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Author Topic: Band Member Spotlight - Jon E. Gee  (Read 16220 times)
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« on: November 19, 2010, 03:43:18 pm »

Jon E. Gee Talks about Doing the Extra to Stand Above the Rest
By Thad Requet
Maybe one of the reasons John Gunnell (a.k.a. Jon E. Gee) fits in to the John Mellencamp band so well is because of his dedication to what he does. Rolling Stone Magazine has called Mellencamp's band the best live band in America. It's people like Jon E. Gee who make the band what it is.
He talks about what life in the Mellencamp band is like and how he and the rest of the band strive to be the best they can be.
Early Influences
Jon E. Gee is from Indianapolis, Indiana, and was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Growing up he was influenced by several musicians and bands. "As for the musicians, my favorites were the top guys, Stanley Clark, Jacko Pastoris, and Larry Graham was probably my favorite of all the guys because he was an innovator of a certain type of playing. Plus he was the bass player for Sly and the Family he was my guy. He was the first guy that I saw that played bass, sang bass and led the band," he explained. "It's kind of sad, but I still have my same favorite bands that I like today. I loved Sly and the Family Stone, later on I was into Grand Central Station, which was Larry Graham's band. I loved Ike and Tina Turner. I like all of the high energy bands. That's what I was into. I was a Ted Nugent fan before I got to play with Ted. I liked John (Mellencamp). I wasn't a great big fan of John, but I respected what he did, still do actually," he explained. He also listed Parliament Funkadelic, Bootsie Collins and Cameo. "All of the high energy groups. Same with the rock bands. I was a big Aerosmith fan. Van-Halen came along and had me harder and louder. I'm the metel-head of the band which I'm sure is no big surprise," he said with a laugh.
How Jon E. Gee and Mellencamp Hooked Up
"Toby Myers and I have been friends before he was in John's band. Toby was in a band called Roadmaster. Well I was the last bass player to play for them," he explained. "I was also in a band that opened for them (Roadmaster), that's how we got to know one another." 
Jon E. Gee was playing with Ted Nugent at the time that the bass player position for Mellencamp's band came available. He already knew Mellencamp's drummer Dane Clark also. He had met Larry Crane (Mellencamp's former lead guitar player) before and he knew Kenny Aronoff. "So I kind of knew the guys. Well, when it came time, I called Toby and said 'man is this cool' and he was like...yeah, you know, you might be the guy for this gig,'" he said.
"This other guitar tech friend of mine was working for Ted (Nugent) and was working for John also. So I had my friends in the band, and my guitar tech friend all put in a word for me. I got to be one of the guys who auditioned for the band. I auditioned for it and John hired somebody else," he explained.
Jon E. Gee said that Dane Clark told him he didn't think this person John hired was going to last. "I was with Ted Nugent, so I was fine, we'd just sit back and see what happened. So two weeks pass, they called me...'man are you still interested in the gig,  the guy didn't last. So after all the smoke cleared I was the guy left standing," he explained.
The first thing that Jon E. Gee played on was Cuttin' Heads.
Transition from Nugent to Mellencamp
Going from the heavier rock sound of Ted Nugent to the versatile sound of Mellencamp was quite a change for Jon E. Gee. "It was definitely different for me, because Ted and I probably come from the same musical background. As a matter of fact, Ted and I probably listened to a lot of the same stuff, where as John and I probably didn't, so that was a musical adjustment for me. First of all I had to play a whole lot softer. Me personally, I like music to be played loud. I don't care if it's bluegrass, I want it intense. I don't want to listen to soft music. I had a fan ask me a few weeks ago how loud I liked it. I like it loud enough where if I'm sitting here, you're sitting there, I can't hear you talking. I like it that way in a bar, in a concert or anywhere that I am. I don't want to hear the people next to me talking. I want it so loud that I have to focus on the band," he explained.
In The Studio
"Being in the studio is a different mindset from playing live...period. Live, you're trying to get an immediate response. In the studio, you trying to go for more creative art, and you have more time to try different things. Even if you already have it down, you still have to get it like you want it for the recording itself," he explained.
He talked about Mellencamp's style in the studio. "John does a wide range of stuff when we are recording. Sometimes we've pieced it together while we are there. When we did Freedom's Road, we did it different. We learned the songs, then we went in and recorded. Cuttin' Heads...we did it pretty much there. We tried some things, but we did it there. It was a whole different kind of thing. John does it a variety of ways."
