Cover Story: Unchained Melodies

The Simpletons ready their debut album as their memorable songs draw in more and more local fans

Jon Hughes/

The Simpletons: (l-r) Mark Diedrichs, Eric Diedrichs, Jamie Hurtubise and Nate Hickey

If you've ever been to an average Rock band's rehearsals, you know what an odd and unique experience they can be. Between playing the songs over and over, there's usually a couple of breaks, some beers and a few off-color jokes that are meant to stay in the room.

Tonight's no different. The Simpletons, a Cincinnati Power Pop band that's quickly becoming one of the bigger draws in the city, are running material old and new, preparing for their headlining slot at this Saturday's Popopolis '99 music festival at the Southgate House.

The Simpletons songs are the kind that will creep into your consciousness for days and have you wondering, "What the hell is that?" They're the kind of songs that can run through your mind so heavily you can't fall asleep — not the best thing for the observing, insomnia-prone writer who's sitting in on this night's rehearsals.

The band takes a quick break from running a new song, "The End," an up-tempo rocker with a bit of Stones-y swagger and boogie. The band's practice space happens to be in the basement of the Beechmont home that three of the members share. Bottles of MGD are popped and the concerned hosts offer earplugs to the prying journalist before heading back to the basement. The plugs are politely declined, but drummer Nathan Hickey insists.

"We all wear them," he says. "It gets really loud down there."

The band's practice space is a sectioned-off, 7-by-12-foot block of their basement. The room is sound-proofed and the band has been practicing here for quite some time, but they still ask if I could hear the noise coming up the driveway. I tell them it's fairly muffled, but, yes, it is audible. Singer/guitarist Eric Diedrichs then offers a story about the previous weekend when he was drunkenly doing doughnuts in the backyard on his motorcycle and taking riders out with him for a spin. If the neighbors didn't complain about that, the band decides, a little muted music probably won't set them off.

The jokes abound. That's how the story will start off, they say: Eric, drunk on a motorcycle. Another joke about practice ending in an intra-band orgy also sets off gaggles of laughter.

"This story will be like a Penthouse forum: 'I never thought this would happen to me ...,' " one of them offers.

The band's tightness is apparent in how they interact with each other without the instruments on. But as we return to the lair, the members know it's time to get back to the job at hand. While not taking themselves too seriously, the band diligently work on another new song, "You're Only One," a "Harvest Moon"-like bouncer that, by the third time through, sounds nearly completed, with each band member offering up arrangement ideas.

In many ways, The Simpletons are like a lot of Cincinnati bands. They're putting out their own CD in the next couple months, and they talk about setting a date for a record release party by the end of December just so they can have a deadline when they'll have to have the album ready. And they all seem to be having a blast, just the four of them, playing music. When the new song inches toward becoming complete, there is genuine enthrallment in the room.

In the past 20 years, Cincinnati has had a good history of good songwriters and solid Pop performers, starting with The Raisins and Psychodots and on up through more recent acts like The Tigerlilies and Roger Klug. With an ever-expanding fan base and a seemingly endless supply of excellent songs to build on, The Simpletons are poised to be next in that impressive lineage.

The Write Stuff
The Simpletons played their first show around Christmas of 1995, splintering off from a mostly-cover band called The Embarcaderos that had found some success in the local bars. Diedrichs and his older brother, guitarist Mark, along with high school pal, bassist Jamie Hurtubise, had simply grown tired of playing other people's music and decided to build on the few originals they had written with their previous band.

Besides having to write songs, the new group had to decide who would be the singer (the old band had a lead singer who handled all of those duties, except for some back-ups). The other two decided Diedrichs was the man for the job. His dedication to this new endeavor was immediately apparent.

"I had a bitch of a time at first," he recalls, sitting at a Corryville restaurant the night after rehearsal. "I locked myself in my room and taught myself, singing straight through a guitar. And it was awful. I could always sing and play, sing back-ups pretty good, but just hearing your voice back, and hearing it back through an amp, sounded so bad that, until it sounded halfway decent, I just kept doing it over and over."

Once Diedrichs' pipes were up to his standards, the band played out around the local club scene. While fans of their old band came out at first, the audiences started to wane slightly. The band eventually made the decision to cut ties with their original drummer, who, Diedrichs says, just didn't fit in personality-wise with the rest of the band. They then took a break from playing, which seemed to only fuel Diedrichs' desire to write more and hone his songwriting craft. It's when Diedrichs says he hit his stride.

