Photo taken by Birgit Berghofer (@birgitberghofer)
For local music enthusiasts, Sean Michael Simpson of Langley needs no introduction. Best defined as a one-man band, he’s a self-taught musician who has performed to sold-out stadiums and opened for artists like Bif Naked, Steel Panther and Finger Eleven. A stalwart of the Langley music scene, he’s perhaps best known for his charisma and energy on stage. From his own originals to foot-stomping covers of an insanely broad library of tunes, Sean’s music gets people up off their chairs and onto the dance floor.
We were lucky enough to catch him for an interview, and at the top of our agenda was figuring out how he fits it all in! But after a good chat, we’re still none the wiser. He shared tales from the frontline, career highlights like performing at a sold-out Canucks game, but what struck us most was his refreshing honesty. Without self-pity, he shared stories of depression, a broken heart that motivated him to push harder, and his days as a starving artist.
We left the interview feeling incredibly inspired, not only by his determination, openness and talent but from the humble way he spoke about his life. So grab yourself a cup of tea and settle in, Sean’s story might just inspire you to pick up your dreams and give them another go around the block.
How did you get started in music?
When I was a little kid, I fell in love with the Seattle music scene. I picked out a guitar and taught myself how to play Nirvana songs, as they were super easy and melodic. My parents always tried to push hockey growing up, and they never really supported the idea of music financially. Once high school was over, all of my focus went into making money for my music. I would work at my day job 12 hours a day, and then would spend the rest of my time writing songs, creating merch, putting on shows, and promoting the upcoming events for my various bands.
In 2009, my band won the 99.3 Fox Seeds showcase. Through this contest, we competed against hundreds of bands and were able to tour nationally and have our song play on regular rotation on major radio stations across the country. I was eventually able to snag a performance for a Canucks game with my next band Ocean Full of Fins, which to this day still blows my mind!
In late 2014, I finally decided to quit my day job to pursue music full time. Soon after, I got a Facebook message from a restaurant in White Rock who were looking for a musician to perform a five-hour set. He had seen me perform at the Canucks game, and was impressed with what he saw.
From there, I started performing weekly in White Rock, and over time, began receiving tips from patrons. I then decided to contact Beatniks Bistro, as I’ve always wanted to play there. It took many tries, but eventually, they agreed to let me perform as they were looking for a new live musician. Currently, my agent at Musos Entertainment has me booked 5-6 days a week all over the lower mainland, from Vancouver to Chilliwack and Whistler!
How did you get into forming a one-man band? How does it work?
When I first started performing in White Rock, it was enjoyable. Having a source of income through music felt like a dream come true. As time went on, I started to get bored with using just an acoustic guitar for 5-hour sets. I wanted to make sure that returning patrons would have a new experience each time to keep them coming back. Once I made enough money I bought myself an electronic kick drum. With a fuller sound, I noticed that people would dance along to the music.
With that in mind, I decided to upgrade by adding a tambourine to my other foot, and finally, a loop pedal. The loop pedal allowed me to record short spurts that would repeat throughout the song and enabled me to solo over top!
To get the covers perfect, I spent months learning the BPM (beats per minute) of hundreds of songs, so that I could get the rhythms of each song as accurate as possible. With a drum machine added in as well, I was able to provide a full band sound and book bigger venues. One of my favourite performances was when I was able to get the whole floor dancing in downtown Toronto! It took all my time and energy to build my sound up to a full band sound. With the drum machine, the tambourine, the loop pedal, my guitar, and also performing the vocals — it feels like I’m operating a space ship every time I get on stage.
Although I love performing solo, the energy I get from playing with my band Johnny Bootleg is unmatched!
Was there ever a point where people doubted your ability to become a successful musician?
*laughs* Yes, all the time. My parents never really supported me in the beginning; they thought that there was no future for me in the music industry. While I was touring New Zealand, I fell in love with a girl from Germany. Once the tour was over, she flew back to Vancouver to be with me. She inspired me to quit my day job (which was around 14-16 hour days) to invest my time into music fully.
Starting out, I had a tough time staying afloat. I was the classic starving artist, playing five-hour gigs for barely any money. I couldn’t afford to eat, and I struggled to pay the bills. I also sunk into depression and stopped taking care of myself. One day she broke up with me, and the final thing she said to me was that maybe being a musician wasn’t for me and that I should give up.
I could’ve gone down the self-pity route, but I decided I would work even harder to show her that I could succeed in the music industry. I started eating healthier, exercising regularly and going all out at every single performance.
