Today, I was lucky enough to get to chat with John Panza. I met John at last year’s Earthquaker Day celebration. We were both sponsors of the event and I was fortunate enough to be his neighbor under the sponsor’s tent. It was a lot of fun talking with him then, and just as much fun today. I want to thank John for his time today, and ask his forgiveness for my amateur ways. Be sure to check out his bands, Hiram-Maxim, Arms & Armour, and Terrycloth Mother, along with The Panza Foundation!
Jason – I met you last year at Earthquaker Day, where we wound up being neighbors in the sponsor tent. In chatting with you that fine August day, I learned that you were a drummer in Hiram-Maxim and Arms & Armor, an effects enthusiast, and an tremendous supporter of the musical arts by way of your foundation, The Panza Foundation. That’s a lot to unpack, so maybe the first question to come to mind would be what lead you to playing music?
John – I started playing drums when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I started playing in bands. …So that was my early 20s. Playing in bands gave me a chance to collaborate with others. Since drums are kind of a lonely instrument, that collaboration was necessary. In time it grew into a few very close relationships, like with Lauren Voss (who I played with in Chief Bromide then Blaka Watra and now Arms & Armour) and then my work with the Lottery League that eventually led to Hiram-Maxim and most recently Terrycloth Mother. It’s been 25 years of learning how to play well with others.
Jason – “Learning how to play well with others” sounds like a great title for a memoir! Ha! Was music a part of your household growing up?
John – My father played some drums as a kid, but he never really developed his skills there. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a bluegrass musician back in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He died in 1945. So there was certainly musical influences in the family, but I am the only person in my family to pursue music seriously.
That said, my parents were completely supportive of my drumming from day one. Noise was good.
Jason – How would you describe that first graduate school band?
John – That band was called Simoom. We ran from 1996 until 2001 or so. It was a three-piece that sometimes added a fourth member for fun. It was the mid 1990s, so the influences on it ranged from post-punk to noise rock to psychedelic. I think the best way of describing the music was loud and eclectic. I don’t think we were particularly good, but the folks at the Grog Shop and Euclid Tavern gave us lots of opportunities to open for nationals. I learned a lot from being in Simoom.
Jason – Nice! That’s a pretty serious commitment to your first band! I figured you’d say it was some cover band that did parties or something!
Did you do any touring, or were you content to play locally?
John – We just played locally between Cleveland and Kent. Near the end of Simoom’s run I was invited to join HILO, which was signed to Cleveland’s Cambodia Records, home of Craw, Keelhaul, and others. I took advantage of some downtime in Simoom and joined HILO. That was the beginning of a more serious commitment to playing music, especially recording. HILO disbanded a little while later, but I was lucky enough to maintain friendships with all of the members. I also eventually found my way to Chief Bromide, which ended up being the beginning of my relationship with Lauren. Meanwhile Johnathan Swafford from HILO eventually moved to NYC and formed Aqualamb Records, the label that Hiram-Maxim is on.
Jason – Unfortunately, I missed out on Simoom, HILO, and Chief Bromide. Speaking of Hiram-Maxim (who totally rules, if you haven’t listened to them, by-the-way), you mentioned that came out of a Lottery League assignment. The same, I believe, is true of Terrycloth Mother. How did you come to get involved with Lottery League?
John – I joined Chief Bromide the year after the first Lottery League. I didn’t participate in that first season. But to get into the second season, you had to have a recommendation. I got that from one of my Chief Bromide band mates. So I joined the second season, had a great time, and decided that I’d participate in the league from there on out. My first season I was in Melted Face Constitutional with Dave Cintron, Nick Traenkner, Jason Robinson, and Paul Bartholet. The next season was when Hiram-Maxim formed. Lisa, Dave, Fred, and I originally called the project Kill It With Fire, so that was Hiram-Maxim before it was Hiram-Maxim. My third season I was in Can’t. Won’t. Mustn’t. with Tommy Shaffner, Nick Wolff, and Joshua Nelson. This most recent season was when Terrycloth Mother formed with James Pequignot, Tebbs Karney, and Drew Maziasz. By the third time I participated, I had also become a sponsor of the league. Now my non-profit Panza Foundation is the financial agent for the league. I guess I went from knowing nothing about it to knowing a whole hell of a lot.
Jason – That’s awesome! I love how many heavy hitters you’ve been able to collaborate with as well – such a wide spectrum of creative folks! I often dreamed of getting an invite to Lottery League, as I’ve seen some friends do some really cool stuff as part of it. I like the concept of throwing people in a pressure cooker and seeing what happens, musically. It’s a brilliant idea.
…I was going to get to it in a moment, but can you describe the Panza Foundation to someone who is totally oblivious to what it does?
