How a search for a throw-out drum set reconnected me with a past life of religion, poverty, and teenage antics.
In this series…
- Part 1 – Diving Into Hybrid Acoustic Electronic Drums
- Part 2 – The Perfect Drums (For Me and Probably Nobody Else)
- Part 3 – Making Low Volume Drums
I got serious about music about the same time my parents split up, and that probably wasn’t a coincidence. Starting in fifth grade, students at my elementary school had the option to pick an instrument (they had to provide it) and bring it to the gymnasium several times each week to receive instruction and make horrible, horrible music together. I don’t remember what class we got out of to do this. Based on my knowledge gaps here in adulthood, I would guess it was Geography.
My mother told me unequivocally that I was “going” to participate in music lessons. We went back and forth some about which instrument. She’d been a church pianist playing mid-century Pentecostal hymns almost exclusively to the point that I wasn’t sure what else pianos could play. I wanted no part of it. Somehow we agreed on the saxophone–an idea that also did not excite me in any way. When my mother struck up a conversation with the director, he turned to me and said, “Oh great. Are you going to join us for Band this year?”
“What are you going to play?”
I don’t know what possessed me to say it. Possibly just the realization that it was possible. I’d already been bullied enough. If I had to participate, I needed a transferrable skill. Instead of deciding to either support me or say “that’s actually not what we agreed on,” my mother let it happen and then complained about it for years and years.
Facilitating my activities and then torturing me about them was a bit of a theme for my family. My grandpa (with whom I had a great relationship) told me several times, “you know, Toddy, quite a few Christians believe that drums are Satanic” which is absolutely true. Later he gave me Buddy Rich’s album, The Roar of ’74 out of his own collection, which sparked an interest in jazz that shaped my trajectory a lot. My family played a recording for him later that won me a solo award (I don’t condone competitive jazz), and he said “Well, you’re as good as you’re going to get without a joint hanging out of your mouth.” I never really figured out whether he meant “proceed” or “stop there.” My mother threw the saxophone thing in my adolescent face early and often, but before classes started, she showed up after work one day with a wood-shell CB 700 snare drum with a shiny black wrap.
I’m able to find a CB catalogue from 1982 heralding the arrival of all-metal snare drums which seems to suggest my wooden shell model may have even dated back to the 70s. To our broke asses, it was beautiful.
CB, as it turned out, was the go-to brand for affordable starter drums for three full decades starting in the 1970s. If you were short on cash or didn’t know what you were doing but still wanted to hit some drums, this was the line for you. At his last performance in Chile before his untimely death in 2022, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins (and/or, maybe Dave) scribbled “CB 700” on the kick drum head before the concert, setting drum forums and comment sections around the internet ablaze. If you knew, you knew.
It was weird to me that drummers would need to bring a snare drum from home for school band at all, even at early lessons age. Concert percussion involves a wide variety of instruments including snares and full drum kits, keyboard instruments, timpani, wood blocks, and many more. In one of my favorite concerts growing up, I played a rusted brake drum from a junk yard with a hammer. If we’re not taking a concert bass drum or a rusty hubcap on the bus with us, go ahead and provide a 14″ snare drum for us as well. I’d discover in a couple of years that the junior high band had a sort of “no drummer left behind” policy. The director would assign all the rhythmic odds and ends when introducing a new piece, and occasionally, everyone who didn’t play something else would play a snare drum. In high school, concerts involved a row of chairs forming some semblance of a sit-out bench, and you could expect to occasionally ride it.
Music lessons grabbed me early, and I stuck with them as I moved on to junior high school. Here, kids from all the area elementary schools fed into a larger, more competitive band. This is where we were introduced to the system of first chair, second chair, and so on, long before most kids were ready to blend artistic expression and academic competition. Feelings got hurt, and parents got mad. To be fair, the system works. It brought out the best in those of us who stuck with it, and we learned a ton.
Meanwhile at home, my mother was getting antsy for me to use these gifts for The Lord. She committed to saving up to find a full drum kit that I could practice on for school and eventually church. This was a big deal. Just a couple of years into the broken home life, we were still bouncing around low-rent apartments and occasionally falling back completely on my maternal grandparents for shelter and food. I was still a bit too young to recognize the circumstances and volunteer that, y’know what, maybe it’s not the right time for major musical instrument purchases. She insisted that I have this opportunity, and for that, I have to give her credit.
