US-based genre-defying trio Simo returns with their new and most musically diverse record to date – Rise & Shine.
Simo spent most of 2016 on the road, clocking up 215 shows for the year including dates with the likes of Beth Hart, Blackberry Smoke, and the late Gregg Allman. During this mammoth touring stretch, Simo increasingly started to look for a new challenge and to break free from the musical constraints of their previous record Let Love Show The Way. The band aimed to produce music which would revitalize themselves, whilst keeping things fresh and interesting for the three band members.
National Rock Review caught up with JD Simo a few days before the release of the band’s new album to talk all things Rise & Shine, his current guitar/pedal setup and the band’s plans going forward.
NRR: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us here at National Rock Review, we really appreciate it.
JD: Yeah, no problem man, thanks for having me.
NRR: Obviously, you’ve got a brand new record coming out Rise & Shine, which is going to be released on the 15th September via Mascot Label Group. I’ve heard the record, and it sounds really great. I’ve noticed your sound seems to have evolved a lot since your last record, I just wondered what influenced the change in direction? Because you’ve kind of gone from blues/rock and there’s now a bit more funk and soul. I just wondered how did your sound evolve, did it happen organically?
JD: Yeah, it did happen organically. Really what it was, about 100 shows into last year we just got so bored. We were really bored with what we were doing and we had like another hundred and some shows left in the year and we were already kind of burnt out on it. I for my own sake, I was really burnt out on it.
You know I had to kind of confront myself on it where I just I realized that, the last record, in particular, I’d made with the best of my own intentions, you know all that stuff represented things that I like in certain respects, but I knew that artistically I was just doing a bunch of stuff that had been done a million times over by a lot of other people. I was executing it well, but I think as far as artistry and creatively I think I certainly wasn’t pushing myself and I think you have to kind of actively per sue and try and find what is your own thing or your thing to offer. It takes a lot of effort and I think it’s also pretty scary because it’s hard to kind of look at a blank canvas and go well let’s make something and not have like a pre-conceived notion of what it’s going to end up being in the end.
It was just like man, I don’t want to ever do that again. I want to try and make something the best that I can possibly make you know and that be the criteria and whatever ends up coming out as it doesn’t matter, it just needs to be the best that it can be. So that’s how it happened, that’s how it started at least and this is what we ended up with and I couldn’t be happier.
This feels much more like a first album to me you know, because I’ve finally …we all do but I mean I can only speak for myself, I just feel very much like ok well everything that’s on this, if it sounds or if it hints at something or sounds sort of like something it was completely unintentional (laughing). It was just ok, I like this song, I think this is the best this song can be, ok let’s record it and arrange it the best we can …There was just a lot of effort went into it, I mean months and months and months of work on our part.
NRR: With this album, like I just mentioned, your sound it’s genre-defying, it really blurs the lines between like we just mentioned funk/soul/blues and rock. In this day and age, both the industry and the media they try to stereotype artists by their style of music, I think it makes those people more comfortable to a certain extent. I just wondered do you prefer not be able to be put inside of a box musically?
JD: Well it doesn’t really matter to me what people call it, that doesn’t matter to me at all. But for me I can’t contain it, I can’t self-impose it anymore. If anything this album like I was saying it’s a representation of me completely shedding any bit of that that’s self-imposed. But as far as what people want to call it, people can call it what they like you know. Because all of the elements you just mentioned that’s all in there to a certain extent.
The funny thing about it is I mean that’s what rock and roll, like when rock and roll was first kind of coined as a term in the 50s that’s what rock and roll was (laughing). Rock and roll used to be – it was the amalgam of gospel music, and rhythm and blues and country music, you know it’s like oh yeah and we call it rock and roll. So it’s kind of funny how 50 or 60 years later you know it’s rock and roll there’s still rock and roll but there are all of the sub-genres …you know but whatever, I understand. I mean people have got to have to have some understanding of what something is. I get it, it’s fine.
NRR: Having been on the road for most of 2016, you guys racked up somewhere in the region of 215 shows in 9 different countries, which is incredible. It must have been really challenging to find the time to actually write and record with such a hectic touring schedule?
JD: Yeah, I mean we didn’t record at all. The writing I mean I write all of the time, that’s just something that I do. But it was difficult for us as a band to kind of work on stuff in earnest, because there just wasn’t any time. We didn’t have any time in one place to really kind of work on stuff. So it did make it challenging, but it also gave us this great drive that when we finally got home to Nashville, TN in January it was like ok, we are going to shut everything down now and we’re going to spend four months making a record and that was wonderful.
It gave us that kind of drive to push on through the rest of the touring knowing that that was waiting for us at the end of it because we were so looking forward to it. All that time that we were touring we were thinking about it. We were working on it to the best of our ability giving the circumstances we were given and we knew that it was going to be a huge undertaking and a lot of work and that it was going to be a very, very different experience for us, but we couldn’t wait to do it.
