Second Set: Dave Simon's gone from kid rocker to Kidzrocker
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2012 - It was my second day of college, August 1985. Standing outside Webster University’s Dooley House — long since renamed the Pearson House — a few of us were idling on the long, white wall, stretching along the driveway. We were enjoying a gorgeous summer day, which featured my one-and-only appearance in a class taught by the late, great philosophy professor Art Sandler. Lost out on that opportunity, but the day at least brought Dave Simon to my attention.
Freed from the strict social boundaries of a high school a few hundred yards to the west, this was the kinda scene I ate up for the next few years, talking to kids also interested in art and music and events. And Dave Simon was obviously the sort of student who was a little bit clued in, though it took time to figure out how true that really was. Skateboarding up to us on that wall outside the Dooley, he may have handed us a flyer for a show; that kind of detail’s been lost, though the spirit of the afternoon is still right there.
By that point, Simon had graduated from one of the three most artistically and musically progressive high schools of that moment: Metro, Webster Groves and his own Clayton. There, he’d been in on the ground floor of The Unconscious, which broke up, but reformed, in some part, as The Fuzzy Pumpers, with Simon on bass and the hyper-charismatic Mike Apirion on guitar and vocals. They decided to change their name to Blank Space while driving west to Columbia, Mo., where they were set to open for the relentlessly touring Elvis Brothers. And Blank Space became something of a go-to for local music bookers, who found them opening slots for groups like the Violent Femmes, Fishbone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“We were writing our own music,” Simon remembers. “We were very much a sign of the times, white kids mixing funk and ska. Those groups were coming into town and we had these great springboards, playing in front of those bands, not just in St. Louis, but at the Blue Note in Columbia. Today, you’d have a hard time cracking those kinds of shows. And, really, the only bands writing original music in those days were bands like the Rude Pets, Be-Vision, Langrehr. And we were a lot younger than them. We were just kids and we had the energy of a new group. But we were able to play Cicero’s on a weekend night in front of 100 people and stand on our own feet.”
In time, that band splintered, with Simon heading up an outfit that pretty well reflected its name: Filet of Funk. (Apirion went on to reform the hugely popular Unconscious.) Simon spun through Sinister Dane for a minute, then took off for New York, where he’d spend three post-collegiate years.
Surreal World — New York
Interestingly enough, there he wound up taking part in a pilot for a television show that redefined MTV and gave birth to the genre of reality TV. Aptly cast as a young musician from the Midwest trying to make it in New York, Dave Simon was taped as a (pre-)original member of the “The Real World.” The pilot, which was shot over days, rather than weeks, took longer to edit than expected. And in that time, the young cast was edged out for even fresher faces.
“Yeah, yeah, that was really surreal,” Simon says today. “I was in the pilot, but by the time the deal solidified, everyone was two years older. We were under the impression that we would be cast. None of us got recast. I did audition to be an on-air VJ for MTV, when Adam Curry was quitting. I didn’t know where anything was going to wind up then.
"We shot two shows for MTV with ‘Real World,’ but they didn’t have it quite refined, he says. "They tried to manipulate us a little bit. ‘You and this guy are having some tension, so maybe do less or more with them.’ Is that show still around? It is! Wow. It took over a year for them to edit the show. They eventually got the cast back together to meet with the producers, where they laid out a vision for reality TV. And now, reality TV’s such a large part of the pop culture landscape.”
Considering how many would-be performers have been on the show and how only a relative few have gone on to major success in entertainment, Simon’s realistic, even philosophical about the what-coulda-been quality of his experience.
“It was cool to be a witness to it,” he says, “to be at the birth of it. Even if I wasn’t cast, it was a cool thing to participate in.”
Another coast, more transitions
Simon eventually moved back to St. Louis, where he founded the groups Thick and Buzz Circuit. Both were excellent bands, meshing harder rock with the funk sounds of their youth. But, as he himself says, the musical climate in the ‘90s had changed, and nearly a decade after Blank Space and Filet of Funk were scoring crowds in clubs around town, the new bands lacked traction.
“We came back about eight years later,” Simon remembers. “I put together the short-lived Thick. Then it became Buzz Circuit. It just went downhill. We just couldn’t penetrate the music scene. The culture had caught up to us by that point. In the mid-’80s, Mike Apirion was such a captivating performer than we could’ve gone out and just screamed into the microphones and people would’ve been into it. I look at those two groups; we were pretty good, we were OK. But it was post-Nirvana and people's tastes and expectations had changed a little.”
His local dreams not exactly coming to fruition, Simon moved to California, where he met up with fellow STL expat Marwan Kanafani. They put together Solarcane, a group that was into shimmering pop, a real change in direction for those familiar with Simon’s earlier work. Not that his previous material was limited; this Solarcane music was cut from a completely different cloth, and it’s always interesting to see and hear musicians make such leaps. Simon feels that the Bay Area-based Solarcane was a group “that musically got me back on track.”
After five years in California, Simon resettled back in his native St. Louis. He got married, got a serious job, eventually had two children. And somewhere in there, he and drummer Jill Aboussie put together another new combo, The Ambassadors, which did garner a bit of attention around St. Louis, releasing an EP and playing some quality shows, with a number of them at their unofficial home: Frederick’s Music Lounge.
“The band wanted to go on tour,” says Simon. “We were doing well. But everyone was in their 20s and I was in my 30s and just couldn’t tour. I was engaged and just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
But what he would want to do, eventually and through a series of random events, was run a school for musically inclined kids, the aptly named Dave Simon’s Rock School, which is now working on a decade-long run in Olivette.
