I was born in Fremont, California in 1973. I spent my early days there until after high school. My family are not musicians per se, so my earliest memories of music were records played from their collection. Albums by The Beatles, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell you know, those kind of ‘60s and ‘70s bands, but as far as being exposed to different genres early on, I think it was mostly what I heard on the radio.
My neighborhood in Fremont was an awesome place to grow up in the ‘70s. There were all these neighborhood kids blasting records from their rooms, garages or at the park. I’d hear bands like AC/DC, Kiss, Van Halen, The Police, Queen and Rush. Literally half a block down the street from me was a musician friend who ended up recording early Primus and a bunch of local bands in his basement studio.
I was always drawn to the drums. Whenever I listened to music, my ear honed in on that sound… the drums. Around that time on TV I saw Keith Moon performing with The Who, and I was mesmerized. So as a little kid riding my bike around the neighborhood, I would hear mostly rock and roll by some of those bands that I mentioned. I would hear drummers and specifically the sound of live cymbals in the distance usually coming from a garage, and so I’d just roll up on people’s driveways and just listen outside parked on my bike. There was a guy that actually one time, I got the courage to knock on his garage door, and the garage slowly opens up and I saw this drum set for the first time. He was like, you want to come on in? So that was the start of my first time playing an actual drum set and by then, from all that air drumming, It didn’t take long for me to learn how to play that basic AC/DC beat. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. It was the late ‘70s, so there were all those rock and rollers around my neighborhood and it was just real intriguing and cool to me.
I wanted to play the drums and it is such a big responsibility for any parent to buy their kid a drum set. That just means you have to go through all the boom, bap, boom, bap noise. So my parents said how about the flute? So it started with flute lessons in around first grade or second grade. I remember being in the orchestra playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and songs like that, learning how to read music, but always looking at the big bass drum at the back of the orchestra and thinking, that is where I need to be and that is where I belong. And that flute kind of fizzled out.
Eventually, my parents acquiesced and got me a practice pad and brought me into this little music store in Fremont to get some formal lessons for the first time. But I didn’t have a drum set, just this practice pad and some sticks, and the rudiment book that I still have today. But, yeah, just started doing those rudiments. And of course when you’re a kid you want to just play the drums. You don’t understand why you have to learn these and you just want to play on a drum set. But that is what I got, and I don’t want to say I lost interest, but I probably just got to a certain point where the only time I could play on an actual drum set was if I went to one of the neighborhood drummers that had a drum set. Fast forward to when I got to high school, it was around ’88.
So I got my drum set. I bought my first drum set; that was my way of saying to my parents, I want to play the drums. I was old enough to be able to afford it. I Looked in the classified ads, found this drum set, a Stainless Steel Ludwig kit, which I still have. I’m grateful that I still have that. But that was the real beginning I guess, setting it up in my bedroom. It was just every day after school, hours and hours playing on it.
I just saw a photo of me in my bedroom in high school and there’s me at that drum set with all the posters on my wall including that big Grateful Dead, Dead Set poster. My home stereo next to my drums, it had a 6 CD changer and I would stuff it with Led Zeppelin, The Police, Rush and ACDC and just hit Random, and just play along to whatever song came up. That is really how I learned how to play, right there in a nutshell, the beginning of it anyway.At some point around 1988 I discovered the Grateful Dead, and that changed everything. I heard friends in high school talking about this experience of the Grateful Dead, and at that point I had only been smoking weed and partying here and there. But I was curious about psychedelics. And so actually at my first Grateful Dead show, it was also my first time ‘shrooming.
Yeah, so, holy shit. It was at Shoreline in spring of ’89. It was just so incredible and captivating. I was just taking it all in, and looking around and seeing all the people that were smiling and dancing. I remember a moment of allowing myself to blend into the crowd and feeling that it was okay to let go and be free. Then, of course, the drums. It just took me to a whole another level.
I remember my first time hearing how in between songs the Grateful Dead kind of noodled around and meandered, and then they would come out of that and slowly launch into another song, but when you’re tripping like that and that’s happening, it’s almost like they are playing the soundtrack of the cartoon you’re in, they put you in this cartoon land for a brief interlude. See, back then I didn’t know any of the song names except for maybe “Truckin,” “St. Stephen,” and a few others I knew from that Skeletons in the Closet greatest hits album.
