Behind The Beat: Jon Olazabal; A Percussionist’s Paradise

Behind The Beat: Jon Olazabal; A Percussionist’s Paradise

Behind The Beat Profile: Jon Olazabal

Jon’s Current Band: The Dirty Heads
(Formerly of HB Surround Sound)

Jon’s Playing Career: 1996-present

Jon’s Drum Kit: LP (Latin Percussions)
Two Congas
One set of Bongos
Djembe (made by Remo)

Jon’s Cymbals: Zildjian
12-inch Bazooka
10-inch Crash
6-inch Splash

The Heartbeat of Reggae with Jon Olazabal

One of the most intensely upbeat live shows a fan can witness on the concert circuit is a performance put on by the Dirty Heads. There are plenty of layers to the Huntington Beach, California outfit, including the gentle upstrokes of an acoustic guitar, hip-hop rhymes that could match the best of a completely separate genre laid over a bed of rugged reggae rhythms, coupled with the emphatic percussion accents by Jon Olazabal. Without any one of those ingredients, the Dirty Heads would be missing a piece of their identity. The Dirty Heads’ sound is instantly unmistakable, and each performer adds their own special touch.

For Jon Olazabal, or “Jon Jon” as the band and fans anointed him, his signature sound has been a part of the Dirty Heads long before the national touring act was selling out venues across North America. The streets and beaches of Huntington Beach, CA, was the meeting place for the band. Although, Olazabal’s journey to the stage began long ago as a young boy, striving to be a classic rock drummer, pounding out beats behind a massive drum kit. Somewhere in between that imaginary tale and the prosperous road the Dirty Heads are driving down, fans were drawn to Jon Jon’s percussion styles and showmanship onstage.

Normally, an interview such as this would reside with one of the frontmen. However, one intricate feature within the Dirty Heads is the ability of Jon Jon manning his own drum set of a different variety, both in the studio and during live performances, as well as being a founding member of the Dirty Heads. As Jon Jon stated, “I generally am not the spotlight type of guy. If you were to ask any of the other guys the same question, they would probably say the same thing. I am very honored to be a part of this, but I normally stay away from interviews and that sort of thing. I am not the talker of the group. I like to focus on my drumming and what we are doing musically. The other guys typically have done the talking, very well too! (laughs). And really, that’s just how it has always been. This is really an honor!”

It is funny how not being “the talker of the group” produced and narrated the story of the Dirty Heads as well as anyone could ever imagine.

The Beginning…

“I pretty much lived in apartments my whole life, and I was always very interested in drumming. I always wanted to play on a full drum kit, but living in an apartment, one after the other, there was no way I could make that happen. So, when I was in junior high school, maybe sixth or seventh grade, my dad bought me some cheap little bongos. You know, the ten-dollar special type of set. Those were the bongos that basically got me started in percussion.”

Believe it or not, Olazabal, was not fully entrenched in reggae music at that point, he followed the path of his older sister to identify with a certain sound.

“My older sister was always heavily into the Grateful Dead and kind of the whole hippie scene. So, I followed her around to a couple of those shows and just fell in love with the drumming that they had. That had to be one of my first big influences growing up with that classic rock aspect. The reggae music was there, but my first love was classic rock.”

Much like many of the prominent bands in the reggae-rock community, classic rock, punk rock and blues paved the way and shaped their sound. After all, as a young boy growing up in California, especially in the 1980s and ‘90s, rock music reigned supreme over just about any other type of music. For Jon Jon, one group that truly stood out from the classic rock mold wasn’t necessarily a brand name band until backing mainstream performers, but their iconic sound truly influenced Jon at the early stages on percussion, and began the early steps to molding the sound we hear with the Dirty Heads.

Creating the Sound…

“The primary stuff that I was listening too back then was a lot of classic rock. I have always been somewhat of a drum nerd. I feel like a lot of the music I was listening to and focused in on wasn’t necessarily percussion and conga based. I really focused on the full drum kits, and I don’t know if that helped mold my sound the way that I played it on my percussions. But, as far as the percussion based groups, Buena Vista Social Club and all those cool Latin guys really started it off for me. But sometimes, I feel my ear goes the other way and I focus on the drumbeat with the classic rock groups. “

Jon Jon’s practice time at home, then became more than just a hobby. His talent was noticed by perhaps his biggest fan, his father. The effort that was put into place was apparent, and soon he added a few more layers to his percussion repertoire.

