Over the many decades of pop music, many a talented American musician/artist has had to leave the homeland to find an appreciative audience.
Rock legends such as Jimi Hendrix, scores of blues and jazz artists and even eventual global pop stars such as the Black Keys (they’ve been huge in Australia for years) and U.K. favorites Kings of Leon found more initial success and work on other continents.
Akron/Kent band Simeon Soul Charger have spent the better part of a year successfully living and rocking in Germany, based in a small village about 40 minutes outside of Munich. After toiling away for a few years in local bars and clubs, the quartet of singer/guitarist/keyboardist Aaron Brooks, drummer Joe Kidd, guitarist Rick Phillips and his bass-playing brother Spider Monkey have played more than 180 shows throughout Germany and Europe in the past 18 months.
That’s not bad for a band of Ohio boys whose progressive and slightly psychedelic brand of rock, as heard on the 2012 album Harmony Square (recorded in Germany), is not the most popular genre in Europe, where digitized, four-on-the-floor dance music is often king.
So how did the Bavarian odyssey of Simeon Soul Charger begin? It started in 2009 with unlikely combination of luck, timing and an unabashed German fanboy on holiday.
In 2009, SSC was just another local band scraping for gigs with an eponymous debut EP under their belt. The band had just lost their guitarist, neither Spider Monkey nor Phillips had yet joined the band and they were on a “difficult” Midwest and East Coast tour as a trio of Brooks, Kidd and former bassist Jim Garibaldi.
“We went out as a three-piece, and we’d already been on the road for about a month and we were all tired and tired of being on the road at that point,” singer Brooks said.
The band was playing a double-header, with a show at one venue at 9 p.m. and another at midnight at hip New York live music spot Arlene’s Grocery. The night had been going badly; Brooks left his guitar and Kidd left a drum pedal at the previous venue, Arlene’s soundman knocked over Brooks’ keyboard during sound check, and then had trouble getting the sound to work.
“It was a legitimately dark time for us,” Kidd said.
Despite the night’s awful start, it ended up as “the best show of the entire tour,” according to Brooks. More importantly, two of the members of the very small crowd were Bernd Buchberger and his cousin Helga, on holiday from Germany.
Buchberger had heard of Arlene’s Grocery and decided to check out the slate of five bands scheduled to play.
“The last band was called Simeon Soul Charger, which we usually don’t want to listen, because ‘soul’ was never my game,” Buchberger said by email.
He and his cousin were on their way out the door when a stranger suggested they wait for the last band.
“For some reason Helga and me followed that guy’s word and waited for this last band that night. After a few seconds of their opening song Sitting on the Rainbow, I was already a fan of this band,” Buchberger said.
“It was a shocking thing (in a very positive way) to listen to this epic songs of their debut EP. After round about 40 minutes I just wanted to talk to these amazing guys and say ‘thank you for that great performance’ and this completely new style of music,” he said.
Invitation to Bavaria
The Germans were scheduled to fly home the next day. “But Helga and me were infected and decided to cancel our flights back home and switched it to the next day to be able to see the next show,” he said.
The following night, resplendent in their new SSC T-shirts, Buchberger, a graphic designer whom Brooks describes as “kind of a spastic, really excited, happy guy,” asked the band if they would come to Bavaria.
“You hear stuff like that a lot when you’re on the road — please come to my city, come to my state — and of course we’d love to go everywhere, but it’s just not realistic for us at all,” Brooks said.
Buchberger was undaunted and after several email and Skype conversations, he had booked the band for a small two-week tour in spring 2010, with enough guarantees to pay for the group and their gear to fly to Munich and stay with one of his relatives. During that initial tour SSC also transfixed a pine cone farmer and major holiday wreath distributor named Bernhard Schauer, who climbed on board the train, collaborating with Buchberger to manage the band.
The band returned home, recorded their second full-length Meet Me in the Afterlife, and a few months later returned to Germany for what was initially going to be a three- to six-month stay, living in an old uninhabited hops farm house acquired by Buchberger. (Phillips had joined in 2009, Spider Monkey in 2010 after the first German tour.)
“Six months kind of came and went and we decided to stay,” Brooks said. “We didn’t even really talk about it or anything, we just sort of did it because we were able to make a living there. We were able to sustain ourselves and more show dates kept coming in. We were getting bigger opportunities, and it just seemed like the smart thing to do because we like it out there, we’re having a good time and we have great friends there, so we stayed,” he said.
Now, Simeon Soul Charger has performed throughout Germany and in the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Italy and Austria, and they’re planning to add France, Belgium and the U.K. to their 2013 itinerary.
Second album for band
While in Germany, they recorded their second full-length album, Harmony Square, in Kreischsage Studio (roughly translates as “screaming saw”) owned by their soundman, who gave the band unlimited time there.
All of the members write together, but credit Phillips (who recently got a work permit as a recording engineer) and Spider Monkey (who still does production work for Northeast Ohio-area groups) with shaping the record’s big rock sound.
Musically, the ambitious concept album can be called “prog-rock” — it does begin with an Overture — but the 15 tracks don’t rely only on technically dazzling displays of furious flurries of notes, or difficult-to-tap-your-toes-to time signatures and shifts in meter, though both aspects are present. Instead the band weaves Brooks’ keening vocals and melodies through a mix of rock riffs, a few classical flourishes courtesy of a string trio and Phillips’ girlfriend, Cindy Robertson, on flute, and some recurring catchy musical themes. The sound places them closer to Jethro Tull and Queen than King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
“There’s a lot of crossing influences but we’re coming from really different backgrounds,” said Phillips, a lover of classic rock who inherited his love of a good crunchy riff from his Black Sabbath-loving mother. He was a founding member of longtime area psychedelic jam band The Waterband.
“If you mean ‘prog’ in the sense of progression, I think you can look at it that way,” said Kidd, who grew up on hip-hop, punk, indie rock, grunge, and his dad’s music in The Loons.
“I think our sound comes from necessity, it comes from what we want to play and what we want to hear and we always want to push forward with what we’re writing and what we’re doing and we’re always challenging each other to the brink of the end of the world,” he said.
Simeon Soul Charger’s work visas are good through 2014 and they plan to keep vacillating between Europe and the U.S. Though they aren’t quite rock stars, they are appreciating every moment.
“We’re in a really cool part of the journey with the band, getting new experience all the time. The lifestyle is still really humble, but the shows are really fun and we are able to make a living doing it,” Brooks said.
“We get to play festivals with 10,000 people at them and then the next week we’re playing in front of 40 people in a basement of a bar,” Kidd said. “It is a kind of a cool journey in that way.”