Surreal: Bay Area high school student Kai Neukermans recounts what it was like to fill in for Pearl Jams drummer at Oakland Arena show – SFGATE

When 18-year-old drummer Kai Neukermans went to a Pearl Jam show at the Forum in Inglewood earlier this month, he watched as frontman Eddie Vedder took a sheet of paper from someone in the crowd that had been scribbled with a list of song suggestions, including “Mind Your Manners” from their 2013 record “Lightning Bolt.”  

But the Bay Area high school student never imagined that he would be on stage playing the same song with the legendary Seattle grunge band at the Oakland Arena nearly a week later, when he was asked to fill in for Matt Cameron, who tested positive for COVID and had to sit the gig out. 

“He hasn’t graduated high school yet. This is the year, right?” Vedder said before waving Neukermans on and introducing him to the crowd. “Everybody, this is Kai. Kai, this is everybody!”

The teenager, who is on the cusp of graduating from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, took his place behind the brass Ludwig Vistalite drum kit and stared out at the sea of about 20,000 people. Four years ago, he had formed his own band, The Alive, with his brother Manoa Neukermans, 14, who plays bass, and friend Bastian Evans, 17, who is the vocalist and guitarist. Together, they had performed at surf shops, skate ramps, and a number of festivals, including Lollapalooza Chile and Shaky Knees in Atlanta. 

But he’d never played a show quite like this. 

“It was surreal, the amount of people that were there,” he told SFGATE on Sunday afternoon. “The arena lit up and everyone was screaming.”

Brushing his hair out of his face, he counted off the band and hoped for the best.

Neukermans said that text messages from his friends started to roll in on Thursday night — they had been at Pearl Jam’s first of two shows in Oakland and, upon hearing the news that Cameron was sick, encouraged him to try and get in touch with the band. 

It certainly helped that he knew Vedder’s 17-year-old daughter, Olivia, whom he had met while playing at Ohana Music Festival in Dana Point a year earlier. But when he texted her, she said that Josh Klinghoffer, the former guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers who is currently on tour with Pearl Jam, was subbing in for Cameron. 

“I went to bed and kind of forgot about it,” Neukermans said.

Around noon the next day, when he was at school, he received another text from Olivia, who said the band was taking submissions from prospective drummers and told him to send her a video of him playing one of Pearl Jam’s songs. 

“It’s worth a shot,” she said. 

Jumping at the opportunity, he left school and headed straight to Green Room Music in Pacifica, where he met up with his drum teacher to practice.  

“I had a statistics test in my next period class, which I’m not doing very well in, but I’m sure they’ll let me take it next week,” Neukermans said.  

All he could think about was “Mind Your Manners,” which he listened to on repeat for a couple of hours, recording take after take until he felt that one was good enough to submit. Not long after, he got a call from Pearl Jam’s manager, Smitty: he was in.

“I called my dad and he told me that he felt like he was having a heart attack,” he said. 

When Neukermans arrived at the stadium, he was asked to take a COVID test and join Pearl Jam for a sound check. 

“There was a little rehearsal room that me and the whole band practiced in before the show,” he said. “They were having so much fun. It was trippy to see them all.”

Once the show was underway, Neukermans waited with his younger brother on the side of the stage. He was told he’d be playing one song, and when the time came, he couldn’t help but feel the pressure was on.

“My heart skipped a beat and I was scared for a second,” he said. “But I was confident that I could pull it off because I had practiced a lot.” 

Three minutes and a lifetime later, his time in the spotlight was over — but he killed it. Vedder triumphantly held up Neukermans’ hand and had him take a bow with the rest of the band. Later that evening, as he exited the arena, he said people in the crowd approached him for pictures and congratulated him.

“That was the drummer!” some of them yelled. 

Kai Neukermans, 18, plays with Pearl Jam at the Oakland Arena on Friday, May 13, 2022.

Kai Neukermans, 18, plays with Pearl Jam at the Oakland Arena on Friday, May 13, 2022.

Melissa Lampe

Since then, it’s been non-stop phone calls from radio stations, news outlets, friends and family, Neukermans said. He was also asked to write a guest column for Riff Magazine about the experience. 

“It all happened so quickly,” said Neukermans. “I’m super grateful.”  

He’s currently working on some new songs with The Alive and said they hope to release an EP soon. Their next gig is at Bottle Rock in Napa.

But first, Neukermans said he has to attend his high school graduation in a couple of weeks —  and maybe take that statistics test. 

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