Interview: Raffi

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Raffi is the man whose music literally created the kids music section -- his first kids music albums, starting with Singable Songs for the Very Young, were so popular that record stores created new sections for his music.

This week, Raffi releases Love Bug, his first kids music album since 2002.  His voice is in as fine a form as ever, and his gentle music will likely stir up fond feelings in the hearts of Raffi's "Belugagrads," those who grew up listening to, say, Raffi's Baby Beluga album and who now bring their own kids to Raffi's concerts.

Raffi and I chatted on the phone as he came back from a walk.  It was an appropriate lead-in to an interview about his new album and his views on the (in)appropriateness of information technology and social media for kids.


Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Raffi: Of my father singing and playing accordion in Cairo, where I lived for the first ten years of my life.  I loved to hear him play -- he would hold court with his big, booming voice.

I first sang in the Armenian Church choir in Toronto with my dad when I was eleven, twelve years old.

In my teenage years, I listened to the Beatles.  I bought a guitar from a pawn shop when I was sixteen and sang in 3-part harmony with friends.  We listened to Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan...

What are your memories of being outside, in nature?

When we lived in Cairo, I remember we'd get into our two-tone Studebaker and drive up to a cafe, the Cafe du Vue de la Pyramide -- the "Cafe with the View of the Pyramids."  We'd play in the Cairo sands.

When I first came to Canada, to Toronto, it was quite different for me to experience sliding on ice.  

My father took us to see the fall colors outside of Toronto.  I loved it, so much so that I won a poster contest with my drawing of the woods.  I was thirteen years old, and my poster won the Smokey the Bear Fire Prevention Contest from over 5,000 entries.  I remember it like it was yesterday… it was titled "Keep It Peaceful."

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It's been more than a decade since you last released an album of kids music, though you've been recording other music and commenting a lot on social media -- what made you want to go back and record a new album (Love Bug)?

I think it's going forward, actually.  I always make music when I feel a new stirring, and I felt like I wanted to do one for the Belugagrads, the term of endearment for millions of fans.  I wrote these songs about the joy of the real world.  It's the first Raffi album in the digital era.

The [title track] itself came from a little guitar riff, you can hear it in the song, and for the first time I played the piano.  I recorded the whole thing in my living room, and about 80% of the whole album was recorded at my home in Salt Spring Island, an island of about 10,000 people between Vancouver Island and Vancouver.

You've written about the potential dangers of information technology and social media, particularly for kids under 13, in your book Lightweb/Darkweb.  How did those themes manifest themselves in the new album? 

It was clearly a response to the digital overreach in our lives.  It prompted a full-on celebration of the real world.  [That connection] is the primary purpose of being human.  It has nothing to do with InfoTech [Information Technology] devices.  Those devices are not designed for kids' hands and laps.

My position -- that those of developmental experts like Terry Brazelton and Penelope Leach -- is that kids' primary attachment should be people -- that's what a child needs to bond with.  The internet is the opposite -- it's shiny and flat.  It's too seductive, too powerful an intrusion.  The reports of tech device dependency and addiction in young people bears me out.

It's hard for middle-aged people to avoid.

Yes.  Younger kids need to learn how to use these.  It's not fair [to them].

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You know, you could go back and listen to albums like Singable Songs for the Very Young at the start of your nearly 40-year recording career, and the listener would find those same themes of connection and natural world there, too.

Sometimes I think, why record a new album now?  Have I already said it all?  But there's room for creativity, to say things in new ways.  Like, that impulse to hug someone, where does it come from?  In "Love Bug," from viruses.

Have you noticed any changes in your live audiences from when you were last performing consistently?  More faces turned down, looking at black or white rectangles?

Not at all -- it's a remarkably similar vibe compared to when I was doing it in the '90s.  We ask the audience to turn their cell phones off, not record anything.  The audience is all singing along.

I play a lot of the familiar songs, respecting the kids' needs for their familiar toys.  Most of the adults are Belugagrads, so they're experiencing it in two ways, both as parents as well as in their hearts from childhood.

I'm a very lucky man.

Any other plans after the release of Love Bug?

Well, I'd like to eat lunch.

Ha!

Then there's dinner...

Ha!

That's one of my favorite subjects… But there are more shows coming -- I hope to announce some shows in the United States soon, they're more "select shows" rather than touring.

There are new songs brewing, I'll be recording a new CD this fall.  It's a very creative time for me right now.  I'm loving the power of music within me and the embodied joy young children are.  I hope that my fans find diverse pleasures [on Love Bug], different moods to hear.

Photo credits: Billie Woods

Interview: Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G)

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When Ben Gundersheimer, known to many kids as Mister G, told me in our interview that his first album came out only five years ago, I was surprised, because I feel like I've heard about him a lot longer than five years.  Or maybe he's just packed a lot into those five years -- five albums (including his latest, The Bossy E), including a couple bilingual ones, and lots of touring, first regionally around his western Massachusetts home, then nationally and internationally.

