by Ric Albano
As the primary writers of this profile on The Badlees, my wife Karyn and I felt that it was important to gather as many facts as possible and present these in a clear and objective way, which I feel we have. To further this goal, it is important to disclose the fact that we are not entirely neutral observers when it comes to the band and/or some of its members.
While Karyn and I have been avid music fans and supporters of local music for many years, we became aware of The Badlees mainly through our mutual friend and co-worker, Sandy Simasek, who happens to be the proud mother of drummer Ron Simasek. That was in 1994 and, in subsequent years, the Simasek family would be part of many milestones in our lives. When Karyn and I were married in Las Vegas on December 13, 1996, Ron’s sister Tracy was gracious enough to let us stay at her place and take us out to some of the non-touristy “local” haunts on the very night we were married – and we had a blast. In 1998, Karyn and I purchased our first home together, a 150-year old farmhouse in Drums, PA that was obviously hand built by a very short farmer since you had to duck anytime you went up or down the stairs. As it was such a unique structure, we sought the expert advice of Ron Simasek Sr., a master at everything construction, on its foundational soundness before making an offer. That same year, Sandy was Godmother to our son, Bryen.
Sandy was not at all shy about boasting of her son’s band as they gradually gained popularity. She would frequently recruit bunches of us from work to go see “her boys” whenever they were in the area. The first time I met the members of the band, aside from Ron, was at a New Year’s gig (95/96) at The Silo in Reading, PA. A bunch of us, including Ron’s parents and sister, home for the holidays from Vegas, all piled into a van to make the trip.
Later that year (1996), I had the opportunity to briefly work with The Badlees running stage monitors for some of the Pennsylvania shows they had booked in between their national tours. I had the good fortune to get to know each member of the band and crew. While it was enjoyable working with the band at the peak of their popularity I can’t really say I was an avid fan at the time – at least not to the extent of some of their fanatical followers back then. I certainly appreciated a few of the songs and the fact that they used different instrumentation, and I sincerely wished them success because they were so genuine and hard working. But I honestly viewed them as a higher-end pop band and didn’t think of them as anything historic in the “Led Zeppelin” sense.
I am a musician myself and, for years, I had been writing and doing some amatuer 4-track recordings at home. I played in my fair share of cover bands in the Hazleton area, and ran sound for a few others. But after settling into domestic life with our marriage and the birth of our twin sons, I ended up putting my musical ambitions on hold for several years. Around the same time I left the job where I had worked with Sandy, pursued my undergraduate studies at Bloomsburg University, and eaked out a living as a weekend DJ. Although, I may have been on the cutting edge when it came to discovering the next party classic such as “Mambo #5” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?”, I inevitably lost touch with the local music scene, including the Badlees.
After I graduated college we relocated to the Harrisburg, PA area in 2004. I soon decided to give songwriting and recording another shot (you never can douse that fire!) Eventually, I made plans to do a fully-produced professional recording of my own material for the first time ever. After researching several area studios, I ultimately chose to record at Saturation Acres in Danville.
Run by Badlees’ Bret Alexander and Paul Smith, it was about 80 miles away from my location, which was not geographically convenient. However, when I met with Bret and played him a few of the songs off my demo, he seemed to instantly recognize what I was trying to do musically. So in 2005 I recorded my first fully professional material for a project I called “Imaginary Lines” at Saturation Acres in Danville, PA. While traveling to these sessions, I realized that I was traveling the very same route along the Susquehanna River (albeit in reverse) that inspired the title for the River Songs album when The Badlees recorded that album in Harrisburg about a decade earlier.
On those earliest recordings, Bret played guitars and Ron played drums on most songs, while Paul engineered the album and also gave me some invaluable pointers on the bass guitar. I started an independent label called Cygnus Wave to release this music (and eventually other music as well). I continued making Imaginary Lines recordings through 2009 when I combined them into a comprehensive collection called Imaginary Lines 33. Ron Simasek played drums on 26 of the 33 songs in this collection. His unique drumming enhanced the quality of the song “33 Flames for Mary” so significantly that I happily gave him a co-writing credit for that song (which, according to AMG, is his one and only songwriting credit to date).
