Sacramento’s late great Didley Squat started out as a fun project for four high school junior nerds: David Mohr (vocals), Stuart Nishiyama (keyboards), Jacob Barcena (guitar), and Casey James (drums). After getting their feet wet at a few open-mic nights at the True Love Coffeehouse, they developed a reputation in town as one of its most popular live bands. Mohr, sounding at times like a frantic Robert Smith, always delivered outrageously high-energy performances that the rest of the band miraculously managed to match.
Didley Squat’s first album, The Smile Box (2004), is a whirlwind mixture of pop and punk that doesn’t really manage to qualify as pop-punk. Mohr’s rapid-fire delivery and Nishiyama’s sprightly playing in songs like “Hong Kong” make for a very exciting listening experience. My favorite track is “Too Nervous,” which builds momentum and tension through a squealing guitar and frenzied vocals. As out of control as they often sound, their lyrics indicate that they’re also very smart lads. As they instruct in “Tuesday Garden,” “Sugar breaks down into water and carbon.” Despite the teen angst, these kids were doing alright indeed!
One thing I must confess here is that I’m not a huge fan of EPs, especially for bands and musicians that are prolific enough to crank out full-length albums every few years or so. Because of this, I resisted purchasing Didley Squat’s four-track intermediary release Burning Alive Making a Living (2005) despite being tempted the numerous times I spotted it at The Beat. No longer able to find it at the store, I finally ordered it through Amazon seven years after the fact. Fortunately, it turned out to be a worthy follow-up to The Smile Box with “Tigerlily” and “My Better Half” among their best-loved songs. “Little Darling” starts out as a lazy ballad but picks up the tempo considerably and closes things out in a typically rockin’ fashion. Burning Alive hasn’t necessarily made me reconsider my ambivalence towards EPs, but at least I appreciate the effort they put into this particular one.
Sadly, a show held on March 8, 2008 at the relocated True Love Coffeehouse was officially Didley Squat’s last. However, they did have the good sense to spit out a second album shortly before their final bow. Though not quite as solid as their debut, Big Blue Burden (2007) ended things on a high note with “Friend of a Friend,” “Paint By Numbers,” and “Good Looking Scientists” proving they could still give 100%. And though it hardly seems possible, Mohr double-tracking his vocals on a few songs gives them an even more delirious edge. And as with the first two releases, the multi-talented Mohr designed the simple and whimsical cartoon graphics for the album’s cover (in addition to posters for their shows). Considering how young they were when they broke up, we can only imagine what these guys would’ve accomplished had they stuck it out for a few more years.
Bonus Fun Fact – According to Mohr, three of the four band members hated the band’s name. However, there’s no indication which one favored the moniker enough to let it stick.
You can find Didley Squat’s The Smile Box for sale here.