Minnesota has a rich history of producing great drummers. And for over 40 years, “Bongo” John Haga has been a part of that history. He has sat behind the kit with some of the most respected names around the Twin Cities, as well as numerous national acts. In the mid-1970s, he was part of the pre-First Avenue scene at Jay’s Longhorn with his band, The Hypstrz. These days you can catch him playing shows around town with any number of artists, or you may find him at his music store Bongo’s and Bud’s Music Center in Hopkins. An undeniable part of our local music history, John Haga is a drummer you should Get to Know.
By: Mike Jueneman
MND: How did you end up in the Minnesota music scene?
John: I had always been into music back to my toddler days and my brother would turn on American Bandstand. Chubby Checker was my first hero, I could twist like him. And then the big bang: The Ed Sullivan show and The Beatles. After seeing Ringo. nothing else mattered. When Santa brought my drum kit in seventh grade, I hit the ground running. I started filling in with my brother-in-law’s band when their drummer couldn’t make it. I was in bands with schoolmates and neighborhood kids. Branching out,
I met some really good players that went on to huge careers in major touring bands.
MND: What is your drumming education background?
John: I started lessons in 1966. The instructor taught all traditional grip, by the book stuff. I didn’t apply myself. And then I studied with Floyd Thompson for a couple months. I didn’t apply myself. I sat with a record player and my records, my sisters, my parents, my friends and neighbors. I played along with everything: rock, pop, show tunes, country, EVERYTHING! Fill up your toolbox.
MND: Who are your top three influences and why?
John: Of course, the knee jerk is Ringo, but also Krupa and Moon. Later I found Larrie Londin, Jim Keltner and Earl Palmer were heavily recorded guys. Earl played with Little Richard and Eddie Cochran, but then recorded the I Dream of Jeannine theme song. Larrie did Motown recordings and then moved to Nashville played hundreds of sessions and was the last drummer for Elvis. Jim Keltner was another hit maker, his drumming is solid, but the space and time he creates grooves that are mind blowing. Listen to “The Action” by Little Village (it came out in the early 90’s). Then I dug deeper into his career. Holy Cow!
You can look these guys up on www.allmusic.com I suggest that if you like a drummer you do that. You can find out a lot about their history. The timekeepers with great feel are so important. They serve the song.
MND: Who are some artists/groups you’ve worked with in the past?
John: In 1975, I started playing with King Kustom and the Cruisers, The Hypstrz , Soda, Rocka Dots, Black Jack, Atta Boy, Big Bopper, The Ramblers, The Generators,
Kevin Bowe and The Okemah Prophets, Mick Sterling, Hip Bone, The Litter, Curtiss A, Gini Dodds, The Rockin’ Hollywoods, The HipChecks at MN Wild hockey games, and subbing with dozens of other bands. I’ve also done one-nighters with Rosie Flores, Freddy Fender, and Robert Gordon.
MND: What are some of your favorite venues around town (past or present)? What makes them so special?
John: Starting gigging at 12 years old, I don’t really remember all of them. I’ve been in all the ballrooms and bowling alleys. Playing outdoor festivals is always fun, seeing the ocean of faces. The Longhorn was the center for so much great music in the late 70s. I suggest you see the documentary about its history. Playing at First Avenue is always a blast. It’s the biggest, baddest PA in the Midwest. When you play there it’s physical, and on the other side a small club where everything is stage volume. There’s a dynamic leaving space to let the other players shine.
MND: Are you a teacher? How do people contact you for lessons?
John: Oh my god no! I’m more of advisor. Since I can’t really tell you what I’m doing, how can I teach? I have hung out with some of the greatest instructors on the planet. I leach what I can from them.
MND: How would you describe your style?
John: I’m like gray Play Dough, a mix of so many styles. The kitchen junk drawer. I consider my drumming to be time with turrets, putting inappropriate things in from time to time.
MND: What are you currently using for gear? What’s your go-to setup?
John: I pretty much use a four-piece kit. I had the tree racks, two floor kit and saw Stewart Copeland while working security for the Police at the Longhorn. Sitting in front of Andy Summers’ speaker cabinets, I determined I do not want that much gear in front of me. I am a DW guy to the bone. I also play a beater Gretsch kit, sometimes because it’s closest to the door. SABIAN cymbals and Regal Tip 5B wood tip, brushes, Blasticks, and Hot Rods in the bag. I always have a cow bell. I am a gear junkie and we don’t need to go down that black hole.
But my drum kits are DW and an old ratty Gretsch kit. My cymbals are Sabian; 14” hats (A), 19” crash (B), 10” splash (C), 20” or 22” ride (D), 17” or 18” crash (E), and a 20” China (F). My snare drums can either be a 5 1/2 aluminum DW (a) or a 5 1/2 x 14 (a) Ludwig supra phonic brass pre-serial number – they both have their own voices, and on the bass drum there’s always a big LP mambo cowbell (1).
The DW kit has 10 x 12” tom (b), 14x 16” floor tom (d), a 14 x 22” kick drum (c). The Gretsch kit has 8 x 12” tom (b), 16 x 16” floor tom (d), and 14 x 22” kick drum (c).
My second DW kit has 8 x 10” (e*), 9 x 12” (f*), 10 x 14” toms (b), 11 x 16” floor tom (d), and a 14 x 22” kick drum(c); but I typically only use two toms.
(*= Not illustrated correctly.)
MND: Who are some other drummers inside and outside of our scene that you feel people should know about?
John: I don’t know if I can list all of them without missing an important one. Go to the local clubs in your area on your nights off and see what the other guys are doing. There could be one thing a guy does that can change your style and make you better. I spent years watching and listening to all kinds of players. Many of them became lifelong friends. Drumming is not a competition, it’s a brotherhood.
MND: Where can our readers see you perform locally?
John: I started playing with the Rockin’ Hollywoods last summer. This is their 48th year performing almost 7500 gigs. I replaced Doug James, he passed away on the gig a year ago he was with them 18 years. Their previous drummer, Garr Johnson (22 years), covered until I was added. Check out www.rockinhollywoods.com for more info.
I play with Them DOTS about once a month at the Driftwood and some summer outdoor gigs. https://www.facebook.com/Them-Dots-Minneapolis-242925046161214/
I do various shows with Gini Dodds and the Dahlias. With Curtiss A and the Jerks of Fate, we play the annual tribute for John Lennon at First Ave (for the past 41 years). And once in a while The Hypstrz do special events.
Big Hits of Mid America Vol 3. (in the Rock and Roll hall of fame)
The HYPSTRZ – EP/LP/CD
Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets
Rolling Blunder Review (Mick Sterling / Kevin Bowe)
Gini Dodds and the Dahlias
To hear more from Bongo John Haga, and to see footage of him playing in The Hypstrz, check out Mark Engebretson’s fantastic 2019 documentary Jay’s Longhorn: “Let’s Make a Scene!” It’s a must see for anyone interested in the history of our local music scene (available at most local record stores, Amazon, and streaming on select digital platforms).
Bongo’s Facebook: www.facebook.com/bongojohn.haga
Bud’s Music Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Bongos-Buds-Music-Center-604423509657229/
Bongo Bud’s Music: www.bongosandbuds.com