Inside a sunny basement studio perched atop a hill in the Sierra Madre Canyon, Frank Simes spends up to 16 hours at a stretch recording, composing, and arranging music. As the musical director for British band The Who, this is where he scored the legendary songs for their upcoming tour Quadrophenia.
A Grammy-nominated and platinum record awarded musician who was born to an American father and Japanese mother in Tokyo, Simes spent his formative years in Japan, and moved to Los Angeles as a teenager.
When his father, formerly a legal attaché to General Douglas MacArthur in the U.S. Army, retired as a Colonel from the military, Simes and his father traveled mostly by train and ship westward across the globe from Japan to southern California, via the Sea of Japan, the Trans-Siberian railroad, and the Baltic Sea. After another long train trip, this time from Boston to California, Simes moved in with a group of friends, and enrolled himself in tenth grade at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.
These days, Simes, age 55, travels constantly on tours with members of The Who, Don Felder of the Eagles, and performs with his own band. He’s already booked up for the rest of the year: gigs from Niagara Falls to the Bahamas, rehearsals in London this fall, and a 36-city tour of North America with The Who, which kicks off in Florida this November.
Simes is no stranger to playing huge crowds, from festivals to arenas, and he’s taken the stage in front of 200,000 people. He’s also sung with dozens of music legends, and he’ll never forget his moment singing “Hey Jude” on stage with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr at the Hollywood Bowl in 1993.
Childhood Intro to Rock 'n' Roll
Simes’ father, a Harvard graduate from New Hampshire and a multi-lingual career lawyer, and his mother, a charismatic model and music-lover from Tokyo, raised the budding musician in a custom-designed house on top of a hill in Tokyo, surrounded by a peaceful Japanese garden.
Simes picked up a guitar at age 10, when he got one as a Christmas present. “I began teaching myself how to play it,” he said. His mother, a fan of R&B and soul music, and his sister, who listened to jazz, imbued him with a love of music. “I grew up on R&B and rock 'n' roll,” he said.
The watershed moment came when Simes saw "Woodstock" on the silver screen at age 14.
“When the movie of Woodstock came out, I went to see it at a Japanese theater, and I was enthralled,” he said. “I went to see the movie eight times. I was mesmerized by the whole movie, and I wanted to be part of that culture.”
Of all the bands playing Woodstock, one group really blew him away. “I wanted to jump into that film, and just play with The Who.” It was their “explosive energy and the originality of the music itself,” that really appealed to him, he said.
Those days, he and a few friends from his American public school on the U.S. Army base in Tokyo, played some of The Who’s music in a band they called Siddhartha.
He didn’t know that 32 years later, in a nightclub in West Los Angeles, he’d meet and actually play with Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who.
By the early-2000’s, Simes had become a successful musician in Los Angeles, writing hundreds of songs for film and television, touring with Don Henley of the Eagles as his band leader, and playing with Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, and other greats.
One day, Simes received a call from a mutual friend saying that Daltrey was looking for a guitarist for his charity band. Simes went down to a rehearsal space in West LA with his guitar and amp.
“As I was setting up, Roger came sauntering in, and it was a scene out of a movie,” Simes said, recalling a cone of light shining through the ceiling into the foggy, dimly lit studio.
“He walked in nonchalantly playing ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ and I knew the song. I knew a lot of Who songs,” Simes said. “So, I chimed in on the guitar, and he looked at me and nodded. He went up to the mic and started singing, and I knew the background vocals too and I just sang.”
“We finished the song, then he looks at me and goes, ‘Well that’ll do.’ And he put out his hand to shake my hand. That was quite a meeting.”
Touring the World
Since then, Simes has become one of The Who’s most trusted members. He will hit the road with the band as their musical director, keyboardist, and backing vocalist on their North American tour. “If that’s successful, I’d imagine they’d book a tour of Europe, the U.K., and possibly Australia and Asia.”
Simes spent three months scoring the music for The Who’s upcoming tour Quadrophenia, the title of the band’s 1973 double album and second rock opera.
“I scored the horns, trumpets, trombone, French horn, euphonium, strings – violin, viola, cello – some keyboards, all the background vocals,” he said. The arrangement of one of the longest songs, Doctor Jimmy, runs 85 pages alone.
He also helped create the medley of songs The Who’s Daltrey and Pete Townshend will play at the Olympics closing ceremony this month.
For his previous tours with Daltrey and his No Plan B Band, Simes re-conceived the rock opera Tommy. That involved analyzing the vocals and transcribing the music directly from the original 1969 record. He scored the French horn and up to six parts of background vocals in highly complex works.
Simes said the stories in The Who’s rock operas set the band’s music apart. “The Who’s music will live longer because the lyrics contain narrative. There’s always a story, they may be abstract, but there’s still a story. And that’s why it’s more interesting to me.”
Earlier this year, Simes played four cities in Japan on tour with Daltrey. “That was a big homecoming for me,” he said. “That kind of closed the circle, so to speak, from the fantasy days when I was 14 to actually coming to Japan with Roger.”
Home Sweet Home
Since he first stepped off a Greyhound bus in Los Angeles at age 15, Simes has lived in more than a dozen locations around the city. In 2004, he settled on a home in Sierra Madre, where he works long hours late into the night, composing music for television and film, arranging songs, and mixing tracks.
“It’s beautiful up here,” Simes said. “People here are friendly, strangers wave to each other and greet each other. Neighbors know each other, they’ll look out for each other. There’s a strong sense of community in general in Sierra Madre.”
He and his partner Lisa Verlo have written two musicals, one of which will play the for one night on September 30. Titled “The Door,” this musical is a satire about the entertainment business, and the songs also feature Simes’ talented daughters on vocals.
“It centers around the story of a woman who feels she hasn’t done enough to make headway in her career, and she wants to make an effort to get back in,” Simes said.
As if he weren’t busy enough, Simes also composes and plays with his own band Topcat with Altadena bass guitarist Jamie Hunting. Simes also made a recent appearance at bandshell, playing guitar with the band Groovy Lemon Pie for the city’s .
He took time in between sets and after the show to talk to Sierra Madre concertgoers, including his daughter’s former elementary school teacher.
As Simes gears up to rehearse with The Who in London this October, he reflected on how far he’s come. “My fantasy of playing with The Who came true,” he said.
Correction: The first version of this story stated that Simes's mother was born in Yokohama. She was born in Tokyo. Patch apologizes for the error.