It’s a treat when you meet others living in your neighborhood with similar interests. I can’t always identify with the culture around me and enjoy meeting those bucking the norm a little. One day I discovered that my neighbor was a drum builder named Preston Parsons. I tracked him down and we’ve since become good friends. His quality drums are built under the name Vessel Drum Company.
One of my most prized possessions is a drum set I had custom built for me in 1994 by local drum guru Paul Bleifuss. Paul was a legendary builder among his community, but due to the limited output possible by something made completely by hand, he worked widely under the radar of the typical music mega-store-type clientele. His drums are works of art. Unfortunately, Paul developed cancer and passed away much too early. Some speculate that it was elements of his craft that may have led to his illness with daily exposure to sanding dust and wood stains. Parts of the process can take a toll after years of work.
The first thing that struck my when visiting Preston’s shop was the building equipment with Paul Bleifuss’s logo. Coincidentally, Preston had apprenticed under Paul and ended up with all of his custom building equipment. Not many people know about Paul’s drums, so to end up living a few blocks from his apprentice was very surprising. Preston brings his skill and unique personal aesthetic to his drums. In some ways, Vessel Drums is a continuation of Paul’s legacy but in other ways it’s Preston’s unique approach. We can’t make music without the tools of the trade. Drum builder Preston Parsons brings the goods.
MF: At what point did you decide to dedicate yourself to building drums?
PP: The exact point at which I decided to become a drum builder is foggy. I started playing drums at age 4, not counting the pots and pans or the beating I gave my Mom in the womb. I played in bands all throughout my junior high and high school years while working for my Dad’s plumbing company in Ruidoso, NM. I would dream up ways to build drums out of pipe, but never did because the heads didn’t fit the pipe sizes. I decided to get married and go to South Plains College for Percussive arts and Sound Technology in the summer of 99. I think it was at SPC that I decided I would like to start digging into drum building. I had my days filled with listening to and making music for the first time in my life. It was at this point I felt like I could make my contribution to music and not just daydream about it.
MF: What brought you to San Diego and how did you find out about Paul Bleifuss?
PP: I listened to college radio while I was living in the Lubbock, TX area to go to school. It seemed like all the music I liked had a heavy San Diego connection. My wife and I had visited SD on vacation and fell in love with this place. I had heard there was a great drum builder in San Diego too. So in January of 2004 as my wife and I had just finished up school, it seamed the clear choice to move to SD.
After asking around, no one seemed to know about the drum builder I’d heard of back in Texas. Finally after a long search, through some great drummers and friends, Craig Zarkos and Aaron Redfield, I found Paul Bleifuss. I’ll never forget the first time I drove from Escondido all the way down to El Cajon to meet Paul. Paul had his shop space in a building shared with a bunch of street sweeper repair shops. I thought to myself, why is this guy not on the coast? Paul should have had his own drum boutique. Paul and I hit it off, and the rest is history.
MF: Can you describe some philosophies behind your craft?
PP: My good friend Paul Bleifuss told me, so long as it’s round and square, we can fix the other stuff. Is that a philosophy? I feel like I put some of myself into every drum I build. If I don’t like the thing and wouldn’t want to play it myself or put my name on it, I don’t. I can honestly say I back every drum I ever built. That’s a good feeling.
MF: What makes Vessel Drums unique?
Me. There are a ton of drum companies out there right now; each one is unique because of its builder or builders. Most of us are working with the same shells and parts with the exception of only a fortunate few. The only thing that separates us is the understanding of our own process.
I have a commitment to quality that sometimes keeps me up at night. I like to do thing right so I can sleep at night. Like I said before, if I don’t like it I don’t build it. I love it when a drummer brings a drum I made in for a tune up, the older the better, I feel like I have an attachment to all of the drums I have made over the years, and I like to see how they’re holding up.
MF: Is it important to study classic designs or are you more of a fan of forging into unknown territory?
PP: The classics are what got us here. I think you’re crazy if you don’t respect the people here before you and there contributions. I like to think of my drums as modern vintage. It’s drums not space travel. The most forward thinking thing I have done in drum building is sticking maple re-ring in an aluminum snare. Not sure if I’m the first or not; I had never seen it before. If that’s the unknown, I guess I’m forward thinking.
MF: How much of building is skill and how much is creative inspiration?
PP: Part smart, part art or passion, and part never growing up. 40/40/20
MF: The “never growing up” part, is that the willingness to follow dreams? Can you elaborate?
PP: Yes, it’s defiantly the willingness to follow dreams. I think there is a balance to managing the responsibilities of life and not losing site of your individuality, creativity, and dreams. That part of you is uniquely you; it’s your inner creator. Honestly, as much as I consider myself a non-conformist, I think we all conform in some way or other, but I try not to throw in the towel. We all have the body of work done by the people before us to draw from, you can’t help but be influenced by the world we live in, but it’s that part that’s uniquely you that only you know when that part is being fed. I can’t lose sight of that part of me. If I lose that part, what’s the point?
I may need to adjust my percentages now and then to gain perspective; drum builder is not my identity. Faith, Family, Friends, Passion, Hope, it’s all in there. I am a lover of authenticity. Not sure if I cleared that up or if I made it a bigger ball of crazy then it was before. There is definitely an element of crazy I need to add into my equation.
MF: What sort of sacrifices have you had to make in order to follow your heart?
PP: Well, I think the biggest one is the fact that for me to be who I am, my wife has to work. Before we had Isla (my baby girl), this wasn’t a big deal, but now I feel like I kind of suck at juggling the rolls: husband, full-time-dad, audio engineer, drum builder. It gets tricky, and the money sucks, but if I was after money I could have stayed in plumbing. I knew what I was in for when I started chasing the music. I know I’m rambling here, so I guess I would say I feel like my family has taken the biggest hit. My hope is that the last 15 years of this chasing the music will pay off some how.
MF: Can you describe the process of learning from Paul? What made his designs so sought after?
PP: First of all Paul was a Friend, he took me in and I will forever be grateful. Most drum builders are very exclusive as to who they will let in their shop, much less teach their trade. Paul was not that way, as he was a friend to many. Every drummer in SD should have bought a kit from Paul. I don’t know anyone that has one of Paul’s kits that wants to get rid of it. Paul had a way of overdoing everything that made most builders a little crazy. If most builders sanded to 240, Paul sanded to 1200, no joke.
MF: How much have you followed his building philosophy and how much have you gone your own direction?
PP: Paul did things the craftsmen way, better than anyone else I have met, setting the bar extremely high. I like to think that I stay that path, and I do for the most part, but if I can save time and make something better, I do.
After Paul passed and I bought all his tools, I met Ted Williams. Ted has been there to help me out along the way and connect the dots that I didn’t have time to glean from Paul. Ted and Paul were good friends too. I have learned more from Ted than I expected to in the beginning. I guess I ended up apprenticing under Ted too. I need to say as well, I would not be building drums today if Bill Sylvester, Craig Zarkos and Aaron Redfield had not paved the way for me.
**Author’s note: I have used Vessel Drums many times and they are truly exceptional. Some bands that have used Vessel drums include Greyboy Allstars, Pinback, Delta Spirit, Alan Parsons Project, Switchfoot, The Howls, Mattson2, Tribal Seeds, Trouble In The Wind, Goodnight Ravenswood, and the Silent Comedy