STORY WRITTEN BY MICHAEL GOLDBERG
Escaping your past is no easy feat, as Kyle Simmons — better known around these parts as Boog — discovered on a recent Saturday night at Melodies Cafe in Ardmore. CLICK HERE FOR A PHOTO GALLERY
After nearly eight months in self-imposed exile, hermited away in his Phoenixville apartment to get both his head and his career right, and after more than a decade spent performing live in the greater Philadelphia area and around the country as a solo artist, Simmons was about to return to the stage as part of a three-piece, straight-ahead rock ‘n roll outfit.
Boog the band. For the first time ever.
But as he stood outside the venue with his new bandmates, bassist James Berg and drummer Matthew DiPaolo — all of them anxious for their debut — the promoter scurried up to him a few minutes before showtime. Something about the second band on the three-act bill didn’t show up, and could Boog play a longer set to make up for it, to give the crowd of a few dozen their ten bucks’ worth?
The trio, together for less than a month, had only worked up a tight eight-song set from their handful of rehearsals. The only way to pull it off was for Simmons to get up there, electric guitar slung around his wiry frame, and play a few tunes by himself; to be the Boog he no longer yearned to be.
Simmons, vexed, paced outside by himself for a few minutes, his lips pulling hard on a cigarette, before tossing the butt into the street, walking into the building and striding up to the stage, grabbing his sparkly red six-string while his bandmates took a seat at the back of the room.
Eyes closed, hands coaxing moody reverbed chords from his guitar, and his bedraggled, junkyard baritone slinging longshot blues shot through with heartbreak, longing, spite and remorse, Simmons seemed to find some comfort where he no longer thought it existed, and the handful of songs were met with plenty of applause as he smiled sheepishly.
Still, Simmons looked exceptionally relieved when it was time to bring Berg and DiPaolo up to the stage. The set was good, if tentative, but by the last two songs — the rowdiest of the batch — the threesome seemed to have found its footing and Simmons seemed ecstatic to be making noise onstage with a solid rhythm section pushing him forward and breathing new life into his compositions.
As the crowd whooped and cheered at the end, Simmons beamed. Out with the old, in with the new.
“The band is the heightened experience of what I do,” he says. “It’s Boog. It’s what I’ve been looking for for almost 10 years.”
It’s almost absurd to discuss Simmons in terms of “old” and “new.” He’s only 24 — an age where many musicians looking to make a career of their art are really just starting to get their feet wet, not looking to reinvent themselves after years in the trenches.
But Simmons, a native of Pottstown, has been at the music thing for almost half of his young life, starting out at age 13 playing original songs during open mic nights at places like Burlap and Bean in Newtown Square and Steel City in Phoenixville, finding a singing voice inspired by the bourbon laments of Tom Waits and the brooding sneer of Nick Cave.
Simmons has played prominent venues in Philly. He’s shared a stage with former Bad Seeds/Cramps guitarist Kid Congo Powers. He’s loaded up the car and toured nationally, making a few new fans along the way, if not any real money to speak of. He’s done a recording session in Illinois for the vaunted website Daytrotter, considered by many the American version of Britain’s Peel Sessions.
But along with those ups have come plenty of downs. An aborted stint as a student at Temple a few years back, which coincided with his failure to break into the city’s clique-y indie-folk scene — “I was basically the black sheep, and I didn’t want to fit in with what everyone else was doing,” he says. A string of warehouse jobs he felt were pulling him further away from his music instead of enabling it. Alienation. Confusion. Depression.
Through the good and the bad, though, Simmons has been incredibly prolific, recording dozens of LPs and EPs both on his home-recording set-up and at proper studios. Hundreds of songs. The vast majority of them really good to remarkable — visceral lyrics meeting compelling melodies meeting that idiosyncratic voice far too weird to win any vocal competitions but overflowing with hard-earned soul.
“I write songs and I play songs — this is who I am and what I want to do, what I need to do,” says Simmons. He’s friendly, likable and far from self-absorbed, but he’s certainly intense, especially when it comes to his music. It’s all-consuming. He recently texted a friend of his, a prominent Philly musician: “Do you have any hobbies?”
“Because I dunno, I don’t,” Simmons laughs. “This is it. I’ve never had a Plan B. I dropped out of college. This is what I do.”
The thing is, you never know what you’re gonna get from Boog. He made indie-folk-rock records with a warped Dylan bent for a while. But he refuses to be pigeonholed. He’s also made straight-up hardcore punk albums (under the pseudonym Greasy Headed Little Love Sister), cave-dwelling rockabilly tunes, and a self-described “low-down, down-on-your-luck country album” — just a small segment of his relentless genre-hopping.
Same goes for his live performances, which in the past have been polarizing. At a 2012 show in Philly, on a bill populated by genteel roots-rock bands calibrated for mainstream appreciation, Simmons hit the stage hidden inside a hoodie, barely said a word to the audience as he blasted through his set, scalding his vocals and attacking his acoustic guitar like it owed him money.
Some people seemed to dig it, but more than a few others looked at him like he’d just hurled a brick through their windshield.
Last fall, he says, he became fed up with the prevailing music communities in Philly and in the suburbs — he says his uniqueness and, admittedly, his disdain for perceived scenesters and fakes, was a liability as far as getting booked. Or making friends with other bands. So, refusing to compromise his art, he shut it down for a while, at least as far as playing live shows.
“It’s at the point where the mob rules, the scene rules, and if you want to get anywhere you have to do the ‘branding’ thing and all be like-minded, and everybody sounds like everybody else,” Simmons says.
“The core of what I do is different from what anyone else does, and I’m not ashamed to say it,” he continues. “I know a lot of people don’t like it, but I can’t really think about that now, I just have to move forward.”
During the down time, Simmons never stopped writing and recording music. He also solidified in his mind what he wanted to do with his music, with his life. And now, with a drummer and bassist in tow, he’s entering a new Boog phase. Simmons says he’s going for it, on his own terms. No day job. No backup plan. All in. As many shows as he can possibly get, around here and around the U.S.
A few area bookers have given Simmons opportunities to show what Boog the band can do. On Aug. 1, they’ll play the North Star Bar in Philly. Simmons is giving no indication what form the set will take. Could be atmospheric slow-burners, maybe raging hardcore, maybe bluesy rock ‘n roll, maybe something else entirely.
Whatever the sound, it’ll just be Boog, he says, smiling, as he lights up another cigarette.
“This is the life that I chose,” he says. “I know I write good songs. I know who I am. You can make something that’s genuinely you, and you might suffer for it, and you might get punished for it, but don’t ever stop being you, you know?”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Boog, with Hannah Zaic & The Damaged Goods, Chalk & The Beige Americans and Solus Rex.
WHEN: Friday, August 1 at 9 p.m.
WHERE: North Star Bar, 2639 Poplar St., Philadelphia.
TICKETS: Tickets are $7-$10. Go to www.northstarbar.com to purchase, or for more info.