With a vision and focus that struck him from an early age, Jason Gilardi has successfully built a career that’s kept him behind a drum kit in one manner or another through three decades and counting.
Some people know him as the drummer from ‘90s alt-rock band Caroline’s Spine, while others may recognize him as the man behind the kit for ‘80s tribute band Dead Metal Society. And some simply know him as their drum teacher. Although he’s a dedicated husband and father as well, anyone who knows Jason Gilardi outside of his private life identifies him as a drummer, first and foremost, and he’d have it no other way.
With a singular vision and focus that struck with him from an early age, he’s successfully built a career that’s kept him behind the drum kit in one manner or another through three decades with no end in sight.
Born and raised in California, Gilardi may have felt like a normal kid, but a couple mitigating factors did make him different: his parents, Annette Funicello and agent Jack Gilardi. An actress and singer, Funicello began her professional career as a child performer at the age of 12 and rose to prominence as one of the most popular Mouseketeers on the original Mickey Mouse Club. Funicello also helped popularize the successful Beach Party genre alongside co-star Frankie Avalon during the mid-1960s.
Even with high-profile parents, however, Gilardi had his own vison and paved his own path. He knew at a young age that he wanted to be a drummer and professional musician and has succeeded at doing just that.
“Looking back, I think the initial spark was the first time I saw Kiss [the band] on TV and Peter Criss’ giant drum set. I was 7, and when you’re that young, how can that not be cool,” he recalls. “Kiss was like a cross between superheroes and rock stars.
“My earliest memories are my grandma’s folding chairs and salad forks. I’d set up her folding chairs around me and pound them with the forks. Eventually, she got tired of me breaking her silverware and suggested, ‘Maybe you ought to consider getting him a set of drums.’”
Gilardi was fortunate enough to be one of the few in his family (besides his mother, of course), to have some natural sense of rhythm, not to mention parents who were very supportive from the start. Initially self-taught, his mother suggested he start drum lessons at the age of 13. But when he landed with an older jazz drummer who had no interest in what Jason wanted to learn and play, that didn’t last long.
Eventually, he did find an instructor who he could draw from and he continued to develop his chops, which prepared him for the next stage in his development.
After graduating from high school, Gilardi’s father wanted him to go to college. Focused on being a professional musician, he had no interest and the two eventually met in the middle, with Gilardi attending the Musicians Institute. At the Institute, Gilardi finally found himself surrounded by musicians as focused and dedicated as he was.
Out of that experience, Gilardi’s first real band was the thrash-metal outfit, Stick Man. “I think we played four shows,” he says with a laugh. “So I’m 18 years old, working in a record store in L.A., and my best friend’s sister is dating a guitarist, Mark Haugh. He tells me he’s in this band, Caroline’s Spine. They’ve got a CD out and they’re looking for a drummer. Well, I heard the CD and I loved it, so I auditioned and nailed it.”
Having formed in Los Angeles, though, Caroline’s Spine was a small fish in a big pond. After struggling to get bookings, the group took its future into its own hands, bought a cheap van, and hit the road. Starting out by going out for two weeks, then coming home and working for four weeks, the band began touring incrementally, gradually growing the length of time on the road and shortening the time spent at home. A year later, the band found itself touring on a full-time basis, playing up to 250 shows a year.
“Basically, we were living in the van, like brothers on a mission. I’ve got a lot of good memories from my time in Spine,” he shares. “I got to see a lot of places I never thought I’d see or visit, like small towns in Alabama. Being from L.A., I had grown up thinking why would anyone go there? But I met a lot of great people that way — and when you go to the little towns that don’t normally see touring bands, they all show up ready to rock and are grateful that you came.”
That period of heavy touring also introduced Gilardi to Tulsa in 1995. “Scott Jones [bass] and Haugh were originally from Oklahoma, and they said if we wanted to tour through Tulsa, they had a friend who could book a couple of shows for us,” says Gilardi. “That allowed me to meet a lot of cool people and make some instant long-lasting friendships. After that, we played Tulsa a lot and stayed with Scott and Mark’s parents, so it kind of became a home on the road for us.”
