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Phil Simpkin of the Simpkin Project plays roots reggae, but don’t expect a bomboclaat accent, yuh bush docta.
The Simpkin Project isn’t a typical reggae band name.I used to be in a band called Big Cat; we were together for almost 10 years. One day, a lot of the other guys were busy, so I did a side project. No one knew what to call it, so they kept referring to it as the Simpkin Project. It just kind of stuck.
So it started as a side project from another band?It was kind of an experiment. The backup singer and keyboardist in the band, Shawn Taylor, has a studio. He had some downtime, and he wanted to make an experimental project happen. It just did better than our expectations—it was never my intention to start something else.
Is there a stylistic difference between your previous band and the new band?I was the sole singer in Big Cat, but in the Simpkin Project, we have three-part harmony going virtually the whole time. Big Cat was a little more traditional in the sense that we tried to incorporate some horn lines. In this band, we’ve kind of stayed away from the horns, but it’s still a big sound, a really rootsy sound. And Shawn is doing all the dub music he can. The dubs he does are the ones you hear in the Simpkin Project.
Do you get more specific than “reggae” when describing it for people who haven’t heard you?No. It works when we say “reggae.” We have our original music, which has a sound that’s not quite as traditional, but the other half of our set is about as old-school and traditional as you can get. People love the cover tunes we pick—they’re not average cover songs other people would play.
Is it hard to play roots reggae in Southern California when a band like Sublime was from here? Do people expect you to sound like that?Bands around here are really in that vein. We call it “the Long Beach sound.” We know a lot of bands that come out of there who have that same sound. But we like the wider, big sound of reggae. We’ve got to have our two sets of keyboards and percussion and big vocal harmonies. So it’s different. We just keep to the old, rootsy Jamaican sound, but the vocals are just a little more contemporary. There’s no patois; I don’t sing in the Jamaican tongue. We stay away from that, but we still try to make it really pure.
Is it tough playing reggae when you’re not Jamaican?We get all kinds of things. If I got paid every time I heard, “You guys sound like it, but when I open my eyes, it’s a bunch of white guys” . . . But at the same time, people respect us for doing it right. On certain cover tunes, we can’t get away from speaking in patois here and there. It wouldn’t sound right [otherwise]. It that sense, we have to be like anthropologists or something and just go with it. We want to do it how they did it when we’re doing their songs, and we want to do it how we do it when we do our songs.
Is there a flipside where people don’t want to hear traditional reggae here?Yeah. We are often asked to play some Sublime. But we have a lot of respect and love for the whole Long Beach scene because it’s brought a huge awareness to reggae music. It was much more of a niche thing. A lot of fans grew up with Sublime, and now they’re moving on to the traditional reggae music. It’s a different sound and vibe. Some people want a little more rock, but usually the people who come to our shows are ready for what we’ve got.
Does the beach lifestyle in Southern California work to a reggae band’s advantage?It surprises me. Everybody just loves reggae around here. As far as I can tell, people have an open mind.
Is the reggae/marijuana stereotype ever an obstacle for you?We pride ourselves on being punctual and taking care of business in every sense. So for us, it’s not a problem, but the preconception is definitely out there. We play clubs, and we show up right when they want us to, and we’ll have to listen to how the headliner is late. [Club bookers] have always had it with reggae musicians, for some reason.
The Simpkin Project perform at Martini Blues, 5874 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 840-2129. Sept. 13. Visit www.thesimpkinproject.com for more information.