Interview: Tito Uquillas (The Hipwaders)

TitoUquillas.jpgGuitarist and songwriter Tito Uquillas of the Bay Area band The Hipwaders has always struck me as almost as much a fan of great kids music and music in general as a creator of great kids music. Indeed, in an unrelated conversation about traveling around the country to shows such as Kidzapalooza and the Sirius-XM Studios, Uquillas said "We just need our costs covered as we don't care about making money. We're in it for the adventure!"

Even with that comment, Uquillas has also been a little more upfront than many in the kids music genre about the sometimes challenging economics of being a musician in the 21st century. He recently answered a few questions about his musical background, the economics of his band, and what it's like to have a song of yours accompany a show on catfish noodling.

Zooglobble: What music did you listen to growing up?
Tito Uquillas: I think it's telling that my earliest memory is a musical one of my aunt singing Petula Clark's "Downtown" as she would walk us to the downtown area of the town we lived. My father is from Ecuador and had quite an eclectic record collection. Besides hearing a lot of Ecudaorean music artists, I was exposed to what now would be termed as "world music." He also had an extensive collection of soundtracks. I found the soundtracks extremely interesting and loved hearing the zither of "The Third Man Theme" and the bouzouki of "Zorba the Greek."

When I was 8 years old I saw The Beatles' movie Help! on TV and became infatuated with the band. Every few weeks I would buy a Beatles album by saving my milk money and doing odd jobs like polishing my Dad's shoes.

As a teenager I was corrupted by Lenny Kayes' Nuggets compilation and my taste in music turned away from mainstream. I loved the high energy raw sounds of music from Stax/Volt soul to punk rock and new wave music. I would buy every Stiff Records and Two-Tone import 45 I could lay my hands on. It didn't matter if I knew the band or not.

How hard is it combining your day job (or perhaps it's a night job depending on your shifts) with your Hipwaders work?
I can't imagine having a regular 9 to 5 job and have a band. As a paramedic, I work 24-hour shifts for 10 days a month which allows for a lot of time off. Also, I work out of a station where I'm able to rehearse and take care of band business if I'm not on a call.

You touched a bit on why you released an EP (with Goodie Bag) -- can you expand on the music industry changes that led you to release an EP rather than a full release?
I realize that very few physical albums are being sold unless it's by a popular act on a major label. In the childrens' music world there is still a demand for a physical product as kids enjoy a tangible representation of the music. I know my kids like to see pictures of the band or artwork and that it increases their listening experience. I feel there will always be a need for the physical product but also see that the ease and portability of downloadable music is undeniable and inevitable.

Relatively speaking, we really don't make a lot of money as a band. We're not on TV and we don't know how we could possibly tour and balance our day jobs and family life (which for me is priority #1). Therefore, recording an entire album is pretty cost-prohibitive and also takes a long time to produce due to time spent rehearsing and arranging parts. In our case, it's much better to record a few songs, get them out faster and get back out performing live. Also, I hate having to worry about arranging and mixing over a dozen songs at a time. It hurts my brain!

What do those changes mean for the creative output of your band -- does it change what you record? Does it give you more or less freedom?
If time and money weren't such a factor, I would much rather record an album. With an album - as evidenced by what we've recorded - I like having song snippets, transitional interludes and reprises. I've always loved hearing artists create an "album" that takes its time to create a flow. With the way music is now distributed it's like a novelist being forced to write short stories. I still am trying to create the album effect in twenty minutes but realize that it may be a lost cause as people will download the songs they like and put them in random order.

Hipwaders.jpgIn rough order, can you rank the following categories of the band's revenue -- Gig payments, gig CD sales, non-gig CD sales, mp3 sales, non-CD merch, performance royalties eg Sirius-XM, other -- from most to least?
For us, it's:
1. Gig payments
2. Performance royalties (Thank you, XM. Strangely, we never had any airplay on Sirius...what gives?) Also TV licensing through Pump Audio which is now owned by Getty Images. My biggest thrill was hearing our "Howling at the Moon" on Samantha Brown's Travel Channel show. I've also had a friend call me to say he heard one of our songs on a show where people were catfish noodling (sticking your hand in the mud and waiting for the fish to bite you). It may be less than a thousand dollars a year in royalties and no recognition, but it's fun to hear our music on dozens of TV shows.
3. Gig CD Sales.
4. Non-CD merch sales
5. Our non-CD gig sales and mp3 downloads are really quite low... unfortunately.

I've always put any royalties and most of our gig money back into the band to pay for recording, merchandise and promotion. A lot of acts have to worry about getting a large enough fee to pay each member of the band whereas we really don't have to worry about that. Knowing we're not going broke enables us to take all sorts of gigs. We'll play non-paying gigs if exposure is good and there's a chance to sell merchandise. The "all for one and one for all" attitude keeps everyone happy and focused on just producing music.

How did you stay focused on Christmas music even after the Christmas season?
I started a blog, Kindie Christmas, and have been trying to post stuff about Christmas, and stuff that may not be about Christmas but gives me the same sort of feeling. I check out all the Christmas music and discover lots of fascinating music and personalities. I love learning about the different songwriters who've written Christmas music and learn a little something about their lives.

Can you give us a little preview of the disk -- are they covers, originals, some mix of the two?
It'll be all original. I was surprised to find only about 3 or 4 other contemporary kid music artists have recorded Christmas albums. Christmas music is truly "family music" and I really thought there would have been more music out there. The album - for the most part - is actually somewhat more rocking and heavier in tone than our regular songs and even more eclectic in musical styles with funk, rockabilly, our usual powerpop and probably the first Christmas song in a cumbia style. It'll be interesting to see how it's received.

I realized it wasn't practical to also record the eight or so Christmas cover tunes we perform as I really don't want to deal with the licensing headaches involved in recording cover tunes. I would love to record the covers as some point as I think we have some nifty arrangements of Christmas songs that aren't usually covered and give them away as gifts to fans. That'd truly be the Christmas thing to do.

You've been a vocal supporter of Frances England's music -- any other kids artists your family particularly enjoys? What else do you listen to with your kids?
It's always about the song. For me, Frances' songwriting seems so natural and "uncrafted". Her music is a perfect combination of melodies, lyrics and voice that create a certain vibe. It's hard to write great, simple songs and it's a rare quality I find in artists I love like Buddy Holly.

As far as other kid music artists my family and I enjoy, I'll have to be as diplomatic as I can as I am friends with many of them and to name one may hurt another's feelings (you already named Frances so I can't help that!). I will say that when I was dragged kicking and screaming into playing music for kids I searched around for other artists that were taking the rock band approach to see if there was even a market for it. I quickly found Ralph's World and my boys really enjoyed his music and The Hipwaders even used to cover several of his songs before we built up our repertoire.

Before I dived into the world of kids' music I would make mix tapes for my boys consisting of "adult" artists like Jonathan Richman, Devo and the Bonzo Dog Band. Therefore, my boys' tastes run into the more quirky, demented realm of kids music such as They Might Be Giants, The Telephone Company, Twink's Broken Record and the Hoodwinked soundtrack. They also like Recess Monkey, Justin Roberts, Scribblemonster - acts that take more of the rock-oriented approach to kids music.

What's next for the Hipwaders (besides the Christmas disk)?
We love performing live and we're working on getting more gigs to bring our music to more people. We'd also like to make some more videos.

I'm constantly in touch with other Bay Area acts and other people interested in improving the local scene and there is some hope. A local venue, the Ashkenaz in Berkeley, has expanded their family music series and if audiences show up the club will realize they can have acts every weekend of the year and be a family music destination like Jammin' Java in Virginia.