A photo of Brad Simm
Brad Simm | Photo: Courtesy of Brad Simm

Brad Simm

A dirty sound and a creative life

Amy Jo Espetveidt

For Brad Simm, the secret ingredient to living a creative life might come down to something he describes as “dirty sound.”

Simm works in the journalism program at Mount Royal University where, amongst other things, he oversees the production of the Calgary Journal. He’s also is a lifelong Calgarian, born, raised and educated here and a longtime advocate and supporter of the city’s arts scene, most precisely its music scene, in his capacity as the former editor and publisher of BeatRoute (and before that, as a contributor to CJSW’s now defunct station guide, VOX Magazine.)

But if it all adds up to a creative life on paper, Simm’s journey parallels a lot of Calgary creative lives where the first order of business if often what’s in the ground, not your head.

For Simm, who grew up in an oil and gas family, the journey into dirty sound could be said to have started with dirty ground. It was a blend of engineering, the energy industry, an opportunity that inspired him to dig a little deeper into his creative side that all helped create a monthly magazine which celebrated and chronicled literally hundreds of other creative lives over the years.

But first there was that stint at VOX,  first launched by Wordfest artistic producer Shelley Younglbut back at the University of Calgary in the early 1980s.

A decade later, Simm joined the staff there as an adult graduate student and a single dad in the process of reinventing himself as a rock writer—and in the process, his life.

That was a little different than, say, Cameron Crowe, the legendary Rolling Stone reporter who hit the road with rock bands at the tender age of 15, in the heart of the 1970s,  all of which turned, eventually, into the film Almost Famous—but that was okay with Simm. Even if the same magazine that made Cameron Crowe a legend wouldn’t give him the time of day.

“I was 10 years older than all the kids (at VOX). Somewhat out of place, still I really liked it,” he says. “I never really thought, ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ But when I was surrounded by musicians, artists, illustrators and ACAD people—half the bands in Calgary were art guys at art school—I went wow! And then you could take your camera and actually talk to some (major label) rock stars touring through town!”

Quite a difference from when he would write letters to Rolling Stone Magazine as a kid and complain, “You guys don’t know what you’re talking about!” 

An Oil Scout, Hot Rods, and the Rust Belt

Simm’s father worked as an oil scout, a legit industrial spy back in the early days of the patch. On the side, he was an aspiring flamenco guitar player who once spent $350 on a hand-crafted guitar, which, in the 1960s, was the equivalent of about three mortgage payments.

Simm flirted with chasing the creative life as a teenager in the 70s, but, despite the flamenco guitar, his dad, a product of the Depression, discouraged the idea that he might study at the Alberta College of Art. Simm followed through on a backup plan.

Still in high school, he took off to Kelowna where he found a creative outlet that blended machinery and imagination. He became a hot rod fanatic, using his creative impulse to build muscle cars in the 70s.

“I loved them,” he says. “And with the little pittance I made working in gas stations and wearhouses, I was able to build some pretty sweet street rods.”

After his small town graduation, he furthered his technical development getting a diploma at Mount Royal College in air quality, then a gig with Environment Canada during the acid rain era relocating to Ottawa as part of an audit team inspecting factories across Canada and into America’s rust belt. The job involved large amounts of travel in Quebec down to Washington D.C. and other less exotic U.S. destinations.

Simm took the opportunity, in his downtime from work, to explore the music scene wherever his government job took him–and where the music scene took you in those days was usually to a gritty part of town at an odd hour of the night, which was fine by Simm.

Ella, Oscar, and the Busted Cherubs of the Palladium

There was the 1979 trip to New York at the height of its bankruptcy filing, which Simm took with a Calgary girlfriend from the horsey set. A show and trip that lingered on for years.

The night started at a half-full Carnegie Hall–then in disrepair—where a couple legends, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, were performing. That was the girlfriend’s pick.

Post-Ella and Oscar, the duo headed downtown to the Palladium, a nightclub located in a former opera house, where the cherubs on the walls all had broken wings, and the halls were littered with junkies and drunks who may or may not have been there to see The Jam.

It didn’t matter to Simm, who couldn’t help but think life was happening more in the Palladiums of the punk-pop world, than in his day job a few years later assessing the environmental impact of obsolete factories.

If all those left turns meant anything, sometimes it was just to prove to his dad the frustrated flamenco guitarist or even his colleagues, the engineers at Environment Canada, that the creative part of life means every bit as much to living as does the economic part.

“I was an engineer’s slave. I didn’t have the iron ring,” he said. “But there were certain things I liked about Environment Canada—when you’re on the road, and you’re reading Kurt Vonnegut novels, going to punk rock shows, working in the rust belt and writing letters to the Rolling Stone that, hey,” he shrugs, “never got answered.”

VOX, SubPop, and Exploding Opportunities

But as it turned out, by the time he made his way home to Calgary in the early 90s, that writing for a new indie mag like VOX was an opportunity and an invitation into a whole new musical world that a corporate rock rag like Rolling Stone barely sniffed at.

Those columns he wrote for VOX came just as there was an explosion of indie record labels like SubPop and Matador, and a network of indie publications like VOX that focused on a growing new genres of punk that mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone were slow to embrace.

That landed Simm invitations to music conferences in places like Chicago and New York, where delegates had the opportunity to attend shows by rising artists and upcoming bands at places like the Mercury Lounge in New York’s Lower East Side.

The thing Simm realized, over a lifetime of trying to act sensibly and waking up in some other side of his mind, was that you have to honour the dirty sound part of your brain.

“You’ve got a little Elvis in you kicking and you gotta get it out!” he laughs. “And when you start exploring music, and you hear that—what do you call it, the raw sound? The dirty sound?

The term originally was used to describe the process that distinguished the documentary filmmaking techniques of the filmmakers who worked with the National Film Board.

“You hear that dirty sound,” he continues, “and try to get it into your life and embrace it. It pushes you someplace new. You either start record collecting, watching weirdo movies, or going on road trips. That dirty sound pushes your own boundaries and makes you curious. And you’ve gotta be creative to do that.”


About The Storytelling Project

On November 16, 2015, Calgary Arts Development hosted a working session with approximately 30 creative Calgarians from various walks of life. Many of the small working groups voiced the need to gather and share more stories of people living creative lives.

That need has turned into The Storytelling Project.

The Storytelling Project raises awareness about Calgarians who, by living creative lives, are making Calgary a better city, effecting positive change and enriching others’ lives.

Have a story to share? Email us at news@calgaryartsdevelopment.com.

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