Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reggae Vibrations: A Q&A with The Simpkin Project

Phil Simpkin (Lead vocals/Lead Guitar), Shawn Taylor (Keyboards/Vocals), Mark Thompson (Organ/Synth), Sean Kennedy (Drums), Sergio Sandoval (Percussion), Ralph Arenas (Rhythm Guitar/Vocals), Eric Riegler (Bass)

There are quite a few of you in the band… How did you end up meeting and eventually playing together?

Phil Simpkin:  We’ve known each other in the neighborhood for a long time so there would be long stories, you know?

Shawn Taylor:  Mark (Thompson), Phil and I went to grade-school together, it started that long ago.  I was in first grade with Phil, and Thompson was at our school, and we were all at elementary school in the same neighborhood.  And Riegs was…where were you?

Eric Riegler:  I went to St. Bonaventure, then moved out of that track the last couple years of high school.

Simpkin:  That’s probably going back too far… We had a band once, and then Ralphie was in a band.  Taylor has been doing music of his own and he was in another band.  Then we met up and did a recording with Taylor, and that’s what was recorded as the first Simpkin Project thing.  I did some songs with Thompson and a few other people and then we got together at a party for Ken’s (Sean Kennedy) dad.  That’s when we formed what is The Simpkin Project now.

How long ago was that?

Simpkin:  About seven years ago.  It was an impromptu party thing that kind of turned into something more.

Sean Kennedy:  You had Timmy playing drums for a couple of shows.

Simpkin:  Yeah, but it was never thought of as a band at that point.  We had another guy playing guitar and doing some harmonies, and then Ralph stepped in after he had to leave.  A little more than a year ago we had a bass player who stepped out, and we got Riegs in here, who’s been playing bass with me since Big Cat days—which was our other band.

Are all seven of you from Orange County originally?

Taylor:  Oh yeah.  Born in Huntington Beach.

Ralph Arenas:  I grew up in LA County then moved here in high school years.  I had been playing music with my buddies and we actually looked up to Big Cat, which was Phil’s old band with Eric and Thompson.  We got into reggae and really started getting into the thick of it.  We would listen to their stuff and be super stoked on it.  After years went by and our band broke up, Big Cat kind of broke up too.  Phil started doing this solo stuff and I got invited to play.

Taylor:  Ralph joined in 2007.  It’s funny because some of our oldest material was written in 2003.  When Phil and I recorded it, Thompson was on part of the recordings.  When we put that stuff out, we didn’t have anything to do with it.  It was just more like Phil had some tunes and we had a recording studio, so we just worked with all the different musicians in the neighborhood.  Everybody we showed this stuff to was like, ‘Yeah that’s good music’ when we gave the recordings to them.  When we played Kennedy’s dad’s party, it was kind of like, wait, we have a band and we can plays these tunes—why don’t we start really playing?  It just stuck together and we kept getting a routine.  Really, Kennedy is the one who has had the big dream the whole time.  He’s the one who’s responsible for getting us the van and the trailers and getting in contact with a lot of managers and pushing things forward.

Simpkin:  It’s a unifying factor.

Taylor:  In the beginning, we just made music—and that’s what we still do—but at the same time, we are trying to have a presence in the local music scene.

Kennedy:  It’s crazy too, when we play shows, people will come up to us and be like, ‘You guys sound great, how long have you been around for?  I’ve never heard of you guys.’  Since 2004?  2003?  A long time.   It’s cool though because I just enjoy playing shows.

Taylor:  The time just flies.

Why did you choose the roots reggae style?

Kennedy:  I think it chose us, personally.  I’ve listened to reggae music my whole life, and I know I’m not the only one in this band.

Mark Thompson:  It’s what Phil and Eric and I all got from our older siblings who were listening to it.

Taylor:  There was a small movement through Huntington Beach and it infected the neighborhoods and it became a popular music to listen to amongst the kids.  Just in that little pocket of Huntington Beach, there’s like ten neighborhoods that listened to that stuff.

Simpkin:  All pre-Sublime kind of stuff.  Everybody was into like old Jamaican reggae.  That was really the most influential kind of reggae before Sublime, then they really had a big affect on the scene around here.

Arenas:  That’s what my old band—before we even formed a band—we used to just mess around out in the garage.  We used to play that stuff and Sublime stuff and Bob tunes.  Our drummer was working with Phil at Tuesday Morning back in the day.  Phil would be giving him some discs or some advice to go get a certain kind of music.  Since then, I’ve been collecting reggae.  The cool thing about it is that it’s so old, yet you still find new things everyday.  The more and more you dig in there, the more and more you find some hidden gems.

