“We must be the change we want to see in the world,” claimed Hunter & The Dirty Jacks lead singer Hunter Ackerman in a direct quotation taken from Mahatma Gandhi. Many people know and recognize the quotation by one of the 20th century’s most prominent civil rights leaders, but few strive to channel its message through the lives they lead. Hunter & The Dirty Jacks are a Los Angeles-based blues rock five-piece that has embraced Gandhi’s wise words as their own personal mission statement. Every Tuesday night, the group can be found onstage in L.A.’s oldest blues club Harvelle’s, where they raise money and accept food and instrument donations to feed the hungry and teach music to the area’s local foster children.
Before they were the Dirty Jacks, guitarist Jon Siembieda, drummer Brian Lara and bassist Aaron Barnes were part of another band called Kettle Black. When the group parted ways in 2012, Siembieda, Lara and Barnes continued playing together until they met lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Ackerman. It wasn’t long before the new lineup impressed the owner of Harvelle’s and secured the same weekly residency formerly held by L.A.’s blues/soul group Vintage Trouble. Since January 2013, Hunter & The Dirty Jacks have attracted concertgoers with their energetic blues rock style and the guest musicians who join them onstage. Featuring guitarists like Coco Montoya and Eric Sardinas to Phil Gates and Jimmy Vivino, the coveted guest spots have worked to raise funds and awareness for Service Your Soul and Magic Music Foundation, two of the charities the band currently collaborates with. At a set cover of $5 or two cans of food, one can enjoy a blues-filled evening and watch as revered session players and famed performers step in to contribute their talents to the night’s performance. What’s more, they can bear witness as a new unsigned band strives to give back, simply because it is the right thing to do. That part comes free.
Though the band is in the process of finalizing their lineup, they expect to go into the studio soon as a full group to begin working on their first album. In the meantime, the band is packing their summer with residency dates and additional concerts in L.A. and in parts of Northern California. We recently spoke with Siembieda, Ackerman, Lara and Barnes over the phone as the musicians were driving to a show to discuss Service Your Soul, new charity collaborations and their dedication to “humanist rock.”
How did you come to secure your residency at Harvelle’s?
Siembieda: I knew the owners – I got in touch with them through Kettle Black. We met with them several times, and I think he liked what we were trying to do. When he heard that we were in a new band, he said, “Hey, I want to check this out, see what you guys are doing.” He liked what we were doing, but then he immediately loved Hunter, also. He believes that every band’s got to have a really strong front man, which is true. So he was like, “Come on out, let’s play our show on Friday and see what happens.” So we played, and afterwards we went and met with him and sat there talking for most of the night. And he offered us the residency.
The way it turned into a charity-driven event is, we were like, “Okay, so what do we do to make this residency work, what’s going to stand out?” We as a band stand for creating change and making a difference through music. We were trying to think of a way to do that, because our band was still in its early stages. In conversations with the owner, he invited us to play in December – there’s something called the Santa Monica Pub Crawl, which occurs once a year in December on a weekend night. It is organized by the Westside Food Bank, and for about $10 people can get a ticket and go to participating clubs, bars, etcetera on the promenade. It all goes to feeding the hungry through the Westside Food Bank.
We couldn’t make it that night – we had numerous conflicts. But we were like, “Why isn’t somebody doing this all the time? Once a year is not enough to feed people who are hungry. People are hungry every day.” In Santa Monica they’re hungry every day. Santa Monica is known for having a homeless population. So the light went on: “Let’s have a food drive every week to feed the hungry.” And this also goes in collaboration with what we wanted to do in the beginning, which was make a difference and create change.
