Guitarist Jasper Nephew stars with Owl City
The flashing stage lights and crowd of 60,000 cheering fans cause sweat to trickle down Jasper Nephew’s face. He forgets his nerves as he jumps on stage and hears the crowd chant while he mindlessly moves his fingers to the strings on his guitar.
Nephew is a guitarist for the band Owl City and has been on two world tours, performing with artists such as Ellie Goulding, Justin Bieber, Maroon 5 and Neon Trees.
The Wyoming man started playing in a band when he was 14. He took guitar lessons for a month before realizing he learned better by studying books, magazines and the Internet.
“I don’t have a very methodical way to play guitar. I think of it more scatterbrain because my knowledge of the guitar is from all of these different places,” he said. “It helps me play the guitar differently than if I was taught in a normal way.”
Nephew was home-schooled in Columbus Township throughout high school so he could finish his schoolwork by 11 a.m. and then get to practice guitar for seven or eight hours each day.
“Home-school worked great for me because I had all that time in the day to devote to guitar,” Nephew said. “I had no idea that I could eventually make a living playing music. … I just love to play guitar.”
Nephew said his parents, Paul and Beth, helped him follow his dreams.
“My mom and dad really helped and were super encouraging in helping me out with buying instruments and structuring my whole school around me and my interests,” Nephew said. “They’ve always been super supportive about me being able to do what I want to do and not pushing me to do a normal 9-5 job.”
The 28-year-old has been performing as a full-time job since December 2005. He has played in local bands, such as The Novel i, and recorded for songwriters in The Library Recording Studio in Minneapolis and Conway Studios in Los Angeles.
“That is actually one of my favorite things to do. I just love to record and create and come up with the best guitar part for the song,” he said.
Since Owl City plays electronic music and there is not much typical-sounding guitar on the album, Nephew gets to make up his own parts in live performances.
“I get free reign to come up with guitar parts and play a lot of the synthesizer stuff on the guitar,” Nephew said. “A lot of times I am playing the guitar, but it sounds like a synthesizer because I am sculpting it through all kinds of the effects.”
Nephew met Daniel Jorgenson, the music director and bass guitar player for Owl City, almost seven years ago while playing for a local band at a club in the Twin Cities. In 2012, Jorgenson called Nephew and told him they needed a guitar player.
“I got a call in February and he had a list of all the tour dates for 2012, which was basically every day for the rest of my life,” Nephew said. “He said, ‘If you want to do this we can put you down.’ … So that’s kind of how it started.”
In June 2012, Nephew left for the band’s promotional tour of North America and its world tour in the summer. On the world tour, Owl City traveled to places such as Paris, London and Tokyo, which was one of Nephew’s favorite stops.
“The food is amazing and the people are super nice,” he said. “It’s basically like being at the Minnesota State Fair on the busiest day; it’s a completely different culture.”
While in Japan, Owl City performed at the Fuji Rock Festival, which is one of the world’s biggest music festivals with an attendance of nearly 60,000 people.
“I’ve always wanted to be there, and (let) alone play, and we played main stage,” Nephew said.
After the world tour, Owl City headed straight to New York City and Los Angeles for a week and a half in August to advertise its new album for television shows. The band performed on programs such as “The Today Show,” “Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Conan O’Brien” and “America’s Got Talent.”
“I’ve been watching Conan O’Brien since I was 13, so it was crazy that I got to meet him and talk to him,” Nephew said.
Nephew got a week break, and then in September 2012, he headed out for the next U.S. tour for Owl City’s album “The Midnight Summer Station.” Then came a world tour to Europe, Asia and Australia. Owl City came back to the United States in December to perform for an arena tour. This included a stop in Minneapolis for the annual Jingle Ball concert, where Nephew got a chance to perform with artists such as Fun, The Wanted, Train and Kesha.
Nephew does not get nervous until right before walking on stage, as he tries not to think about the thousands of eyes on him. The moment he strums his Gibson ES-335 electric guitar, he lets loose.
“For me it’s so surreal just to be able to do that … to be able to tour and play every night and play in front of this many people, and all my tour mates are awesome,” Nephew said.
After the radio tour, the band got a month break before leaving in mid-January 2013 on the 10-week Maroon 5 tour. On this arena tour, Owl City played for nearly 25,000 people at each performance at locations such as Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“I’m not even really thinking much about playing the guitar, it’s just so much fun,” Nephew said. “I get to just forget about everything for that hour and a half, and I get to jump around and have fun with my friends.”
Before the band leaves for each tour, it goes through preproduction rehearsals and practice for a week in Nashville, Los Angeles or Minneapolis. Members brainstorm a set list and ideas for ways to add entertainment to their shows.
“Basically, we don’t rehearse at all while we’re on tour … we play the songs every single night so I guess we are all pretty comfortable and there’s no need to really play the songs when we know them so well,” Nephew said.
Next week, Owl City will begin rehearsing in Minneapolis for its upcoming four-week tour of Canada and Asia. In November, the band will head to South America to perform with Justin Bieber.
On a typical day, the band arrives at a venue around 9 a.m. and the members sightsee in the city until they are called for sound check around 4 p.m.
“If something goes wrong during the show, the next day at sound check we might hash it out a little bit,” Nephew said.
After the sound check the band eats at a recommended restaurant and comes back and plays their hour-and-a-half show. The group then hits the showers and explores whatever city it is in until about 2 a.m.
“It feels so surreal just to make a living playing music, but to be able to tour with really good friends and play music in front of a lot of people all just makes it even more surreal,” Nephew said.
He admits it can get hard being overseas. Once he wasn’t able to see his wife, Amanda, for her seven straight weeks.
“The hardest part is being away from her,” Nephew said. “Overseas are harder because communication is harder to manage. … We really make it work and have learned how to do it.”
Amanda Nephew gets to join her husband on most tours for a couple weeks.
“It’s been fun for me to travel with them and experience that whole lifestyle,” she said. “Not very many people can be a part of their spouse’s work and I get to be such a big part of his job.”
The couple has been married for eight years but has been together since they were around 13. Amanda Nephew said she’s loved getting to grow up together.
“He is so disciplined in his practice and his learning new things. It’s been a joy to watch it, and I’ve seen the progression for so many years now, to be able to see him do what he is created for and what he’s always wanted to do,” she said. “It’s been such a joy for me and fulfilling for both of us.”
She said that her husband always goes out of his way to greet fans and make someone’s day, even if he is exhausted after a gig.
“He is such a nice guy and he’s so normal and so encouraging and always goes and talks to the fans and is really good at connecting with the fans,” she said.
Jasper Nephew said he will stay with Owl City as long as it feels right. He does not know where the future will bring him but he hopes to gain recognition by other musicians who may be looking for a guitarist to either record or play in another touring band.
“Once you start playing with these kind of groups, it kind of happens where somebody sees you in that band and you make friends, and if another band needs a guitar player, they will give you a call,” he said.
Jasper Nephew encourages other bands, songwriters and solo performers to follow their dreams, just as he did.
“Come up with what you love to do, how you want your music to sound and how you want to be playing your instrument and be original with it,” he said.