“I told you just to stop it, and let go,” asserts JD Simo, singing about the curse of heredity, the severing of blood ties in “Let Go” from his latest release, Mind Control. Recorded amid pandemic anxiety, the album finds Simo indeed letting go, distancing himself from past albums, dismissing formula, feedback loops, and expectations in favor of intuition and groove. Darkness looms– tracks like “Go Away Satan” and “Devil Is Always Watchin’” testify to its presence– but Mind Control repurposes music as an exorcism.
Simo’s liberation is well earned. Yes, he’s held his own behind the boards and onstage with the likes of Blackberry Smoke, Jack White, Luther Dickinson, and Phil Lesh, but he’s more than a facilitator. His previous band, SIMO, dedicated itself to the psychedelic soul music cause, yet it’s the albums released under his own name that find Simo achieving an apotheosis.
Mind Control achieves its emotional thrust through the crush of minimalism, the freedom of breathing room, and the trance of repetition. The serpentine riffs are incessant, existing on the brink of exhaustion until they find new life through sheer persistence. The touchstones are there– the poetic ruckus of Captain Beefheart; the street menace of The Stooges; the rapture of Afro Beat; the wearied heart of Junior Kimbrough– but as album closer “Recovery” affirms, this is Simo’s trip to hell and back.
JD Simo, along with GA-20, visits Grant’s Lounge on Friday, January 28th.
You recorded your 2016 album Let Love Show The Way in Macon. Are there any memories from that experience that have stuck around?
I’ve had a lot of great experiences with Macon. Once upon a time, I used to go down there just to hang out when my life was simpler, and I didn’t have as much responsibility, before the Big House opened as a museum, hanging out at Rose Hill, all the things you do. With Let Love Show The Way, we went down there, and it seems like another lifetime ago, because it kind of was, especially post-COVID. I had become friends with Richard Brent, who at the time was just a volunteer at the museum, at The Big House. We were trying to think of something to do that would be cool. We were initially going to just record a couple of tracks there after hours, and it turned into doing the whole record there.
As one could imagine– and I’d hung out there prior to that many times– to just be there, camped out, having fun at all hours of the night, it was a trippy, really groovy experience. As a result of that, any time that we ever come back through Macon, which the last several times has been either with Allman Betts, Blackberry Smoke, or whoever else that’s obviously connected to the Allman Brothers’ history, it’s very special. I got a lot of really good friends there, and the history of it all is very strong.
As far as being from Nashville, before we started touring nationally and internationally, we started coming to Atlanta relatively quick– sort of the same kind of vibe in that–there’s a lot of friends and a lot of history going back several years, you know. Living in the South, it’s almost like a local gig– you play Birmingham; you play Huntsville; you play Atlanta; you play Athens, Georgia; Macon; Asheville, North Carolina. It’s all close to one another– a lot of great memories.
I’m just curious about your origins as a creator. You’ve been a frontman, a producer, and an engineer. What planted that seed when you were a kid?
That’s a great answer!
You know– escaping reality. I got into music when I was four or five years old, and it was just to escape what was going on, and it still remains that. (Laughs) As far as being creative is concerned, it’s fascinating. Whether you’re working on a project, like if you’re a carpenter, if you work on cars, or something like that, anytime you manifest something that didn’t exist a few minutes before, it’s fascinating, it’s intriguing, and it feels good. Ever after, it continues to be a wonderful distraction from life.
Also, I think that’s why some people become addicted to adrenaline sports and stuff like that. When you’re in the middle of doing something, you’re truly in that moment, and you’re not riddled with anxiety. You’re not worrying about what happened or worried about what will happen. You’re just focused, in the moment, and that’s a very addictive feeling because it’s very peaceful. I started early, and it’s remained that way. It’s been a very positive way to live, to find a positive outlet for those things.
For me, I fell in love with Elvis and The Beatles, those things that millions and millions of people have the same kind of story with, and it goes on from there– the need to discover new things, to keep moving, and keep trying to find things that you haven’t thought of before. That’s also part of it all as well.
How did you develop your diverse tastes, your wide range of influences? It’s easy when you’re in middle or high school to fall into the one-dimensional, Top 40 trap. How did you avoid that? Luck of the draw?
Part of it is luck of the draw. I grew up in Chicago, so having access to the local public library– which is world-class because I grew up in the city– and the radio of Chicago gave me a huge leg up because I grew up listening to WXRT, which is still there. They played Tom Waits and stuff like that. It was incredible, so part of it is luck of the draw. And part of it is just fascination like I said. It started very general, like most people– The Beatles, Stones– and growing up in the ’90s with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and stuff like that. And Jimi Hendrix, all that kind of stuff.