"I set up my life to where I had all my days open (to work on writing)," he says. "And when we moved into our house with our practice space, I had a place to go. I always need to be way away from everything to write. There's the ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) for you — I always would just get too distracted. But everyday, I got up, would go do something, then come home and start writing. And it's still pretty much like that."

The hiatus came to an end, almost exactly one year ago, when the band signed on to perform at the first annual Popopolis event. The group knew of drummer Hickey from playing with his previous band, Banjo. They asked him to play the Popopolis show with them, with the idea that he was a fill-in and they'd continue trying drummers out afterwards. But the show went very well and the chemistry clicked with Hickey, so they decided the drum throne was no longer vacant.

"Now we're a band," Diedrichs emphasizes. "We're all friends. We all hang out. We all are insanely, intensely into the same things."

With the group intact and stronger than ever, Diedrichs was free to continue making songwriting his life, a good sign for anyone serious about Pop music. Along with his daily rituals, he began attending local open mic nights around town, sometimes just observing, often trying out new material. This eventually led to his taking over the Tuesday night Songwriter Night at Allyn's Café (previously hosted by Brian Lovely), which he does to this day. Diedrichs uses the night to not only test out material that usually ends up becoming Simpletons songs, but also to give other local writers a chance to do the same and develop their own skills.

"There's a core group of people like Greg Mahan, John Kinney, Mike Landis, the guys from Promenade, that are down there all the time," Diedrichs says of the Tuesday nights. "It's great because everybody's in the same boat and everybody is so interested in hearing what's going on because they all have so much respect for each other."

He's quick to point out that his brother Mark also writes and co-writes songs and, as witnessed in practice, everyone contributes to the process, adding their ideas to the tapes Diedrichs gives them with new, nearly-completed songs. But his passion for writing (not to mention his talent for it) has pushed him into the leading role.

"Writing right now is what keeps me together," he says. "It's the number one most important thing in my life and if it's off, everything's off. I'm usually in a pretty good mood, and I'm pretty sure it's because writing is such an outlet, it's so therapeutic. Plus I know I want to do it so much and if I don't spend the time I need to spend on it, it messes up everything else."

Playing the Field
In Cincinnati, perhaps the hardest thing to do as a band (especially one that plays its own music) is to get a consistent audience, and that's something The Simpletons have been lucky enough to sustain, particularly in the past year. The group didn't just explode onto the scene, with friends and scenesters eager to check out the next cool thing.

"I'm glad that we weren't a big thing right at first," Diedrichs says. "Usually, when that happens, (audiences) just burn out right away. With us, it's been a really steady, slow build."

With the help of friend Todd Ethan, the band decided to step up its promotion for local shows. Diedrichs says they maintained a mailing list for fans, so that they could inform them of upcoming gigs, but he admits they slacked for a while, not unlike most local bands. Then they had a plan.

"After Popopolis (last year) we basically had an experiment," Diedrichs explains. "People were coming out, and we hadn't really been doing too much (promotion). So for one show we decided to just go to the wall and it made a huge difference so we were, like, 'There you go. That's what we need to do.' So since then the mailing list has expanded and we have tons of stuff promotions-wise, anything to get the name out. Stickers, whatever."

The band has also been somewhat fearless when it comes to playing different, unexpected venues. Instead of sticking with the usual spots a local Pop/Rock band might play, the band looks beyond the Clifton/Corryville bars without excluding them. The Simpletons have played everywhere from The BarrelHouse downtown to their neighborhood bar Adis' Place, which, surprisingly to the band, had to stop letting people in after 10:30 because it was so packed.

"I do like trying different places," Diedrichs says. "There's no reason why some of those people won't like us. If we don't get in front of them, how are (new people) going to be able to see us?"

When local bands struggle they usually have a few choice words for the local scene. But when a band is seemingly "doing well," does that change? Do The Simpletons think the local music front is nurturing?

