BY: LISA GREGORY
For 25-year-old Jack Gurecki, the singer and front man for the rock band Ignite the Fire, the social landscape can sometimes be a minefield.
Following a performance, he must make his way from the stage and into a crowd of people eager to interact with him, get an autograph, share a few words. And he is always gracious and kind to everyone.
But, “People don’t realize he is fighting something. He is struggling,” says Michael Nelson, guitarist for the band.
That something is Asperger’s Syndrome. Jack, who is from Westminster, MD, is on the autism spectrum and was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of four. As such Jack sees the world in a very different way, not always understanding the subtle nuisances that make for social interaction. He has trouble with sarcasm and takes things literally. He avoids eye contact. And, he can often come off as quirky, a little different.
Since joining the band seven years ago, Jack has worked hard to become a powerful presence on stage, overcoming the challenges of his Asperger’s and connecting with audiences who thrill to his soaring vocals.
But he can still struggle off stage.
“Once you are off that stage and you don’t have that command and people are allowed to be themselves in front of you and expect you to be a certain way in front of them, well, it can be very intimidating,” says Jack.
Adding, “It’s difficult. But this is my dream.”
As a child, Jack’s family referred to him as the “little professor.” “He memorized everything and by the age of two was so articulate,” says his mother, Janis Gurecki.
But there were other behaviors that caused his family concern. Jack referred to himself in the third person and would exhibit a repetitive “flapping” motion with his arms when over stimulated or upset. “It helped me to cope with and calm the random, unsettling world around me,” he says.
As an adult he has found other ways to calm himself, such as plugging in his ear buds and listening to music or even the sound of his own breathing. He often does this before shows. “It’s like meditation,” he says.
Once Jack was diagnosed, Janis set out learning all she could about Asperger’s and was determined to help her son better navigate the world around him. “I owe a lot to my mother,” says Jack, who was homeschooled for much of his elementary school years.
His social education included learning facial expressions and the emotions they convey. “They are hard to figure out, and they are never the same person to person,” says Jack. Jack often does not make eye contact with others because he is overwhelmed by micro expressions he does not understand, a snarled lip or raised eyebrow. “With a lot of people their emotions are subtle,” says Jack. “It was hard for me to figure out what people were feeling and therefore be able to empathize.”
As such, cartoons and actors like Jim Carrey with their exaggerated expressions were invaluable to Jack early on. He could more easily determine what emotions they were conveying. He studied them. “You could tell exactly what they were thinking,” he says. “I needed that. I needed those faces to empathize with.”
And by studying these characters he became enamored with the idea of being a performer himself. “I remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do?’” he says.
His mother enrolled him in a theatre program when he was eight years old. And with his ability to memorize and mimic he soon became a standout. Jack was the Beast in Beauty and the Beast and performed in other productions. He also sang. In perfect pitch.
“I remember when he was little, I would sing to him,” says Janis with a smile. “One time he turned to me and said, ‘Mommy, please stop.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t sound right.’”
His singing voice, as well as his talent for acting, including memorization and mimicking, would serve him well when he went off to public school during middle and high school.
“He could do all this cool stuff,” says Nelson, who was a classmate. “He was the impression master. Everyone in school knew him. He was a really cool dude. Strange but definitely cool.”
“He learned to relate to people through memorizing anything that he knew was social and that he heard the kids talk about,” says Janis. “Like doing voices. He could be a wallflower and throw out that one thing and then they’d realize, okay, Jack’s cool.”
Not everyone thought he was cool, however. Jack was sometimes bullied.
“He just wouldn’t act like it bothered him,” says Nelson.
But it did.
Janis has a drawing Jack did during this time. The drawing is done from Jack’s perspective, cowering on the floor in the gym locker room with three bullies hovering over him, one pointing a menacing finger in Jack’s face. The background is drawn in swirling motions, reflecting Jack’s emotions at that moment.
“That’s how he got through things,” says Janis. “He expressed himself through his art.”
And still does. A gifted artist, especially in the digital arts, he is responsible for the band’s artwork, some of which has gone on to be tattooed on the body of fans.
In fact, he chose to study art when he entered college. He also wanted to sing. And when he saw a flyer by a band called Ignite The Fire looking for a singer, he reached out to them.
“Talking to him on the phone he seemed very eccentric,” recalls Caelan Gregory, drummer and co-founder of the band. “And then when he showed up, he was very energetic but slightly off. He reacted to things more exuberantly. More over the top.”
Then he sang for them.
“After he showed us his voice, we were like, yeah, the guy can sing,” says Gregory.
