Joe Bernstein grew up in Union Grove, Wisconsin, and began piano lessons in third grade. While he might have preferred to be outside playing baseball, he picked it up without too much trouble, and by fifth grade, when percussion in the school band became an option, he saw his chance. Because of his piano background, Joe could play the bells. A couple years later, he got a drum kit for his birthday and began lessons.
His parents’ classic rock and Motown records made an impact, as did an oldies station they could pick up from Chicago. Soon he and his brother were buying their own music. Nirvana made starting a band seem like something two Union Grove kids could do.
The first band was called Steel Lizard – Joe on drums, his brother on guitar, and a friend on bass. The jams were endless, but their parents never complained once, as Joe recalls. Around this time, Joe saw a Little Blue Crunchy Things show in Milwaukee, and was impressed. That band would feature three founding members of The Kissers.
Later, when college and a music major came into clearer focus, Joe got serious. He retook piano, and studied Afro-Cuban drumming. Soon he was in the music program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and jamming at house parties and on campus with Wicked Chicken, one of many later iterations of Steel Lizard. In another coincidence, the chair of the school of music at Whitewater at the time was Lowell Youngs, the father of Kevin Youngs, future Kissers co-founder and mandolinist.
At school, Joe came under the tutelage of Josh Ryan, who turned him on to serious African drumming and urged to him to try grad school, which he did, at UW-Madison. There, he connected with Jamie Ryan, who had replaced Bill Backes as the drummer in The Kissers. When Jamie moved to Pennsylvania to take a job, Joe became a Kisser.
Soon the band was going out on the road for eight and ten weeks at a time. His wife Jackie took a job in Boston for the brief period the band was based there. But eventually Joe, Jackie and the band all ended up back in Madison. The Kissers continued touring for another year-plus, but when that slowed down, Joe starting driving cab and looking for a day job.
In the fall of 2007, Joe started teaching jazz history, history of pop/rock and music theory at Madison Area Technical College, now called Madison College. He heard about an opening at the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, and his years of playing in orchestras, along with his experience with logistics on Kissers tours, helped him get the gig. Today, he is Director of Operations and Education for WYSO, which gives hundreds of kids invaluable experience in music performance in four different orchestras. Groups travel biannually to perform in far-flung international destinations.
Joe’s interest in the bodhrán, the native drum of the Celts, predates The Kissers move toward all acoustic instruments, and it is of a piece with Joe’s lifelong interest in drumming from different cultures.
“I was pretty self-taught on the bodhrán, which is very unlike any other percussion instrument I’ve ever played,” he says. “Recently, I’ve also taken some lessons with some bigger names in bodhrán playing. Those lessons kicked my ass, in a way – they really opened my eyes to some bad habits I’d picked up, and showed me what the instrument can do.
“But playing bodhrán with The Kissers has been great fun. It combines the flavor of all the music we’ve played over the years with a more subtle, delicate sensibility. Learning – and relearning this music on this instrument has been fun and challenging. That blend of Kissers history and new musical ingredients is just what we needed as musicians and as a band.”
Joe also has a key role playing drums and glockenspiel in El Valiente, an instrumental trio that takes inspiration from Spaghetti westerns and surf music, among other influences.