touring with Elton John. He also played bass on all our tracks. He is really great to work with, and we have learned so much from him. We also got to have Gregg Bissonette play a killer solo on our track “Countdown.” We had some good friends in as well—Simon Huber on cello for “Hey Little Girl” and “Dark and Stormy Night”; Ian Rasmussen, a great guitarist and our touring bassist, on guitar solos for “I Know” and “Under My Skin”; and our friend Scott Prusko on some backing vocals for “These Days.” It really was a family and friends session!

For the mixing process we worked with Reto Peter, who was on the production team for Green Day’s American Idiot (one of our favorites!), and our mastering was done by Piper Payne from Coast Mastering, who let us sit in and watch some of the magic that goes on behind the scenes in making an album come to life.

DIXON: The production and recording on Deer Park Avenue is tremendous. How much time did you spend in the studio? What did you think of the recording process in terms of the hard work involved?

SS: Thank you! We actually spent about a week in the studio. Matt had a short break from tour, so we fit in a recording session! We had some very long days in the studio. Matt was incredible—Sarah and I would work until about 2:00 a.m., then come back the next day and Matt would say, “Check out this new bass part I added, what do you think?” and it would be amazing and we would wonder how on earth he had time to do that.

Since this was our second major recording, we were getting the hang of how things go in the studio, so it didn’t really feel like hard work. I think the hardest part for me is the playback when you hear something that doesn’t sound the way it did in your head, or even the way you thought it did when you were playing it! But you realize that the song takes on a life of its own in the studio. It’s never going to be exactly the way you thought it would, and I think that’s a good thing. You just have to play your heart out and let that passion come through in the final product.

That’s one of the things we enjoyed most about recording this album. We live tracked it—we wanted that energy in it, like at one of our shows. We wanted it to have a kind of live experience feel to it.

DIXON: Did you have to learn any new performance techniques as a drummer specifically for this recording? Did you learn any new recording techniques you think fellow musicians would find valuable?

SS: One of the most important things I’ve learned to pay attention to when recording actually isn’t technical—I eat! When you’re in the studio, giving it everything you’ve got for what could be several takes, all day, you need good fuel. On days like that, and on tour, I try to eat like an athlete: lean protein, good carbs, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and LOTS of water. That’s my big performance secret! We keep all kinds of healthy snacks on hand in the studio, because the last thing anyone needs is a cranky drummer!

One of my favorite technical recording tips is one I learned from Gregg. It’s the open/closed hi-hat technique he referred to as “pea-souping it!” He taught me to hit the open note in the middle of the hi-hat, halfway between the edge and the bell, with the shoulder of the stick, and that gives it this cool, crisp sound for recording. The other thing I’ve been working on is keeping a steady level on the snare drum, hitting the sweet spot every time. That kind of thing doesn’t matter as much during a show, where the mix is more forgiving and your visual energy on stage is more important, but those details really come through in recording.

DIXON: Drums are very front and center in this album and they sound wonderful. Describe the rig you worked with when recording and how you achieved such a high level of percussion sound, i.e. how was the rig miked, how many layers of percussion are involved in a song like “I Know” or “Countdown”?

SS: I recorded on Matt’s studio kit. It’s a simple four-piece configuration, same as I play on the road so I was really comfortable with it. The kick and snare were miked through a Vintech X73 mic pre (outside kick through a Mindprint mic pre), the hi-hats and toms through Ward Beck mic pres (Matt uses Sennheiser 421s on the toms), overheads through Vintech 473 mic pres, and room mics through Distressor Compressors.

The drums and percussion on most of the album, including on “I Know,” are very simple, pretty much just what I play on stage, with a layer of tambourine and/or shakers. “California” has a layered drum part on the breakdown, and “Countdown” has just one extra layer, Gregg’s solo. I laid down a background groove and he played his solo over it, like a double drum part—just this massive tidal wave of drums!

Overall we really wanted to recreate our live sound, the sound that we bring to the stage. We felt like we were really able to bring that live energy to the album. That’s what we loved about live tracking—it was so real, just us in the studio, just very rock and roll.

DIXON: What is a single “magic moment” that you can describe in the writing or recording process of this album?

Stephanie Snyder | Deer Park AvenueSS: We have so many stories behind the making of this album, it would take far too long to list them all, but one magic moment I remember is during “These Days.” This was such a personal song to us, and to me in particular, because I wrote it about someone I had known very well, but who lost himself to an addiction, and it had damaging effects on everyone around him. I just remember grooving to the song and looking across the room at Sarah and having this feeling of the song actually coming together on its own. In the studio you’ll fight and fight to get things right, but sometimes they just click, and when this song clicked, it was also this cathartic feeling of, you know what, everything is okay. All is well now. It’s amazing how music can change everything in a single instant.

There was another fun moment during our song “I Know.” It’s such an intense song, and we had done the live tracking and Sarah was dubbing vocals, and there is this fierce ending. And in the studio, sometimes you know when the track has been just right, and she had just finished the part that she basically screams at the end. And then there was this silence. Our friend Nate (who’s also a really great sound engineer in Colorado) was there for the session, and after this explosive ending to the song where Sarah’s screaming “give it back! give it back!” we’re all looking at each other like, that was it, that was the take. And he goes, “Here, you can have it!” and we just burst out laughing. Such a good way to break the intensity of the moment.

DIXON: Who are your musical heroes?

SS: So many! Gregg Bissonette and Matt Bissonette have been our musical heroes and mentors pretty much from the beginning, even before we officially started Deer Park Avenue. Gregg gave me my first drum lesson, and Matt was the first person who ever recorded and produced us. They are a huge part of why we do what we do.

Another is Jim Fielder, the bassist for Blood, Sweat & Tears. He was the music leader at our church in New York, where we first started playing in front of people. He taught us a lot about being a band, listening to each other, and playing for the song.

And Dave Grohl, from one of our favorite bands of all time, the Foo Fighters. He sings, plays, writes, tours…he does it all. And he does it without seeming to lose who he is, without changing for anyone who told him he had to for him to make it.

DIXON: Do you plan to tour?

SS: Yes! We have spent a lot of time touring Europe this past year and just finished our California tour for our album, including performance at the NAMM show and some shows on the West Coast. We have more shows planned in Europe and the US this year. Very excited! We’ll post all of our info on our website and our Facebook page.

Deer Park Avenue’s self titled album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and other online stores:

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