Erick Thomas is the founder of and lead guitarist for Harlen Simple. The four piece band out of Virginia also features Travis Williams (vocals), Kenny Morrow (bass), and Ricky Coleman (drums). Their album Pay Up Charlie from Potomac Records mixes rock, funk, blues, and soul in delightfully eclectic fashion.
Since there isn’t a lot known of you yet, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a pretty laid back guy, or at least I think so. I’m a big music junky so my nights off from playing are spent checking out friends of mine who play and sitting in if they’ll have me. When I’m not doing that, I’m in my backyard with friends smoking racks of ribs, arguing about sports and talking about music while my dogs run around.
I’m also pretty sure I’ve got the world’s most patient wife, Aimee, who puts up with all of the craziness that comes with being married to a guy in a band. It’s late nights, crazy schedules and the general drama that comes with the music business. It’s not the go to Ikea and the farmers market on Saturday’s kind of lifestyle. It’s the “let’s go get tattoos and go run with bulls or something” kind of life.
I’ve also got an amazingly smart and beautiful daughter who has the music bug already. Her name is Jasmine and she’s playing drums now. I told her to pick an instrument where she doesn’t have to lug so much gear around but her heart was set, kind of like mine. Aimee is also pregnant with our son. The little butterball will be out in the world in a few months.
What did you enjoy most about growing up in Virginia?
I’m actually a Maryland boy. I was born in Takoma Park and lived in Langley Park and Silver Spring before moving to Virginia when I was a teenager. At first I wasn’t a big fan, Manassas was one of those towns where you took the bus to school and your mom drove you to the mall. It was WAY different from hopping on the bus or taking the metro somewhere with your friends. Those teenage years are tough for anybody. Throw in moving away from everything you know and you get a kid that can be a little “rambunctious.” My mom was a saint! Eventually, I made a couple friends. One of the first ones was Travis (Williams). Now Virginia is home though. I can’t see myself leaving. I’ve got my little family and home life Aimee and I are building here. It’s somewhere you absolutely have to get back to no matter where you are in the world. That’s home to me.
Is it more difficult to get your music out there when you are based out of there as opposed to some of the more densely populated areas out there?
The bigger cities are definitely easier to get yourself heard by more people just because there are more people. But, there are a lot of ways to get yourself heard if you’re willing to put in the work. You have to talk to everyone you know, post and use social media, and most of all, play out. You have to get out there if you want to get heard by new ears. It’s much easier to promote gigs now. The world is a much smaller place. When we play, the day after we always see the follows and likes on the Facebook (www.facebook.com/harlensimpleband), Twitter(www.twitter.com/harlensimple). Instagram (@harlensimple) and Reverbnation (www.reverbnation.com/harlensimple). I wouldn’t have gotten a sponsorship with Steve Clayton (www.steveclayton.com) if it wasn’t for the internet. I doubt they would’ve been hanging out in Virginia and said, “we need to get that guy some picks and slide pieces!”
How is the local music scene faring in your particular area?
From where we stand it seems to be doing all right. There’s a ton of support out there in our little corner of the world. We’ve been pretty blessed with the fact that we’ve built a good rapport over the years with quite a few people in a lot of places. We don’t ever really have a shortage of gigs. The shows are out there. Sometimes you just have to work a little harder to find them. Our manager, Tom Downey, is the man when it comes to that. He’s magic, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to booking. We say we’d like to do something and it shows up on the schedule. I’m not even sure how he does it, and I stopped asking a couple years ago.
Who are some of your influences?
I’m kind of a musical mutt. I’m big on people with soul in the sense that you can hear and feel what they meant when you listen to that song. Otis Redding is a mainstay in my playlists. His voice can tear your heart out and put it back during a single song. Social Distortion is another big one. Mike Ness says what he means and he means what he says. They also happen to be amazing live. I love the Drive by Truckers too. They have written some of the most incredible story-telling songs of the last 20-30 years. Now Jason Isbell is solo he’s turning out some fantastic music too.
Bill Withers is another big one. Anyone who doesn’t own his Live at Carnegie Hall album is missing out. Who could forget Mr. Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, Allman Brothers, Phil and Friends and the Warren Haynes Band? I learned a lot from the mixing of different styles that Brad Nowell and Sublime loved to share. I remember hiding the Black Crowes Amorica album under my bed because of the original cover. What was on the inside was a thousand times better than what my mom didn’t like on the outside. Blind Melon might be one of the most underrated bands ever. Anyone who hasn’t gone deeper than the one song you know is doing yourself a major disservice. I’m all over the place, like I said, I’m a musical mutt.