So that was my beginning with the GD and after that every time that the Dead came around, I had to go to every show I could and that happened to me pretty much up till Jerry passed. But that Drum/Space segment… Wow. Today, I use some electronics in my drum set up, but Billy and Mickey are the guys that really inspired me to do that at first. I always was totally immersed and watched it from the lawn at Shoreline Amphitheater, Oakland Coliseum or Cal Expo.
And I never really saw them up close. I could never see back then just how much Jerry was in charge of everything in a way. Never saw any videos, there wasn’t any YouTube or anything. I was just in my own little world, enjoying the freedom, community, spiritual growth, the artwork and the drum circles. And you would see me, I would be the kid with bongos sitting down Indian style in a trance there in the parking lots.
In high school I started jamming with friends. I had a band that played pizza parlors and stuff, we played blues, Jimi Hendrix, rock songs and originals. It was called “Old School Crossing” like the street sign. I was able to keep a beat and play some local gigs. I was really into Led Zeppelin and Rush. When I discovered Neil Peart, he was it for me, so much, just to the point of obsession. Reading lyrics and getting into more of the stories that that accompanied their awesome music.
Then I went off to college in ’91 up in Chico, CA. I set up my drums in my dorm room, and surely pissed off a lot of students who were trying to study. I quickly started playing in a band there and we had a lot of silly band names. You know, Baked Chicken, Mushroom Omelet, Large Mouth Bass etc. It was a new band name every time we played kind of thing. We would play in people’s back yards, at parties and things like that. It was fun and I also began playing more original music. This is all on cassette tapes that I should go back and try and listen to, because there was some cool stuff there.
I did dabble in writing my own song lyrics at that time, and came up with a few goofy songs, college type of songs. And that is when I started playing some guitar. A guitarist friend taught me some stuff back then, and some bass as well. Chico was a real great experience. I didn’t really have a major at the time. I guess I studied at some point. Eventually I did graduate from San Francisco State University with a BA degree in Philosophy and Music.
I left Chico due to a knee injury. I was working at Squaw Valley in Tahoe, one of those winter breaks. Then I hurt my knee, so I had to come back home to Fremont and go through surgery and all that. Not long after that I was able to take some classes at Ohlone College in Fremont and then transfer to San Francisco State University.
There was a bunch of years where I was playing in some more local bands in Fremont around the mid ‘90s. Yeah, because I remember when Jerry Garcia passed away I was rehearsing with a band downstairs in the basement and heard that news. And so, yeah, just a variety of different original bands that I was trying to be a part of.
But perhaps one of my biggest music influences was a festival that really helped shape me. It started in the mid ‘80s, it was this reggae festival up in Humboldt, CA, called “Reggae on the River.” I first went to the festival around ’88, my best friend from Fremont, his aunt lived up there in Garberville, and she was on the community center board, the Mateel Community Center, so I was able to volunteer and get on the stage crew to help out. I was really only interested in what I could do to help with the drums, but I did help with all the band change overs. I ended up being the drum tech along with another local drummer.
I’m 16 years old and here I am at Reggae on the River, and you know all these legendary performers from all over the world were playing there each year. Jamaican acts like Jimmy Cliff, Third World, Steel Pulse, Inner Circle, Israel Vibration etc, but also bands like King Sunny Ade, Angelique Kidjo, Johnny Clegg, Alpha Blondy, Lucky Dube, Pato Banton etc. We would camp there all week. I was there for every single act from sunrise to sundown. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and I’d be there for every artist to change over the drums, and I just focused on the drums and loved it. The first time that I sat at that drum set and they asked me to sound check the drums in the morning, and I hit the Bass Drum, and I felt that kick drum reverberate off the mountains, I saw my whole life flash before me. Here it is. I felt that power of the kick drum amplified through that giant sound system. That was the first time that happened, I guess, I was about 16.
