The Simpkin Project is a reggae band from Huntington Beach. At an undisclosed location in Irvine, Phil Simpkin (guitar and vocals) and Shawn Taylor (keyboards and vocals) discussed their long-running experience with reggae and the evolution of the band.
You grew up listening to reggae. Who were some of the artists that drew you to reggae?
Phil Simpkin: Everyone usually starts with Bob and the Wailers, including Peter Tosh and Bunny. They have a huge catalog. You naturally start there. I have an older brother who was into reggae music, so I had access to lots of old reggae music. Israel Vibration. English reggae with Aswad and Steel Pulse. Deep reggae: Prince Far I, Gladiators, Don Carlos, Burning Spear, Twinkle Brothers is one we love. Reggae is really exponential when you get into all the styles. It gets even deeper.
Shawn Taylor: The older roots inspires us. We started more as a cover band. When we performed live for the first few years, it was covers and originals together but we really learned our sense by studying the old style. Going to that old style and learning and mastering those tunes, that old style would transcend into the sound we have now. I think that really sets us apart from other bands in our genre, especially in Orange County. They bring in their love for Bob Marley and a couple artists they have in mind from the old school days. Then they infuse that with Sublime. All the punk rockers are moving to reggae and reggae rock. Some people call it surf roots or surf reggae. They’re all putting it under the blanket of reggae. We do bring a contemporary vibe, but we start with the roots. We don’t start at the Sublime lvel.
PS: They start at the Sublime level and then go to the reggae via Sublime. That wasn’t our thing. We really appreciate the Sublime thing. It’s opened up ears to reggae.
ST: It’s done good in some sense. It’s had a positive effect and I don’t want to say negative effect, but interesting. Reggae is one of those things like rap. People think if you’re white you can’t play it.
You mentioned having access to reggae, but was there anything else about it that drew you in?
PS: I grew up like everyone in Orange County listening to punk rock, really hard music. We grew up in the 90s. We love grunge. People were looking for other kinds of music. You’d go to a show and no one is dancing. With reggae it was more accessible to do a lot more things and to enjoy yourself at shows differently. With reggae, we got to find out how the little parts come together to make a huge sound. Layers are really important. Keyboards, organ.
ST: You listen to something like The Last Waltz and the organ and keyboards were the heartbeat of the band. We’re bringing that sound back around.
PS: There’s something about the simplicity that gets me every time. It’s so easy to sound complicated when it’s really just simple.
ST: The musicians in a reggae band are kind of like cogs on a wheel. They have a particular function and when all of them are like machinery and work together, they fit like a tongue in groove. Surprisingly, as simplistic as reggae is in its core, if you break it down into its fundamental elements, there’s a bubble, there’s a skank, it’s very difficult to do it right and well. I think some of our contemporaries…I don’t want to say they trivialize it, but their attention to detail is not as focused. They don’t understand the mechanics of a good roots song and you can hear it when they play.
PS: It’s about accent and touch and feel. Great drummers have those things, it’s hard to teach. Reggae was one of those expanding ideas, like Rastafari was kind of a spiritual liberation in one sense. I grew up Catholic. Reggae had a message through the ministers of Rastafarianism. It was like, “Get out of churches and enjoy the world around you. Don’t focus on the world after this so much.” Positivity, equal rights. When I was younger, that stuff was eye-opening. Reggae is able to cover so many topics from simple love songs to political issues to inward psychological issues. It’s a dynamic genre. And somehow you’re always prompted to dance and move.
ST: The deepest song can move the spirit. That’s something we’ve been working on the last year or two: our message and the vibe we’re trying to create when we perform. We try not to trivialize our fan experience. We want our fans to experience a transformation in a good way. We’re focusing on the words we write in our songs, the order we perform the songs.
PS: We like simple hooks often because it’s really nice to hear a song for the first time and by the end of the song, you’re singing with it.
