How SJC Custom Drums Took Over the Vans Warped Tour

Mike Ciprari, co-founder of SJC Custom Drums, enthusiastically recalls attending Vans Warped Tour as a fan and, later, as a drummer for the punk band No Trigger. Suddenly, he stops himself mid-sentence: "Maybe you could do a little preface thing like, 'This next part isn't something I'd like to be an example for anyone to copy.'"

What Ciprari's referring to is the time he and his brother discovered a security breach at the 2004 Vans Warped Tour and devised a plan to sneak in by parking by the artist load-in area. It wasn't about free admission. The goal was to show off the drums they were making out of their grandma's basement.

Young entrepreneurs that they were, they didn't have money to pay for a proper booth. So, Ciprari and his brother took advantage of that gap and smuggled in a pop-up tent and a handful of snares. For signage, he taped two meager pieces of paper together baring the SJC Custom Drums color logo and tagline "get it your way!"

Mike Ciprari with the case he was making for Warped Tour, 2004

This summer, more than half of drummers in the Warped Tour lineup are proudly playing SJC. Though sneaking in is not recommended, it all started with taking a risk.

During that 2004 tour, Ciprari recalls getting away with his makeshift booth shenanigans at stops in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. He recalls, "When we started going to Warped, there were only a handful of guys building drums out of their garage or basement like we were doing, but none of them were going to Warped and setting up a booth like we were."

Ciprari pauses a moment as his voice takes on a modest tone. "There was nothing spectacular about the drums we were making back then," he says. "They were nothing like the quality we have now or the quality of our competitors at the time. We were literally kids. But I think a lot of young drummers would come up and see these drums of ours with pink hardware. And they'd see me and my brother who were also kids and we would be wearing our SJC shirts and our little taped-up banner, talking to them about how we build drums. I think they gravitated to that because what we were doing fit in with the DIY music scene. We represented a grassroots effort. Especially at Warped, and drummers respected that."

By the third stop on the 2004 tour, Ciprari was approached by someone from the Warped Tour crew.

"What the hell are you guys doing?" she scolded.

Ciprari has a reputation for being like a super rad, super nice pitbull on steroids. It didn't take long for the crew member to figure out that she wasn't dealing with some kid trying to take advantage of the system. Ciprari was and remains a dude with passion, vision, and tenacity. So, with an apologetic smile, he explained everything, including how they were living out of a van and hadn't showered in a week.

Banners from SJC's first display in 2004

The Warped staffer replied sternly, "OK, you have to stop, but if you pay me the vendor fee, you can stay today and you won't get in trouble."

But, of course, Ciprari still didn't have any money. So, they borrowed the money from another band's merch (Rian Dawson from All Time Low was nice enough to lend the money), set up shop one last time and headed home—but not before meeting the founder of Warped, Kevin Lyman.

Ciprari describes Lyman as the "King of the Warped Tour" without taking on the mysteriousness of some wizard behind a curtain. Lyman was and continues to have an omnipresence at Warped.

"I don't want to say we hit it off," Ciprari grins as he thinks back on the day he met Lyman. "Obviously, I was sneaking into his tour. But from then on, we stayed in touch and eventually became friends. I would see Kevin walking around with his walkie talkie, a hat on and sunburned because he was in the sun for two straight months. If there was a kid that was hurt, Kevin was there asking, 'Are you alright?' That showed me that no matter how big I might get, to just stay humble and stay true. You're not better than anyone else. His actions inspired me the most."

Jake Massucco of Four Year Strong

Before long, SJC Custom Drums became a "legit," paying vendor at Warped. Curious drummers straggled by their booth to try snares the way some flock to Costco for free food samples on a Saturday afternoon. Refusing to be confined by a merch tent, Ciprari embraced the festival's culture and would leave the booth to hang with the drummers.

SJC's brand manager, Zach Matook, reports, "During 'grandma's basement days,' [the Ciprari brothers] would go to shows, bring a snare, find the drummer from bands they loved, hop backstage, and offer them to try it out."

SJC JAWS Kit for Four Year Strong drummer Jake Massucco

"We didn't set out to take over Warped Tour," Ciprari confirms. "It was just really natural for me to become friends with these drummers. Most of them were my favorite bands! And they understood that, in the early days,'These drums may not be 100 percent perfect, but these are guys who are going to back me in growing my career as well.'"