Simpkin:  The computer is aiding in that.  Just being able to get old music onto the computer and then get it out.  When we were younger, it was hard to find that. You would search every store you could find, get it in the mail from catalogues, and stuff like that, and now it’s just a different story with all this digital music.

Taylor:  Users are sharing it too.

Kennedy:  I spent so much money at Ernie B’s.
Who were some of the bands inspiring you as you grew up?

 Simpkin:  How do we do this?  Let’s go around the room…

Riegler:  Marley, Gladiators….

Arenas:  Definitely Gladiators.  Man, that’s a tough question…

Simpkin:  That’s a good start. The Abyssinians, Big Youth, Farai, Johnny Clarke.

Thompson: Don Carlos, Mykal Rose.

Kennedy:  Mikey Dread.

Arenas:  Barry Brown.

Riegler:  Black Slate. I mean, the list is just infinite.

Simpkin:  And there are so many styles of reggae too.  Ralphie, he likes to do a little more like an old school Jamaican style of reggae when he does certain forms.  Ours is probably more like the English reggae sound.  It was music that was really imitating Bob’s first album that really went big in England, Catch a Fire.  We keep a lot of the instrumentation, but we love the old DJ style.

Arenas:  One of the models that I like to follow, as far as style in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s stuff, was a house band called Roots Radics.  They were the type of band who would play in the studio and multiple singers would come in and sing over their rhythms.

Simpkin:  Then you’ve got like Sly and Robbie, classic duos, and Horsemouth.

Riegler:  The Dub Engineers too, like the works of Scientist and Mad Professor and Jah Shaka really influenced me as a bassist, and I know these guys too.  It’s definitely present.  That stuff really moves your soul.  Some of the drums and the bass line, and the effects that they put into the mixes when it’s all dubbed out and done, it’s amazing.

Simpkin:  It’s mostly reggae music, but obviously we have other influences from all kinds of other music too.  Taylor loves all kinds of music.

Talyor:  I’m all over the map.

Simpkin:  Old classic rock is what I grew up on.

Did all of you play music growing up, or was it something you got into later in life?

Taylor:  I started messing around with music when I was in fifth grade ‘cause I was a band kid.  I was a trumpeter but after a few weeks I quit and I went to play drums in drum line.

Kennedy:  I got my first drum set when I was 10 years old.  I think it’s always been in me though, ‘cause even before I started drums I was constantly hitting things.

Simpkin:  I wasn’t like a big sports guy, but I played sports to a certain point.  Then I kind of dropped out of that and started playing music.

How has living in Huntington Beach and Orange County affected your music?

Simkin:  What we do that’s different than the old reggae music is that we put ourselves into it as a product of this area and these people and the vibe that we create.  I think it’s reflective very much in the music, but maybe not a flashy, surface-level way, but it’s definitely a product of its area.

Kennedy:  To credit this band, personally, I think we do a good job of trying to stay true to who we really are.  We speak our minds and we don’t talk about certain things that other bands use as topics, since it usually sounds like a monotonous topic that they use.  Phil’s words, especially, are really well written and they have deep meaning.  It’s not just words on the surface, but there’s thought behind that stuff.  It’s deep and honest.

Taylor:  In regards to the area, one thing that’s kind of nice about it is that everyone is connected really well, and that’s definitely because of Facebook.  But we do live in a very densely populated area, so you can get a hold of someone very easily when you need something done, even if it’s booking a show or making a connection with a singer from another band.  Everything is going on right here, so it’s easy to keep yourself busy and connected with other musicians and other bands that are trying to do the same thing.  You can learn from them, team up and do activities together, and enjoy the time you spend with each other.

Just the fact that the opportunity is out there must be inspiring as well.

Taylor:  Yeah, there’s a nice carrot still dangling out there in front of us.

Arenas:  I think that’s also the challenge for us too—of where we’re based and what kind of music we’re playing and the style that we’re trying to keep.  There are a lot of reggae bands coming out of Orange County and LA County, and Orange County seems to have that typical sound that we would call surf-roots or pop reggae—the whole Sublime deal.  Sometimes it feels like we’re kind of battling that ‘cause we’re keeping true to our stuff.  It might not please the average kid that goes to a reggae show and is expecting that sound.  It might take them a little bit longer to actually get into it and listen and actually feel it, instead of just going to a show and getting drunk and dancing around having a good time.  Reggae shows are fun, but there’s also something about when you go and see a conscious band.  I’ve gone to many shows and just experienced the full vibe of a band that’s not singing pop songs, but they’re actually playing conscious music.  It’s a different kind of crowd.

