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Jon Ross: Does He Ever Sleep?
Checking in with the hardest working drummer in town
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
They say that James Brown is the hardest working man in show business, but ‘they’ have never met Jon Ross. Ross is currently entertaining folks in seven different bands, six of which he plays drums for, and he shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Heck, in the time that it took you to read these first few sentences he sat down with a few other local musicians and discussed starting another band.
It all started when Jon was seven or eight years old. His parents bought him a Remo Jr. Pro drum kit with a hitch; they left it at his grandparent’s house. Whenever he wanted to play he would have to go over to their house. He only played it from time to time before he started taking lessons from Mark Staker, a musician who used to play with David Todoran. One day Jon showed up but Staker was not there and no one knew where he went or why he left or when he was coming back. Jon did not play drums again until he turned twelve. It was then that he discovered two things: an interest that had never truly gone away and the other was his sister’s music.
When Jon received his second drum kit after turning twelve it was mostly due to the fact that he had totally immersed himself in the music that his older sister had introduced him to. Heavy Metal became Jon’s new obsession and he listened to it day and night, literally. “We used to stay up late on Saturday night to watch Headbanger’s Ball with Riki Rachtman before Mystery Science Theater 3000 came on at two o’clock on Sunday morning,” remembers Ross. “After seeing the video for the Metallica song ‘One’ I wasn’t able to sleep for the next week.”
Jon’s sister was “hair metal to the max” and she played Poison, Skid Row, Bullet Boys, Cinderella and other bands of the genre. Ross admits, “I didn’t really get into all of that but I did catch the fringes of hair metal and more of the true metal of the time and some of that wasn’t metal at all.”
He truly credits her for getting him interested in bands like Megadeth, Anthrax and Metallica. Most of all he really became a fan of Bon Jovi and he listened to them more than any other band. “Fortunately,” he says, “That soon passed.”
After that is when Ross became aware of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden. “That’s what was truly popular at the time and no one wanted to play the stuff I had been listening to,” says Ross. He began playing “for real” and the first band he was in played “nothing but Nirvana songs.” “We had some terrible names for band back then, something like File 13 or Black Light,” confesses Ross.
Bad names aside, the band offered many perks. “It was great because those guys would leave all of their stuff at my house and I would read all of the old Guitar World magazines and try to learn the songs that were transcribed in there,” laughs Ross. “The [thing] about it was that I was left handed and their guitars were right handed. So I’d try my best to pull off all of those riffs upside down on the right handed guitar. Soon afterward a friend of mine let me completely screw over one of his guitars and string it up left handed.”
Casey Stansifer is a childhood friend of Ross’ who had a huge impact on him. “It wasn’t until I really started to hang out with Casey that I really started to think and play like a musician. We grew up together kinda,” reminisces Ross. “We were in the same class and everything like that. But I think being in the [crappy] jazz band in middle school we realized that we should be playing together more often. And thanks to Jeff Blackburn, our jazz band director, we got exposed to some things that we would have never ever been exposed to at such a young age. He let Casey borrow some sweet albums like some really raunchy Frank Zappa stuff and some really weird jazz stuff but also some really traditional soul and funk. It was good having Casey there to listen to this weird music with and screw around with different ideas.”
That was where Definitely Gary essentially began. “We started writing really strange and stupid things together when we were still pretty young. We were in a band in high school with my good friend John Bixler who played drums and I played guitar. But it pissed me off that I was playing guitar because I wanted to be playing drums,” admits Ross. “Casey and I pretty much grew together musically. We’d listen to Tower of Power and Primus and all of these disparate groups and somehow we made sense of all of it together. We were in a band called Ping for awhile with another friend who played guitar and played some sweet shows at this old bar in Decatur that was completely gutted out. We’d rent it out for the weekend and put on shows.”
Then things got shook up a bit and the Definitely Gary that we all know and love became permanent. “The guitarist we had left town to go study music in Boston. So I recruited a friend of mine that I knew, Zach Smith. He was still a little punker at the time so Casey and I were fighting with him to break him of his old ways and bands that he was into, like Blink 182 and Green Day, while teaching him all of our weirdo songs. And pretty much that was that,” recalls Ross, “We’ve been together doing the same type stuff ever since.”
Zach has this to say about Ross, “He only taught me how to play more than a power chord without, mind you, being a complete ass about my terrible skill level. It’s very rare that someone comes along and kinda, in a small way, saves your life. Jon saved mine about six years ago.”
Most musicians would be proud to have that as their story. Have a group of guys that you can play the kinda music that makes you laugh and have fun and feel satisfied. But Jon Ross is not your average musician and his story only begins with Definitely Gary.
Shortly before the line-up change in Definitely Gary, Ross and Stansifer started hanging out at Munchie on Broadway and Taylor every Thursday during the open mic nights. “That’s where I pretty much met everyone in the Fort Wayne music scene. I met Sturm, Dave P. and the Brown Bottle dudes there. Casey and I would get up and play Allman Brothers tunes and old jazz tunes with Phil Schurger and make them all weird sounding,” says Ross.
It’s also where Jon met Mike Conley. “Mike knew that I was into the Dave Matthews Band and their drummer, Carter Beauford. He had heard me in D. Gary and he was making an album and asked me if I wanted to play drums on it,” recalls Ross. “Of course I said yes!”
The next band to ask Jon to contribute to their sound was the Brown Bottle Band. “The Brown Bottle Band was going through some stuff so I joined that band too,” says Ross, matter-of-factly. “Then that turned into the Trainhoppers and Three-O-Huxtable as well. Then the Brown Bottle Band turned into Go Gary Brown (so named in honor of its members past/present tenure in the bands Go Dog Go, Definitely Gary and Brown Bottle Band).
The band that Ross is most excited about however is his newest. “Recently my rock n roll baby was born!” gleams Ross. “My friend John Bixler and I have always messed around in some aspect. We’d get together in my basement and just start playing. He plays drums and I play guitar. We have volumes of old [stuff] we used to play on tape. It wasn’t until recently that I booked us a gig at Columbia Street and forced myself to take all of that [stuff] and turn it into something listenable. So I did and wrote seven songs in a couple weeks and recruited Duke on bass and it was pretty rockin’! It was the most fun I’ve had on stage in a very very long time. I think it was because I was playing guitar and singing and not locked behind the drums.”
Regarding Ross’ entrance into the center stage, Matt Kelley, of Whiskey, Eggs and Bacon, says, “Jon is like hot, buttery broccoli – all snap and crunch and good for you, too. He gets propers from all corners for his solid and innovative work behind the drums, but he’s just as good, or better, on the bass, acoustic guitar, piano, random brass, assorted woodwind, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, organ, accordion and Stratocaster as he is at frying the eggs. And the eagle can sing. You know, even my lovely wife knows I have a crush on him!”
What kind of goals are left for this musicians’ musician? What is left to do? “My goals aren’t really goals. I’ve done more than I thought I ever would. When we recorded the Trainhopper album in California it was completely surreal. No one in that band had any preconceived notions or any delusions of grandeur. We just went and played,” says Ross. “Anything that happens now is just extra.”