Meet the players: Justin Leigh, drummer extraordinaire.

Hi all – Excited for the show on August 5th @ the Brooklyn Tea Lounge. I’ve been working a lot this month on music that is inspired by conversations with homeless individuals in NYC.  Hope to see you there.  More on that to come –

I thought it would be great to feature various members of the Aerial Photograph group on this blog from time to time. Here is a great interview with Justin Leigh, who plays drums for this outfit.  Justin is one of my absolute favorite people to work with.  He has been such an inspiring musician to work with over the years. Enjoy –

Thanks Justin!


Justin making the magic happen at an aerial photograph recording session.

When did you start playing music/drums? How did that come about?

I first started playing the drums when I was in the third grade.  My middle brother, who is a piano player and music teacher, was in the middle school band and they needed a drummer for the jazz band.  So, he volunteered and they let him borrow an old gold sparkle Ludwig drum set.  However, it had no cymbals, just the drums.  I was really getting into The Beatles at that time and my brother did not really practice on the set all that much, so I would sit down and play along to a Beatles compilation cassette I had.  I would just play on the rims for the cymbals.  The first tune I tackled was “Hey Jude” and then moved onto “Paperback Writer.”

How do you feel about your college experience as a music major?

This is kind of a loaded question, right?  I mean I loved my time at Temple.  In fact, I left The University of the Arts because I was hearing a lot of musicians around Philly who were from Temple and I thought I have to be a part of this.  The education I got was wonderful, I got to learn how to play in a big band and get mentored by the great Carl Mottola.  The faculty there is mostly made up of Philly guys and former students.  There is a lot of bonding that goes on between the faculty and students, and it very much fits into the uniqueness that is the Philadelphia music scene.  Everyone is all in it together and we all want to see each other do well and be happy.

The only reason I bring up the question as being loaded, is because you really don’t HAVE to go to music school to be a music major.  You could go to school for something practical and take private theory, ear training, composition, and lessons for your instrument on the side, while also hanging out and meeting people in the scene, thus still making those coveted connections.

I know you teach in addition to performing and composing.  What is your approach to teaching drum students?

I learned a long time ago from a friend, former Temple grad., and fellow Trevosian – when discussing the frustrations of students not practicing or taking lessons seriously – that learning music should just be fun for people.  Who cares if they don’t want to be as serious as I am or really practice like I do?  It is just nice that they are embracing music, and truthfully, these are the people we want to appreciate music and come see our shows.  Therefore, I try to just gauge the student’s interest level and go from there.  But above all, I want their time with me to be fun for them.

Who are some of your biggest influences as a drummer? As a musician in general?

Well, there is certainly the obvious – Brian Blade.  He kind of embodies what a great person is.  I have gotten to meet him a few times and ask him some questions, and his answers always showcase his endless commitment to serving the music.

Ari Hoenig was a huge influence on me when I was in my early twenties.  His creativity and ability to get sounds from the drums and shape phrases and forms are truly inspiring.

Tony Williams was huge, too.  I will never forget first hearing him and just being like, wow!  Someone can do that?  That’s who I want to be.

I would also have to say Jason Fraticelli.  He is a bass player in Philly and someone who has also worked with Aerial Photograph.  He has the ability to capture a crowd and draw them into the music no matter what is happening or where we are playing.  He is also just the nicest guy and really inspires me to remember to just enjoy the fact that I get to play music with such wonderful people.

Do you have a favorite performance you’ve done in the last few years?

I just recently did an impromptu performance at Matt Davis’s apartment with Matt playing acoustic guitar, this wonderful singer Samantha Rise and myself on just a snare drum.  We did three pieces of Samantha’s for a small group of friends and it was just magical.  There was such an energy flowing through the room and between the three of us.  It is truly special when you can create with people and know that they trust you and you trust them.  The music can then truly become such a wonderfully organic thing with each member reacting to the slightest change in tambour, rhythm, tone, or inflection, all for the sake of enhancing the listener’s experience.  Not everyone gets to know what that feels like.

Do you have any specific practicing routine that you work through?  How do you practice?

I used to have a more serious practice routine when I was younger where I would hit these five domains: Technique, Independence, Reading, Styles and Improvisation.  Now I kind of just practice an hour a day and just keep it simple and work on stuff for hand maintenance and reading.  I just do this all on a practice pad while watching some sort of sporting event on mute.  Occasionally I will sit at the drums and just practice basic rock grooves and fills, in the hopes that I will get that elusive singer-songwriter gig I have been hoping for.

What are you listening to these days?

I have been listening to a lot of great bands from all over.  Lately, The Fossil Collective, Kate Faust, Kimbra, Bombay Bicycle Club, Emma Louise, The Head and the Heart, Sufjan Stevens, and Father John Misty.

My neighbor plays a lot of Led Zeppelin, The Who and Waylon Jennings, so I am constantly hearing that stuff, which is great.

Do you have any book recommendations?

Yeah, I would recommend Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Howard Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and anything by Ray Bradbury.

Any additional thoughts?

As I get older, I am starting to realize both how short life is and how it can change in an instant.  This realization has led me on a path to truly be aware and live in the present.  I want to enjoy what I do, the people around me and the experiences I get to have.  We are all searching for happiness, but maybe that is all it really is – just love that you get to be a part of this incredible journey which SO many things had to happen for us to get here, and to just be present.


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