Simpkin:  At the end of the show, you’re like spiritually uplifted.

Arenas:  Or it means something more than just going and dancing around.  I think we struggle in that when we play with that kind of music, ‘cause the crowd is expecting this other style, and then we give them this.  It’s kind of cool too because we love being able to expose them to that.

Taylor:  It kind of is a double-edged sword ‘cause it works to our disadvantage.  Like Ralph said we get swallowed up and there’s a lot of noise out there, so it’s hard to get your sound through.  But on the other hand it works well because so many bands are trending toward this sound and they’re naming themselves similar names, so when we do get on a lineup with them, we tend to stand out ‘cause we have a sound that’s unique.

Listening to your music, I started to feel like you guys might be perfectionists and are very detail-oriented in the creation of your sound.  Is that true?

Simpkin:  Shawn really cares about the recording and he works really hard.

Thompson:  Nothing gets past him.  Do it again! (Laughs) Do it again!

Simpkin:  He makes it his baby and takes it and mixes it for hours.

Taylor:  You only get one time to make a first impression and in todays society, you have someone’s attention for like a millisecond.  So if you don’t give them something that they can latch onto…  I think it’s mainly the recording industry as a whole, regardless of your genre, is very competitive.  You have to stay competitive, so if your music comes in the form of a bad recording, then people are more likely to turn away.

Arenas:  I think that’s one of our advantages—we have access to a quality studio and somebody who is really knowledgeable in recording and producing.  That’s been a big help for us too.  It’s one thing to go into a studio and try to record an album, and you’re paying by the hour.

Taylor:  You’re watching the clock and it’s not musical or creative.

Instead you’re stressed out the whole time.  Where do you record?

Kennedy:  All of the recording is done at Taylor’s house.

Taylor:  We actually just moved the studio, and at the end of this month we’re going to Colorado to do a five-song EP.  We’ll track it and then bring it back here to finish it up and mix it.

What’s in Colorado?

Simpkin:  We are actually making a change for recording since we’ve done the three albums here, and we have someone that we actually trust that we think will do a really good job, and just have some fun.

Taylor:  It’s going to be cool to be out of state and create a little buzz.  It’s like, I’m far away from home, I’m in the middle of the wilderness here, I don’t have to work.

Kennedy:  Have you heard of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad?  They’re from Rochester.  Speaking about close friends, they’re about the closest bands to us, which is funny because they live across the country from us.

Taylor:  Yeah they live in New York.

Kennedy:  Well those guys are our brothers, and their sound engineer, Joel, has a house and a recording studio in Colorado and that’s whom we’re going to record with.

So you’re planning on recording an EP out there?  Will it work towards the next full-length album?

Taylor:  Yes, absolutely.  This is like we’re setting the table for another banger.  Hopefully we can start by the end of the Summer maybe, but if not, it’s going to be a Winter time start.  I want to hopefully do a lot of it live and I want to get good samples.  We’ve been performing live really well recently, just our energy together, and we’ve been writing the songs to flow into one another and be real good showstoppers.  We can capture that energy on tape a lot more than we’ve been doing in the past, and that usually speeds up the process.  The more you can record at one time the better.  You press play and record twenty sounds and hit stop, you’ve got twenty things done!  You press play and record one thing, then just one thing got done.

Are you going to be touring when you head out to Colorado?

Simpkin:  We’re doing a few shows.

Taylor:  We just recently got a manager…I guess that’s what you would call it…a booking manager, that’s a better way to put it.  He’s been providing us with a lots of great opportunities and he’s really connected with people in this new reggae scene coming up, and so he’s able to tie us onto a band and send us off for three or four days.  Just this last year, since January, he’s been starting to work for us.  It’s been quiet before the storm during February, but we have ten shows between now and the end of May.

Kennedy:  I used to do all the booking, and it was tough for me when I was always running my daytime business.  I was too busy to sit on the computer, and that’s Jared’s job.  He’s a musician in the sense that he plays guitar a little bit, but he likes the business side of music, whereas I like the music side of music.  And it’s nice because there’s so much time involved and you have to be so dedicated.  To his credit, he’s done a good job so far and he’s awesome.  It’s nice to say, ‘Hey these dates, can you make it happen?’  He says yeah and then puts it together.  One less thing to worry about.  We have a team here and it’s like a family, and he’s part of the family.  That’s the way that it has to be.

