At a time in rock and pop music with such faking-it technologies as electronic voice correction, drummer-in-a-box, and songwriting-via-algorithm, the Heist — a progressive garage rock group from Cranbury — is as real and alive as can be, with prodigious musical chops, original songs, intelligent lyrics, and enough energy to fuel a small city.
Comprising guitarist/songwriter Robert Jodha, bassist Jon Stefanchik, and drummer Mikey Mags — with newly added vocalist Sir Roric — the Heist will be part of a night of wall-to-wall music in the Mill Hill Saloon’s Basement, Saturday, December 13, from 10 to 2 a.m. Other groups booked that night include Gimme Back My Sons, Mike Jodha Tribe, and Unicron With Booth. The concert will also feature guest appearances by bassist Dean Vinci and vocalist Mikey D.
“Our show is in the middle of the beginning of the holiday season, a time of anticipation, shopping, reuniting with family and friends, making up the wish list — all those fun things,” Jodha says.
The performances on December 13 are also a big “thank you” to the Mill Hill Basement for encouraging local and regional bands that play original music, providing an opportunity to up-and-coming musicians to grow their talents at a time when record companies can no longer do so.
“Mill Hill Basement is so open to bands like ours, and there are not many venues that encourage and foster original music,” Jodha says. “In fact, there’s a banner behind the drums in the Mill Hill Basement that reads, ‘Underground Music Under Ground.’ I’ve seen so many friends and family and former students play there. They’ll let you play whatever you want, as long as you can fill up the night from 10 to 2 a.m.”
In the sometimes insubstantial profession of performing musician, Jodha has the advantage of being a beloved and trusted guitar teacher in the region, with a full-to-the-brim schedule of students and around 20 years of teaching experience.
This allows him to write, record, and perform the Heist’s original music without worries of how such projects might be financed. In addition, because he teaches in the evening, he can wrap up his lessons and then head out to play live, later at night.
The road to the Heist began in the early 1990s. While majoring in English and minoring in communications at Rutgers, guitarist Jodha played a couple of casual gigs with friends, giving the audience a semblance of original Heist material, all written by himself.
In the winter of 1993, Jodha collaborated with his brother, drummer Mark Jodha, marking the first time the brothers played an all-original set consisting of Heist material. At that time they were calling themselves The End, which then led to the moniker Feast.
A few years later, it was discovered that the name Feast was trademarked by another band. Jodha came up with the Heist as a band name, even securing a U.S. government trademark for the new permanent name.
(A meticulous history of the Heist can be found on the band’s website, www.heistville.com, under “Town Hall Archives.”)
In August, 1998, the Heist went into the studio to record its self-titled debut, with the Jodha brothers on guitar and drums, Vinci on bass, and vocals by M.G. Solo. The recording and mixing was done entirely with analog equipment, and the performances were mainly live.
“Our first album came out Labor Day weekend in 1998,” Jodha says. “The second album, ‘Feast,’ was recorded at Trax East studio in South River (New Jersey), in 2009, and came out in 2010. All our albums and my solo album were done in professional settings.”
Jodha reflects that Trax East was especially qualified to help create an outstanding record. “When we saw the albums (that had been recorded there), that were posted on their walls, we knew we were on the right track,” he says.
His 2006 solo album, “Robert Jodha Volume 1: Sonic Hallucinations,” is totally instrumental; all three releases are available on Jodha’s independent label, Sonic Spiral Records.
“Recording on analog tape costs so much more, and, in fact, we had to scour the industry just to find tape,” he explains. “Sticking to the organic way of making an album is quite expensive, but there is a noticeable difference. We wanted the tape saturation, a really warm-sounding record, and we accomplished that.”
Throughout the years, in addition to the Mill Hill Basement, the Heist has performed at Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse in Dunellen, McGuinn’s in Lawrenceville, The Saint and the renowned Stone Pony in Asbury Park, the Northstar Bar in Philadelphia, and the Roseland Ballroom in New York City.
Born in Brooklyn in 1971, Jodha came to central New Jersey when his family moved here in 1977, living in various towns in the area. He went to elementary and middle school in the East Windsor School District, then to Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville for two years. For the last two years of high school, Jodha attended West Windsor-Plainsboro, graduating in 1989.
