Sim F-expletiving Ross: Easy Truth to Redemption
Sim Ross is one of those guys who says the f-expletive for every possible expression of his temperament. Pissed. Happy. Mistaken. Excited. Wishing you a happy birthday. F-expletive. His Instagram handle is @simfuckingross. Dressed in tight black jeans, a navy chambray button up, and black boots, he reminds me of Jason Isbell, except with a beard and more tattoos, inked at a spot he used to hang around in his hometown of Cleveland. His band, Sim Ross & the Redemption, creates weighty, whole-souled, roots rock, Americana inspired music. I catch their set at the Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick.
Ross’s voice is distinctively gravelly and, with just this instrument, his guitar, and Jeff Erwin on keyboards, he beautifully delivers “I Need Time.” It transfixes us with its hauntingly familiar subject: “I need time / But I still need you around / Head is in the sky / While your feet are on the ground / Baby, baby, I can’t stay here with you.” The song is from Ross’s solo album, which will be released later this year. The rest of the set is full-throttle Sim Ross & the Redemption with all of its foot stomping, fist pumping, body rocking energy.
During the play out of almost every song during their performance, Ross turns his back to the audience and takes a sip of beer. Between songs he is engaging, grateful, and playfully self-correcting. Preparing for “Winding Rivers,” he accidentally clicks on his pedal, which turns off his guitar. Before realizing what he had done, he announces, “I have one pedal and I fuck it up. I can’t have nice things. It’s going to have a talking to.”
During the last verse of “Eden,” we find ourselves at a poetry slam when he hits us with, “We’re not polished silver, we’re made of brass / creating darkness for the mass / chewing on bits of broken glass / to make you swing, to make you shake your ass / to run away from your boring past / to break away from your social class / to revel in the silliness of all the sadness in the cold, stark, wet, angry world we live in / fly away from fucking Eden.”
“Time to multitask,” he explains pleasantly, putting on his harp. Looking over at Dan Powell, lead guitar, Ross satirically impersonates a stuffy office manager: “I’ll keep that in mind at the end of your performance evaluation.” As we laugh, he remembers something. “I got excited to play my own song. What a fucking asshole.” Their set list has them covering a Rolling Stones song next.
During “Happy,” the person in front of me taps his friend on the shoulder and pumps his fist in the air. Every head is bobbing to the sound of the rhythm, and then a lone man in a red knit cap can’t contain himself anymore. He begins dancing in the space between the audience and stage; others can’t help but join. Following the song, Ross points to the galvanizer to say, “Thank you man.” The spontaneous dancing between strangers continues throughout the rest of the set. “I’m glad people can have a good time at our shows, and I’m glad my songs get people moving,” Ross says. “Song, to me, is two major things really. Lyrics and music. So if it doesn’t get you moving, it has to get you thinking. I try to make for one or the other in every song. Sometimes both, if I get lucky.” A friend or fan, maybe both, throws a white rose on stage, pelting Ross on the chest.
We finally get the harp during the intro of “We Ain’t Kids No More,” but it’s not enough of it for me. I think about how I want to hear more of its bluesy sound as my eyes follow its descent down the neck of the mic. Ross’s throaty voice and lyrics pull me out of my reverie, “We ain’t kids no more, we get the lasting pain / we ain’t kids no more, it really pours when it rains / we ain’t kids no more, it’s our last chance to take the reigns / we gotta grab a hold and ride.”
A familiar tune emerges during Sim Ross & the Redemption’s final song. We hoot and whoop. They started playing “Stand by Me” two years ago when they had a monthly gig at Putnam’s Pub in Fort Greene and had to perform crowd pleasing covers. Ross uses it to introduce the band—Powell on lead guitar, Ryan Hall on bass, Bryan Langlotz on drums, and Erwin on keyboards. “I like everyone to know that we’re first and foremost a band, and they’re not just like hired guns.” For Ross, a collective, a committed group, is one of the most satisfying qualities in a band. To understand why, we need a little history.