“The $10 set of bongos was my first instrument. There was nothing before that, and slowly I sort of graduated up. Once my dad saw that I really had an interest in it, he helped fuel the fire, you know? He then got me some congas, a djembe, and I basically took off from there.”

However, it is difficult to start a band with just a percussion player. There is plenty of substance to the various beats and accents of bongos, congas and a djembe, but something else has to be present to invigorate a packed house of excitable fans. Soon enough, Jon Jon met the first piece to the puzzle that would lead him towards gracing the stage with the Dirty Heads.

The First Performance

“My first real band that I was ever in was HB Surround Sound. I met Jake Bushnell, Duddy’s brother, at a party. I was still in high school, maybe my junior year, and he said, ‘We’ve got this band Surround Sound and wanted to try out percussions. Why don’t you come over to our place and jam?’ I had heard of them before through mutual friends, and they heard that I played percussions through some friends. They had this soundproof box at their house, and it was literally the best thing ever. We started playing some shows together, back way before any of us could get into a bar. We would literally run in, play the show and run back out before anyone noticed. I learned a lot about live performances from those guys.”

Jake Bushnell remembers the early days of HB Surround Sound with Jon Jon on percussions, and describes it as if it happened yesterday: “I have never heard anyone smash the shit out a set of hand drums like Jon Jon. I remember my brother coming home from a high school party years ago and telling my band mates and me, “You need this guy in your band!” The next day we called Jon Jon and from then on he helped shape the sound for HB Surround Sound and The Dirty Heads. In my opinion, Jon Jon is one of a kind drum alien freak!”

The simple introduction between Jake and Jon Jon at the early stages led to a formal introduction with Dustin or “Duddy B”, however, the beginning of Jon Jon’s friendship with Jared Watson or “Dirty J” began on the streets of Huntington Beach, CA, doing what young kids do.

“I have known Jared the longest. I remember we were really young kids, maybe third or fourth grade, living in the same neighborhood. We would see each other out skateboarding around the neighborhood just being little punks. We actually did four years together on the same surf team while in high school. We got back together around that time. We all sort of hung out in Dustin’s garage just screwing around and making music from there.”

It is funny how simply “screwing around” has now placed the Dirty Heads on a platform that draws thousands of fans to a show, wherever they perform. Yet, it wasn’t always bright lights, a big stage and a massive tour bus to travel the country in. As Jon Jon described, the humble beginnings of the Dirty Heads wasn’t exactly all roses and butterflies.

The Dirty Heads Journey Begins…

“I am 99% sure that the Dirty Heads’ first show was at a place called The Liquid Den in Huntington Beach, CA. It has since been torn down, but I remember Jared, Dustin and I, along with like ten friends walked to the bar, carrying our instruments over to this nasty little dive bar that smelled like puke, and played about a half-hour set for all of our friends.”

And so, the Dirty Heads were born, straight out of a small local establishment, complete with all the pleasantries of true rock and roll status. But, it wasn’t about the amenities on hand at the club, or the stench of the venue, the music that the trio played formed the foundation of the Dirty Heads.

“I think one of the things that helped [The Dirty Heads] out when we first started out, because it was just the three of us (Jared Watson, Dustin Bushnell and Jon Olazabal), I was using the (Remo) djembe just to add a few little accents here or there, while also keeping the beat like a full set. With just one guitar, all those little things I tried out, just helped drive the song.”

But, from that first show, could Jon really imagine the growth that they have witnessed to this point?

“Well, it is still unreal! It is so hard for me to believe where we are at now. I always knew and always believed in Dustin and Jared… those guys are just amazing songwriters and lyricists. I knew that the talent was there, but I was just taking it for what it was worth at the time. We were working hard, but it is still crazy to think that it all turned out the way that it has.”

Even with the ups and downs of being an active member in the music industry, the Dirty Heads took the necessary steps and moved up each ring of the ladder, one by one, including adding the proper pieces to refine and define the sound they always hoped for.

