“My first tag line was ‘Ellis Drum Company: And No Fucking Guitars.’”
Tim Ellis’ laugh is huge and crisp, big enough to drown out the band warming up a few feet away. Ellis, business partner Lane Pederson, and I have staked out a corner of the backstage dressing room at Triple Rock Social Club, hoping for a quiet, undistracted conversation, but soundcheck is fucking with us. Our timing, it would seem, is a little off. (Rim shot.)
“You want me to take care of that?” Ellis asks, pointing to the stage with a big grin. “Hey, we’re conducting important business in here!”
And indeed, the Twin Cities’ premier custom drum company and retail store is back in business, after a yearlong absence. On September 23, Ellis Drum Co. will return to the retail market with a new shop at 234 Concord Exchange in South St. Paul.
Ellis, a lanky, bespectacled figure who’s been a professional drummer for decades, first went into business in St. Paul’s Midway more than 25 years ago. In that time, his shop, and the custom drum brand he started building in its basement, became one of the most respected drum companies in the nation. Unfortunately, retail decline and challenges brought about by light rail and Snelling Avenue construction caused Ellis to close down in 2016, a move that proved a huge disappointment to the Twin Cities drumming community.
“The reaction was immediate,” Ellis says. “People telling me, ‘There’s nowhere to go now.’” Sure, there are other drum shops. But Ellis didn’t just buy and sell. He provided a space for drummers to come together—a point he makes again and again.
“The drumming community is a tight network of guys and gals,” he says. “We all know each other. We all hang out together and share licks. The drumming community likes a place to hang—not just a place to purchase but also a place to hang out and talk drums—and that’s what Ellis Drum Shop was always about.”
“We’re of the mindset that people still want to go to a brick-and-mortar shop and see really great high-end drums and talk to people who know a lot of drums,” Pederson adds.
At a glance, he and Ellis look like unlikely partners. But Pederson, best known in town as the drummer for Dillinger Four, and also a doctor of behavioral therapy, was one of Ellis’ earliest employees. “I didn’t work there because I needed to. I worked there because I wanted to be there.”
Though Ellis closed the doors on his retail space, his custom drum brand has continued, maintaining an impressive roster of professional rock and jazz drummers, including Dave King, Ben Ivascu, Drew Christopherson, J.T. Bates, Jay Epstein, and Phil Hay. Ellis drums serve as the house kits at First Avenue, the Turf Club, and Amsterdam Bar. A good share of the custom drum work once done under the shop moved to Petersen’s basement. There, the punk rocker and the classic jazz drummer developed a partnership nurtured as much by their differences as by their common passion.
“I cherish the fact that Lane and I are on two different planets when it comes to music,” Ellis says. “Lane’s got his world I’m afraid to enter, and I’ve got my world that Lane probably doesn’t understand, but we work great together. Lane saved my life when it came to this business.”
“Tim and I are both working drummers,” says Petersen. “We’re both in active bands. Between the two of us we’ve toured everywhere. Tim’s been playing drums since before I was born, probably, and I’m not young. Between the two of us, we’re real-world drummers. If you’re talking about wanting a drum set that has a particular sound, or that’s going to hold up well on the road, we’ve both been there, done that. So there’s a different level of expertise. The beauty of Ellis drums is that they can span from punk drumming to hardcore jazz, and everything in between.”
“And do we build the drums differently for different genres?” says Ellis. “No. It’s the same drums.”
Initially, the two partners weren’t looking for a retail location, just a better workspace for the custom drum line. Then they found 1,000 square feet of retail area in South St. Paul, a historic water-pumping station for the stockyards dating back to the 1890s.Just two minutes north of 494 on Concord. “A classy, funky little building with a lot of character,” Ellis calls it.
“One of the awesome things about the new spot is that especially during the warmer months—which you know is most of the year in Minnesota—we have a great outdoor space to have the drumming community come and hang,” says Pederson. “We’re definitely going to plan events around that.”
“The new shop isn’t going to be like the old shop,” says Ellis. “The old shop carried literally everything. The new shop is geared more toward a space to manufacture the custom line, but it comes with a retail area. So we can handle our drums and other boutique manufacturers while still doing online orders and getting people what they want.”
In addition, Ellis says, the new space will host lessons, drum clinics, and seminars. “People will be able to come in and see something cool,” while still having the ability to purchase or order any drum they want, especially for those who can’t afford the high-end custom kits of the Ellis Drum Co. line.
Still, that custom line is a huge point of pride to Ellis and Pederson. Many custom manufacturers will create drums to customer order—a sort of Burger King “have it your way” idea. But Ellis and Petersen prefer to start from their own sense of what well-crafted drums are.
“We’ll do anything you want as long as it isn’t wrong,” Pederson says. “I mean, if I want to go buy a violin I’m not going to tell Stradivarius how to make it.”