He spent two years at Penn State University, then returned to New Jersey to complete his college education at Rutgers, graduating in 1993.
With a lifelong love of music and an attraction to the sound of the electric guitar, Jodha began playing guitar at around age 13. His primary influences at that time and even today are “the usual suspects,” he says, “the luminaries of rock and electric guitar, such as Jimi Hendrix, early Van Halen, Rush, Yes, and Led Zeppelin. Ever since, I’ve been on a quest to unearth as much music as possible, discovering different genres. From that early seed sprang my interest in progressive rock, heavy metal, jazz, and international styles.”
The influential British jazz-fusion guitarist John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra really got Jodha hooked. “I love how he plays — a perfect balance of technique and feel,” Jodha says.
In his younger years, he had two excellent private teachers, Connie Bryson and Elliot Baker, who taught him the rudiments of playing, as well as how to read music and understand music theory.
Jodha discontinued formal lessons after graduating from high school and throughout most of his 20s, but continued to teach himself and have creative leanings towards composing and songwriting. However, he began to feel there was a gap in his musical knowledge. “I knew there was another level of understanding that had eluded me,” he says. “After an 11-year break from formal lessons, at age 28, I re-contacted Elliot. He was happy I stuck with the instrument and proud that I became a guitar instructor and that I had recorded a first album. For about two-and-a-half years, I continued with Elliot — intense study, every week. That’s when I came to find out that he had studied with Ted Dunbar and Vic Juris, two luminaries of jazz guitar.”
Jodha’s father is attorney Gary T. Jodha, whose law offices are located in Princeton Junction and Newark. Jodha’s mother, Ada, is the longtime office manager for the firm, which handles all general areas of the law, but specializes in immigration, resulting in an international clientele.
Before making the jump to full-time music instruction and performance, Jodha worked at various positions in his father’s law firm. “I did courier services, secretarial work, even cleaning, during high school and between college semesters,” Jodha says. “Working there, I really learned a lot about legal communication and how to write in a more journalistic and fact-based style, a kind of writing that is very different from the literary writing I was learning as English major.”
“I also learned the back roads around here, which has helped with my music teaching — being able to go quickly from one student to the next,” he adds.
Jodha had ideas about becoming an English teacher, but in the mid-1990s was leaning toward a musical career and started to advertise himself as a music instructor through such old-school techniques as putting up hand-written photocopied flyers. “By 1998, strictly through word-of-mouth, things were going so well that I had a waiting list for students,” he says. “I found myself teaching seven days a week. I usually start my (teaching) day between 4 and 5 p.m., with students coming earlier, and then adults coming to lessons after work. I’m naturally nocturnal, so this schedule has worked out great, fits like a glove.”
“I have standards that students have to reach and have signed thousands of diplomas,” Jodha adds. “(If you study with me), you will play well and can compete on a professional level — if you stay with me and work hard. A good portion of my students have gone on into their 20s and 30s leading their own bands, playing in jazz ensembles, and whatnot.”
With students all around central New Jersey, ranging from six years old to musically curious adults, Jodha has not had to advertise his music lessons for many years now.
Although the unmarried Jodha has no children of his own, he has an abundance of current and former students whom he cares about as much as he would for his own brood “I figure I’ve given between 15,000 and 17,000 lessons — I have families from all over who have referred me,” he says. “Sometimes families have retained me for more than one student; sometimes I work with a parent, and then teach their children. I’ve also taught English to the same students in the same house. I’ve seen my students grow up and have attended their birthdays, bar mitzvahs, even college graduations.”
“One highlight I experienced as a guitar instructor was when I taught Dr. Freeman Dyson’s grandson many years ago,” Jodha says. “The famous scientist/lecturer — who, I believe, worked with Albert Einstein — encouraged me as a teacher, and I valued his opinion. I was honored to meet him.”
The Heist, along with Gimme Back My Sons, Mark Jodha Tribe, and Unicron With Booth, Mill Hill Basement, 300 South Broad Street, Trenton. Saturday, December 13, 10 to 2 a.m. $6. Must be 21 with ID to enter. 608-989-1600. The Heist on the Web: www.heistville.com. For information about the event, and/or guitar studies with Robert Jodha, 609-947-3904.