Photos: Jordan Knight @jordankelseyknight
In February 2014, I found myself in a San Francisco café with my sister, and in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I purchased tickets for The Summer Set's Legendary Unplugged Tour at the music venue, Bottom of the Hill. At that point, I knew some of their songs but would have considered myself a casual fan of the band at best. It was only by chance on the day of the show that we arrived early enough to get a free poster signed at their table.
It seems that had been the theme of the evening as, after finding myself starstruck upon meeting drummer Jess Bowen, there was a lull in the queue that allowed me to get a picture with her. What followed was an evening of great music and an all-around fun time. The band’s infectious energy filled the venue, especially as they left the stage to join their fans and sing the last song together. By the end of the night, I was definitely more than just a casual fan.
Fast forward to today, and much has happened in The Summer Set's journey. They’ve played numerous shows, released an album, gone on indefinite hiatus, pursued individual projects, reunited, and released another album. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Bowen to discuss the band, how she eventually found her own identity through her individual projects, and why representation matters in music.
In 2021, The Summer Set made an exciting announcement: they were reuniting after a four-year hiatus. The pop rock band from Arizona, known for catchy songs like “Boomerang”, “Chelsea”, and “Figure Me Out”, returned to the music scene with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
For Bowen, the hiatus had been challenging to navigate at first. "At the time, I was pretty bummed, obviously," she says, but acknowledges that this period of separation ultimately turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It provided each member of the band with the time and space they needed to evolve as individuals and achieve their own unique accomplishments.
The rest of The Summer Set is made up of brothers John and Stephen Gomez, lead guitarist and bassist, respectively, and Brian Logan Dales, their lead vocalist. Bowen began playing music with the brothers in middle school, and Dales joined them in 2007. “We got signed to our first label out of high school,” she says. “So imagine, we were teenagers, and we've been doing The Summer Set since then. Right out of school, we just hit the road. So you kind of come to this point of like, ‘What else is out there?’”
Bowen admits that finding an identity separate from the band was challenging, given that it had been a part of her life for so long. “When we were in the band together, we were all known as, ‘Oh, that's Jess from The Summer Set, or that’s Stephen [or John or Brian] from The Summer Set,’” she says. “That felt like our identity.”
In hindsight, she feels that the split was necessary and muses that “It needed to end so that we could all figure out how to be the best versions of ourselves.” She shares that the Gomez brothers found success writing and producing for other artists while Dales found musical theater. As for herself, Bowen did not expect to continue working in music. “I thought, ‘okay, this is it,’” she says. “I did the music thing, now I have to go back to school. That's what's next.” However, when artists extended invitations for her to play drums for them, Bowen stumbled upon an unexpected opportunity she had never considered before. “I ended up falling in love with that path of playing with other artists and still continuing to drum.”
Initially, Bowen found the prospect daunting and felt intimidated by the idea. “Obviously, The Summer Set made a certain style of music, so when you're in a band, you're used to playing a certain style, and you kind of get stuck in that,” she explains. “When I got to play with other artists, I played with so many different types of artists that I got to really expand my skill level.” As a touring drummer, Bowen has performed with 3OH!3, Alice Glass, Tessa Violet, The Ready Set, and many others. These experiences allowed her to broaden her style of drumming, which benefited The Summer Set as well. “Now,” she notes, “we are all better musicians too.”
The band's break allowed each member to discover who they could be without one another, ultimately shaping what they could become together. As Bowen thinks back on this transformative period, it becomes evident that their individual growth strengthened the foundation for their reunion, making it all the more meaningful. “We all know that we can do things outside of The Summer Set, but what's great is when we do this together, we have something so special that we built together,” she says, adding that the timing of their reunion had been perfect as well, aligning with the resurgence of the pop rock/pop punk scene. Recounting the lead-up to their reunion, Bowen recalls, “Brian hit up Stephen when he was out in Arizona and was like, ‘How would you feel if we kind of started writing music together again?’ and that just became the conversation and we all were like, ‘Wait, this is gonna be a thing again? Is this really gonna happen?’ And then we did it and it just made so much sense. And it felt better than it ever has because we've also grown and matured. We're a healthier version of The Summer Set, that’s for sure.”
