At 25, Justin Mazer is living his dream of being a successful musician. The American Babies’ guitarist insists his success can be attributed to one simple word: Yes. With 10 years of performing behind him, the Wilkes-Barre native is looking back on a career made possible by ignoring inhibitions and listening to his heart.
Mazer says emerging musicians should say yes to every opportunity thrown their way — regardless of how unappealing they may seem.
“There is something to be learned from every gig you play, whether it is good or bad,” he said. “One of my favorite quotes about playing music, by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, is that ‘The moment you expect anything from music, you are expecting too much.’”
Mazer recalls debating whether to take a gig in Brooklyn, New York, because it didn’t pay well. “I was probably 19 years old,” Mazer said. “It was just a lot of driving and the band I was in at the time had never done that before. We didn’t know if it was going to be worth it.”
His band took the gig and he’s grateful it did.
“You never know what connection you’ll make or who you’ll meet at a show,” Mazer said. “I ended up meeting someone that would help me a lot along the way.”
That someone was Dave Butler, a drummer who would later connect Mazer with the musicians forming American Babies. Had he not accepted the Brooklyn gig, he may not have had the opportunity to return to NEPA to perform at two major music festivals — Camp Bisco and The Peach Music Festival — performing in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans.
But before Mazer stepped on stage and demonstrated his guitar skills he impulsively traipsed into a small bar to perform for the very first time in August 2005.
“I was 15. I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet. My parents had to drive me,” Mazer recalled of his first performance at Smiling Fraces in Glen Lyon. “I was playing a duo set with my friend, Mike Dougherty. There were maybe 20 people there and none of them were there to see us.”
Mazer can’t remember how much his first gig paid, but he knows “it wasn’t much.” Just the idea of knowing he could earn something inspired him to say yes again and keep trekking forward with his music.
Mazer eventually formed a band, Dirty Water, with Dougherty, Steve Cornia, Matt Pall and Jordan Krawitz, whom he met while attending Lake-Lehman High School.
“We were tinkering playing ‘Black Water’ by The Doobie Brothers and my uncle came downstairs to the basement to watch us practice,” Mazer said. “Joking around at how horrible it sounded, he was like, ‘It sounds more like ‘Dirty Water’ than ‘Black Water’ to me.” The name stuck with the group, Mazer said.
Throughout high school, Mazer developed his live performance skills at area venues, including River Street Jazz Cafe and Bart and Urby’s, both in Wilkes-Barre, and high school talent shows.
“We went our separate ways after high school,” Mazer said of Dirty Water’s split.
Mazer said his passion for music trumped his time spent in college and he spent the next three years taking the minimum required credits to afford time to play with various bands. He switched his major from Audio Engineering to History and transferred schools, starting at Luzerne County Community College before ending up at Misericordia University in Dallas.
“It just came down to me realizing there was no way I would be happy being a history teacher,” Mazer said. “I think educational and career values are constantly changing amongst the millennial generation. It seems like pursuing alternative careers is more acceptable and respected than ever before.”
At 21, Mazer was at a unique crossroad. He had the opportunity to join a band, Leroy Justice, based out of New York City, and pursue music full time. The decision was terrifying, he said, because in order to pursue his dream, he would have to drop out of college. Mazer wanted to chase his dream, so he said yes to trading textbooks for a guitar.
Mazer returned home this summer as a member of a nationally-touring band.
“If you told me 10 years ago that I would be playing multiple times in a single summer at the largest music venue in NEPA, I probably wouldn’t believe you,” Mazer said. “As a native of Wilkes-Barre and a member of the local music community, it makes me really excited that promoters are starting to see the value in both NEPA and Montage enough to want to host these sorts of events. They could easily take it elsewhere.”
Mazer said he’s often traveling and touring the country. When he has a chance to perform in his home area, he’s appreciative. “One thing about local shows is that you’re going to be surrounded by the friends and family that supported you from the beginning, in addition to the fans,” he said. “That’s something special that you can’t get if you’re playing on the road.”
Reach Justin Adam Brown at 570-991-6652 or on Twitter @wkdr