What’s great I still find new bands I like – bands like Uncle Luscious and Lucero are two everyone should take a look at if they haven’t already. One of my favorite things about music is that it’s a thing that is constantly evolving. It has to. If it didn’t we would’ve already written all of the songs there were to write. If you ask me this question in 6 months the list would probably have a bunch of different names on it.
What first led you to pursue a life of music?
I have loved music since I was a kid. I always said I wanted to learn to play. I wanted to so much I talked my parents into getting me a white JB Player with a black pick guard for my 16th birthday. When I was 20, I had the aforementioned JB Player and an old Yamaha nylon string guitar sitting in my college apartment. One day I looked at them and decided it was time to figure them out. I ran to the computer lab and printed every music lesson I could find online and stuffed them in my backpack. I went home and played until my fingers bled every day.
It wasn’t one thing in particular. It was anything I could figure out. It could be a snippet of a Hendrix song, the solo on What I Got by Sublime, or the chord structure to The Man in Me by Bob Dylan. My poor roommates – I even got them playing guitar, I would teach them whatever random snippet I could teach them so they would play too. That way I didn’t have to stop playing so they could watch TV. It was off to the races after that and I haven’t put it down since. It consumed me. I’ve learned over the years you never figure it out. You’re always chasing a sound, trying to find that something missing, racking your brain about what you need to learn or do to fix what doesn’t sound right.
Side note: I need to thank Doug and Brinkman, my roommates. I’m not sure if you have any idea what a guitar sounds like that hasn’t been tuned and propped up in a corner for 4 years. If you do they deserve more than a thank you.
Where do you think you’d be today if you hadn’t discovered the power of music?
If it all stopped now I’d probably open up a catering business or a restaurant with the wife. I love to barbeque and Aimee is an amazing cook too! That’s why I’m a lot skinnier in old pictures of myself. I would definitely go fishing a lot more than I do now. I used to go out on the Chesapeake Bay with my dad a couple times a year for rockfish, croaker, red drum, crabs, sea trout and blue fish. If I could get it into the boat I was going to get it into my belly. The Bay is such a peaceful place, one of those “Zen type” places for me. Music is the only thing in my life other than my family that I know though. If I were catering or out on a boat, that old blue guitar of mine wouldn’t ever be too far away.
How did Harlen Simple come about? Can you tell us a little more about that?
Harlen Simple was conceived in a living room, grew up in a garage and cut its teeth in every smoky bar in Northern Virginia. Travis and I were sitting in my living room one day as I was trying to figure out the intro to “Rivers Of Babylon.” Something about the timing or the pattern that day was giving me fits. I had only been playing for about a year at this point and getting stuff like that down would make me crazy. He was ready to go somewhere, and we weren’t leaving until I got the song down. As the muddled notes continued he decided it was time to help. I was playing it “right-ish” but I wasn’t following it enough. Then he started singing…he didn’t just sing, he belted it out. I think I said something like, “Well, it looks like we’re starting a band,” and so it began…
We spent the next 2 years playing anywhere that would have us. It was a lot of open mics, playing at 11 am for all day charity events, playing for free in pizza places or any other place that would have us. We weren’t very good. Actually, we weren’t any good. But we had some potential and we weren’t going to go away. I spent a lot of time at those open mics asking other players how they got their tone, how they played certain songs and what can I do to get better? Travis spent time getting pointers from our friend Brian Barr. He was the lead singer in a band with Kenny at the time – The Truth Hurts Band. Brian would also helped me write some of Harlen Simple’s most popular songs such as I’ll Shine.
Right around that two-year mark things started making sense. We started getting paying gigs and we were getting better. At the same time Kenny became available. The Truth Hurts had broken up, his other band wasn’t playing as much as he’d like and he wanted to get out and play. Josh Marsh, a high school friend started us off and then our second bass player, Dave Garcia had to bow out. We ran into Kenny and he said he needed something. We spent the next couple years screwing with the lineup. Dustin Nadeau played saxophone for us, Mike Wagner was drumming, Ian Maynard played guitar too. We started traveling. We made a couple of road trips to New Hampshire, New York City, Pittsburg, and then it took a little downturn. Ian left to start his own project, Mo (Dustin) and Mike tendered their resignation shortly after. We had to go find a new drummer. Eventually we found John Peterson, and we grew even more. John was there the first time we played the world famous 9:30 Club.
John left when he had to take care of some family stuff. We were left with a full schedule and no drummer. We had 2 days to find a drummer to play a gig up in West Virginia and then film a TV performance the following day somewhere in Maryland. Kenny and I were just about to cancel the shows when we remembered a drummer we had played with back in the open mic days. Enter Ricky Coleman. He agreed to do the gigs, we burned a couple of CD’s and let him listen to them in the car on the way to the gig in West Virginia.
