Inside a nondescript warehouse down a narrow alley in Gladstone, six full-time employees spend their days piecing together drum kits for some of the country’s premier bands.
As it turns out, however, the location and appearance of C&C Custom Drums are about the only low-key aspects of the thriving father-son business.
Since the company began churning out high-end drums in the late ’90s, the C&C logo has been showing up all over the place. Among the company’s quickly growing band roster are Arcade Fire, Fun, the Shins and the Flaming Lips. Talk show host David Letterman, a drummer himself, has been known to ask visiting bands about their C&C drums kits. The next time you’re watching a performance by a “Saturday Night Live” musical guest, check out the group’s drum kit — there’s a decent chance it’s from C&C.
“They’re some of the best drums in the world,” says Ryan Pope of Kansas City-based Get Up Kids, one of the first musicians to take a C&C kit on tour. “The reputation at this point among drummers and musicians, sound engineers and recording engineers is that they’re the best.”
The company’s success can be traced to a number of factors — experienced drum makers, a quality product, a little luck — though Jake Cardwell deserves a lion’s share of credit for raising its national profile. As he gave a tour of the shop on a recent weekday, the wild-haired, tattooed 33-year-old son half of the duo spoke excitedly about the various happenings of the business.
Growing up in the ’60s, Cardwell’s father, Bill Cardwell, 56, took an interest in drums. He would spend his days taking apart kits and putting them back together. Later, he would place ads in the Thrifty Nickel classifieds, asking to buy the discarded drum sets taking up space in basements and attics. The jazz town seemed to be swimming in old instruments. He’d buy them, fix them up and sell them for a small profit.
Jake Cardwell was surrounded by drums from an early age. By 7, he was taking drum lessons. By 14, he was taking apart kits of his own and reassembling them. And as he got older, he began playing drums for various bands in the Kansas City area.
When C&C was still in its infancy, Cardwell used his connections to the music industry — he’s currently a drummer for the Caves and Tree and has played with seven or eight bands — to help build the solid reputation of the business. Ryan Pope is a longtime friend who bought his first set of drums from the Cardwells when he was 12, so he turned to the Cardwells again when he needed a set of drums to take on tour. Around that same time, the Cardwells made a kit for another drummer friend, Kliph Scurlock, who was preparing to go on tour with Flaming Lips.
“From there, the drums did the talking,” Cardwell says.
Soon after, bands like Modest Mouse and the Shins started calling, and before long, C&C had developed a strong reputation in the tight-knit world of rock ’n’ roll.
In 2002, the company moved into its current spot in Gladstone, and in the years since its band roster has continued to balloon. It’s easy to see why many of the country’s well-known bands seek out the Midwest company.
C&C is seeped in rock ’n’ roll ethos.
Most of the employees are drummers themselves, for instance, so they bring to the table not only a meticulous devotion to the craft, but a solid base knowledge. Many, too, are old friends with varying skill sets, some of whom barter those skills in exchange for high-quality drum kits.
John Raux, based in the Power & Light Building with BNIM Architects, was once called upon to paint a kit for The Shins. Element Recording owner Joel Nanos handles the books. On a recent workday, C&C sales manager David Conarroe headed to Kauffman Stadium, where he performed a pre-game concert with his band the Good Foot.
Conarroe could make a living solely playing with his band, but his passion for high-end drums keeps him coming back to C&C.
“I never really wanted to do anything else besides play drums and be around them,” says Conarroe, who handles the business side of things. “So now I get to work a day job that involves drums and then go home and play drums afterward.”For his part, Cardwell can be uncomfortable fielding questions about the business’ success but admits, a bit begrudgingly, that the company’s bread and butter might very well be the personal, around-the-clock attention it gives its clients.
When the drummer for indie rock band Sparklehorse moved a while back, for instance, taking his C&C drum kit with him, a member of the band emailed C&C about how much he missed having the drums around the studio. Cardwell responded by telling him to pack up every vinyl he’d ever made, send it over and he’d put together a drum kit in exchange — which he did.
Cardwell also has played host to traveling artists.
My Morning Jacket’s Patrick Callahan, for example, has flown in to spend the day touring the shop and working with the C&C employees on the step-by-step personalization of his drum kit.
“Maybe what’s different from us and the other big drum companies is looking out for the artists,” Cardwell says. “They know they can call my mobile phone at 4 in the morning and I’ll at least get up and figure out what’s going on.”
The company doesn’t advertise. Cardwell credits the company’s rise to word of mouth.
Once, when Cardwell was hosting a drummer from Arcade Fire, the drummer asked, “Who’s the biggest band you guys have worked with — like, U2?”
“Uhh,” Cardwell responded. “It’s you guys. You guys are the biggest band.”
Until recently, the company didn’t have anyone handling its books. Cardwell couldn’t have told you how much it costs to build a drum kit. And though the company now has a shop manager as well as a one-man shipping department, Cardwell insists that the free-flowing philosophy has bolstered its relationship with the music community.
“We didn’t make the wisest decisions with money, but we would have never built the brand that we’ve got if we were worried about the books,” he says. “That being said, now that the brand’s in place, we are trying to be smart. And it’s a nice change of pace to know what everything costs.”
With its strong following in place, the company is hoping to transition to a more regimented style.
In March, C&C released its first retail drum kit, the Player Date. Unlike the custom kits, which typically cost $5,000 to $6,000, the Player Date runs between $1,300 and $2,200.
They have been shipping eight to 10 units a week, according to Cardwell, and the kit is now being sold in eight Sam Ash music stores across the country. Modern Drummer, a magazine, recently released a glowing review of the Player Date.
“We’re excited, because it hasn’t even been reviewed yet, and we’ve got them going out like crazy,” Cardwell says.
There are plans for other retail kits, too, as well as business-related endeavors, all with personalized service.
“There’s nothing better,” Cardwell says, “than throwing a Player Date kit on a show with a huge band and get an email the next day saying, ‘That was a great drum kit.’ ”
To reach Ink reporter Dugan Arnett, call 816.234.4039 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.