Interview by Jennifer Stoker
Promo photos by John Schulze
Jennifer: What first inspired you to become a drummer/ percussionist? Why is it so important to you?
John: First, I should mention that my dad is a drummer. Drums alone have been in my life far before I started to play them even. My father was a semi-professional drummer around town from the 1950′s until early 80′s when he quit playing live. He did a run with Polka great Frankie Yankovic in the 70′s and had a country band that opened for Loretta Lynn and Buck Owens. When I turned 14, I looked at all of that as a tradition to carry on or even as a trade passed on from him. As I became more involved with music and the instrument, I quickly realized it was something I wanted to do as a career and also because my “soul” needed it to be fulfilled.
Jennifer: What was your first drum kit? How many drum kits do you own? Which one is your most precious? Why?
John: Can you tell us about the Cajon box and other earlier setups and have you ever made an attempt to go back to a much earlier setup(Include pic if you have one..of the Cajon box and/or you playing it in the Violent Femmes)My dad first gave me a magazine and a pair of sticks and showed me how to do a drum roll (RRLLRRLL….). A week or two later he brought out his snare drum and I graduated from the magazine to the snare. Six weeks passed and he brought out his complete drum set, a 1954 red sparkle Slingerland Radio King. This was a gift for his 16th birthday in 1954 in which he could chose between a used car or a drum set…. We still have that and it is very much a prized or family heirloom.
I bought a drum set in 1994 right after graduating from high school which is a Slingerland Artist custom in WMP (20,12,14). That drum set has been with me through EVERYTHING and sounds AMAZING. It was on my first solo jazz recording, used to busk all over the country, and even for a special night when I played it on stage with Violent Femmes (It was too much for the Femmes sound, so I was back on cajon). I have always used the same setup drum-wise; bass drum, one rack, one or two floor toms, and a snare. As far as cymbals I have always used what the music called for, but the typical mainstay for me is my 22″ K Custom Medium Ride, 18K Crash Ride, 14″ K (top) A Bottom Hi-Hats, and occasionally a 20-22″ crash ride with rivets or a Swish Knocker. I currently own four sets including my father’s, but only use two of them for live and studio work.
The cajon is something that I was introduced to by Brian Ritchie, Violent Femmes founder and bass player. Before I was with the Femmes I was in Brian’s solo group, Shakuhachi Club MKE with Brian playing Shakuhachi (Japanese Flute) and Dave Gelting (The Danglers) on upright bass. One afternoon Brian asked me over to his place and when I arrived asked me to play it for him. He then turned on a CD of Violent Femmes first record and told me to play along, a few minutes later he told me that I was going on the road with Violent Femmes and to learn 25 years worth of songs. That is the short version of how started to play cajon and go on to tour the world. Initially I kept cracking the cajon that I was using, eventually I discovered Schlagwerk cajons made in Germany and fell in love with their products. I believe in ALL their products so much that I approached them about being an endorsee. Oddly enough they never responded back to me until one afternoon I called them from my hotel room in England. I mentioned that later that day I was playing in Hyde Park at the O2 Festival in front of thousands of people with their products…. Soon after I was an official endorsee and have had an incredible amount of support from the company to this very day.
John: My father was my first and only true “teacher”. My mom and dad would take me to jam sessions and make me ask to sit in with the band. Of coarse that alone can be intimidating to a 14 year old in a bar, but if and when they would let me sit in (usually the last set at 1am) that is when I REALLY learned. I learned what and what not to play and also learned things that I am only now starting to understand. Some of the older players were quite rude and mean, but it pushed me to play better so they would have nothing negative to say next time.
Jennifer: Who are your musical influences? What are your favorite techniques from your influences?
John: Musical Influences; Frankie Yankovic, Benny Goodman, The Platters, Jeff Buckley, King Crimson, Violent Femmes, Primus, Led Zeppelin, Slayer, Metallica (“…and Justice for All” and older), Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Dave Brubeck, Original Guns n’ Roses lineup, late 90′s Don Caballero, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Soft Rock, Yhaht Rock, John Coltrane, and Jerry Lee Lewis off the top of my head. As far as techniques, those are bands and song writers so it’s more about the music and how it touches me musically.
Jennifer: Do you play any other instruments besides drums? What do you when your not playing drums?
John: I don’t play any instruments beside drums and cajon, but piano interests me as something to learn in the future. Aside from music, I am married with four sons and try to maintain a normal family life in between all of this. My wife is actually a fantastic singer and songwriter in the dark melodic Rock vein. We plan on doing some recording together soon as well, but it’s tough to fit that in around all of this obviously.
Jennifer: As diverse of a drummer as you have become, are their still techniques other drummers employ that continue to elude your abilities? Or can you master just about anything you have seen or heard?
John: The term “master” is quite lofty, however adept would be more in my sights I guess. I could use more work on Reggae feels and Afro-Cuban styles for sure. For years I just wanted to stay busy and keep working and to do that I had to have a general feel for many styles, but Reggae and Afro-Cuban never were two of them. As far as my own musical expression I have always wanted to take all my various knowledge and make one unique blend of them all. I am fortunate that playing in The Danglers for 15 years Dave and Jason have shared that same goal so I have had an outlet for that.
