Thursday, August 3, 2000
Stuttgart, Germany ï¿½ The boys in the band take to the darkened stage amid thick cigarette smoke and the smell of stale beer.
They are following in the footsteps of legends who played here at the LKA Longhorn, a dank, dark warehouse at the edge of this German industrial city ï¿½ legends like Metallica, Alice Cooper, AC/DC.
There are other footsteps, too ï¿½ those who came aiming for stardom and now are forgotten, except for some old concert posters wallpapering the building.
Every year, industry analysts estimate, more than 1,000 bands are signed to recording deals. Fewer than 1 percent ever find fame. Their fate turns on talent, radio play, promotions, tours ï¿½ and luck.
The band at LKA Longhorn is known as Simon Says, a punk rock band with heavy metal leanings. They've reached the Billboard 100 and are on the edge of blowing up or blowing out.
"It was like, 'Now or never,"' says guitarist Zac Diebels.
Looking the part
In Stuttgart, the audience is loud. The music is louder.
"We are Simon Says from Sacramento, California," screams singer Matt Franks into the microphone to thunderous applause.
This is Day 20 of a month-long spring tour by bus with German powerhouse band Such A Surge and newcomers Flow Fy.
The bands sleep by day. They play by night. They share buses.
On this tour, there are no "Limousines and Penthouse Suites" ï¿½ a track from Simon Says' upcoming album.
Most days, the guys don't know where they are or where they are going. Recounting stories from the road, they have to look at all their access badges, which list cities and dates.
"If it's Monday, it must be, what? Another German city," cracks Diebels, 23.
Their bus rolls through Munich, Berlin and other cities, but the only sites the band sees are the parking lots of concert venues. The tour is about getting exposure, band members say.
At first glance, they look every bit the stereotypical rockers with their T-shirts, jeans, dyed hair, tattooed arms and pierced ears. In one case, a pierced tongue.
But each personality plays a distinct role in building the band.
Diebels is the salesman, pitching the band to industry types and the media. Once a college student with aspirations of being a Capitol Hill lobbyist, he is articulate and relentless in his approach.
Drummer Mike Johnston, 23, plays the devil's advocate, always taking the other side in discussions ï¿½ just to make sure all their options are represented. Twenty-two-year-old Franks prefers to take the middle road. And bass player Mike Arrieta is the band's listener. The youngest of the four, at 20, he interjects something only when he feels it's absolutely needed.
"Of all the years I've known Mike he's been like that. Where I use a thousand words to say 10, he uses just five," Diebels says.
The quartet began, like many groups, as a garage band ï¿½ teen-age friends pounding out notes and playing covers of their favorite songs. Almost from the beginning in 1993, Diebels, Franks and Johnston were writing and performing their own songs. They were joined nearly three years later by Arrieta.
They were kids having fun, even taking their name ï¿½ Simon Says ï¿½ from the child's game.
But there was little childlike about their music ï¿½ aggressive power chords, ear-shattering drum mixes and solid, sometimes soulful, lyrics.
"It started out as something to do and then it became this thing that we couldn't imagine not doing," Diebels says.
They took self-promotion seriously to get their music out to the public, attacking utility poles and bulletin boards with staple guns and flyers, spending hundreds of dollars on postage and even more on telephone bills. They began booking high schools, and playing to lunchtime crowds by day and clubs by night.
On a shoestring budget, they released two albums on a local independent label.
They earned a cult following, rave reviews from the rock underground and precious local radio air play.
By the end of 1998, Simon Says was making so much noise, record labels started to listen. They signed with Hollywood Records to a seven-year, three-album contract. The producer of the first was Rob Cavallo, who helped engineer Green Day's smash debut album "Dookie."
The Hollywood Records 12-track debut "Jump Start" has experienced a modicum of success. One of its singles was slapped onto the "Varsity Blues" movie soundtrack, which hit the Billboard top-selling albums list.
A second song, "Slider," was put in MTV's new artists rotation, and a third, "Life Jacket," slowly wound its way up the Billboard rock chart.
Simultaneously, the group started a yearlong tour in cargo vans of more than 200 high schools and nightclubs, stopping at hotels only to shower. Halfway through the tour, they got an unexpected break as the opening act for hard rock's Filter, which was on the Billboard Top 10 and traveling in luxury buses.
But while Simon Says was putting everything into their aggressive, in-your-face performances, with songs exploring the dark corners of their lives, Disney-owned Hollywood Records put them on the music-video rotation on the Disney Channel. "Life Jacket," a personal song about their experiences in music, was sandwiched between the likes of Britney Spears and 98 Degrees.
"Hollywood was working for them. I think they saw it as an opportunity for them and tried it. But they aren't a boy band. They are a hard-rocking group of guys, accomplished musicians," said Kylee Brooks, a disc jockey who gave the group unlimited radio air play on one of Northern California's leading rock stations.
"I never thought it was going to be easy for them. ... The appeal of Simon Says is their live show. To get them, you have to see them and then listen to the album," she said.
The band's appeal is a point emphasized by their Stuttgart show ï¿½ it's sold out.
Most of those attending never heard of the group. But they leave with armloads of T-shirts and copies of the CD.
On a balcony overlooking the sales table, Arrieta coaches potential buyers under his breath. "Come on. You want the T-shirt. Buy it," he whispers.
Back on the cramped bus, the guys go over their performance with a couple of friends who have joined them for the final leg of the tour.
Success is measured in part by audience participation: stage diving, crowd surfing and slam dancing.
Earlier in the week, the band played in the east German town of Cottbus, a place struggling economically after reunification.
"They just stood there. It was really strange," Diebels said. "This show was great compared to that."
Since the band's formation, weekly meetings and performance critiques have been part of their work ethic.
Having watched bands self-destruct over ego, alcohol and drugs, Simon Says follows a code of sorts: no drinking the night of a show; no frontman; no making decisions about the band's future without the others; and absolutely no ego toward other band members.
"We have attitude about what we do, about what we do on stage," says Johnston. "But we can't have an attitude with each other. Occasionally, one of us is full of it, but there are three other people to call us on it."
To make their rules work, the four share a two-story, five-bedroom house on the outskirts of Sacramento. They also collectively share the responsibility and the rewards for writing and composing.
"We're in this together," Diebels says.
Keeping their heads
After the spring tour, the boys in the band headed into a Los Angeles studio to cut a second album before heading back to Germany this month to play a two-day music festival, then on a U.S. tour.
The band members say they're enjoying the musical ride, and admit they've indulged in a few whims since they got a little famous.
Johnston bought a new Mustang. Diebels and Franks bought motorcycles. Arrieta bought a top of the line laptop computer and a Toyota Cellica.
But mostly they look toward the future, putting their money into savings and investments.
"We know it's not going to last forever," Johnston says. "But we're having a blast while we're doing it."