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Local Music Spotlight: Cousin Simple

Grant Walters Grant Walters Local Music Spotlight: Cousin Simple
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The winners of Groove U's 2017 Instaband competition are gaining traction as an emerging Columbus success story

Cousin Simple took the stage on an oppressively hot August afternoon at the Columbus Food Truck Festival, playing through an hour-long set that was mostly inclusive of what was at the time their still-forthcoming debut album. I marveled at their energy in spite of the swelter, leaping around and savoring every square inch of the concrete platform. They looked like they were having the time of their lives, and there seemed to be this unpretentious enthusiasm for the privilege of just being there to perform for whoever happened to show up. It was infectious.

The alterna-rock quintet, which comprises lead singer Will “Harsh” Hoag, guitarist Ryan “Ryu” Ulibarri, bassist Mitch Whittaker, guitarist and keyboardist Luke Hamrock, and drummer Henry Morris, are still navigating the hallways of their high school when they’re not working on Cousin Simple business. But after the aspiring musicians claimed top honors at Groove U’s Instaband competition last February, their extra-curricular dance cards have filled up rather quickly. Since then, they’ve become regulars on the Columbus club and festival circuit, including stage time at Skully’s, Columbus Arts Fest, Slice of Columbus, and CoHatch.

At the end of September, And We Would Never End arrived – a solid, cohesive collection of songs that are especially strong vehicles for Hoag’s youthfully gritty vocal. The guitar-drenched groove “Son Of A Gun” and the effervescently singable “Detroit” particularly stand out. There’s a delightful absence of unnecessary production gloss, allowing the band to present themselves organically as an outfit that is still growing and finding its feet. And it’s great.

On Saturday, the band will support headliner Tourist Trap at Big Room Bar in the Brewery District.

For those who haven’t yet ventured out to see them (which you should, by the way), please allow me to formally introduce you to Cousin Simple:

Alright, so I’ve been trying to figure out the significance of the band’s name, but all my Google search skills turned up was a reference to some obscure character from Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Is that where it came from, or am I missing something more obvious?

CS: “The name of our band is indeed a reference to [that[. Our lead singer, Harsh, had a VHS tape with three Scooby-Doo episodes that he watched non-stop when he was little, and in “A Night of Fright is No Delight,” a character named Cousin Simple appeared on-screen. The character had one appearance in all of Scooby-Doo and had no lines – rather he just gets introduced by another character. We thought the name sounded cool and unique. We put the name into a bracket with 63 other names, but Cousin Simple ended up being our favorite.”

The five of you clearly have chemistry and a special relationship – you can see and hear that in your performances. Tell me about how you first ended up making music together and at what point you all had some sort of inkling that you wanted to turn this into a permanent gig.

CS: “Harsh, Mitch, and Ryan have been friends since middle school. Maybe the idea came during eighth grade graduation, when Harsh, Mitch, and Ryan sang “The Scientist” by Coldplay to the class, consequently making the whole class, including the band, cry. And while some of us are more musical than others, we like to think what we lack in training we make up for in showmanship. Being best friends makes it easy.”

Your local cachet escalated fast when you won the Instaband competition last year. Talk to me about that experience and how it impacted your path as a collective.

CS: “Winning Groove U gave us a lot of opportunities, including a gig at the Arts Festival, a performance on WCBE’s Live From Studio A, and a music video to name a few. When we were preparing for Groove U, we became the band that we are. We would wake up and practice at 6:30 in the morning before school, which helped us form our stage dynamic, and make our live show tighter.  It was fun to prepare for our first live show, but we didn’t know what to expect. For instance, when we got on stage for soundcheck, the sound technician asked if we had any quarter-inch cables, and we didn’t know what those were.

That made for a very panicked first couple minutes of the show, as quarter-inchers were very necessary to make any sound at all.”

As you’ve been accumulating gigs and recognition, what’s surprised you the most about finding success as a band? What’s been the hardest? The most exciting?

CS: “The most surprising thing is how much work it takes to get the word out. We will play anywhere, anytime, if it means getting one more listener. The hardest thing is making the time to get all of us together to practice and to make new music. The most exciting thing is making new songs as a band and seeing new people react to it, and seeing our fans dance and sing along to our lyrics.”