ST: It’s really infectious. As I watch other professional bands, I can see the place where they’d really get their fans more with them is if you could hear the words and the message clearer and within a couple minutes everyone is akin to what you’re trying to say. By the time you end the set, they’ve heard eight or nine tunes that they already know.
As a fan, that’s something you remember, hearing a song and singing along.
PS: You want to get that person off the wall and participating, moving. We get a greater response from the women. They lead the way out onto the dance floor for all us dopey men.
You just touched on this a little bit, but what is essential to every song of The Simpkin Project?
ST: Every song doesn’t come together the same way, but by the time it’s done, we want the sound of the music to match the tone of the voice. We want the music and the message to align so it really resonates with somebody. We’ll write a song, then sit on it for a few weeks to see where it draws each one of us. By the time we’re ready to record it or present it to an audience, we feel like the tone matches the message. You want to try to align those the best you can.
PS: For a songwriter, the challenge is trying to match the aesthetic and the content just right with each other. Sometimes you make it happen. Every song is different.
Do you think you’ve gotten better at this refinement because you’ve been playing so long?
PS: It’s evolving. We’re working on it all the time. Every song presents a new thing.
ST: When you write new songs, you don’t want them to sound like your old songs so you have to evolve that way. You can’t release the same product over and over again and expect that your fans want to hear the same thing. So it’s always trying to increase the difficulty of the song or chord structure. Maybe you write it in a different key than you’re used to singing. Maybe we have more breakdowns in one song then another. You always have to get better. It’s like you said, you have to do it every day, even if it’s something basic because it’s part of your abilities and your skill set. You have to keep doing it or you lose it.
I like that you’re dedicated to the idea that you don’t want your songs to sound like they did before. I think more bands should make a concerted effort at that.
ST: It’s hard trying to evolve in a scene that has a boundedness to it.
PS: Every art form has a clear idea of the convention involved, what are the boundaries you can go beyond. We tread that interesting penumbra where we ask ourselves “are we pushing this too far?” “Is it too traditional?”
If you could only recommend one, would you recommend one of your shows or your CDs?
PS: I want to say shows. We’ve had some really good, powerful shows.
ST: We’ve had some amazing shows recently. What you can do with an album that you can’t do with a show is you can rewind that album. You can dissect and listen more deeply. With a show, it goes in one ear and out the other. Most of our arrangements for our show performances are different than our recorded versions. Seeing The Simpkin Project and hearing The Simpkin Project on a recording, it’s the same but different. You get your fix that you’re coming for with songs that you know, songs that you love. You’re also going to get some treats, some breakdowns, different intros. We’re constantly evolving so if you come up with an intro that wasn’t with the song originally, that’s too good to not include. That heightens the intensity.
PS: A number of the songs have a different presentation live.
ST: You have to play your songs for a live performance versus a CD. With CDs, you want to have some commercial success so you’re really conscious of the length and the chorus. When you’re live, you realize it wouldn’t hurt any feelings to go through the rhythm one more time. We’re not on the radio with someone trying to squeeze ads between our songs. We don’t need three-minute pills. Live shows, for the energy and transformations. Headphone sessions and personal reflection with it one-on-one is one of my main intentions when we make a CD. By yourself, you can internalize the music for what it means to you. You can hear the message clearer. You have the words in front of you. You can smoke or drink to get in the right state of mind.
PS: Shawn designs all the stuff in the studio for us. He’s thinking about this stuff all the time. The overall listener experience, especially the guy by himself listening on headphones. He creates a soundscape.
I like that. When I review a CD, there are some that you want to put on the stereo and blare it out the window. There are times where so much is going on that you need headphones to sense everything.
ST: It puts you in the audio space.
Especially when there are a lot of layers in the music.
PS: Instead of watching a movie in the studio we’d have a listening night where we’d put on an album.
