It all started when he was 11 years old, in 1988. He heard Metallica's thrash-metal Master of Puppets at his friend Brian’s house, in Downer’s Grove, IL, where both grew up. He listened to the album straight through, twice, and then bought more Metallica music. Jamie spent six hours a day, listening. He couldn't get it out of his head.
Master of Puppets is generally regarded as a watershed in heavy metal. Fittingly, considering how Jamie's musical career developed, the album—and Metallica--transformed the heavy-metal genre. Metallica’s thrash metal presented heavy metal with elements of progressive rock: in a more sophisticated form, lyrics presenting social commentary, bass and percussion lines reinforcing the lyrics, with elements borrowed from the classical tradition.
Enjoying thrash metal was not an act of rebellion for Jamie. His parents encouraged all their children to find their own pathways with music. His father played the accordion and his mother had played the acoustic guitar as a teen and took piano lessons. At first all the kids were expected to take piano lessons. But Jamie did rebel against that. His sister Catherine took piano lessons and piano was his sister's "thing." Jamie wanted his own “thing.” At first he was more interested in learning the guitar, but then so was his twin brother Dave. So "we kind of flipped a coin; Dave won the guitar; and I took up drums. The neighbors had a garage band--literally; they played in their garage--and I found a pair of drumsticks on the curb, outside their garage. Someone had thrown them away”
"I watched a lot of MTV then, and imitated what I heard and observed, mimicking what I saw them doing . I would sit in a chair and tap out the rhythm with the sticks on the cover of my bed.
"I had my first drumset when I was 13, and started taking lessons when I was 14. My parents encouraged it; there was no hesitation whatsoever. Dave and I were music junkies. By the time I was in junior high, I knew: ‘I'm going to be a musician.’ Lessons helped by teaching me to read and write music and opened up a multiplicity of styles, The lessons and practicing for them also helped with my speed and endurance--more than I realized at the time.”
Jamie started his first band, "Ravage," when he was in the seventh and eighth grades, with Dave, Kevin Denoffrio and Jeff Giba. Later they added Jeff Stasi as another guitarist. Ravage played heavy metal in the style of Metallica, Megadeath, Slayer and Black Sabbath. “We started with covers of Led Zeppelin. Our first gig was our junior high graduation.”
By his sophomore year in high school, “music gradually had taken over and replaced athletics as my main thing." Jamie was popular and a good athlete, excelling in track and field. He played football, soccer, baseball, and basketball in junior high and continued football and track in high school. He was a man for all seasons, popular with the popular kids, and equally popular with the unpopular kids, perhaps because he exerted his leadership capacity to make sure the unpopular ones were included, especially in sports. He was externally competitive in sports, but "I was internally competitive with music. In sports I felt pressure to do my best for the team; in music I simply felt pressure to do my best."
Music was entirely an extracurricular activity for Jamie; he never played in the school band in either elementary or junior-high school, and not in high school until his senior year. The academic program at Bennett Academy was tough. His sister was the dedicated student in the family, and Jamie did not want to be embarrassed in her eyes. His schedule left no time for music courses or extracurricular activities in music.
Still, “each day I put off everything until late evening so I could listen to music first. By the time I was 16, we were performing real gigs in Chicago.”
"Even at first, I could put together in my mind what the musicians were doing, especially when I could watch them on music video. I guess I just had innate talent. I picked up everything--especially complicated rhythmic groves--immediately.”
Anyone who has worked with Jamie knows that is the truth. Sitting down to record a drum track for a new song, he adjusts the stool just so, banging on it with his fist periodically, because the shaft of the seat is a little too big for the socket in the frame. He checks the position of the ride and crash cymbals and carefully considers which set of sticks to use, taking one after another out of his quiver and then rejecting several until he has just the right sound. He puts earplugs in his ears, then adjusts the headphones. The scratch track is looping in the background, as Jamie internalizes what percussion will enhance the rest of the music. He is oblivious to the progressive placement of mics and the connection of cables in and around the drumset.