Finally, when we got home in January and it was alright, it’s time to make this record, ah man it was fun. I mean it was exhaustingly hard work, but it was so fun because every day was like you know, how can we make this better.
NRR: I understand that change both personally and with what’s going on with the rest of the world at the minute was one of the driving forces behind the record. Having travelled so much both at home in the US and overseas in the last year or so, I just wondered to what extent did the changes you were witnessing in the towns or cities you were passing through feed into your songwriting?
JD: Well I mean, especially now as a writer you know everything that I experience just kind of goes into the pot. I think that’s true of all writers, but really my main focus is as a writer now more than anything I think, it’s the thing I care most about now.
For me the biggest thing was I’ve been going through ….I went through …when I got home from the tour and when we started working on the record I mean I had been through some pretty dark and hard kind of life changes in my personal life that have been really great, because there’s been a lot of growth off them, but it’s been very difficult. There’s a lot of kind of childhood trauma and stuff from my youth that I’ve finally … it was like alright I have to deal with this if I’m gonna be a happy person ever. So for me, that was you know what I personally relate to the most. The stuff of observation from the rest of the world is in there as well to a certain extent, but there’s so much stuff on the record that is so intensely personal to me that it’s almost difficult for me to listen to it even. It’s just way too personal.
I mean there’s certain songs that I’ve been asked about like “I Want Love” and people keep asking what that song is about, I don’t mean to be rude or anything about it (laughing) but I just don’t want to talk about it. Hopefully, you can draw something out of it that speaks to you, but I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it.
I’ve never felt that way before as a writer because …I’d always kind of hinted that writing about stuff that was personal to me, but I never really committed to really revealing as much as I chose to this time. So as a writer, I’m proud of myself for that because I feel like I’ve finally have really done what I think a good writer is supposed to do. I mean obviously, if other people think it’s good or enjoy it or something like that, it’s not up to me, but I know it’s the best I can do at this point you know and I’ll only get better from here.
NRR: I know on the last album you recorded at the Big House in Macon. This time around I read you were a lot more open to sonic experimentation. I just wondered, the last time I know you all recorded in the same room at the same time together – did your approach differ at all on this record as to how you recorded the tracks or did you go with the same sort of methodology as previously?
JD: Well the essence is the same methodology, meaning that the performances are not doctored ok, they are not edited together, they are not fixed and the vocals are not like edited together and tuned. So like that all is the same as it’s ever been, but then the embellishments, the overdubs, the ability to kind of sculpt a different sound for every instrument on every single song you know we spent a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to really craft you know on every track. I think that’s a proper use of a recording studio.
The only thing I have a problem with if I’m going to get on a soapbox about something is when you use technology to make up for shitty ability you know. If you can’t perform a good enough take on your own, or you can’t sing on pitch for a time or whatever, you know that I have a problem with because then I don’t think you should be making records. If you can’t do it you shouldn’t be making records you know. Not to be harsh, but I just …you know 25 years ago before the complete takeover of the digital recording method you know you had to, you had to be able to play, you had to be able to sing (laughing). But it’s hard to use a studio, to craft an album and stuff like that. I mean it was a lot of fun, and it was an incredible luxury to be able to have the time and money to really be able to dive into that, to try and use it to the best of our ability again.
NRR: One of the interesting things that I read about the recording of this album was, obviously you were putting in very long sessions, often recording until 6 am and that kind of thing and how the different times of the day were influencing the sound on the record. Like you thought a particular song sounded like it was 3 am or you heard that a particular track sounded like it was middle of the afternoon. I just wondered could you share with us a little bit of an insight into your thinking around that?
JD: Sure, I mean me personally, I like to live vampire hours – I don’t wake up till 3 or 4 in the afternoon and then go to bed at like 7 in the morning, that’s just my preferred way of living. I mean I’ve tried to fit myself into what is kind of the normal standard of when you go to bed and when you get up and that just doesn’t work for me.
The middle of the night you know is calmer, it’s chiller, it’s not as hectic, and the streets are empty. So there is definitely as you kind of mentioned to a certain extent earlier like there’s a chiller aspect to a lot of the material. There’s kind of a laid back kind of a feel which you know invariably is what suited the material, you know like it just suited – that was the feel that suited it. So the fact that we happened to be selfishly working the kind of hours that I prefer to work, it just ended up naturally lending itself to that, which was nice you know.
Also, there is a certain relaxation like working …you know because we were in the studio by ourselves I mean like we moved into the studio, all our stuff was there for weeks and weeks. We could come and go as we pleased and we were relaxed you know, we were able to …if we weren’t happy, if we spent a whole day working on something and we weren’t happy with what came out of it, it was no big deal – we would come back the next day and we would do something else.