In our interview, Gundersheimer talks about his musical (and non-musical) upbringing, letting songs create journeys, and how baseball dreams played a part in his bilingual career.


Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Ben Gundersheimer: My first musical memories are pretty much pre-verbal.  I don't know if this is actually my memory, but it's certainly be talked about by my parents a lot.  Back in the '70s, when the kid could be in the front seat, just pounding on the dashboard whenever I heard music.  I'd just play along, whether it was in the car or pots and pans.  So there was that rhythmic primal memory.

My first distinct memory with a particular artist was the Carpenters.  "Top of the World" was a big hit in Philadelphia on all the top radio stations and I just loved it and my parents -- and I still have this album to this day -- the Carpenters' Greatest Hits.

So what's your favorite Carpenters song?

Oh, wow, that's stuff.  I'm tempted to go to my record collection and peruse, because that's not an answer I want to take lightly.  [Laughs]  I need time, it's such an important question.

It's funny, I moved on from that one quite quickly, but at the time, it was so impactful.  And getting the record, and the tactile experience of handling the record and that it was mine.  I played it over and over.  And this was when I was 3 or 4 years old -- it was incredibly exciting.

When did you start taking lessons -- not thinking about it as a career, just taking lessons?

Oddly enough, the desire for career predated lessons.  From the age of 5 or 6… in school, learning how to write, they gave assignments -- and my parents kept some of these -- it was very clear, I wanted to be a baseball player and a musician.  And I never really grew out of that, frankly, and I pleaded with my parents to take guitar lessons, to no avail.  My parents were sort of classically-oriented people, both in music and in general, so I was sent to recorder lessons at this sort of conservatory.  I was a quick dropout, that didn't go well.  So at 9 years old I took guitar lessons at this little folks studio in Philadelphia.

Were your parents musically-oriented?  I'm sure they were culturally oriented, but were, say, books more important, less important --

Books were way more important in our house, especially with my mom [children's book author and illustrator Karen Gundersheimer].  To the extent that there was music, it really was classical.  I've inherited their collection and it's pretty formidable in the classical camp.  To some extent they got into '60s folk movement and so we had nice collection of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.   And that slid a little bit into the '70s -- we had a [single] James Taylor album, a [single] Linda Ronstadt album, but those knocked me out too, completely, as a little kid.  For them it was much more about books than music.

Fast forward a few years.  You have a career making music for kids and families in Massachusetts.  When did you start becoming this globetrotting troubadour?

Everything with the kids music career, and I use that term liberally, happened unexpectedly, quite organically, and shockingly to us.  What is somewhat ironic is that I did have a bit of a career as a globetrotting musician for adults for a number of years and I'll find myself playing venues I'd played before for grownups, and much more happily now, playing at 10 in the morning instead of 10 at night.

It happened so unexpectedly.  I'd been in the so-called singer-songwriter world for a long time, and was pretty burnt out and went back to get a Masters in Elementary Education with the intention of becoming a classroom teacher and transition out of music as a profession.  In fact I taught Bill Childs' children at the Smith College Campus School.  Whenever I had any autonomy as a teacher during my student training I would just write songs with the kids, primarily because I didn't know what to do as a teacher but I knew how to be a songwriter.  That was very exciting for me because I could engage with the kids and they came alive in a way I didn't see otherwise.

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The upshot was that I wrote the songs that ended up on the first record and started performing locally around Northampton while working as a classroom teacher.  That first year we just played regionally, I had my day job and and one thing led to another to the point where we were getting offers to play in other places, and were finding it so fulfilling.  I was frankly to enter the fray of being a full-time musician again, but it was too compelling and rewarding.  [My wife] Katherine was working full-time as a college professor, and eventually a couple years ago she stopped doing that to get involved with this because she too was finding it incredibly rewarding and interesting in terms of the places it was taking us and the experiences we were having and the people we were encountering along the way.

A couple of months after the first album came out, which was 5 years ago next month, we got married and that winter we took our honeymoon to Colombia.  I'd only been doing the Mister G project for 2 or 3 months at that point.  We'd played a handful of gigs at that point, and they were packed -- the kids I was teaching brought out their parents and it was a blast.  So we're on our honeymoon in Colombia and the thought occurred to me to write some songs in Spanish, because I was already enjoying playing for and working with kids so much.  And I thought if I wrote some songs in Spanish, I could make some contacts and play some shows down here at some point.  Sure enough, I played some gigs, some on the street, and they became these impromptu dance parties.  That spurred me on to write more.  The last couple records were bilingual, and that led to performing in Mexico and Guatemala as well as bilingual communities around the United States.

I'd spoken Spanish for forever -- in fact, going back to the baseball thing, in junior high, when I was presented with the choice of what language to study, Spanish and French being the options, I chose Spanish because I was convinced that being a major league baseball player, [Spanish] would be more useful to communicate with my future teammates.  Needless to say, that came to pass.  I'd been writing songs ever since I learned to play the guitar, but hadn't thought about writing songs in Spanish until I started playing with kids.  That realization that writing songs could lead to new experiences really came true...

