Most working local musicians have day jobs. And some grumble about them, wishing they could make a living doing what they really love.
Annville’s Ffej Herb, though, has the best of both worlds: a musical career behind the drum kit of Solar Federation, arguably the best Rush tribute band in the business, and a day job he adores, at Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey.
And about that first name: yes, it looks suspiciously like another name spelled backwards. It’s stuck with him since the first grade.
“My friends, older brother, and our next-door neighbor were sitting on our front porch, trying to say our names backwards,” Herb explained. “Mine just sounded the most interesting. (Then) everyone started calling me Ffej.”
Originally from Shamokin, Herb studied English and creative writing at Penn State; he graduated in 1996. He moved to Annville in 2000, a year after he married his wife, Brandi.
“I’d always liked Annville because I have a lot of friends who attended Lebanon Valley College,” he said in an emailed response to preliminary questions. “In the ’90s, I played in a few bands and would drive from Berks County to Annville to rehearse. So I suggested it as a possibility when we were looking to relocate.
“We enjoy living in Annville very much. We have some great neighbors, my commute to Tröegs is relatively painless, and we have a nice big yard for a particular backyard bash,” he added.
He was referring to the ever-growing annual party – or “beer and music fest,” as he called it – he throws every July, attended by hundreds and featuring entertainment by local bands.
Ffej and beer
Herb has been Tröegs’ coordinator of media and communications since July 2012. He was the first marketing person the brewery hired after its move from Harrisburg in October 2011.
“I started doing social media posts, writing Scratch beer descriptions, taking care of the consumer and co-worker newsletters, writing press releases, and handling media requests,” he said in an email.
Now, with the marketing department numbering nine employees, his job has evolved. He responds to customer-service-related enquiries, manages the company’s community outreach program, serves as a liaison between Tröegs and its packaging vendors, and handles all state and federal brand and label registrations.
He talked about how he got into beer in the first place, which, interestingly enough also has to do with music, during an interview in the Barrel Room at Tröegs. Bearded, his hair pulled back in its customary ponytail, he’s as quick to get choked up at a memory as he is to crack wise and laugh.
“I was never a beer guy,” he admitted. “I grew up in Shamokin, a beer wasteland, where Yuengling Lager was the good stuff.”
A few years later, while playing in his original band, Herbie, “we started playing places that gave me free beer.”
“We (played) Appalachian Brewing Company and I was like, oh wow, this is actually pretty good – it was their Water Gap Wheat, I think,” he said. “I just in passing mentioned that and (someone said), well, if you like Appalachian Brewing Company, you should try Tröegs.”
He was out to lunch with colleagues from his former job when the opportunity struck.
“I saw the old-school yellow tap handle we used to have – I didn’t even know what beer it was – and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll have a Tröegs,’” he said. “It turned out to be Rugged Trail Nut Brown Ale.
“It was the perfect gateway beer for me. It was really full-flavored, but it wasn’t hoppy – it was really nice and malty (with a) hazelnutty character. The floodgates opened after that one.”
The self-described “Tröegs fan boy” was born.
“I’d go over there three times a week for my lunch,” he said. “I got to know everybody who worked there and just hang out, and that was definitely instrumental in helping me get my job here.”
Herb said in the earlier email that he has “no plans to ever leave Tröegs, other than to retire when I’m ready.” He explained why.
“I always felt that I was never a 9-to-5, office, suit-and-tie person,” he said. “I always wanted to be a professional musician. I realized that wasn’t necessarily going to happen, (but) I’m glad it didn’t happen, because I’m more happy being a local celebrity than a rock star.
“So the craft beer job is kind of like my silver medal job – I always call it that,” he added with a laugh.
“The craft beer industry is so unique because competition among other breweries is all relative – we’re all working towards a common goal of just making great beer and helping other people out and basically competing with these huge conglomerates.
“That really appealed to me. But the people who are drawn to Tröegs, and craft beer in general, the vibe of those types of people, fit my DNA,” he said.
The attachment goes deeper than that, though.
“I hated my last job, it was soul-sucking,” he said. “I had a great marriage, I was playing in a band, and I was happy with everything but my job. And I came to the conclusion that people just hate their jobs and that’s the way it is, and you just have to suck it up.
“When I got my job here, the last piece of the puzzle of my life was complete. I felt at home, not only with the people I work with, but to work for a company that drew me into this industry to begin with – basically I get to work for my favorite brewery. It’s pretty awesome,” he added.
Speaking of favorites, he does have a favorite Tröegs beer.
“My favorite IPA is Perpetual, and it is (also) Pennsylvania’s favorite,” he said. “I love Nimble Giant (the summer seasonal double IPA).”
“But my favorite beer that we ever made is an imperial stout called Impending Descent – it’s a colossal beer. It’s just super rich and thick and hoppy,” he said
During the interview, he favored a Scratch 491; the Scratch series are small-batch, experimental beers that give rein to the brewers’ creativity.
“It’s a light lager,” he said. “We’ve been trying to perfect the low-cal, low ABV, (it has) 95 or 96 calories. This is the second iteration we put out recently so I hadn’t had it yet – it’s nice.”
Tröegs recently added a new 15,000-square-foot canning facility to the Hershey campus (a year-long project) and also built an over 60,000-square-foot logistics center in Elizabethtown.
