From nosh to mosh

Local crunchy punk band Simon Says proves there’s a lot of life after lunch break

It helps when you were buddies to begin with. Simon Says, (left to right): Zac Diebels, Matt Franks, Mike Johnston, Mike Arrieta.

It helps when you were buddies to begin with. Simon Says, (left to right): Zac Diebels, Matt Franks, Mike Johnston, Mike Arrieta.

If you were around Del Campo High School in 1994, you may remember a band of four, standing on a makeshift stage in front of the gym, belting out tunes for your lunchtime listening pleasure.

The four lugged a drum kit from a car in the parking lot, set up mikes and amps and strapped on guitars to play for a crowd more appreciative of a good pair of GAP jeans than of any talent developing in front of them.

They called themselves Simon Says, after the popular children’s game, and their music wasn’t much more mature than their title. But lead singer Matt Franks, guitarist Zac Diebels, drummer Mike Johnston and bassist Mike Arrieta were merely out to have fun and, in the process, make some music they could be proud of.

The following year, Simon Says produced its first album, Little Boy, on a small budget. The disc sold 5,000 copies; the band toured California venues.

“We used to sell out the Crest just for fun,” Johnston recalls.

In 1997, Simon Says produced another album, Perfect Example, which sold out almost immediately. Within a year, the “garage band” was signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records label.

“Signed? I didn’t even know what that meant,” Johnston says. “A lot of people just love being in a band for the money and the girls. All I knew was I loved being on stage with my three best friends.”

Simon Says’ Hollywood debut was a departure: Jump Start showed that the band’s once pissed-off adolescent sound had mellowed considerably. “We had just found out that we never had to worry about money again,” Johnston says. “We were on top of the world, and we were really proud of it. Then we went out on tour, and when we listened to it or heard it played on the radio we realized it was just a bunch of happy crap.”

After touring with such bands as Limp Bizkit, Staind and Filter, the hometown boys were ready for something else.

So Simon Says went back to the studio. And what it found was a batter of sound, mixed from the ingredients of four best friends, created on their own terms, without any interference from the record company. The maturity of a band growing up and discovering its boundaries is the finished product, Shut Your Breath, which comes out Tuesday, July 24.

Franks’ sultry voice could just as easily whisper a lullaby at twilight as it could instigate a mosh pit. And in this new album he uses both talents equally. Diebels controls every track on lead guitar; Johnston is crisp and precise on drums, lending every song power and strength. And Arrieta is simply fun to look at with his outrageous Afro that’s so long if he put a top hat on his head he might pass for the almighty Slash.

Simon Says is traveling across the States as a part of the “Short End of the Stick” tour, a lineup composed of bands that were promised a spot in Ozzfest but got bumped for various reasons.

“It was a collaboration between the record companies—Maverick, MCA and Hollywood Records—to bring the kids in and have some fun,” Johnston says.

When the tour landed in Orangevale on June 30, Simon Says packed the Boardwalk with their constituents and faithful followers. Through most of the show the crowd stood at attention, lip-synching the words and watching the now 20-somethings thrash around the stage and entertain the hell out of the crowd.

And, to tell the truth, the band members haven’t changed much. They’ve grown as adults, and also as performers. They’ve certainly grown into their instruments. And their anger, honesty, reckless energy and pure intensity are still contagious.

So if you aren’t a former classmate, friend or fan of these Sacramento natives, Simon says give them a listen. You’ll figure out what some of us have known since a 1994 lunch break: These guys have talent.