Jennifer: Who do you think is worlds greatest drummer? Most underrated? Why?
John: I really don’t think there is a drummer who is the greatest “everything” drummer. Technically Buddy Rich is yet to be challenged in my opinion, but in other aspects of drumming I think there are many “greatest”…. My friend Bones Broderick who played drums with a band called The Tossers is quite underrated I think. He claims to not be advanced or good even, but I have been more inspired and learned more from him than he can imagine. Another underrated or unsung hero is Matt Johnson who played with Jeff Buckley and as of late Duncan Sheik. As I think about it more, these are drummers who make the music they play more MUSICAL and don’t showcase their drumming.
Jennifer: What are your Live and Studio credits, films you have been in, awards and/or titles you have been given, and press you have received?
John: “Experimenting with sound like this is fun for any drummer to try every so often; Sparrow makes an art of it” (Modern Drummer Magazine)
“Sparrow shows a John Bonham Intensity that is tempered with a Buddy Rich precision.” (Lane Klozier – Maximum Ink)
—-LIVE/STUDIO CREDITS—- The Danglers, Violent Femmes, Dresden Dolls, Steve MacKay (Iggy Pop and the Stooges), Dick Parry (Pink Floyd), John Curley (Afghan Wigs), The Tossers, Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), Jimmy Johnson (Otis Rush, Blues Legend), Joe Puerta (Bruce Hornsby and The Range, Ambrosia), Sam Llanas (BoDeans), Kevin Kinney (Drivin and Cryin), Frank Catalano Band (Columbia/Savoy)
—-ARTICLES WRITTEN/FILM APPEARANCES—-”Drum set in a Box” – (Article Author Modern Drummer Magazine July 2007)”Los Caminos del Cajon“- (Cajon Documentary DVD)
I am currently endorsed by Schlagwerk Percussion using their Bass Cajon. I have am very interested in a drum maker near me in Milwaukee called Rat Rod Drums. They make drums out of bamboo and strive to reduce the carbon footprint. Paul also has a fantastic attitude about the character of the company and approach to drummers. I hope to team up with Rat Rod Drums and be a part of the family of drummers playing their amazing instruments.
Jennifer: Was the Violent Femmes your first break in terms of big time success? Are their any legendary producers, or anyone in the music business that can vouch for your ability?
John: Yes, Violent Femmes took me from traveling in a van and sleeping on floors to tour buses, first class flying, and luxurious hotels. Any of the people that I have performed and/or recorded with can attest to the quality of my abilities.
Jennifer: What was your first important live concert and the first time recording in a music studio like? Tell us about how you feel about touring and what was your proudest moment on stage?
John: The first live concert I ever seen was Violent Femmes, so you can imagine the mind trip it was that first gig with them 13 years later. My first time in a recording studio was when I recorded straight ahead jazz CD with my own Quintet. I didn’t have studio jitters or nervousness though. I had been playing gigs for many years at that point and was comfortable with the material. I went in and played the songs without any second takes, all keepers in and out. The second time, I was comfortable with the material but the producer didn’t like my parts and asked me to change them on the spot. At that point I wasn’t experienced enough to just change the parts and handle the rejection. I was fired from that session and replaced by local veteran studio musicians.
Jennifer: You have played with some varied artists throughout your career so far, which collaboration do you really get a buzz out of?
John: First and foremost The Danglers. That band is everything I am at the moment and was in the past. There is no leader and I am a founding member, so I wrote the rules for the drumming….MY RULES? Outside of The Danglers, I really get a great buzz out of playing with Brian Ritchie (Violent Femmes bass player) and Dave Gelting (The Danglers) in Shakuhachi Club MKE. Brian’s playing is EXACTLY what I connect with musically other than with The Danglers.
John: You either love The Danglers or don’t. Those who don’t like it, will express a true sense of respect for the group, but just don’t care for it. Violin, upright bass, and drums what comes to mind when you hear that? Most think bluegrass, but it’s more of a King Crimson meets Thin Lizzy. I have tried for 15 years to explain or describe the band and get stumped. We like to leave it up to the listener to decide. We have been at the brink of being signed many times, but it just seems to lack something that labels want or are looking for, but can never quite say.
Before The Danglers I prided myself on being a flexible sideman to anyone who would call on me. I did always want my own band, but the right people AND players didn’t present themselves right away. I was doing ballroom dance music, polkas, 50′s and 60′s rock, country, jazz, metal, etc. until Jason and Dave came together in 1997 and we all decided to start The Danglers.