Of course Bob Marley wasn’t alive, so I didn’t get to fully see that. But some of his band members would come through some years. Some of the drummers would be Leroy Horsemouth Wallace, who played a lot with Burning Spear. He was a session cat in Jamaica on tons of records. Carlton Santa Davis, he played with Peter Tosh amongst others and now plays with Ziggy Marley, he is just phenomenal. Sly Dunbar, (Sly and Robbie) too many to name, but it was inspiring being up close and getting to meet and help them was just an incredible experience and opportunity. I learned so much from watching all those drummers up close. Grizzly from Steel Pulse was so great. They had many West African artists and Nigerian drummers would come through as well and just light the place up! So yeah, a lot of exposure to world music too. It wasn’t just reggae. Being onstage there in those early years, and being that close to the drums with 15,000 people out there, as a little kid, that really helped shape me as I visualized a future performing music.
Late nights there would be these drum circles with elder rasta men, and they would just be playing the heartbeat rhythm. It’s called Nyabinghi drumming, and it’s spiritual thing. You know, which is just the sound of your heartbeat, Bah boom, Bah boom. They just said, “ No mon you just do this, you know, and just nothing but that.” It was crucial in teaching me a foundation that I didn’t really have before, because I was so frenetic playing along to mostly progressive and classic rock music.
But in reggae music, I learned that is the roots, as they call it, where you can hear that heartbeat rhythm in a lot of reggae music. It’s similar to the Clave in Latin music. If you listen closely, you will hear that in the background, even though it’s mixed really low. I can just remember looking at the full moon and just getting this education from these Rastas.
So I have carried that influence in my soul throughout all my projects, the reggae influence. I just have so much love and respect for the Jamaican culture, the music and that festival, I started as a drum tech in 1988 and I did it each year until 2004. I ended up performing there around 2004 with a Reggae artist from Barbados, David Kirton, but sadly that festival is no longer. But that was a huge thing for me I looked forward to ever year. This festival site was also the site of “Electric on The Eel” which is Where the Jerry Garcia Band played a show Aug. 25,1990. I remember hearing he would be there a week after Reggae on the River but sadly I missed it.
I moved to San Francisco around that time in the late ‘90s, then I graduated from San Francisco State University. I had been taking lessons with a great drummer and musician who taught at SFSU, Eddie Marshall. Here’s where I started learning more about jazz and the history of jazz. I also furthered my music education at The Drummers Collective in NYC for a while, studying with some great drum instructors there. I continued to pursue music and worked various jobs to make ends meet.
My trajectory kind of changed when I got with this reggae band with singers Luna Angel and her brother Moese. Their uncle is Junior Marvin, who was one of the guitarists in Bob Marley and the Wailers. The Wailers were playing at the Fillmore and we were going to be opening the show. So we played at the Fillmore and Junior Marvin sat in with us, and there was another band on that tour opening for the Wailers called deSoL.
I had just said hi to the drummer that night and exchanged contacts, and then, I don’t know, a month or two later, I get a call from that singer of that band. “Hey, man, our drummer quit, we are in the middle of this eight month tour and we remembered you from the Fillmore. We liked the way you play, can we fly you to Kansas or whenever it was, and would you like to join the band?”
And so at this point I’m in well over a dozen bands as a working drummer in the Bay area, and I’d just moved into an apartment in the Sunset district. I was just like, okay, sure! But I had to be on a plane the next day. So I got their record at the store and charted everything out on the plane. They were on Curb records out of Nashville and had some AAA radio success going. And that turned into a two year adventure from 2005 to 2007 touring the country with this band. We had the same booking agent as Wide Spread Panic, The Wailers and Los Lonely Boys. So we would do these big shows, arenas and things like that, opening for them. And I learned a lot. And that was I guess my first big taste of touring. And even though it was out of a van, it was all the craziness you can imagine.
Long drives, sleeping on floors and you name it, all that. But we did it and I made some good connections and learned a lot about the business and that particular style of Latin rock music. Then I did a Persian Gulf tour with that band, a USO tour in late 2006 right in the middle of that whole Operation Desert Storm. And that was crazy, Dennis, I mean, I did not want to go there. But I ended up doing it—I got convinced to go. And it turned out to be an incredible experience as you can imagine.
