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Jon Gustaitis: “Commit to Music and Don’t Look Back”

The first time you pick up a guitar, you probably don’t imagine a lifelong love affair. A friendship with give and take, success and hardship. It takes a true musician to weather the ups and downs and come out on the other side, still creating. 

Jon Gustaitis is a true musician. Since picking up a guitar at age 12, music has been a constant in his everyday; and in the past few years, he’s made the transition to performing full-time. And by full-time, I mean all the time. He performs solo as Jon Gus, with his band Gus Company, accompanying singer Lindsey Harper, doing cover gigs, producing hip-hop, recording as Gus & Gomez for television, film, and commercials. He even has a holiday album that reached number two on Billboard’s smooth jazz chartJon is the perfect example of taking a not-so-easy profession and figuring out how to make it work.  

Jon and I grew up together in the same small town in Connecticut, and became friends performing in the local theatre circuit. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with him to find out how he went from community theater in Shelton, CT to playing sold out shows all over LA.

Which instruments are you playing these days?

Guitar is my main instrument, but I’m also a singer and play bass, mandolin, keys, and harmonica. Guitar is home, though.

Tell me about some of your current projects.

JON GUSTAITISI’ve been working with my good friend singer/songwriter Lindsey Harper for about five years now. She and I are writing and recording an EP, which we look to have finished and released this fall. We tour up and down the West Coast and play a lot of the live rooms around LA and Hollywood, like The Hotel Café and Saint Rocke.

I’ve also been writing and recording new material with a talented sax player, Nick Gomez, for our project, Gus & Gomez. We focus on alt-rock songs for small films, TV shows, and TV ads. Lots of overdriven guitars and rye whiskey in the studio. It’s a good time.

There’s an EP that’s waiting in the wings from my last band, Gus Company. I’ve released a few tracks on SoundCloud, and I’ve got two more that are just about done. I stalled on this one because it was a band effort, and I felt guilty about continuing with it on my own. But it would have been more of a shame to not release it at all. So a few finishing touches and it’s done. I’m currently putting together an EP release show for this summer.

Bennie Williams is a hip-hop DJ who plays all the big clubs on the Sunset Strip as DJ B.Original. He and I have been working together for about 4 years now on producing some hip-hop tracks and we’re currently recording songs that sound like they could be on the same playlist as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. It takes me back to my roots — I love the R&B of the 60s with Al Green and Wilson Pickett.

How did you start playing music?

I asked my folks for lessons on the Kimball organ in our living room when I was about 10. I loved all the sounds it made and it had this huge volume pedal that I could rock back and forth with my foot. That was the first time I started formally playing music, but I’d been knocking around my grandmother’s piano since I was about six or seven. My folks got me my first guitar when I was 12 and that blew my mind. It was Christmas morning and I think we were late for church because my dad was teaching me how to play “House of the Rising Sun”. I’ve been pretty much obsessed ever since.

Who inspired you to start playing music?

My dad. He was a sax player and singer in Top 40 bands since he was a teenager. He had this energy when he played. Sometimes his band would rehearse at our house when I was a kid and I thought it was the coolest thing. Man, they were loud. And my mom always had the radio playing in the house, soaking my brain. When I picked up that first guitar, things just made sense. And I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.

What’s your greatest challenge as a musician?

Keeping at it through the ups and downs and crippling doubt. It’s difficult to make enough money as a musician to live and to help support a family. I’ve worked day jobs for most of my adult life and day jobs take me away from music — pretty far away and I lost a lot of time. Last year my day job dried up around February and it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was pushed out of the nest. I poured myself into writing music, recording, and playing gigs (a lot of cover gigs for the cash) and things started to happen. It’s scary sometimes, but it seems like the only sane way for me to live.

I know you did a lot of musicals growing up. Why did they click and how did they shape you as a performer?

JON GUSTAITISMan, I LOVED musical theater. And we were so lucky to have such a professional theater team working with us as high school kids. I learned a lot from Gary and Fran Scarpa — how to perform and project, how to tell a story with a song, and the devotion that comes from committing to a live music project with other people. Musical theater taught me how to work hard.

I think I realized my direction before that, though. I was about 13 and wanted to be Slash so bad. I learned every Guns N’ Roses song and rebelled against haircuts. My brother Jeff played drums and that’s the ONLY thing we did day in and day out. Just woodshedding. We entered the middle school talent show and played to an auditorium of screaming kids. I mean, we were decent at best, but it clicked that this was what I wanted to do.

Did you receive formal training or did you pick up skills along the way?

Both. I’ve learned a lot by ear since I was a kid, but I’ve also had a lot of great teachers too. Sitting down with a song and playing along to it is probably the best way to learn from the masters, in my opinion, but good teachers will always help you to understand how it all works. I spent two years at Berklee, learned a lot there, and I even started taking some voice lessons recently to keep up my game. There’s a lot to learn about taking care of my voice so I don’t lose it.

What’s the best show you ever played? What’s the worst?

Oh, there are so many! It’s tough to narrow down.

A few years ago my band Gus Company played at the House of Blues Sunset Strip to a full house. The place was electric that night. And only the year before I saw acts like John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne play there, so to be on that stage sent shivers up my spine. We had a girl on the floor collecting emails who was absolutely mobbed at the end of the show with people wanting to hear more from us. That’s my favorite room out here in LA, and the crowd was so damn good to us that night.

My worst show was one night we played On The Rox, the club upstairs at The Roxy. That room gets filled with the older gear from downstairs, and everything decided to go to hell all at once. My mic was shocking my lips whenever I sang, the stage was so small the keyboard player had to set up on the floor, the hi-hat pedal was busted from a previous band, and the mics kept feeding back. Meanwhile, the sound guy sits in the gear room behind the stage, so he’s not fully aware of all the commotion on stage, so we’re pulling back this little black curtain looking for him. And then the booker made sure to give me an ear-full about starting on time. A real Murphy’s Law night. A surge protector and a new hi-hat stand later, we were off and we gave it everything we had. It still turned out to be a fun night in the end.

What would you tell a young musician just starting out?

Commit yourself to music and don’t look back. Get on the road while you’re young. The miles are much easier on young bones and harder on families. If you’re a songwriter, write every single day.

Besides music, what do you like to do?

I’m simple I guess. My wife and I really love having friends over for dinner to talk, and drink, and laugh. My two boys, Sebastian, 5, and Grant, 2, also keep me quite busy. We’ve had some pretty wicked wrestling matches lately and they manage to kick my ass every time.

What is music to you?

For me, music is a communion. There’s an intimacy there in that feeling you get, that everyone gets, like it’s speaking just to you. It’s the way you somehow feel special, elated, and connected among 10,000 other people at a festival show – instead of claustrophobic. But it’s also that right song at the right time, when you’re feeling like the whole world has forgotten you, and that one song understands you so well that you’re not alone anymore.

Keep up with the latest from Jon Gus on SoundCloud and Facebook.

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Jonathan Hack

Jonathan is a Brooklyn resident, musician, writer, and ping pong aficionado. His career in the theatre has spanned acting, music direction, production, carpentry, and more. As a marketer he has worked with major brands in music and fashion. He is a proud member of AEA and NATS. Follow him on Twitter @writerninja and on Instagram @jonnyhack.