“I see myself as a serious musician, but lately my attitude has been… you know, ‘to hell with it!’ Let’s just have fun!”
There was a time, more than 20 years ago, when Justin Heter “Pan” dreamed of being a geologist. He actually went to UNCW to study the science. It became his major, and shortly after graduation, he accepted a job with an environmental firm. But there was a little bit of an issue. Music kept getting in the way.
He learned drums at a young age. Even after he started his professional career, percussions remained an important outlet for him – a way to relieve the stress and tension, a way for him to be creative. Justin started to dream of making it big with a band – touring the nation, maybe even one day touring Europe. So, after all those credit hours, and all that tuition, he decided to give up his job and make a living as an artist.
“Since then, I’ve been in a bazillion different bands. The one that was probably the most successful was a group called Sci-Fi. We played together around 2008 and 2009. I was also in a reggae band. Then I joined a couple of groups in the Asheville and Greensboro areas. You know you’re just trying to find something that sticks.”
But what do you do when it feels like everything you throw at the wall bounces off and lands on the floor? What do you do when nothing is sticking?
One possible answer is you quit. You pat yourself on the back for giving it a solid try, and then maybe you dust off the geology degree and see if you can still find an adult job.
The other answer, the one that only fellow artists will understand, is you try to reinvent yourself. In Justin’s case, he started to work on comedy songs – not parodies like Weird Al – but original songs with their own beat and melody that are designed to make you chuckle.
“Yeah, this is a huge change. It’s a massive change! This is not at all what I thought I would be doing.”
This is a story that’s all about change – not just reinventing or rebranding yourself. In many ways, that’s the easy part. The much harder change is pivoting to an audience of one. You force yourself to stop thinking about what will please the masses and start focusing on what pleases you.
In Justin’s case, the truth is musical comedy became a driving force in his life not because he wanted to make other people laugh, but rather because he reached a point where he needed to laugh.
“I have lost a lot recently. It felt like my life and my career had plateaued. My girlfriend and I broke up, then a couple of bands I was in broke up. The film industry was shut down because of the strike. Honestly, all these things have brought me to rock bottom.”
Justin’s experience as a local performer is not unlike what others have endured. The journey is filled with starts and stops. For every step forward, there’s almost always one that goes in the opposite direction. Maybe there really is such a thing as an overnight sensation – but for most creative folks, progress moves much slower. It comes so gradually that more often than not, it feels like you are just standing still.
For Justin, the cycle kept repeating itself over and over again. Every time he felt like he was making progress with one of those bazillion bands, something would happen. Typically, someone would quit, and you either had to replace that band member or have things break up entirely. Either way, you’re left to start from scratch.
So, what if, instead of depending on others, you just went out and tried to make it on your own? What if you stepped out from behind the drums, mastered other instruments, threw yourself into the world of comedy, and built a name as a solo act?
“I needed something to keep me motivated, something to be excited about, something to keep me going, to keep my mind focused. So, I dove right into the deep end.”
The inspiration for the new project probably started years ago. Do you remember the HBO show Flight of the Conchords? It was popular, but really more of an underground sensation. Justin and his buddy Chris Edwards could relate to the show’s two main characters – struggling musicians who are trying to make it big. All the songs featured in the program are original tunes that are laugh-out-loud funny.
For fun, Justin and Chris learned how to play them, which led to them creating a tribute band called Flute of the Condors.
“We played around town a little, but it was just as a joke. It was kind of my intro into comedy, but then we just dropped it after a while.”
Now, all these years later, the idea, at least a version is coming back to life. Chris has moved on, and Justin didn’t want to just cover other people’s songs – didn’t want to repeat their jokes. So instead, he set out to write original comedy songs. The final product is a 14-track album called Fun Knee Songs 4 Committee Porpoises, which is set to be released on December 18th.
Each song is a different theme, a different style of music. One is bluegrass with spoken word and a harmonica. One is an Italian love song. There’s also a ’90s grunge-style tune about cantaloupe pizza. Justin describes the collection as dry humor. It’s not joke after joke or slapstick comedy. The songs are long-format humor.
“I produced this in my own home. I did this all on my own. I wrote it. I play every instrument on it: drums, bass, guitar, harmonica, and ukulele. I recorded it. I mixed it. I mastered it. I even play 10 to 12 characters, each with a different voice.”
The beauty of embracing that smaller audience is that you become the only critic who matters. If you created it for yourself, and in this case, by yourself, then you – and you alone – get to decide when it becomes a success.
Regardless of what happens with this next adventure, Justin already has one victory to celebrate. He has passed the big creative test. He has faced his fears, taken on something new, challenged himself in deeper waters and managed to see it all through to completion.
“I am not a comedian. I am just writing what I feel, what makes me laugh. I am doing this for myself. I don’t care if other people like it; it’s just something I have to do.”
We told you this is a story about change, but the one thing that remains constant is that Justin will always be someone who throws things at the wall. The comedy album is just the latest example. And who knows if it will stick, but in the end, does that really matter?
You see, with every attempt, Justin’s success is found through the joy of expanding his own abilities. In 20 years, our friend has mastered several genres of music and several different instruments. He’s learned more than 100 cover songs and performs frequently at breweries and restaurants. Now he gets to add comedy and recording/production into his bag of tricks.
The dream may have evolved and morphed over time, but his pursuit remains the same. And for a man who started his journey studying rocks, it seems like it’s been a pretty good foundation to stand on.
“I am just trying to stay relevant. I just want to be versatile… because one way or the other, I am going to make music!”
In November, Justin pre-released the opening track of his new album. Learn more about his song “Spicy Spaghetti” here.
On December 6th Justin Prelease his second single from album called Wacky Wednesday
For years, Justin hosted open jam at the Whiskey bar.
He has a part-time job working at Live Oak Bank Pavilion and Greenfield Lake Amphitheater as a stagehand.
He has started an acting career and signed with a Raleigh-based talent agency for his on-camera work.
One of his dreams is to perform at the South by Southwest Music Festival.
Justin’s Upcoming Shows
November 30th: Homeplace Beer (Burnsville, 6pm)
December 8th: Mad Katz (Wilmington, 9pm)
December 15th: Handlebar & Grill (Asheville, with Dirty Dead)
December 30th: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Wilmington, with Dubtown Cosmonauts “Grateful Phismas: An Ugly Sweater Xmas & NYE Party)
And stay tuned for the comedy album release party live in concert in February 2024, date TBA