Lloyd Miller is the chief songwriter and ringleader (Ulysses Dee) of the New York City-based band The Deedle Deedle Dees. On their excellent latest album, Freedom in a Box (review), they mix very punk songs like "Obedience School" with hook-y history songs like "Henry Box Brown." Somehow, it all works.
Lloyd recently answered some questions about his musical history and history in general. Read on for his views on saving social studies from sucking, playing the double bass, Satchel Paige, and Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler." (And thanks to Lloyd for the time.)
What are your earliest memories of listening to music? Playing music?
As a kid, music was usually something I did at church or school and I have mostly negative memories of it. Probably because "music" to me meant sitting in your folding chair and singing the same songs every week in unison. I can remember very vividly sitting on the concrete steps outside this portable where I had music class for many years -- I was sent out there on a regular basis because I misbehaved in some way, I can't remember how.
The only school song I remember enjoying went "Old Roger is dead and laid in his grave, laid in his grave, laid in his grave / Old Roger is dead and laid in his grave / Hee Ha! Laid in his grave." There were a few verses, each with a related motion. In my favorite verse, Roger jumps up and gives "a fright" to an old woman who is picking apples from the tree that grows over him. I've tried to do this song at my sing-a-longs in Brooklyn but no one seems to know it.
Other music that made an impression was of the mass-produced variety. At some point I got the Disco Duck album and that was very important. That Davy Crockett song was the only song I sang for a period of months in early elementary school. And, oh man, "The Gambler." At about age seven, I asked this guy with a guitar at a restaurant to play it and he did and it was the most amazing thing. I listened to this song recently and was quite bored.
As far as playing music goes, most of my early history took place in the back row (I was tall) of some huge group singing some badly-written Bible song. It wasn't until junior high that I discovered -- simultaneously -- the mirror and David Lee Roth and began performing lip-sync concerts that eventually led to me joining a real band with other human beings. Naturally this first band was a heavy metal cover band and I was the lead singer. Sweet Emotion was our name and we played the first of our two gigs at a church dance.
What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of being a double bass musician?
Advantages: Playing the double bass gives me a dancing partner onstage. It also allows me to feel the notes I'm playing: if I play a C and I'm supposed to be playing a D, I feel that wrong note vibrating all the way from my chest on down to my legs. It's a much more reliable way to stay locked in with the rest of the band than relying on the whims of whatever PA system we happen to be using.
Disadvantages: Transporting the thing is the biggest disadvantage. Right now we're trying to figure out how to play several shows out of town that pay very little money. Ideally we'd like to take one car to save on gas and tolls, but this is impossible with the big bass. So I'll be playing electric for these gigs. I also had to play electric on all the really loud songs on Freedom in a Box because the upright was getting drowned out. We recorded all the basic tracks live, all of us playing at the same time in one room, and while the electric guitar's amp got put in the bathroom to keep it from bleeding into the mics of all the other instruments too much, the upright just sounds best played acoustic, no amp. But it was worth it: there's no replacement for everyone playing their parts together as a band, it just can't be faked.
How did the Deedle Deedle Dees form?
In the spring of 2003, I helped my wife's second-grade class write and perform an original musical based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. This was far more fun than anything I'd ever done as an "adult musician," playing in bars and nightclubs.
The following summer, I went to a funeral in Florida of the father of my best friend, a guy with whom I've written and recorded at least 100 songs. We were hanging out with his niece and nephew and some other relatives at his house after the services and they asked us to play some music. We played a few songs from the Gilgamesh play, a few of our originals that didn't contain abstract discussions of relationships or lyrics stolen from the subjects of Bill Moyers specials, and then we played the Gilgamesh songs again. And again and again until the kids had to leave and couldn't demand them anymore. When I got back to Brooklyn, I immediately set to work recording the Gilgamesh songs, as I'd promised the kids I would, and when I was finished, I was all excited. I decided to write a whole separate album of songs just so those kids in Florida would have something good to listen to. Of course, I couldn't stop at just writing and recording -- whenever I have a bad idea I book a venue then call up my musician friends and inform them of the details of the gig they'll be playing in the near future. This time, however, the bad idea was a kids band called the Deedle Deedle Dees and everyone involved wanted to keep doing it.
What inspired you to take historical personages as characters? What inspired you to take your particular (Ulysses Dee) character?
I've always spent a good deal of my free time reading history books. Social studies class, like music class, was generally a painful experience, but at home, I read as much about American history, especially the wars, as I possibly could. When I first began thinking about what to writing kids songs, this was the first thing that came to mind. Although I'd been teaching kids for some time, I didn't have a kid of my own at the time so I just thought, hmmm, what did I like as a kid? War! Baseball! Pirates!
