Sim Ross sips a beer with his collar up and his guard down. He smiles a lot, as if to make up for lost time. The singer's last band, popular Cleveland punks the Signoffs, had a street-tough image and a cocksure strut that didn't lend itself to wide grins.
He's drinking at Lakewood's Capsule, a fitting place to introduce his new band, soulful rockers Mi Octopi. Capsule is a club in transition -- much like Ross' career -- going from a futuristic "cy-bar" to an Irish-themed pub with Boston on heavy rotation.
Ross can certainly appreciate classic rock bravado -- Mi Octopi practically bursts with it. A blend of vintage roots rock and arena-worthy hooks with a touch of the blues, the group is a loud, loose flashback to WMMS' mid-'70s playlist.
Ross clearly seems to be enjoying a break from the pressures of his previous group. A hotly tipped punk act that was pursued by several labels, the Signoffs eventually began to suffer from all the overbearing record-industry types telling them what to do.
"With my old group, it just got to the point where, the last year, we probably wrote three songs," says Ross, a wiry rocker with a pair of mirrored shades hanging from his collar. "We worked with so many producers saying, 'Try this, try this.' The record companies asked for this one specific style of music that we didn't all really want to play. It got to the point where people were telling us how to play the music that we wrote -- and half the time we didn't even like what we were writing, let alone what they were telling us to do. It was like, why don't we just stop playing what they're expecting and start playing whatever comes out of us?"
For Ross, that meant breaking away from snarling punk rock. While Signoffs guitarist Tim Long and drummer Kris Monroe successfully launched the hard-charging A Dozen Dead Roses, Ross joined former Signoffs guitarist Chris Churvay in assembling a band with more swing than swagger.
The group started last fall, with Ross and Churvay penning songs. As Mi Octopi's lineup expanded to include drummer Ian Harrington, bassist Graeme Smith, and guitarist Alfredo Garcia, the breadth of their influences also swelled: Garcia is a fan of Britpop and soulful rock, Smith cut his teeth in heady indie-rock instrumental troupes, and Harrington grew up a metalhead. "That's all I knew when I was a kid: masturbation and metal," the fast-talking drummer says with a laugh.
Together, they began hammering out songs -- in some cases polishing melodies that had been viewed as too much of a departure to make the Signoffs' setlist.
"Chris has had songs built up for the last two years that the Signoffs never played, because they just sounded different," Ross says. "They weren't cock rock, they weren't Guns N' Roses, they weren't AC/DC, so we didn't play them.
"Everybody has their own ideas," Ross continues. "Everybody puts forth their ideas first, then we put them together, rather than one person saying, 'You play the drums like this, you sing like this, you play guitar like this for this song that I wrote.' It's better when it's five people who want to all be there and want to put in their 100 percent, rather than one guy telling you how to play something."
During a recent gig at the Hi-Fi Club, the band brought in a solid crowd, despite it being only their second show. "We're getting there," Churvay told the audience as the band raced through a quick, 30-minute set that weaved between riff-rock bluster and hip-shakin' R&B. Twisting and shouting, Ross put his mic stand down only long enough to grab a pair of maracas.
"It's very melodic, we play a lot of open chords, it's a lot more than straightforward, full-throttle rock and roll," Garcia says. "There's a lot of changes, a lot of groovy moments. If I wasn't playing guitar, I'd be dancing my ass off."
"I've never, ever been in a band where every single member had fuckin' fun," Harrington adds. "That's what it's all about. What are you up there for? Why not put your all into it? Why not show me your balls? That's what I want to see."
As if on cue, Garcia and Smith jump up and start unbuttoning their pants.
"Figuratively!" shouts Harrington. "Figuratively, please."
In the next few weeks, Mi Octopi will enter the studio with former Hey Mercedes/Sheilbound guitarist Mike Schumacher to lay down a six-song demo that the band will shop to labels.
The group has also booked its first headlining gig at the Grog Shop this Saturday -- its baptism as a band. Comparisons to the Signoffs will be inevitable. No doubt, some diehard punks will be disappointed by Mi Octopi's more expansive sound. But as Ross has learned over the years, catering to expectations can be pretty disappointing in its own right.
"I definitely don't want people coming to the show thinking they're going to hear another Signoffs, because it's not that at all," Ross says. "It's going to take a bit for some people to get used to, but I'm enjoying it a whole lot more. I mean, why not have fun?"
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