There probably aren’t many high school-aged bands out there who have collected a good batch of original songs to commit to an album. Tell me about how these songs took shape and how they eventually came to life in the studio as you recorded And We Would Never End?

CS: “Usually a song comes at the oddest time. When one of us has a beat, or a riff, we will try to record it on a phone, then send it to one another. From there everyone starts working on their parts and it all comes together when we practice as a band. Some songs were written in an empty house, some in a hotel room, some in a friend’s basement just playing around. Our parents didn’t even know we released our first song, ‘Nothing Sweeter’ on SoundCloud. That was written in Mitch’s basement. Mitch mixed it and Ryan added guitar later. ‘Detroit’ was actually the last song written, and almost didn’t make the album, because we literally finished writing it in the studio.”

You’re playing some venues around Columbus like Skully’s where the clientele is clearly older than you. I’m curious what connecting with them has been like? What have people been saying to you about your music in those contexts?
CS: “The last show we played at Skully’s was super. We got to open for Forest and the Evergreens’ last show, along with Mike Twice, and the Worn Flints. Those guys are awesome. We never really thought about the age difference…should we? For the most part, people seem to enjoy the energy and the style that we play with at a young age. We feed off the energy of our fans, who really make every show worth it.”

What strengths do each of you bring to the band individually? In what places do you all find creative harmony between you, and maybe where do you disagree or have tension?

CS: “We would not be where we are today without each and every individual in the band. A lot of our songs start out with a guitar riff from our very own Ryan Ulibarri. He is influential in a lot of the writing, while also wowing the crowd with his elaborate solos and his devilish good looks. Harsh is the glue that holds the band together. He is the band’s main power source and is willing to push us to our limits. He is a very talented lyricist, and can always woo the crowd with catchy words and daring stunts and dance moves that always give the show the one-up it needs.

Mitch always takes the basic pieces that we make as a band, and puts the song together in a way that makes it different, unique, and new. Originally, a lot of his influence came from the piano, which affected the early songs. Now he’s evolved into much more, with his intricate bass lines and ideas moving the tunes to another level. All of this, and not to mention his back-flips and acrobatics that never fail to liven up the show…and scare his mother.

Luke started out on the drums, and wrote and recorded all of the beats on And We Would Never End. He keeps us from being too serious, and is always fun to have around. Now he’s made the transition to guitar and synth, where he is blossoming as a songwriter, while also being  the only band member that can successfully produce a falsetto voice without embarrassing himself. Henry is our extremely talented drummer and is a relatively new member of Cousin Simple. He brings a new perspective to our sound and adds a complex and exciting edge. We are excited to record new music with him at the helm of rhythm.

Any tension in our band comes from our diverse influences and ideas as individual songwriters. We each have ideas of how we want a song to sounds, but these ideas don’t always flow with what another desires. We find harmony when we are able to integrate these different takes on the song and come out with a unique product that reaches its potential.”

In your album liner notes, you thank ‘anyone who believes in your dream’. What does the ‘dream’ look like for you all now that this album is out – especially since all of you are still in high school and have a lot big transitions on the horizon like graduating, going to college, and figuring out what life’s going to bring next?

CS: “When we say ‘anyone who believes in our dream’, we are talking about the people who genuinely enjoy the music and want to see us get bigger as a band. The people that think that we can be more than just a basement band. Of course we would love to play forever, and we plan on recording more and playing more. Hopefully we can all go to school in the same city so we’ll have the opportunity to keep the band together. As for the immediate future, we’d love to spend the summer opening for someone on the road.

Anyone need an opening band?”

If you could have any artist, current or past, cover one of your songs – which one would it be and by who?

CS: “Ooh. This is a toughie. Mitchell thinks that Twenty One Pilots would do an epic cover of ‘Hide and Seek’. Ryan believes that MGMT would play a cool and unique version of ‘Song to Emma’. Harsh would love to see the Rolling Stones play ‘Son of a Gun’, and Luke would like to see David Bowie play “Strangers”. We would love to give this one more thought, this was a great question.”

Cousin Simple will take the stage Saturday night at Big Room Bar, 1036 South Front Street in the Brewery District, supporting headliner Tourist Trap. Doors open at 8:00 pm, Tickets are $5.00 plus fees (all ages admission). CS’ album, ‘And We Would Never End’, is available for purchase and streaming via the band’s official website.

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