Interview: Jack Forman (Recess Monkey / Kids Place Live)

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Jack Forman is a very funny guy right.

He's also a very busy guy.  He already spent a lot of time as the resident bassist and chief jokester of Seattle trio Recess Monkey.  But earlier this year he started a second gig, as the evening/late afternoon (depending on your time zone) host of "Live from the Monkey House" on Sirius-XM's Kids Place Live channel in the wake of Robbie Schaefer's decision to leave his show to focus on his OneVoice charity.

In spite of that busy schedule, Forman responded to questions via e-mail in less than a day, which leads me to believe the man is a robot.  A funny, funny robot.  Read on for Forman's (non-)drive time memories, similarities between being a DJ and a live performer, and a sneak peek into Recess Monkey's forthcoming Deep Sea Diver and Desert Island Disc albums.

Zooglobble: What are your memories of listening to the radio growing up?  Did you have any favorite radio stations?

Jack Forman: I remember, while growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, listening to 97 WBWB all of the time - it’s where I first heard Hall and Oates and god knows how many other great '80s bands. They had that awesome sung call sign between songs, “Niiinety Sevvvven, Double U Beeee!!!!” Later on, I listened to Kent and Allen on 97.3 KPLZ here in Seattle, and loved those guys! My school bus driver would play them in the morning on the way to school, and we’d all sing along with whatever Poison song was playing that day. Their voices seemed so big, and remember this was way pre-internet, so there was no way to even know what they looked like! Lately, I’m a pretty nonstop NPR listener. I still go to the NPR website and trip myself out by matching names to faces and think “no WAY is that Steve Inskeep! He doesn’t look like THAT!” I wonder what kids think I look like!

How did your new gig hosting a show on Sirius-XM's Kids Place Live ("Live from the Monkey House") come about?

Recess Monkey had guest hosted several weekend shows on Kids Place Live over the last few years, and it just became clearer and clearer that we gelled with the energy that Mindy [Thomas], Kenny [Curtis] and Robbie [Schaefer] had cultivated there. Hearing Mindy’s voicemail message after one of the shows, snorting about a bit that we did about a cow licking a squirrel behind the ear and also just getting a sense of the overall vibe at the DC studios made it seem like a really great fit for us. Over time, I took over most of the radio duties as we got busier as a band. Mindy and I were talking about it for maybe as long as a year.

The bittersweet part about how all of it worked out is that the position that I took was Robbie’s - I’m just bummed that I won’t get the chance to collaborate with him the way that I’m getting to work with everyone else at SiriusXM. It really is true that, despite being a huge, international brand, the small team that runs Kids Place Live are some of the scrappiest, least-corporate people out there - Kenny and Mindy run their shows very much the way that we try run our band, with the “kids are smart... and FUNNY” attitude front and center. I’ve already learned a lot.

You had recorded some material for Sirius-XM ("The Tuneiversity") -- how does doing a live show differ?

The TUNEiversity was conceived as a music education show, and that’s really where the rubber hit the road. Each episode was themed around a particular instrument or genre of music, and I got to interview some of the brightest lights in the kindie world who were connected with them (Sugar Free Allstars kicked off the first episode, FUNK 101). Our hope was that the shows would help open kids’ ears up to the eclectic stuff that’s played on KPL. Tons of Hip Hop or Bluegrass songs are in heavy rotation, but kids may not have thought about what makes those songs and styles so unique. By concentrating them all in a power-hour, with experts talking about it, the inspirational non-kindie artists who helped define the genre or perform the instrument, and then current kids’ songs peppered in, I think it was a really unique hour in the KPL week. Totally planned, much like a very carefully-conceived unit in a lesson plan. I hope to at some point make more episodes!

Doing a live radio show is much more akin to what I do in Recess Monkey - so much of the content of the show is guided by the kids who call in, or a daily theme that may not come together until minutes before we go live. Unlike a live music set that my band might play, my amazing producer Courtney and I get to regroup every five minutes and talk about what’s coming up next, how to tweak the content or the format - but once a segment starts and especially once kids are on the line, who KNOWS where it’ll go? I love that feeling!

Not every segment works, but there are these amazing moments where there’s a kid caller who says something really surprising, and I just love following their lead. I wish you could see me celebrating silently with my hands when I’m realizing that a particular kid on the phone has “the goods!” Every show, there are a few calls that could probably last the full three hours. Anyone who knows me as a teacher knows that I stick to the script for about two seconds before moving on to something else. The school where I learned how to be a teacher, UCDS in Seattle, is very much centered around individualizing to each kid- and I love that I get to do that on air. The day’s theme casts a wide net, but each call is a chance to connect with kids on a very individualized level.

What's been the most pleasant surprise about your DJ experience thus far?  What's been more work than you expected?

Though this is my first radio job, I’m finding that 13 years in the classroom has really prepared me for the kinds of conversations I get to have with kids. That’s really the job, after all - sure, it’s playing music and getting to advocate for artists that I really believe in and love. But when it all comes down to it, the job is about making real, albeit quick, connections with kids, and honoring them every step of the way. They’re hysterical to talk to, especially knowing that thousands of other people are listening in to our conversations about the hazards of lactose intolerance. The skills of how to ask an open-ended question and how to follow a kid’s lead have proven invaluable so far.

Does playing live music and playing music live require the same set of skills, audience-wise, or are you using different parts of your brain when you're on air versus on stage?

