According to Joe Bonamassa, JD Simo is â€œone of the best out there right now.â€
A whisper in the ear of those at Provogue/Mascot Label Group from Mr. Bonamassa was enough to get their interest. As a result, they have signed Simo for their new album, Let Love Show The Way, which was released on January 29th.
National Rock Review recently caught up with JD Simo to talk about the band’s new album, his love of vintage guitars, his influences and the band’s touring plans for 2016.
NRR: I was told about you guys a couple of years ago by a friend of mine Suzanne Sledge from the band 68-75. Since then I’ve been following how things have been going for you on the Internet. A couple of weeks ago I received your new album, which I love a lot, it’s a great album.
JD: Well thank you very much.
NRR: Joe Bonamassa regards you as one of the best around at the moment. How does that feel for you?
JD: Oh well, I mean you know, it means an awful lot. He and I are very, very close. We’ve forged a very good kind of brotherly friendship over the last several years. I count him as a very close personal friend. Outside of band life, we are really, really good friends. His support means an awful lot. I look up to him a lot, and he’s been incredibly helpful just as a friend, but then he’s also gone to bat for the group in different ways, him and his manager Roy Wiseman.
It’s one of the relationships that I really hold very close. He’s a very, very good person and I love him a lot. Whatever he ends up saying publicly or privately or even if he says nothing at all I love him very much. He’s like an older brother to me. His friendship means an awful lot to me.
NRR: You are about to release your new album Let Love Show The Way which was released in the UK on the 29th January. Can you tell us a little bit about the album and your inspiration behind it?
JD: Sure, we had essentially kind of made a whole other album which is what we ended up getting signed with Mascot Label Group for. What happened is when we turned the record in, we had done the deal, and everything was moving forward very nicely, the label came back to us and asked us if we would consider recording some bonus tracks for like a deluxe edition, or for the CD edition or whatever. Of course, we were like yeah that’s fine. So me not wanting to just cut some extra songs in the same way as making the record, I wanted to have some fun with it.
So there are several locations that I have maybe wanted to work in at some point, and The Allman Brothers former residence The Big House in Macon, Georgia was one of them. I have a long standing relationship with several people involved not only with The Allman Brothers Band but with their foundation there in Macon and the museum that is in The Big House itself. So it wasn’t like it was some …it was in the family as it were. I reached out to some friends to see if this was may be possible, and luckily enough it was, they allowed us to do it.
We booked just two days because all I needed was like three songs or so as bonus tracks. So we just booked two days, and we booked our engineer and an assistant and rented a whole mobile unit of equipment to bring down from Nashville. It was in between, I don’t remember where we were playing at the time, but it was in between little legs of a tour.
So we just showed up and we setup all the studio equipment and kind of setup in a configuration that I thought would work and we just got so much done. We had essentially the bonus material I needed. We had that done within the first hour that we were there.
We had all this extra time. There were songs that we had just written that like ‘Two Timing Woman’, which I think is the second or third track on the record, that we had written the day before literally. So, there were some new songs that were floating around. There were some older songs that we hadn’t recorded yet. That Elmore James cover that opens the record “Stranger Blues”, we had never played that, it was something where I said lets play this. Again, not really having a concept of you know direction necessarily, just trying to make use of the time we had. Then when we got a bunch of that stuff done and a bunch of jams and so on and so forth.
I actually had us replay as it were, some of the tracks that we already had mixed and mastered. Just because we were getting so much done and as you probably know with the recording process, I mean it can either go incredibly fast, or it can go incredibly slow. So when you are in the middle of something, and it’s working like that, you just keep moving because you want to get as much done as you can, and you worry about what to do with it later as it were. So we got to the end of that second day and tore everything down.
About a week later we reconvened with our engineer to start mixing the stuff and trying to figure out what we were gonna do. It was really quickly obvious to me that I thought a lot of the performances from those two days were really good and in relation to some of the songs we had re-tracked as it were I thought they were better, I thought the performances were better.
So I ended up having several long phone calls with our management and mostly with Ed, who is the head of Mascot, just saying I really think we should rethink this because I think a lot of this stuff is better and do you mind if I go in and redo the whole thing and give you something new. There was some stuff from the first version of the record if you will that I didn’t want to scrap.
There were three songs, in particular, a song called “Long May You Sail”, “Becky’s Last Occupation” and I forget what the other one was. Anyway, there was three tracks I wanted to keep, and I just said give me a day and let me put forth a new running order, and we will make a decision so to speak.
I went in, and I know how I wanted to do it anyway, I put it altogether, and everybody agreed. So then we went forward on that basis, but it was a very serendipitous thing. I know it’s a rather long winded answer, but that’s kind of the story of how the record was made.
