Born and bred just outside of Portland, Maine, Jeff spent the better part of his early formative years romping around rural New England. From an early age, the values from his parents and those of the region were imprinted upon him. “Hard work, persistence, rugged individualism and accountability were all interwoven into my daily existence, no matter what I pursued- I will always be grateful for the foundation I was given by so many around me.” The story of Jeff’s childhood and early music exposure sounds similar to so many who were slugging it out in the working class. As the youngest of three and the only boy- everything was passed down- from how to act like “the big kids”, to discarded Barbies that could be made into make shift GI Joes, to old records that big sis didn’t listen to anymore as music fads came and went (cough….disco), etc…
“Music was all around as we grew- and I knew from an early age it was something I would pursue.” Like many mothers prior to the mid 1970s women’s movement, Jeff’s mom stayed home to raise the kids. “Mom played piano and guitar for us. Mostly a combination of material from folk singers that were all the rage at the time and standby Christian numbers. We were always encouraged to sing, dance and clap along. Musical instruments were always handy and were never off limits. Additionally, an old blue AM transistor radio or RCA stereo/turntable were always playing- and the music ran the gamut from folk, country, jazz, pop and rock. As the years passed, the stereos grew in number as the children got their own for the bedrooms. The playlists became more diverse, the volume steadily increased - sometimes intentionally trying to drown out the other across the hall, which in turn ushered in the era of the futile “you kids turn that music down” plea from the downstairs hallway.
Little did any of them know what noise was yet to come.
“I had a cousin that was ten years or so older and who I adored, kind of the big brother I never had- and though I only really spent time with him a on a couple of occasions in my childhood during a couple of summers- the impact was immense; he was a drummer- that was enough.” Jeff also recalls seeing several rock or country bands playing at the local summer celebration festival and being mesmerized by the sparkle off the drums. “There is nothing cooler or more appealing than just the look of a drum kit, just the mechanics and construction of it- then place somebody behind it with wild hair just flailing away and the resulting rhythmic pulse that makes everyone watching the spectacle either nod their head or tap their foot to the beat…. I don’t think there could be anything more impressionable for a borderline hyperactive kid.”
But that would have to wait. As a compromise to his mother, Jeff’s drumming ambitions would need to wait as a melodic instrument and something a “little quieter” was more prudent. Take up a wind instrument, get some music theory and then we’ll talk drums. That was the deal. So in fifth grade, Jeff chose Alto Saxophone because it was cool. Right out of the gate, Jeff admired the second-class citizen status the instrument had in orchestra pits. It wasn’t classical enough for the turned up nose of other “finer” instruments, some would even argue it was the bastard child of the unholy union of a trumpet and clarinet- but the sound and vibe surrounding the instrument- and its rebel like characteristics were a perfect fit. “Throughout elementary, junior high and high school I loved my time playing- without it I wouldn’t have developed the ear that I have, or the appreciation for a wide range of music genres. I’m grateful that I was pushed in a direction that at the time I didn’t see the value in.”
But a deal is a deal, and Jeff held up his end of the bargain- so it was one fateful day that after masterfully presenting his argument- his parents had no alternative.
Before the advent of the digital age and if one couldn’t afford or lived too far out in the country for proper lessons- you did it the old fashioned way. Put a stereo, the biggest pair of headphones available and all those hand me down records to work (yes there were some 8 tracks mixed in there as well). At first, the instruments were stacks of magazines, then pots and pans and eventually a bona fide drum kit bought from a garage sale down the road (second hand and every dime from a savings account).
Through high school and much of college, woodshedding was the name of the game. Occasionally there were opportunities to play out live, but they were few and far between with the business of daily living, going to classes, studying, playing collegiate soccer, and holding down a job to make ends meet. Towards the end of his undergrad days and the “light at the end of the tunnel”, Jeff started collaborating with musicians who were like-minded in styles and attitudes. Those early collaborations would prove fruitful, as many of the relationships forged would stand the test of time and springboard into other bands. For the next 15 years or so, weekend warrior work came and went with groups whose names included the like of Picture This, Eye 2 Eye, Stone Circus and Mr. Magoo, (just to name a few Charlie). By 1999, Jeff would co-found the group Punchbug, initially as a cover band but with aspirations of carving out an original niche in short time. This project would eventually lead him to his chance encounter with Tom Scholz and his audition for Boston in 2002.
For the next sixteen years, seven major North American tours, a tour of Japan and numerous one-offs with the band would expose Jeff to the “larger side” of the business. Throughout this time- Jeff has managed to still maintain a teaching career, for reasons he cites as both personally and professionally important. “Some would say I cracked the big time – though I am reluctant to use that term- during an era of volatile change in the industry- and I was very cognizant of the countless conversations that I was privy to in meeting and speaking with professional insiders. While the stories were all unique with different characters and settings- the consistent theme was how much the business had changed and how uncertain the future was moving forward. I’ve always been one to be on the more conservative side of money matters- and now with a family to think about, it made me even more so.”
To pull off this dual existence of public educator during the school year and rock & roll touring drummer during the summers (and beyond…) required a tremendous amount of planning, effort and flexibility from all parties- but especially so from Jeff. “Looking back on what has happened, I’m still to this day amazed at how it came together and how it continues to unfold. Furthermore, I am very grateful for the opportunity to be part of the band’s storyline. The irony is not lost on me… amongst some of those albums handed down from my sisters were the eponymous debut and follow up Don’t Look Back. I learned to play drums to those albums, and to eventually have a hand in recreating those iconic songs for raucous audiences decades later has been a surreal experience. It has been a full circle phenomenon that I never could have really predicted yet still dreamed so much about throughout my youth.”
With that all being said, there were lessons to be learned from the experiences of others; “simultaneously, I also learned that many business aspects of being in a well-known band are no different than being in a local, anonymous one, just on a much grander scale. People are people, music is music and time marches on… The profession is littered with individuals who ‘had it all’ and then either by choice or circumstance, lost it all. I want to make sure I don’t end up in that category.”
Moving forward, Jeff is optimistic to what the future holds and that he’ll have more opportunities to play on the big stage, but he also tries to balance that optimism with a pragmatic approach. “If time has taught me anything, it is that there is a season for everything. One can’t always control what happens, but one can control how they handle it. I draw inspiration from those I see who move through life with dignity and grace. No matter what, I love music- always have, always will. Any chance I get to be a part of great music- will further define my life.“
© 2018 Nealmeister Productions