Soft-spoken guy and hard-hitting drummer might not seem to go together but Jake Najor isn’t your average stick jockey. Usually content to be the quiet guy, you get Najor behind a kit and all bets are off. His funky style and easy-going manner have served him well in his twenty years in music- both in and out of San Diego. For me, interviewing outgoing lyricists or spotlight-ready front men can be relatively easy, so I wasn’t sure how to dive in with one of the milder musicians in town. I should never have worried- truth is- he did most of the talking.
With my typical 11 question arsenal I sat down with Jake Najor prepared to have to pull from him the answers I sought. Instead I asked him about spending his life in and around music and was taken on a journey spanning two decades and half the globe. As the story unfolded I scrapped half my questions and let the man behind so many bands over so many years step up to center stage. His story deserves that much.
As a youngster Najor looked up to his two older brothers as they became musicians – Zak and Jules. The two played drums and guitar respectively. It would seem ideal that their youngest brother become a bass player and thus create a band. Instead he picked up his brother’s sticks and found himself a comfy home behind the set. His brother gifted him his own drum kit at age 14 and the music rolled on from there.
Najor found playing drums came naturally and at his small private high school he played in both Pep Band and Worship Team. Two class periods a day he coordinated his skills and was astonished at his luck to get to play for school credit. With the guys from his Pep Band he started writing songs and playing around town. “Just fiddling around” he says.
“The first shows I ever played, were at SOMA with POD- opening in front of hundreds of people,” Najor says. “It was kind of crazy. But the music bug- it kinda bit me a little later.”
After high school he was able to take a mini tour up the coast playing mostly church gigs with his high school band mates. With that taste of the road on his tongue he turned percussion into his life’s passion. He formed a band called Lamont and started opening at venues like the Belly Up Tavern.
To hear Najor’s enthusiasm about the momentum he gained from this point on, you can’t help but feel excited right along with him. He played with The Incredible Moses Leroy on and off for a couple of years which included an appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. In the midst of that Najor’s brother quit The Grey Boy Allstars in 1998 leaving the remaining members to start new projects. Robert Walter took up with a new project and tapped the youngest Najor to join. The band, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, toured around the country giving Najor more road time and many more contacts in the music world. During the mid-2000s he played with Bad Credit, Weapon of Choice and various other projects which all ran their course, according to Najor.
After the years on the road Najor found himself back at home and less than thrilled with where things were going. The combination of an ACL injury and getting a “day job” added up to only a temporary set back. And it seems those hiccups pushed Najor forward and refocused his desire to play music.
Around this time Najor was tapped by Jason Mraz to help record some demos. And started playing with Breakestra out of LA. Karl Denson then asked him to play on an album which led to a summer and fall tour and a renewed vigor in Najor’s career. Through his music connections he played in varying projects eventually touring with Big Daddy Kane supporting huge hip hop acts like MOP, Redman, The Beatnuts, and De La Soul. Najor also made the big move to LA during this time. These years provided more practice, gigs at the LA hotspots like The Viper Room, The Wiltern, Troubadour, El Rey and more. That backbone for a life of music was solidified during these years and Najor built upon it with hard work and a constant thirst for more.
Currently Najor is a main fixture in San Diego music- often playing 2-4 gigs a week. He’s most recognizable as the funky, soulful anchor of The Styletones for the past 3 years.. A highlight for this band came just days before I interviewed Najor- a song recorded by The Styletones was featured in a Got Milk commercial starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. And if that weren’t wild enough- it debuted during the Super Bowl. Such an incredible moment for Najor, the band, and their supporters.
Najor also plays with The Soulfires, Stevie & The Hi-Staxx, and Lord Howler– the last of which won a San Diego Music Award for Best Hard Rock. If the man didn’t have enough hard-hitting he’s recently added on a jazzy-surfy-funky trio called Vamonos and Rebecca Jade and The Cold Fact– a super group featuring members of The Heavy Guilt, The Black Sands, and fronted by Rebecca Jade of The Jade Element. He also does session work regularly in San Diego and LA. I’m not sure this dude ever sleeps.
Besides his natural ability and dedication to several projects at once there is a fun-loving nature that truly makes Najor who he is. One can easily see the love and respect he brings to his bands and music. The signature faces of “The Naj” from behind his kit are well-known by friends and fans. After spending the last year getting to know Jake and seeing him do what he loves I can honestly say he’s one of my favorite musicians and people. Listening to the ups and down and ins and outs of twenty years of making music makes me further appreciate what it takes to pursue his craft. As we talked about the various bands he’s played with and the triumphs he’s made I imagined Jake looking back at his younger self and nodding with approval- and rightly so. There is still so much music to be made and I know he’ll keep at it because I can see the love pour from him when he talks about it. A man and his passion are a truly beautiful combination.
I managed to ask a few more questions of the gifted musician and completely enjoyed discussing the path he continues to beat his way down.
Here’s a bit of Q&A for those that are as enthralled by “The Naj” as I am:
Sounds in San Diego: How often do you practice?
Jake Najor: Not as much as I should! Just being honest…
SISD: What are you favorite venues to play in town and what is be a venue on your wish list?
SISD: Is it hard to switch between such diverse styles as jazz and hard rock or metal?
JN: Not really, ’cause I’m not a real jazz guy. I take my own ghetto approach to it [laughs]. I’m not trained- I never really had formal lessons. I do everything by ear and by feel.
SISD: What is your favorite piece of your drum kit?
JN: My snare. The snare drum is kinda the character of the kit. As long as I’ve got my snare I can play on any set. If I don’t have one of my snares it’s something else- I can’t really get my sound.
SISD: Last but not least, the Five S’s of Sounds in San Diego… I know you didn’t wanna do these but I’m making you…Thanks J!
Sound You Love:
JN: Fender Rhodes Electric Piano, it’s sexy.
SISD: Sound You Hate:
SISD: Spot in San Diego You Have to See:
SISD: San Diego Band You’re a Fan Of:
SISD: Song That Makes You Smile:
JN: “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys. That’s a happy one.
To see Najor in action you can catch him, well pretty much all the damn time… but here are a few upcoming ones:
February 20 at Bar Pink with Stevie and the Hi-Staxx
February 23 at Winstons OB with The Styletones
February 28 at Bar Pink with The Soulfires
March 15 at Bar Pink with The Styletones
March 16 at Winstons OB with Vamonos
May 10 at Riviera Supper Club with Vamonos