John – Here is my Panza Foundation elevator speech: Panza Foundation is a 501c3 family foundation based out of Cleveland. We provide monetary grants to underground, independent bands from Northern Ohio who are pursuing musical careers. To this end, our board chooses four bands per year and provide grants for purchase of everything from gear to recording time to touring essentials to representation to legal assistance. Whatever they need. We are in year six and have thus far sponsored twenty-three bands, a couple indie venues, and the Lottery League.
Jason – It’s such an amazing platform, double amazing to me in that you seek out the beneficiaries, instead of the typical “applicants approach” many other grant-based organizations seem to favor. When you are picking bands, what leads you to consider someone?
John – Yeah we raise funds from private donors and my wife and I contribute each year as well. As for our selection process, the board begins each year with a list of 15-20 bands we have seen and feel could be good choices. We then spend most of the year seeing those projects perform, learning about them from local promoters and club owners, interviewing previously sponsored bands who know the projects, etc. In the end we whittle the list down to six to eight and then vote. That gives us our four bands. We look for bands that play well, play well with others, and desire to play around the country.
Jason – In today’s climate where artists can have some pretty terrible skeletons in their closets, are you at all worried about rewarding someone that turns out to be … let’s just say, a “not-so-good-person?”
John – We do our research. Luckily today it’s pretty easy to learn all you need to know about folks before you sponsor them.
Jason – Excellent!
Do you foresee any major fallout to the Foundation for 2021 as a result of COVID19’s impact on everything this year?
John – The biggest disappointment this year has been two of our four current bands lost rather lengthy tours because of Covid. From our perspective, we are keeping on keeping on. Our fundraising numbers are still strong and the only weird thing might be that we have to do an online benefit this fall instead of a live concert like we usually do. But three of our four bands have already spent their grants and Lottery League is moving along with plans to do a 2021 season.
Jason – That’s great to hear!
Going back to something you mentioned earlier, I was just starting to go to shows around 1995 and had no idea places like the Euclid Tavern or the Grog Shop existed until a couple of years later (being a Portage County fella). I look back at all the shows I missed at those venues from bands I love to this day. Shows from bands like Hammerhead, Barkmarket, Cop Shoot Cop, etc. What was that scene like? Secondly, do you think there is a current scene in NEO that folks need to know about, so they don’t have to look back in regret (as I do when I look back on my teens)?
John – I started going to shows in the late 1980s and spent the better part of the 90s frequenting the Euclid Tavern, Grog Shop, Peabody’s, and other places. I was lucky enough to see some amazing shows and eventually open more than a few. For a kid from the west side, I spent an inordinately large amount of time on the east side of town. When I started playing out regularly, I was able to develop relationships both with locals and nationals that resulted in even more opportunities. As for a current local scene, it’s different these days since the market has spread further west and many of the musical types live in Lakewood instead of on the east side like in the 90s. My own take is that Cleveland has several mini-scenes that are well-supported and continues to own a general rejection of genre as the determining factor in bill assemblage. That is, everyone generally likes everyone else’s bands…or at least respects the efforts. The clubs and bars equally support diverse lineups. It’s a good scene.
Jason – I guess the main takeaway, is that folks still need to keep an ear to the street to seek out the good stuff, because even with social media, it’s not always easy to know what’s happening and where. Follow your favorite venues online and try to keep up!
I know we’re almost out of time, but I wanted to ask you about your fascination with the art of making sound – particularly with regards to how you got into effects and how they can impact percussion. It’s not something you see often, for someone to post a picture of a pedal board that they are running their kit through!
John – Being a drummer can be a lonely thing. So since collaboration is the heart of drumming, over time if you pay attention you can learn a lot from guitarists and bassists and synth players and such. Add to that lots and lots of time in the studio, and being a drummer can be more than just hitting acoustic drums. In my case, I took an interest in effects pedals and signal paths as they can be applied to drums. Yes, I can do drum programming and do so in Arms & Armour. But to work on developing pedal boards that can be applied to acoustic drums in a live setting using contact mics and other tools has been a really fun. The past five years, I’ve taken quite a deep dive into the concept. When this stupid Covid thing diminishes I look forward to testing out a few boards in a live setting.
Jason – I just got my first pair of contact mics! I can’t wait to keep experimenting with them. Everyone should have at least one!
John – There are some great effect pedal companies out there making pedals that play very well with drums.
Jason – Since I’ve already ran over, I’d like to open this up for you to promote anything you feel more folks should be aware of.
John – Folks interested in learning about Panza Foundation should check out www.panzafoundation.org. You can learn about our current and previous bands and all that we’re up to, including our recent assistance on the new Akron Music Awards. Search out the Lottery League via Google. It’s such a wild and wonderful regional art project. As for my own projects, check them out! Hiram-Maxim, Arms & Armour, and Terrycloth Mother.
Jason – Thank you so much for your time today, John!
John – Thanks!