Where will you be stopping during your travels?

Kennedy:  Vegas, Colorado, Utah, Arizona.

Taylor:  We’re going to hit those four states.  There’s a band called Rootz Underground from Jamaica and they’re doing a little tour, so we’re gonna grab onto them for three or four days.

Gives you the chance to go international one day.

Simpkin:  Yeah, we would love to.  We do everything at our own pace, so we can only do what we can do.

Kennedy:  One thing is that we don’t tour as much as other bands do, and I think that’s definitely by choice on our part.  But to make up for that, we release what we deem to be quality music, and we take our time making a lot of albums.  I think that’s one way we make up for not being gone all the time, which is nice.  I don’t think any of us want to be on the road all year long.

When you’re writing your lyrics, are you drawing from the day-to-day details of life?

Simpkin:  Yeah, I think I’m drawing from everything in the day-to-day, from the past and present and what I’m projecting for the future, although you probably wouldn’t be able to tell what I do in my daily activities from listening to the music.
Where do you like to play when you’re in Orange County?

Simpkin:  Marlin Bar, we used to rock that one when it was the old one.  That was our stomping ground.  There’s a new one now that’s been really good and it’s really nice, we gotta hand it to Diane.  But unfortunately Huntington is mainly bars and no venues.

Riegler:  When you think of Orange County though, The Observatory comes to mind right now, formerly The Galaxy.  They have great sound and lights now.

Kennedy:  Observatory is nice, and the guys that run it are great.  Sound engineers are awesome.

Tell me about your writing process.  With seven members, how do you keep it democratic?

Simpkin:  When we first started, a lot of the ideas I did and I created a lot of the music.  I had a couple other instrument players and a drummer.  After that, I still wrote a lot of the music and we kind of gave parts out.  So this last one, we all wrote our own parts like a real band.  It’s still called The Simpkin Project, although it probably should be called another  band name, but there really was a Simpkin Project in the very beginning.  So now on the last album, we all pretty much wrote our own parts.  I wrote most of the lyrics, and that’s what we’re still doing and we’re trying to keep it like that.  Every once in a while I’ll suggest a progression or something, or Riegs will come in with a bass-line.

Riegler:  I’ll show a bass-line, or Sean will have a drumbeat, Ralph has some chords, or Mark has a hook, or Sergio has a beat on the congos.  It really is a collaboration.

Kennedy:  Now more than ever.

Simpkin:  It went from something that I did once, to something that we do together now.

Taylor:  We used to do a lot of covers, and we had our own style for the covers.  By 2007 we had our own vibe going, and as soon as Ralph joined, we would play the old songs differently and we kind of evolved in that way for the old stuff.  The new stuff seems much more team oriented.  Somebody usually plants a seed, within a couple minutes we’re melting together, and we try to go through it.  Next week we come back to it and we start back where we left off and now you’re fresh with it and you’re able to say, ‘What if we put a stop right there?  Kick it up extra hard right there?  Do something new there?’  You’re not all blasé from the week before and you’re usually chiseling the song like from a block of wood.

Are you usually recording when you practice?

Taylor:  With just iPhones, just to keep the ideas.

Kennedy:  Usually before doing an album, we go up to Phil’s family cabin up in Tehachapi.  We go up there and lock ourselves in, just the band, for two or three days.  It’s nice to do that ‘cause you’re in your own environment, no one is there, you don’t have anything to do, no work, and cell phones are off.  You really get to create and that’s a lot of fun and I look forward to that.

Arenas:  For the longest time, we were rehearsing our material that we released to try to keep up and be able to perform the songs live.  A lot of the stuff we were experimenting in the studio, then we were like, ‘Ok now we gotta play this live.’  We were always rehearsing and perfecting that.  I think recently we’ve gotten to the point now where we have played covers for long enough that we really got on ourselves to play all of our original music.  We could play two or three hour sets of pure original music.  Lately we realized that we had tons of material.  It seems like we got all of that out of the way and we can play all of our songs now.  Sometimes we come in and just have a jam day, and that’s when we come up with new rhythms and new ideas, and we’ll record them.  Phil’s pretty amazing on just picking up lyrics and just going with it.

