By Laura Ferreiro
The life of a successful, touring musician can be hectic and demanding, but John Wicks, drummer for Fitz and the Tantrums, has found time not only to open up a popular café in his hometown, but also to ensure that it gives back to the local community.
After being a barista for years before his musical career took off, Wicks developed a passion for making good coffee and bringing people together in a relaxed, casual atmosphere to enjoy the java.
“I worked as a barista in Seattle for over 10 years back in the ‘90s,” Wicks explains to Music for Good. “Coffee provided me with income, a flexible schedule so that I could pursue my musical dreams, notoriety, a social life and a love for the craft of making espresso.” These passions inspired him to recently open Drum Coffee in his adopted hometown of Missoula, Montana.
What’s more, Wicks ensures that Drum Coffee supports the local community by donating a percentage of its sales to renowned charities voted on by its customers. “We choose three local non-profit organizations quarterly,” says the renowned percussionist who co-founded Fitz and the Tantrums and has played with artists including B.O.B., George Clinton, David Byrne, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chocolate Genius, Money Mark and RZA. “Each time a customer makes a purchase, he or she may vote for one of the three non-profits we are supporting at that time. We then allocate two percent of sales based on the number of votes each organization receives during the three-month donation period.”
Drum Coffee currently supports the local YWCA as well as Animeals, a no-kill pet adoption center and food bank, and Open Aid Alliance, which provides free HIV testing and AIDS prevention education and outreach.
Wicks was a big fan of the casual, communal meeting-house vibe of the Seattle coffee houses where he worked in the ‘90s, which he believes is absent from most cafes these days. “Unfortunately, the ‘third wave’ of coffee culture that is happening now has taken a lot of the social aspect and fun out of the experience,” he says. “While the quality of coffee is higher than it ever has been, and the science and methodical preparation is incredible, the fun is gone. Most cafes I go into now are very museum-like. The baristas are intimidating, folks are scared of seeming stupid, and the atmosphere is quiet with folks mainly there for free WiFi. I pined for the casual vibe of the ‘90s Seattle coffeehouses and the social aspect of Italian cafes. I wanted to provide a meeting place for the neighborhood to come together and chat, gossip, and rub elbows with one another and the barista.”
While the other members of Fitz and the Tantrums are based in Los Angeles, Wicks fell in love with Missoula, and decided to put down roots there and use the cafe as a way to give back to the community. “I love Missoula,” he gushes. “I was a Navy brat as a kid so we moved all over the place, and I continued to do so as an adult, living in Boston, New York, Greece, Los Angeles, and finally ending up here in Montana. It’s the first place I’ve lived where I miss it as if it were a person. The people here are so supportive of us and we didn’t want to take it for granted. This business model just makes sense to us. Customers encourage us to stand on our own two feet and to follow our dreams. Why would we not give back to those people? It feels good, and it just seems like common sense.”
Wicks has plans to expand the scope of the cafe’s charitable initiative, one coffee bean at a time. “The first step for Drum Coffee’s philanthropic expansion is to begin selling our whole bean coffee and merchandise online and dedicate another quarterly non-profit to those sales,” he says. “Our hope is to inspire other businesses to adopt a similar philosophy and expand the charitable initiative that way. Lead by example and be the change you want to see in the world, so to speak.”
Meanwhile, Fitz and the Tantrums are gearing up to release their eponymously titled third studio album in June, and will embark on an extensive US tour this summer. The band is also doing its part to support causes it believes in.
“Some of us in the band have recently come together and decided to donate proceeds from upcoming shows in North Carolina to Equality North Carolina, a group working to repeal House Bill 2,” says Wicks. “This law forbids localities to enact ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians, and it requires people to use the bathroom that aligns with their anatomical gender at birth rather than the one with which they identify. We’d like to see it repealed in the next legislative session.”
But until the band heads out on tour, Wicks will continue to enjoy the perks of being a café owner. “My cafe is loud and fun,” he says. “We have no WiFi so people talk to one another. Mainly though, I just love being a barista. Being behind the bar during a busy morning rush gives me the same hypnotic focus and feeling that practicing drums does. It’s magical. Also, as the owner I get to drink all the coffee I want, which is awesome.”