Jess Bowen

Up & Coming

The Summer Set’s Jess Bowen

This power-pop rocker talks about bringing the hard stuff.

by Ilya Stemkovsky

Jess Bowen is no stranger to the “boys’ club” mentality that female drummers have dealt with for decades. “I was playing a show at the Roxy a few years ago,” she says, “and the first thing the sound guy said to me was, ‘I’m going to soundcheck your drums for you, but don’t worry, I’ll hit like a girl.’ That fueled my fire, and I broke a few drumsticks that night. I’ve been a hard hitter ever since.”

In her band the Summer Set, hit hard Bowen certainly does, on an assortment of melodic rock material with big choruses and catchy riffs. And even though she sounds like a natural, drums weren’t part of the original plan, until her family stepped in.

“I originally wanted to play guitar,” Jess explains, “but my brother and dad played drums, so they encouraged me to play them. At twelve years old I joined the school jazz band. Chicago’s ‘25 or 6 to 4’ was the first song I learned. We did some Buddy Rich tunes too and a lot of sight-reading. I was listening to the classic rock bands my dad played for me as well—Journey, Boston, and the Eagles. But I was the angst-y teenager, so I was also into the Blink-182 and Green Day style. Playing in the jazz band helped me pick up on those fast types of fills.”

Over time, Bowen (who’s written a few informative blogs for moderndrummer.com) developed the skills to play it all, including the technical chops to pull off beats by some of her early favorites. “Travis Barker was a huge idol of mine,” she says. “I grew up playing in a Blink-182 cover band with two of the guys in the Summer Set. We played our eighth-grade talent show. Luckily I could play stuff like ‘All the Small Things’ right away. Travis was a big influence, and I looked up to him a lot.”

The Summer Set’s new album, Legendary, is filled with the types of hooks a drummer can really sink her teeth into, though a number of tracks feature programming. “The programming is the label’s attempt at hit radio,” Bowen says. “Live, I’m playing real drums. The live accent is different, and our instruments are definitely heard. The musicianship comes out. In my in-ear monitors I’m playing along to a click, vocals, and samples mostly.”

Thankfully, the album does allow Bowen to showcase some unique kit patterns, on numbers like “Someday” and in the chorus of “Rescue.” “Everyone puts their two cents in,” Jess explains of the band’s creative process. “But luckily we all have the same sense of what we want the drums and rhythms sounding like. We all understand each other through playing instruments with our mouths. Sometimes I would mouth my drumming ideas to the other guys and they would demo that with fake drums. For ‘Rescue,’ we definitely wanted an All-American Rejects ‘Move Along’–type drumbeat. And for ‘Someday’ we wanted something huge and awesome to play live.”

“Live” tends to be where it’s at for Bowen, though on the road it’s still difficult running into that old mindset separating the genders. “It’s frustrating having to be judged,” Jess says. “Even when someone says, ‘You’re a great female drummer,’ I kind of wish they would ixnay that ‘female’ part of it. I just want to be acknowledged as a drummer. On the first day of the last tour, a guy tried to kick me out of the venue. He asked who I was and I said I was in the Summer Set. He said, ‘Oh, yeah? What do you play?’ I told him I played drums. Then he said that I must really think he was stupid. I got so angry! I said to him, ‘Look on stage. Do you think one of my guys would be playing a purple drumset?’ At the end of nights, though, it’s a great liberating feeling to turn around those doubts and have them realize, ‘She wasn’t kidding—she really beats the shit out of those drums.’”

Tools Of The Trade
Bowen plays SJC drums, including a 6.5×14 snare, a 12″ tom, a 16″ floor tom, and a 24″ bass drum. Her Sabian cymbals include 14″ Metal hi-hats, 21″ and 22″ HHX Legacy rides, and a 20″ HHX-Plosion crash. She uses Vater Universal sticks with grip tape, a Pork Pie throne, and DW hardware.