ST: Like a Radiohead album or an old Grateful Dead album and put it on there. You listen and you say, “Who knew? They panned all the drums in the right ear. I would never have known that unless I sat down here with the headphones on.” When it’s on the speakers, you don’t really notice how the engineer spaced it for you. You’re just absorbing it. With headphones, you’re able to isolate each instrument in space.
What are some of the good shows you’ve had recently?
PS: This past New Years show. It was great to have everyone show up. We really filled the place up. There was a good feeling to the whole show.
ST: We played a show at the House of Blues in Anaheim where all we had to do was give away the tickets. We went on our Facebook and said, “If you want tickets, let us know.” We’ll put your number of tickets in an envelope and put them at will call for you. You don’t have to pay anything, just pick them at will call. We were able to move 600 tickets and sell the place out with just the social network. Six hundred people were there just for The Simpkin Project. The vibe was right. The type of show we’re referring to…we have a show on February third with a band called Seedless. They’re a reggae mixed with rap and Sublime. They’re playing with us with HB Surround Sound. They’re a ska band, but they were one of the originators of surf roots. They’d play punk rock and break it down to a reggae tune. This was miles before any of the surf roots had come out. Now they’re more of a hard rock and ska band, like Rancid.
PS: The Dirty Heads are good friends of ours. They’re probably the biggest name in this southern California reggae rock scene.
ST: We’ve been super grateful to The Dirty Heads because we went to school with them. They’ve been really cool to us handing us show opportunities to play with them. We’ve gone on tour with them in Colorado and done a bunch of shows with them there. They’ve been cool to us, hooking us up with mad shows and they really like our music. Those are some of the big shows. Our CD release was really fun.
PS: We did that at The Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa and sold the place out. Everyone that walked in the door got a CD.
ST: It was a great way to distribute music and get a cover charge at the same time. We you only pay a couple dollars to make each CD and then charge $10 to get in, you make your money back. In the one night, we were able to pay off all of our CDs. It was all the fans. The support on Facebook has been a major force in our marketing campaign. For us, it allows us to build an audience and keep track of who really likes you. When you have a release, you can get their attention.
PS: We see the world now with Facebook. It makes life a lot easier for bands.
ST: The digital revolution has been amazing for bands. I can listen to Australian death metal in my bedroom in Huntington Beach. I can buy their CDs and t-shirts, follow them, watch them on YouTube. Back in the 80s, how would you find a band? A label or a record store or something.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
PS: I don’t understand not making music. We both are students. I’m working on a Masters degree in religious studies. I’m a big philosophy reader. One day the music just captured me. Even if I weren’t doing music in a project like this one, I’d still be making music.
ST: I’m a student as well. I teach math at California State University Long Beach. That’s fun to do and there’s a creative outlet there, but it’s not like music. Music is soul-speaking. If I wasn’t making music, I’d be recording it. Or I’d be on the road with a band mixing sound. If I wasn’t making it in its direct form, I’d still be involved.
PS: I would add to that for Taylor. He knows how to do all the video production really quick but it looks great.
ST: If there’s anything to take away from The Simpkin Project, it’s that we do everything ourselves. We record our albums, do all our own artwork, do all our websites. We move at our own pace. It’s as indie as it gets. We have two outside members, our publicist who we contract through. When he came to California with Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, we vibed with him. He straightened up our social media, got us some connections. That’s one of the only outside members we’ve brought in to help the band. We’ve also brought a guy in to help us book out-of-state tours. Our drummer Sean Kennedy was supposed to be here. He’s been a major motivating factor. He’s the reason we have the van, the trailer. He moves us forward, he’s a good leader in that respect. He deals with the business aspect of it. How much are we getting paid? Are we getting fed? Where can I park my trailer? It’s not fun, but that instills a lot of pride. I see these other bands that have an entire network just to stay afloat and I think “We’re floating and we don’t even have your network.” We like to fly that flag.
All three albums from The Simpkin Project are available on CDBaby.