Local Group’s Farewell Performance to be Vinyl Music Hall’s First
by Bradley “Beej” Davis, Jr.
Jesse Wheeler has had no shortage of challenges or decisions. The 22-year-old front man for The Gills faced death at the age of 15 after being diagnosed with leukemia. As he describes it, that experience began his “exhausting hike up the mountain.” The indie rock/pop group’s loyal following, along with the band’s optimism and drive for growth, are clear indicators that the members are now looking out from atop that mountain.
However, insisting that the group still has some climbing to do, Wheeler, along with brother and guitarist Chris, Andy Prince (bass), and Matt Prince (drums), has announced the members will be relocating to Nashville, Tenn. shortly after their farewell show as the inaugural performance for Vinyl Music Hall on Aug. 28. Fans can be rest assured that the group will be coming “home” from time to time, as fueled by their families and local music roots.
Independent News had an opportunity to discuss with Wheeler the upcoming move, looking death square in the eyes and learning to “Breathe.”
IN: The Gills, as a band, has gone through some transition this year. I assume things are still going well?
Wheeler: Yes, things are going very well. There is a definite current that is flowing and putting things together exactly the way they need to be. Playing with my brother is one of the coolest things ever and it makes me so happy. I couldn’t have picked a better rhythm section. We were provided the perfect house, perfect job situations, and a great location to get away when we need to.
IN: But you’re no stranger to life’s challenges. Can you tell me about your cancer diagnosis when you were 15?
Wheeler: Well, it was surely a shock. I knew something was wrong, and in the car on the ride to Jackson, Miss. (where I was diagnosed) I remember saying, “I’m going to die.” After they drained me of most of my blood, the doctor came in and just got right to the point and said, “Well, he’s got leukemia.” Those words have obviously changed my life; I had to grow up fast and learn to face death, and more importantly, life. The three years I spent while taking chemo ended up being the biggest lesson in patience I will hopefully ever have to deal with. Even though times were rough, I’m definitely glad that I’ve gone through everything I have.
IN: Your positive attitude toward these challenges seems to be fueling your musical success. Is that the general mission and belief of the band?
Wheeler: Yes, it definitely is what drives my life, and I hope it reflects in the music. We all have this point of view. We’ve all found, through different experiences, that optimism is the only way to make things happen.
IN: It seems that at the height of The Gills’ presence performing in Pensacola, you guys are heading to Nashville to further the group’s music career. Was it a tough decision to leave?
Wheeler: There were many pros and cons about relocating. We have so many great friends, and all of our families are there (in Pensacola), but the decision was easy to make because we all felt the push to make this happen. We will definitely be making frequent visits because we love the place so much.
IN: What was the process of coming to that decision?
Wheeler: As some people may know, we’ve gone through some changes with band members. When Andy, Matt and I received the news, instantly I knew what we had to do. I had always wanted to play with my brother and he already lived in Nashville. It was lined up perfectly.
IN: The Gills shows are usually packed with fans. What is the message you’d like to send to them upon your departure?
Wheeler: To still be on the lookout for our shows, because we’ll never grow out of Pensacola.
IN: I’m sure moving to Nashville will enable you guys to book and perform more shows. Is your overall plan to jump into a full performance schedule?
Wheeler: I wouldn’t say it’s a big reason. It definitely will be a positive factor, but we have much larger plans.
IN: You mentioned that The Gills will be working on more original songs once you get to Nashville. How much of your current set includes some original stuff?
Wheeler: The Aug. 28 show will consist entirely of originals. There is a good bit of new songs, along with a new twist on the songs some people might be familiar with. And yes, we are constantly writing.
IN: Your final performance in Pensacola is going to be Vinyl Music Hall’s first show. That seems to be a pretty exciting sendoff.
Wheeler: We are so stoked about Aug. 28 and Vinyl in general. I think it’s a great thing and I hope and pray the best for it.
IN: Are we going to be able to hear some original songs at that Aug. 28 performance?
Wheeler: Tons — nothing but!
IN: You recently announced that someone has offered to help you establish your 501(c)3 status for your non-profit Breathe. Can you tell me about that project?
Wheeler: Ever since the cancer I’ve known there was something I would have to do, and with the help of these guys, I’ve realized what that is. Breathe is an action of The Gills and we need friends and fans to help us make this possible. The non-profit will provide whatever financial or emotional care we can for an individual whom sponsors will have a chance to learn about. We will be taking this breath and spreading it around everywhere we can.
IN: The Gills will be missed, but you’ve mentioned you’ll be back to visit?
Wheeler: Oh yes, we’ll be back for shows, cover gigs, holidays — things of that sort.
IN: Anything else you want to get off your chest?
Wheeler: The band opening up for us is amazing, and so is Brooks Hubbert who will be opening as well. We really wanted this one to be free so we’re really grateful to the good people at Hopjacks Pizza Kitchen and Taproom who made it possible.
THE GILLS: LIVE IN PENSACOLA
WHAT: The Gills with Brooks Hubbert and Big Rock Candy Mountain
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox St. (on the corner of Palafox and Garden streets, next to Hopjacks Pizza Kitchen and Taproom)