The owner loved it. So we met with a charity called Feed Your Soul, which is run by a lady named Lindsay Hirsch. She’s been feeding the homeless for about ten years. She brought a friend who runs another charity called the Magic Music Foundation to this first meeting. So we were talking about feeding the hungry, and then Lindsay’s friend from Magic Music said, “We work together and I teach foster children music.” We were like, “Wow, that’s pretty awesome as well.” And we decided to have the night go to both. So there’s a music tie-in, there’s a food drive tie-in…we’ve met thousands of people. We go down to the OPCC, which is the Ocean Park Community Center, the Santa Monica cluster of homeless shelters. We go down there regularly, bring the food, cook it up, serve it. We hang out, play acoustic sets, play blues. We’ve gone down to Magic Music Foundation events and have taught the foster children music, and we’re going to be doing more of that. It’s $5 or two cans of food to get in every week, and you can also bring a musical instrument or something like that. Jackson Browne actually donated a couple guitars to Magic Music Foundation.
Part of what’s making it really special is the special guests. We decided early on, “Let’s get some special guests. Let’s go after people who are blues, blues rock, rock ‘n roll type artists to come out. Whether they’re small local guys, medium touring guys, big guys, whatever they are, let’s go hit ‘em up and see if they’re willing to come out and help raise awareness.” The first guy to play was Coco Montoya, who used to play in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and is an accomplished solo artist. So he came out in March and was the most easygoing, warm, friendly, easiest guy to work with ever, and was like, “I just want to give back.” So he came out and jammed with us; it was the biggest night to date, at that time. A couple weeks later, I was driving to rehearsal or something, and he’s like, “Hey Jon, what’s going on? It’s Coco. I was wondering if it would be okay if I came out and jammed tomorrow night?” So he came out again, and again it was a great night. We had a guy named Phil Gates who is a studio guitar player who’s worked with Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, guys like that. He came out – that was an awesome night. We had one of my personal favorites Eric Sardinas come out the following week, and again, all these guys are awesome. All these guys love it. Jimmy Vivino loved it. We got ahold of him and he came out. The funny thing – the first three guys played for roughly eight songs apiece; we’d play and they’d come sit in for 45 minutes or something and then they’d go, and we’re playing all night. Jimmy sat in for three hours. We couldn’t get rid of the guy! We’ve got Dennis Jones coming out in July, we have Shawn Jones coming out in July, Kirk Fletcher just wrote me this morning, and Darrel Mansfield, who’s in the Blues Hall of Fame, is coming in August.
Do you approach potential guests first, or are they starting to reach out to you on their own?
Siembieda: I reach out to them; we all reach out to them first. We get ahold of them personally, or their agent or manager. What’s funny though is they’re all on a list now, so several guys have been like, “I’m confirmed, I’ve just got to get some stuff done over the next month and I’m in.” There was an email blast a couple of weeks ago that was like, “Here’s what’s been happening, who’s going to be next?” Jimmy Vivino responded that day and was like, “I’m in.” And then Shawn Jones wrote, “Hey, I told you I’m in for sure, don’t forget about me!” So it was kind of cool – they’re starting to assert themselves to make sure they get their slot.
It’s starting to catch fire. The more people that come through the door – this is what it’s all about. Fifty people come on an average night, and if 75 or 100 come because Eric Sardinas is there…25 times five-dollar covers, that’s 50 people that get dinners because of that. That’s how real it is. What’s awesome is, a couple weeks ago at the homeless shelter, we made dinner - and they all know us by now. They were like, “Guys, you always cook well, but this dinner is even better. How’d you do it? What’s going on?” We were all, “Well, we’ve got some more money coming in because world-class guys like Eric Sardinas are coming down and more money is being raised.” The look on their faces was like, “Wow. People care.” That’s what it’s all about.
Are there any musicians in particular who you’d love to have join you onstage?
Siembieda: We tried to get the Rolling Stones, and believe it or not, they were actually considering it. I got to their manager; they were out here for a month rehearsing. But the monster that is the Rolling Stone train…it didn’t happen, but they know about it. I’m excited because Bernard Fowler, who tours with them as a sideman, he’s actually supposed to come out and do some stuff. His band might play as part of Service Your Soul, and he has expressed interest in going down to the foster homes privately and teaching kids music. That’s something I’m personally excited about.