I’m just fascinated. I’m a natural student to this day. I love understanding where stuff comes from, and I love understanding who influences somebody that I think is good. I’m a natural record collector. I like looking at records and going, “Oh, so-and-so played on this record, but he also played on these other ten records or this producer or this song…” You do that kind of thing over a 30-year period, and it just fans out. Like anything, it starts small, it starts humble, but it just fans out over time. It’s obsession. I love it. I love understanding it, and I get bored really easy, so I get intensely into something, and I’m all about it for a period of time. Then I reach a point where I’ve accessed as much as I can of something, and then I move on to something else. That’s continued since I was four or five years old.
Were you lucky enough to have a tastemaker to enlighten you? An older relative or neighbor…
Not anyone in particular– there were many. I’ve had many my whole life because… Two-fold: I was either always asking questions of people that were older or because I was younger, and it’s cute when an eight-year-old wants to know more about Pink Floyd or something like that. It’s intriguing to someone who’s older, so I’ve had a lot of people turn me on to a lot of stuff over the years, but no one in particular.
I’m thinking about Macon and tastemakers. Were you familiar with the used CD/record store Rick Hanlee’s?
He specialized in Allman Brothers and Black Crowes bootlegs, among other bands. I only ask because he turned me on to Captain Beefheart when I was 15 or 16. I bought a few records, although they didn’t help me win friends or influence people in high school. (Laughs) I know he’s a touchstone for you. What was your introduction to him?
With Captain Beefheart, my first introduction was as a teenager, understanding that Ry Cooder worked with him early on. That was probably the earliest understanding. I loved Ry Cooder from a fairly early age, at least a teenager, but it didn’t really connect; I didn’t really seek it. Then I kept running into people that I held in high esteem, whether it was someone mainstream like Jack White or whether it was somebody more esoteric like Tom Waits or even somebody like Yoko One talking about his brilliance. As a teenager, the first record I ever got of his was Trout Mask Replica, and like many things that I got when I was a teenager, I wasn’t ready for it yet. I had it, and I listened to it, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it. It hung out in my record collection for many years without having made a real impact on me. Then years later, I was in my early 20s, and I was well into my record-geek adulthood that I still remain in, and I ended up buying a copy of Safe as Milk because I’d never listened to it, and I thought, “Okay, this is the one that Ry’s actually on, so let me listen to this.” I loved that record, and it was a great way in because that’s probably the most accessible record that he ever made. Then it was easier for me to sort of move on from there and listen to Trout Mask and Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which is my favorite. Then I was able to look through it with a different set of eyes and see the brilliance in it and go, “Oh my God! It sounds absolutely disjointed and psychotic, but it’s completely arranged like classical music, like they’re all playing parts, they all came up with this and are executing it. It’s unreal! How do you arrange this? How do you rehearse?” This is next level, you know? I was able to see how Ry Cooder was involved very early on, which I think is how most people I know that got into Beefheart, or they saw it on some best-of list or something, and they think they should give it a try.
You mentioned Hendrix, and this is a question I posed to my friend/editor, Aaron. When I was growing up, Hendrix was ubiquitous, on the radio and written about in every issue of Guitar World and Guitar for the Practicing Musician. For some reason, I don’t hear his name mentioned by as many folks these days. Am I imagining this?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s as much as it was. I think…
Why? I can’t figure it out…
That’s a good question. I think probably because there hasn’t been as much exposure to his greatness in a palpable sense. In the ’90s, it was easier, and even early 2000s, because you had The Red Hot Chili Peppers, you had Pearl Jam, and Stevie Ray Vaughan was alive, you had very mainstream guys that were very clearly heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix and talked about him constantly, so maybe that’s something to account for.
I wish that Hendrix and his true kind of genius… It’s like Led Zeppelin and a lot of other things from that era– the thing that is the least special about them is what has been mimicked and copied. The actual depth and what made them incredible, all the nuance, is not even noticed.
That being said, Hendrix is one of the few… I don’t really listen to guitar music. For instance, the last few days, I’ve been on this ’40s kick, listening to Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian records– he didn’t make really many records on his own; he mostly was with Benny Goodman. I listen to guitar music, but I don’t listen to a lot of rock guitar music. When I do go back and listen to it for pleasure, though, Hendrix is one of the ones that often does yield good dividends because it’s Beatle-level record making. You take his guitar ability away and just look at the songs and the production of the record, and it’s like, “This is brilliant!” Then you put this great improviser on top of it, and it’s like, “Man, this guy is no joke!”