CB was finally on the decline, and there was a new low-cost sheriff in town. America was still on the verge of its awakening about not giving the government interest-free personal loans, and the average citizen (mother included) still celebrated giant tax refunds made up of their own money. It was probably tax season during my seventh grade year that we wandered into Swing City in my hometown and, past all the respectable brands with scary price tags, a modest kit made up of nice-looking drums sat in the corner, surrounded by just the worst cymbals and hardware you could ever imagine. This was Percussion Plus.
There was nothing left to think about, other than which color I wanted (black). The new set cost less than a used set from more popular brands. My mom paid, and I think we probably stuffed the boxes into the back of my grandpa’s Ford Escort station wagon. Still bouncing around on the housing front, I set up the kit in the middle of a small spare bedroom at my grandparents’ house.
Having a full set to play on changed my life. It had the intended benefit of facilitating practice for school band, but it also gave me my first real opportunity to explore music for myself, unguided. I played along with CDs and tried to figure out what made the music on different radio stations tick. I got a taste of what creative collaboration was like on a more personal level outside of school band. My mom convinced me to accompany her at a couple of small churches, and I was surprised at how we could each be proficient at our instruments but still fail to play well together. It was a lot like the difficulties we had in conversation: not enough listening, too little trust, and rarely a consensus on when to quit. Not long after, I started tinkering with friends who were on their own journeys with other instruments.
Through one of my childhood churches, we met a local teacher who my mother got along with well. She had a son my age doing homeschooling, and we also got along famously. This started through a mutual love of video games and the Nickelodeon show KaBlam! which he and his dad recorded on the VCR each week. When I started on drums, he started on guitar. Around the time I moved on from junior high to high school–okay, from summer school 8th grade History to high school–my friend gave me a mix CD of some of his favorite metal songs and we scheduled our first jam session. The venue for this first-timer metal band of young teenagers? My grandparents’ house.
I’ll never forget coming up the stairs from the basement to the kitchen after hours of the most insane clanging of instruments since the one they say brought down the walls of Jericho and finding my grandpa sitting at the table with the biggest smile on his face.
“You guys sound great, Toddy.”
I pray The Lord forgave the lie. It was no less entertaining when my friend’s mom was our substitute math teacher one day and told everyone she’d listened to our “demo tape” and that I sounded just like Lars.
A guy I didn’t really know showed up at one of our little practices and blurted out of nowhere that I was really more of a “punk drummer”–he swore he meant that in a nice way, but I’m not so sure–and the band ended up taking off with a drummer buddy I mentioned in the last post who I annually rode with to Guitar Center sales back in the day. Honestly, they were amazing together. I chalked the whole thing up to experience.
As I gained ability on the drums, I got that creeping urge drummers get to expand and improve their drum set. I’ve looked back at this recently and learned that many drummers over the years have tried Percussion Plus drums and agreed with me: the drums themselves are actually phenomenal for the cost, and you can make them sound even better with the right setup. The hardware and cymbals are absolute garbage. The problem is that outfitting the set with good hardware and cymbals would cost more than the orignal set itself.
My mother, still wanting me to perform at churches of her choosing, offered an intriguing deal: if I would keep playing for the church we were attending at that time, she would buy me another Percussion Plus set. I could leave a set at the church, and move the extra cymbals around however I chose. The quality wouldn’t improve, but the quantity would double. This was actually nonsensical and would leave me with more cymbals that sounded identical to the first set, which sounded bad, but it was this or nothing. Soon, I had an identical Percussion Plus set in white.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I did once or twice set these up together as an old-school, 2-kick-drum Frankenstein situation. It was an unusual thrill for a destitute child such as myself.
The resale value of these drums was nonexistent. After a couple of years of two sets, I wanted to try selling the dedicated church set to see if I could replace it with even a modest set of pre-owned (OLD) cymbals of respectable quality. I remember Swing City pretty well saying “definitely not” over the phone. Another local shop, B & G, said some version of “Sure. Pack them up and bring them in.” I should have asked questions because, when my mom and I got there, he walked us over to what looked like more abandoned Percussion Plus hardware and cymbals. No brand name at all, barely standing. We politely let him know this wasn’t helpful and turned to leave. He followed us out of the store shouting at us about what he had tried to explain on the phone. This memory is still vivid in my mind because of how bizarre the whole thing was.
In the end, I think we went ahead and sold the drums to Swing City and just took the cash. I don’t remember which one of us took the cash, specifically, but it probably wasn’t me.