Ackerman: I’d say Susan Tedeschi. Susan Tedeschi and Melissa Etheridge are the first two that come to mind.
Lara: I’d definitely have to say Buddy Guy. He’s one of my all-time favorites, so I’d be more than honored to play with him.
Barnes: I would definitely have to go with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead or Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
How might your work with charities influence your songwriting and recording sessions going forward?
Ackerman: It goes right into the writing. Gandhi said, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” That’s going to be a song coming up in the next month or two: very simply titled, “Be the Change.” Our genre as I personally define it is humanist rock. I’ve got a YouTube channel, and the point of the channel is to show people something really cool about the physical universe. I subscribe to a perspective that’s usually referred to as philosophical naturalism. It is about looking at the world without any kind of supernatural, religious or superstitious slants on it. It’s literally looking at the magic of reality. In the music videos that I do on the YouTube channel, I might explain some aspect of physics or evolutionary biology, maybe math…some kind of aspect of science that we don’t necessarily get to think about on a day-to-day basis. But I explain it in a very simply comprehensible sort of way. Humanism wouldn’t be humanism if it didn’t have an ethical component as well. So not only is there this completely naturalistic world view for helping people understand what an awesome place the universe is, but then there’s making it a better place for absolutely no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.
You mentioned your new song “Be the Change.” Are you going into the studio soon?
Ackerman: Yeah. We’re transitioning guitar players right now, and our new guy is just smokin’. He’s really damn good, and we’re just honing down on what we’re going to take into the studio with us first. We’re probably going to go in and record maybe five songs, maybe six, and do it on two-inch tape so that it has a nice vintage feel.
Of all the musical genres out there, why did you pick the blues?
Siembieda: I think the blues picks you. I think it’s in our blood. We’re throwbacks; we’re all in our late twenties, early thirties, and it’s just the music we grew up listening to. We listened to blues and Led Zeppelin and Creedence and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and all those bands. Allman Brothers, the Doors, Hendrix…. We like some modern stuff, like the stuff that Jack White does and the stuff the Black Keys do – the Black Crowes, they’re quasi-modern, I guess. But yeah, it’s our style. It picked us.
Where do you hope to be in another six months?
Ackerman: I hope to have an album completely done and up on Pandora, another couple hundred thousand hits on YouTube at the very least, and I’d like to have expanded what we’re doing on Tuesday nights to other nights and in other places, as well as with other charities.
Siembieda: But we’re just getting started. We want to pack the club every night; we want to have more nights.
Ackerman: There are two large charities in the United States that I’m aware of that specifically do a service where they’ll go to third world countries, set up a surgical tent and bring with them a medical team that then screens the local children for candidates. For the ones that have cleft palates they do a facial reconstructive surgery, and they can do these things in the surgical tents for as low as $250. That changes a person’s entire life; that changes a person’s entire outlook.
$250 for a surgery: that’s something we can raise. That’s an iPod that can’t be stolen. So Smile Train is a charity that we want to do a special evening for. While we’re at it, it’d be awesome to work with some other charities as well – maybe some animal charities. We’re talking about working with a German Shepherd rescue and a few others. That’s the direction we’re headed.
What’s next for Hunter & The Dirty Jacks?
Ackerman: We’re going to be playing gigs all over the place in July. We’re going to have guests almost every week, if not every Tuesday. Right now I think we’ve got all but one of them booked. Also, in July on Thursdays we’ll be playing downtown at a place called The Escondite; it’s a really cool little microbrew place. That’s not with the charity – that’s just going to be us as a band playing on Thursdays. Starting in August, the first Saturday of every month we’re going to be headlining at the House of Blues – probably doing an acoustic set, though we haven’t worked out the fine details.
Interview by Meghan Roos