"No," Diedrichs says immediately. "I don't really think there's a community at all. I've, in the past, tried to make some sort of 'family' of bands, where it's like, 'OK, we do this thing that's definitely not like what everyone wants to hear,' and then try and have everyone trade back and forth and feed off of each other. There's no chance. Everyone tries to separate, like, 'No, not that band.' "

"People tend to stick with what they know, both from an audience standpoint and from a band standpoint. I'll go and see this band or that band, and you'll see all of the same people at the same band's shows, but you'll never see any one of them separately at someone else's show. There's a 'scene,' but it's just spiraling little loops that never intersect."

Nothing But Time
The band's upcoming, self-titled CD was an entirely D.I.Y. affair, with local songwriter Mike Landis helping the band produce and engineer the tracks. The band recorded the album — which is set to include Simpleton favorites like "Place to Go," "Bye Bye Love" and the rare "Life Through a Pinhole Camera" — on an eight-track recorder in their basement/rehearsal space. The band members and Landis worked to give the songs a live feel but, though limited to how many overdubs they could do, they took the time to make sure every song had something special about it.

Having the basement studio allowed the band to pick over the songs whenever they had the chance, leading to a year-long process that is just now in the final mixing stages.

"(Musicians) are always like, 'I wish we had unlimited time. I wish we had a studio in our basement,' " Diedrichs says, laughing. "Then we were like, 'Wow, we have a studio in our basement!' And, boy, did that backfire. Because then there's no deadline to get it done."

With the disc finally nearing completion, the band is hoping to get even more people interested in their finely-crafted Pop sound, particularly people from out of town. Earlier this year, the group won the grand prize in the 97Xposure band competition, sponsored by Oxford's Modern Rock station 97X (97.7 FM). That "exposure" led to some interest from an unnamed major label rep, with whom the band has been in steady contact with ever since. With other contacts with label and industry people that they've made along the way, the band hopes to turn their little D.I.Y. effort into a catalyst for bigger things, landing them on some sort of label down the line. They also plan to tour a bit more and develop a regional circuit of playing, as day jobs allow.

Pop's Return
If Pop Rock music is due to come around again soon, as the cyclical nature of musical supply-and-demand hints at, The Simpletons are in the right place at the right time. With the history of Popular music this past decade, Diedrichs sees the Pop form's resurgence as inevitable.

"(Pop/Rock) has to come back," he declares. "With Grunge, there was a breakdown. Once it gets broken down like that and musicianship gets thrown out, where singing and playing your instrument get second chair to aesthetics and attitude ... people won't have it that way for too long. You can only do that for so long and then you really want to see talent in music."

As for other current bands he sees as leading the brigade, Diedrichs says he's most looking forward to the upcoming album from England's Supergrass, a young, crafty trio whose own Pop/Rock blend is something close to perfect. But he sees Radiohead as the potential savior of the genre.

"With OK Computer it was just, like, 'Thank God, someone can put out an album like this now,' " he says, nearly gushing. "They're Pop for sure, but I can listen to that over and over again, and the 25th time through, I'm still hearing stuff in the background or in the textures. Again, it's the return of musicianship in Pop. Other types of music, like Jazz, always have that — it's based on the musicianship. But when I listen to OK Computer, the subtleties and the way they play off of each other, and the sparse little notes that come in at certain times ... it's sooo well done."

Anyone who has heard a Simpletons song can probably name another one of their main influences: The Beatles. It's not that it's glaringly obvious in the music, but just that The Beatles crafty songwriting is a major touchstone that seemingly every good Pop band cherishes. Diedrichs says all of The Simpletons grew up on The Beatles, and the classics are where they draw the bulk of their inspiration, citing early Kinks, The Who, The Stones, and, perhaps least expectedly, Led Zeppelin.

"I was never really into Zeppelin, but that's one we've kind of gone back and rediscovered how unbelievable they were," Diedrichs says. "How much better of a singer could you have? How much better of a guitarist ... all of them were just incredible on their instruments. People just don't do it like that anymore."

As we wrap up dinner and finish off the last of our beers, Diedrichs says there are two things The Simpletons are sure of. One is that Led Zeppelin most definitely sold their souls to the devil. The second, fittingly, takes us back to the Fab Four.

"The Beatles were not human," he says, with almost unnerving seriousness. "They honestly weren't. To do what they did, there's something weird going on. They were put here by something to do what they did, or they're from another planet."

THE SIMPLETONS headline the second annual Greater Cincinnati Pop Festival, Popopolis, on Saturday at the Southgate House.

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