14 years, 3 trucks, 1 bus, and I couldn’t even fathom a guess at how many shows later, here we are.
What do you hope fans take away from your work?
The stuff we write is our heart and soul coming out. These songs are written about someone, something that happened, something we lived through, or something that just got stuck in our craw and the only way to get it out is a song. I just hope that people can relate. Life happens to everyone – sometimes it’s good sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes it’s funny. It’ll make you insane. But it’s ALL emotion. If something we’ve written can get someone through a tough time or be the song people are sitting around singing at a cookout loud and out of tune having a blast, then we’ve done our job.
What can they expect from your album Pay Up Charlie?
This one is pretty unique. It was recorded in 3 different studios over some time and it runs the gauntlet for us. They’re all tunes different from one another. Codeine & Cognac is about being a stuck in a rut with chaos all around you and trying to figure it all out, all the while knowing you’re screwing up but not really changing anything about it. In Your Shoes was about a guy I used to work with that was just a general pain in the ass. Everything he did was the greatest thing ever done in the history of the world at a menial job. The song is kind of tongue and cheek – “If I was as good as you were at everything I might be able to fill your shoes.” The music came about because Kenny had been playing this reggae lick in D minor in practice. I started to toy with it. The bass line had an awesome amount of space I could fit that lick inside. It also helps we recorded it at Golden Sound Studios up in Kensington, MD. Scot (Harlan) is a hell of a producer.
Oh Me we did down at Studio 77 outside of Fredericksburg, VA with our buddy Yarley. He’s got this really cool studio at his house with a big open room downstairs. We were able to record in the same room together, so there’s a feeling of unity complete with imperfections that give it tons of personality. It was old school recording – no digital, no Pro-Tools. What you hear is what you get.
Then there’s Naked Stephen. Travis and our friend Jesse Guay recorded it with my father-in-law, Scot Lienke, up in the mountains at his cabin near Front Royal, VA. A few years ago I was at the beach where we rented a house with my little brother and his friends in Topsail, NC. One night after a few too many grown up drinks clouding the judgment of our grown up choices, we took a walk on the beach. At some point in the walk, our friend Stephen decided streaking was a good idea. The problem was his drunk-ass forgot where the beach house was and he took off in a full sprint. He lost us in less than 5 minutes. We eventually found him the next day hiding in a bush in the marshland, all chewed up by mosquitoes and whatever other critters live in the marsh on the backside of the island. The lyrics tell the story in chronological order.
Who do you consider to be some of the best living guitarist of our time?
I’m not sure what you would consider “our time.” I love guys that have an identifiable sound. Warren Haynes is one of my all-time favorites – his Les Paul coming through that Soldano amp – is instantly identifiable. Billy Gibbons is way up there as well. I love how he phrases what he plays. The turn around on “Waiting for the Bus” has power like a hot rod shifting gears. It levels off and then goes right back into a verse lick that is so fun to play. I can spot a Mike Ness Song in two seconds or less. Dropped tuning with the capo on the second fret gives his tunes such a great tone.
I love how well Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley play off of each other; they’re a two headed monster. Anders Osborne is a madman. He does some stuff I catch myself replaying 20 seconds of one of his songs over and over again asking myself “How in the hell did he do that?” Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes has done incredible work. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to play along with him and failed miserably. There are so many. Gary Clark Jr. is a new guy but an old soul. I can’t wait to hear what he’s going to come out with next.
Are there any little known things about you that our readers might be surprised to learn?
I still can’t read music and I can’t remember the last time we wrote a set list. Instead we talk to each other while we play. If a song ends in E and we’re feeling a groove we roll into the next song to keep it moving. I wouldn’t call myself and adrenaline junky, but I’ve been known to go skydiving, bungee jumping, the aforementioned running with bulls, etc. I’m a big fan of life I guess, and there’s no better way to feel like you’re alive than doing something that might kill you and living through it.
Where do you hope to see your career in music led you next?
I’m not banking on anything, after doing it for this long I know that expecting anything is a recipe for disaster. I would love to get a chance to play with some guys that have influenced me. I would love the opportunity to open up for some guys who have paved the way for guys like me, or at least buy them a beer.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m writing for a new Harlen Simple album. I’m one of those guys that can’t write until I live a little. I need to have something to talk about or to get off my chest. I’ve been tinkering with other instruments as well – keyboards, bass, lap steel, etc. Different instruments enable you to say things another way. I’ve toyed with the idea of finding a band to play bass with on the side, bass players have a cool vibe about them, maybe I’ll go get a little gig doing my best Aston Barrett or Fred Thomas impersonation and people will think I have that cool vibe too.