We’ll let Simon take up the tale from here:
I had been out of The Ambassadors for maybe a year. I was done with music. I was gonna close that chapter. I was working at Savvis Communications in IT. I’d just gotten married. I was really done. But my wife is a social worker and she went to a therapeutic summer camp to work. She dragged me along. I was doing music with the kids at the camp and thought it’d be cool to have a rock ’n’ roll summer camp. Then it was ‘how about a rock ’n’ roll school?’
I was always a guy who was coming up with business ideas, but I’d just as quickly say ‘It won’t work because of this, or that.’ But with this idea, I couldn’t come up with a reason that it wouldn’t work, there wasn’t a deal-breaker that wouldn’t make me not pursue it.
And I was always wired to be the guy in the band who did the business, I was the guy in the band setting up the gigs. Even in high school. Mike Apirion and I put a band together right after The Unconscious first broke up and everyone who was at a show we did still talks about that show. It was us, the Fuzzy Pumpers, with Blind Idiot God, who were just out of high school and then a punk band called F-Troop, who were freshmen punk rockers at Clayton. We really promoted the show and it was a real platform for us, because we knew Blind Idiot God would draw. It was so packed and so unruly. We made a lot of money.
And I thought, ‘Wow, this was a pure do-it-yourself type of operation.’ No one got in trouble, fortunately, but it was a situation that looked like something could happen. We had kids from U. City, Ladue, Burroughs. Oh, wow! This was all the result of an idea and we made money from it. And it was really easy to do. It was my first attempt at doing business.
We’ll call all of this a precursor.
Pop culture strikes, twice
Dave Simon eventually decided to the leave the IT world, to create a school in an unlikely place: an industrial park in Olivette. With a dental lab as a neighbor, Dave Simon’s Rock School was formerly a warehouse used to store expensive, outdoor tropical plants over the winter.
Since 2004, the space has been slowly transformed. The front of the 4,600 square foot venue contains individual rehearsal spaces, a lobby for parents, a green room for kids, a recording studio and a nice sized auditorium for bands to rehearse and play gigs, done on a real stage with all the amenities.
Simon’s idea for a business began as you might expect. A few students became a few more. Not only working with them as individuals, Simon was putting together bands, who’d work together through a session, culminating in a public show. Over the years, Blueberry Hill has been a big supporter, with some of Simon’s shows drawing 300 people to the Duck Room on a weekend afternoon. But at the beginning, those kinds of days were still in the dream phase.
Then one day, Simon and his wife were sitting on the couch. A commercial aired. For a movie called “School of Rock,” directed by the well-regarded Richard Linklater and staring the newly famous Jack Black.
This wasn’t on the Rock Schools’ business plan, and it even trumped Simon’s stay in “The Real World” house, a story known mostly to friends and family. This? Well, a movie about a rock school, being released at the same time you’re starting one is something that can shake a person.
“I’ll never forget it,” says Simon. “I was watching TV with my wife, maybe three months into the business, maybe four. The ad came on and we just looked at each other and thought, ‘wait...’ It was disorienting. This is what we were doing. And it’s a movie now? I was initially upset. That’s my idea! But when I saw what it did for the business, I wasn’t as upset anymore.” He even offers that “it was a pretty good movie.”
He says his own Rock School was born of his time at Webster, as jazz student in the teeming Thompson House.
“It stemmed from the Webster jazz program,” he admits. “Webster was not the source of my social life. I made some good friends, but so much of what we were doing was happening in Cicero’s Basement; somehow, we were all down there, underage. I don’t know how we did that, I guess it was just a lack of supervision. But at Webster, there was value in the structure of the jazz program. The thing about jazz is that it’s so driven by creativity. But Webster said that there are academic priorities to address. In rock ’n’ roll, there’s also a lot of technique and theory required. It’s a matter of how we take these tools for kids to be creative.”
These days, Simon’s a father, himself, with kids age 7 and 4. He jokes that he’s now “the lyrics police” around his place, even when dealing with teenage players. He cares about the kids and wants them to experience some freedom in the rehearsal rooms. But he also wants parents to feel comfortable. He can talk about his Rock School for hours, how there are different levels of playing opportunities, how kids come in with shyness and leave with confidence, how some of his mid-20s teachers began as students. All kinds of stories, really.
But it might be because he has his own 4-year-old that Kidzrock is his latest favorite. Literally geared toward the 4-7 set, Kidzrock allows the kids to learn notation and teamwork, in a group setting.
“The whole program,” says Simon, “was developed as a result of parents calling asking, ‘What do you have for my 5-year-old, my 6-year-old?’ We sent them away first. If they’re not doing homework yet, they’re not going to spend time practicing. We had some 5- and 6-year-olds in private lessons, but we let parents know what to expect. But when we got them in a band room to see what they were capable of musically, modifying instruments, experimenting with tuning, we developed a method that would be user-friendly for the little guys. It took six months to get it right, to be honest. With Kidzrock, these are songs written for them. They’re rotating instruments, rather than picking up one and sticking with it for the whole time. It’s modeled after the whole idea of the elementary school orchestra program.”
Ultimately, he says, it’s about keeping music in kids’ lives, rather than burning them out, as “so many of us got into private lessons as kids. Then we dreaded it, we quit and we don’t enjoy playing music anymore. With this program, their first experience in music is playing in a rock band.”
These days, when Simon plays in a rock band, it’s with his students. For a time, he had “a Jewish reggae band” in Zeda’s Beat Box. Now, he’s most likely to perform with his students at their regular, end-of-term shows, whether that’s at the school, or at a venue like Blueberry Hill. In fact, it was there that Simon once scanned the audience and saw scene veterans Jay Summers and Sean Garcia.
“I’m onstage and I look out at 300 people,” Simon laughs. “I’m thinking that I could never do that with my own bands. I said to Jay and Sean, ‘Did any you think that this is where music would lead us?’ Since I’ve had kids, my whole idea about music has changed. There’s a whole different sense of what it can be.”
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