The second half of high school is much different from the first half if you’re lucky enough to drive. I think my mother wanted me both working and out of the house, so another tax refund splurge went toward a used Ford Probe.
Like most teenagers, driving allowed me to take some control of my life for the first time. I would argue I needed that more than a lot of kids. I started working awful part time jobs immediately (kicking in on bills very shortly thereafter) and spent the rest of my time with friends, trying to forget the rest of my situation existed. Surprisingly, this led me to yet another church.
At this point in life, I’d probably been taken to ten different churches on a regular basis. They started somewhat traditional and became increasingly “charismatic” (this is the screaming, thrashing, speaking in tongues stuff you see on TV) so while I’d been taught a set of core beliefs as a child that I was relatively comfortable with, I had no idea how believers were really meant to practice and act on those beliefs, because I was pretty sure half the churches I’d already been to would probably tell you the people at the other half were going to Hell.
To be honest, I visited a youth group where several of my friends were attending because it was better than going home. When I got there, I found it a refreshing change from most of the churches I’d been to. These people (the teens and the adults) shared those core beliefs, and they were genuinely happy to be together. They weren’t there to raise more funds for the church, they weren’t obsessing about the next trip to Mexico to spread their beliefs, they were going to talk, play music, and goof off a little bit. I appreciated that.
But musicians aren’t able to stay off stage long at a church. Their music team was led by a guy I’d met previously through school band. He played drums for a short time and moved on for sports. I’d always enjoyed his sense of humor, and we’d seemed to get along well. When he wanted to start playing together, at church and elsewhere, I was happy to.
When a bassist from another nearby church hung out and jammed a bit with us, we started to think we were on to something. Depending on the time and location, other friends occasionally joined us as well. The guys enjoyed a wide variety of music like I did. We were all familiar with some of the popular Christian music of the time including the somewhat quietly religious acts of the time like MxPx or pretty much the entire roster of the Tooth & Nail label, but we’d also wink and nod at one another and break into a radio hit from Green Day, Blink 182, or even Limp Bizkit on occasion. We were at that pivotal age, getting out from under the constant supervision of our parents and figuring out who we were as people. It was nice that we were able to do some of that together.
When you have a Christian band made up of young people who can actually play, the whole community kind of bends over backwards for you. It did not take long before we were invited to play concerts and events all over Southern Illinois. We occasionally even got paid. I ran a nonsensical website for the group on a free webhost that somehow still partially exists, though I no longer have any idea how to access the backend. My mother had moved me and my sister into a very modest house across town from my grandparents. My bedroom became an office, music lounge, and memorabilia hub. I hung up a torn snare head that I’d accidentally punched a rim during a concert and bled on. Every time we played somewhere new I’d hang up a photo and the name of the city. Soon the photos reached across the wall. We recorded a very rough CD in the sanctuary of the church we started at together. People bought them at concerts, and occasionally they tell me they still have them today.
Our high school was never at a loss for great musicians–REM’s Michael Stipe attended there closer to when my father-in-law was a student–so we were flattered when we were selected to perform during our senior year talent show. It was our biggest performance and, since the audience was everyone we’d gone to high school with and many people we’d met in grade school, it meant the most to us.
It also put us into a tricky situation.
To make it work, we actually needed a lot of equipment we didn’t have. Namely, we needed a full PA system that, for whatever reason, the high school couldn’t provide. The church where we got started and recorded at agreed to put their equipment in the hands of our guitarist because he was such a loyal team member there and because we were going to be playing Bible-inspired music for a couple thousand students.
The only problem was we had decided privately we were not quite going to do that.
I think we had some concerns about getting Christian music through the audition process, and by this time we were teenagers with a little taste of the rockstar life (very little) and we really wanted to do this show. Later we’d kind of collectively shrug and strongly suggest this was a last minute decision, but somewhere I’m pretty sure there exists an audition video tape of us doing Basket Case by Green Day. I remember this creating a lot of excitement at the auditions which made me think we might actually have a chance of blowing the roof off a little bit at the show.
We pretty much did. I hate to have any peak memories in high school, but I’ve had the opportunity to do some pretty cool things with music, and few of them compare with a down-on-his-luck kid (by then dealing with no electricity and an impending foreclosure at that new home) getting to conquer the high school experience, if only for an afternoon. We got that cheap “I know that song!” crowd pop. Our guitarist was also an established basketball player at this point and had no shortage of support all his own. I was able to provide loud smashing sounds. We couldn’t lose.
