When a solo artist with an ordinary name wants to set himself apart from all the Tom, Dick and Harrys in the musical universe, what does he do?
If you’re Nashville-based singer-songwriter Bryan Simpson, the founding member of Cadillac Sky, and decide to create an alt-rock project that’s cool and unusual, you become the Whistles & the Bells, then prepare for an onslaught of questions like a naive subject caught in the middle of a Trump White House press briefing fever dream. (Sean Spicer, anyone?)
To own his share of the madness, though, Simpson offers up his dose of “Good Drugs,” in the form of a song and a music video that premieres exclusively today (March 16) at The Huffington Post. And he hopes you, the adoring public or curious connoisseur, will buy what he’s selling.
“I tried to get inside the head of the classic late night TV swindler: promising the world, guaranteeing nothing,” Simpson wrote in response to a series of email questions for this article that accompanies the video. “Whether they’re selling peace and happiness or one-swipe paper towels, it’s seemingly the same snake-oil pitch. It wasn’t as much of a stretch as I thought it would be … ha.”
Simpson cast himself in the starring role of the made-in-the-shades “Salesman #1,” in the video for “Good Drugs,” one of 11 songs on the Whistles and the Bells’ inventive sophomore album Modern Plagues, which will be released April 28 on New West Records. The record is available to preorder at PledgeMusic.
The video was directed by Neighborhoods Apart, the Nashville film production company headed by Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard, with video work that will or has featured artists such as John Prine, Jason Isbell and Becky Warren, whose official video for “Call Me Sometime” was presented here in January.
“Joshua and I have known each other a decent while and he’s the perfect kind of off-beat for me,” Simpson wrote. “It was the first time I’d worked with Neilson but he certainly operates on the same amazingly strange wavelength as well. Those fellas have done great work in the past including a doc they won some awards for called The Orphan Brigade. From the first conversation Josh and I had, we both thought the video should be an infomercial vibe. So we gathered up last month and made the video a few days after we talked about it. We cleared out Joshua’s office behind his house and turned it into this weird poorly constructed pseudo-infomercial set.”
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Bryan Simpson is the man behind the Whistles & the Bells, and will release Modern Plagues on April 28.
Though Simpson, who has written hit songs for a number of country stars including George Strait, Blake Shelton and Tim McGraw, is technically a solo act with the Whistles & the Bells, he’s hardly on his own. The native of Fort Worth, Texas, enlisted a talented group of artists to perform on the album, which he co-produced with Eddie Spear (Judah & the Lion, Lake Street Dive, Rival Sons) and recorded at Sound Emporium and Omni Studios in Nashville.
Three of the songs — led by opening track “Harry Potter” — were cowritten with the Raconteurs' Brendan Benson, and formidable players include ex-Cadillac Sky partner Matt Menefee (banjo, electric guitar, synth, piano, mandocello), Brooke Waggoner (piano, organ, synth), who performed with Jack White on tour and in the studio, and Taylor Jones, a drummer with the Vespers. The singing sisters of that group of Nashville natives — Phoebe Cryar (featured lead on “Supadope”) and Callie Cryar Pittman — provide vocal support.
The other member of the Vespers, the fine roots outfit that’s taking a break while individually pursuing other projects after showing so much promise with The Fourth Wall in 2012, is Bruno Jones. Taylor’s bass-playing brother has worked with Simpson and co-managed the Whistles and the Bells in the early stages with his then-fiancee Caitie.
The familial and friendly connectivity aspect adds to the frivolity of the video. Look for Caitie Jones — Bruno Jones’ bride since 2014 — as an “operator standing by” alongside Simpson’s wife Kristi, who’s wearing the green blouse.
“Josh’s mom and some friends filled the rest of the cast out, so it was a skeleton crew,” Simpson added. “I used the rest of the $100,000 budget on a white Ferrari and a pet chimpanzee.”
But seriously, folks. Bruno Jones initially turned me on to Simpson’s self-titled debut album as the Whistles & the Bells in March 2014, writing in an email, “It's fun: folky, rock ’n’ roll, punk, Americana, weird, and definitely unique!”
I can’t think of a better description for Simpson, whose original off-the-wall undertakings are reminiscent of the whimsical and whip-smart work by David Byrne, Jim James and the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy.
In a press release discussing how he came to be the moniker, Simpson said, “I don't necessarily feel like this is me, but it's a portion of me that I'm willing to unveil and explore. I could say, 'Go listen to that Bryan Simpson record,' but that idea is just confusing to me. I don't know what Bryan Simpson sounds like, but I'm starting to understand what the Whistles & the Bells sounds like. It's more of an idea than an identity, and I had to get to a certain point in my life where I had the keys to unlock that vault."
As thoughtful as that explanation might be, there’s a far more entertaining way in which he addresses the birth of the Whistles & the Bells and why he departed progressive-bluegrass quartet Cadillac Sky after seven years — a YouTube interview where he’s interrogated and “tortured” by a bearded “terrorist” who looks a lot like Bruno Jones.
The “Good Drugs” video has its quirky moments, too, and the lyrics will make you think until your head explodes:
- On them bad days, I got them good drugs /
- To sweep the pain under the rug /
- And when the straw breaks I say a little prayer /
- To the God of Abraham and anybody who cares /
- And hope they’re listening, listening, listening
If there’s a message to the song, Simpson, who plays guitar and mandolin on the album, offered this sharp-as-a-tack response:
“We all got our stuff, ya know? Uppers, downers, and in-betweeners. Fried chicken and fur coats might be someone’s heroin. We’re all patching up the holes in the boat with anything within arm’s reach most of the time, while the ship keeps sinking ... but slower now.”
While trying to stay afloat, find time for a “Good Drugs” fix. Enjoy the video but consider this a fair warning: You might get hooked.
Publicity photos by Alysse Gafkjen. The Whistles & the Bells performs an official SXSW showcase late Saturday (March 18) at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue (401 West 2nd St.) in Austin, Texas.