For me, I sort of rebelled against that because of mass consumption. When I became exposed to Eddie Hazel with Funkadelic or Michael Toles or Harold Beane with Isaac Hayes, and Craig McMullen who played with Curtis Mayfield, that changed me and had a hugely profoundly life-changing impact on me, the sort of psychedelic approach from an R&B perspective and less from a rock or an Anglo perspective, so I’ve probably spent more time listening to all that stuff than Hendrix for the last ten or twenty years.
I still think when it comes down to it though, he still to this day is unrivaled. Just his level of creativity and his ability to sonically paint these incredible pictures, it’s amazing, just like The Beatles are still amazing.
What about some Afro Beat influence?
That’s a relatively new obsession. When Tony Allen passed away last year, me and the guys in the band became enamored. Adam Abrashoff, who plays drums in the group, had long loved Tony but did the deep dive after Tony passed away. And that bled over into me. I love modern groups, like Antibalas and The Budos Band. I have Fela Kuti’s Coffin for Head of State and a couple of live bootlegs and stuff, but I hadn’t really dove that deep. And so last year, in particular, that was a big Fela deep dive. That was enjoyable because the parallels between what Fela did and what James Brown was doing are so comparable to one another. They are interchangeable in a way because of the same discipline it takes. I mean, the whole mindset where you can just get into a trance, and you can play something endlessly without varying much, and how difficult that truly is as a musician because all musicians want to vary, especially improvisers. It’s the fascination with the opposite of that kind of mindset–you lock into something, and you do not vary. It takes a lot of mental discipline to do that, surprisingly so. Obviously, with Fela, you’re dealing with a band that at times could be 20 pieces or more, and there could be three or four guitar players. With James Brown, you’re dealing with a 10 or 11-piece band and one or two guitar players. It’s really fun picking out the individual parts that people are playing and understanding how they all are counterpoint. As a musician, I think it’s a novice approach to syncopated music to think, “Oh, I’m hearing all this syncopation,” so you overplay, but what really is happening is you’re hearing all these very minimal, short phrases that all answer to one another. Everybody is playing very, very minimally. As a whole, you’re hearing all this syncopation, but individual parts are not. It’s fascinating, and it’s really fun to play.
Given your influences, do you see yourself as a “blues” artist, or is that tag limiting?
I think that there’s always an element of blues. I consider what GA-20 does blues, but I don’t really consider myself a blues artist. People can say what they want– that’s fine. It doesn’t really matter, and it certainly doesn’t offend me because there’s a lot of blues in what I do. When I sit around and listen to music, left to my own devices, I’m more apt to go put a Lightnin’ Hopkins record on or something than I am other different types of music, so it makes sense to me.
But to me, part of what has happened to blues that is so abhorrent is the term is used so flippantly. It’s like, “Oh, this is blues!” and it’s like, “No, I don’t think so.” It’s like what’s happened to country music. It’s like, “I don’t think that’s country. It sounds like bad rock to me.”
It’s unfortunate because when I hear about a new blues band, Blues Hammer from Ghost World comes to mind, a band who had either lost the plot or never had it…
(Laughs) Yeah! Blues Hammer! But I love Junior Kimbrough, and I love Earl Hooker, Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and B.B. King and Freddie King. I was on a big kick yesterday listening to Yank Rachell, the mandolin player that played with Sleepy John Estes for decades. I love it.
On the other end of the conversation, have you encountered curmudgeon, blues purist-types who’ve given you a hard time because of “authenticity”?
I don’t, no, because what I do is sort of broad, and in any given show, I will probably do at least one, if not two things that are pretty damn traditional, but it’s mixed with a bunch of psychotic, different things, all the things that I like. We don’t write setlists. The frameworks of all the tunes that we play are pretty open so that if something happens that’s interesting, we can follow.
But I don’t run into that. When I was a teenager, I did. It was funny– we just did a gig on the last tour where we played in Phoenix, which is where I spent a good portion of my teenage years. We played this venue that I used to play as a kid. The owner of the place is a real old-school aficionado, and he’s really, really cool. But he used to give me so much grief as a kid, and I look back now and think, “He was right! He was right!” He was trying to say, “Dude, you should listen to Magic Sam. Dude, you should listen to Otis Rush from the ’50s. If you think Freddie King overplaying on a bootleg with Eric Clapton in the ’70s is good, you should listen to the original Federal stuff from 1960.” He was trying to help me. And I just was too young and stupid to listen, and it took me another ten years to sort of realize that. So I think with some of that, it’s probably warranted, you know? (Laughs)
Well, I suppose we should actually talk some about your new record, Mind Control. I think your label and the venue would appreciate that (laughs)! Compared to your previous records, this has a more off-the-cuff, experimental-vibe, not exactly low-stakes, but definitely on your own terms.
