November 6, 2008
It’s hard for anyone paying even a modicum of attention to the Fort Wayne music scene for the past few years not to have heard of Jon Ross. A man known first for his ace drumming skills, second for his ability to pick up virtually any instrument and make it work for his own nefarious purposes and, last but not least, for the multiple musical projects he has going on at any one time. The last figure is ever in flux – while his record is seven bands at one time, the number as of right now stands at four. At the age of 26, Jon Ross is already a seasoned musical veteran. Ross’ parents bought him a drum kit at the age of eight, and the rest is local music history. As a young boy growing up in Decatur, Ross developed an interest in whatever music his older sister was listening to. It being the late 80s/early 90s, she was, appropriately, listening to bands like Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and a personal favorite of Jon’s, Bon Jovi. He took to the Jov like no other, even getting a new drum kit so he could properly recreate the majesty of tracks such as “Wanted Dead Or Alive” and “Livin’ On A Prayer.”
It was soon after that Ross was coaxed into playing with friends in juvenile attempts at forming rock bands. He was turned on to the grunge movement – including Soundgarden, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins – and started playing guitar. The left-handed Ross had to cope with learning to play guitar using his friends’ right-handed axes. “There were all these guitars lying around, and I would just pick it up, turn it over and play it,” he explains.
This keen ability to adapt rears its head to this day. Whenever a new instrument is presented to him, Ross is making music with it in a matter of moments. He’s either picking out a favorite tune or making one up on the spot. Even to a fellow musician it is an impressive feat.
While drumming in or playing guitar and singing in bands with admittedly regrettable names like Madcow (“Forget about Madcow,” he urges), Ross found his musical soul mate in bassist Casey Stansifer. Already fast friends, Ross coaxed Stansifer into playing the bass so they could be in a band together. Explains Ross, “I told him to learn how to play bass because we had all the other instruments covered.” Soon the two were playing together in various forms.
After graduating from high school, and a few line-up changes along the way, Ross and Stansifer recruited this writer to fill in on guitar duties in 2000. The trio played one gig as Decatur Sound Machine, shortly thereafter becoming Definitely Gary during a Pizza Hut luncheon involving salad bar Jell-O and pudding. Ross’ duties in the collective include percussion and production. He organizes the mess of ideas the band comes up with into coherent songs.
Definitely Gary would be Ross’ gateway into the Fort Wayne music scene. The band made the move to Fort Wayne in 2002 and Ross began taking classes at IPFW seeking, naturally, a music degree. His interest in college courses would soon wane, though, and he dropped out. “I felt like I didn’t need a degree to tell me I can play music,” he says of the decision. While Definitely Gary were busy attempting to make a name for themselves, Ross and Stansifer sought other forms of musical expression. The two would hit up open mic nights and blues jams and began networking with other area musicians. Ross still plays in the house band of one blues jam on a rotated basis.
After establishing Definitely Gary as a local mainstay, Ross was lured into several other projects. He was first hired by now defunct cover band, the Brown Bottle Band, to handle drum duties. On the difference between playing in an original band and a cover band, Ross says, “I used to get freaked out because in D. Gary we play for an hour at the most, but I had to play these marathon four-hour nights. I didn’t think I would be able to handle it at first.” He soon got over that feeling.
He was then picked up by Mike Conley to play the majority of the drum tracks on his My Little Secret and handle the skins in his live band. Knowing one of Ross’ percussive influences had been Dave Matthews Band’s Carter Beauford, Conley requested his talents in an attempt to capture that sort of “epic” pop feel. The album has sold very well, and the group played to packed houses until disbanding.
Ross was next tapped to play drums in, what can best be described as a local version of The Traveling Wilburys, The Legendary Trainhoppers. The “supergroup” contained the entirety of The Brown Bottle Band, Chris Dodds and Matt Kelley of Go Dog Go and Matthew Sturm. With some financial backing and ace songwriting, the alt-country group cut an album in San Francisco at Tiki Town Studios. Due to a fear of flying, Ross nearly missed the trip.
“I was freaking out in the airport and I kept eyeing the door. The guys warned me that if I kept acting the way I was I’d probably get arrested for suspicious activity or something,” he says, “I’m still amazed I got on the plane at all.” Had he not gone, he would have missed an opportunity to play the drum kit Stevie Wonder used to record “Superstition.” “It was a pretty surreal experience,” he says. A myriad of reasons caused the group to break up before they could cut a second album.
Fresh off of a first-place finish in 2006’s whatzup Battle of the Bands with Definitely Gary, Ross joined fellow bearded warrior and even more prolific musician Kevin Hambrick’s The Orange Opera on lead guitar and backing vocals. The band went on to win 2007’s Battle and grew its fan base with Ross in tow. However, due to personal reasons, he had to quit the band. “I try not to be sad about it,” he says, “but it is unfortunate because I love that band so much.”
As all of this was happening, Ross’s rock n’ roll basement baby was gestating. What was a “once in awhile” jam session between himself and longtime friend and former drummer for Uncle Sugar & The Quadraphonic Funk Brigade, John Bixler, began to bear fruit in the form of tight, riff-oriented rock songs. The name Superhunk has been around for much longer than the actual band, and the power trio made their live debut in 2007. Ross soaks up his influences and wrings them out in the form of Superhunk material. T. Rex, Clutch, Queens of the Stone Age, Ween and even Seal can be heard within the confines of songs such as “Momma Don’t Mind” and “Holy Guacamole.”
The band made a big splash in the first round of this year’s whatzup Battle of the Bands. With new bassist Travis Fry in tow, they proceeded to give their finest performance and won over the judges and much of the crowd in the process. Though Ross could not pull a Battle three-peat, Superhunk remains a vital part of his brand. After a recent gig former bandmate Matt Kelley declared Ross his new favorite guitarist, writing on locally based Internet message board Stage Banter, “That little 30 second intro with the little wanky stuff last night? He could have done that for 10 minutes and I would have been fine with it.”
Ross has several projects in the queue. He recently provided production work for Sankofa for his just-released third installment of his free, online Music With Friends series. He’s been steady at work on Superhunk’s debut album, and a third album from Definitely Gary is in very early development. He’s played with Josh Hall’s Thunderhawk and is likely to fill the giant, on hiatus shoes of regular drummer Doug Market when the inevitable release show(s) for Hall’s magnum opus 70-song collection drops soon. Ross is also in Lee Miles’ grandiose live band, The Illegitimate Sons, which is a must-see performance.
While it seems as though he’s got a lot going on, Ross can, and likely will, add to his impressive resumé … more than one band/project at a time.
Ross is currently an entrenched member of Superhunk, Lee Miles and The Illegitimate Sons, Dave P’s ever-evolving Suppabadd and longtime fun-rockers Definitely Gary. He also gives drum, guitar and bass lessons at Fort Wayne’s B-Sharp Guitars.
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