He said Freedom's Road has become one of his favorite Mellencamp records. "We had fun making that one. We did it like they did back in the old days, and I think that's the reason why I enjoyed that one more," he said.
When asked if Mellencamp gives his musicians freedom to create in the studio Jon E. Gee explained that its a song to song thing. "Sometimes John knows exactly what he wants, and then sometimes he'll say...try a bunch of stuff. It just depends on where he's going and what he's doing," he said.
Re-arranging the Hits
When asked if it is refreshing to re-arrange a hit song that the band has played over and over for years, Jon E. Gee had an interesting take. "John and I disagree on that. My perception of that is this. I try to look at everything from a fan's point of view. I look at it from where I'm a fan. I think when you do a different arrangement of your own song, I think you alienate your audience...and I say that meaning, myself, if I go to see my favorite band, and I'm waiting to hear my favorite song, and if it's something I don't know, they can kiss my ticket money goodbye. But that's just me. Honestly, my hats off to the fans," he said. "But you've got to look at it from John's perspective, sometimes it's cool to take yourself someplace else because it keeps your creative process going, and some of these songs he's played over and over for years and years," he explained. "We go with his vision. That's why his name is on the marquee."
On playing the new stuff
"Now we're doing stuff that is out of most of our element. Which, for me, is hats off to all of the guys in the band, because most of us dug into it, I know I did," he said. "I always wanted to play the upright bass, and it was never practical for me, so I've gotten to learn about a lot of stuff on it, and I'm still not finished learning. For me it's really been a good ride and I'm really getting into it," he said.
Another album that Jon E. Gee and the band really went the extra mile on was Trouble No More. Mellencamp pushed his band to research and learn how to play traditional folk and authentic delta blues, the way it was originally played. That album and those lessons are what made Life, Dealth, Love and Freedom, and No Better Than This possible. "It made us have to go back and study it. I think that was a two year process (researching for Trouble No More). Going back and listening to old Robert Johnson and Lightning Hopkins and all these great blues cats, and try to authenticate that. Then we had to go back and find out what instruments they played, how they used them. That's what's happening now for this tour we're doing."
For the No Better Than This Tour, he said the band practiced for about a month before they came out, but preparation was longer than that. "I actually went and learned from a guy (former Johnny Cash bass player David Roe) how to play some of the slap style of upright bass." David Roe actually played the upright bass at the Memphis sessions at Sun Studio for the No Better Than This album.
"Suck It Up and Tough it Out and Be the Best You Can"
Jon E. Gee talked about the importance of doing the very best you can at every gig. "I try to do that whether it's John's gig, my gig or a show for somebody else, and I'll tell you why. I'm the bass player. That's the foundation of the musical band. You can't be wishy washy on the low end. It doesn't have to be the hardest song in the world and it doesn't have to be the coolest song in the world, but I do think it has to be solid and it has to be consistent for the rest of the guys in the band," he said. Jon E. Gee said the rest of the band should be able to depend on the steadiness of the bass player. He and Dane Clark have played together for several years now and work as one to carry the rhythm of the songs. "Dane and I have that connection on stage, and he's a monster player. Dane spoils you, because when you play with him and then you play with someone else, you realize how good he is."
He talked about bands in general and their work ethic. "Personally, I don't think a lot of bands work at being good, hard enough."
"When John's out of the picture, like at soundcheck, and it's just the band, everyone's got their roll. Mike (Wanchic) is the band leader because he has been with John for so long. Andy works with John on a lot of things vocally, so Andy will kind of lead the rehearsals, and I'm the bad guy. I'm the guy that says the thing that everyone is thinking but doesn't want to say. We'll be working on a song, and we'll get to the point where I'll say 'we all know that this part sucks,'" he explains. He adds that usually he isn't the first one to realize it, but he's the first one to say it out loud. "You can look around and see that everybody got it, this ain't working. And most of the time it breaks the ice. Sometimes in this band, these guys will go up to somebody else and say...'did that really suck. It ain't a personal thing, you've got to put the music first. We've got a saying...check your ego at the door. If something isn't working, we're going to fix it whether you like it or not. And personally, I like that about the people in this band," he said.
Favorite Mellencamp Songs to Perform
"We used to do "Crumblin' Down" on some previous tours, we're currently not doing it on this one, but that's one of my favorites because it's heavier, it's louder, it's more what I'm into. I like most of John's rocking stuff..."What If I Came Knocking", "Love And Happiness." I even like a lot of his stuff off the John Mellencamp album..."Eden Is Burning"." 