After we relocated, Karyn and I started to get back out and discover local music. We would support the music whenever we could by purchasing CDs and going to shows. Karyn ordered The Cellarbirds’ Perfect Smile CD online and instantly fell in love with it. She felt strongly that everyone needed to hear this record so she bought a dozen more copies to give away as Christmas gifts. We were soon in attendance at as many Cellarbirds shows as possible. At one show in Lewisburg, I noticed Bret had a solo album, Gentleman East, and asked to purchase it. He was hesitant at first warning that this is nothing like the Badlees or even the Cellarbirds. But this just made me more curious and I bought it anyway. Karyn and I listened to it on the long drive home and were struck by its acoustic sounds, haunting imagery, and storytelling. We agreed this was something very different and wonderful. It was a collection that sounded distinctly like Bret Alexander, rather than Bret Alexander of the Badlees. It was here that we started to fully appreciate Bret’s songwriting talent. Slowly, I started to re-examine the older Badlees music again, trying to recognize the evolution of this talent, and began to gain a new appreciation.
Between 2005 and 2010, I produced several albums under the Cygnus Wave label, including some for outside musical acts. Bret Alexander and Saturation Acres had a hand in every one of those productions. He produced and performed several instruments for “Song for Diane”, a song I wrote which was part of a charity compilation CD called Dollars for Diane, in honor of Karyn’s sister Diane Kovaleski who suffered severe brain trauma in 2007 and ultimately passed away in 2015 at age 38. The CD was released in conjunction with a benefit concert held in January 2010 in Diane’s home town of Wilkes-Barre, PA. Both the benefit show and CD raised money for brain injury research and a scholarship fund for Diane’s young daughter. Bret Alexander and Ron Simasek donated their talents and prestige, by performing at the benefit with the makeshift band “The Traveling Wilkes-Barrians”.
In more recent years, starting in 2017, Bret, Ron and I resumed recording together with the studio group Sinclair Soul. As of 2021, we have produced and released four albums with much of the latter production taking place at Paul’s new 8 Days a Week studio in Northumberland, PA. Bret, Paul and Ron even reunited as “The Cellerbirds” for Karyn and I to perform at our 20th anniversary in 2016 and later at my son Dylan’s wedding in 2019.
Back in 2009, Karyn started a website with a few other music fans called DAMES of Pa, and did several articles on Badlees members as well as a review of their album Love Is Rain. From that foundation we decided to launch Modern Rock Review, and it seemed instantly clear that a full-scale Badlees profile would be the ideal way to get this site started.
We felt that there had not been an adequate, comprehensive telling of their story, so we set out to gather as many facts as we could through research and interviews. Bret, Ron, and Pete were tremendously helpful on this front as were former manager Terry Selders, current manager Chris Gardner, and longtime songwriting collaborator, Mike Naydock. We wanted to get as many “sides” of the story as possible, and be able to present the multitude of events that make up this story as fact.
However, this does not mean that the profile is devoid of opinion, especially when it comes to our analysis of the music itself. For what it’s worth, we present our expertise on many of the songs and all of the albums, but encourage readers to listen for themselves. We certainly have. From the Bad Lee White beginnings right up through their most current material, we listened and listened again (and again) to each and every track. I can now say with conviction that I have truly become a fan of the band’s music after discovering some of the underlying genius in many of the songs, which may not be apparent at first, but gains more and more clarity with each new listen.
I was wrong in the 1990s when I assessed the band as just a higher end pop band. Perhaps it took the passage of time and experience to discover the quality of this music and gain this respect.
No, they are not Led Zeppelin.
They are the Badlees!
Ric Albano is the Editor-in-Chief of Modern Rock Review.