As far as the inspiration it was you know for me, I’ve spent years of my life as a session musician and played on hundreds of people’s records. So for me now with my group, the recording process I like to treat it differently than I did in my years of employment. Meaning that all those years I was playing on other people’s records, I was kind of mentally making a check list of things that I agreed with and things I didn’t agree with as far as if I was in charge as it were, how I would want to do it.
For me, getting back to the choice to work at The Big House, which is not a recording studio, it’s a house. I get great pleasure in working in environments which aren’t necessarily studios. I like the challenge of going into a space that is not professionally designed as it were, to make music in. I like just going into a place and seeing what you can get out of it. I think that from an engineering standpoint it’s a fun challenge because you usually end up configuring and re-configuring several times to kind of get sonic things to be as good as you can get it.
I think it definitely affects the performance, it affects the way it sounds and for me I think it .. I enjoy it. I think for us, at least, it works in a good way. So for me it was very important, giving the opportunity to work with Mascot and actually after years of being a group being promoted on a level that were not used to. I really wanted us to put forward a piece of work that to me that was focused on the performances and not on in my view, a lot of time in the modern recording world there’s a lot of time spent on things that not necessarily make a better record.
I think that to me if the performance is good, let alone great or something like that, to me that’s the thing that is most important. So I wanted the record to be just un-messed with, I wanted it to be a little murky at times sonically because I wanted it to be completely live, vocals live, the kind of jazz aesthetic if you will and very minimal overdubs or kind of production as it were. I wanted it to be a kind of anti-slick sounding piece.
To me it’s something that again there’s a lot of records that I enjoy that are produced and that have a high level of production, but I just think that for where we are right now and the kind of music that we play it was something that I wanted to be very blatant about.
So in that regard, I’m very pleased with how it’s come out. So the inspiration would be the element of it being raw, it’s not mucked around with the vocals aren’t comped from twenty performances and the drums aren’t pieced together it’s as it was in the room at that moment.
NRR: It has got that very raw, live feel. That comes across from the first time I listened to it.
JD: Thank you.
NRR: Speaking of your live performances. I know you recently played over here in the UK with Walter Trout. What was that like?
JD: That was fantastic, we’ve wanted to go over there forever. We went over to Europe for a month; we were only in the UK for like five or six days. We did one show with Walter in London at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town, north of London and then we did a private press show on Wardour Street at the St. Moritz, which was probably our favourite show on the entire tour because it was just such a fun gig.
That little trip was really enlightening for us because we had no idea how it was going to be, we had no expectations. Again I have to be blatant about my thanking of the Mascot staff because the amount of reception that was arranged for us no matter where we went as far as the amount of press and the reception itself and the gigs that they had lined up with both Walter and Beth Hart. Then we also did some shows of our own, that were wonderful.
There was this one outside of Zoetermeer, Holland. You know this big place, this big five or six hundred seat place and it was our own show and in my mind I’m thinking who the hell is going to come and see us here, and it was packed. I’m like well this is kind of new. So it was amazing, and I can’t wait … you know were coming back for another month. We’re about to start an American tour here in a week and then we basically tour up through like mid-March and then fly over and, this time, were doing four or five shows in the UK, or something like that.
I can’t wait to come back, the response was so good, and the reception was so good, it was very overwhelming the whole thing. Walter and Beth were obviously gracious enough to allow us to play on their bills and allow us the first time over to play some incredibly amazing venues.
NRR: The opening track of the album you just mentioned there before “Stranger Blues” by Elmore James. How much of an influence was Elmore on you as a guitarist?
JD: He was a big influence as a player, but he’s also a huge influence vocally. I can’t sing like Elmore, I don’t have high enough of a voice, but he’s in there with a whole bunch of others from that era. You know whether it be obviously you know B.B. King or Freddie King or Muddy Waters or his guitarist Hubert Sumlin or Jimmy Rodgers who played with Muddy early on. I mean all that stuff is very influential. You know Magic Sam, obviously Buddy Guy and something like that you know.
Elmore with the slide guitar it’s hard not to be very influenced by him because it’s kind of where it all starts as far as the electric side of slide comes from. He and some lesser known guys like Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker and stuff. You know it’s fifteen to twenty years previous to Ry Cooder or Duane Allman doing their thing and Muddy Waters as well.