The performance went so well, the notoriously cool teacher in charge of it asked why we didn’t do a second song a bit later to close out the event. Because we’d already flown this close to the sun, we chose Dammit by Blink-182. I’m not sure we had ever even played this song together. That didn’t stop us. As soon as that iconic guitar intro started, the place lit up and stayed that way. The crowd sang the lyrics (yes, all of them). It felt like an out-of-body experience, start to finish.
The blowback from the church was fair. The youth leader came to the guitarist later with hurt in his eyes, lyrics to Basket Case at the ready. “I trust you and this is what I get? ‘Whore’ and ‘sex?'” It’s probably just as well that he hadn’t looked up Dammit.
He said he thought we were going to play Relient K songs, and that they could play circles around Green Day and those other bands any day of the week. This was a popular Christian position at the time that I don’t think I agree with, but is still occasionally debated today.
Our guitarist’s mom briefly approached me about it, but perfectly pleasantly. I could tell she was enjoying the whole thing.
Even thinking back on this as an adult and a parent, I’m not convinced it was the worst thing that the student body saw a few products of organized religion being arguably cool for a minute.
My Percussion Plus set continued to serve me well until a Battle of the Bands at that very high school, hosted by Scott Randall, a faculty teacher but also a local music legend as the vocalist for Fragile Porcelain Mice. I can’t actually remember if this show was with my Christian punk buddies or the secular experimental funk rock situation I joined after. I do vividly remember a couple of things about that night. First, I recall the 25+ adult singer for one of the competing bands in a seemingly altered state threatening to “fuck us up” if we didn’t agree his drummer was the best drummer there. Thankfully he was having trouble focusing on us because I don’t think I could have forced myself to say it. Also, as I pulled my mom’s van down the truck ramp outside the cafeteria to unload, I hit the button to open the sliding side door and my bass drum rolled out of the van, cracking the shell from one edge to the other on impact.
“That’s okay!” I joked. “It’s Percussion Plus!”
Secretly, I was devastated. I couldn’t fix it or afford to replace it, of course, and I ended up stacking them in the corner of my grandparents’ house and honestly I have no idea what happened to them after my grandparents eventually passed. They may have gone into a dumpster. I wouldn’t own another drum set of my own for 13 years.
I played a Simmons electronic set for a bit during some apartment living years which I discussed in the last post. I was grateful to use it to stay connected to music.
Later, as a real adult with a wife, a kid, and our first house all in order, my wife insisted I set myself up with a real drum kit as a gift. I landed on a beautiful Pearl Export set in dark chrome with Meinl classic cymbals. As I recall, it closely resembled the set I played jazz on in high school and liked a lot but could never have afforded.
More recently, when I decided to pass up the updated electronic sets on the market today and build a hybrid acoustic-electronic set to play around with, I didn’t necessarily know what I would look for when I set out to find some cheap (or even free) drums in need of a high-tech overhaul. I looked at Facebook Marketplace and found there’s never going to be a shortage of clunker drums. For fun I looked for the worst set possible, which appeared to be a Mendini set that had been sitting in a garage, covered in dust next to a gas can that I would have asked for as part of the deal to make it worth the $25. I don’t even think it was a full-size set.
That’s when I saw them.
By some twist of fate, someone was looking to part with a black, 5-piece Percussion Plus set identical to the drums I played 20 years ago. While I believe that Percussion Plus sold a lot of drums at that price point, I’m still surprised I was able to find this set so quickly, in pretty good shape, all these years later. Percussion plus made a significant change to its branding including a new logo between then and now, so I can even be somewhat confident they were manufactured around the same time.
I made the drive from Southern Illinois into Missouri, passing the old high school, the venues near the river I’d go on to play borrowed drums at, and the amphitheater where I’d attended so many music festivals over the years. There was some rust on the rims and hardware. The bottom snare head was ripped. The wraps were a bit scuffed here and there. But no shell damage. They were perfect.
I told the guy a bit about my background and what I hoped to do. He himself was a guitarist who worked for a city nearby. He’d acquired a couple of sets hoping to put one together for jam nights at his house. His usual drummer wanted nothing to do with these. I get it. We loaded them up in my SUV and I paid him. I texted my wife on the way out of the neighborhood.
Cover Photo Credit: Joel Sprenger
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.