Like ships passing in the night, guitarists Chase Simpson and Josh Jove were both living in Los Angeles, struggling for several exasperating years through a succession of failed rock combos, yet never once crossing paths. And that’s how it can go in that dog-eat-dog music scene, they both agree, noting that many of their old bandmates have long since given up on their dreams of stardom and moved back to their various hometowns across the country. But—almost inexorably—this pair was meant to meet. And neither had any idea that the catalyst would turn out to be none other than Tom Petty, who took them under his wing, offered them the keys to his home studio, got them signed with his management company and helped produce their eponymous debut as The Shelters. You simply can’t fight fate.
And there’s more than a little Damn the Torpedoes Rickenbacker-ish twang to The Shelters, even though Simpson prefers a semi-hollow-bodied Gretsch and his trusty Stratocaster. It’s there in the chiming opening track “Rebel Heart,” with its wah-oohed ‘60s chorus, gravelly Standells riff and the summery harmonies of Jove and Simpson, who trade off on lead vocals. The rest of the set—from “Liar” to “Birdwatching,” “Fortune Teller,” and the forlorn “The Ghost is Gone”—is great, galloping garage rock, the kind of old-school, meat-and-potatoes songwriting you rarely hear these days, when prefab radio hits are carefully constructed for mass consumption in Sweden, like IKEA furniture. Naturally, the group has been welcomed by the retro-minded Sirius Satellite Radio channel Underground Garage, and its founder, Little Steven Van Zandt.
How did the Jove and Simpson trajectories finally intersect? Strange story, sighs the Malibu-bred Simpson, who formed his first band in grade school to cover Sugar Ray’s “I Just Wanna Fly” for a class talent show. Even then, he wanted to become a rock star. “I was little, but there was that feeling that you always live for—the adrenaline and the affirmation,” he recalls of that eye-opening performance. “It was so fun, and everyone’s having a good time, watching you do your thing up there. And afterwards, I was suddenly the cool guy at school, and we even had these fifth-grade groupies. And yes,” he chuckles, “even then I knew about girls.”
Ever since he was young, Simpson never once toyed with any other career. He always instinctively understood he was meant to play guitar, although he didn’t think of himself as a frontman, per se. Singing just wasn’t his thing. “And I always found anyone around me who was into music, and I’d try to get something together with them,” he recalls. “And from grade school, I went into more classic rock stuff, but by the time I was a teenager, I was in straight-up punk and hardcore bands, and I was gong to shows every night that I could. But then it all kind of curved back to the musical direction that I’m in now.”
Thanks, in part, to the influence of Jove, who grew up in Florida as a chameleon-esque session player in several different types of outfits. “Most of the bands I played, I was just a hired gun, a guitarist sitting in,” says Jove, who has resided in Hollywood for eight years. “So the music I played was varied—there was a lot of Americana happening, because that was a thing that was really happening back then. And I was hired to play in an indie-rock band in Florida, but we had a bad falling out when I moved to LA with my girlfriend at the time. “But I learned a lot from all the bands I played with, including that one, even down to learning how to interact with each other when you’re traveling on the road. But to me, my musical career started when I moved to California.”
Jove eventually settled into a group called Automatik Slim. Meanwhile, Simpson had become good friends with Petty’s stepson, Dylan, and they had tentatively formed an outfit together. Petty took notice of the new kid hanging out at his house, and—when Simpson’s father passed away—bought him a guitar and took him on the road with him to cheer him up. Even then, he heard something special in the youngster. And Simpson didn’t take the honor for granted—he seized every opportunity he could to talk turkey with his benefactor. “Because I’ve been into music my whole life, I would always pick his brain about it any time I saw him,” he says. “”And I’d hear stories and listen and try to absorb as much as I could.”
What wisdom did the Heartbreakers leader impart? Simpson pauses. Where should he begin? he wonders. “I learned so much from Tom, because that’s mostly what our conversations would end up being about—songwriting, and he’s such a master at it. So a classic adage he told me about searching for songs was, ‘You ain’t gonna catch a fish if your pole ain’t in the water.’ You always have to be involved, and you need patience, and you’ve got to go through the bad ones to get to the good ones.” Simpson mentioned how he had always struggled with lyrics. Petty had some advice in that department, as well. “He told me a story about how Bob Dylan would write eight verses, and then pick the best line from each of those verses and make only one verse,” he adds. “So it’s that quest for the best—you definitely can’t just settle, and that’s something that Tom has really instilled in me, that you need to just keep writing.”
And that’s where kismet kicked in. The nascent group needed an extra axeman, so its bassist brought his old pal Jove by one afternoon for an audition. He wasn’t expecting to form The Shelters—he was getting regular work composing reality-TV show soundtracks, and saw it as another hired-gun gig. The group’s alternative-minded music was diametrically opposed to Jove’s more rustic interests, but he gave it his best shot. And he gradually came to view Simpson as a kindred spirit. “Over time, by us just hanging out, our musical tastes kind of aligned, just as that band was ending for other reasons,” he elaborates. Petty’s stepson, he adds, had other aspirations outside of music. “And as that became more and more clear to us, Chase and I just didn’t want to stop, because we were finally getting somewhere with the sound. Stylistically, there was something happening with the guitars, and we were down with that.”
There was just one problem. Neither guitarist had ever really sung lead before. With Petty’s encouragement, Jove—whose parents had trilled in the vocal ensemble Up With People before he was born—stepped up to the mic first, then Simpson, who agreed to put vocals to every new song he brought into the fold. With original drummer Sebastian Harris still on board, then new recruit Jacob Pilot on bass, the quartet toyed with calling itself The Speakers (the name was already claimed overseas) but chose The Shelters, ironically the name of Petty’s first recording label. And even though Dylan had moved on, dad was still on board. Nervously, the musicians would play Petty their demos, and he would give them honest feedback. And there was definitely an ‘Aha’ moment, Simpson notes: “When we came up with “Rebel Heart,” Tom was like, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Let’s cut a track! Come over here, and we’ll do it!’ And that track came out so well that we just kept doing, and little by little our album turned into what it is now—it’s been this really organic thing.”
Petty also invited Jove and Simpson to add some licks to his Hypnotic Eye disc, on the song “Forgotten Man.” And that’s one assignment that still stuns Jove. “We were hanging around his studio a lot, and one day he needed some extra hands, and next thing you know, I’m adding a little guitar thing,” he remembers. “And Tom’s the type of guy who could easily do it himself or call some legendary player, but instead he turned to me and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you play this part really quick?’ And it’s a little morsel, nothing fancy, and the guitar playing is still Tom and Mike [Campbell, Heartbreakers co-founder]. But for me, it’s just so cool to listen back to that song now, and hear my little, tiny guitar bit. Having done so much studio guitar work, I’m always interested in finding the perfect little guitar sound to complete the session. So it was an honor to feel like I was doing that for Tom.”
Petty’s support never waned. He’s currently taking The Shelters out on tour with his side project Mudcrutch. And Simpson is still trying to process it all. “This has been like an ultimate dream come true,” he admits. “And it’s hard to absorb, being that I’m still in it. It’s crazy—everything is just amazing at the moment.” Petty helped sensitize The Shelters’ ears so keenly, they were hearing things they wanted to change on their record, even when they were playing the finished masters for Warner Brothers execs. “You end up wanting to cross out entire lines because you’ve found a better word,” laughs Simpson. “So the Golden Rule of songwriting that Tom taught me is, Each part of the song should be as good—or better than—the next part.
“So when you come out of a chorus and you go into a bridge that’s just not as good? Hey—you’ve got to go straight back to the drawing board!”