Jake Simmons, of the Kalamazoo band Jake Simmons & the Little Ghosts, describes his band's sound pretty simply: straight up rock-and-roll. And Simmons looks the part. Simmons looks the part – when he came into the WMUK studios, he was dressed in a torn-up leather jacket, with diesel oil still splattered on his hands. It’s a look shaped by a childhood growing up in South Haven, and a blue-collar job working in his dad’s scrapyard.
Simmons says growing up in a rural town on Lake Michigan didn’t make playing music easy.
When I first came to South Haven, there were older bands playing ska and punk music at the Art Center. And a lot of my friends were super into that, some of them were in the band, their older brothers were into these bands, everybody really wanted to start a band and play music, which worked for me, because I was thinking in that same line.
Eventally, Blue Star Music opened up and became Foundry Hall, and we were lucky we had that because we had this big room, lots of sound, loud stage, we could just go play some shows every weekend. And if we didn’t have that, I don’t know if we would have kept playing music.
But Simmons did keep playing music. His days were set. Wake up early, get to work at 7:30, head home at 4:30. Then walk downstairs, grab his guitar, and start playing.
Eventually, though, Simmons realized something. The shows he was playing on the weekends – those became the thing he lived for. And he needed to try to make that his full time job, in a bigger city – Kalamazoo.
"It’s scary to decide you’re going to leave work and not know where your money’s going to come from," Simmons says. "Especially at that point, I didn’t really have anybody who was going to hear me. Luckily, [his dad's scrapyard] was a family-owned business, so I could make money for a couple days. But it was still scary."
It became a little less scary when Simmons settled down in the city, and his band – Jake Simmons and the Little Ghosts -- started to take shape. Their sound was kind of all over the place. Hints of rock and roll, punk and Americana all mixed together. Soon, they grew, heading on tours across the Midwest and making fans in places like Indian and Ohio.
But a few years ago, music took on a new meaning for Simmons. Instead of spending his free time in his basement, fooling around with a guitar, Simmons found himself in a hospital waiting room for weeks on end, looking after one of his closest friends.
"A lot of the last record, I wrote over the course of the two years prior -- a lot of that record was more inspired by a friend in the hospital who ended up passing away," Simmon says. "And the months before that happened, my girlfriend and I were just in the hospital, staying there with his family."
The long nights changed Simmons. When he sat down to write music, with his sick friend only a few feet away, he knew he couldn’t just sing about the mundane subjects he wrote about before. This time, it had to be more personal.
"Everyone’s had family they’re close to pass away," he says. "But this was the first really, really close friend that I’ve had pass away. And especially at this age, where we did so much together. Lived together, did everything together. So a lot of the stuff I had written earlier was just, you’re mad at somebody, girls, politics. But when something like that happens, it makes a song a lot harder to sing later on, and it’s a lot more gratifying."
That music gradually turned into the material for Simmons’ latest album, called No Better. When you listen to the album, you can tell it’s a lot different from Simmons’ past stuff – more focused, and darker. It’s right there in some of the songs, with names like “The Superstition” and “All My Friends are Dead,”
Simmons says there’s one particular song that he remembers writing:
The last song on that album is called Little Dagger, Little Sweetness. And that one is partly about that situation and partly focused on my own shortcomings and friends having a hard time outside. A lot of negative stuff. It’s a song trying to push all this negative stuff, to come up with a positive.
Right now, Simmons is working on two more albums, and he says they couldn’t be more different. The first album, he says, has that same kind of feeling as his band’s last release, with a lot of dark themes. But the other album, he says, will go in a separate direction.
"I think on No Better, we hint on these little tangents that we used to just go on, full on. And we’re getting back to that," he explains. "On our first record we had a straight up soul song, and punk songs and super noisy things, and one of the records is more rock and roll and punk oriented, and the other is more soulful and heavier."
Simmons says the reason for that changing sound is where he’s at in his life right now. Instead of hospital rooms, Simmons is back at work at the scrap yard, taking over his dad’s operation. And surprisingly, he says, the job actually inspires him.
"You hear something, your mind just kind of goes off on a little tangent, this and that, and comes up with something yourself. All day," he says.
Simmons continues: "Yeah, I’ve got a little notepad on my phone and a sound recorder and everything. And if I have what I think is a good idea for a lyric, I’ll take off my gloves and stop what I’m doing, and sometimes it’ll stop the people around me. But I got an idea and I got to get it down! And sometimes I’ll just hum a melody to myself when I have other people around, I’ll just stop and sing through my phone."
He admits it’s not necessarily the most conventional way of songwriting. But it’s a process that’s helping Simmons get over his friend’s death, and keep performing, too.
Jake Simmons & the Little Ghosts will play Bell's Eccentric Cafe on Thursday, January 21st.