Written by Gerry Ulicny
PA Music Scene
Fun. Fame. Both. None.
R.J. Minichello and his music are in a sort of relationship. He’s only 36, but already he has had a life filled with excitement and disappointment, missed opportunities and great personal satisfaction and most of all… talent with enthusiasm. It’s all because of his love affair with music!
Since he was a boy, R.J. Minichello has had a pair of drumsticks in his hands. He has always played music, always been on stage or in the studio. RJ wasn’t even out of high school when he began playing with Calm Waters, with whose members he played for the next decade (1992-2002). The band Calm Waters later changed its name to Gemstone. (Other members: Donny Stricken (acoustic guitar/lead vocals), John Cammerota (guitars), Tim Munley (bass).
In fact, RJ Minichello spent his 21st birthday in a music studio, working on an album. “I remember celebrating my 21st birthday, recording the song “Love” for the Calm Waters Reality album,” he says with nostalgia. The Reality album caught the notice of members of the William Morris Agency in New York City, who passed it along to Atlantic Records after suggesting a name change for the band. The band was renamed Gemstone. Minichello said the name was created by taking parts from each member’s astrological zodiac sign (Gemini, Scorpio, and Taurus).
R.J. was dedicated to that band, which experienced modest success sharing the stage with acts like John Mayer, Counting Crowes, and Ted Nugent. “I spent most of my twenties trying to get Gemstone (Calm Waters) going, with big dreams and a lot of dedication,” Minichello said. The band did succeed in releasing that CD and a second, self-titled Gemstone which was recorded at Saturation Acres Recording Studios – founded by Bret Alexander and Paul Smith from The Badlees.
Jeff Walker from WKRZ 98.5 FM was contacted by R.J. and asked if he could send him a CD to get reviewed and use that review in their press kit. Jeff said “yes“ and a week later Jeff wrote: “I thought the new Gemstone CD stood out, it’s got a couple of songs that could easily be radio hits if a label was backing them and supporting them. It’s a nice clean straight ahead rock sound that has some strong hooks.” Gemstone had two singles played on KRZ, “Moving Van” and “Still.” R.J. thanks radio personalities Jeff and Kelly K., and especially treasures a comment he says Jeff made after playing “Moving Van.”
R.J. quotes him as saying: “This is the first band that has received airplay on KRZ without a major record deal since Jimmie Harnon and Synch’s “Where Are You Now” single back in the 80′s”. R.J. laughingly says, “I think Jeff liked us!”
They were, in fact, recording their first music video in Boston when things came apart. “Our main goal was then to make a video… but once we were in Boston, everything started to unravel in so many ways,” Minichello said. It was his first major disappointment as a musician and he took it hard. “For 10 years I put my blood, sweat and tears into it. I did the graphic design, the website, the email, so much beyond the music,” he said. “It was hard when it ended.”
Minichello’s wife, Tracey, whom he married in 1998, stood by him then as now, even as he quit that band. “It was the only thing to do at the time,” he said. Tracey Minichello still encouraged him to follow his dreams but R.J. knew that they had other dreams, too. So he dedicated himself to his job as a network administrator and father while taking his first jobs as a “drummer for hire.” Things weren’t bad and Minichello found that he liked the drummer-for-hire thing even though he did miss the “family atmosphere” that being part of a band provided. R.J. also started his own graphic design company which he owns called ITP-Productions (www.itp-productions.com). He has done several Myspace pages for bands,web pages and more (ranging from Pennsylvania to California).
As he has often reflected, decisions and choices were always being made. His next major one came when he got the chance to audition with Fuel, when they were replacing drummer Kevin Miller. He chose to pursue the opportunity. Minichello gives KRZ credit for some of that as well. “Kelly K. (Programming Director) and KRZ played a role in ‘helping‘ me with the Fuel thing…..as their contacts at Sony were interested in Gemstone at one point,” he said. That didn’t work out. After talking with Fuel’s Management through emails and phone calls for months, the band’s future seemed uncertain. Nothing felt right about the situation anymore. Fuel hired another drummer but it did lead to more decisions for Minichello.
He made plenty of friends though, including members of New Past Life, (formerly local favorites ‘CIDER,’ under Media 5 Entertainment) and soon R.J. was part of New Past Life creating a group that fit so well together that they were ready to record their first nine songs in just two weeks. “It started out as a jam, and the next thing you know we had nine tracks,” he said. “It was good.”