After a while he is ready to play, and starts trying out different patterns against the section of the song, playing repeatedly in a loop. He runs through a half dozen variations and then stops, looking up at the songwriter and the producer. “What do you think? Did any of those sound like what you are looking for?” he asks. Actually, they all sound good. Together the three of them struggle to identify the approach that seems the best. “Was it the second one—or maybe the third one? You did something toward the end of the third bar that was particularly good.” “Oh, I forget,” Jamie says, quickly repeating several different patterns. “That one!” the others cry.
“Let’s just start recording,” Jamie responds, and a perfect synthesis of the best of the experiments is the result. “I can do that tighter,” he says, and starts over again when the music in his headphones cycles back to the beginning of the section. Almost never does he struggle to figure out the relationship between the drum pattern and the beat, although he often insists on a retake because it did not feel exactly right to him.
Throughout, he jokes, using metaphors for what he is doing, grinning impishly when he says something especially apt.
When someone else in the studio suggests an unusual sound—beating a rhythm on the back of a chair, or jumping up and down on the floor, Jamie is immediately enthusiastic. He rushes to experiment to find the part of the chair—or the floor—that will produce the best sound.
The muscles and tendons in his forearms and hands ripple as he smacks the toms, snare and cymbals. He puts his entire body into the more robust parts of the track, bouncing up and down on his stool, backing off in other sections to a delicate, barely audible tap on a cymbal at just the right fractional beat. He flashes his big smile all the while. He loves doing this.
Jamie and his fraternal twin, Dave, are important forces on each other. They have separate personalities but are best friends. They live together, which makes each of them used to closeness, rather than being repelled or threatened by it. They still play the guitar and the drums together, the result of the coin flip years ago.
All of this is of a piece with how Jamie presents himself, whether meeting someone for the first time, or greeting someone he last saw only days before. He is friendly, not standoffish. He is likely to put his arm around you. Before long, he will be impersonating a public figure or another musician. The impersonation skill may have something to do with how he learned to play music in the first place.
But he is focused: organized, purposeful, business-oriented. He enjoys hanging out, but not when it represents slack in getting today’s task done. There will be plenty of time to hang out when you are finished doing what you set out to do.
Jamie’s report that music stimulated a different kind of competition for him, compared with athletics—an inner competition--is apt. When he collaborates, there is no sense of one-upsmanship. Jamie welcomes suggestions from all around. “What do you think?” he constantly asks. He does not mind if someone else is the leader; he is content with finding a way to realize someone’s else’s vision—and making the realization really good. It is a function of his genuine empathy: he wants the hopes of the songwriter to come to life in his drum performance.
By the time he graduated from high school he knew he was committed to being a musician. “I toyed for a minute or two with the idea of doing music full time and skipping college. But my parents cut off those thoughts. The price of having a roof over my head was to go to college.” Actually, he admits, “They were much more supportive than that. But there was that implied threat.”
“So I said, ‘Okay I will go to college now, but I’m going to study music.”
Jamie did his freshman year at Benedictine University (formerly Illinois Benedictine College) in Naperville. But then the entire jazz faculty quit over a personnel dispute. His private teacher, Jack Mouse, had meanwhile joined the faculty at North Central College. Before his freshman year was over, Jamie was involved in several North Central music combos, and transferred there for his sophomore year.
“College turned me on to all this amazing music. Even in high school, my interests had evolved from heavy metal to progressive rock—Frank Zappa, Dream Theater, Dixie Dregs were my models. By the end of high school it was jam rock—the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Phish. And then in college, I gravitated to jazz, whether classical or contemporary. The flood gates opened. I embraced Reggae, Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, New Orleans, and Funk—I loved James Brown.”
One of his friends offered him a job teaching at a music store—Full Staff Music—in St. Charles. Initially, Jamie was hesitant, afraid that he did not know enough yet to teach others. But Mouse encouraged him to accept, and by the summer after his sophomore year, in 1997, he had accepted two other teaching jobs as well, and had 40-50 students, all told.
