I’m 22, and I grew up in Orange County in Dana Point, California. I went to Catholic school all my life from kindergarten through high school, so I definitely remember growing up with music at church. I am also Lithuanian American, so I grew up going to Lithuanian school on Saturdays and going to Lithuanian camps in the summer. Singing folk songs and folk dancing are a big, huge part of the culture. So I sang a lot of Lithuanian folk music, which was more powerful to me than the stuff at church.

I grew up taking piano class at school, but there was one teacher with 30 kids, and I never was super into it. I decided to start playing the guitar when I was 17. I started taking lessons just on my acoustic guitar. So that is how I really started getting into playing music.

The beginning of high school I was super into rap, which strikes a lot of people as funny that know me today, but hiphop and rap got me started listening to music on my own.  I got turned on to this band called the Growlers from Dana Point, and they are a great surf band, and Matt DeMarco, I got turned on to my sophomore year of high school.  And my parents were playing all this great music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, you know the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Allman Brothers, my mom loves Phish, my dad loves Widespread Panic. So I grew up listening to that all my life. I never really came to like it until I was 16, when one day the light switched when I was driving my car home from school and turned some on for myself. I remember falling in love with “Sugar Magnolia” off American Beauty in my car, all the sudden I was hooked.

I went to this music store, Kenny’s Music in Dana Point, and met with Kenny, the owner, 30 minutes a week. He gave me lessons and showed me some things and I was learning. Going into my senior year of high school, I realized that it was probably the last chance I had to have my parents pay for me to take lessons, and I really felt like I wanted to go for it.  So I just said, you know, just teach me theory, teach me what I need to know, I can learn the songs on my own.  So I had a good foundation after a year to go off on my own to explore further with music.

I was playing a lot of the music that I’m into today, like I wanted to learn Dead tunes. I was learning some, I can remember, some Zeppelin.  I remember the first song Kenny showed me was “New Realization” by Sublime.  And I liked it, it’s my taste today. I like the old psychedelic rock, classic rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s like, you know, Zeppelin, Stones, Dead, Beatles, all that type of energy.  Pink Floyd, that type of deal.

I’m a surfer.  I grew up at the beach, so the surf rock SoCal sound, really resonates with me. Like the indie alternative psychedelic sound that’s more popular in my generation today.

Dennis:  It’s amazing that somebody like you who was not even born when Jerry died is into this so deeply.  Why do you think that is?

Justin:  It’s the music 100 percent. Just the nature of it, and how powerful it is. It’s not really necessarily something you can describe, but it’s that feeling that is passed down and resonates with me and still a lot of people in my generation. And I guess the culture and the peaceful and loving energy around the music. The message of the songs, how beautiful they are, and how they’re different every time, how much fun it is playing them.

Exploring them is something that really keeps the whole thing alive and breathing, there are just endless possibilities. Especially, the Dead weren’t as much of a studio band, they were a live band and that present moment energy of the live music is really what helps keep feeding the fire and passing it on to their people.

So then I went to college, UCSB, University of California Santa Barbara. And you know, just a big life change, you go from living with your parents to having all this freedom.  And I don’t know how familiar you are with Santa Barbara, you know, we have Isla Vista, which is this amazing square mile of vibrant youth right on the ocean, mostly college students.

I kept playing guitar.  I was just jamming in my room.  I had only been playing for a year when I came out to college, so I was not proficient or I still wasn’t sounding that great, you know. But I kept at it every day and I loved it and started to jam around with some people. I was doing that and just getting acquainted with the culture here. There are so many bands, several shows every weekend in this little square mile. And my favorite thing was going out of the dorms and going to Isla Vista on the weekends, to a random band show in some garage with a group of people that were just on the floor and all dancing, and it’s just a cool scene. Yeah, so I was doing that.

At the end of my freshman year the pandemic hit, so I didn’t have a spring quarter at UCSB.  So I was back home and I was by myself, with my guitar and school and everything. And then yeah, I kept playing and I kept going and I came back my sophomore year.

And I was jamming a lot with friends, we would just jam at my house, in our backyard, in our garage and started getting into it loud with drums and bass and everything and getting electric, and I started to get the whole thing. Basically, as soon as we had the chance to play live music, we did. And I played my first show ever, and was just immediately hooked on the feeling of playing live music for others. It was so amazing and up to that point I had never heard any Grateful Dead being played live in Isla Vista. And this community, I thought it would resonate so much.

And so my first couple of shows were with two different bands, groups of friends.  The first show we played, I remember we played “Eyes of the World,” and “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider” and “Jack Straw.”  I was just so in love with the whole thing and it felt so cool to be playing the Grateful Dead in this space. And it immediately resonated with a lot of people. I remember people coming up to me saying, “I heard ‘Eyes of the World’ down the street, and I just immediately came to see what was going on.”  So, yeah, that was really cool.

So the first show I played was with a group of my friends and then the next one was a band with my friends Ray and Paul Holmberg. They are killing it, making original music, the whole thing, go check them out.

So I played my second show with Ray and he played my first show with me too. And me and my buddy Marlowe, he is one of my best friends, we would be at my house jamming Grateful Dead songs on our acoustics just for fun. And our friends Gavin and Wally would come play drums with us. It was all just this innocent thing. And after playing two shows, I was like, Marlowe, let’s just play a show of Grateful Dead songs, just for fun. So we did it. It was never supposed to be what it’s turned into now.

We put a whole band together, with our buddies.  My buddy Joel was on bass and our good friend Cassidy, who is actually named after the song “Cassidy,” was singing with us.  And we played our first show. Our friends had an oceanside deck in Isla Vista, so we played a sunset show on their deck with the ocean being the back drop. And immediately there was something special there. I look back and watch videos of it and I cringe, because we sound so bad. But it resonated and there were people there. That was the start of all the whole thing, leading us to where we have come today. That was the summer of ’21.

At some point we played for a sorority, and they gave us some money.  Besides that, it wouldn’t have been until we played downtown for the first time, which would have probably been a year, that we started getting paid. It felt great. I was like, getting paid to play music, yeah!

Skull and Roses will be our first big audience. So far, it’s been house shows in Isla Vista, bars in Santa Barbara, and we will throw these mountain shows, where we go up to the mountains above Santa Barbara, and get a generator, and it’s beautiful. There is a road on top that just goes along the ridge. It’s like 30 minutes from Isla Vista, you can see the whole ocean and the mountains from high up. And there is a lake and it’s amazing and beautiful.  So the last one we did, we had a good amount of people come to that, but nothing near to what, you know, what you are describing.  But, yeah, we are so stoked and grateful for this opportunity.

See Justin Memenas and Dead Set 805 at Skull & Roses Festival