In addition, during the first six months of the band someone gave me a copy of James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. Loewen examines a few of the most-used American history textbooks, spotlighting some of the most egregious omissions or downright falsifications, but also explaining the process that makes these books so devoid of juicy stories, controversial topics, and the results of recent scholarship on issues. After reading this book I was convinced that I had a mission to save social studies from sucking -- over my many years of teaching and tutoring I've heard so many kids say that history or social studies is the most boring class, the one they hate the most, etc. and this just makes me so sad.
Our historical names: As a late bloomer myself, I really identify with Grant. Before I started the Deedle Deedle Dees, I always felt like there was something I should be doing that I wasn't. I don't feel like that anymore.
I encouraged the other guys to take names from American history but they had their own ideas. Innocent Dee is named after a pope. Otto von Dee after the ruthless unifier of the Germanic states. And Booker Dee, contrary to what many have assumed, is not named after Booker T. Washington. He told me that all his heroes were musicians and that he'd like to be named after James Booker, the great unsung New Orleans piano player.
What is your favorite historical story?
I just finished a song about Satchel Paige called "Bring 'Em In" that retells what is probably my favorite historical story at the moment. Anecdotes of Paige always have slightly different details depending on who tells them, but I like to think that things happened the way they do in this particular version. I'll just paste the lyrics here because I think they tell the story better than I can write it in paragraph form:
Bring 'Em In
words and music by Lloyd Miller
Way back before Jackie wore a hat with a white "B"
they played a game between the black league and the white league
Satchel Paige walked the first batter from the white team
they started talking, called him "overrated."
Satchel turned to his shortstop and said:
Bring 'em in bring 'em in bring 'em in bring 'em in bring 'em in bring 'em in
bring 'em in bring 'em in bring 'em in bring 'em in bring 'em in bring 'em in
So outfielders moved into shallow outfield, Satchel Paige said, "no no no no no..."
So outfield moved into the infield, Satchell Paige said, "no no no no no..."
So outfield and infield moved onto the pitcher's mound, Satchel Paige said, "Sit down... that's what I meant when I said..."
ooh ooh ooh ooh...
Satchel walked Batter Number Two
Then he walked Batter Number Three
Bases loaded, Batter Four stepped Up
He went down swinging
Batter Five stepped up, Satchel sat him down
Batter Six, Strikeout!
ooh ooh ooh ooh...
Which "historical" song gets the biggest reaction in concert? Which non-"historical" gets the biggest reaction?
The historical song that seems to get everyone really excited is "Teddy Days." It's a very frenetic song to begin with, but before we play it, I encourage the kids to engage in a full-on Mr. Universe-style muscle posedown while we play it. I of course demonstrate some of my favorite poses in order to give them some ideas.
"Obedience School" and "Vegetarian T-Rex" are generally pretty chaotic as far as non-historical material goes. I've actually tried to figure out how to jettison our non-historical stuff so that our shows make more thematic sense, but people keep saying things like "We'll be there Saturday and please please play 'Obedience School'."
Which is easier for you -- music or lyrics? Do you write those separately or together?
Usually they come together -- a line like "He was a puny sickly child" (the first line of "Teddy Days") will arrive fully formed with melody as I'm walking to pick up my daughter from day care or something. The rest of the song will sort of fall together behind that initial lyric/melody line.
What music do you and your family listen to at home?
Lately we've been hearing a lot of Arfie, a CD that goes with a class my daughter is taking. It's the first time we've actually listened to kids music in our house and I'm worried. A couple of weeks ago I took Arfie out of the player and put in The Clown by Charles Mingus. My daughter, who had been hiding behind a curtain in our bedroom, rushed out, pointed at the CD player and demanded "Arfie!" That said, though, there are some songs on Arfie I like -- and I think they're all written by Morgan Taylor of Gustafer Yellowgold (seriously, he's credited on the album).
Luckily, though, we still get to hear some of the stuff that was on constant rotation pre-Arfie: Freddie Hubbard, Pharoah Sanders, Nels Cline, Archie Sheep. I find it difficult to understand anything but jazz these days -- having a child disconnects you from your old childless life in so many ways, but no one told me just how much it would disrupt my brain's language bank. I feel like I'm re-learning to speak as my kid learns for the first time and so it's much easier for me to comprehend a saxophone honk than a chorus sung in English.
You've mentioned that you want to do more performing in schools -- why in particular is that?
