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Jim Donovan Unleashes the Sun King Warriors

Following years of uplifting spirits as a musician and as an educator, Jim Donovan finally developed a method that brings his two worlds together while simultaneously satisfying his creative soul.

As the founding drummer in Rusted Root, Donovan was around for the countless van rides around North America when the Pittsburgh act brought African rhythms, jamming tendencies and undeniable melodic hooks to audiences at a time when the nascent H.O.R.D.E. festival was spreading the jamband aesthetic in the face of alternative rock’s mainstream acceptance. Fueled by the catchy single, “Send Me on My Way,” the band found itself opening gigs for the Grateful Dead, Santana, Dave Matthews Band and Page and Plant. More than two decades later the song’s appeal garners placements in commercials plus film and television soundtracks.

With a growing family, Donovan turned his back on rock ‘n’ roll. Instead he taught at St. Francis University and continued his work using drumming and the voice as a means to assist in healing, personal growth and creating community. His training program teaches medical professionals, parents and teachers how to use rhythmic techniques to complement work done with children who have autism or other disabilities. He has also led annual weekend retreats (Great Rhythm Revival and Summer Rhythm Renewal).

Although he stopped regretting what he once had as a recording and performing artist, the desire for a creative outlet for songs old and new gnawed at him. Keeping the process pure, he recorded his original material without instituting an endgame. When Donovan felt he had enough material for a full-length album he finally made plans for any subsequent steps—crowdfunding, distribution and supporting the release.

That brought Sun King Warriors from merely an album title to the names of his backing band. With six musician friends they continue develop the self-described “groove-rock and Americana with two tons of drums” where the highly danceable tunes roam from the urgency of rock to tribal world rhythms.

The slow rollout of Sun King Warriors is fine by him. The overall purpose of the project is meant to blur the lines between artist and audience and builds on the personal growth ideas of the past 15 years rather than become a nonstop nationwide touring juggernaut.

That intention played itself out when a hometown show celebrating the album’s release found Donovan sharing the stage with the Sun King Warriors and being joined by his former Rusted Root bandmates—Liz Berlin, Patrick Norman, Jenn Wertz and John Buynak—as well as local musician Paul Berkobin, artist Chuck Olson and his three children.

JPG: Was there a learning curve or adjustment made because rather than being in the back of the stage and drumming you are now going to be the frontman in a band and playing guitar and singing?

JD: Yes. Any time I’ve tried something new, especially something like this that really pops me out of my comfort zone there’s definitely an adjustment period. What a lot of people don’t know is that I’ve always sung and wrote songs and played guitar. I’ve been playing guitar since I was a teenager.

When I joined Rusted Root I took that role as drum set player. It was what I was the best at of all the different things that I did. I really relished that role. I love drumming, of course. Then, as the years go by, those other parts of what I’ve always done, I never really gave them enough time. The big work of the project was to commit myself—I had some of the skill sets but not all of them—so I had to systematically build them up, practice them and throw myself into the fire when I wasn’t comfortable. Still, doing that, too. It was definitely an adjustment and I was conscious of how it’s important to give time for adjustment and not spend any time beating oneself up.

JPG: Even redeveloping the calluses on your fingers in order to play guitar and being comfortable playing chords again because you said that the guitar sat around without being played for at least 10 years.

JD: Yeah, it sat for a good 10 years. I had the muscle memory but there’s strength involved and it’s a whole other series of processes in my brain; trying to sing at the same time and play. It took a couple years of just sitting with it and letting myself be frustrated – putting it down and coming back. Finally, this last year-and-a-half it’s come back. Now, I’m where I was originally and starting to grow out from there, which is a good feeling.

JPG: I would think that all of your years being a teacher and facilitator at workshops would make the transition to being a frontman much easier.

JD: All these years of being in front of lots of different groups and having to hold the space was incredible training for this. Before I had done all this, I had done 2,700 events in the last 15 years. Having not done that, I really didn’t understand and didn’t have as much of an appreciation as I do now for people that stand out in the front and put themselves out there. They don’t have a whole lot of protection. Doing all that has been great training. For me the next step is how do I add the songs and the intention and the message to that mix? And that’s where I am right now.

JPG: On the Sun King Warriors website there was a statement on how this project brought everything together from your days in Rusted Root to your days teaching and everything else.

JD: That’s been a big piece of my life. I’m 48 and I’ve always compartmentalized. Here’s the music over here. Here’s my family here. Here’s the way I think about things over here. Teaching is over here. I realized that works but it’s not as satisfying as it could be. I always thought it would be too complicated if I try to bring all these things and put them under one roof. That’s exactly what I tasked myself with. If I’m going to do it I’m not going to leave my kids out of it. I’m not going to abandon teaching. How can it all live together? I’m just starting to see how that’s possible. I really didn’t believe that it was early on.

JPG: You’ve been recording on and off since 2011. Were you developing the songs before that?

