Pantheon Percussion: Banging On About Quality

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Pantheon Percussion: Banging On About Quality

By Carolyn Oei, 08 January 2017

(Photos, unless otherwise stated, by Olivia Kwok)

In an age when even too much isn’t quite enough, George Leslie Paul and Darren (life truly is simple for him), the two men behind Singapore drum-maker Pantheon Percussion, stick out like sore thumbs.

More correctly, they could go completely unnoticed.

There are many people around the world who share similar values; for example, freegans, proponents of the Valhalla mission, my late grandmother whose worldly possessions fit into a suitcase.

But, it would seem that there aren’t enough, ironically, like them in Singapore.

Darren:  What’s in this for me? The joy of making. I don’t get involved with the sales and marketing. I’m very happy being inside this room creating and being able to build something. I don’t want to worry too much about the scene.

The scene Darren refers to is the local music scene, more specifically, the world of drumming.

Pantheon Percussion (Pantheon), as a brand, has grown in importance since it emerged from a small workshop in the heart of Central Christian Church in Punggol in 2011.

George was a church employee and Darren still works there full-time in building maintenance. 

Photo: Darren's humble workshop.

George: I was frustrated with the local drum scene. I’m a drummer and have been since the age of 13. There were (and still are) a few big companies that dominated the scene. Not just the brands like Zildjian or Sabian, but retail shops, too. Companies like Swee Lee brings in only a limited stock of drum sets and they tend to be expensive. Choice is limited. I never got what I wanted because the things that I wanted cost between six and eight thousand.

And so began the building of Pantheon.

George: I talked with Darren and realised it wasn’t that difficult. With his skill set and my knowledge. Of course, I had to do research. I have zero technical background, but I have the musical background and I have the knowledge base. I am the specs (specifications) guy; I know what is required.

Darren: I’m just good with my hands. I can basically do anything with a piece of wood. I did research online, watched videos on YouTube and realised that it actually wasn’t that difficult.

God bless YouTube.

George and Darren spent the first year and a half doing nothing but research. When they felt ready enough, Pantheon started with three pieces that were representative of what they could do – a plywood, a steam-bent (the wood is literally steamed to soften the fibres so they bend) and a stave (made from individual blocks of wood). According to George, the steam-bent and stave are almost unheard of in Singapore and must be ordered from overseas.

George: Darren figured out how to do it. It’s almost like making furniture. You need carpenter skills to create and artisan skills to finish and decorate.

Photo: How to make a stave. 

Photo: A finished stave.

From the initial three pieces, Pantheon now makes about four drums a month. It is a scale up, but it still entails George’s carrying snare drums around with him on his sales rounds.

But, drum-making alone only goes so far. George realised this early on and decided that cymbals, restorative work and accessories like drumsticks would be good additions to their suite of services.

George: Everyone wants to play Meinl cymbals, which are horribly expensive. We charge about 60% of what they charge for a similar quality. That’s our value proposition. And we’re responsive because we’re here, which means the cymbals are almost customised.

As a drummer, I’m not that fussy about cymbals, so I had to research the needs and requirements of other genres of musicians to understand what they would want. I researched the good brands and tried to understand why drummers choose only certain models and so on.

Pantheon’s cymbals are hand-made in Turkey, the mothership of cymbals and, as with anything hand-made, every one is slightly different.

George: Correct, and that’s why people have to test them first. We put videos up of people trying the cymbals. I had to invest in professionally produced videos to make people aware of the brand and invite them to try. We entertained about three people a week in the last few months. This guy wanted to buy $300 but ended up spending about $1,000!

It’s important that they test out the drums and/or cymbals. Education is key (and the aim) is for drummers to demand better things.

The Turks are very used to exporting and doing OEM work. They boast generations of cymbal makers. Over the years, they have transferred some skill sets outside like the US and even to Wuhan in China. China has a particular sound. Slightly high-pitched. Not deep and complex.