From 16 to 22, Ross played in a hard and fast punk/rock band. “I don’t really like talking about the old band because it was like a first girlfriend that broke my heart and I’m a different person now.” The band was almost signed with Columbia Records. “Everyone (other than myself) was an amazing player, and it was basically a riff fest the whole time. Our drummer would play everything he ever learned all the time. Our bass player was a lead guitar player. Our rhythm guitar player was the most skilled musician in the band. So we split up. Too many brains, too many personalities.”
“I remember the moment the band broke up. I was living in this big three story, drafty, party house. I was sitting on a shitty beat up couch. Our manager, and our lawyer (yeah) were there glaring at us. I think I may have been the one that said, ‘I don’t want to be in this band anymore.’ It was fucking heart breaking. Everyone was so invested in it.”
It was during this time that Ross, who also began to write music at 16, learned what a song should be and, more so, what it shouldn’t be. Following the break up, he spent some years in Chicago, but found the music scene scarce. He was searching for something reminiscent of New York in the ‘90s when “all artists and musicians were doing their thing and not giving a fuck about getting approval from mass audiences. When an artist just continues to write what they want to write no matter what anyone asks them or tells them to do.”
When he moved to Flatbush four and a half years ago, what he found instead was “wealthy people pushing non-wealthy people further and further out of the city. To live in this city is to survive,” he says. “That’s really what it’s all about. Survival. I love and hate it here every single day.” Ross persists.
“I spent about seven years trying to figure out what I had to offer to music. I’ve had bands, none of which pleased me, or made any sense, until I got to New York. So many players in the city. So many bands to play in. It’s wildly unusual to find five guys that just want to play in one band. I can’t pay anyone anything. So when we get together and play some songs that we love, that has to be the payment,” Ross says of the band, which formed mainly through Craigslist. Once a week, they gather from their respective neighborhoods (Hall, Powell, and Langlotz live in Bushwick and Erwin lives in Brooklyn Heights) into a rehearsal studio in Williamsburg. A night owl, Ross writes most of his songs between five and eight in the morning, when he can’t sleep, and brings the songs to the band. “They give me their thoughts and we take it from there. I try to give them as much room to make the songs their own as possible,” he says.
“I’ve never been in a band that was so talented and grounded in the music, yet fun to be around. It’s a perfect balance of serious songwriting and hanging out with some truly insane dudes. I don’t see myself playing in any other groups as long as I’m in NYC,” says Hall, the bassist.
Ross’s writing is hugely influenced by musicians like Cory Branan, Steve Earle and, not surprisingly, Isbell. “Every song lyric I write, I try to make as sincere and true to what I want to say as possible. It tends to come out as really sad, but it’s honest to me, so I go with it.” When he thinks of artists who write the way they want to, he thinks of Branan, and “Earle,” he says, “is a bit of a hero of mine.” So much so that it inspired the name for the earlier version of the band, Sim Ross & the Easy Truth. Their old drummer came up with it after Ross drunkenly wrote ‘This Machine Screams the Truth’ on the back of one of his guitars. “An ode to Woody Guthrie via Steve Earle,” says Ross. “On the show Treme, Earle has this acoustic Martin that says ‘This Machine Floats’ referring to Hurricane Katrina.” Guthrie’s guitar said ‘This Machine Kills Fascists.’
When their old drummer moved to Austin, the band decided it was time for a new name and Powell came up with Redemption. “We all seemed to agree on it, and it stuck. Dan’s always trying to redeem himself after life altering mistakes he makes, so it’s fitting,” says Ross. Both themes continue to be present in their work, which they are in the process of recording now. Their first album will likely include everything they played at the Pine Box Rock Shop except “I Need Time.”
Sim Ross & the Redemption will be playing at the Cameo Gallery in Williamsburg on June 1 with The Sky Captains of Industry, Civil Youth, Sadek (Skitzopoetic), and Stabwounds. You can follow Sim on Instagram @simfuckingross.