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Rising Stars: Meet Justin Joyce of Allied Gardens

Today we’d like to introduce you to Justin Joyce.  

Hi Justin, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
Well, nobody in my family were really musicians, so my first introduction to music started in middle school. In sixth grade, students had the option to take band or “wheel” as an elective. “Wheel” was a class that rotated through different visual arts from my understanding and it had tons of homework, so I ultimately decided on band. Initially, I had set out to learn trumpet but switched to percussion last minute. The switch was for various reasons, but mostly because I had a little schoolboy crush on a girl in the percussion section. It’s wild how small things like that can really change the trajectory of your life. But I really didn’t get interested in drumming until eighth grade where the hype of soon being in high school drumline set in, and that was also the year I played in the middle school jazz band, which was my first time ever playing drum set. Though calling it a jazz band doesn’t really feel appropriate (my first drum solo was on an arrangement of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” to give you an Idea of the repertoire). By this point, I still wasn’t really into playing drum set but was certainly excited about getting to be in the high school drumline. So going into and throughout high school, my musical focus shifted to marching and concert percussion. I held some sort of leadership position in drumline/band from start to finish at Patrick Henry High School, being bass captain and section leader of percussion ensemble my freshman year, and center snare/section leader from sophomore year on. I really had no interest in playing drum set during high school. We didn’t have a jazz band at my high school, and I was more focused on creating a winter drumline, which we were able to accomplish by senior year. Towards the end of that year, I put together my drum set that had been collecting dust in the garage for years and began messing around, playing to records. Just about my entire adolescence, I was mostly into classic rock, hip-hop, and some newer things of the time. Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, KISS, NWA, Biggie Smalls, and others were always on repeat on my iPod. When it was time to decide what to study in college, I ultimately decided on pursuing music at San Diego State University. 

Originally my intention was to study classical percussion but made another last-minute switch to try and learn jazz drum set, having absolutely no prior knowledge of actual jazz (and no formal drum set training either). Going into my jazz drum set audition at SDSU, I had no clue who Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker were. I didn’t know a waltz was in three. I thought trading 4’s was a card game. The only jazz I knew was “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “In the Mood,” and some Frank Sinatra. Needless to say, I had a lot of learning and catching up to do. Somehow, I made it into the School of Music, but it wouldn’t be until my sophomore year I would finally be accepted into the Jazz Studies program. From the moment college started, I got right to work. I would ask everyone what I needed to listen to. I would ask mentors around me like Jordan Morita, Rick Helzer, Richard Thompson, Mike Holguin, and many others what I could do to improve my playing. I cleared my schedule so I could sit and watch the Big Band rehearsals and shadow the drummer (never missing a single rehearsal, which led to me playing percussion on most concerts from the start). I really would just ask question after question, picking the brains of the more experienced people around me. For the first couple years of college, I would spend about 8-10 hours a day in the practice room and another 6-8 listening to all the music I needed to know. It was truly one of the most enlightening times of my life, getting to hear all these masterpieces for the first time every day, all day. This is where I really began to grow as a musician and started “playing music.” During this time, I started with playing with Tiffany Jane & The Kicks outside of school and really started gaining gigging experience with some great friends and musicians. Throughout my undergrad, I was falling in love with everything about music. I got really into music theory (I hated being the butt of every “drummer joke”). I started playing a lot of vibraphone, and I started composing and arranging (which would come to be my favorite role in music). Outside of school, I was playing gigs often with Tiffany Jane and Teagan Taylor, along with freelancing some gigs here and there (eventually going on a nationwide tour with Tiffany Jane & The Kicks in 2014). After completing my undergrad, I returned to SDSU for graduate studies, serving as the Graduate Assistant of the Jazz Studies program. That took up a lot of my time then, so I wasn’t really playing much outside of school. During this time, I had been going through some major personal issues, which I can get into later. It wasn’t until after the pandemic (if we can even say that yet) that I came back into the gigging world, and I’m grateful to be back. I’m living a much healthier lifestyle than I once was and feeling better than ever, as a person and as a creative. I just released my debut album as a leader entitled STORY TALES which features some of my best friends and truly some of the best musicians in San Diego (or anywhere for that matter). I’m gigging often (and having fun doing it!), and I’m teaching a little here and there. But I’m always looking for more gigs and students! And I’ve been constantly composing new music, closing in on the time to release a follow-up to STORY TALES. I’m excited what’s on the horizon in my musical career and grateful for it all! 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back, would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It’s definitely been far from a smooth road in many ways. As I said before, starting college with no foundation of jazz knowledge or drum set performance technique was certainly an obstacle in itself. Going from the person in the room that new nothing to the one who people sought advice from in such a short time took a lot of work. So many times, in that process do you feel naive and get jived, but having the mindset of growing from it instead of being discouraged is just such a good skill to have. Plus, the community I’m around has always been so supportive to see each other grow as musicians and people. Over the years though, I’ve faced physical problems that have forced me to alter my technique a bit and made some things more difficult. I’ve faced issues in my hands and arms that have had me keep a close eye on my health. At the start of grad school, I pinched my ulnar nerve on my left elbow. My pinky and ring finger up to my elbow were almost completely numb for about a year, and I would say I still have maybe 90% of feeling in them now. There’s other wrist and joint issues that have also caused problems, but you just gotta adapt, you know? It’s not all bad. Having to change my technique has allowed me to alter the way I approach my instrument, and though the changes came out of necessity, I feel I’m a more musical drummer in many ways because of them. But these issues haven’t been nearly the hardest to overcome. 