Lots of my former co-workers would come up to me jokingly and ask how the retirement was going, but I was working harder than I ever had before. Those 14-16 hour days turned into 24/7. I wouldn’t stop until I was where I needed to be. All these people’s doubts helped me put fuel in the fire, and get my ass in gear!
Do you feel that being from Langley has shaped your opportunities in any way?
Performing at Beatniks Bistro has shaped my sound for sure which appeals to a lot of other venues. The genre I define my music as is a mix of blues and rock, but I noticed that the crowds at Beatniks were more into classics. As I play at Beatniks every Thursday, I wanted to give the regulars something new to listen to every single week which has consistently expanded my repertoire.
I like to memorize the songs I play, and I had to very quickly learn how to perform over three hours of classic rock, every single week. When people come up to tip me, they often tell stories about how they used to listen to the songs in high school, or how they used to dance to these songs at parties.
I always ask the crowd what songs they would like to hear next week. I’ve never heard of some of the songs they request, so I get to expand my music knowledge through the requests.
Langley and Beatniks have helped me connect deeply with the community, as well as challenge my musical skills through new requests every week.
What are the highlights of your music career so far?
Playing the Vancouver Canucks game was a highlight for me. Getting to perform in front of such a massive crowd was MIND BLOWING. Also, having my song played on radio channels like 104.9.
One of my songs, Motel Blues, still plays now and then on the radio, which is awesome! Being able to perform at the Commodore was also an amazing experience. It’s such an intimate venue, but it’s also a venue where artists make the transition from unknown to stars.
The biggest highlight for me is just being able to make a good living off of my music and being able to put 100% of myself into my performances in a community that enjoys the live music scene.
What does an average week look like for you?
Mondays and Tuesdays are my “weekend”, but I never really take time off from music. Usually, I’m in my home studio writing songs, rehearsing songs for private events, or taking the time to memorize new songs to cover.
I like to put my all into my performances; I believe that covers sound best when they’re coming from the heart, not when reading off a page. By memorizing 5-hour sets every week, I am able to give the passionate performance that these classic rock songs deserve!
Wednesday to Sunday is when I perform at my usual venues in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. I also manage to fit in private events and weddings as well, travelling up to places like Whistler to perform.
What is one of the biggest challenges of being a musician?
It feels like I’ve already put in my ten thousand hours as a musician! I enjoy the challenge of learning new music, and I always look forward to every gig I perform. I guess the two biggest challenges for me are setting up the equipment and connecting with the audience.
As I have so much equipment to set up, it takes time, and since I’m performing at different venues all the time, the volumes always have to be adjusted on each instrument to fit the venue.
At breweries, I have to have the volume turned to the max, while Beatniks has a fine line between being too quiet or too loud. Another challenge is connecting with the crowd. If the people treat the music like you’re a fly on the wall or background music, it can feel disheartening. Since I’m primarily a soft ticket performer, people don’t necessarily know I’m performing, or even know who I am so it can be hard to please some crowds.
Which of your songs is the most autobiographical or means the most to you?
I don’t think I’ve released my most personal song yet. I feel that sometimes the songs I write are too personal. They come when I’m writing subconsciously about a breakup or feeling down or whatever I’m going through at the time.
I think Whisky Down is one of the most autobiographical songs, as it is a song that I still play to this day. I first wrote it when I was 19, and takes on the subject of a blues musician losing someone close to them.
Every song I’ve written is a snapshot of my life, but I feel bad playing some of the songs that come from heartbreak when my life is so happy right now! I live in a beautiful house with my soon to be wife, and I’m able to pay the bills with work that I’m genuinely passionate about.
Finally, where can people find your music?
If people want to see my performances, the best places to go to are my YouTube channel, my Facebook, and my Instagram. I have an original album with my band Johnny Bootleg, that’s available on iTunes, Spotify, and all other places where you can stream music. People can also take a look at Johnny Bootleg Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as well!
Also, check out my website to find all the latest on tour information, new music, and set lists!
I am so blessed to be able to live in Langley and make a living through music. I am grateful for all the regulars who keep coming back week after week to support my music and have a great time. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to be as successful as I am!
We would like to thank Sean Michael Simpson for taking the time to sit down with us and tell his story. He is just another great example of the amazing community that calls Langley home. If you know someone who should be featured in our next Langley Profile, send us a note about who they are and why you feel they should be featured to firstname.lastname@example.org.