I don't know if you ever saw the video for "Gonna Take My Hat"?

Yeah, that's the one where you're in crowds, playing concerts...

A lot of it is shot in Paris and London.  We had a couple of shows lined up, but the song was written knowing we were going to Europe, and we were thinking of the video and what we could shoot to show why we were even here in the first place.  So it was written on the plane going to Paris, and shot, prior to it even being recorded.  So those songs jump-started a whole new trajectory of where we play and who we play to.

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I like that idea, that the songs take you places… So, your last couple albums had a Spanish-language focus, what drew you to the idea of a literacy and reading-themed album, The Bossy E?

Well, part of my desire since I started off on this path has been to meld my interest in education with my background as a musician, performer, and writer.  Coming out of the family I did, reading and writing, making up my own story, that was something that captivated me, that was respected and admired in the household.

To a larger extent, as we've traveled around and outside the country, it's alarming to me to see to what extent music and art are no longer part of a school experience and to what extent kids are spending time in front of a screen.  In retrospect, I had this unusual childhood in which reading was so valued and creativity was so appreciated.  It's just immediately apparent to me as I do these songwriting workshops in the schools where I invent 3 or 4 songs right on the spot, where we'll write a song about whatever, an experience where kids' ideas become part of a creative process.  I think it all comes back to reading -- if you know how to read and write, that opens the door to everything in terms of autonomous thinking and creativity.

I've been writing a lot of music since I've started, 40 or 50 songs that I had and realized that a lot of them that deals with that… like my song "Video Games," -- it's a cautionary tale about what could happen if you spend too much time watching video games.  Or "Standing on Top of My Head," it's not about reading, it's about creativity and its power to take you wherever you want to go.  I wanted the music to be about learning and fun, with the learning being transparent -- you never want to make it heavy-handed.  It's a platform for saying how important -- and how fun -- it is to read, to write, and to express yourself creatively.  Kids are immediately open and receptive to that if they get an opportunity.

Was there a particular theme other than literacy in mind?

There were songs about reading, but a lot of them were just about imagination, and that's a theme that I've touched upon in other songs, like "Blast Off" from Bugs.  So I think the album's got a broader theme than just literacy and advocacy and it's a little more expansive, trying to empower kids, if they don't feel this way already, to recognize the power they have to use their imagination to express themselves creatively and in entertaining ways.

You have a couple cool guests on the record -- Charles Neville and Massamba Diop -- and I'm curious how they ended up appearing on the record.

Charles moved out to our area after Katrina, and so I just called him up -- I'd met him in passing a few times -- and he called right back.  His tracks are extraordinary and you get a sense of what a special person he is.  As a person, his humanity and presence are amazing.  With Charles, that's very moving to me.  I've been a bit of a Neville Brothers fanatic and to me they represent a perfect blend of funk and soul and different influences -- to me, they're the ultimate American roots band.  And there's something about his playing in particular that's always been particularly moving to me.  So that was a bit of a lifetime thrill for me to come to the house and the studio and to hit it off with him so much.  And then on top of that to chat after the session and to hear his thoughts about the role music and creativity and reading and how meaningful that is for kids was great.

Massamba I'd met several times.  There's a terrific drummer who lives across the street from me named Tony Vaga who has spent a lot of time in Africa -- Tony plays on this record, too.  Tony's had a long-standing back-and-forth with some of the greatest Senagalese musicians, Massamba being one of them.  Massamba was here to play some shows, and I've been trying to get him over here, just trying to make the timing work.  So he had one day that overlapped, and he came over, and we [played].

We're traveling more internationally these days than I ever did playing for adults.  The cliche that music is the universal language I'm finding to be completely true with folks like Massamba. It's really inspiring.

I'm curious -- when you talk to these internationally known stars, what is the reaction you get from musicians not hooked into the kids music world -- do they need convincing, or do they say, "It's music, it's all good."  Do they care?

In my experience, musicians… The guys who are the rhythm section on all the Mister G albums, they're maybe not "stars," but they're all top New York session guys, like playing for Suzanne Vega and Cyndi Lauper.  What they respond to is the music -- if the music excites them, then they're excited.

I've found that with "adult" music, the lyrics, whether they tune into them or not, it's secondary to the musicians.  But with kids music, it flips a little.  With Charles and Massamba, they're both global citizens and so cognizant of the role music played in taking them from New Orleans or a little village to see the world.  They're musical ambassadors and really care a lot about kids.  I find that they're tuning into the lyrics when we take a break and finding them meaningful and important in a way that a lot of pop songs don't have.  These guys who don't typically inhabit that space, if they're turned on by the song, by the groove, by the track itself, really get a charge out of it.  Which has been thrilling to me.  I still feel like all of us in the kids community need to keep working to fight against this perception that kids music is somehow "less than" and can be taken less seriously.  There's some sense of discrimination of what this means.  So that's part of what drives me.  No compromises, bring it to the highest level I can.

Which do you prefer more, playing live -- you've got a really energetic, fun live show -- or do you prefer the songwriting workshops?