When asked if there was any songs he dreaded doing, or was just tired of doing, Jon E. Gee had an interesting response. "No, most of those kinds of songs is when I look at the audiences faces and see them going...ahhh, maybe," he said 
Forming A Set List
Jon E. Gee said the band has some input on the formation of the set list for an upcoming tour. "John will come up with a certain direction and if something sucks we'll go...'John, we've got to nix it...and he's like...'okay, what do you guys want to do.'"
"John has his vision of what he wants to do and most of us are tapped into that. It isn't like a young band trying to go into many different directions. Everybody is tapped into...let's see where John's trying to go, and lets see if we can help him get there," he explained.
Working with John
After being with the Mellencamp band since 1999,  Jon E. Gee said John hasn't changed much over the last decade. "Most of us (in the band) are like him. We may sometimes disagree on how to get there, but most of us are like him in our own situation. For the most part, everyone in this band is a perfectionist, everyone in this band want's to be top notch, and sets a high standard for themselves personally as well as collectively."He said it's not just about being good. It's about being as good as you can for as long as you can. "Even in their separate projects away from John, everyone is the same way," he explained. "You've got to be able to deliver to be in this band, and all of these guys do. We all get along, and it's a good act to be in," he said.
Life On The Road
Being on the road during a tour is an entire different lifestyle than being at home. When Jon E. Gee and the band arrived in St. Louis, they went out to eat before going to the Fabulous Fox Theater (the evening's venue) for a soundcheck and other things that needed to be done. 
"It's not too bad. Other people do a lot of that outside stuff for us. We're to the age where we don't have to know every little detail anymore. John has been out here (touring) for a while, so he has real good people who know what they are doing and how things are supposed to go," he explained. He said it's not a situation where you are stuck wondering how everything is supposed to go every day.
"There are a lot of times where people will ask me something and I'll just say 'I don't know.' They think I'm dismissing them but I'm not, we have other people taking care of those things for us."
"Don't forget, John's a pro. So we have pro people out here with us. Most of these people have been with us many times before in some situation. We all know them and trust them." One of the people Jon E. Gee puts a lot of faith into is Scott "Scooter" Davis. He is his tech. He's probably more of a perfectionist than I am," Jon E. Gee said.
Thoughts on the Theater Tour
The No Better Than This Tour brings Mellencamp and his band from the arenas to the smaller elegant theaters across the country. It's a different vibe from the big shows, but one that can be very effective. He said he likes playing in the 2,000 to 5,000 seat venues the best. "You can get more intimate with the crowd. You can take them on a journey when the crowd is not too big. You get 10,000, 15,000, 20,000, 35,000 people and you're almost out of reach. I don't mind doing those big shows, but the 2,000 to 5,000 seat crowds seem to be more intense."
Preparing For the No Better Than This Show
After a soundcheck with the band minus John Mellencamp, that lasted nearly an hour and a half, Jon E. Gee talked about the importance of perfecting things, and going above and beyond. The soundcheck was long due to the fact that there were so many instruments to check and get in the mix for the evening, especially since the show is split into three sections. They had to mix in the instruments for the opening rockabilly set, the middle acoustic set, and the final full blown rock set.
"I'm playing three bass guitars in this show. I'm playing the upright, a five string Lakland, and I'm playing a Fender fretless," he said.
Jon E. Gee said it's critical for the band and crew to make the sound fit the room they are playing. "Last night we played a smaller venue (in Kansas City) of about 2,500. This place (in St. Louis) is larger, its a deeper room. Some nights we'll play in a taller room. Some places are wood, some places are brick. All these things vary depending on what you're trying to do. You have to trust the guys around you. Because to you it might sound great, but out there (in the audience) it might sound awful."
Mellencamp's sound guys were all over the Fox Theater listening to the sound quality during the soundcheck. From the lower section down front to the top row in the upper deck. "That's really what I think is the biggest difference between big bands and small bands. Small bands don't take the time to make sure every aspect of the industry is perfect. Now when you're starting out, you don't really know what that is," he said.
