Jackson Pines’ Joe Makoviecki on loss, Pete Seeger and the ‘great adventure’ of growing up in Central Jersey

It’s a rite of passage for those growing up in the Garden State to head down to Jackson to conquer rollercoasters and devour turkey legs at Six Flags Great Adventure. 

But, like most towns known for its tourist attractions, the residents have split opinions on the attractions. Take Jackson Pines singer, and Jackson native, Joe Makoviecki for example.

“There’s two types of people in Jackson,” says Makoviecki on the phone from Philadelphia. “There’s the type of person who loved Six Flags and worked there, and it is a pretty good summer job. You can get in for free and ride the rollercoasters like eight times a day.

Then there are Jacksonians like Makoviecki. “Since it was in my town, I couldn’t care less. I didn’t really like rollercoasters; I went on almost every rollercoaster at Great Adventure when I was 16, and I haven’t been on one since. I’d rather be in the studio writing songs. The thrill for me is playing a new song for 10 people, not being on top of the freight train going 100 miles per hour.”

But when you’re at the top of Kingda Ka or any rollercoaster at Great Adventure, you also can see what else interior Ocean and Monmouth counties are known for: the great adventures that exist amid the trees.

Those same woods that you see if you happen not to close your eyes on rollercoasters are the same woods in which Makoviecki grew up playing music, and would eventually give inspiration to the folk band he leads, Jackson Pines.

“We spent so much time in those woods hanging out, camping and writing songs,” says Makoviecki about the Pine Barrens. “Even though it’s not like growing up in the Ozarks, the Badlands, or Wyoming because you can disappear in the woods, and you’re [still] close to the highway. But it’s where we grew up and it has its own character and history.”

In Ocean and Monmouth counties there was a hardcore scene when Makoviecki was growing up, but that didn’t deter him from playing shows and getting his type of music out there. 

“We would open up for these hardcore bands,” explains Makoviecki. “In that scene particularly, there were a lot of bands who were into two-step beats and breakdowns. I was 13 and they were all 17 to 22, and a lot of the bands were focused on dancing, mosh pits and breakdowns. So you could imagine me being 13, who would listen to Elliott Smith, opening up for a bunch of bands who were trying to make the audience go insane. To those bands’ credit, they would have me open up, and it was just me and an acoustic guitar with no bass player or drummer; we were called Welcome to Forever. We were never threatened or beat up because our music wasn’t hardcore.’’

Even though Jackson Pines has firm Central Jersey roots, Makoviecki came into his own as a folk singer attending college in New York City. It was there where he got into folk music and was inspired to take his music career to new heights.

“My high school band broke up, and during that time my father became sick and would eventually pass away,” says Makoviecki. “I had friends from high school who would visit me in New York and sneak into my dorm. That’s when the folk revialist thing happened, and we were always big fans of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. We wanted to know why they sounded the way they did.”

Makoviecki liked what he heard, and got together with fellow Jackson native and current Jackson Pines bassist James Black to play Pete Seeger songs at Washington Square Park in NYC.

“It wasn’t authentic ‘from Appalachia’ type of thing,” explains Makoviecki. “It was more 1960s kids playing in New York type of thing.”

The band would eventually become Thomas Wesley Stern, and it was Makoviecki’s musical project until he and Black focused more on Jackson Pines. Meeting Seeger at a club upstate both confirmed that music was the right direction for him, and that folk music was the vehicle in which to do it.

“We were invited to play music, and hopefully meet Pete Seeger,” remembers Makoviecki. “We got to meet [Seeger] and see him play music, interact with his community, and see the good they were doing locally and on the national level. We learned a lot of folk songs, and learned how to get people to sing along with you. It happened around the time that my dad died, and it shot me off like a pool ball on this trajectory in music.”

During those trips upstate to Seeger’s club, Makoviecki even got to sing with the well-known folk artist and activist.

“The second time we went up there, it was our turn to sing a song, and Pete was in the audience. We were in the circle singing along and leading the audience like how Pete would. Pete goes up to my buddy and whispers something in his ear, and then Pete grabs the mics and sings a verse with us and then looks at us and smiles and sits back down and plays the banjo. That was the moment that changed everything for me. He’s done this with thousands of people, but to have it happen to us in that moment felt very personal for us. I was like, ‘Wow, music is something that we should be doing.’”

And music is what Makoviecki has been doing ever since. Jackson Pines has released two albums including Close to Home, which came out last year. 

Close to Home was recorded in Jackson last year, in the period of COVID when vaccines were limited, so the band quarantined for two weeks, and met up in Ocean County to record.

“We met up in January and recorded eight songs in two days, then we met up again a month later and recorded the final four songs in a day. The record was recorded almost entirely live, and we mixed the record via Zoom. We had a really big show in September of 2021, and we really needed to have a new record out.”

Close to Home, as a title, pays homage to the area in which Makoviecki grew up.

“The album has the title it has because everyone in our band grew up in Jackson and was part of the same scene. We all had those same experiences and played in those same shows. The concept musically is the sound of a band and people that have known each other for 20 years, and been playing music with each other for the same amount of time and what could that be like if you could get everyone in the same room and play songs live and record it. To see if your musicianship is at the level where it’s still interesting and fun, and it was.”

Even though the record is sort of a homecoming for Jackson Pines, the album is more about themes such as loss and hope. 

“There are songs on the album that are about loss,” explains Makoviecki. “Both my parents have passed away in the past 10 years, so there are a couple songs about that. The last three songs on the album are a trilogy on perspectives of grief and loss. Which is a theme for 2020-21, but it wasn’t written on purpose. There are also songs about hope as well, and there’s songs about having fun and growing up. The song ‘Basement Daze’ is about our local music scene. It’s not entirely a COVID record”

One of the songs on Close to Home also pays tribute to the late New Jersey chef and author Anthony Bourdain.

“When we first starting out in the Thomas Wesley Stern group, we would watch his show in our hotel rooms. He was a Jersey guy who did it big. It can be melodramatic to say that when a celebrity dies to feel sad, but Bourdain had a touch on culture that wasn’t bullshit. Just the fact that what he loved was the same type of shit we loved like good food, hard work, good stories and simplicity. When it came to writing the song I didn’t want to do a ballad or go the direct route so we landed on a song about falling in love with someone while his TV show was on in the background. When me and my wife started dating, Bourdain would be on when we would fall asleep, and it’s part of our story.”

This past summer, they got to play “Bourdain” at Sea Hear Now festival in Asbury Park, and the song was well received. Playing at the festival 25 minutes away from where Jackson Pines grew up was a unique moment for the band. 

“It was very surreal,” says Makoviecki. “To grow up going to Warped Tour in Asbury Park and you don’t expect anything big there to happen again. I’ve played music in Asbury my whole life, and reached many milestones there, whether it was opening for Band of Horses at the Pony or opening up for the Felice Brothers in Asbury, and being 13 and playing our first shows there, there’s so many memories in Asbury. We were one of four local bands playing at Sea Hear Now, and we were playing with some of the biggest bands in the world. To open up for Dr. Dog on the same stage, and looking out at the audience and seeing the convention hall and the boardwalk was very surreal and we didn’t take it for granted.”