When asked how Ciprari convinced drummers to give up their beloved snare for an SJC, Matook reasons, "Drummers tend to be wed to their snare, but when you go up and say, 'Hey, I got this thing, do you want to play it? I'm not going to charge you and if you like it, you can keep it, who knows?' Then, everything changes."

"Drummers love new toys," Matook continues. "Plus, we weren't a drum company, we were like another friend of the band. Warped Tour has been our scene because people were able to relate to a young company of… dudes, that kinda look like them, act like them, and talk like them. We refer to our clients as part of the SJC family and that's what Warped is, a family."

SJC continued to grow as a company and as they did, friendships evolved into brainstorming sessions, which led to an era known as the battle of the drum kits.

The Back to the Future kit made for We The Kings drummer Danny Duncan

"I noticed over the years that the drummers—especially at Warped—tried to one-up each other with the 'cool factor' of their drum set," Ciprari laughs. "There's a band called Four Year Strong and the drummer, Jake [Massucco], was probably the third customer SJC ever had."

Ciprari says, "One day he hit me up and said, 'Hey, I want a drum set that looks like JAWS.' So, we made him these crazy hoops that had 3D teeth on them, all hand painted to look like a shark's mouth. Then, Danny Duncan from We The Kings asked, 'Hey, can you build a DeLorean kit from Back to the Future?' So, we built it."

SJC Acorn kit for A Day to Remember drummer Alex Shelnutt

"There were doors that opened on the kick drum and there was a handmade flux capacitor on it. And then Alex Shelnutt of A Day to Remember asked for his set to look like Donkey Kong. So, we made barrel-shaped drum shells. Then he wanted a kit that looked like an acorn because his last name is Shelnutt. The shells were so thick," Ciprari laughs. "It was really 'attacky,' and there was a lot of low-end. The front house guys had to mic the drums inside."

For a while, SJC was on a professional quest to see how far it could go artistically. Especially at Warped, outrageous kits set the SJC name apart from other drum manufacturers. Even if the kids in the crowd couldn't see the logo on the drumhead, they guessed it was probably SJC because it had a crazy model that only that drum company would do.

Soon, its reputation for making great-sounding, ostentatious kits spread beyond Warped. However, requests to make a kit that could be set on fire or covered in sharp spikes were respectfully turned down for safety reasons. While the demand for a shocking kit has died down, SJC seems to be the unofficial drums for punk, skate punk and metal bands. Or, so it seems.

Alex Shelnutt of A Day to Remember

Drum historian, Rob Cook, articulates, "The evolution of drums (and the companies that produce them) and the evolution of 'modern' music certainly have a symbiotic relationship. The more successful companies have worked at understanding the needs of their clientele and often manage to introduce very useful innovations before the drummers fully realize they were needed. It has been whenever those efforts became focused on the drummers of particular genres that the company became associated with that genre."

This summer, and in metal and skate punk fashion, the Warped era will come to a combustive end. In celebration of its 23-year legacy, SJC will be offering fans of Josh Manuel from Issues a chance to buy the last SJC kit he played on the Vans Warped Tour. Meanwhile, Ciprari's risks are a little more measured, but still related to making connections.

Mike Ciprari at the 2018 Vans Warped Tour

Knowing the end of Warped was near, he asked to meet with Steve Van Doren, the son of the co-founder of the Vans brand. When they met over coffee, they hit it off and quickly started collaborating.

"SJC and Vans are doing a two-week run in August on the East Coast and through the Midwest. Otherwise, we'll continue to do the tradeshows like NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) and Sweetwater GearFest," Ciprari projects.

While the Vans Warped Tour tradition might be over, for the JAWS-kit-playing Massucco, other aspects of the music scene, like SJC Custom Drums, continue to live on.

"Being with SJC since basically the beginning and being able to represent them on every Warped Tour I've done has been an honor," Massucco says. "It may be the last full cross-country run of Warped Tour but it's certainly nowhere near the end for SJC! I got my first kit in 2005 and never even thought about playing anything else. Looking forward to many more years with them!"

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