While Jason (Jay) Watts’ first foray into music was as a highschool DJ, he quickly found his passion for percussion. 20 years later, he is one of Ottawa’s most prominent drummers who has toured coast-to-coast playing for an array of rock, pop, metal, and blues bands.
Jay got his start as the DJ of Junkyard Symphony, playing shows in Ottawa and the GTA in the early 2000s. It was this experience that led him to his love of percussion. As a teen, he taught himself how to play, during an age when Youtube tutorials didn’t exist, at that. 8 years later and after thousands of hours of practice, Jay was a drummer for a band called R-Mistake, who played all over Eastern Canada, including the HOPE Beach stage. After years of drumming for bands on-stage, Jay also became an instructor at Ottawa’s School of Rock in Orleans. At the age of 31, Jay wanted to take his love for music to a deeper level. He enrolled at the University of Ottawa to study music.
Today, Jay splits his time between Hearts+Mines (with Ottawa Councillor Matt Luloff), Bytown Lights, and Twin Flames, three of Ottawa’s most prominent bands. He’s toured across Canada, including shows in Victoria, Iqaluit, and PEI, and even as far away as Australia. As a self-taught drummer who owes much of his success to the mentors and friends that helped him along the way, he hopes to now provide the same support to other aspiring musicians. He’s also a new father to a 13 month-old son, Theodore.
We caught up with Jay to discuss his love for drumming and music, his career highlights, and his best advice for aspiring drummers.
Photography by Sean Sisk
What Do You Love Most About The Work You Do?
What’s not to love?! I get to play drums, see the world, meet amazing people, and work with some of the best musicians around. I know how lucky I am to have been able to find my passion in life, and to be able to make a living doing it. Very fortunate indeed. Combine that with teaching… and I could not be happier! I love watching people find their spark for music. Whether teaching one on one drum lessons, leading a group rehearsal, or teaching a high school music class, seeing people fall in love with music is like nothing else on earth. The connection that music can bring to people is extraordinary. From that indescribable connection between you and a live audience, or the connection you get as a teacher helping a student discover new and exciting things in the world of music, getting to be “that guy” is truly indescribable. I am a very lucky man.
What Accomplishment in Your Career Are You Most Proud of, and Why?
I am most proud of the fact that I am a completely self-taught drummer. I never had a music lesson, or participated in a music class (outside of recorder in grade 7) in my life. (Until I went to University, majoring in Music at 31). The internet wasn’t really a thing when I was learning so I couldn’t just go to YouTube and pull up drum-cover videos to teach myself. I’m from the generation of kids who had to sit by their boomboxes with a blank tape in the tape deck waiting for a good song to come on so I could record it. I would sit on my bed in my room and “air drum” with just about any song I heard. I sat behind a drum set for the first time when I was about 14. I had gone over to a friend of a friend’s house and he had a kit. He was playing along to some tunes in the basement and I was in awe. He asked if I wanted to try and I could hardly hold back my excitement. He threw on “Enter Sandman” by Metallica and I was thrilled! I must have “air drummed” to this song a hundred times in my room. To his shock, I was able to play the whole song. In my head it was a “perfect performance”, but looking back now, it probably had all kinds of issues. Didn’t matter though. The spark had morphed into a flame. I was hooked. I wouldn’t sit at a kit again until I was 18. I rented one for a gig that me and some co-workers were going to put on at our employee Christmas party. It was a set of 6 songs. I remember “Creep” by Radiohead was one of them and I struggled to get my right foot to hit the fast double-kick pattern in the verses (laughs).
To have started from the bottom, not knowing anything, not knowing how to read music or what to call half of the drums, to spending thousands of hours practicing, reading, learning, going to as many shows as I could, watching other drummers do their thing, joining as many bands as I could, to now being a successful and well respected drummer who has been blessed to find himself in the position I am in now – has been an incredible journey. No matter how good I thought I played that first version of Enter Sandman, I knew I sucked. But I also knew that I had it in me to get better, to stay humble, and to always strive to challenge myself and learn as much as I can. With the support of some amazing musician friends/mentors, and constructive feedback from other respected drummers, I was given the opportunity to grow into the player I am today. And now I strive to be that person for new up and coming musicians today.
How Has Becoming A Father Changed You?
Becoming a Dad has definitely changed how I look at life. Things have more color, more vibrance, now that I am a Dad (if that makes any sense). Friends of mine who already have kids would always say that “having kids will change you”, and that “it’s the best thing that will ever happen to you”… well… they were right. Having a kid gives your life focus. Before my little dude was born, my life absolutely had purpose; I was working as a successful drummer, teacher, and my wife and I had big plans for the future. We always knew we wanted to start a family. Once Theo was born, it’s like our world stopped vibrating and suddenly became very focused in the best possible way. Theo was born 1 week before the 1st lockdown here in Ottawa, so he is what you would call a “Pandemic Baby”. As hard as it was to get through that first year without being able to call on friends and family to come over and help, or to be able to go over to loved one’s houses for playdates, I look at this past year as a blessing in disguise. In no other scenario would I have been able to spend almost a full year at home raising my son. I was there to help my wife, to help with all the household duties, and to watch him grow every day. It’s a gift that I was able to do that. Looking forward, I can’t wait to be able to share my love of music with my son. He already loves jamming on the drum set, and playing piano. I hope he will find his own spark for music, but if he wants to race motocross instead, that’s cool too (laughs).
