Making a living as a musician is no easy task. But as a supplement to the modern day adage ‘real musicians have day jobs,’ drummer Jay Michaelis quotes Vincent Van Gogh. “Happiness…it lies in the joy of the achievement, in the thrill of the effort.”
Michaelis is not given to blowing his own horn however there is ample evidence to conclude that Michaelis is ‘making it’ as a musician. Once referred to as ‘that bad ass drummer’ by producer Randy Jackson, Michaelis and band Solid State Logic (SSL) have caught the attention of celebrated producer Sylvia Massy Shivy (Tool, System of a Down, Powerman 5000.) SSL, an original, heavy alternative rock sound band with inspirations coming from such notables as Soundgarden, Tool, Alice In Chains and Korn, recently returned from a session at NRG recording studios in Hollywood. Founded by recording legend Jay Baumgardner, NRG has been home to such artists as: No Doubt, Linkin Park, Michelle Branch and Stone Temple Pilots, to name a few. “We’re starting to get some good airplay,” said Michaelis. SSL’s CD debut titled “Disarray” resulted in inquires from major labels such as: Capitol Records, Warner Brothers and Geffen.
“Because of our NRG exposure, we’ve been picked up by the Indie Label, Rogue Island Entertainment,” said Michaelis. “One of their bands on the label just did a single (a Rogue Island and Point Defiance release) with Snoop Dogg and it’s David Bowie’s “Fame.” And they did it really well. Rogue Island is a hip hop label that is reaching into the rock area; we’re pretty hyped to be brought under their wing.”
SSL is also currently in negotiations with the USA Network to do the music for “Dr. Steve-O” from “Jackass.” “It’s a wait and see kind-of thing,” said Michaelis. “But to be responsible for their theme song; that would be killer.”
The Oakland born Michaelis, who grew up in Pacifica, California, was about 7 years old when he took up the drums. “I was watching “The Muppets” and I saw Buddy Rich do a drum-off with Animal. They kind of recreated a Gene Krupa/Buddy Rich drum battle from the Fifties. I saw that kind of energy and I wanted to pick it up. The next week my mom started me on drum lessons over at ABC Music in San Bruno.”
“I started on a pad kit,” lamented Michaelis with a laugh. “It’s the full kit without the sound. It’s got the same action but it really doesn’t have the same action if you know what I mean. I used to hate it as a kid because I wanted to play on a real set. The pad kit is what I worked on in the music store. At home I was playing the rug and the Tupperware! I did get a snare drum. But I had four years, let me repeat that, four long years of lessons before I got my first full set of drums. Sorry Mom and Dad, but that was child abuse! KIDDING! I remember I used to play on the rug to records by Kiss, Cheap Trick, Buddy Rich and old KROQ early punk rock compilations. When I got my first kit we set them up in the garage and I beat the crap out of them.”
Once I got drums I spent a lot of time in the garage, woodshedding. I started playing to Stewart Copeland (Police) and Neil Peart (Rush). I cut my teeth on old Rush and progressive rock and then I got into Yes and then I got into metal.” By this time Michaelis was taking drum lessons from Victor Flavianni at Manor Music in Pacifica, one of the places where Michaelis teaches drums now.
Michaelis had his first gig at age 12 at the infamous Mabuhay Gardens (aka The Fab Mab) on Broadway in San Francisco. “At the time it was an old Punk Rock place. I didn’t even know till four or five years later that the Dead Kennedys and The Ramones used to play there. We opened for the old acid rock band: “Blue Cheer.” Here I was 12 and I had to wait backstage, which was an alley. It was my dad and me and some homeless people. I thought I had made the big time. This is a Wednesday night and there were like ten people and my family in the audience. We were a total thrash metal band and we were terrible. I was so nervous that I didn’t cinch down the toms on my drum set and half way through the third song the toms rolled off the stage but we kept playing. Everybody thought it was part of the show.”
“When I was in middle school, I played in the Terra Nova High School Band in Pacifica because they needed a drummer. The band was under the direction of John Bentley. It was very cool. I got out of Middle School a little bit and got to play in festivals and all kinds of stuff. Rob Schneider opened for one of our gigs and then two years later he was on SNL. I didn’t take band in high school though. The bottom kind-of dropped out of music in the schools plus I was one of those metal kids and I thought I was too cool for high school band. You miss out on a lot of stuff when you are too cool.”
