Massachusetts’ Drumming Punk Pioneers: From a Basement to Backing Rock’s Modern Drumming Icons, SJC Drums Keeps it Close to Home

by Victoria Wasylak • in
  • Features
  • November 2018
• Created: November 5, 2018

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When Mike Ciprari was 15 years old in 2000, he was a par for the course punk, dreaming of meeting Green Day’s Tré Cool. Now Tré Cool plays drums made by Ciprari’s company, SJC Drums. It’s amazing what some DIY elbow grease can do in a couple decades.

SJC Drums, founded in Dudley, Massachusetts by Ciprari and his brother Scott, started as an underground endeavor to get local bands the gear they needed – literally. Scott first set up shop in his grandmother’s basement to refurbish drums, initially fixing up a kit he had found in his cousins’ attic. In 2018, the biz has blossomed into a lucrative company that has a handful of Mike’s adolescent faves on board.

“I remember going to see Green Day when I was 15 and being a fan. Like, how cool would it be to meet Tré Cool?” Mike recalls. “And now he plays our drums. I remember getting my license and listening to Sum 41 while driving in my car. All things that I thought were so cool when I was a kid and starting this, we’re living that out now on a daily basis. I would have been stoked for myself, I think.”

In recent years especially, SJC’s artist roster has grown exponentially. Yet the pair (and their team of employees) are locked in to Worcester County in Massachusetts, churning out the goods locally, but keeping their market international.

A Punk Starting Point

Like most punk-based endeavors, SJC started with flyers – a lot of ‘em. Pre-social media, that’s how the word got out, Mike was the advocate and salesman while Scott did the handiwork.

“I think we had dial-up AOL back then, so it was really just flyering – [it was] super DIY, spreading flyers at high school,” Mike says. “Then when the internet became a little bit more of a thing, I would look at websites like PureVolume and stuff like that, or Myspace, and I’d find bands, hit them up, and promote what myself and my brother were doing and see if they’d be interested. We didn’t have quotas to hit, we didn’t have overhead, we didn’t have to worry about paying bills and things like that. If we got an order a month, we were happy.” At the time, the little project represented more of a music-related afterschool activity than any sort of entrepreneurial task for the brothers. Their main mission was to get drums in the hands of area bands that needed them rather than to make much of a profit; musicians often paid for parts, but not the labor. The Aquabats!, Strike Anywhere, and A Wilhelm Scream all were some of the first bands – and customers – for SJC.

“It was just a hobby. We were mainly refurbishing drums back then. My brother would take apart snare drums and stuff like that and refinish them and repaint them,” Mike notes. “My brother was really charging what the drum wrap cost. We had literally zero overhead at that point because it was in our grandmother’s basement and none of us were getting paid.”

It wasn’t until five years later when Mike hungered for something more, although he says the decision to dig deeper into the business was a smooth and natural one. And, fortunately, orders were coming in far more than just “once a month” at that point.

“As the years progressed and Myspace came to be, I started getting the itch to hit up bands and go after my favorite bands. Probably when I was 20, so five years later in 2005-2004, is when we started to hit the ground harder and run with it. We never really talked about it, it just happened super naturally and organically. The demand was just there.”

That demand, in part, spurred from a very special performance in 2006 from a somewhat unknown band called Panic! At the Disco. After bumping elbows with folks at Crush Management at local rock venue The Palladium, SJC was offered the chance to design and build some snappy drums for an onscreen performance for the new group.

“That was huge for us, and that all was just through networking,” Mike explains. “I had gone to a show at the Palladium in Worcester to go see the band called Midtown. The drummer’s name is Rob Hitt. He and I were pretty good friends and I liked that band a lot, so I wanted to make him a drum. At that show, Hidden in Plain View was there playing, and then I met ‘the Butcher,’ who was playing with The Academy Is…, and all the bands that night ended up getting SJC drums after that show, and Rob Hitt actually ended up working at Crush Management… so I just became friendly with all the people that worked there and Panic! was on Crush Management, so this guy named Scott Nagelberg hit me up and said, ‘We’ve got this band, Panic! At The Disco, and it’s gonna be huge… can you build them a kit?’ and we did. A year later, they just blew up.”

It was the Ludwig-Beatles phenomenon all over again.

“That was a huge look for us. They’re a super extravagant band, so when they sent me their press photos and album art, it was so fun to design drums that really pushed the limits,” Mike says. “After that happened, my phone was just blowing up with emails and people calling me, and I had to make a decision – stay on the road or focus on this company? It was massive for us.”