How challenging or different has COVID made things for you in terms of playing music and connecting with your audience?
COVID has had a HUGE impact on my ability to perform and connect with audiences. Like most musicians, being told we couldn’t perform anymore because of a deadly disease was devastating. At the beginning of the pandemic, we all thought it would only last a few weeks. Little did we know it would last the better part of 2 years. Musicians are connected to performing on a molecular level. It’s like a part of our soul is always left on-stage, and in order to feel fulfilled, we need to get up there and perform. It is our home away from home. Our way of connecting with the universe. Connecting with a live audience is like nothing I can describe. It’s hard to put into words how powerful the feeling of putting on an amazing show gives you. You and your audience get to share something otherworldly. And when that is taken away, it’s easy for the spark to diminish and for darkness to set in.
Like countless musicians, we quickly started to try and figure out how to engage with our audiences through virtual means. After a ton of trial and error, and countless terrible streams, we finally gathered enough knowledge (thanks to so many other amazing artists sharing their “what worked for me” videos on social media), and technology upgrades to be able to put on decent virtual concerts. The 3 bands I currently play in (Twin Flames, Hearts&Mines, and Bytown Lights) have all created virtual concerts for our fans. With each new lockdown, lifting of lockdowns, and then being locked down again, our hearts would be pulled through the mud over and over again. Touring stopped, all future bookings began to evaporate, and there was no end in sight.
We all knew that if we were feeling this level of frustration and despair, our fans must be feeling the same way. It continues to break our hearts that we can’t perform for our friends, family, and fans, but we know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. We are all doing our part to stop the spread and beat this pandemic so we can get back to doing what we love. Connecting virtually with people is a blessing and we are fortunate to have been able to find ways to create high quality virtual music experiences, but there is nothing like the heat, the lights, the sound, the vibe, and the audience of performing live and in person. We can’t wait to get back to the way it was.
What Is Your Best Advice For Aspiring Drummers?
My advice for aspiring drummers is to always stay hungry and humble. No matter how good you are, there is always somebody better. Strive to always push yourself to learn new things, new styles, new genres, and understand that all music has value. Always be “a good hang”. No one wants to hang out with a puffy chested, chip on the shoulder, know it all. Be kind, patient, and humble. Genuinely listen to people when you are having conversations. Support your local music scene. Make friends with sound techs and bar managers/owners. Pay the cover charge (don’t ask for guest list) and get in the front row. Go see as many concerts as you can, in ALL genres. Even if you are not a fan of “hardcore”, there are chops you can use to inspire stuff in your own playing. Trust me. Shake hands (will shaking hands be a thing after COVID?) and develop relationships with as many musicians as you can.
Invest in good gear when you’re young. You will never have as much liquid income as when you are young. Save your money and buy a great kit with great cymbals. Good drums don’t depreciate in value if you take care of them. It’ll be a lot harder to afford a high-end setup when you have all kinds of bills to pay.
Always encourage other up and coming drummers. You were in their shoes once. Even if it was just last month.
And finally, practice every day. The greatest drummers practice 2 hours per day minimum. Invest in yourself and learn your rudiments. They might seem “boring” or outdated, but once you know how to do them well, it will unlock an entirely new world of drumming for you.
What’s Next For You?
I fully expect there to be an “entertainment boom” once this pandemic ends. The world will be hungry for live entertainment and I think there will be a newfound appreciation for it. Work has already begun in planning tours for 2022, album releases, video shoots and so much more. Like many musicians, we are getting the engine up and running again, and getting our ducks in a row to hit the ground running the moment we are told it is safe to do so. There are BIG things coming from all three bands I play with in the coming year. Twin Flames is busy booking into 2022 and there are already plans in the works for a new album. Hearts&Mines is currently working on a new full-length album. We are each blessed with little home studio set-ups and can record everything virtually from home and mix “in the cloud”. Look for that album in late 2021 / early 2022. Bytown Lights is always hard at work adding bangers to their set list to make sure that fans are always getting something new and exciting when they come see one of our shows. We have been designing all new high energy set lists in preparation for “the boom” that is just around the corner. There will be a LOT of festivals, weddings, and corporate events that will be hungry for the kind of show Bytown Lights can bring!
Beyond that, I will continue to practice, learn, and grow as a drummer, as a musician, and as a Dad. The future is bright for me and I consider myself truly blessed to call this my life!