This is something I wanted to do when I first started the band, but I had no idea how hard it was to do. If you want to play in a theater and sell $15 tickets, plenty of people in New York are happy to give you the opportunity, but if you want to perform in a public school, there are all sorts of hoops to jump through. We're affiliated with a couple of arts organizations that occasionally send us in to play in schools, but they only offer us a few shows a year -- I guess they just have so many artists on their rosters and have to spread the work around.
In the fall, we're going independent, meaning that we'll have the paperwork to set up shows and in-class workshops with schools without being affiliated with a arts-in-schools non-profit. Hopefully this will allow us to play in schools all the time because I have so much curriculum ready to go. I've always envisioned the Dees as an educational content-producing machine rather than a rock band, a vehicle for making high-quality musical products-- not just CDs, but books, DVDs, whatever -- that aren't beholden to school boards or sales figures. That's not to say that I want to hole up and record and never perform, just that I want our stuff to reach new audiences. In New York, even if our show is totally free, most of the people who show up are of the same demographic: rich white people. This is largely an issue of information -- the people who come to see us are the people who read the magazines and websites and other sources that cater to them. The longer I do kids music, the more I realize that you have to bring your music to the people you want to hear it. It's not enough to say, "I'm tired of playing only for people who can afford it, let's do a free show in the park." You have to actually go to new communities and connect with people via schools and community organizations.
At least once a week some parent asks me, "When are you guys going to be on TV?" and I, every time, explain that while I would one day like to see a slow-moving Reading Rainbow / Mr. Rogers-style history and music show featuring the band (we actually drew up a proposal for such a program a while back) I'm much more interested in playing in schools and providing teachers with musical ways to teach their curriculums. Most people respond to this speech with a confused expression I like to call the "You poor fool" look. In other words, the look people in New York get on their face when they hear some poor fool describing some endeavor that is guaranteed to make them absolutely no money. I get this look a lot.
What's next for the band?
Up next for the Dees are 1) out-of-town shows 2) shows at schools and untried venues. The band has had some of our best experiences playing outside of New York City. For one, it's great to play for a crowd of total strangers, people who have never seen -- and often never even heard -- of the band. Even more fun are the reactions of the kids. Many kids at our shows in NYC have already seen Dan Zanes seven times so they get the whole concert with guitars and drums and whatnot, but even in places as close as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania we have kids coming up to us after the show absolutely beside themselves because they've never been to a concert before. It makes you feel what you're doing is worthwhile and it's a feeling you only get in the city if you're at public school serving a low-income population. Recently Booker Dee (Chris Johnson) and I were playing at this school and my upright bass was out of sight of most of the audience because we like to play on the floor at the same level as the kids. When I lifted that thing up to play our first song, the squeals and gasps that came from that auditorium were unbelievable.
Our efforts to expand our roster of venues will also include some experiments with places that have never hosted a show. I'm going to ask a couple of guys who promote underground deejay and indy band events at all manner of places-- restaurants, abandoned warehouses, farms (yes, there are farms in brooklyn), empty swimming pools-- to help us figure out how to do shows in the neighborhoods that everyone avoids unless they live there or teach at a troubled school. There are plenty of concrete playgrounds, empty lots, abandoned buildings, churches, community halls, and other places that could host a kids show and I'd like to figure out how to do shows at this sort of place regularly by getting somebody to fund a performance series featuring us and other local acts that we like. And not just so-called "kids music." I want to bring in people doing cool stuff that kids would find interesting -- Latino indy rock bands (there's a budding scene in Queens), young rock and hip hop groups, theatre groups and puppeteers, all kinds of acts.
The other big thing in our near future is a lot of new music, much of it incorporating a different sound, more the sound of our "grown-up band." The four of us moonlight, along with this fabulous mandolin player named Ari Dolegowsky, as an old-timey string band with ukulele, upright bass, acoustic guitar, banjo, and washboard. We play fundraisers and restaurants and do swing, Django, gypsy, Yiddish, bluegrass, old jazz, country blues, and whatever else occurs to us during our rehearsals. A lot of the new songs I'm writing are designed for this instrumentation. The aforementioned Satchel Paige song might still be a big organ and electric guitar number, but new ones like "Battle of Brooklyn," "Ghosts of the Great Bridge" (a tale of trips to the Brooklyn Bridge with my daughter that incorporates the history of Washington and Emily Roebling and the bridge's construction), and "Amelia Airplane" (the first of a few songs written at the request of the winner of the Zooglobble contest) are all string-band songs. This is our recreational music, what we play in the backyard once the baby's asleep, and so I guess it's not surprising that it's worked it's way into my writing.