Jir Anderson probably didn’t know it at the time, but as a young boy he had a Bo Diddley moment.
“I was mesmerized by music videos with anybody playing a guitar,” he recalls. “I ended up cutting up one of my moms cutting boards and made a guitar. I used a headphone speaker as a pickup and wired it into the stereo which I used for an amplifier.”
Bo Diddley famously built numerous homemade guitars—not just strings across a cigar box but working, electrified instruments, which he used, arguably, to invent rock ‘n roll—so having a Bo Diddley moment is a good sign. It doesn’t explain why, 27 years later, Anderson is finding success as a musician, because nothing’s that simple, but it does say something about his spirit and his determination.
His own roots also help paint the picture: He is from the Cochiti Pueblo, in New Mexico. At first blush, the connection between Cochiti and the blues-rock he plays with his band, The Jir Project Band, may not be all that apparent. “In general music is a culture and a way of life much the way it is living on the rez,” Jir says. “People ask me how it is to be Native and it’s really hard to explain because it’s something I was around since I was born; the people, the traditions, the language, the dances and all the other things that are a day-to-day thing when you grow up on the rez. The religion is inside me much the same as the music. No words can quite explain. It is how you live because it is who you are. When I pick up a guitar, I just translate myself using the guitar. I think if a person takes some time and gets away from all the commotion from time to time and connect with [him- or herself], the positive of the world can be seen, and you would want to promote that good energy. If you understand both languages, the translation is pretty simple and the blues and the Pueblo are very connected.”
He goes on to add, “I think the blues is all about feeling, and laying your heart on the line without worrying too much about anything else but the moment. I think that’s what I do when I pick up a guitar. I actually don’t listen to a whole lot of blues music, it’s just something that translates that way.”
Anderson is a working musician—in addition to regular gigs with The Jir Project Band he has experience as a session player and a touring “gun for hire.” He also has a day job, and is a father of four. A typical day begins as Jir the Family Man, rather than Jir the Rocker. He relaxes and spends any downtime with his family. His Little Earthlings, as he affectionately refers to his children, also have the music bug, and rehearse with him on the assortment of instruments around the house. “I like when they pick an instrument up and go into their own world,” he says. “My dad was always so patient when I was starting out he never told me to turn down even when I now know it must have sounded like a dying cat.” He maintains close ties to Cochiti, making frequent visits to the Pueblo with his children so they stay connected to their traditions.
On show days, it’s all out mayhem. After a ten-hour shift on the regular job, there’s the practical prep for the show—loading up gear, and stringing and tuning guitars. Then there’s the musical prep, which means compiling a set list and warming his voice and fingers, and just generally getting into rock-star mode. Usually, the band takes to the stage around 11 PM. “Once I’m on stage time flies,” Anderson says. Sets average an hour in length, and the music flows non-stop. The only breaks, if you could even call them such, are when bassist Eric Owens or drummer Brad Yablonsky breaks into a solo.
As for the music coming out of the speakers, it’s eclectic, running a gamut between blues and rock with some reggae and funk added. Anderson cites Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Stanley Jordan as core influences, and likes to keep his sets loose. “I never play things the same twice; I always leave room for the live show to develop and be responsive to the audiences mood,” he says, a freedom made possible by his bandmates’ versatility. “Eric and Brad are so awesome to put up with me changing things all the time. Those are some skilled cats.”
The band’s organic shows and unspoken communication have developed over time. In the mid-2000s, Anderson decided he’d had enough of playing freelance, and of living “by other people’s schedule.” “I was just ready to step up and start telling my stories,” he recalls. After writing and rehearsing his own show for a few months, he released an EP to support a small tour and brought in some guys for bass and drums. The band subsequently released an EP, Keep It Flowin’, in 2007, as The Jir Project Band—a name Anderson has mixed feelings about. “I should have thought longer term and came up with a better name but really it was just a project.” Having all played with other bands, previously, the trio found its rhythm and came together pretty quickly. “A band is a family so there is always, work musically and socially, so we all understand those basic principles.”
Five years later, the band’s first full-length recording, Sun Child, won the award for Outstanding Blues/Jazz album at the 2011 North American Indigenous Image Awards ceremony. “I put a lot of work into that album,” says Anderson. “I wrote all of the music, lyrics and produced the album. So it was very rewarding.”
With an award under his belt and a growing following throughout the Southwest, Anderson has a right to dream big, which he’s doing. What kind of venue does he want to play? “Wow,” he smiles, “any stadium with 20,000 people would be cool. I enjoy theatre-sized venues always cool the stages are big and the sound is usually killer.” How about tour-mates? “Ziggy Marley, Big Head Todd, Dave Matthews and John Mayer,” he says. “That seems like a pretty fun tour, doesn’t it? But I think any group that loves and dedicates time to always move forward would be a pleasure to work with. I have been pretty lucky over the years, as a guitar player, to have hit some pretty big stages with some cool cats.”
Speaking of being on stage with cool cats—he’s doing that on a nightly basis, and by the time a long set with The Jir Project Band is over, he is usually exhausted. But he likes to talk to people who came out to the show, and never turns autograph-seekers or picture-takers away. By the time the gear is broken down and loaded, and all the other loose ends are tied up, it’s approaching 2 AM. Then they’re off, home, for a few hours of rest.
The Jir Project Band’s music can be found on its Facebook page, at ReverbNation and on YouTube. They are currently in the studio recording their third album, “The Pueblo,” scheduled for release later this year.