That self-titled album was released in a limited pressing in 2005. That year also brought the band plenty of exposure, contacts and chances to live the dream. “We were packing the clubs, opening for bands like Three Doors Down and Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Minichello said. “I met the guys from Cinderella… when almost being recruited by Eric Brittingham (bassist) for his side project (Nakked Beggars). Eric, Jeff Labar and I ended up at The Penalty Box in Mossic PA until 5 a.m. Eric made a call to my wife telling her I wasn’t coming home because “he was out with the guys from Cinderella.“ ..from my wall as a teen to drinking buddies calling my wife to bail me out at 5 am was fine with me.
Newpastlife had a Publishing Deal while in L.A with Windswept Pacific Publishing (Missy Elliot, M&M) and some of the industry’s top players interested from the bands hiatus in Los Angeles a few years back before returning to Pennsylvania.” Aaron Fink from Breaking Ben approached them at a show to ask where their bass player was and offered to fill in on bass while in studio with Breaking Ben at the time (the original bass player was in L.A. at the time) Breaking Ben was in pre-production for their Phobia album. R.J. had contacted Brett Scallions from Fuel to have his new band THE X’s in from NY to open in our “home” venues “to get Bret the exposure he and the other band members deserved,” he said. “ Suddenly Brews Bothers in Pittston was a weekly gig for NPL pulling in the entire Breaking Ben staff, Producer David Bendeth and band members just to see what the buzz was about NPL.”
But things weren’t perfect and concerns, including his feeling that perhaps things weren’t progressing fast enough, led to R.J.’s decision to leave the band in 2007 to resume his independent career. “Strange, the way you decide things like that,” said Minichello, recalling that the band released a full-press album a year later. “You decide to let go because things are too slow, then there’s a breakthrough. I guess timing is everything.”
He “jumped around a bit” pursuing his drummer-for-hire status and is quite successful at that. But there’s always the draw of belonging. “I worked with a lot of great people, spent some time with a few cover bands and it was great,” he said. “But then nothing felt permanent, there wasn’t that family feeling.”
In 2008, some old friends gave him that feeling again. A surprising call came from ex-Fuel drummer Miller, who invited him to be his drum technician and sometimes fill in with Miller’s new bands, Fosterchild and Tantric, who toured for several months that year. Two members of original Fosterchild lineup Erik (bass) and Kevin (drums) were both in Tantric at the time as well while touring. R.J. went on the tour, and said it was a great time but again his timing served to cause him pain.
The bands were gearing up to head back out for another run to support Tantric’s “Down & Out” single and “I had to decide if Drum Tech was where I needed to be, as I wanted… no – needed to be behind the kit.” He said. But after several calls from Miller and Eric he thought maybe he should sit this one out as he wasn’t feeling that great and health became an issue. When Miller left the band mid-tour, another drummer on the tour was offered the job.
“After the tour I was on ended, I was getting sick and had a life-threatening heart attack in which I all most died (literally) but was brought back to life with the help of excellent doctors at Geisinger Heart Hospital. I was then diagnosed with Diabetes…excess party favors and “life on the road” took its toll on my insides… I had had Diabetes for at least 10 years… undetected and untreated. That is why I left the tour and if I had stayed on the tour most likely would have been asked to possibly replace Kevin as I was his Drum Tech. By chain of command in the band - who else knows all the drum parts but The Drum Tech,” he writes of the time. “So of course another decently BIG opportunity lost by making the decision to come home and rest and be with my family.”
So, still seeking that family connection musically but also maintaining his independence, Minichello continues to work all the time and keep his eyes open for what he really wants. He is currently with Soldat and he has respect and big praise for the members of that band… especially Guitarist Robot (Allen Van Wert) whom he calls “really impressive.” That band looks like they have a good rapport, surviving a ‘disastrous’ radio show May 19 – when wormradio.com had technical difficulties and looking forward to more. Perhaps this band offers for R.J. what he thinks he has been seeking all along.
“What I have learned over the years is that if you worry about where you are going you don’t enjoy getting there,” he said. “As a musician, it’s never enough, it could always be better. You have to learn to enjoy the ride.”
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