Since reuniting, The Summer Set has released an album, Blossom. Two singles were released in 2021: “Street Lightning” and “Back Together”— the latter of which centered around the band’s split from the perspective of Dales. The following year, they released three additional singles: “Teenagers”, “Hard Candy”, and “FTS”. They’ve also performed at various festivals and toured in the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, Bowen toured with Jax, who opened for Big Time Rush, and she also had plans to collaborate on a short film project that required a drummer.
Bowen also used the time away from The Summer Set to delve into a broader spectrum of passions. This included co-hosting Babes Behind the Beats, a podcast that aims to highlight women in the music industry, as well as using her platform to advocate for the communities that she is a part of. “My passion is to connect with people and be a visible role model,” she says, “whether that's in the LGBTQIA community, the Asian community, or the drumming community as a woman.”
Bowen started playing drums when she was 11 years old. Her father, a drummer himself, initially introduced her older brother to drumming, but it wasn't long before he turned his attention to her. There was some hesitation on her part, and she shares, "At that time, I didn't know a lot of female drummers. They were very underrepresented. I never saw them onstage or on TV or anything like that, so I was a little hesitant.” Though she eventually fell in love with drumming, it took her a while to get into it. She recalls, “My first initial instinct was, ‘Girls don't play drums,’ because there was not enough visibility.”
Although citing Karen Carpenter and Sheila E. as early influences, Bowen acknowledges the glaring absence of representation on stage and screen. “And that's just being a [female] drummer,” she points out. “Then you bring in being a lesbian, I didn't see that at all either. It was so hard for me growing up because I had these two things that were just so underrepresented, not to mention also being half Filipino.”
Bowen’s determination to bridge this gap is evident in her commitment to being candid about her experiences and her unwavering advocacy. “Growing up, my mom [and my whole family in the Philippines], we were very Catholic,” she says. “I had all these things that I was grappling with, and I didn’t see myself anywhere.” She passionately emphasizes the significance of representation, stating, “I think it's so important for young people to see this [representation] and know that it's okay. If I see a young Filipino girl, and she’s like, ‘My mom really would rather me play violin’ but she sees me up there playing drums—it makes a difference when you have people to look up to because I didn't really have that.” Continuing, she asserts, “I think it's just so important to really highlight this and to just be very vocal, open, and honest about it as much as possible so that for the next generation, it's a little different and not as hard to come to terms with wanting to be anything you want to be.”
Given Bowen’s dedication to improving visibility and representation, her commitment to creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere during live performances comes as no surprise. “When I'm on stage, I am having the best time ever, so I try to make sure that the fans feel that. I want them to know that I want to be here,” she says. “This last tour we just did, it had been a while since we’d really met our fans because we took that long break.” She goes on to explain that connecting with her fans brings home the importance of visibility even more, especially when she hears stories of fans coming out or starting to play drums because of her. “I'm happy that whatever I'm doing is helping other people. If I feel like it's making an impact, that's more important to me than being on stage and hitting the drums with sticks. I’m just happy to be any sort of role model to anyone.”
My journey as a fan of The Summer Set began in a café when I made an impulsive decision to attend their concert. Little did I know that the evening would serve as a mirror to Bowen's own experience—spontaneous, surprising, and transformative. Her story parallels the growth many of us undergo in becoming who we truly are. In a world that craves diverse voices and role models, Jess Bowen's story is a testament to the extraordinary impact of representation. It's an invitation to reimagine who we can be and to embrace our most authentic selves. As her journey continues to unfold, I’m not only excited for the music but also for the impact that she will continue to make—on stage, in communities, and in the lives of aspiring artists everywhere.
The Summer Set will be touring with Boys Like Girls from October 6 to November 1, 2023 before embarking on their UK tour from November 16 to 24.