For me, it's always the performing.  I love both -- I love every aspect -- but if I had to choose only one thing, it'd be playing concerts, no doubt.

What's next for you?

This summer's busy -- the record just came out, record release show in Philadelphia, show in Brooklyn, shows back in Pennsylvania, then we're home for a few days, then a national tour.  Shows in the Bay Area, Getty Museum in LA, then Portland, and the tour continues through the fall.  We're working on turning some of the songs into children's books, which we're very excited about. And then we've got some other projects percolating, both bilingual and otherwise.

Interview: Steve Denyes (Hullabaloo)

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I like to think of Steve Denyes as the Pied Piper of San Diego.  Denyes and Brendan Kremer are the core of Hullabaloo, which for more than a decade have been recording music and playing literally thousands of gigs in Southern California and nationally.

Denyes' easygoing nature belies a serious dedication to the craft of making music for young fans and building a sustainable fanbase.  He and Kremer have also just released Hullabaloo's latest album, Shy Kid Blues, which takes Hullabaloo's rootsy sound and, for the first time, mixes in spoken word to craft an entire story.

In this interview, Denyes talks about his own path to kids music, big gigs vs. small gigs, and, yes, shyness.

Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?

Steve Denyes: I distinctly remember listening to my mom’s voice as she was singing along to a song on the radio. As corny as it sounds, I remember thinking that she had the most beautiful voice in the world. I was old enough to understand that people did this for a living and wondered why she wasn’t a huge star.

Years later, when I made my first album (of music for grownups), I had my mom come into the studio and sing some harmony vocals. For me, it was a great ‘full-circle’ sort of moment.

How did you make your way to performing for kids and families?

Out of college, I spent a number of years working as a singer-songwriter. I made albums, toured the college circuit and the whole thing. Eventually, I got tired of starving and got a teaching credential. I was teaching Kindergarten through sixth grade music in the public schools when both my sisters had kids. I recorded an album of classic kid’s songs and gave them to my nieces, nephew and some friends with kids.

One of those friends was Brendan Kremer. His twin girls were about to celebrate their first birthday so he suggested we play some music at their party. We didn’t have any career aspirations or anything like that. Guests at that first party asked us to play for their kids’ parties and pretty soon we were booked every weekend. It just snowballed from there. Ten years later, we’re still at it!

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You perform around the country, but you also have regular, smaller gigs in the San Diego area -- what do you prefer about those regular, more intimate gigs, and what do you get out of the "larger" performances?

The longer I do this, the more I realize that the most important shows I do, big or small, are the ones in my hometown. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing on the big stages and traveling to perform but I realize that touring is more about us having fun than building a career or developing a nation-wide audience.

To go off on a little bit of a tangent, I think a lot of musicians get lured into the idea that touring is the way to build a career. I think the opposite is true, especially in family music. I really believe it’s best to tend the garden you’re in.

San Diego County has a population of well over three million people. That’s a lot of kids and families within an hour’s drive! Staying close to home has allowed me to build an audience and nurture relationships with the families in my community. Doing one-off shows around the country is fun but it doesn’t really allow for that.

When we get an offer to play a big festival or travel to the East Coast for some shows, I jump at the chance because it’s a lot of fun to feel like a big shot for a few days. But, honestly, the real satisfaction for me comes from seeing a young family I know from Hullabaloo at the grocery store down the street from my house.

How do you keep performances fresh?

We do around 300 shows a year so keeping things fresh is important. The thing that does it for me is that we almost never use a set list. We go onstage and construct a show on the spot based on what we see in front of us. Each song choice depends on the age of the kids, their involvement, and their enthusiasm. Is it a wild bunch or a reserved one? Do they want to dance or sing along? All of that is going through my head and it keeps it fun and challenging.

People often ask if I get tired of playing “Run Bunny Run” or even “Itsy Bitsy Spider” a million times but honestly, I never do. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t play those songs for fun when I’m sitting on the porch at the end of the day but the real joy in performing is when your audience is happy. If people enjoy “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, I’m more than happy to play it… again.

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What inspired Sky Kid Blues?

I was a shy kid. Every day I see shy kids from the stage. They’re the ones sitting quietly next to mom or dad taking it all in rather than mixing it up with the crowd. I just wanted to share my story with those kids. I was the kid that was too shy to sing or dance with everyone else but would go home and perform a whole concert for my family and my dog when I was back in my comfort zone.

With a lot of love and encouragement from the people around me, I was able to become comfortable onstage singing and being the center of attention – something that seemed impossible to me as a kid. My hope is that Shy Kid Blues helps those quiet kids see that there are no limitations.

What made you want to try the spoken word aspect of the album?

Before Hullabaloo, I wrote and performed two one-man musical plays. I used spoken word monologues and songs to tell one larger story. I always love the format and the challenge of telling a story that way. When I got the idea for Shy Kid Blues, the added spoken word just seemed like the best way to bring it all together. And I love a challenge and trying something new.

