Images courtesy of Two For The Show Media
By Andrew Daly
Through his father, the drums were ingrained in the musical soul of esoteric percussionist extraordinaire John Sparrow from a young age.
Be it through for the forum of jazz, polka, metal, or indie rock; Sparrow soaked in the gentle nuances of the drums. In honing his craft through careful observation, coupled with an inherent ability to channel surreal imagery through unique percussive forums. The result? As a member of the legendary outfit, the Violent Femmes, Sparrow finds himself one of the more unique skin thrashers in the game today.
There are times when Sparrow deploys items such as a Weber BBQ Grille to get his thunderous point across, and other, more traditional moments where the hyper-unique sticksman opts for a simple 4-piece kit. Regardless, if you’re lucky enough to be in the audience during an evening when Sparrow is on stage, you’re in for the thrill of your drum-related life.
Hopping back on the merry-go-round for another spin around the musical world, John Sparrow beamed in with VWMusic in collecting his origins with the drums, his father’s influence on his style, joining and recording with the Violent Femmes, as well as what lays in wait for him 2023.
What first sparked your interest in the drums?
My dad is a drummer, as you know. He used to have drum catalogs that he would look at and think about getting a new kit. I would look at those catalogs; the setups seemed so cool and shiny. However, I didn’t want to play drums until I was about 14. My dad had pulled his drum set out of the cases and started to restore them. My father wasn’t a sports guy or a handy person with tools. When he began to restore his drums, I looked at it as a way to acquire a skill from him or have something passed down to me. He was my first teacher and helped get me going.
Can you recount your first drum set?
Well, my first drum set was my father’s first drum set. When he was 16, he had the choice of a used car or a drum set as his birthday gift. He chose the drums, and that (many years later) became my first drum set.
Your father toured with polka legend Frankie Yankovic, right? How did that music, and your father specifically, influence you?
That music is fun, but it’s also very intricate. My father taught me how to pay attention to specific nuances that Polka music has. For example, Cleveland style, Milwaukee style, Pennsylvania style, etc. He was very smart about teaching me how the drums aren’t just about the drumming but how to support the song with the drumming. I would rip a super fast fill or crazy feel, and he would say, “That’s great… what song are you going to play that in?”
How did growing up in Milwaukee alter your perspective on life as it pertains to music?
Milwaukee is a very working-class town, first off. We take a lot of pride in being hard-working and honest people. When you are a musician, you need to serve the song and, as a drummer, support the other musicians. Growing up in Milwaukee with those values taught me always to work hard and make the music and other musicians the best it and they could be.
What was your first gig, and how did it shape you going forward?
My first gig, imagine this… was with an accordion player. We played a 4th of July backyard party. I had to set my drums up on the lawn (nightmare). The accordion player’s name is Amy Potthoff, and she would run the accordion through an effects rig and through a big amp. She is an amazing player, and we played all over Wisconsin for years through my teen years and into my 20s.
Images courtesy of Two For The Show Media
How did you first meet the lads in Violent Femmes leading up to your getting the gig?
I first met Victor [DeLorenzo]. He had left the band and released his solo album Pancake Day. I really liked his work with Violent Femmes as well as Pancake Day. He had his address inside the cassette jacket on his solo release, so I sent him a fan letter, and he responded. Victor would later produce an album for my rock group, The Danglers. I then would meet Brian [Ritchie] through the bass player in The Danglers, Dave Gelting. Dave told me Brian was looking for a drummer for his jazz trio Shakuhachi Club. Brian plays a ton of instruments and, in this case, plays a Japanese flute called a shakuhachi. I jammed with Dave and Brian, and I became the drummer in Brian’s band.
Was there an audition? If so, what songs did you play?
I was playing in the Shakuhachi Club with Brian, and he and I would hang out outside of band activity. He called me one afternoon and asked if I wanted to come to his place and hang out. When I got to his place, he pointed to a Schlagwerk bass cajon and asked if I could play it. I sat on it and started just goofing around on it. Then, he put on Violent Femmes’ first record and said, “Play to this.” Well, I knew that album from front to back since I was 14, so I had no problem playing to it accurately.