During the soundcheck, there were several glitches that happened. From a mic going bad on Dane Clark's cocktail set, to Mike Wanchic's rhythm setting being too muddy for his satisfaction, to Jon E. Gee's upright bass literally rocking back and forth to the beat of the bass drum, putting it in danger of actually falling over. "Andy had some issues as well with his equipment. It was just one of those days," he explained. But that's why we have to do that, to take care of every detail every day.
He said he still gets pumped for the shows and a tour. "I still get excited about it two or three days beforehand. For me, I still feel it. I can't speak for anyone else. I always told myself when I stopped feeling that, it was time for me to stop."
Jon E. Gee said out of the entire process, he loves the touring part the best. 
Opening for Bob Dylan
John Mellencamp toured with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan in the summer of 2009, playing after Willie and before Bob. This year, he and the band were the opening act for several more dates with Dylan. Jon E. Gee talked about the influence that Dylan has had on the musicians of today. "People asked me what it was like opening for Bob Dylan and I just say...'Dude, he's Bob Dylan!'" He said he really didn't get to visit with Dylan at length. "Bob is really not that type of a person. He wasn't rude. He waved and spoke, but Bob ain't the hanging out type," he explained.
When asked if there is anything Mellencamp has taken from touring with Bob Dylan and incorporated into his own show, Jon E. Gee said he didn't know if it was anything specific. "I do think that all of us growing up listening to him, it's part of us, that you can't get away from. How are you not influenced by Bob Dylan. I'm probably one of the biggest Jimi Hendrix fans in the world. Jimi Hendrix liked Bob Dylan. So I think people are influenced by Bob Dylan whether they think they are or not. You might say, 'I don't like Bob Dylan,' but the people you listen to like Bob Dylan and so that influence is passed through them to you," he explained.
"I told his son Jakob (Dylan) that I really didn't care for Bob growing up, but the thing was, at that time, I didn't get it. I was a growing, aspiring musician, so I was looking for the next coolest, playing style, or the next biggest, loudest riff there was. Well, that's just not Bob Dylan. Dylan is the songwriter, the poet, the perspective. See, I wasn't there yet, I was too busy trying to be cool. Once I got it, I was like 'whoa, I've been missing this all along.'"
Jon E. Gee gave Dylan's bass player Tony Garnier a lot of credit for teaching him a new style on the upright bass. "I would watch those guys play from the soundboard a lot of nights, and they were just hammering it every night. I saw Tony looked comfortable on the upright so I talked to him about it. He took me and showed me some stuff, which has helped me...again, directly influenced by Bob Dylan. Tony's a great guy. Actually, all those guys in Dylan's band are very cool."
"All those guys, Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, and look at John. How can you watch John and think he wasn't influenced by James Brown? We all were. He might not have been anybody's favorite, but we were all influenced by him."
When He's On His Own
When Jon E. Gee is not playing bass for Mellencamp, he is busy working on his own projects, and has his own band. "My stuff is heavier, harder and louder. If you're a John Mellencamp fan, you probably won't like what I'm doing. I've always liked the energy music," he said. He writes his own stuff and plays guitar. "I write on guitar, but I really don't consider myself a guitar player. I've got guitar players in my band that are much better than me," he said. 
There is nothing like a jam session and in Indiana, there are many great musicians who know each other, and a jam session can spark into something real cool. "I remember a jam session up in Castleton (Indiana) with Kenny (Aronoff) on drums, Henry Lee Summer, Tony Burton, Larry Crane and me on bass," he said. Jon E. Gee said he was the bass player for Henry Lee Summer back in the 80's.
When he's on his own away from music, he said he likes traveling, taking pictures, watching movies, being on the computer and being with his kids.
He doesn't have any of his own music recorded at this time, but he said hopefully fans will be hearing it real soon.
As Mellencamp continues to strive for excellence and push himself to the limits, he will continue to do so with his band. It takes true professionals like Jon E. Gee and the rest of the band members to be able to reach those goals.
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« Reply #1 on: November 19, 2010, 04:41:11 pm »

great article, so many interesting details from a band member.
thanks to Jon E. Gee for doing what he does, and thanks for this article!
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« Reply #2 on: November 19, 2010, 08:42:18 pm »

Very nice write up Thad! Learned things about Jon that I did not know.  Smiley  Very cool. Be nice if you could do that with each of Johns band members, give us a look into who they are. Just a thought.  Wink
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« Reply #3 on: November 21, 2010, 08:08:57 pm »

Very insightful.  Thanks for the in-depth questions.  It's always interesting to hear how different personalities can mesh to make it work so well.
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