What do you do to address any feelings of shyness you have in daily life?

I have a couple tricks up my sleeve! My best trick is to smile. Sometimes a shy person can look angry so I remind myself to smile so people know I’m friendly. In the course of conversation, I’ll ask a lot of questions. It lets people know that I’m interested in them and it takes the pressure off of me to be the center of the conversation.

I’ve also come to realize that feeling shy and acting shy are two very different things. I might feel scared, nervous or uneasy but it doesn’t mean that I have to act that way. I can acknowledge that introducing myself to someone new feels scary and still do it anyway.

Who are your musical heroes, in whatever genre?

Dan Zanes is my family music hero. A dozen years ago, before “kindie” music was a thing, I stumbled on one of his albums. I loved the way he incorporated acoustic instruments and traditional music. He singlehandedly made me realize that family music could be cool, fun and musically legit in an era when it was mostly singing hamsters and purple dinosaurs.

Outside of family music, Steve Earle has long been a hero of mine. He has built a career by writing amazing songs about everything from pretty girls to social change. And, he’s pushed the boundaries stylistically from bluegrass to sample-infused rock. I like an artist that pushes the boundaries and does it well!

What's next for you and Hullabaloo?

In the short term, it’s lots and lots of shows. I think we’ve got 40 shows coming up in June. Beyond that, we produce two family music festivals each year here in San Diego so we’re always working hard to make them grow and flourish.

Creatively, I’m not sure what the next project will be. I’ve been toying with the idea of staging Shy Kid Blues as a small theatrical production where we’d do all the music and monologues live. Once the summer concert season slows down I think I’ll test the waters a little with some workshop performances and see how it goes. If it resonates with kids live, it could be a really fun, new adventure.

Interview: Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

I tend to be most interested in the artists who stretch and challenge themselves in new ways, and while I've always thought that Secret Agent 23 Skidoo has made thoughtful, lyrical and above all moveable music for families, he's now pushing himself into new directions.  Not only is he releasing The Perfect Quirk, his fifth album specifically for kids, next month, he's also written his first book (with illustrator Stu Helm), Weirdo Calhoun and the Odd Men Out.

So of course I'm that much more interested in what makes kindie's hip-hop master tick.  I recently chatted with Skidoo via e-mail about weirdness, both in the past and today, finding new muses as a children's artist, and why he wanted to write a book.


Zooglobble: Were you a "weird" kid growing up?  If so, did that bother you at all?

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo: Weird? Nah. Totally normal. As long as you think being a 12 year old white kid with an afro and MC Hammer pants rocking Public Enemy in rural Indiana seemed normal. I guess you could say I stuck out like a sore thumb...on a fish. And yeah, it bothered, confused, sculpted and mutated me, for sure. I took me a while to figure out that I was just around the wrong people, and that eccentricity is relative. Cause I don't have eccentric relatives. 

Do you think kids are more or less comfortable with not being part of the crowd these days as opposed to when you or I were kids?

I think it seems easier but might actually be harder. The real challenge is to stand out because of what you love. To stand strong and brilliant against waves of sarcasm and ironic wit. Through greater access to voyeuristic, one way culture and cyber friendships available via the internets, there's less of "rights of passage" aspect to being an intentional outcast, so less character and connection is built and less revelations had. Also, with so many avenues of slander and anonymous cruelty through social media, it may be psychologically more intense to stand out.

The thing is to joyously, diligently be yourself and advance your unique understanding of the world in order to share it. And I think it's a good thing to have access to the myriad ideas in the world so that you see you're not alone, but more important than ever to personally go out and do things that challenge you in realtime and develop actual relationships where you can't edit your responses. (Full disclosure: This interview was via email, and totally edited, over and over...)

You've always had a theme of confidence in one's own skills and personality (e.g., "Gotta Be Me," "Gotta Be You") -- would you describe that interest as a lifelong passion, or something that's blossomed as you've recorded music for families?

That's my superpower. My radioactive spider bite was being a weirdo as a kid, and my belief in the power of uniqueness and my love for the unexpected are my mutations. An oyster gets a tiny piece of sand in it, and man, imagine a sharp piece of sand in your soft side, beyond the shell! So it works on it for years and covers it with layers of smoothness, to make it feel better. And it just so happens that that effort becomes beautiful and valuable to others as a pearl.  Metaphorically, as a pearl of wisdom, maybe.

The mythic journey from outcast to king is resonant, especially in a society where most people feel they lack normality, even if it's still underground. So I'm dedicated to that story because I think it's transformative, and especially when you hear it in a volatile time in your life, like childhood, teenage years, or becoming a new parent!

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Was there anything different about writing and recording The Perfect Quirk from your prior albums?

My daughter, Saki aka MC Fireworks, has finally grown past the age where she can personally be the main muse, so for this album my inspiration came from all my experiences through the years as a parent and a kid. I think that created more songs that apply to different ages on the same album, as opposed to letting the target audience grow in tandem with Saki, as I did on the first three albums. Although she's still on the album more than ever and more amazing than ever.