Mike, who had gone on tour with his band No Trigger after graduating high school, elected to take on the family business full time after the incident. Once he had chosen task managing over touring, the brothers buckled down and embraced the steadily increasing demand and attention.

More than ten years after Panic!’s fateful performance, SJC Drums is at their fourth factory. The newer facility offers a tremendous jump for the family affair – their previous building offered roughly 7,000 square feet, whereas the new digs stretch across 60,000 square feet.

“We’ve got some really exciting things that we’re going to be rolling out in 2019-2020 [and] we just needed more room for equipment,” Mike says. “The layout of it is awesome and it just allows us to grow in the future.”

SJC now has an office on the West Coast, but the main factory remains in old mill buildings in Southbridge, Massachusetts, in the same county where the entire operation began. The company’s artist roster may be dotted with A-list drummers, but their priorities are still tied to their home.

“We’ll backline shows at local cafes and jazz clubs, stuff like that. We’ll bring a drum set to let the drummers play, or we’ll let the venue hold the kit for a couple months to let the kids use it,” he adds. “That is something that is very special to me, and that will never go away.” Mike also noted that SJC is hoping to use their new space to help facilitate DIY shows at new factory – a fun and safe environment for potentially hosting battle of the bands-type events: “We’ve got a lot of local Massachusetts bands that are getting bigger. Four Years

Strong from Worcester was one the first bands we ever made drums for, and they were on the main stage at Warped Tour this year, they headlined shows all around the world. We’ll always support the local music scene, for sure.”

What’s “local” to the brothers remains vague. Given the close-knit (and otherwise small) aspect of New England, being located in Central Massachusetts means being a drumstick throw from a myriad of different musical communities – all of which SJC is still involved with today.

“We’re in such a great location, and that helped me hustle even more when I was a kid,” Mike adds. “[I could] literally go to a show in Boston, Providence, Worcester, Lowell, Albany, New York City – all within three hours. There were some nights when I was going to two or three shows in different cities a night, spreading the SJC name, and that helped.”

Drumming Up Anticipation

There’s a catch to starting with such DIY roots, though: the second you catch a whiff of mainstream success, there’s a word on everyone’s lips: sellout. Some folks are quick to call the company “cake decorators,” while others are content to just hate on the fact that the brothers actually graduated out of the grandmother’s basement.

“There are people out there that are negative online and think that we ‘sold out,’ but to me,

I can still go to sleep at night and feel fulfilled and good and positive about what we’re doing,” Mike says. “Our message is still the same. We’re building more drums, which to me is awesome, because that means we’re changing more kids’ lives, impacting more people to create music and be a part of our family the culture. There are going to be negative people all the time. I don’t know where it comes from, but there’s always going to be someone that has something negative to say.”

One particular source of contention has been that SJC doesn’t currently make their own drum shells, an issue that Mike says will be resolved in a few years. As of now, their acrylic drum shells are made nearby in Connecticut, and many of their raw parts facilities are located in New England as well.

“By 2020, we will be making our own drum shells. That’s one of the bigger, more exciting things we’re working on,” he explains. “We’re not doing it to shut the haters up, we’re doing it because we’re craftsmen.”

In general, Mike says the things have especially picked up since 2014-2015, and the timeline on their website tends to agree with him; from re-launching their SJC tour series kit, collaborating with Shepard Fairey of OBEY for Sum 41 drummer Frank Zummo, the last couple of years in particular have crammed in a lot of news for the company.

He explains: “The last three or four years have been very fast for us. We’ve got Sweetwater pushing us now, which is massive. We’ve got a great handful of dealers around the world that are stocking our drum sets.”

Just recently, SJC brought on new general manager John Shand, who previously worked as the international managing director of KMC Music, Inc. Also on deck for SJC this year was the “Loyal To The Craft” tour, which ran from July 30 to August 10 across the U.S. The tour partnered with Vans to take Sum 41’s Frank Zummo on the road with Mike to meet with drummers at free events that mixed elements of drum clinics, concerts, and Q&A panels. Each tour date boasted pop–up shops and chances for guests to chat and learn from both Mike and Zummo about drums and the music business. Looking at the dynamic of the event, it’s hard not to draw parallels between young Mike dreaming of Tré Cool and kids today meeting some of their musical heroes on the tour – Mike and Frank, specifically.

“This tour that we’re on – it’s so special,” he says. “We made a 13-year-old kid cry when he got to play drums with Frank. It’s so impactful and special. It’s something that’s never been done before in this way.”

And that’s exactly how SJC intends to keep things.

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