In order to independently make music for a full-time living, you have to be willing and able to do various things.
One night could involve performing at a local bar for hours with a six-string, and the next night might find you behind a drum kit playing a show at another venue.
Warwick native Nate Jones has experience with that kind of schedule. He’s become a staple in the Rhode Island bar scene with his knack for playing acoustic covers and originals, and he also plays drums for the Providence bands Neapolitan and The Big Lonesome.
Jones and I recently had a chat about audiences in various settings, switching between styles, going on tour and a new single he’s putting out.
ROB DUGUAY: When it comes to playing these three-hour gigs at various bars, how much work is it to learn a bunch of covers ahead of time?
NATE JONES: Most of the songs I play at cover gigs are songs I grew up listening to or ones I learned when I first started playing guitar about six years ago. This weekend actually marks three years since my first-ever paid gig of my own. The first song I performed was “Can’t You See” by Marshall Tucker Band. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and I still play it at almost every show.
For me, it is admittedly not very difficult to learn songs to play. Since childhood, I've been able to easily memorize and remember all sorts of information, so most of the songs I play and lyrics I sing come from memory. Occasionally, if there is a specific song I want to be able to perform, I’ll sit down with the chords and practice it a few times. I always try to let the singing be intuitive and in the moment when I play it out.
RD: It’s crazy that you can remember three hours’ worth of songs. Sometimes I forget what I did five minutes ago.
NJ: Yeah, but it has its benefits.
RD: Does it ever get defeating when you’re performing at a bar and people are not paying attention?
NJ: One thing I learned early on performing live is that fear never goes away. I still get nervous all the time at shows for various reasons, most of which are manifestations of something internal I’m going through in my life. Performing is a great chance to acknowledge my fears and push past them. In his book “The War of Art,” Steven Pressfield explains how ‘the amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can not be overcome.’ For me, I look at fear as being a sign that I’m doing the right thing and I’m continuing to grow by stepping outside of my comfort zone.
When playing a bar or restaurant gig versus a show where fans buy tickets, you have to understand that you are not the main attraction. You are hired to come in and do a job, and that job is to entertain people by creating an appropriate vibe and background ambiance, thereby enhancing the customer experience. When people are talking to their friends and not paying attention as much to the music, that doesn’t bother me. I know they are hearing the music and the good vibes are impacting them, even if it may sometimes be subconscious.
RD: How do you adapt between the two styles on drums with the psychedelic trio Neapolitan and the folk rock of The Big Lonesome?
NJ: Neapolitan came about through my lifelong friendship with bassist Sam McCaughey and guitarist Brendan Barrette. We would regularly jam together in college until we were all decent enough players to form a band. I settled into the role of drummer when Sam decided to teach himself bass, and Brendan’s songwriting naturally took the lead role musically. Playing with those guys is what helped me develop my chops and truly become a drummer. Sam and I found great pleasure in locking into a beat on bass and drums.
We formed a tight, distinct sound as the rhythm section that allowed Brendan a lot of freedom to display his unique creativity on guitar. We settled on the name Neapolitan because of the ice cream analogy with three individual flavors, branded as one product.
Playing with The Big Lonesome was a big challenge for me at first. Basically, I had met bandleader Chad Gosselin at a show at The Met and we quickly became friends. We instantly had a mutual respect for what each other was doing. He’s the kind of guy who will always be straightforward with you. He’s very dedicated and would give anyone the shirt off his back if they were in need.
A few months later and after seeing Neapolitan play, Chad asked me to fill in on drums for their upcoming national tour. I was excited and quickly got to practicing their songs, which intimidated me a bit because their previous drummer is a total beast on the kit. I knew I had to bring my A-game. Chad is a great songwriter, and unlike Neapolitan where I co-wrote, my task in this band was just to be rock-steady and keep the rhythm going along to the songs. There was of course room to improvise, but it forced me to grow a lot as a player to have to be the glue in a situation I wasn’t as familiar with.
RD: You also got to do a tour with The Big Lonesome this past April. What were some of your favorite moments from being on the road?
NJ: It was an incredible journey and eye-opening in so many ways. One of my favorite moments was riding an electric scooter along the beautiful San Antonio riverwalk and teaching a homeless disabled man to play drums with two sticks we found. That was a pretty incredible exchange. I also got to meet George Porter Jr., who is the bassist for the original kings of funk, The Meters, in New Orleans. He was actually at our show. Then in Milwaukee, a kind photographer helped us parallel park the van and invited me to the Milwaukee Underground Film Festival, which was extremely cool.
I had to walk through the dining room of a restaurant and jazz venue and upstairs through the back of the building to get to the screening. There were so many interesting and extraordinary moments like that on the tour in general.
RD: What are your plans for the summer?
NJ: I have several amazing events and opportunities that I’m lucky to be taking part in. From June 12-16 I’ll be providing musical services while attending and teaching at an adult summer camp retreat called The Connection Camp in New Jersey. Then from June 19-23 I’ll be attending a mindfulness retreat for young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 called Wake Up at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York. I go every year and have now made friends from all over the world.
As far as my own music goes, I’m happy to announce I just recently signed with Big Noise, an artist development and music promotion firm, based in Providence. They’ve worked with amazing artists like The Beach Boys, The Ramones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Police, Alice Cooper and many more. I feel very lucky to have them and I’m working hard in the studio on a single called “Safe As We Can” that will be out this summer.
To learn more and hear Nate Jones’ music, like his page “Nate Jones Music” on Facebook.