What made you want to write a book?

Cause I'm a writer! Kids' books are basically long songs if they rhyme and short stories if they don't. This one I wanted to write because I know an awesome artist named Stu Helm, who was obviously put on earth to do this sort of thing. Also because I want to create an experience for as many senses as possible. Here, you can read, look at fresh art and listen to the whole thing as a hip hop/funk track, a bluegrass song or a bedtime story. You can even rap or sing with the karaoke versions. That's interactive, man! Even at your own house.

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What did you learn in writing Weirdo Calhoun and the Odd Men Out?

That publishing deals are hard to get! Seriously, though, mostly I learned that expanding your creativity into new shapes and mediums feels awesome, and that there's never enough good, weird art in the world. Also, I'm reminded how much I love collaborations. This project involves me, three bands, a DJ, an illustrator, and my publisher. And I'm really, really stoked that families will be reading this in that magical time of evening that's half awake, half dream. That's a pretty honored and influential time to be sharing art with growing minds.

Now that you've crossed "write book" off your bucket list, what's the next thing you've never done artistically that you'd like to tackle?

Produce other bands, write novels, create TV shows, produce soundtracks, write movie scripts, paint with acrylics, and possibly learning to do professional grade fireworks shows, bonsai and skywriting.

Photo credits: Ian Ibbetson

Interview: Jack Forman (Recess Monkey)

My interview with Jack Forman, bassist in Seattle's star kindie trio Recess Monkey (not to mention to DJ at Sirius-XM's Kids Place Live), about the band's brand-new technology-focused album Wired started, ironically, with an electronic hiccup as I had difficulties getting cellular coverage for my iPhone.

Or maybe not so ironically, as the band's new album is just as concerned with playing IRL, as the kids say -- out in nature, in the real world.  Forman chatted with me by phone a couple weeks ago about growing up in a nerd family, having an album produced by John Vanderslice, and how the shift to digital has -- and hasn't -- affected the band.


Zooglobble: Were you a computer nerd growing up?

Jack Forman: My dad was definitely a computer nerd -- he was in computer engineering in Boeing.  He worked on government contracts, so couldn't tell us what he was working on.  He was the dweebiest spy ever.

My parents met in the computing center at Indiana University.  They had a big VACS machine with big tapes spools, with everybody carrying yellow punch cards.  I distinctly remember being brought into the computer room, and I pressed a red button, and I literally deleted an entire reel of work.

After that, they had a strict "no kid" policy.

My dad worked for IBM, where he dealt with setting up standards for computing graphics languages.  It wasn't until I was a teenager that I even really understood what he did, let alone be able to explain it to others.

Yeah, here in Seattle, we were festooned with dweebs, walking around in Birkenstocks with socks on.

I had computer terminals, the old school modem, eventually the Commodore 64, writing computer scripts.  The floppy disk that was actually floppy.

Did you play with your physical environment?

That was something important with the record, actually -- we were trying to tap into that "maker" movement.  [As a kid], I was a huge LEGO fan -- in terms of the hours spent, far and away that was my favorite.  I was never a big sports kid -- [fellow bandmates] Drew [Holloway] were more so and Korum [Bischoff] somewhat, but me, it was indoor play.  Sometimes my dad would have to evict me, "Go outside, it's 80 degrees."

And sunny.

Right!  I definitely empathize with the engineering nerd.

Switching gears a bit -- pun unintended, I swear, looking at your album cover -- how was working with John Vanderslice on Wired?

We were all fans separately of him before coming to the band.  It's art, how he approaches his songs.  The Beatles, Elliott Smith -- he's up there with them in terms of my favorite artists.

It was actually you on your review of Tabby Road where the idea first came up of actually getting John Vanderslice on the next album.  So the very next day I wrote an e-mail to him which started out, "OK, this is weird," and asked if he'd be willing to do it... We eventually met at Bumbershoot, and we recorded the bit that went on Field Trip.

So last year he was setting up a living room tour, where he literally played people's living rooms.  [Jack's wife] Ellen and I decided to host him -- we had 70 people downstairs, and he put on a great show.  While he was here, I said we would love to do an album with him.  So we went down to San Francisco in December.

It was an interesting conversation in my head.  You can listen to an album over and over, create an exalted image of an artist, have this intimate connection.  And he lives up to those expectations -- he's the coolest guy, so flexible -- but it's tricky to look up and see this person and have this life-changing experience.

What's it like meeting an idol, crossing that divide from fan to collaborator?

It would be more difficult with a diva -- you hear about people with their own... gravity and who are not afraid to exploit it.  That would be challenging, but not the case with John.  He's been running Tiny Telephone for 15-17 years, so he understands that role, it's not "paying homage to me."  He knew what we wanted, he was supportive.  He spent the night at our house [during the living room tour], and I knew him, but you never know.  But he was great -- we've already booked our next record with him.

Did you have to explain kindie to him?

No, he did his research.  Maybe a year or two before this he didn't know as much.  But the Sippy Cups recorded their first album at Tiny Telephone, though not with him.  And he'd actually had lunch with Alison Faith Levy the day before we started with him.