So, for branding, I wanted a visual cue that these are made in Turkey. Because everyone thinks Singapore is in China!

George shows me an 18-inch Dry China, which is a high-end cymbal. It is a piece of art in itself. 

Photo courtesy of Pantheon Percussion.

George: We have sold internationally. Overseas drummers have asked to do endorsements but they ask for free stuff and that isn’t the model for small custom companies. It would be far too heavy on us.

Locally, Pantheon’s customer base is small. Singapore’s wider art scene is cosy – just about two degrees of separation – and its music scene is even smaller. Narrowing it down to the English music scene and you’re practically playing in bands with your drinking buddies, neighbours, classmates and siblings.

So, in addition to cymbals, restorative work and accessories, Pantheon also consults.

George: I invest a lot of time in talking with people. In a typical week, I meet about four people. Even if they don’t buy anything, they can become a convert to my way of thinking: we need to build the community, we need to help people, we need to support gigs.

I also organise and participate in events. I would go to, say, the 100 Bands Festival and sponsor drums. Why do drums sound so bad? Because stage crew know nothing about tuning drums. That was an in for me; I started developing training for stage crew. The goal is for drummers and bands to sound better, so we also help to maintain the drum sets.

Supporting George in his quest for wider influence and education are established musicians and music teachers who are part of Pantheon’s endorser programme. A glimpse into this veritable list of influencers (not of the half-baked blogger or social media influencer variety) reveals names such as Aaron James Lee (who George thinks has the best international potential), Riduan Zalani (one of the leaders of percussion ensemble, Nadi Singapura), Cheryl Ong (of Sa Trio) and Benjamin Lim (one of the region’s most sought-after sessionists). Veterans such as Louis Soliano have also shown their support for the company’s products.

Photos: Top (left to right) - Aaron James Lee and Benjamin Lim. Bottom (left to right) - Cheryl Ong and Riduan Zalani. Courtesy of Pantheon Percussion.

As much as Pantheon Percussion has carved a name for itself in this niche world of drum-making, it is by no means a Zildjian or Sabian or Meinl. In hipster phraseology, its heart is artisanal, small-batch, custom-made; everything but international commercial success.

For now.

George: Yes, I could make money if I made it more international but I also don’t want to jump too fast. I want to do this steadily and step by step. We don’t need to be a mega corporation tomorrow, but if we remain two people only, we could never go international for drums. We could for cymbals because we’re not manufacturing. Drums, not drum sets, could be regional, snare drums perhaps more international, sticks are local. That’s my idea; probably push cymbals first then the drums although we’ve built our reputation on drums.

Darren: I don’t want him to feel obligated about seeking my approval. George should have a free hand at building the company. I don’t want to be responsible for company matters because it will become something that we fight over. So, I’m just happy to make and build. I told him not to go big. If he wants that, I won’t carry on. I don’t want to take the joy out of the making. Doing this for a living will really suck the life out of us. If we cannot compete big, let’s compete niche.

But, Singapore can be very frustrating. If you’re trying to do something more professionally, getting what you want, there are very limited options to do that – the shops don’t even know what they’re doing. We want to give people options. Let people understand that you can explore more.

I’m not a musician. But I’m no stranger to sounds and bands. Before this, I was an AV contractor setting up venues for bands and events.

I hope for a different level of exploration. Singapore is very commercial. If you don’t do the conventional thing, sure fail. So, no matter how good I am, nobody will recognise it. That’s my frustration, too.

Darren shows me the work-in-progress pieces in the tiny workshop. There is a cabinet for amplifiers, a wall-mount for bicycles and a lampshade that started out as a guitar for his daughter (until she decided she wasn't playing the guitar any more).

George smiles and says, “I’d like to think that even with a small enterprise like this, we’ve managed to punch above our weight.”

Darren has a similar sentiment, “I hold on to the thought that even if you don’t do the conventional thing, you can still do something great.”