Adding, “He’s got a very distinct voice. I know he gets compared a lot to Brent Smith (Shinedown) and Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge). That’s a huge compliment because if you think about that, that’s two of the most distinct voices in rock music.”
“His voice is unparalleled,” says Jeremy Dove of Darkesville Studios in Winchester, VA, where the band’s last two EPs were recorded. “I had heard about perfect pitch. But I had never experienced it before.”
That perfect pitch can also come in handy in the recording studio. “There have been times when we’d finished a song and we’re ironing out the last details,” says Dove. “Jack will be like, ‘We need to move this one note.’ We would move it and then everyone in the room would go, son of a bitch, he was right. It’s about making a really good song even better.”
But there is so much more to being a front man than just singing and having perfect pitch.
“I don’t think we initially realized the breadth of which his Asperger’s truly affected him,” says Gregory. “We would tell him you need to make eye contact, you need to engage. You’re telling this to a person who all his life has tried to avoid that, struggled with it.”
Jack persevered. “I would tell him something and you could see the apprehension,” says Gregory, “but you could also see that eagerness too. That eagerness of this is what I want to do. I want to be a performer, a front man. I want to sing.”
During the band’s early days, “we would have someone video tape our performances,” says Gregory. “We treated it like a high school football team. We would watch the film the next day and see what we could improve on. Watching Jack, you could tell he was very closed in. Almost like he was in a shell.”
Often times Gregory would give him pointers. “I would tell him you need to look out and make the audience as much a part of this as you’re a part of it,” says Gregory.
The band also prepared a script for Jack to follow when he was onstage. That script is more of a format now as Jack’s confidence has grown. But when he first started out, a lull on stage, say stopping to fix a broken guitar string, could be dangerous as Jack attempted to fill the time.
The band good-naturedly recalls an incident that occurred during one such show. Behind the stage were huge posters of rockers such as Axl Rose. During an unexpected lull in the show, Jack had to go off script. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the images and then proceeded to make the comment, “There are a lot of iconic musicians up there. And, then there’s Axl Rose.”
Jack was attempting to be funny. Instead, there were frowns and grimaces – frowns from some members of the audience, grimaces from members of the band.
Thus, his band nickname became “Brutally Honest Jack.”
It’s not that he wants to deliberately offend anyone, he explains. “It’s like I’m missing a filter,” he says. “I’m not as affected by the social structure that everyone else has just intuitively picked up on.”
His ability to recognize and work through such potential pitfalls has been beneficial for both him and the band. Despite the challenges Jack and the band have flourished, making a name for themselves and having their music played around the world.
“I couldn’t imagine being in a band with any other front man,” says Gregory. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Jack is often now described as “a hell of a front man” by those who come to shows. But even as he works hard to be accepted by society, he also wishes society would return the favor. “I wish people could learn to value our individual gifts, instead of focusing on our oddities,” he says of his Asperger’s.
To others he is more than just a “hell of a front man.” He is an inspiration. Like 13-year-old Adam Bertolette, who is also on the autism spectrum.
“For the longest time, Adam has known he is different,” says his father, Brian. “He gets very down on himself because he is not like other kids.”
That changed when he attended an Ignite The Fire show. “Here was this guy up on stage and everybody was clapping for him and cheering for him,” says Brian of Jack. “He was up there singing. This was somebody who was like Adam. That was a huge thing for Adam.”
After the show Jack sat down and visited with Adam and his stepmother Karen. And during his conversation with them, Jack passed on some words of encouragement. “Jack told him it was okay to be different,” says Karen. Adam took Jack’s words to heart. “That whole weekend he was on cloud nine,” says Brian. “He was smiling. You could tell he felt good about himself.”
It was a moment that Jack also relishes. One that validates his journey as a front man. “I sometimes think about Adam,” he says. “That I’m somebody’s hero. It really makes me feel like I’ve done something right in my life. No matter how hard it’s been.”
About Ignite The Fire:
Ignite The Fire is the Mid Atlantic’s new premiere original rock band. Their music has been played around the world from the United States to the United Kingdom, and from Australia to Brazil. The band’s music has also been streamed thousands of times on top digital platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify, with their current single Echoes featured on Spotify’s editor playlist “And Upon This Rock.” They have been named a Band to Watch by publication Uncivil Revolt and their song Criticize was chosen song of the year by Z98 and iHeartRadio. They have shared the stage with such bands as Three Days Grace, Bad Wolves, In this Moment, Theory of A Deadman, Pop Evil, Black Stone Cherry, among many others. They are current touring in support of their current release Between Shadow and Solace.