So I mean it was hard work and it was not like we were in there partying you know, it was far from it, but there was a certain relaxation of let’s make this as good as we can make it, there’s no reason to rush. So all of those things combined I think add to the feel of some of the tracks being low-key and chill.
NRR: I noticed yesterday, I saw your live stream from Paste Magazine which was fantastic by the way.
JD: Aww thanks, we had a great time.
NRR: I noticed that you are now running with a pedal board, and I know previously the last time we spoke, you were telling me that you just basically used to plug straight into an old Marshall and there wasn’t really any effects. So I just wondered why the change of heart with regards to effects and could you walk us through your current setup for all of the gearheads out there?
JD: Sure, so what happened was again it was just kind of a natural evolution really because the majority of the time still I’m not using anything, ok. But like through the course of making the record in just experimenting I ended up coming up with certain types of sounds that I thought were interesting you know. So now having to kind of tackle the prospect of representing the material the best I can live, you know I’ve just kind of naturally cherry picked a hand full of things that kind of are there to enhance very specific things. You know I like what I’ve ended up with because they all are kind of …none of them are kind of things that I saw someone else using and went oh I want that, they are all things that I kind of found naturally.
It’s just a Wah Wah pedal which is nothing new, that’s very standard. There’s a very specific fuzz from the 70s that I ended up finding by accident, but it’s just a very specific sounding type of thing that I love. Some Japanese company made it, it’s made by a company called Jax in the 70s and I really like it, it does a very specific kind of very fuzzy thing that most types of things like that I hear don’t sound at all like.
Then I have this bass pedal, this bass MicroSynth pedal …and I was just messing around with it one day and I found this sound for a song I wrote called “The Turn”, the first song on the record, that I just liked the sound so I ended up using it. So I mean that thing is not even made for guitar, it’s made for bass and I just found a setting I like and that’s really it.
There’s a delay pedal down there for certain things, but I don’t really use it. Then I have like a switcher to turn the reverb and the tremolo in my amplifier on and off you know, which I do quite a bit. I do that more than anything and that’s not really pedals or anything, that’s just turning the thing that’s in the amp on and off. So it’s really not that much, but it’s just a hand full of things that are really kind of tools that make sense to me.
NRR: I know you are a big lover of vintage guitars and we talked about this the last time we chatted. I just wondered have you added any new pieces to your collection recently and what is your current go-to stage setup guitar-wise?
JD: Well, I mean it all kind of begins and ends with my old 335. I have that old ’62 335 that really is kind of the only guitar I used on the record. I mean I had a whole bunch of stuff to use for the album and most of the time I just ended up using that. So that’s pretty much what I use most of the time.
I’ve got an old ‘50 Stratocaster that I use on a song that I use called “I Want Love” and …I’ve got it set up specifically for that one particular track. Then I’ve got an old 50’s Telecaster that I tend to like slam or turn and that’s about it.
I actually got a new guitar really that I’m actually going to be getting this upcoming week. I’ve had Howlings, which is a guitar company here in America in Texas. I had them make me a very specific …they’ve become really good friends of mine and I asked them to make me something, so we will see how that comes out, I’ll be bringing that over to Europe when we go in a couple of weeks.
Yeah, but that’s about it. I mean really for me, that old 335 is just very comfortable for me and I can get a lot of different sounds out of it and I’m very comfortable with it, which is I think the most important thing.
NRR: We are heading towards the end of this year now, I just wondered what are the plans through to the end of 2017 and into next year? What’s on the cards?
JD: Well we’re gonna come and do this short European tour in a couple of weeks and then we are gonna come back and then the American tour is gonna start. Then the American tour is gonna go clear through to the end of the year.
Then in early January, I’m actually going out to do a short American tour by myself with Tommy Emmanuel and we’re gonna do a couple of weeks of shows on the west coast of America. Then after I’m done with that, we are gonna do more American touring with the band.
Then we will be coming back over to Europe in the spring. Because we are breaking it up into two different European tours because the last couple of times we’ve gone over to Europe it’s just we’ve come over for like 6 weeks and it’s just it’s so long to be able to play everywhere. So we are kind of breaking it up where like we are not going to France on this tour, we are not going to Spain, we are not going to Italy, we are not going to Switzerland, we are not going to like Norway and Sweden and Finland, and we are only doing one show in the UK, we are just playing in London. So when we come back we will play all of those places that we didn’t play and also we’ll play a couple of more shows in the UK and probably go up to Ireland as well. So I mean that will bring us well into the spring of next year (laughing).
NRR: So it’s all very busy and it’s all mapped out already. That’s great well thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us again we really appreciate it, it’s always nice to chat with you and we look forward to you coming over here very soon. Good luck with the album release and all of the shows you’ve got coming up.
JD: Well thank you very much, I really appreciate it.
Rise and Shine by Simo is out now via Mascot Label Group/Provogue.