I was nervous about starting my show on KPL because I can’t see the people listening. That might seem like a no-brainer, duh... but it was a big perceived obstacle for me. So much of how I read and communicate with a live crowd is by noticing what they’re doing physically, and the chance to supplement the noise I’m making with eye contact, smiles, shrugs, and all that. Just like playing a Recess Monkey show where no one’s paying attention, I think I’d go crazy if I had to do this show without kid-contact. I’m an extrovert in general, but also thrive in contact with kids- it’s what got me into teaching to begin with, and what made Recess Monkey such an immediate joy. Luckily, the calls come in fast and furious and we usually can’t keep up with the kids who want to connect. How lucky to get to kick off a radio show and already have tons of dedicated listeners!

In a live band show, we know instantly whether what we’re doing is working, but on Live From the Monkey House there’s always a moment after saying something where I wonder “is that going to work? Are the phone lines going to light up?” There’s a great early Saturday Night Live episode where Buck Henry is doing a radio call-in show and no one’s calling in, so he has to get more and more edgy with his topic until he starts saying “KILLING PUPPIES! Sounds good to me- how ‘bout you?” and still the phones don’t ring. Luckily, it hasn’t come to that!

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Speaking of Recess Monkey, you have 2 albums with Recess Monkey coming out this year -- Deep Sea Diver and, later on, Desert Island Disc.  Those sound like a double concept album, with just a reaaaaaally big gap between playing the first and second album.  Can you tell me a little bit more about what to expect?  Maybe a giant inflatable Mayor Monkey floating outside the concert venue for the live shows?

You hit the nail on the head! The records are very much linked, even by the time between them. The first record, Deep Sea Diver, was conceived to be the “Recess Monkeyest Recess Monkey Album Ever!” Super goofy, high energy songs with a lot of synth, funk and everything in between. After the woodier, more eclectic sound of In Tents, we really wanted to come charging out of the gate with a really electric collection of songs. They’re all set in a submarine that explores the depths of the ocean and finds crazy things before ultimately getting shipwrecked at the end of the album with the song “Stranded.”

Knowing our basic timeline for release, we decided to open the curtain on disc two by imagining what a record would sound like recorded on an island that we’d lived on for 4 months (the amount of time between releases).  Desert Island Disc is a much woodier, acoustic album with smaller songs- but it also features the orchestrations of Jherek Bischoff on several songs to add texture. It’s a really unique album for us! Getting the “Recess Monkeyest” album out in the open freed us up to do something truly experimental for us... I honestly can’t say which one I like better!

You and Drew had played with [drummer] Daron [Henry] for a long time -- what was it like for the two of you to adjust to playing with Korum [Bischoff] full time?

Korum Bischoff, our amazing drummer, subbed for Daron a couple of summers ago and he was astonishingly prepared. Drew and I went over to his house to rehearse through a quick 8-song set that we were playing a few days later, and we had assumed we’d be there for a few hours working through the songs until Korum felt comfortable... Which tuned out to be a seriously flawed assumption! Korum had done his homework. He knew the songs inside and out- every time we finished a song, Drew and I would look at each other as if to say “who IS this guy!?” Little did we know that a few short months later, he’d be jumping at the chance to join the band. How lucky were we!? It’s been a total joy- and hard to believe that we’ve only played 20 shows with him so far. (I should amend that to say 20 shows AND 2 albums!) I don’t know how we got so lucky - to find a guy so in-tune with kids and our band’s energy, who’s also a teacher, who’s as talented as he is. It’s been a real honor to have him!

HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU FIND TIME TO DO ALL THIS STUFF???!!?

Coffee.

No, seriously.  How do you do it?  (Or, alternately, how do you decide what great ideas you follow up on and which ones you let drift away like dandelion seeds?)

I’m really a “systems guy,” which is the only way that I can keep from getting stressed out. I think stress is an enormous time suck, and it runs me down, so I’ve just decided not to feel it! Our band is really just a series of systems - from the workflow of how to make an album, to how to make a video, how to go on a tour, etc. I work really hard to build working systems from the ground up, and maintain them to make sure everything’s up to snuff, everyone’s happy and that we’re always growing. The beauty of that kind of thinking is if the system’s working, it frees you up to be creative and in the moment. We never get stressed as a band. Nothing ruins a record like walking into the session and freaking out that you’re burning through money and time and it’s going to be awful...  Nothing ruins a gig like not having the extension cord you need, or not budgeting enough time for traffic. If the system’s in place and is working, you get to just sit back and enjoy it!

The radio show feels like having a band gig four days a week, and it’s a very similar balance of systems and creativity - I set aside daily prep time before each show, and finish just as Mindy and I do our crosstalk 15 minutes before I start. I don’t purport to be a man of Steve Jobs’ stature in the slightest, but I really identify with his concept of the “Reality Distortion Field.” There really does seem to be something to the fact where when you say “it’ll take an hour” and you believe it, it will - even if everyone tells you it’ll take three.

I see a distinction between urgency and stress, and I think you start learning from experience what needs to be done urgently in advance and what you can figure out in the moment. For me, the creativity is always the last thing that I think about, but it always seems to be there when I need it. Preparing for creative moments is, in itself, an act of creativity, but I find that I’m at my creative best when I have nothing else on my mind. Step into the shower, turn on the water, and I just get this amazing cascade of ideas - I try to organize the rest of my life like that. These little pockets where nothing else is going on, everything’s still, and I just get to be in the moment. I’m supremely lucky to have an increasing number of places like that on stage, in the studio and now on the air!

At the same time, I seem to have a pretty good internal-commitment-meter, and always can feel when my plate is emptying up. Now that Deep Sea Diver is off to press, my mind is starting to open up to videos and the second album- it just sort of happens without thinking too much about it. I’ve been tempted to call myself a workaholic in the past, but a lot of what I do doesn’t feel like work- is "playaholic" a word? I’m that.

Band photo credit: Kevin Fry