“Now’s the time to take off our shoes and dance that cartoon dance…”
These lyrics from The Ditty Bops’ “Waking Up in the City” could just as easily be a disclaimer on the cover of their new record—i.e., if you suddenly find yourself barefoot and animated, don’t say we didn’t warn you. A shiny brew of vaudeville, ragtime, jug band and 1940s radio dolls, The Ditty Bops’ music is heartily thirst quenching and not quite like anything else out there. The Los Angeles duo’s methods of self-promotion are equally refreshing: to support their second album, Moon Over the Freeway (Warner Bros.), and Planet Earth, Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald hit the road this summer for a cross-country bicycle tour.
The Ditty Bops are pedaling their way through more than a dozen states and two-dozen performances, ending with a show at New York’s South Street Seaport on August 30th. “We both commute by bike every day, and the idea came to us because we wanted to do something different with this album,” says DeWald, the pair’s guitarist. “We were really excited about the album, but not about getting in a van for a few weeks.” Not crazy enough to haul their concert gear in handlebar baskets, The Ditty Bops have van support from piano and accordion player Greg Rutledge, who quit his day job to be their tour manager. “When we’ve toured in the past, we couldn’t wait to get back to our lives,” says Barrett, who plays mandolin and washboard on Moon Over the Freeway. “Doing the tour this way means it is our lives. We’re having the best time.”
Partners in life as well as in song, DeWald and Barrett knew each other for five years before a friend heard them sing and encouraged them to make music together. “We were looking for a lost cat in our neighborhood, and it ran into our neighbor Marty’s backyard, so Amanda knocked on his door,” says DeWald. “When she ran through his house, she saw that he had more than a dozen guitars hanging on the wall, and she was like ‘wow’. He always had musicians around, so we started hanging out at his place and experimenting with music, and it kind of took off from there. Somehow we just trusted him.” The same neighbor is responsible for the band’s name, which frankly couldn’t be more a more perfect fit. “Marty started jokingly calling us The Ditty Bops, and we were like ‘whatever, there’s no way we’re going to call ourselves that,’” says DeWald. “But then everyone started calling us that, and at some point we decided it was too late and we had to just go with it.”
It’s easy to see how the girls’ neighbor took special note of their musical chemistry. The blend of DeWald and Barrett’s voices is sunny and unique, conjuring an image of the Andrews Sisters lying in hammocks, sucking on popsicles. This isn’t to say that all of The Ditty Bops’ tunes are entirely carefree—their lyrics take on privacy and pollution as often as pancakes and clear night skies. But more than anything, listening to the Bops feels like being in a speakeasy or on a riverboat with the Muppets. Really hot Muppets.
That’s right, it can’t be denied that part of the Ditty Bops’ appeal is their overall aesthetic, which includes a profound cuteness that they’ve exploited with irresistible originality. Thanks to the girls’ own artistic leanings and the talents of friends, an arsenal of photographs, drawings, comic strips and swag has created an offbeat and adorable Ditty Bops’ “brand” to match their music. Visiting their website is a picnic of nostalgia, silliness, and DIY glam. Their latest visual project is a 2006 Bicycle Bikini Calendar, in which DeWald and Barrett pose for 12 captivating tableaus involving creative uses of sexy retro bathing suits and bikes.
“We came up with ideas for scenes, and our friend Rick Whitmore executed them,” says Barrett, whose calendar poses include a ruler-brandishing, purple lingerie-clad schoolteacher. “For example, we wanted to do one with an English garden theme, and he took the same idea and dropped us in Africa.” Barrett says the calendar has sold well, even in unlikely places. “We brought them on a tour last fall and sold a lot in the Midwest. All these little old ladies, even people at Christian colleges, were coming up to us and saying ‘this is so cute!’ It was pretty funny.”
In addition to audio, lyrics, and eye candy, The Ditty Bops’ website includes a bike tour log where fans can follow the ladies’ daily adventures. The log incorporates a series of hand-drawn comics called “Rumble Strips” depicting choice tour encounters, named for the roadside grooves intended to awaken drowsy drivers who swerve out of their lane. Fans with bikes are invited to ride with The Ditty Bops for any stretch of the trip, and if you happen to play the saw, the band is looking for hardware-inclined musicians to join them on stage at various tour stops. “We have a song where I imitate a saw,” says Barrett, “but we thought it would be fun to have an actual saw.”
While The Ditty Bops are not yet a household name, the tour and album are bound to expand their cult following to at least a much larger cult. The Ditty Bops co-produced Moon Over the Freeway with Mitchell Froom, who has worked with Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega and Los Lobos, among others. Between scheduled tour appearances and impromptu performances along their route, The Ditty Bops are poised to inspire a grassroots uprising of admirers. After this bike tour, Barrett says they’re thinking about how to do it again for regional tours. “We don’t have overseas distribution yet, but we’d love to ride through Europe or Japan and do shows,” she says. When the duo gets to that level, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi might want to start worrying about their time slot on Cartoon Network, because everyone’s going to be doing The Ditty Bops’ cartoon dance.