While I was in my undergrad, I started losing a lot of my best friends (mostly to suicide and overdose). In 2016, it felt at times like I was at a funeral/memorial every other week. This really set me on a path of destruction. I began abusing substances and drinking heavily, which began a descent into this spiral of poor decisions and unhealthy behavior. At this same time, my father had just begun his fifth battle with cancer (the one he would eventually lose in 2018), and I acted as caretaker for him alongside my mother (it had always been just the three of us since we moved out to San Diego from New Jersey when I was a kid). All of this happening at the same time led me into a really dark place, my personal rock bottom. I began getting obsessed with finding out why, seemingly overnight, suicide became such a popular thing for people my age (not just within my friend group, but nationwide). I closed myself off in so many ways. Even had a poor attempt at suicide myself. I was nearly kicked out of SDSU, I was kicked out of my house and living in my car when I finally decided to make a change right then and there. It’s been about five years since then, and I haven’t had a drink since. It’s something I’m very open about; I feel overcoming these hardships are much more telling of a person’s character than falling into them in the first place (and if you ever have any questions about suicide, alcoholism, abuse issues for yourself or someone you love, feel free to DM my social media accounts, I will get back to you!). 

Following my father’s death in 2018 led to more difficulties as you could imagine. My mother and I would butt heads a lot, and we were both very high-strung all the time. It was certainly a very emotional time. I closed myself off again, but in a different way. I stayed to myself and just read books and articles wrote critical essays, got really into philosophy, and closed off the outside world. As enlightening as it was, it was a very destructive way to live. I really didn’t know how to break back into society or the music scene even when I wanted to. It wasn’t until everybody had to stop at the pandemic did I weasel my way back into the music scene when everybody else was figuring out how they were going to do the same. In many ways, the pandemic saved my life and gave me another chance. I’m a much more healthy individual now that I’ve been able to grow from these challenges, and I’ve regained my focus of the the things I truly value in life, and that’s always at the forefront of my mind now. Beautiful things do arise in tragedy if you keep your heart open, though it’s the hardest thing to grasp onto while grieving. For instance, the bond my friend group now has from all the struggles we’ve been through together is so incredibly strong. At these funerals I mentioned before, I would see people embrace each other who, probably not a year beforehand, would have fought each other on sight. Seeing pettiness get left behind for love is a beautiful thing to witness. People who know me closely know I say this phrase often: “treasure your tragedies more than your triumphs.” I’ve made so many mistakes in my life, but just like in music; it’s what you do with those mistakes is what determines your character. I’m still very much picking up the pieces in many ways from my former lifestyle, but the only other option giving up, and that will never happen. It’s all about progress, not perfection. The hardships I’ve gone through are things I would never wish upon my worst enemy, but I do feel that I am a MUCH stronger person because I’ve persisted through to the other side of these struggles. And a so much more grateful one at that. Just to still be here, doing the things I love, while so many people aren’t. A day in Hell can make a day on Earth feel like a day in Heaven, you know? 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 


Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Primarily, I’m a freelance drummer. I guess my foundation is playing what most would call “jazz” (considering it’s where I began my formal drum set studies), but I play many different styles. I have a passion for music as a whole, so just about every style, genre, and culture of music are interesting to me in some way, though some can certainly be harder to get into than others. Typically, as a sideman, I’ll get called to play anything from hard-hitting jazz gigs to John-Bonham-Esque rock gigs, to Brazilian and Latin music, to Dixieland, and just about everything in-between. I love playing gigs where beforehand I’m not really familiar with the music, because I get exposed to so much great music that way. I absolutely love the way that playing different styles makes me approach the instrument differently. And learning about the culture and history of the music it’s all such a beautiful thing to be a part of, especially doing it with your friends and the people you love. As a drummer, I would say people pay attention to how much I listen to everybody else on the bandstand and try to really have a conversation. I feel every playing opportunity is a learning experience, and I do my best to serve the music as idiomatically correct as possible, bringing in my own voice when the music calls for it. 

As a composer, it seems I’m known by my friends for writing a wide variety of different tunes, but ironically, I rarely have them feature the drums. When I’m writing at the piano, I focus on trying to create singable and memorable melodies. Ones that get stuck in your head, and you sing in the shower. Often do I hear people I know who know my tunes humming them unknowingly, and that’s a great feeling! My longtime love of theory and harmony tends to have me surround those melodies with some complexity and keeps the players and listeners on their toes. Some of my tunes are very straightforward, some much more difficult, but they all make sense in some way (at least, I hope haha!). I like to let people listen to my tunes during the writing process and give any ideas and notes they have (whether I take them or leave them). In my mind, it’s all collaborative, and hearing the way players interpret my tunes–usually different than I intended–is all very eye-opening. So aside from writing “pretty tunes” (as I’ve been told frequently), I like everyone I play with bringing their own ideas to my tunes, letting anyone take the wheel who’s up for it. It keeps everything feeling new, and if it’s a good tune, it usually will hold up when changing the vibe even drastically. On my debut album, STORY TALES, so many of the best ideas came from the members of my group hearing something different than myself and allowing ourselves to try it. The collaboration aspect of creativity is what drives me a lot of the time, and I think players appreciate when their ideas are considered. While we’re on the bandstand playing one of my originals, it’s not just my tune; it’s everyone’s. 

What do you like and dislike about the city?
There are definitely more things I like about San Diego than things I dislike. I mean, it’s more difficult here than many places to make a living doing what you love, and I’ve certainly never been as “financially comfortable” as I would like to be, but there’s a lot of factors that play into that. As I said before, I’m still picking up the pieces from my past in many ways, and San Diego can be a hard place to catch up financially in. But I’ve certainly had countless conversations with other musicians in town about how, even as the cost-of-living increases, many gigs tend to stay at the same pay rate. And those conversations often reflect input from musicians over several decades. However, it seems as of recent that the number of gig opportunities and places to play is increasing, which is phenomenal! But like I said, there are so many more aspects about San Diego that are incredible to be a musician/creative. I mean, there’s something really brewing here in San Diego. While there will always be some sort of competition when many people are trying to get the same gigs (which is great for personal growth to a certain degree), the camaraderie in San Diego is so much more felt and prevalent. Here, just about everyone I know cheers on each other, pulling for their friends to succeed. It’s such a close-knit yet vast community jam-packed with so many brilliant minds that constantly come together to help each other grow, both as creatives and just as humans. It’s truly such a beautiful thing that I personally haven’t come across anywhere else, especially not in the major cities. I’m just so grateful to be a part of this community and grow with the incredible people here while doing what I can to help others grow as well. 

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Image Credits

Tony Navarro
Anastasya Korol
Robert Sanchez

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