Creatively speaking, J.D. Simo is not one to sit still. On 2016’s Let Love Show the Way, he and his trio – called, fittingly, SIMO – showcased their classic rock influences on a set of blues-stoked rockers recorded at the Allman Brothers’ famous “Big House” in Macon, Georgia. For their new album, Rise & Shine, the trio embarked on a different path, widening their sound to include smoldering soul ballads, Stax-flavored funk, and psychedelic-tinged instrumentals – all without severing the blues-rock roots from which they’ve always drawn.

The trio, which in addition to Simo includes Elad Shapiro on bass and Adam Abrashoff on drums, spent more than a month crafting the album, which was recorded in the band’s home base of Nashville. Working in the studio from mid-afternoon until the wee hours of the morning, they succeeded in producing their most eclectic set of songs to date.

JD Simms by Charles Daughtry

"If you go through my record collection and look at the more contemporary titles," JD explains, "you'll see the Roots, Wilco, Alabama Shakes, and Ryan Adams. I listen to a lot of old soul music, too. Isaac Hayes. Funkadelic. Bob Dylan. On Rise & Shine, I was just trying to cull from the vastness that is my normal music diet, and not trying to pander to some target that was easy to hit."

We spoke with Simo about the new record, his background as a session player, and the influences that brought him to where he is today.

Did you go into making this album with specific goals in mind -- things you wanted to accomplish that were a bit different, stylistically?

We did. Last year was insanely busy. I’ve toured a lot my whole life, but we were gone 300 days last year. While we were on the road, we started listening to lots of different types of music – world music, and more contemporary stuff, and classical music. We knew we were going to make a new record at the end of the year, and we were looking for creative stimulation. The main thing was, we knew we didn’t want to make something that was derivative, although we didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Can you tell us some specific albums you were listening to, things that affected the direction you took with the record?

As far as contemporary influences are concerned, Sound & Color, by the Alabama Shakes, was something that impacted us. I think it’s one of the best records of the past 20 years. Also D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which is an older record. We listened to both those albums a lot. There’s an Isaac Hayes album called Hot Buttered Soul that we listened to as well. I also introduced the guys to the music of David Axlerod – who made all these funky soundtrack records in the ‘70s. We didn’t necessarily want to make an album like those, but that was sort of the bar we set for ourselves. All those albums are really well-crafted, have really great arrangements and they sound incredible, sonically.

Much of the new album is groove-oriented, and there’s a lot of funk. I assume that had to do with the influences you just mentioned.

Yes. I hate to use the word organic, but that’s kind of how it happened. The consensus was, let’s try to make something that’s even better than what we think we can do. The time and effort that went into it, from the writing to the arranging, to the recording process to the mixing, was incredible. There’s one track on the record – “Meditation” – that I think we played 30-something times, until we got the right take.

Let’s talk about your background a bit. How important was it that you grew up in Chicago, with all that blues history around you?

I’m really proud to be from there. Mostly I’m just grateful to have grown up in a big city, in a place that has that much culture, and that kind of energy and buzz going on. As far as music goes, I had access to so much. When I was a little boy I used to go to the Chicago Public Library in Lincoln Park. You could get anything there – every album known to man. It was a great resource. We also had the Chicago radio station WXRT, which is still one of the best stations in the country. They were on the front end when Nirvana broke, and Pearl Jam, and all that kind of stuff – when I was growing up. Chicago was early to the party for all of that.

Which artists or albums were important to you as you were developing as a player?

I fell in love with Elvis when I was four or five years old. The Sun Sessions stuff he did – the music he made with Scotty Moore and Bill Black -- had a big impact. It was raw as hell. Even now it sounds like something from another planet. And then the Beatles, early on, were really big for me. I had the With The Beatles album – the one with their versions of “Money” and “Please Mr. Postman” and “Roll Over Beethoven” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” That’s the first place I heard that stuff – on that Beatles album. I would also put the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in there.

Of course later you went to Nashville and began doing lots of session work. Did that make you a more versatile player?

In some ways, yes. The main thing with session work is, you’ve got to be good at generating ideas, non-stop. That well can never be dry, because if you play something and they don’t like it, you’ve got to play something else. And if they don’t like that, you’ve got to come up with something else again. You’ve got to be able to redirect quickly and efficiently, do a “180” from whatever it was you were doing, until you get what they want. That doesn’t mean you’re jumping around stylistically – you just have to have a lot of ideas. That’s the muscle you work, as a session guy. There are lots of “live” guys who can learn parts and execute parts insanely well, but if you put those same players in a studio environment and ask them to do what I just described, a lot of them can’t do that.

Tell us about the guitars you used on the new album?

I really only used my main Gibson -- my ’62 ES-335. I pretty much used that on the entire record. I had lots of guitars on-hand, in the studio, and I used a couple of those here and there for overdubs, but the vast majority is just that one guitar. Every song had such a completely different setup. Every track was recorded differently from the one before it. And that was on purpose. I had detailed notes describing what I wanted each track to be like. “Red” – which is what I call my ES-335 – happened to be the most comfortable thing for me to use, no matter which amp I was using, or how I was miking it. It always did the job.

What about for live shows? Is your main go-to live instrument still the 1960 Les Paul Sunburst, the guitar you call “Candy”?

Oh, yes. That one’s hard to take out of my hands. I’ve got really nice guitars, but everything sort of begins and ends with that one. I do have a beautiful 1959 ES-345 that I use on-stage sometimes as well.

And for songwriting. Do you still write mostly on your J-50 acoustic?

Yes. That’s one of my favorite acoustics, for sure. I tend to keep things really simple.

One last question: there’s been some talk lately that the electric guitar might be losing its preeminence in contemporary music. What are your thoughts?

I think that’s ridiculous. I see bands and guitars everywhere. To me, when I look at the state of the electric guitar, I go toward things that I think are really great. Like Heath Fogg and Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes. They’re both great, creative guitar players who are out there in a big way, influencing millions of people. There are also people like Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline in Wilco, making great music and using the guitar in a different way. The same is true of Ryan Adams. I think we’re fine, as far as the state of electric guitar goes.

What’s next for you?

A lot of touring, again. Playing is so much fun. It always will be.

Photo: Charles Daughtry