Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival

“The one thing that I did not want to do in my life was to accumulate a house, a car, and all this stuff I have to make payments on,” says Rick Sims, sitting in the kitchen of the Roscoe Village house he bought three years ago. He’d almost certainly be living his dream if only a mediocre Orange County punk band called the Offspring hadn’t covered “Killboy Powerhead” on its 1994 album, Smash, which went on to sell millions. Sims wrote that song and recorded it with his first band, the Didjits, from downstate Mattoon, on their 1990 album, Hornet Pi–ata, and the songwriting royalties from the Offspring version so far have netted him about $600,000.

The Didjits as a group, however, didn’t fare as well. They released five albums and one EP of maniacal, overdriven rock ‘n’ roll for Touch and Go in the late 80s and early 90s, but disintegrated around the same time the Offspring took off. Sims’s brother, Brad, the trio’s original drummer, left the band in 1992, and tragedy struck following the release of the group’s final album, Que Sirhan Sirhan, in 1993: on the way back to Mattoon after a Chicago concert, bassist Doug Evans, replacement drummer Todd Cole, and Cole’s wife, Lisa, got into a car accident, and Lisa was killed.

Cole was torn up, of course, but Sims says it was a turning point for Evans too. The Didjits toured Europe just three weeks after the accident, and when they returned the bassist failed to show up for a gig at Double Door. Sims closed the book on the band then and there, and didn’t speak with Evans again until last year in Texas, where he had discreetly relocated after the European tour. “I saw his band [Thighmaster] and he started talking about the past, and I said, ‘Yeah, that was pretty weird, man, I didn’t see you for so long, what happened?'” says Sims. “And he mumbled something like, ‘Aw, man, I can’t remember what happened,’ and then he walked away.”

But while the demise of the Didjits was a disappointment, Sims hasn’t exactly been languishing in the interim. The reason he was in Texas last year was to play at South by Southwest with his new band, the Gaza Strippers–a quartet that transfers the hyper energy of the Didjits to outsize 70s hard rock. They returned to the festival last month to play a packed showcase for Man’s Ruin, the record label run by rock-poster artist Frank Kozik, and will celebrate their Man’s Ruin debut, Laced Candy, on Saturday at Lounge Ax. And with the relative freedom provided by the Offspring wellspring, Sims has explored some other creative outlets as well.

In 1994 he accepted an invitation to make an album with Seattle’s Supersuckers, seemingly a good match. The Supersuckers’ hopped-up, down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll was close enough kin to the Didjits’; their onstage demeanor has been described as arrogant, and Sims’s act, which includes flashing satanic symbols, lewdly wagging his tongue, and requesting that the audience kiss his derriere, could be characterized as at least that. But after the release of The Sacrilicious Sounds of the Supersuckers (Sub Pop), on which he played guitar and wrote or cowrote nearly half the songs, he agreed to join them on the road, a decision he now regrets. “I had problems with their passive-aggressive behavior toward me,” he says. “They would act like I was just a hired gun, but at the same time they would tell me, ‘You’re in the band.'”

Sims also wrote music for and performed in the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s 1994 production of Up Against It, adapted from a screenplay Joe Orton originally wrote for the Beatles. He says it was a natural step: “It would be a leap for me to do Shakespeare or a deep love story, but this was very irreverent with lots of scatological humor. It was a silly play, so I fit right in. I didn’t sing, but I was in a hole that I got pulled out of in my underwear.”

After quitting the Supersuckers he played on the Steve Albini-recorded solo album by Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, and he toured in support of it in the summer of 1996. Later that year he acted in another Lookingglass production, Vanishing Twin: “I played a villain with a mask who went around killing people, and I played a cordless guitar onstage, running offstage and reappearing through trapdoors.”

Still, Sims says, he kept thinking about starting a new band of his own. He’d met Gaza Strippers bassist Darren Hooper, 25, in Nashville while touring with the Supersuckers. “He came up to me and he was drunk and annoying and he said, ‘Hey, man, we gotta jam, blah, blah,’ and I just told him to send me a tape.” Hooper complied, and Sims liked what he heard enough to convince Hooper and drummer Todd Marino to move to Chicago. “I got these guys together and they just sounded awful. They failed to tell me that that tape was two years old and that they hadn’t picked up their instruments since then. But their dedication to doing whatever it took to get it done was all I needed.”

The band released a single and played some low-profile shows here and on the west coast. Marino quit after his first bout of touring, opening the door for current skinsman Cory Stateler, 22. Last summer the group was forced to cancel a tour when Sims underwent surgery for suspected thyroid cancer (a node proved benign). Around the same time early Gaza Strippers fan Mike Hodgkiss, 24, was lobbying to join the band as a second guitarist. “I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck what happens to the band right now,'” says Sims. “‘I don’t want to spend another five months playing these same old songs, trying to work him in.'” So while Sims dealt with his medical problem, Hodgkiss jammed with Stateler and Hooper to learn the songs.

Now that he’s back up to speed, Sims has high hopes for the band; he’s even bought a new van for its upcoming two-month tour. “It’s fun to go on tour with people who are doing it for the first time,” he says. “They’re just happy to have their name on a record. With the Didjits my brother complained for years about money, and these guys are excited about getting free beer.” At 34, Sims is the band’s eldest member by far, and many of his peers from Chicago’s punk-rock heyday have moved on to more mature musical projects. But despite all the prognostication to the contrary, Sims insists “rock isn’t dead. It’s just passed out in the corner, and it’s going to get up and be obnoxious again. People who talk about rock being dead want it to be dead, and they’re trying to kill it. It’s what I do; it’s what I went to school for.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Brad Miller.