“They were just looking to incorporate some new pack types and have the ability to run our canning and bottling lines separately,” Herb explained. “With the original line, if you were running one, you couldn’t run the other, (so) that was one of the driving forces behind that decision.
“The new canning line is about twice as fast (the old one could do 240 cans a minute; the new one can do in excess of 450). We’re (also) able to do our own case wraps in house,” he said.
Ffej and music
The other side of Herb’s life is his music.
The self-taught drummer formed Solar Federation in 2014. Rush, the Canadian power trio of bassist/keyboardist/singer Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and late drummer Neil Peart, members of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, of course needs no introduction.
Together with stellar guitarist Eric Wirsing, his wife, charismatic singer Julie Schreiber-Wirsing, and bassist/keyboardist Mike Bitts, the foursome plays packed-house gigs across the Northeast.
Herb said he’d wanted to do a Rush tribute band for years. His favorite band, Rush stopped performing after the R40 tour, which marked their 40th anniversary. And his own band, Herbie, had disbanded and he was in between projects.
“It was very rewarding in itself to work on songs with other musicians and hone and craft your own compositions, but the payoff was virtually nil,” he said. “You were really doing it for self-satisfaction.
“We had a decent fanbase; we did an album that I’m very proud of. But I knew I (wasn’t) going to get a record deal,” he added.
He practiced Rush music by himself for a year before committing to the tribute band idea.
“I just loved playing the songs and I wanted to see if I could do it,” he said.
Growing up, though, he called himself a “casual” Rush fan. He saw them live in 1990, but that still didn’t do the trick.
“And then ‘Chronicles’ came out (the double album of their greatest hits),” he said. “The first time I heard (the bass solo in) ‘La Villa Strangiato,’ that was it. They were my favorite band after that. That was the next level of musicianship.”
Herb had known Wirsing when Herbie did shows with The Julie Schreiber Band; Schreiber-Wirsing joined after Solar Fed’s first singer didn’t work out.
“I don’t think the band would exist without her,” Herb said. “Strangely enough, I wasn’t sold on bringing her on board at first – I didn’t know if Rush fans would accept a female singer.
“She’s the reason we’re all still doing it. I think she’s (our) secret weapon (and) we’re very lucky to have her,” he said.
Solar Federation was one of two Rush tribute bands asked to perform at A Night for Neil, a concert benefiting several cancer charities held in Peart’s hometown of St. Catherines, Ontario, in October 2022. Peart died in 2020 of glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
Herb called the experience “surreal.”
He spoke of meeting Peart’s brother Danny at the event; he was one of several family members who attended the show. Mutual friend Brandon Dyke introduced Herb to him backstage.
His eyes filled with tears, his voice catching as he remembered.
“I shook his hand, (said) pleasure to meet you – (Brandon said), this is Ffej, the drummer of the greatest Rush tribute band in the world, I was like, come on.”
He wept briefly, then took a few moments to compose himself.
“That was pretty special,” he said. “To be like one of a few people to really pay tribute to him wasn’t lost on me,” he said, his voice still ragged. “It was a once in a lifetime thing for sure.”
He paid tribute of his own to “the community of Rush fans” who keep Solar Fed and other bands like it alive.
“Some of the best people I’ve met in my life are because of this band,” he said. “Big Rush fans need that in their life because the band is no longer around.
“Is it the same thing? No, it’s not the same thing as seeing those guys. But to have a band that a group of people can come and see and re-live that same kind of atmosphere is why we do it,” he added.
Herb also plays drums in Denim and Leather, a band that covers classic heavy metal and hard rock hits; he’s been with them for about two years. Metal is actually his first love.
“I just never really got to be in that type of band and I’ve always wanted to since I was 10,” he said. “So it was kind of like reliving a childhood dream of mine, to be able to play those songs on stage with a singer that could belt that (stuff) out.”
If all this wasn’t enough, Herb also hosts trivia nights every Wednesday at the Corvette Bar & Grill in Annville and every Thursday at Moose’s LZ in Fort Indiantown Gap. Corvette’s started out as a monthly thing, but Herb found that he really enjoyed doing it.
“(Then) I started developing a following,” he said. “A lot of teams would be coming every week or every other week, but there’s a core group of probably 20 teams (who) come regularly.
“I always wanted to be a stand-up comedian too, (so) this is kind of a way to get on a microphone and be funny. I incorporate soundbites and I have game show music – it’s a little more fun and interactive,” he added.
So who is Herb exactly? A corporate guy with a side musical life? Or a musician with a side corporate life?
“I think I’m a musician at heart,” he said. “I can’t even think of anything more important in life than music. It’s the language that I speak. I’m not a very spiritual guy, (but) it’s my religion. It carries a lot of emotions; it’s just good for any occasion.”
Solar Federation is especially fulfilling in that regard.
“I want to keep Solar Federation going as long as we can; I love it so much,” he said. “The response from people has been amazing. I never dreamt in a million years that we would start off in my basement, then play in Neil’s hometown to his family and fans from around the world.”
And the Tröegs thing?
“I was just lucky,” he said. “I was lucky to find a job that I love and I’m content with. If I can’t make money as a living, breathing musician, this is exactly where I want to be.”
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