About a month ago, singer-songwriter Pete Forbes and his band were in Los Angeles rehearsing for a club gig that night. During a short break, the band's drummer, a wiry, bespectacled, mad scientist of the skins named John O'Reilly Jr., idly picked up a violin belonging to Forbes sideman John Ettinger.
Someone in the band asked O'Reilly, "Do you play?" O'Reilly sheepishly shrugged his shoulders and mumbled back that he really didn't know what he was doing on the instrument, but he'd check it out anyway.
Over the next few seconds, the 25-year-old drummer proceeded to play with the kind of artistry that can only come from years of study, eventually setting down the violin with an aw-shucks self-effacement that would be infuriating if it wasn't so damned genuine.
The moment was vintage O'Reilly. Not only the most gifted, versatile drummer in the Valley (all apologies to John Neish and Dave Cook), he's also uncommonly sweet-tempered and modest, possessing absolutely none of the bravado so common among topflight musicians. In fact, his shy graciousness is so disarming, it's tempting at times to view it as a put-on.
"His modesty is not false," says Jamal Ruhe, who plays with O'Reilly in both Niner and Yearofthemule, and who also worked with him in the late, beloved One. "I don't know where he gets off being so talented and thinking he's normal."
Forbes chimes in: "Everyone knows John is musically brilliant, and he is. But the thing that impresses me almost more than that is his attitude about things, and just his general spririt. He's an extremely humble guy, and he is so kind and so generous in his attitude about wanting to help make the music happen, to go out and sacrifice and do the things necessary. Money's never been an issue for John.
"There are so many players in this town--and I respect those players--who have to work for a living. But John's one of these guys where, if he really likes it musically, that's really what it's about for him."
O'Reilly's willingness to follow his heart (at the expense of his bank account), and his unerring musical taste have combined to place him in several of the Valley's finest bands, often at the same time. Perhaps best known to some locals for his stint with One (which was signed to Mercury Records), he currently wrangles the beat for Forbes, Niner, Yearofthemule, Hammertoes, and occasionally performs with jazz keyboardist Phil Strange. In his spare time, he composes and plays recitals at Arizona State University, where he's studied, on and off, for the past six years.
O'Reilly's boundless musical appetite makes his recent decision to move to Boston all the more traumatic for the local scene. There aren't many players whose absence could throw a big chunk of the music scene into havoc, but O'Reilly is one of them. How do you replace someone who's got chops to match his high level of commitment? Whose amiable disposition is the stuff of legend? That's the question facing people like Forbes and Ruhe.
"People are cool about it," O'Reilly says of his decision to move. "Jamal is a little bit like, 'What am I gonna do?' But I think everyone understands why I'm going."
Actually, O'Reilly himself is not exactly sure why he's going, aside from the fact that he needs a change, and he's anxious for a musical challenge. O'Reilly is careful not to suggest that he feels stifled here, but he will concede that he's looking forward to soaking in the eclecticism of Beantown, a place where a band like Hammertoes wouldn't be the token exotic, world-beat band, but would be part of a rich movement.
"It's really just to go, to see what it's like over there," he says slowly, measuring each word. "I have mixed feelings. I'm lucky to be able to play in so many different things out here, and I know I'll miss it. It's just something to do. I don't know how much I'd like to stay out here, even with all the stuff that's happening."
Making the move (currently set for late May) a bit easier for O'Reilly is the fact that he's already hooked up with at least one group of musicians, a funk ensemble called Jigawattica.
"Two of the guys were out here last year," he says. "We played out here for nine or 10 months. The bass player and singer are out there, and I've been good friends with the bass player for a long time. It's not why I'm going, but it is convenient. I've got a place to live, with people I know I like, and a band that's fun."
Among other things, what really sets O'Reilly apart from most human metronomes is his utter command of musical forms that are usually not complementary. Most rock drummers don't have the finesse to handle jazz, and most jazz drummers don't have the bash-it-out spirit needed for rock, but O'Reilly leaps back and forth from one world to another with apparent ease.
If he seems the perfect mix of garage-band passion and conservatory training, it's probably a reflection of his richly musical heritage. Born in Long Island, at 3 he moved to Los Angeles with his parents and two older sisters. His father wrote educational band music and teaching methods for elementary school kids. His mother, a flute player, also taught music. They started John on piano when he was barely out of his diapers, and in third grade he picked up the violin.
