Interview: Kevin Salem (Little Monster Records)

LittleMonsterLogo.JPGOne of my favorite songs from the 1990s was the soaring alterna-rocker "Lighthouse Keeper," by a musician by the name of Kevin Salem. Fast-forward a decade, and in this brave new world of kids and family music, I was surprised and, well, pleased to hear that Salem had started up Little Monster Records, a label just for kids' music. Salem, who spends much of his time now producing others' records rather than recording his own, along with his wife Kate Hyams, who spent many years as a label executive, have put together an exciting roster of artists who show every sign of releasing music that is definitely not the typical kids' music fare.

Kevin Salem recently took the time to answer a few questions. Read on for how views on kids in the recording studio have changed over the year, his vision for the label, how his least favorite baseball team inspired his label's latest record, and future projects...

Zooglobble: What music did you listen to growing up?
Kevin Salem: There were a few different sources for me growing up. My parents were Arabic and played a lot of Arabic music and I grew up in a small coal and steel town where there was a lot of rootsy music, so that stuff was always in the air. My dad was a jazz singer and trumpeter, so the first songs I sang were things like ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ and ‘Sunny Side of the Street.’ I lived with two sisters and my cousins who are quite a bit older than me and turned me on to a lot of the things I have loved all my life -- the Beatles and Stones, Dylan, Motown, Neil Young... all things countercultural. I remember watching the Beatles at shea stadium on TV and wondering what was wrong with all the teenage girls in my family. When I was 5, some teenagers from my family’s church had a cover band called ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ I saw them play 'Little Bit of Soul’ at a church picnic and decided on the spot that I was gonna be a rock and roll guitarist. It was the best decision I ever made.

What instruments did you play growing up? Did family or friends play instruments?
I ate, breathed and slept guitar, had no interest in playing any other instruments. My uncle lived with us for many years and was an accomplished pianist and composer, my dad, as I said was a singer, and my sister Deb played guitar and sang. When I was six, me and some of my friends ‘played’ at birthday parties (actually, we would lip sync to ‘Hanky Panky.’) Having said all that, if you could hear my mom sing, you would understand why it took such a wealth of musical influence to overcome her genetic input. It is truly a voice marvel at. Sorry, mom.

When you were recording your own records did kids ever show up in the recording studio? Has that changed now in the years since you've moved more into the production side?
The thing is... the records I made through my twenties and thirties were made behind a certain barrier that just precluded kids being around. As I’ve grown older and been humbled more, and since the birth of my daughter, I am perfectly comfortable with kids in the studio. My daughter has been lucky enough to sit in Emmylou Harris’ lap while we recorded, and Rachael Yamagata is basically her godmother. I have had some clients get a little tense when kids are around in the studio, which is ironic because the best performances come when a person is as ego-less as a child. As a producer, one thing I have always found myself telling singers is to sing the way they did when they were a child.

KateKevinEmily.jpg When did you come up with the idea for Little Monster Records? Was there a specific inspiration?
My wife, Kate, has been in the music business all her life. When we had Emily five years ago, we saw an opportunity to do what we loved to do and give something to Em at the same time. There were other things... like I played South by Southwest with my band in ‘02, before I had a kid, and a sax player called Ralph Carney ended up playing with me. I went to see his band and thought ‘wow... this guy should be making music for kids.’ Same with Medeski Martin & Wood. Still, we may never have done this had Andy Gershon, who was running V2, not asked Kate and I if we could bring a children’s imprint into the label.

What is your vision for the label?
When Kate was pregnant, I began to buy movies that I knew I would want my daughter to see... The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Bambi... the usual stuff. It has been from the start, a pure pure joy discovering these movies, and so many others, like The Incredibles and Star Wars, together. More than anything, I would like to try and give that kind of experience to families through music.

What draws you to particular artists (or album concepts) for the label?
Quality, imagination, the tendency or artists to leave the center and find the outside edges of their art, the ability to allow children to feel ownership of the music and parents to feel included, a demonstration that music has a history that is living and growing as each generation plays with their influences... and, in every case, our artists are special parents... every one of them.

What's been the most rewarding aspect of starting a label focused on music for family and kids? What's been the hardest aspect?
I think it would be hard for anyone who has a pulse to argue that ‘grown-up’ music and the business of selling it are not, generally, in a state of stagnation and confusion. But when we ask artists to make kids records, they seem to find inspiration easily. Perhaps it is knowing who the audience will be, perhaps it is the encouragement to drop pretensions... it just brings out the best in the incredibly gifted people we’ve been lucky enough to bring into our roster. When we did the Beatles and soul compilations, we cut 26 songs in 2 days and finished early. It was so exhilarating to have positivity and generosity be these essential parts of the formula in a process that usually involves a few weeks of getting your head caught up your own bum and then a few more trying to pull it back out. Commercially, I find it EXTREMELY rewarding to know that we don’t have to operate like a ‘record company,’ and no one will ever sell their soul to do this on my watch. And of course, on the down side, once in a while, we collide with the old paradigm of doing music business. No biggie, just a temporary minor little drag here and there.

MMWDragon.jpg(Photo credit: Phillip Gerome Stiles)
Who came up with the idea to do a Medeski, Martin & Wood kids' disk (Let's Go Everywhere)?
I am a hardcore Yankees fan, so I hate to give any credit to the Boston Red Sox for anything. But a few years ago, when they won the World Series for the first time in 8 billion years, they threw a party on Lansdowne Street, and MMW were told their Boston show that evening was cancelled. They ended up playing a little impromptu acoustic show here in Woodstock, where some of them live and our kids go to school together. I’ve got Emily on my lap and we are watching one of the best bands in the universe playing purely for the love of it, very loose and relaxed, and, all of a sudden, Billy Martin starts picking up these chirping bird toys and playing outrageous grooves. I looked at Kate and said ‘, they’re playing children’s music.’ We were at a party and ran into them and asked if they wanted to do, you know, like, 'MMW go to the farm' or something. They came up with the idea of a musical travelogue for children. Such a cool idea.

Did the finished product of Let's Go Everywhere sound like you thought it might when the concept was first discussed? What do you like most about the album (be it a particular song or something more general)?
To be honest, we had no expectations, and, to be brutally honest, the experiment could have failed for all we knew. I almost passed out when I heard the whole record. It blew me away. I love the width of the record stylistically, and I love that it is real jazz. Tim ingham’s vocals absolutely slay me. I love the way the album speaks to children without ever trying to condescend. The more I listen, the more I am astonished that they pulled it off and the levels on which it works that I could never have dreamed. I think there is an old saying, that ‘no one ever tried to make a great record.’ If you understand what that means, you can hear that kind of whimsical brilliance from beginning to end of LGE. In a lot of ways, I wish it weren’t on my label, because I want your readers to believe this without thinking it is my pride or inner label guy speaking.

What's next for Little Monster?
A beautiful run of releasing brilliant records to lavish critical acclaim, followed by bankruptcy and, finally, vindication in the form of a box set in 2025, provided Rhino are still in business? Actually, next year we have MMW, All Together Now, Soulville, Robbert Bobbert, and Ralph and Ralph. Rachael Yamagata and I are starting to work on a record of children’s music that will come out in ‘09. There are a few other bands brewing, and we have started a book imprint that will hopefully launch in the fall. I’ve been messing with ideas for a kids music podcast and... well, there is just so much.