For a while Michaelis wrestled with two career choices. “I started playing soccer around the same time that I got really interested in drums and both things really took off. I was part of the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (ODP) as a kid. I ended up playing in the City’s first division and in Premiere League. But I really got beat up in soccer; I played goalkeeper. I played a little college ball and I knew that either soccer or drums was going to pan out. In the end, or the beginning, I chose music because for me it is more spiritually rewarding and more of a creative outlet. I was still playing soccer up until a couple of years ago when I busted my nose, again, and dislocated my shoulder. I think this second nose break fixed the first one!”
“But for me, music, even when I was a kid I just knew it was one of those things that I was good at and that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. To do it as a living was a slow, slow process. It was more like two days a week I’ll see if I can teach drums. But I looked to my dad for inspiration. He, Bill Michaelis, is a Professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Francisco State. He’s the guy who, among other things, provides those big earth balls for the annual Pacifica Fog Fest. He is an unorthodox fellow, as am I, and he found a way to carve out a niche. He gave me the courage. It’s crazy. Really, I don’t know what else I would do.”
“Besides my dad’s unique doctorate he’s got a vault of vinyl. When I was a kid I was exposed to all different kinds of music. I grew up on Doo-Wop, Frank Zappa, Johnny Cash, The Doors, Janis Joplin. Very eclectic music tastes and I try to carry that on. Also providing musical inspiration was my dad’s brother who is a professional keyboard player. On my mom’s side my grandparents were Vaudevillian performers. Because of these people, my iPod has all kinds of stuff on it in wild order: maybe Coltrane followed by Slayer. Good music is good music and that’s one of things that I really teach my students.”
Michaelis spent two years at Skyline Community College as a music major went on to San Francisco State and then got his degree in education at Hayward State. “While I was at Skyline College I had already started to teach drums seriously and I knew there were some gaps in my notation and my theory. I was also working full time in an after school program and trying to get my music business going. By studying on my own I learned what I needed to know in terms of notation and theory and really started filling in the gaps; enabling me to go for the well rounded approach.”
With his life-long varied musical education, Michaelis marvels at the talents of a wide variety of drummers. There are still his early heroes but he’s added jazz drummers such as Jeff Hamilton, Ed Shaughnessey, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones in the mix. He’s also a big fan of Jimmy Chamberlain (Smashing Pumpkins), Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction) and Danny Carey (Tool.)
Along with his current band Solid State Logic résumé, Michaelis recently stepped in on drums for the punk/hardcore rock band, The Sick. He also just made a recording with the country roots band Half Naked And The Five Fingers. “The band is Americano and good country, you know, old school style: Johnny Cash country maybe mixed with a little bit of Dixie Chicks,” said Michaelis. “I’ve always wanted to dabble a little in Americano. I teach the shuffle anyway. It’s more of a jazz approach on drums as compared to rock where I’m used to being in the forefront as a drummer. It’s kind of refreshing to kick back a little.” Michaelis’s ‘Five Fingers’ band mates include the steel pedal player from Commander Cody and the bass player from the Mother Truckers.
Back in the day, Michaelis was also drummer for the hard-core-fan successful rock band Born Naked. “Born Naked was straight out of high school,” said Michaelis. “We started playing in 90 and I graduated in 91. I was underage at the beginning and had to wait outside at the clubs. We did that band for twelve years. We eventually added a guitar player from Primus. Born Naked toured the States, twice. We did thirty-five states, including Alaska, plus we made our way into Canada. We played on the main stage in the Cow Palace.”
As to whether Michaelis can share any favorite Born Naked gig stories, he searches his memory for any G-rated vignettes and then selects a colorful one which he self edits.