Although the violin was his first serious instrument, O'Reilly developed an interest in the drums from dabbling with a trap-set his dad kept around the house. While spending his teenager summers at Interlochen music camp in Michigan, learning the subtleties of big-band music, O'Reilly spent his school years in Hollywood punk bands that drew equal influence from the Pixies and Dead Milkmen. He cut his teeth at a "really nasty" Hollywood dive called the Natural Fudge Factory, which he says was about the same size as the band room at Long Wong's. Meanwhile, at home he played along with Police records, absorbing Stewart Copeland's polyrhythmic fluency.
Much like Copeland, O'Reilly combines power and aggression with a rare ability to bend with the flow of the music. At Modified on April 22, he put on a dazzling display in a jazz-duo performance with Strange. Head cocked forward, eyelids fluttering furiously with each drum roll, O'Reilly was a picture of concentration. You could literally feel him listening to the music, crawling inside Strange's world of odd time signatures and dissonant chords.
Forbes thinks O'Reilly's violin training helped to give him a wider musical understanding than most drummers.
"I think that's really what got him started listening to melody, and I think his sensitivity, learning to play melodic instruments before he played drums, was a real nice foundation for him," Forbes says. "So then, when he got behind the drum set, I think he was not looking at music from just a rhythmic standpoint, but a melodic standpoint. Also, he's very well-versed on that instrument. He's picked up a lot of different rhythms."
A drummer with such impressive technique could easily command big bucks, playing in cover bands and lending himself out for weddings and casuals. But O'Reilly's just not wired that way. All his choices seem to be for aesthetic, not fiscal, reasons. Certainly, you're not likely to get rich playing with a band as quirky as the Hammertoes, but O'Reilly agreed to fill in for them because he was intrigued by their combination of sambas, mambos, flamencos, and bossa novas.
Likewise, Forbes' thoughtful, adult songcraft is hardly the flavor of the month, but when O'Reilly heard Forbes' debut CD last year, he jumped at the chance to help put those tunes across onstage.
Forbes himself has an extensive background as a drummer (until recently he drummed for local rockers 68 Lo-Fi), so his standards were higher than most. Even so, all his expectations were quickly exceeded by O'Reilly.
"I would have to honestly say that John ended up being more than what I wanted," Forbes says. "As a drummer, yeah, I think I have some ability to sketch out ideas, but once he got involved with the music, he actually took it to another level."
O'Reilly was introduced to local clubgoers through his work with One, a band he first heard at Hayden Square ("I wasn't old enough to get into clubs") during his first year at ASU. He heard only one song, "Dream People," a tune that remains one of his favorites to this day. He was so impressed by the band that when he heard they were looking for a drummer, he refused to quit until he got the gig. Ruhe recalls getting 20 phone messages from O'Reilly, and auditioning him just to get the eager drummer off his back. Halfway through the first song, the entire band was so knocked out by O'Reilly's skill, they all stopped playing.
"He's peerless," Ruhe says. "He's like a renaissance drummer. He understands what everyone's doing at all times."
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O'Reilly tends to downplay his vaunted musical idealism. He notes that he's luckier than a lot of musicians. He's had a jazz scholarship at ASU. He's gotten financial support from his parents, who spoil him in a way that only the baby of the family can be spoiled. He's quick to remind you that he's been able to live in the bubble of academia for the past few years, not having to cope with the grim realities faced by most people who depend on music for a livelihood.
But now, with his impending move, that may change. The exodus to Boston represents not merely a change of scenery for O'Reilly, but a tentative step into the unsparing world of adulthood. Along the way, he made the difficult choice of dropping out of school, at a time when he was on the threshold of graduating. On one level, the decision might have been about blowing off tiresome classes. But on another level, it's O'Reilly's declaration to himself that he wants to be a full-on musician, and not a music educator.
"It just got to be too much," he says. "I didn't feel like I was really doing it for me. I was doing it for my parents, and I was on scholarship the whole time at ASU, so there's that feeling that I owe it to the head of the department.
"But it's not like I wasted the time I was there, 'cause I learned a lot. But I didn't think it was worth it to stress out. The other night I either had to rehearse for a Hammertoes gig or analyze a Bach fugue at home. I decided I'd rather be playing.