MICHAEL SIMONE BIOGRAPHY (2015)
Ocean Carolina and their latest release Maudlin Days, a follow-up to their well-received first LP All the Way Home, is what happens when a life-long musician stops questioning himself and lets the music unfold on its own. Michael Simone, the songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist behind the band, has been playing music in some form or another since he was twelve years old. Influenced early on by innovative artists like Prince, Simone honed his ear for melody by learning how to pick out notes on a Fisher Jam Box and keyboard. He says, “You could pop a cassette in, choose a random sound like piano, strings, or flute, and play along to your favorite music at the same time”—which, like a young poet copying Emerson line-for-line, gave him the freedom to explore the way notes and chords came together by studying the masters.
However, because he had been identified as a high achiever at an early age, Simone was isolated in school: he was kept in the appropriate grade for his age, but had to work from textbooks a year above. When his music teacher Mrs. Lawson gave an assignment to the class—to go home and write their own piece of music on a musical staff and bring it back for her to pick out on the piano—he knew it was his chance to break out of that role. “I popped in the soundtrack for Beverly Hills Cop and learned the theme for “Axel F.” I took those notes and scrawled them on the page. Mind you, not scoring perfectly in rhythm, but penciling in the corresponding notes in sequence on the staff,” he recalls.
After convincing Mrs. Lawson to let him play his own homework and tapping out “Axel F” to try to get some laughs from his classmates, Simone was met with a “see me after class.” Instead of being angry, though, Mrs. Lawson wanted to talk to his parents about a possible future path in music.
Simone started out with synth gear and keyboards. It took him six months of playing every day to become comfortable with the machines— one FM synth, an 8-bit sampler, Drum machine, keyboard amp, stand, audio and midi cables, worth, Simone estimates, $5,000 in 1986 dollars—and then he began sequencing and arranging keyboard versions for popular songs. He worked on tracks from AC/DC to Iron Maiden—until the summer of ’86 hit and Van Halen’s 5150 infiltrated the airwaves. To Simone’s 13-year-old brain, it seemed like “Eddie was the God here, and he was playing guitar!”
His parents—instead of balking at the already high cost of Simone’s hobby—rented a nylon string guitar and paid for six lessons to see if he would take to it. After his guitar teacher told his parents of his aptitude, they bought him his first electric guitar and amp. (“How cool are my parents?” Simone still asks while telling this story.)
As his musical proficiency progressed and became more varied, so did his tastes. By 15, he was working on Joe Satriani and Metallica songs, which were getting easier and easier to mimic. Like most teenagers, he joined a band (with the understanding that it wasn’t a metal band)—and that’s when everything changed for Simone.
Simone remembers, “The Cure was pretty much their deal, and to this day, Disintegration is still one of my favorite albums of all time. And while these guys already had over 30 tunes, the singer didn’t like having to sing the whole show…he suggested I try writing some songs to bring to the table to give him a break during the [2 hour] sets. And I did. The problem with this, and by now I’m 16 or 17…these songs started to stand out. I’m not saying that my songs were better, but I can say, the feeling I got from singing them and being the one who had written them was much more rewarding than just playing guitar in the band.” This transition would be one of the most important of Simone’s career. While the next decade or so would see him change genre, form, and bandmates a few times, one thing that never changed was the power of his songwriting and the obvious pull that his art has over him.
Though Ocean Carolina is a New York based band now, Simone started his musical career in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which was a generative and buzzing scene. “We had Superchunk, COC, Archers of Loaf, Dillon Fence, The Connells, and a band called The Veldt that was my favorite,” Simone says, listing several bands that had national success. After chasing Peele Wimberley (of The Connells) down and convincing him to drum on some of his music, Simone started developing more of his own original material. After recording with Wimberley and a bassist named Des White, who was the soundman for The Veldt, Simone wound up playing bass and guitar for The Veldt. “They had just finished recording [Afrodisiac] with Ray Schulman in the UK for Polygram, and were about to do a string of dates that their bass player couldn’t make…without even one rehearsal, one week later, I’m playing a sold-out show as the bass player for my favorite regional band at the iconic Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill,” Simone says.
He wound up staying with The Veldt for several years and eventually met Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins. He had an opportunity to record in Guthrie’s space in London, which was big considering that the Cocteau Twins were his favorite band at that moment, but his trip to London forced him to examine where his passion was headed: “I had gotten into the habit of going to raves in the early ‘90s,” he says, and, “I’m not sure if it was the vinyl I bought or the extra time I had alone to wander around London, but the idea popped into my head that maybe instead of spending the money to rent out part of the Cocteau’s studio, maybe I should go back home, invest the money I had in a computer studio set up where I could record my own alternative music, and give it a go at making some of the electronic music I had been feeling…so I changed my flights, came back home, and built my first real home studio set-up.”
Simone’s decision might seem rash, but it explains the unique quality and thread that runs through all of his music: he learned from his experiences and he took them home to synthesize into his own sound instead of just mimicking the sounds and ideas around him. Sometimes his independence and ability to create on his own seems to throw momentary roadblocks in his way, but each stage in Simone’s career has helped to form the sound and personality of Ocean Carolina.