I love him and it was just ….I especially like Elmore you know obviously the world knows “Dust My Blues” and your stereotypical Elmore James feeling track, but I really like his ballads and his slow blues and I really, really like songs like “Stranger Blues” or his version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”. He had a whole other facet of material that was kind of cha-cha inspired or rhumba inspired, and I love those tracks because they are kind of like Bo Diddley’s records. They have this very African funky feel that was very different in context; you are talking in the fifties, those tracks, in particular, I love a lot.
So “Stranger Blues” the reason why we did it was because it was kind of in my mind because it was one of those handfuls of songs of Elmore’s that wasn’t a straight shuffle twelve bar, it was one of those more rhumba sounding tracks. So it was just kind of like let’s have a go.
NRR: Obviously, you’ve got a bit of a love for vintage guitars going on.
NRR: I know that you played Duane Allman’s ’57 Goldtop Les Paul throughout the album. What’s your typical setup guitar wise?
JD: Well the setup is really simple. I don’t use any effects. I use an old wah-wah pedal from time to time, like an old one from the sixties. I just plug straight into an old Marshall, an old sixties Marshall. I’ve got several, but there’s one in particular that is my favourite, and I’ve used that for probably about the last year or so. There’s an old ’69 hundred watt that I use pretty much all the time, and that’s mostly what’s on the record, is that one particular amp and an old basket weave sixties Marshall cab.
Guitar wise it’s as you mentioned, like on the record I used …. I’ve been friends with the gentleman who owns Duane’s ’57 gold top. I’ve known him for probably about ten years now, and his name is Scot LeMar, and he’s graciously allowed me to use the guitar multiple times, at this point. He’s very gracious in general about it, he’s very open, he wants people to play it so he’s let a multitude of different people use it and I’m very grateful to be among those people.
It’s always special to play that instrument because obviously Duane is a big influence on me, but to use it in Duane’s old house. It was a very heavy experience you know; it was something that I was very taken by (laughing). It was kind of strange at times to be standing in their old living room with Duane’s guitar and then like some of Duane’s friends came by and it was just like, what is going on. This is kind of weird.
So I used that on the majority of the stuff we cut in Macon, but then in addition to that I’ve got a beautiful old original sunburst Les Paul, a 1960 burst that’s been on loan to me from a collector friend of mine, a mutual friend of mine and Joe’s. I’ve had that for like I said about a year and a half coming up on two years. It’s an honour of my life to get to play that instrument. It’s monstrously great, and it’s amazing, so I play that.
Then I’ve got an old ’62 Gibson 335 which is kind of the first vintage instrument that got me going. Actually, at the moment, I have the first prototype from Gibson because Gibson are actually about to release a signature model of mine. That’s actually a copy of that 335, and I just got the prototype a couple of weeks ago, and it’s phenomenal. It actually sounds better than the real one, which is odd. So I’m loving that.
You know from time to time there’s various other vintage guitars that float in and out of my possession. Obviously, Joe has a sizeable collection, I mean he has one of the best collections in the world. There’s a circle of mutual friends of Joe’s and mine that are worldwide vintage collectors, and they are some of the most gracious people on the planet, and they are very, very open with letting… they’ve let Joe do it for years, and they’ve also been very kind to loan me stuff as well. So at any given time there was an old ’58 Flying V that was loaned to me for the better part of a year. I actually used that on “Long May You Sail” and I actually ended up handing that off to Joe because he used that on his Three Kings tour.
There’s an old ’59 Strat I use on some stuff, but mostly I just kind of as far as the live shows are concerned whatever I tend to start the show with I tend to end it with. Usually either the 335 or the Les Paul.
NRR: What are your plans for the rest of 2016?
JD: We start the U.S. tour like I said in a week, and we are going to be gone up until March, which is when we fly back to Europe to do three weeks, just shy of a month over in Europe and then we fly to kind of regain the tour in America. Then we are coming back to Europe again in June I believe to do a string of festivals. Then we come back to America.
So basically at the moment I’m staring down a schedule that means I’m leaving my home in Nashville in about a week and probably not having any sizeable time back until at least July or August. So it’s going to be a long year with an awful lot of shows.
You know just the promotion of the record and an awful lot of playing which is what we do. It’s hard to wrap your head around. I personally have never been gone as long we are about to be gone. In my youthful, in my youthful… I’m still a young man, but when I was a teenager, I left home so early that it’s almost like I’m in the second phase of my life now.
When I was a teenager, the longest I had been gone was three months on the road which is a long time, but to be staring down five or six month gone is a long stretch. So I will see you on the other end of it (laughing).
NRR: We are really excited about you coming back to the UK. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of great stuff going on and it sounds like an exciting year ahead.
JD: Thank you for taking the time to do this. I hope to get to meet you in person, I really appreciate the support mate.