“We have had some great additions to the three of us over the years. It is just such a different feel now compared to what it was when we started. It was great having DJ Rocky Rock there with us. For the time, Rocky was such a talented DJ, he was just too good to really be in our group. But, he did great for the time that it was, and he needed to move on and do his own thing too. And, we met Matty (Matt Ochoa/Drums) right at the perfect time, and Dave (David Foral/Bass), as well. They really solidified the sound that we always wanted. Now, we have this new keyboard guy that we are starting to try out, and he is doing a great job. This is the sound that we have always wanted. It has just taken us forever to get to it! (laughs)”

The Dirty Heads Movement

The driving force behind the Dirty Heads has always been desire. For the band, the literal driving force has come by way of a 15-passanger van in the beginning, before reaching the rock star status of living the life in a full-scale tour bus. However, one doesn’t transform into the other magically. Grueling road trips to places once perceived as entering the unknown soon became home, one show at a time.

“Back in the day, traveling in a van, any band will tell you, it is one of the toughest things you could ever do. You know, everything that comes with touring, no sleep, you are constantly uncomfortable, and then, more often than not, the shows you are driving to all night you finally get there and maybe there are fifteen or twenty people there. It is hard and it sucks, but for us it was a very important time in our lives for us as a band. We learned a lot about each other. You are stuck in a small space with everyone else. If we could get a hotel room, it would be just one with a mass of people all sleeping on top of you. So, we really learned a lot about the band, and getting along with each other, who we are as people and as musicians. Now, we are in the tour bus and we feel like we really earned it! We literally grinded for so long in that van and now we are in the bus, just feeling comfortable in our own space. I remember the first tour we took in that bus…I will never forget driving out of Dustin’s driveway, we all just looked at each other, opened up a beer and just cheers’d each other to success! (laughs) It was a true graduating moment for us! It was an awesome feeling!”

Still, moving on up from a van to a tour bus comes with time, while earning respect from the fans at each venue. Even further, garnering respect from the biggest music magazine that has ever existed is a feeling unlike any other. However, being crowned “One of the Best New Bands” by Rolling Stone Magazine feels more like a dream than reality, yet for the Dirty Heads, their fairy tale journey was just lifting off at that point.

“Rolling Stone, as musicians, is a very intimidating thing. Unless you are Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or some weird hipster band that no one has ever heard of, they are generally going to hate on everybody. Especially for bands in our scene, I feel like they kind of get neglected sometimes, even though it keeps getting bigger and bigger every year. For Rolling Stone to recognize us for the public to note is just something we did not expect, at all! It was extremely awesome, to say the least!”

The Good Times and Bad Times

With acclaim coming from all corners, the Dirty Heads didn’t rest, taking to the road, spreading their salient sound to whomever would listen. For Jon Jon, it wasn’t all fun and games though. For one stretch, Jon Jon was sidelined due to a broken arm, and for a percussionist, even of his stature, two hands are necessary at all times.

“That was rough! (laughs) There were only a few shows that I played with that cast on my arm. I was in a car accident in 2009, and it was right before we were going to play one of our first big national tours. I had to sit out the majority of the tour. I went out and kind of road along with them and helped them with whatever else I could do. But, for the healing process, I couldn’t get up there and play. And then, towards the end of it, there were a few shows that I did play with the cast on, like the show at the Marquee (Tempe, AZ) and at the Galaxy (Santa Ana, CA). There were only a couple really big shows that I felt I couldn’t just sit there and not play. I did 98% of everything with just one hand.”

The show that Jon Jon referenced in Tempe, AZ, at that point was the Dirty Heads’ largest performance, and still remains ingrained in his memory to this day, even though he utilized one arm. However, since the spotlight is on Jon Olazabal, it was only appropriate to uncover his favorite song to play live for the band’s devoted following.

“‘Antelope’ has always been a fun one to play live. But, we just started playing new songs off of Cabin By The Sea, and the title track actually is my favorite to play live, right now. At the end of the song it has this sing-a-long part, that in our heads, we sort of had this vision of a drum circle, jam-a-long, campfire thing going on. Playing it live, I use everything all at one time, and it is an unreal work out for me! (laughs). It is one thing to record it, because I can record things separately, but to play everything together at one time live, to make it sound full and as close to the recording as I could has become a bit of a challenge that is really great for me.”

From an old Dirty Heads classic to a brand new track, the Dirty Heads have come full-circle. Starting with three musicians in Duddy’s garage to recording their most anticipated album release in the band’s history is a tremendous mountain to climb. All the while, the Dirty Heads have stayed true to their beginning ideals and style.