Taylor:  Yeah, and write a hook the first time he hears it.  He says, ‘Here, how about this one?’  Then it sticks for five years (laughs).

One of those melodies you just can’t get out of your head…

Sergio Sandoval:  Having a place like this is fundamental in our growth lately because we’re not paying hourly rates for rehearsing.  We come here, we vibe out, and it’s our own thing on our own equipment, and I think that’s definitely a key component in our growth.

Tell me about this place we’re sitting in?

Taylor:  Scrub Rug (laughs).

Kennedy:  My business partner, Eric, and I, spend countless hours of the week here and he’s a big supporter of our band too.  Like I was saying earlier, what a difference it is having a place like this.

Taylor:  I think we’d be out of the game already.  We used to take our gear and go to one of those places where you pay by the hour and there’s a drum set, and you rent the room for like two hours.

By the time an hour has gone by, you’ve finally finished setting up with all your equipment.

Taylor:  And you get in there and it’s sweaty and small.

Sandoval:  That scenario, I think, limited our creativity because we would just go in and run the playbook, go over the charts we’re going to play, and call it a night.  Here, we come in and get some ideas going, and that’s how these seeds become trees later in the creative process.  Not having those limitations has enabled us to do expand and it’s been great.  I think that’s a recent step in our development is that now that we’re not so limited by these outside factors, we can really just hone in on music and these wonderful ideas that sometimes just come about.  We just meet up and, I don’t know, we just have inspiration.

Simpkin:  Kennedy will call us up and we’ll be like, ‘Let’s do a breakdown on that song.’

Kennedy:  It will have been stuck in my head for the next three days.

Simpkin:  We come right into practice and it’s the first thing that we do.

Kennedy:  There’s even more development now that Taylor has the new recording spot.  It has an unattached garage, and so that will be the recording room, and then he has a tracking room in the house.  It’s nice that now we can go and set up on the weekends and say, ‘You know what, let’s record these five songs at our own will.’  We can do anything, and the band can throw in ideas.

Taylor:  I just moved from Huntington Beach, that’s where that recording studio was.  It was just a room in the house, and then I moved to this house in Westminster over by Springdale and Westminster.  It has so much more space for us to do our thing.  We can’t really rehearse there like we do here with the full band, but we can get a lot of stuff done there that we couldn’t do at that other place.  So this next year we’ll be doing a lot of good work.

What do you envision for the rest of 2012?

Kennedy:  I think we’re in a good place right now.

Arenas:  It’s a new chapter.

Kennedy:  It is.  And once Riegs joined the band a lot of things changed.  With a new relationship, there are always a lot of ups and downs, but I think everyone is one a level field right now and we have a common goal.

Simpkin:  Ever since we got Eric in the band, he’s been a motivating factor.  We got a new outlook and drive.  He’s a workhorse.  If you hang around with this guy and you need something fixed or you gotta take care of some business, Riegs will definitely help out.

Taylor:  He wants to just meet up and just sit and have a beer and talk about how the band’s sweet.  We just sit there and fluff each other like, ‘We’re so cool!’ (Laughs)  You gotta keep each other filled with inspiration, so the next day when you get up and you gotta go to practice, you could be like, ‘Ugh,’ or you could be like, ‘Great! I get to see my buddies tonight.’

Riegler:  It’s been an honor with these guys.  The first year has been some of the most fun I’ve ever had and the music we’re putting out—I can’t get enough.  I watch the videos all the time, I listen to it all throughout the day.  All of those YouTube hits are probably from me (laughs).  We’re always thinking, and Sean’s like, ‘Hey we played 40 shows last year.  Let’s play 70 this year and go to three more states.’  I like that and I think that everyone pretty much has the same goal to just keep traveling and playing show and trying to spread this positive message.

Sandoval:  The positive message is definitely crucial, because beyond the musical aspect that separates us from this areas prevalent style, is that the message goes a step ahead of all the normal things we are constantly hearing being repeated over and over.  It’s like a breath of fresh air.  To hear something that you can relate to and that’s positive, you can think about it and reflect and it can bring about a positive vibe.  I feel like when I hear some of the music out there, even beyond our genre—just modern day music, it was like, ‘What was the message there?’  I think that’s important too because it feels good that we’re actually spreading this consciousness.

Simpkin:  We’re hoping that it’s going to bring longevity.  It won’t be something that’s just in-and-out.  It will be something that in 20 or 30 years you can reflect back on and think that was good music.

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