“Our manager had booked us into four or five shows in the winter in Alaska. Hey we had a big crowd come out to see us in Fairbanks; 80 people! We flew into Anchorage in December and it was winter solstice and there was only about four hours of sunlight. It’s weird; you don’t know when to stop partying. The sun comes up at 11:30 in the morning; though it’s kind of cool, like twilight. You have the moon and the sun right next to each other with Denali in the background and it’s beautiful. So the band is flying in and there is a winter storm and at 500 feet the plane does this 45 degree turn and we are right over the glaciers. Needless to say, we are nervous, make that incredibly scared. We finally make it onto the black ice tarmac and that was the beginning of our adventure. This is in 1998 and the booker hired two bands from San Francisco and proceeded to put us in a 15-seater van. Our first show was in Fairbanks, which was at least a six or seven hour trip. So we’re cruising along and half way to North Pole the city, there’s a little bar called Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn. The sign outside the Inn shows two polar bears in a compromising position. We’re there with a punk rock band from San Francisco and the lead singer is a large lesbian with a bit of a chip on her shoulder and she had pink and purple hair. We all walk in. It’s off season at Skinny’s. Here we are, two bands from San Francisco at Skinny Dick’s, probably not a usual sighting. There is one local at the bar, with the designer crack hanging out, and Skinny is behind the bar polishing glasses. Grandma Skinny, probably Mrs. Skinny, is over on the side playing pinochle. So the singer goes up to the bar and we’re all pretty weary and Skinny asks her: “I just have to ask you. When you were dyeing your hair did you make a double batch to match your sn**tch?” Everybody’s jaw just dropped. It wasn’t a very nice thing to say but even the singer started laughing. It kind of melted the ice, in Alaska no less! So she asked the guy after listening to that kind of comment did she get a free drink. “Nope.”
Regarding SSL stories, Michaelis said simply: “When we play LA we often stay at the Bel Age in West Hollywood. We’re all pretty professional but I’m sure the maids could tell some stories.”
Michaelis is endorsed by five different drum companies. “I get free drums from Thumper Custom Drums. I get sticks from Pro-Mark and drumheads from Aquarian. I have an artist endorsement with Paiste Cymbals and I have a hardware endorsement with DW Drums. Back in 1996 I was in Drum! Magazine and I won their New Blood contest. They sent me a $600 hand hammered Italian cymbal – which I donated to the music program at Terra Nova High School. It’s a great cymbal, what was I thinking? That garnered the attention of DW and I got an artist endorsement with them. An artist endorsement means 10 percent below cost. That endorsement was followed by a full endorsement from Thumper. All you drummers out there, once you get one endorsement, the rest arrive.”
Michaelis’s teaching schedule is daunting but he loves it. One day a week he teaches the award-winning Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School drum line. He is also doing the drum line for Terra Nova High School. He wrote the game cadence for San Francisco’s Riordan High School. He has private students in three different school districts and various adults, including a Stanford Music professor with a PhD in composition. His student to teacher ratio is 65 to 1. He teaches all different styles including: Scottish piping drums, Bossa Nova, rock, metal, jazz, salsas and world percussion but world percussion on a kit. Besides that he tunes drums which he learned under the guidance of the drum tech for Steve Smith of Journey. In his spare time he also does session work for a flat fee.
“I’ve also filled in for a friend in orchestra,” said Michaelis. “It was at the Scottish Rites Temple in Oakland and it was a Christmas Revels performance. It was probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done; definitely trial by fire. I did the timpani and got a scale wage. Timpanists prefer the French grip so I learned it.”
As to that ever important question, matched or traditional grip, Michaelis does traditional. “Traditional grip goes back to the Revolutionary War when soldiers would have the drum attached to their leg and they would attack it from the side. Matched grip, both hands match and it’s easier to get around the kit. There’s kind of a stigma for rock players to use the matched grip but I played punk rock using the traditional. Military styles, like rolls and drum lines, still use traditional and I teach it, but it is becoming a lost art.”
Meanwhile Jay is on the circuit with Solid State Logic playing at least: The Great American Music Hall and Slims (San Francisco); and the Key Club, Viper Room and Knitting Factory (LA). SSL was also one of the five finalists in the “Garageband Faceoff” and their music video “It’s Not Over” has climbed Internet music video charts including Mania TV. Plus Jay’s relatively recent entrance into the already established “The Sick” means – activity.
“You’ve just got to keep at music,” said Michaelis. “Success comes in a lot of different packages and ‘making it’ has many definitions. Stay true to your integrity and good things happen.”
Check out news on Jay at Thumper Drums http://www.thumpercustomdrums.com/showmeproofjay.html and MySpace.com http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID=9916714. You may also contact Jay at: 510-914-0676 or firstname.lastname@example.org