As we were finalizing our article about ThunderGong! for the November/December issue (“The Year’s Biggest Amputee Fundraiser”), the list of performers was still under tight seal. All we knew was that Jason Sudeikis (aka Ted Lasso) would be hosting again, as he has for all five years of this event, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the amputee-serving Steps of Faith Foundation. We also learned from ThunderGong! boss Billy Brimblecom that the show will be virtual again in 2021, meaning you can stream it live on your favorite digital screen from wherever you happen to be on November 20.
Last week we got our first glimpse at some of the artists who’ll be performing, and as per usual the lineup is star-studded. Current ThunderGong! commits include Counting Crows, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Wynonna Judd, Fred Armisen, Waxahatchee, Sammy Hagar, Will Forte, and Dashboard Confessional. There almost surely will be last-minute additions, as there are every year, so keep your eyes on the ThunderGong! home page and Steps of Faith’s Instagram feed for updates.
We only had room in our print edition for a small fraction of our conversation with Brimblecom, the BKA drummer who founded Steps of Faith in 2013 and launched ThunderGong! in 2017. Here’s the full Q+A, edited for clarity. Hope to see you at the show a week from Saturday.
This year’s ThunderGong! will be held virtually, same as last year—and last year’s event was incredibly successful. Are there benefits to holding the event in a format that lets people join from all around the country?
Absolutely, yes. Last year was the first year it was done virtually, and that was the state of affairs we were all in. Musicians and actors were all doing things virtually last fall, and we had been doing it that way for months. So it was an easier ask for a band like the Foo Fighters to do the event virtually, as opposed to asking, “Can you come to Kansas City and do this?” We did luck out with their performance. I would have accepted security-camera footage, and they basically sent us a music video. But to answer your question, last year we made a TV show instead of a live concert, so that meant we didn’t have to account for musicians walking on and off stage, and therefore we were able to cram way more artists into the show and still keep it at 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Another really beautiful thing that happened last year is that more people who were previously involved with ThunderGong! or Steps of Faith took ownership in getting other people involved. When we started this thing, it was Jason’s friends and my friends. With the virtual show, Will Forte brought a lot of people to the table. Kay Cannon and Cactus Moser, who are on the Steps of Faith board of directors, both brought people to the table. So it allowed us to build these new relationships. Lyle Lovett reached out to us. Just crazy things happened last year. And we raised more money than ever.
Is it also accurate to say you reached a bigger audience than ever? You weren’t playing to a theater in Kansas City. It was more of a national or even global audience.
Yes, we also reached more people than ever. One simple and heartwarming example is my buddy Brian, who I went to high school with and who now lives in Chicago. He’s never been able to come to the show in person, but he was able to watch the virtual show last year. And then he felt motivated to give to Steps of Faith. So many people did that just through Facebook, which I love-hate.
Me too. Mostly hate, but I can’t afford not to love Facebook a little.
Exactly. We’re eye to eye on that. But it was really great, because we reached so many new people that didn’t know us before, from a million rabid Camila Cabello fans to getting donations from New Zealand and Indonesia. The original plan this year was to have a live event in Kansas City and then stream a week later, because we can reach so many more people. That has now been shifted, and we’re going all-virtual again.
Have you ever thought about what makes ThunderGong! such a fantastic draw? There aren’t many amputee fundraisers that can bring in $400,000 in one night. I’m not putting anybody else down—everybody’s doing fantastic work. But it seems like there’s something special about ThunderGong! that gets people engaged with the amputee community.
I’ve definitely thought about it, and I don’t take it for granted. Golf tournaments, 5Ks, these are tried-and-true, traditional, effective fund-raising techniques. But I don’t know how to do those things. I’ve tried, but it’s very hard to do it well. The special sauce for ThunderGong! is that we’re doing something that’s authentic to us. It’s friends coming together with friends to make music and do some comedy.
I grew up with Jason Sudeikis doing improv comedy together when I was 18 and he was 19. I was with him when he bought his first drum set, because he loves music and he’s a hobby drummer. And the reason ThunderGong! resonates with people, other than that there are these big names involved, is that it’s a combination of artists you normally would never see together anywhere else. Especially not in Kansas City, which happens to be where he and I both grew up. But it’s something you probably aren’t going to see anywhere else, and it just feels homegrown and real. I really think that resonates with people. People have said to me, “You leave [the show] knowing exactly why you were there.” That’s the thing I love the most.
What were your hopes when you conceived this idea? Did you did you have a fundraising target in mind, or were you more focused on building the community around Steps of Faith?
From a creative standpoint, I just wanted to put on this really cool show. I grew up playing music and doing improv comedy. I was a drama geek, all that stuff. Just to give you a glimpse of how I’m wired, I have a John Bonham tattoo on one arm and a Jesus Christ, Superstar tattoo on the other arm. My senior year in high school we performed Superstar, and I was the drummer down in the pit in the first act of the show, and then in the second act I was on stage. I played King Herod. This is just what I do.
My original idea for ThunderGong! was right after Christmas of 2016. I had just done as a fundraiser for Steps of Faith on the 23rd of December. My friends all said it ruined Christmas, because we had to rehearse our tails off, but we put on this show that was a tribute to Elton John. It was all of Elton’s early stuff, the megahits, American Songbook stuff. I put this band together, a lot of people that I play with all the time, and it was a really big band with incredible singers and great musicians from all over the city. A lot of people don’t know this, but Kansas City has always been and still is a musical hot spot. We don’t get the attention that Nashville or New York does, but there’s something in the water here.
I grew up across the state, in St. Louis, so I know all about Kansas City’s heritage. St. Louis is the same. It has this great blues and jazz heritage that nobody knows about.
The song “Kansas City” was written about this place for a freaking reason. And it hasn’t changed. So anyway—and this is my forte, long answers to short questions—I had put together this Elton John tribute with a huge house band and all these guest singers, a different singer for every song. It was moderately successful from a financial standpoint. We raised five to seven thousand dollars or something, which for Steps of Faith at that time was wonderful. We were ending the night with “Tiny Dancer.” It’s the end of the show, so everyone comes out on stage, and it’s a huge lovefest. It’s two nights before Christmas. I know and love everyone who’s up there with me. Personally, I’m bawling my eyes out. We’re playing this music that everyone in the room knows the words to, and it’s this huge group of people coming together for the common good. It’s all to help other people. It was just so beautiful.
So I’m reflecting on that the next day. And I thought, what if we were able to do something like that again, but I was able to get Jason involved as a host? I wanted to do something that was real drummer-heavy, where we’d get incredible drummers locally to play with the house band. And here was my dream scenario: Jason is friends with Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, so what if we could get Dave and Taylor [Hawkins] from Foo Fighters, who are both arguably two of the best drummers in the world and are also both A-list singers? That was the original concept. As it turned out, the first people who committed were Will Forte and Fred Armisen, so that immediately shifted it away from such a drummer-heavy concept to more of a straight-up variety show with comedy and music.
So that’s the genesis of how it all came together creatively. The musician in me just wanted to put on this really excellent, fun show. The nonprofit director in me—to answer your question, 20 minutes later—my hope was that if we could raise $100,000 for Steps of Faith, that would be unbelievable. That was our goal, and ThunderGong! in the first year raised $150,000. I mean, it was a dream come true. It was the ultimate game-changer. And then the next year we raised, like, $300,000. It’s an unbelievable blessing.
What’s your target for 2021?
I can’t control that. What I can control is putting together an excellent show. I’ve been doing that my whole life. I know how to do that better than most things, especially when I’m able to collaborate with my brother Jason. When we plug in together, we can do way more than the sum of the parts.