Mind Control is… the pandemic. We started getting together every week, usually Wednesday and Thursday. We’d get tested Monday, and if we were clear, we would get together on Wednesday and Thursday. We started doing that in April of 2020, and we did that every week, clear into February or March of 2021. We ended up with more material than I could ever release. And though, unlike every other thing I’ve ever worked on, there was no plan, it was just, “Let’s get together,” and we ended up with whatever we recorded that day. We wrote and recorded a lot of Afro Beat stuff. We recorded a lot of really weird, sci-fi, soundtrack-y kind of stuff. We recorded a lot of funk, Meters-y instrumentals.
Basically, we came out of all that, and things were starting to get organized again, and what became Mind Control is our favorite songs that we had written, and they all seemed to go together. They all seemed to have this sort of afro-groove with sort of a hill country vibe on top, which is what we were listening to; it’s just what happened. It wasn’t that we meant to do that.
As a result, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done because it was just very natural. I think that one of the things that hurts music is our need to plan and say, “This is what I’m doing!” instead of just letting happen what is going to happen. It was really enjoyable, and it was super fun and super not stressful, and really easy. Not only am I incredibly pleased with it, but it has changed my outlook moving forward with writing because I think that I’ve always been a classic over-thinker, and I think that it is a glaring telltale to me of how counterproductive that is.
There’s a lot of negative space, room to breathe. Was it a conscious decision to leave some air?
(Laughs) I appreciate you saying that because to me, it’s just my musical maturity finally coming through and me not being afraid to let there be space. And I think that has everything to do with when you’re sitting there, and you’re just playing something for your own amusement, and you’re not really thinking, “On, this is a take that’s going to go on record,” your approach it differently. The need to impress is pretty gone because I don’t think that it really yields good results. It makes things manic, or it makes them hokey. For things to be super-musical, there needs to be calmness. All the great music that I love has that. But it’s just me being more comfortable in my own skin and truly making something that I personally wanted to hear back five minutes later.
What about your lyrics? The feeling is almost confrontational at times. Did the lyrics offer you a cathartic, therapeutic experience, given the state of the world?
Yeah, very much. Again, I wasn’t really overthinking. We could put something together relatively quick, and if I heard something or was saying something phonetically, I put it together really quick in usually 15 or 20 minutes. If something wasn’t coming, we would just move on to something else. I never went back and edited. It was just whatever happened in the moment that we were putting together.
Yeah, it’s incredibly cathartic. I’m talking about a lot of things that are going on in my own life– not being a child anymore, having a young daughter and a wife, trying to make sense of past trauma, and becoming a better person, hopefully. It’s all in there. But it wasn’t conscious. I didn’t set out to make a record about recovery or a record about mental health, or anything like that; it was just me talking about what was on my mind. Therefore, I’m very pleased with it because in the past as I’ve written stuff, I’ve always gotten in my own way, trying to make something be something rather than just letting it be.
And yeah, some of it’s dark, but first of all, I’m always attracted to that in other people. I think so many people try and act like there’s no darkness in them, but there’s darkness in everybody. I find that fascinating because it’s how you deal with the darkness that is fascinating, person-to-person. So why not acknowledge it?
No, I think you’re right. We have a culture now that loves anti-heroes, and I think people believe their love for them is ironic or tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t think it’s at all ironic…
(Laughs) No! There’s no irony in that. We’re all flawed; it’s the primordial thing! But we could talk for days about that. That would be a great conversation.
So you’ve done all the writing, performing, and producing. How about starting your own record label?
I think if I was someone in a position like Dan Auerbach, it’d be advantageous to do so, but I’m not in that income bracket where I would be of use to the public at large. Consequently, I’m grateful that I get to work with the labels that I do. The label that I’ve been with these last records has been amazing because they literally let me do whatever I want to do and with no input, which is amazing.
As for all the stuff that isn’t released, in the next week or the week after, we’re starting to put out digital-only singles of outtakes, stuff that doesn’t have a home for people to stream. We’re giving it away because there’s so much of it. We have plans to do that well into the summer because we have everything scheduled out. I could do that for the next year, and it wouldn’t hurt me at all, and I’m continuing to throw stuff on the pile too, so I’d just assume give it away than do something with it monetarily because it’s easier, and also there’s so much of it. I’m certainly going to make more records! But that’s the plan for the moment because it just seems right to me.