For more than two decades, recorder Sloan Simpson has documented performances on the Athens and Atlanta music stages through live recordings. His archive, Southern Shelter, exists as a rich catalog of interesting acts, many of which have come and gone for a long time.
When the COVID pandemic left her hobby on ice, Simpson shifted gears to making her own music. Working under the name of Sloan Brothers, his first album System update features a star-studded cast of notable musicians from Athens, reflecting the lasting friendships he made along the way.
Although Simpson played in rock and jazz bands growing up, his musical pursuits were sidelined after a serious car accident left him with a broken collarbone at the age of 20. His injury eventually healed, but he walked away from the game, and it would be another 25 years. years before owning an instrument again. The lasting effects of this pivotal life event are alluded to in “Anxiety,” a dynamic track that juxtaposes its dance beat with lyrics about managing symptoms. Here Simpson is joined by Kevin Sweeney (Hayride), Jason NeSmith (Casper & The Cookies), Derek Almstead (Faster Circuits), Clay Leverett (Lona) and Carlton Owens (Cracker), who appears throughout the album.
It wasn’t until the pandemic brought the entertainment industry to a screeching halt in March 2020 that Simpson began to rekindle his personal interest in music. Losing the Caledonia Lounge later that year, where he had installed a permanent recording facility, was particularly crushing. Unable to record live bands as venues remained closed indefinitely, he mixed all the recordings he had left on hard drives, exhausted his TV watch list and began to feel boredom setting in.
One day, while mixing an ambient track for a friend, he tried to add a synthetic bass drone as an experiment. This opened a door to new territory, and within days he picked up some extra synth plugins and a MIDI controller, and wrote his first song, “For You”. Soon after, he bought a guitar and a bass, and began composing the tunes that would eventually become System update.
“Three dozen people ended up recording parts for the album,” Simpson explains. “These were all people I knew from recording their acts over the past 20 years and became friends with. In some cases they were chosen because their playing matched an existing song. In some other cases, I wrote the song with specific musicians in mind.
“A Pick was definitely a super fan moment, and it required Daniel Hutchens to record a voice [on ‘Cryin’ Shame’] shortly before his death last year. I’ve been seeing Bloodkin since 1994 and I’ve recorded them more than any other band, so while I’m honored by everyone who helped out on this record, I was especially excited to see Danny sing along.
Released May 13 via Science Project Records, the album reflects a wide range of influences as diverse as the contributing artists themselves. Inspired by his best friend’s daughter, “Cleopatra Echo” is a joyous and hopeful instrumental track – guest-starring Neal Fountain (Col. Bruce Hampton) and John Neff (The Pink Stones) on guitar and pedal respectively of steel – reminiscent of the psychedelic twists and turns of the jam band’s glory days. The album’s opener, meanwhile, borrows the talents of Dylan Adams (Nineveh’s Garden) and Chris McNeal and Mike Albanese (Maserati) for dystopian retro-futuristic sci-fi disco.
Of the tracks on the album, Simpson considers “Love You So Good” to have been the most cathartic to write. For this tender and touching track, he was joined by Patterson Hood and Jay Gonzales (Drive-By Truckers), David Barbe (Sugar), Claire and Paige Campbell (Hope for Agoldensummer), Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo) and Owens. Named after a Southerner her mother often said, the bittersweet tribute is immediately relatable and reflects a mother’s unconditional love for her child, as well as the grief of losing a parent.
“My mother died five years before I wrote it, and I had come to the point in my grief where any tears for her were a welcome memory,” Simpson says. “I still occasionally grabbed the phone to call one of my parents before I remembered they were both dead. But it makes me feel good, I don’t want to forget anyone I’ve lost. I’d rather cry for someone than not think about them.
“People had a range of strong reactions to this song, but when I first listened to it the day after the basic tracks were recorded, I was ecstatic. I had my doubts as to whether I could just consider myself an artist at the age of 47, but when ‘Love You So Good’ came along, I thought ‘No, I have at least a little talent for that.’ It was one of the first songs, so it helped give me permission to keep creating.
Although Simpson received well-meaning encouragement from friends to perform live, Sloan Brothers was conceived as a recording project with many nuanced elements that did not translate easily to live production. Just as the music was created at a time when theaters were on hiatus, these are songs best experienced as audio recordings.
“A lot of what I love about my own music is about the arrangements, the layering, the little things you only hear on repeated listens, the fine detail,” Simpson says. “I won’t perform live for a long list of reasons, but the main one is that a live performance of this music is so far removed from the sounds I heard in my head while making it. I can’t accomplish with 4-6 musicians what took me 50 tracks to record, and I don’t want to hear it that way.
Rather than risk compromising the project’s intended sound with an altered performance, Sloan Brothers will be celebrating the release of the LP from System update with a free listening party at the 40 Watt Club on Friday, July 1 at 8 p.m. The lineup includes Robert Schneider, Jay Gonzales, Hayride and other guests.
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