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What did John bring differently as a producer to the recording?

His studio is a physical manifestation of the guy.  We were in the B room, which is newer than the A room, but has the same gear, and his same understanding.  He was almost like a tour guide, telling us about the sonic quality, helping us make the right choices.  "What kind of vibe and energy do you want?," he'd ask, and then he and [engineer] Jamie [Riotto] would get to work.

There was a lot of experimentation -- there's lots of gear, all these amazing things.  [John's] a savant, almost.

How did being in that studio affect the songs?

The songs obviously were written beforehand.  We knew we wanted them to be more electric (especially compared to Desert Island Disc, which was almost entirely acoustic).  We wanted the music to feel like a mashup between algorithms and electricity, duct tape and coat hangers.  Sonically, we wanted to push that nexus.  There was this foot-driven pump organ like on that last track on Radiohead's OK Computer.  There were double tape delays, Dolby noise reduction, overdubbed melodies.

It was hugely instrumental, both literally and figuratively.

Since the album is so tied to this digital/analog split, I'm wondering how the shift to digital music generally over the past ten years has affected the band?

Well, I'm going to comment about us as a case study -- I definitely don't want to say that how others have approached it are wrong, this is just what we've decided works for us.  We don't want to do a Kickstarter.  I know that John Vanderslice raised $75,000, enough for him to do not 1 but 2 records.  And it can be great for fan engagement.

Our model is playing shows and reaching fans in the real world.  We do 100-110 shows per year, and others do more -- Jim Cosgrove ("Mr Stinky Feet") did 300 shows per year until he cut back with his new job; Chris Ballew (Caspar Babypants) did 200 shows per year until he cut back as well.  We're constantly playing, and we always have a merch table.  We've been here for nine years, and everything has grown, our audience has grown.  Our sales have grown overall, though the growth has slowed.

Also, the royalties associated with Kids Place Live are enormous -- they've served as venture capital.  Most of the great kindie albums over the past few years could be traced back to funding from KPL, and I'm not just saying that because I'm associated with them as a host.

With digital, more families are comfortable with it, but it's not yet cutting into sales.  We're just making music and hoping it'll sell.  We're trying to make authentic connections.

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Finally, I'm wondering if you as a band have an experimentation philosophy since you seem to try lots of different things.

I think that "growth" is more along the lines of how we think.  We're teachers (or used to be), talking about setting goals and how we get there even after the school days is done.  So we're identifying goals and next steps -- right now I'm looking at our nearly finished garage, which I built over the winter.

Music is easy, you buy a new instrument, and the guilt alone of that being there will work on you.  I live 2 blocks away from a vintage music store, and I'm constantly in there trading instruments.

It's super fun to be a funk band for three minutes, a hip-hop band for three minutes.  It's fun to experiment in all these realms.

Band photos by Kevin Fry.

Interview: Walter Martin

It's not rare these days for a musician who's made their living making music for adults to try their hand at making music for kids.  Nor is it rare for bands to break up and have the individual members release solo albums.

Combining those two?  That's way more unusual.  But it's exactly that path that Walter Martin has chosen.  In the wake of the "extreme hiatus" of The Walkmen, which he'd played in since helping to found the band in 2000, Martin, the father of 2 young kids, decided to release an album of family music, the delightful We're All Young Together, which will be released on May 13 (you can pre-order on iTunes, pre-order on vinyl, or pre-order the old-school CD).  We chatted by phone last week about his musical memories, his decision to record music for families, and why it's hard for a lot of 25-year-olds to write music for kids.


Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Walter Martin:  I have a very vague recollection of listening to my parents' Pete Seeger records.  But I'm not sure if that's something I invented after the fact -- I have those records now.

I remember going on long car trips over Spring Break, listening to the Beatles' greatest hits collections -- you know those, the red and blue ones?

Yeah, one was, like '62 through '65 and the other '66 through '70, or something like that?

Yes, those.  I wasn't a big enough fan yet and I thought it was one guy doing lots of different voices -- "why does Ringo sound so different on 'A Little Help from my Friends'?"

Were your parents musical in terms of playing music, or just big fans?

Both, I guess.  My mother's mother, who died before I was born, was a kids' music teacher.  She passed down piano playing skills to my mom.  My dad didn't play an instrument, but he was a big rock 'n' roll fan -- so was my mom.

You've been making music for -- I haven't done the math, but it must for more than half your life...

[Pauses] I think it's two-thirds, actually.  Stewart [Lupton] and I -- we started our previous band, Jonathan Fire*Eater -- we took guitar lessons together.  We sang "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" by The Clash at a girl's 12th birthday party.  Matt [Barrick] joined us in 7th grade -- it's really all I've ever done.

When The Walkmen went on hiatus, you obviously had to think about what to do next, and while recording a solo album is an obvious choice, making that album a family album is not.  What led you to do this?