Talking to young soldiers who were away from their families for long periods of time. And they say things like, “man, I know you are risking your life to be here, but you just brought a taste of home and took my mind off what I just saw today.” I already knew the power of music, but this brought new meaning to playing music as this was a life and death situation. And I heard some incredible stories that were heartbreaking. But, yeah, we went all throughout Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Djibouti, Africa and Saudi Arabia and all that area. We would play on military bases and travel discreetly at weird hours in the middle of the night.
It was intense, because we’re on these military flights C-130’s, doing circular combat landings in Iraq, where you go from 30,000 feet to land within 1 minute. Then the soldiers are firing flares out the back of the plane to divert any surface-to-air missiles as you approach the bases. When we landed in Baghdad, I thought to myself, I am a drummer from Fremont, California what the… yeah, it was that intense. But I guess It was about a month long tour, then I left that band not too long after that.
I came back home, kind of like what’s next? And slowly edged back into the scene that I had worked so hard to be a part of in San Francisco, working any given night of the week on casual gigs. People will call you, will you play tonight here, a gig, it pays this much. So you do these little casuals with these various different musicians in different restaurants in SF or around the bay.
So one night, I was on a gig and a bass player friend of mine said, do you want to play a jazz and blues fest in Rarotonga? He actually asked me this in the middle of a song we were playing, a shuffle or something. Yeah, Rarotonga sounds great! And that night I went home and looked it up on the Internet. I became more excited, wow.
The Cook Islands are about 2000 miles south of Hawaii and about another 2000 miles north of New Zealand right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a chain of about 15 islands, Rarotonga is the main island. There was this blues guitarist from New Zealand who was putting this festival on. So I just got lucky and was able to go out there for, I don’t know, 10 days or something like that. I was going there with a band from San Francisco, a blues band with a soul singer named Edna Love. The guitarist from New Zealand that put all this stuff together said, hey man, I like the way you play, would you like to tour with my band in New Zealand? I said sure, I was really ready to go wherever. And the next thing I know I’m living in NZ, immersed in Maori culture.
New Zealand is an incredible country. And the people there are very friendly. It was especially rewarding to learn about the indigenous people of NZ and more about Polynesian culture. Up to this point, my only experience with Polynesian culture was regular family trips to Hawaii since I was a kid. The band I was with were all indigenous Maori musicians. It was a real fascinating time in my life, because this guy would hustle these gigs in these rural areas of New Zealand at Maori schools.
He would do a morning presentation to the youth, talking about not drinking and driving. Then the band would play a few songs at these assemblies and after we would finish, the students would stand and do the Haka for us, which is an intense, primal Maori greeting. I also enjoyed getting to do music clinics working with the kids at the schools.
And so here again, I’m away from my family and a long way from home, and I’m standing on stage in front of these high schoolers doing the Haka with that kind of intense energy after I just played some songs for them. It was a much different feeling than just playing music in a bar.
Then usually later that day, in whatever rural town we were in, we would do a pub gig that night. Those pubs don’t have their own PAs or anything. They are just a pub and you just bring in your own little system and then you get the people coming out from deep within the hills. Some of these gigs were very profound cultural experiences for me. On some of them, you had to be invited on to that land by a tribal leader. You have to have a reason to visit. And so the leader of this band would have that conversation with them. So next thing I know I’m having these traditional Maori greetings, Powhiri, where I am being invited on to this land. You meet in a room with the tribal leaders and do the Hongi, which is when you touch foreheads together and share the breath of life. It was just incredible for me to know that it was music and ultimately banging on a drum that led me to some of these once in a lifetime experiences.
When I came back in 2010, I was basically at ground zero again. I started diving back into producing music. And putting my own little jazz trios together. I worked around a bit, and produced various artists, including my uncle, who was writing children’s music songs for fun for his grandkids. And I said, Uncle, these are pretty good, let me record you. He had never been in a studio before, or played a live gig or anything. PapaHugs was born and 3 albums later in 2012, we got nominated for a Grammy for “Best Children’s Album of the Year.” We ended up going to LA and I was able to have the whole family with me at the Grammys that year. And the fact that I co-produced this album, and it was my uncle of all people that brought me there, it was just mind blowing.