The Recording Process

“Usually, [recording] is pretty open and free form. The producers do give me something here and there, but more often than not, it’s just press record and let the tape roll, and let me do what I want to do. I feel like I have a lot of freedom and the guys trust me enough in what I am going to put out.”

In terms of trust, the producer that has seen the growth first hand with the Dirty Heads is Lew Richards. So, discussing the production process of the Dirty Heads and specifically Jon Olazabal’s style, Richards explained the percussionist as eloquently as he could:
“Jon Jon has the hands of a rhythmical angel!”

Simply put, Jon Jon is the necessary spice to the Dirty Heads sound. Without the percussions, the band might sound and even appear naked.

“Most of what I do is there to accompany and accent what everyone else is doing. I feel that is kind of how the Dirty Heads work as a whole band. No one is trying to outshine the other person or go off on some crazy guitar solos. No one gets greedy with their parts. I try to get in, when the bulk of the song is finished, so I can just accent what is going on, and then there are other songs that are sort of worked around what I do first. But, usually what my plan is, revolves around coming in just to add the necessary pieces of the song with my different percussions and shakers.”

For a prominent band in the music industry, the Dirty Heads are pretty laid back in the studio, and perhaps that is the reason Matisyahu felt so comfortable joining them at Lew Richard’s 17th Street Studios to collaborate with the band on “Dance All Night”. For Cabin By The Sea, that notion was pictured long before the album saw the light of day.

Building Their Cabin

“The idea that we kind of had behind the whole album was to do Cabin By The Sea sort of as this place where you can go to in your head. When you start the album and press play, just put your headphones on and you can kind of zone out, no matter what you have going on, you can escape for that hour and however many minutes it is and go on a trip and just get away. We wanted to have it kind of tell a story, but nothing wound too tight. So, it breaks away a little bit here and there, but overall it has that underlying theme that we are proud that we were able to pull off.

On Any Port In A Storm, we were still figuring out who we are as a band, and there were a lot more electronics and sort of heavily produced tracks. For Cabin By The Sea, we were just going for a more natural feel and more instrumentally based. There is a lot more jamming on this album and a lot more openness to it. Along the lines of percussions for us, it really helps seal the deal for the album, and ties both of the album titles together nicely.”

For months and months leading up to the Dirty Heads release of Cabin By The Sea, the mantra behind the album was “the band finding their true sound”. For two decades running, the Dirty Heads have solidified that ideal sound they were always striving for. To hear the story of trials and tribulations from one of the founding members of the Dirty Heads, albeit with the shortest hair, did in fact visualize like a dream. From the earliest memories of having his father buy him a cheap set of bongos, upgrading to “his baby”, the djembe, which Jon said, “I take that Remo djembe everywhere I go, all around the world, no matter what! (laughs) It truly is my baby!”.

Living The Dream

“I am 110% self-taught! I would love, one day, to take some lessons and really dig into the crazy Cuban styles, but as of now, everything I have ever done has been on my own. Every once in awhile I see Oguer “OG” Ocun from Slightly Stoopid with all of these crazy patterns and he just plays and plays, and all I can say is, “That’s cool, I would love to do that one day!”

Perhaps the dreamland propensity is still present with Jon Jon, but his ability is on the same level with his admirers. If he doesn’t believe that, maybe his longtime friend and lead singer of the Dirty Heads can hammer that thought home.

“Jon Jon has been my friend since the third grade and he is one of the most solid, positive people I know. He brings a sound to the Dirty Heads that makes us so unique. I’m jealous of his style and ability to drink mass amounts of beer. He is also an excellent dancer and impersonator. You should hear his Chris Tucker!”

In a way that only Dirty J can describe, Jon Jon is in fact a one of a kind percussionist, and one that is at the top of his game during each and every performance and recording session. The respect is well earned from his peers and devoted fans, and the fairy tale journey for the Dirty Heads is only at the rising action of their musical novel!


The Dirty Heads Links:
Dirty Heads Editorials
Dirty Heads Show Locator
Dirty Heads Website
Dirty Heads Facebook

Article By: Kris Siuta
Photos By: Amanda Zancanella, Kit Chalberg, IrieAZPhoto & David Norris

Video: Dirty Heads – “Spread Too Thin”

Video: Dirty Heads – “Stand Tall”

Video: Dirty Heads – “Paint It Black” (Rolling Stones Cover)