“Teaching came naturally to me. My father taught right after college, and my mother was an education major and a public-school administrator. I guess it is in my blood.
Teaching and learning went hand in hand. “How could I consider myself a teacher of music if I wasn’t learning myself? The secret to being a dynamic musician is never to stop learning; never to stop seeking the knowledge that is out there.”
His band Rainmakers, which he formed in college—“My brother Dave and I always were the ones who took the initiative in forming new groups, we recruited the other members of each band”-- had a horn section: saxophone and trumpet. “We embraced the acoustic tradition, American jazz and blues. We performed all over, at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, University of Iowa, Carbondale, DeKalb. This was only the latest in a series of bands. Jamie and Dave had formed Anonymous in high school, and then Dajo Bah in their junior year of high school.
“I have two dreams. First I want to take my performance career to the next level; I want to turn more people on to my creative self." Ultimately, I would like to tour the world to do that.
“Second, I want to continue to teach. I have a lot to say about where drumming is headed, how to find your own voice as a drummer—or playing any instrument or singing. I want to start a blog, to write a book, reflecting that philosophy and also offering tips on technique and critiques of alternative directions for music's development.”
"There's absolutely no possibility of defeat. I've been through band breakups; they're difficult, but you don't give up. I don't have to prove myself anymore. I know what I can do, and anyone can see what I can do. Whatever else happens, I am part of a community of musicians. It makes me feel good when my friends succeed and break through. Such a community is unusual and I value that. It's an opportunity to learn--and to learn, not just how to play the drums better, not just to collaborate on creating better music, but also to learn about others things such as film scoring and synching a sound track to a video track.”
“I have a good business model, because of my two goals. If necessary, my teaching can finance my creation and my performance.”
“I just turned 30, but age does not bother me Lots of my favorite artists didn't break through until they were in the 40s or even in their 50s. But all the while, they were professional musicians who were making music and getting better at it. Take Bill Frisell: once no one ever heard of him, although he was a very good musician; now he has to push opportunities away.”
"Of course things could be better; we don't have a full time publicist, a full time booking agent, a live sound engineer who travels with us, a camera operator, a merch person. We have lots of friends and some short-term paid contractors, but they are not in it for the long term. But something is happening now. Sometimes it’s frustrating that we can't force our goals upon the world, but it's happening. Our experience touring this year is encouraging. It feels like we're getting there. Coming home from a tour with money in your pocket makes you feel like a successful musician. My ethnic is to make the most of it; it's still rolling. I'm accomplishing part of the dream--now.
The two major projects I'm involved with--Oucho Sparks and the Andreas Kapsalis Trio--are all about those dreams. They depend on my creativity, but more than that, they give me an opportunity to help make other people's ideas come alive. I've learned a lot from Tim Sandusky in that regard. He is a real producer, not just a sound engineer, like most recording studio proprietors. He made me realize what you can do with an objective observer, a genuine collaborator. It helped me redefine my role. I'm interested, in my teaching and in my collaboration in these bands to help other people's ideas come alive, not just to create "the stamp of Jamie" and to imprint it on others.
“I'll never stop teaching, even if I have to minimize it to allow my performance career to take off. The scorn some music aficionados attach to teaching music is ridiculous. It's because they are stuck with this image of a music teacher as a high school band director, merely going through the paces. All of my teachers have been accomplished professionals passing on pieces of their tradition. One-on-one interaction is vital to survival of music as a live art form.
“I'm happy to teach technique to a young person who simply wants to play drums in his basement as a hobby to accompany someone else's recorded music. But what excites me is to encourage someone like me at age fifteen--someone who wants to be in a band, who wants to figure it out, who wants to be able to make what he hears.
It’s not only that Jamie Gallaher loves making music; he loves making your music as much as making his own. And he loves making good music, new kinds of music.