Fast forward to this elusive thing called Terrapin Crossroads. That was basically the beginning of where I’m at right now. I was circling this Terrapin thing for a while with friends telling me about it and this guy Stu Allen, “you should probably play with him.” And I was kind of outside the circle a little bit.
So one day my lady and I just said, let’s go down there. And we went and saw a band in there. And we sat down and had some food and next thing you know I look up and Phil Lesh is looking down at me, hey, how are you doing? Okay, wow, this is Phil, Hi nice to meet you. Then not too long after that I got invited to play a gig there at TxR. Next thing I know I’m playing several nights a week in the bar there with a different band each night.
And I said, boy, I better re-up my Grateful Dead knowledge. I better know all these songs by name, because I can see that there is a good chance I might be playing with Phil if I’m lucky. I didn’t know all the songs at that point by name. So I really had to do the deep dive again and reacquaint myself with this music. So I just bit off a little bit by little bit of the 400+ songs in the repertoire. It was just so freeing to be in that environment where we can jam on anything, no rules. We can take the music here or there and the audience wants to ride those waves with us. It took me back to having seen the Grateful Dead around 40 times and experience that some nights they were on fire and other nights just couldn’t quite get there for whatever reason, and sometimes the music would just crumble. But they always took that risk of improvising in those deep waters.
That was very different for me at that point in my music life. It had always been more strict with the music and gigs I was doing, top 40 or short songs rehearsed as tight as possible. Terrapin Crossroads took me back to my roots as a Dead Head and reintroduced me to a community I had been a part of all those years before. So it was very freeing. I knew I was at home basically and in the right spot. And sure enough, the more gigs I played, the more connections I made with the local musicians. All these different musicians in the scene would get put together on the bar stage 7 nights a week in various combos and Stu Allen was a big part of that for me. In fact it was Stu who first brought me in to play one of many shows with Phil Lesh in the bar at TxR. I’m Forever Grateful to Stu and love when we get to play together.
I knew JP, John Paul Mclean, the bass player with Melvin Seals and JGB who has been with him for a long time. JP and I go back about 20 years of playing together in a different band with some local friends. And so it was JP that initially recommended me to fill in for Pete (Lavezzoli) on one tour. And then we just kind of stayed in touch a little bit here and there. Melvin and I talked about going fishing maybe. You know, I ran into him one time and he said he wanted to make some changes in the band, and asked if I would be interested in coming down and having a jam. And then next thing I know, yeah, he asked me to join. And that was at the beginning of 2020. We were out on the road for two weeks and then…
We were one of the last bands on a tour bus still out on the road at that point. I remember each gig we went to was getting more and more weird and everyone was like, you know, they just shut it all down. At this time we were in Detroit, I think. Because JP and I went and saw the Motown studio Hitsville USA, and we did the tour of that studio and then they canceled our gig that night. Then, yeah, I think our last gig was Park City in Chicago. We got home and it was just like what we all saw and endured. Tumbleweeds for a long time.
We slowly got back into into live music that year with Melvin. It was so unknown and scary about this COVID thing that it frightened a lot of people. But we took the risk and went out as a quartet with the addition of Ron Holloway on sax and just started to do more and more gigs. It has just been snowballing and has been so exciting. This year has just been one of the most incredible years of my life, musically and everything. Even though touring can be stressful and we travel a lot, I Love it!
I’m not just a one genre drummer. I just love world rhythms. I have always loved to learn as much as I can about all styles of music. Hopefully that comes across in my drumming. The Jerry Garcia band, to me, had a lot of different styles. So it really feels like a natural fit to be able to play blues maybe some reggae, Gospel, Rock, funk, jazz, the jamming, it kind of encompasses it all. And Melvin’s been real open and encouraging to take the music where it wants to go and, you know, he is just an incredible person and musician. I’m in Awe really. Weaving in and out of jams and surfing with Melvin, John K, JP, I got the best seat in the house to watch Melvin’s hands every night. And I swear I have seen lightning bolts shoot out of those fingers some nights. And nobody does what he does on the organ. So it’s very, it’s just very humbling to say the least.
Photographs by © Bob Minkin
See Jeremy Hoenig and Melvin Seals and JGB at Skull & Roses Festival