Currently,I am preparing for a two day jaunt in September with Steve Mackay (sax player from Iggy Pop and the Stooges) in support of his “North Beach Jazz” release on Aftermusic Recordings. Steve is a member of the Violent Femmes, Horns of Dilemma and I met him while touring with the band. He is a very kind and sweet person as well as a legend in his own right. Two days before I do the gigs with Steve, I will be hosting a drum tuning clinic at Brass Bell Music here in Wisconsin where I teach. The weekend after the shows with Steve I will be on a judging panel for the Roland V-Drum drum solo contest. Those are my upcoming “live” engagements.
I am putting finishing touches on a release for Aftermusic Recordings with Darren Brown (Boy Dirt Car) which goes by the name KRAMPUSO vs. Wroblewskiego. The title of the release is yet to be determined, but will be a digital release initially with a shor t run CD version too. I just recorded a significant amount of material with Brian Ritchie (Violent Femmes) and his son Silas for Silas’ next release. Shakuhachi Club MKE has enough material for another release as well, so I hope to get that out in near future. I am slowly tracking drums via file sharing with great musicians Wolfgang Merx aka Fripptastic from Germany and Rhys Anslow from Wales, and eventually other players who have expressed interest, but are waiting for breaks in their own schedules.
Jennifer: What is the greatest thing about working in the music industry? What would you change if you had the opportunity? How has the industry changed throughout your years as a musician?
John: The great thing about working in the music industry is being able use music to pay my bills. Honestly, if anything changed about the music business it wouldn’t be what it is (good or bad). Since I have been active as a musician the cassette tape has gone from being the preferred media to outdated and now considered “campy”. Musicians had more opportunity to generate income from physical music sales and there was no internet as we know it today. If you wanted to book a tour or show outside of your area you had to send an actual bubble mailer with your glossy photo, music cassette or tape, and press page. Once you would send out your package, you had to call the booking agent and sell them on the group. There was much more time and money invested in the process of booking back then, now it’s cheaper and easier but harder to make the money back.
Jennifer: In order of importance, what would someone interested in becoming a drummer be practicing?
John: How much playing did it take to get to the level you are at today?Well, I think it depends on what the individual’s goals are. No matter what goals a drummer has, the common goal we all share is having good tempo and sense of rhythm. I think that even an experimental or Free Jazz drummer has to understand tempo and rhythm in order to understand how to deconstruct it. It took me far longer than it should have to get where I am today and not because of the amount of practicing I did or didn’t do. I was stubborn and purposely ignored many fundamental techniques that would have helped me get to where I am today quicker. I was intimidated by many concepts that seemed too hard or challenging, so I avoided them. Later I would find out that had I put the time in overcoming those intimidation’s and challenges I would be further ahead.
Jennifer: How often do you practice and for how long? Is it simply just ‘warm up’ and go or do you warm up and move on to something else?
John: My practice routine depends on what I am working on. If I am doing my personal practice routine just keeping my fundamentals “tuned up”, that usually is about 20-30mins. If I am working on a new concept or learning a new idea then it is usually another half hour added to the regular routine.
If I am learning music for an artist who has hired me or a recording session it can range from 1-6 hours a day. That is physical practice that I am referring to, I consider listening to the music over and over, casually, or transcribing a form as practice as well which can be 5-10 hours a day even.
Jennifer: What are some tips, for other drummers, to improve the hand technique and feet technique? How about to improve and gain speed on a drum kit?
John: I suggest other drummer study other advanced players who have good hand/feet technique. Copy them, research them and what they have shared i interviews or master classes. See a local instructor and see what they can offer you to improve in these areas. Most of my students can do what they set out to do, but fatigue quickly or end up with injury. It’s not always what you are doing, but HOW you are doing it that needs work. To improve speed in general, set up a routine just as you would a weight lifting routine. Start easy and work up gradually. Use a metronome and learn how to play everything at a slow speed not just fast. Get an instructor that can teach you HOW to play fast the right way. There is a natural instinct to play hard and loud when speed is required and that is opposite of what you should shoot for. Years ago I saw Dave Lombardo from Slayer live and he was play double bass at break neck speeds. One thing I did realize was how light he hit the drums and played the pedals yet it still sounded like thunder. Inexperienced drummers don’t realize how much work is done with microphones, PA, and even studio effects. Let it be known, I still let the moment get a hold of me and let it rip on occasion…. I’m not perfect.
Jennifer: Tell us about your latest album and what people can expect from the “Danglers”.
John: As far as The Danglers recent releases we put out a couple of singles for free viewing and download on Reverbnation and Youtube and have two unreleased CDs that are “in the can”. The Danglers are on hiatus currently, each of the members is doing other things musically. Jason has his own band Luvahl and that is doing well and keeps him busy. I am collaborating, teaching, doing clinics, writing, and “soul searching” about what I want to do next with music. I would prefer to be in a steady project, maybe hit the road with another high profile artist, but that is in hands of the universe. I have already toured the world, met and played with legends and some of my idols, so at this point I really want to enjoy what I am doing. I prefer to make music that is dangerous or adventurous regardless of the genre, I think the goal musically should be to take it somewhere new.
Jennifer: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
John: All my social media sites:
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/johnsparrowdrummer
By Jennifer Stoker (@The_MusicMuse)