From t-shirts to touring: Jon-Erik Pantorno’s rise to Dr. Acula’s lead singer

Date: February 17, 2017

By Bobby Bevilacqua

Dr. Acula, a deathcore band formed in Long Island, New York, is not your traditional metal band. With a name derived from a joke from comedian Mitch Hedberg and songs based on Goosebumps books, it makes sense that one of their earliest singers didn't take the traditional route to joining the band.

Jon-Erik Pantorno, a native of Howard Beach in Queens, didn't audition for his role in the band. Instead, he worked his way up from selling merchandise for Dr. Acula after hitting it off with the band members while on tour with a friend.

"I wanted to go on a trip so I said sure I'll sell merch for [my friend's band]," Pantorno said. "We met Dr. Acula and they asked me to come on tour with them to do merch, and that's how that started."

While selling merchandise, Pantorno said he would travel with the band in their tour van, driving from concert to concert as a start-up band.

"I was with [Dr. Acula] at all times, even driving sometimes," said Pantorno. "We were all right next to each other. We would get to a show and I would go set up a table, put some shirts out, chill and talk to people and see if I could sell some stuff."

After two tours selling shirts and gear, Pantorno got an opportunity to join the band as a member after one of the members was removed because of issues with drugs and alcohol.

"They said that they need a bassist, and I told them hey, I play bass," Pantorno said. "They basically said okay and told me to learn the songs. I did and then I was playing bass on their tour.

"It was weird at first. I was asking myself, 'Is this really happening?' It was a natural progression. I was there to have fun. I wasn't trying to take anybody's job when I was there, I was just there to have fun." 

At the time, Dr. Acula was still an up-and-coming band gaining traction among the community.. There was no record deal, no tour bus, and no funding from an outside source.

"In the beginning, it was all DIY," Pantorno said. "Putting all of our money into everything. Even playing shows for free sometimes. We were going through the grind."

Dr. Acula toured and traveled by van, and managed all aspects of the tour themselves. Pantorno and the band would contact promoters and venues themselves, set up their own concerts and paid for their travel and food.

"We knew we had a few tough years of getting our name out there and finding a good promoter and booking agent that would handle the business stuff for us," Pantorno said. We were booking tours by ourselves. 

"That was really nerve-wracking at times because you didn't know if someone was just telling you that there would be 500 people at the venue, but you get there and nobody comes. Or you don't get paid."

Eventually, the grind paid off as the band became more popular. Myspace was a really big part of getting wide-spread recognition.

"We were getting millions of plays on Myspace and no one knew why," Pantorno said. "These little scene kids heard a song or liked the name of the band, and we were a bunch of silly assholes. They liked that and they started buying stuff."

The DIY tours and the exposure on Myspace wound up leading the band to signing their first record deal with Uprising Records. The recording of the band's debut label album, Below Me, is where things changed according to Pantorno.

Dr. Acula was going to North Carolina to record the album. After the lead singer at the time forgot to tell him that they were leaving, so he was accidentally left behind. But the band wound up having an issue during recording, and needed Pantorno to step in.

"It turns out that our singer lost his voice or something to the point that he couldn't record, and we were wasting precious recording time that we had paid for," Pantorno said. "So I got on a plane and I got down there, banged out the album in two days.

"Non-stop recording to the point where my voice got hoarse. Doing song after song after song, doing double and triple tracks and numerous takes."

Despite the band gaining momentum and becoming more popular, the road was not easy for Dr. Acula according to Pantorno. They faced a lot of the struggles that many start up, DIY bands had – money.

Dr. Acula didn't have the luxury of a manager or a record label at first, and Pantorno said sometimes only had $6 a day to spend on food. The band almost got abandoned in Texas after a promoter refused to pay them, meaning they didn't have gas money in order to get to the next state.

"Certain promoters knew that they could get away with paying certain bands, or if the band didn't ask then they wouldn't pay them," Pantorno said. "You really have to be smart and know what you're doing business-wise because everyone is trying to cheat you out of as much money as they're supposed to give you."

When promoters would treat them right, it meant a good payday and some food right before the show. Pantorno said it was especially fun when the band's most ridiculous requests were fulfilled.

"One guy in Georgia got everything we had on the list, even the crazy requests," said Pantorno. "As a joke we asked for a baseball helmet full of hummus and when we got there, there was a Yankees batting helmet entirely full of hummus."

With the band usually strapped for cash and living out of the van, it was tough to find consistent sleeping arrangements. They would often try to find a fan that would let them stay at their house according to Pantorno.

"We would post on Myspace and say, 'Hey, we're in your state. Does anybody have a place that we can crash at?'" Pantorno said. "And for the most part we would always find a place. There were sometimes that we had to sleep with in the van. Colorado in the winter was the worst. But we found a place to stay sometimes."

Although it was very difficult going with little food, living paycheck to paycheck out of a van, and scraping together gas money, there was a more difficult aspect to the hardships that Dr. Acula faced when first starting.

"The real hard stuff is when we had to call one of our parents for money because we don't have gas or food," Pantorno said. "That was always a blow to your ego and your career goals, telling your parents that you're not making money doing what you said would earn you money. Sometimes I would rather starve than hit somebody up for money."

With the band gaining popularity and getting bigger paychecks and larger concerts, the party continued for Dr. Acula. Like many rock and metal bands on tour, the band partied and used drugs and alcohol according to Pantorno.

Eventually, it caught up with him.

"I was a maniac, I needed to slow down," Pantorno said. "I was doing drugs and I was changing, I could see the way that I was and how my behavior was changing and I was turning into a jerk. I just performed and got paid and stopped caring really."

After four years of touring with Dr. Acula, the band and Pantorno decided that they needed to address the issue. Eventually, it led to him leaving the band for good.

"They talked to me and said that I had to stop getting high so much, and I knew they were alright," Pantorno said. "I went to rehab and got clean. When I got out, they asked me if I want to come back because they were just about to tour. But I wanted to start a family."

Pantorno has since left the band and settled in Jupiter, Fla., where he works as a porter for the Miami Marlins minor league affiliate, the Jupiter Hammerheads, at their stadium. Dr. Acula disbanded in 2012 and no longer tours or records. Despite being away from the band for almost seven years, Pantorno said that he is grateful for the adventures with Dr. Acula.

"I wouldn't do it again but I also wouldn't take the experience back for anything."

Bobby can be reached on Twitter: @BobbyWSOU

Posted in: Interviews, Metal, WSOU