JD: The thought of bringing all the different parts of life under one roof that happened recently, maybe in the last two years. When I was developing what became the record, at first I didn’t know what it was going to be and even made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t allow myself to think about what it was going to be because I know myself and I know that if I start to think that way I’m going to spend a lot of energy in planning, “Here’s what it’s going to be. Here’s what I’ll do with it. Here’s who I’ll call and show it to…” on and on and on.

What I knew was that if I did that I wouldn’t spend that energy in just creation and making something that was as beautiful as I could. Honestly, I didn’t allow myself to think about what I was going to do with it until last June or July when I realized, “Okay, this is gonna be finished, and it’s good enough to release.” That was the other question. “Is this even worth releasing?” I didn’t even know. It wasn’t until, maybe, the middle of 2014 that I started to think, “Okay, I think we might have something here.”

JPG: Is that one of the great things about bankrolling this yourself because, while there is the danger of using your own funds, you’re not thinking about owing this person or that company money?

JD: When I got back into the studio and started that process again, every time I left, even if I didn’t get anything, even on those days I felt very right with myself in a way I hadn’t felt since I had been recording years ago. I knew that regardless of if anybody ever hears it, I loved this. And to me it’s worth the expense of having that feeling of, “Alright, I did something today and I can listen back to it and enjoy it.” And even if it’s just my kids hear it and I hear it I was already good with that. So, for me it was a win. Yeah, it’s an expensive win but I’ve spent money on much more ridiculous things than creativity. I know to invest in that part of myself because of the good headspace it puts me in.

JPG: You said you’ve done 2,700 teaching events. That was over the past 15 years. So, you were teaching before you left Rusted Root?

JD: Yes. We had a breakup in 1999. I knew that my time there was going to be limited as early as 1999. I needed to figure out what’s next. I hadn’t even considered that I would ever have to think about what’s next. I thought I had what was next forever. I started experimenting with doing the workshops and things like that. I didn’t know how to do it and I had never taught before, but my wife and I were having our first child so I got real good at it real quick. [laughs]

JPG: When you left for good in 2005 was there a moment or series of moments where you sensed that the band was committed to playing but you wanted out?

JD: When I decided to extract myself, I had a meeting with them and told them, “Please, keep going. Don’t stop on my account but I’m missing things at home that I can’t get back, birthdays, etc. For me it’s not worth it.” The big problem was that I didn’t have a net. I didn’t have a big nest egg. There was no cushy job waiting. It was just me and the drums and my van. It was definitely a frightening thing and I definitely grieved it for a good three years, not that I wanted to go back, but I had identified myself as, “I’m Jim Donovan, drummer from Rusted Root.” That was always the tag line. It took a long time to even understand who am I besides that? Who am I underneath that role? Because other than me it’s just a role.

JPG: During all the teaching events you were still Jim Donovan, the drummer, and you put out eight releases.

JD: Yep. Instructional or meditation. I’ve always loved recording and I had the songs but I wasn’t confident enough to show anybody. I at least wanted to have something I was making, whether it was instructional or some sort of relaxation piece. It was always the drums because in my mind people know this about me, they like it, so I’m just gonna go with that. I’m gonna take the easy way.

JPG: Sure, the easy way may get you in a rut but it also helps pay the bills.

JD: Yeah, it all helps out. It was all very functional and I still love the recordings. It’s not like I don’t like them. And I knew underneath those choices was, “You’ve got this body of work, why not record this?” For whatever reason it was not time to do that. I still had to have other experiences first.

JPG: I’m always trying to figure out how to describe you. Life training facilitator? Drumming facilitator? Yoga chant healing facilitator?

JD: Don’t feel bad. My kids don’t even know what to tell people when they’re asked, “What’s your daddy do?” They say, “Well…what do you do again?” Then, I start to tell ‘em all the things that I do and they’re like, “Nevermind.” [laughs]

JPG: I normally go with motivator and faculty member at St. Francis University.

JD: The way I’ve simplified it is I’m a musician and I’m an educator. Everything else falls under those two brackets. I teach and I play.

JPG: Now, at St. Francis are you a drumming professor?

JD: My official title is I’m an Assistant Professor of Music and I’m also the Chairman of the Fine Arts Department. Somehow, they let the hippie run things. I teach music and wellness, an upper level course on music and wellness, and I do African drumming. I have a big world drumming performance ensemble and a couple other classes like that.

They brought me in because I can give students hands-on interactive non-musician friendly college level courses. Most people coming out of music school don’t do what I do.

JPG: So, you’re much more than an intro to drumming guy teaching paradiddles.

JD: I don’t teach any paradiddles, not one. There’s no reading music. I teach very traditionally. I was taught by my teacher from Africa. We don’t have a music major. It’s students from all over the school. They come to me for all different things. The most popular classes are the African drumming and music and wellness classes. They’re always full.

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