So to learn the software and to experiment with a new genre of interest, Simone began to work on dance music. As he stumbled further and further into an EDM career as a producer, he found a tribal drum number he had produced—Drumz 4 Better Daze—had a life of its own. “Next thing I know, the song is getting licensed and remixed, picked up by other labels, and I’m suddenly sitting on a career as an electronic music producer,” Simone says. Because the record actually sold over 250,000 copies, he wound up DJ’ing raves and warehouse parties, and finding his music in demand.
He knew this wasn’t the kind of art he wanted to make, though, and despite success finding him early, Simone realized that he wanted to get back to basics as a singer/songwriter. “Jeff Buckley was pretty much my everything at the time,” he says. “I looked up who had been representing Jeff before he passed, made some phone calls, booked a flight to NYC and procured [his lawyer] George Stein as my attorney.” Since he first began learning the keyboards back in middle and high school, Simone has been dedicated to a life of music. Moving to New York City and putting himself in contact with people who were interested in singer/songwriters would be the choice that defined the next step in his career.
New York is hardly an easy place to live for anyone, though, especially a burgeoning artist. Simone fronted and produced a band called Seems So Bright that had a following and a reputation as a small band putting on big shows. They spent nearly five years working on their craft before they settled on a label and a manager - however, like so many bands, that was the beginning of the end. For the first time in his life, Simone was considering quitting music altogether.
It took another artist, who hired Simone to produce her music, to bring him back to the basics of song writing and construction. Though she decided after completing their album, not to continue on in music, she’d had a massive impact on Simone, who had started listening to classic musicians and acquired a “newfound love of all this music [he’d] never taken the time to listen to—Bruce, Willie, Merle, Waylon, etc.” Those musicians and their indelible voices convinced him it was time to make a record that was true—and in 2009, Simone began writing and producing under Ocean Carolina with that in mind.
The band has been forming and re-forming since its inception, but a few players have always remained key: Simone himself, of course, but also his bassist Alex Cox. “I’ve known Alex for 23 years now, so as with any musical project I decide I want to start, he’s the first phone call I make. That guy is basically the brother I never had,” Simone says. He has also worked with Jon Graboff (whose pedigree includes being a member of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals as well as recording pedal steel for Willie Nelson, Noel Gallagher, and many others)—in fact, Simone actually began talking to Graboff a few nights after seeing him play in the Cardinals. “I told myself, ‘I need to get that guy and capture his live sound over songs that blend my love of bands like the Cure with everything new in my listening wheelhouse,” says Simone. “I introduced myself and asked him if he might be into playing on a project I had in mind.” Despite not having any songs yet, Simone’s bravery paid off—and after writing and recording “Hot Lights” that weekend, he was able to secure Graboff’s involvement, too. The band that would record their first full-length record was slowly forming.
All the Way Home featured some amazing musicianship and work, but it was an arduous recording process for Simone, who tried to capture the sincerity and the lightning of the music he was falling in love with using his own production techniques. “The songs were done, but I couldn’t get the album to sound like I wanted it to…I ended up having the drums re-cut three different times as basic tracks and then painting the layers of everything else over the entire album. This is the problem with making music inside of computers,” he says: “once you have the content, you can always add more parts, and mixing can go on until you don’t have a clear perspective of what you’re doing anymore.” Though the lyrics were well-crafted and the music was beautiful, Simone wanted something more dynamic for his next record: “I truly did mix the life out of that album. I still love it and have a huge emotional attachment to the final recording, but it’s a bit flat and linear compared to how the band sounds live.” He decided that the next record would be pure, unadulterated singer/songwriter rock.
Using all of the techniques he’s learned from his career—from production, keyboards, synth, rhythm, guitar, and earnest songwriting—Simone began the recording process for Maudlin Days, a record that has more in common with ‘70s alt-rock or Southern rock than anything else. The songs are sincere and honest, but they also capture the energy and spark of Ocean Carolina’s live performances. “For the first time, I just wanted to be the guy who showed up in the studio with my guitar and played and sang my songs with a band and capture that,” he said. “We were lucky enough to get Jon Graboff involved as a producer and second guitar…and we knocked out the entire thing in eleven days. Jon was adamant on making sure we stuck to the tradition of making albums the way they used to be made,” Simone says. Maudlin Days also features drummer Tony Leone, who is a touring member of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and has played with Levon Helm and Phil Lesh, as well as Dave Wanamaker, a guitarist who has been in many bands including Expanding Man and Loveless as well as playing as a solo artist. Michael’s passion for music and songwriting—everything from Prince to Led Zeppelin, The Cure to Waylon Jennings, and Jeff Buckley to The Smiths—shine through and combine to create a unique voice. “It was a whirlwind, and looking back, I can’t believe we actually pulled it off,” he says, but even this is a familiar tale: few musicians relax and trust their ability and process. Maudlin Days is an exercise in giving up control and allowing the music to be what it’s meant to become.
Artist Biography by Katie Darby Mullins