I was confused at this point but just kept playing. He turned the CD off, picked up his bass, and just started playing different feels, and I played along. After we finished, he handed me a piece of paper with three dates on it and the tour manager’s phone number. That was basically how that happened, and the next thing I knew, I was on a tour bus, meeting Gordon Gano. At this point, Victor returned to the band, and I played with Victor in the rhythm section.
Victor DeLorenzo has a unique style. What is your approach is covering the classic tracks while still adding your style and flair?
Victor has a jazz feel in his playing, and as a young drummer, I really could identify with that because I was raised on big band jazz by my dad, not just polka. I honor the parts Victor recorded, but I don’t copy the fills note for note. My style has swing, but I like to play on top of the beat and keep the energy high. My playing is a bit crisper and on top of the beat, as I mentioned. I don’t think I have altered the sound of the band, but it ultimately helps maintain the energy and excitement fans love from Violent Femmes.
Hotel Last Resort served as your first album on drums with Violent Femmes. Walk me through the experience and how you best affected the sessions.
It was easy because I had been playing with the band for years already. In the studio, we would listen to Gordon’s demos of a song, discuss what we would play, and then go into the tracking room and track. How I affected the sessions? I am a team player and have a strong work ethic… I brought that “Milwaukee upbringing” in, and we had a successful tracking experience.
Considering the band’s legacy, how meaningful is it for you to have been able to contribute?
My first rock concert was Violent Femmes. I was a fan before meeting and being in the band. Violent Femmes is an iconic band, and we never will go out of style. The first album is the anthem for every teenage generation and people who feel they don’t fit in. I would like to see Violent Femmes be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and continue to perform live. I mean, the Rolling Stones continue to bring their music to people; Violent Femmes can too. There are some artists that people need to continue to experience. Rolling Stones, Picasso, Debussy, Chopin, Matisse, etc. Good art withstands the test of time and is key to inspiring the next Violent Femmes or John Coltrane.
Images courtesy of Two For The Show Media/Image credit: Mike Kasprzak
As an active session musician, what are some of the most interesting and challenging sessions you’ve been a part of?
I have had so many challenging and interesting experiences. My favorite? I was hired by a progressive rock guitar player to record drums for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons they were redoing. I spent hours charting my parts for each track. Keep in mind these are long tracks. Then the time had come to record the tracks, which was another challenge. Fortunately, the producer Sam Malaj from Batcave studio here in Milwaukee was easy to work with. We worked fast with punches and worked together on feels for certain sections. It was a monumental challenge on every front, and it was successful. I’m very proud of that project.
Do your approach and setup change as you move across different genres? It seems as if you need to be a bit of a musical chameleon in many ways.
Absolutely. My approach and equipment change based on the musical requirements. With Violent Femmes, I don’t use a bass drum or cymbals. If I’m doing a jazz gig, showing up with a BBQ Weber grill won’t work.
At this point, what genre of music speaks to you most, and why?
I go through periods where I listen to music I grew up with. So, for a week or two, I might binge on ’80s hip-hop, metal, or soft rock (yacht rock). The next week it could be big band swing, Guns N’ Roses, or Pearl Jam (VS and Vitology). It’s cliche to hear, but I love all kinds of music.
What sort of drums, cymbals, hardware, and gear are you using these days, and why?
I use ANF Drums. The drums are a 4″ x18″ Gunshot snare, a 22″ Weber Kettle Grill, a 4″ x18″ floor tom in Whiskey Maple, Schlagwerk bass cajon, Remo Drumheads, and Innovative Percussion brushes and sticks. With other gigs, I use a standard four-piece kit with a hi-hat, ride, and crash cymbal. I’ll use more cymbals and an extra floor tom if the situation calls for it.
What’s next for the Violent Femmes and you in all lanes?
2023 marks the 40th Anniversary of Violent Femmes’ first record, so we will likely be doing some touring for that. I am doing a drum clinic in Woodstock, NY, with Rock Academy, which I’m very excited about. I am excited to get back into the education side of music again. I will be doing shows locally and regionally with other artists as well. The phone keeps ringing, and I’m always ready to jump into an additional adventure.
Images courtesy of Two For The Show Media