By: David Garcia
It's easy to be desensitized to SoCal reggae these days. But there's no substitute for staying power when you see a local band such as the Simpkin Project, whose commitment to the genre is more than a decade long and goes much deeper than a love of Sublime and Sour Diesel.
Long before the recent reggae explosion in Southern California, Phil Simpkin spent his high school days playing in the band Big Cat. At the time, Simpkin had been quietly working on his own music and shared his experimentations with longtime schoolmate, Shawn Taylor. The result was the birth of the Simpkin Project in 2003. The original recordings for what would become the band's first album, Walk On Tall, were mixed and mastered in Taylor's Huntington Beach home studio–with no intention of releasing it to the public.
"It was an experiment, if you will," says organist/keyboardist Taylor, "a recording experiment burned onto blank CDs and given to people in our immediate circles that quickly became a cult favorite among friends."
A year later, Simpkin received a call asking if the band were interested in opening for Steel Pulse at the Galaxy Concert Theater (now the Observatory). Upon accepting the gig, the lead vocalist/guitar player assembled a ragtag roster of musicians to play the tunes recorded for Walk On Tall. "We were in no way an official band, but one might argue that that was our first show," Taylor says.
Simpkin and Taylor are the only members remaining from that original gig. The lineup currently includes bassist Eric Riegler, whom Simpkin played with in Big Cat; drummer Sean Kennedy; percussionist Sergio Sandoval; and rhythm guitarist Jules Luna.
In 2007, the Simpkin Project released two albums: the official version of Walk On Tall and their second full-length album, In the Wake. Their third full-length, Everything You Want, was released in 2011 and was followed by a tour of the southwestern United States with longtime friends the Dirty Heads and Rome Ramirez.
In early 2014, the band joined New York's Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad and the Expanders from Los Angeles on the In Roots We Trust Tour for a West Coast run that went from San Diego up to Seattle, Washington. Soon after, they released Cornerstones, a compilation featuring six of their most popular and frequently requested songs.
The Simpkin Project's sound is a modern take on roots/reggae that's infused with classic reggae elements such as a "one-drop," an organ bubble, guitar skank and socially conscious lyrics and three-part harmonies. Their live performances leave you in a trance, as they often take their well-known songs and break into off-the-cuff jams.
For each performance, Taylor's vintage 1949 Hammond B3 and Leslie speaker are on the stage. "It's a gem," he says. "We bring it with us everywhere we go and can't live without it. To our knowledge, we are one of a few reggae bands in California that actually cart around a real organ. We get lots of compliments on it."
Also helping them stand out from the pack is the band members' diversity. "Many of our members have multiple degrees in subjects such as philosophy, mathematics and linguistics, while other members own and operate their own businesses," says Taylor. Simpkin is currently serving as a part-time philosophy professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
In 2015, the band members will be dedicating themselves to the Simpkin Project full-time. With plans to release their fourth studio album, Beam of Light; embarking on an extensive nationwide tour; and sealing a multi-album record deal, the Simpkin Project have a fire they hope will burn long and satisfyingly in the years ahead.
The Simpkin Project perform with Groundation at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $10. All ages.