Like a lot of people, when you're in your mid-30s, you need to think about what you'll be doing in your 40s -- what is Plan B?  After our last [Walkmen] album Heaven, I knew that I wanted to do a record of my own.  I wrote lots of different things, "Walkmen"-y things.  But after I wrote the first couple songs that ended up on this record, I knew, that's me.

What were your musical inspirations in writing and recording We're All Young Together?

While I was focusing on the writing, I was hanging around the house in the kitchen a lot.  We listen to '50s rock, tons of that.  It had a very "light" tone, and I thought, why don't I make music like this?  Stuff like the Coasters, or Lieber & Stoller.  Or Jonathan Richman -- his solo stuff is whimsical and sweet.  His cool Modern Lovers persona goes out the window, and he's singing a song about a flower.

Is it the innocence and lack of cynicism that draws you to that type of music?

Yeah, the innocence is hugely appealing.  It appeals to the carefree side, which I think is valuable.  I've been surrounded by brainy and serious music.  The innocence [in those '50s songs] makes you want to listen with your family.  Also, at the end of the night, it's what you put on at a party -- it's got a great dance beat, everybody wants to dance to it.

Were there differences in the recording process for this new album compared to your prior ones?

For the first Walkmen album, we had just started our own recording studio, so we were figuring out equipment and our own music.  So it was not a great technical recording.  For this album, I tied to rerecord some of the first kids' tracks and it totally lost its spark.  I wanted the recording to be tied to the personalities.

You have a lot of guest artists [Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Matt Beringer from the National, and more] from the indie rock world on the album -- was it hard to convince them to join you?

No.  When I sent them e-mails, I told them that I was attempting to make the sweetest, funniest family record ever -- set the bar high, right?  But everybody was into it.  In fact, I think it was probably easier than if I wanted to make an "indie rock" record, be all like "I'm Mr. Cool Guy, come hang with me."  That would've been lame.  That might have made sense when I was 22, but now...

Yeah, I think there's something about setting aside the need to be "cool" that is hard to do at 25 and much easier at 35 that may make it harder to write family music for a lot of people at the age of 25.

That's why I asked who I did to be on the album.  They're into a different thing now.

I'm going to ask a questions that's probably on the list of Top 10 Most Annoying Questions asked of musicians, but do you have a favorite song from the album?

I really like "Hey Sister." 

On the album, some are funny, and some are sweet.  I tried to make the funny songs sweet, and the sweet songs funny, but I think on "Hey Sister" it's a perfect blend.

It's a great track -- the chemistry comes through.

Kat Edmonson, who sings with me, I love her voice.  I sort of sound like Elmer Fudd, but she's great.

Changing gears a bit, I'm curious about your perceptions of the world of kids music before you started and what you think now.

I really knew nothing about kids music before starting this.  I had albums from Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, that Johnny Cash children's album.  But it was just mixed in with the rest of my music, and didn't know any albums.  So when I started on the album, I did some research, and immediately found Dan Zanes.  He lived in Brooklyn, played old songs on real instruments, started after his daughter was born -- there were just so many parallels with me.  But I haven't done that much research -- I've now got 2 kids under the age of 21 months, so...

Any favorites among those old kids music albums?

That Woody Guthrie album, Songs to Grow On [For Mother and Child] -- it's so off-key, but like I said before, that's fine.  It's so great, so funny, and it's so in line with his other stuff.

The Johnny Cash Children's Album is more thrown together, maybe 3 new songs along with other songs recorded elsewhere, but that song -- "I Got a Boy and His Name Is John" -- it's so great and funny and sweet.

Do you have a musical house?

Oh, there's a lot of music playing constantly on all the floors.  We listen endlessly.  I think it's rubbed off on my older daughter.  She likes "Goober Peas," from Burl Ives.  She's just learned to talk, so she calls "Aba Daba Honeymoon," "Aba Baba Honeymoon."  She also likes this Ella Jenkins album we got after we started the kids music process.

We definitely sing with our kids -- my wife probably sings more to them than I do.  We've got lots of instruments -- it's a loud house, I don't know how our neighbors stand it.

Would you think about doing another family music album?

If people like this, then... when I play this for close friends like the other members of The Walkmen, or my parents, they realize that this is me.  It's what I really want to do.  I've already written another album, I just need to record it.

You know, there are other kids music artists who made music for adults for which this started maybe as a lark, but once they started it, they realized it was their true calling.  Dan Zanes, for example, passing out cassettes in a New York City park.  Or Chris Ballew, who several times, has talked about his work writing songs for preschoolers as Caspar Babypants as being his best songwriting work, what he wants to do even as he occasionally does Presidents of the United States of America stuff.  It's possible.

That's exactly how I feel.  There's a lot more creativity than I've had in the past.  People think there are more limits with this, but I feel like there are more limits with adult rock and roll.  You can ditch the "cool factor."

That's definitely one of the things that keeps it interesting.  There are so many more subjects available to sing and write about.

When I realized that, it was really exciting.  I can write a song about a tiger, and a love song, and both at once.  I'm really into it -- it's very creative.