Finally, in 1996, Caroline’s Spine reached what Gilardi references as a full-circle moment, as the band opened for Kiss on the band’s reunion tour. After growing up as a fan and pinpointing Kiss as the initial inspiration to be a musician, Gilardi finally found himself both onstage and meeting his role models.
“As a child, I never got to see Kiss in full makeup,” Gilardi shares. “The first time I got to see them was on the Animalize tour , so to get to open for them, you can’t put into words how happy we all were. Then, on the first night, the tour manager goes, “Oh, by the way, here’s front row tickets.’ Our manager hadn’t even told us. So, as fans of the band, not only did we get to open for them, but we got to see them for the first time from the center of the front row. That really brought it all full circle for me.”
That moment was merely a launching point for Caroline’s Spine, however, as the band’s major label debut on Hollywood Records, Monsoon, and hit single, “Sullivan,” were released in 1997. The band continued to tour heavily into 2000, and that’s when Gilardi met a crossroads of sorts.
“Our touring started to slow down and in 2000, we took a month break,” Gilardi says. “At that point, I had the choice to go home and stay with my parents or stay here and start a new life. I flew home, got my car and my stuff and moved to Tulsa.”
Gilardi settled in easily and made friends quickly. By the time the Caroline’s Spine’s classic lineup (including lead singer Jimmy Newquist) officially split in 2007, Tulsa was home. “My new home could have been anywhere, but there’s something about Tulsa and the people here; it’s just been a really good fit,” he says. “Plus, I eventually met my wife here, so it’s been a great thing for me.”
As Caroline’s Spine wound down, Gilardi started teaching drums and has become one of Tulsa’s most sought after instructors.
“I’ve spent 15 years as a private instructor at Drum World, teaching everyone from age 6 to 60,” Gilardi explains. “It’s been an extremely rewarding job and every now and then you see someone who reminds you of yourself or you see that spark that makes you think, ‘They could really take this somewhere.’
“At first it was a little harder because I treated all of my students as if they all wanted to be professional drummers, like I did. Now, I realize that some just do it as a hobby, some do it to get some aggression out, and some do it just because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do. It’s all about having fun: if someone wants to be able to play in a band, that’s great, but if they just want to be able to play with their favorite songs at home, that’s cool too.”
It’s really about building relationships. Gilardi finds out what his students like, gets to know them, suggests bands that they’d like and makes it fun. The best part, though, is that he gets to pass on what he’s learned and shares lessons that he wishes someone had taught him when he was getting started.
“I feel lucky, because I’m building long-lasting relationships and I get to see young up-and-coming musicians as they develop and I get to share with them the lessons I’ve learned over the years” says Gilardi. “I have to knock on wood every day that my job is sitting around drums and passing on what I know to my students.”
Although Gilardi has settled in as one of Tulsa’s premier instructors, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t play out anymore. Over the years, he’s been in a handful of different groups, including New Science, Killer Grins, Dogsway and Amped, but his current project is Dead Metal Society.
“We only play one or two weekends a month, because we’ve all got families and because we all love the band so much, we don’t want to burn out. That makes us all look forward to playing even more,” he says. “It’s great, because the vibe is like it was when we were in our 20s. We’re still excited to play every show and it’s still a lot of fun. Every time we have a show, I still wake up with that spark in my eye, ready to go.”
Ultimately, a career with the drums has truly come full circle, with Gilardi passing on his experience and dedication to a new generation of students while still enjoying playing some of his favorite songs.
“I’ve been really fortunate,?” Gilardi says. “Any time I start to complain, I slap myself and tell myself to shut up and be grateful. I get to do what I always wanted and play drums for a living. I’ve got a beautiful, supportive wife and a beautiful baby girl. What more could I ask for?”
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