Describing Rock Band Land as a songwriting class for preschoolers and early elementary school students seems like such a poor description of the group pictured above. You know, the ones standing in front of archery targets with definitely-not-apples on their heads and significant amounts of eye makeup, just like every preschool songwriting teacher, right?
But before I launch into this interview with the San Francisco-based group, I think it's important to understand at its core what they do so that you're better able to understand the flights of fancy they lead. That's Brian Gorman, drummer and creator/co-director of Rock Band Land (RBL) on the left, and Marcus Stoesz, guitarist/keyboardist and RBL co-director on the right. Together they head up RBL, which transforms into Rainbow Beast when bassist Jen Aldrich joins the two of them for recordings and live shows.
Now that you have your bearings, prepare to lose them, as the RBL and Rainbow Beast process is nothing like any songwriting class you've ever taken, either at age 5 or 35.
Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
Brian Gorman: I grew up in a loud, large family. My parents were never really into music, but it was the most important thing ever to my older brother and I. I remember being about 5 or 6 and we, and a group of our friends, had a Queen 45. I think it was "We Are The Champions," and we would listen to it relentlessly in my friend's backyard. We all agreed that we would each take turns sharing the record. We destroyed it within a week.
Marcus Stoesz: I spent a lot of time hearing songs in church when I was really young, but the first music that actually captured my imagination were Casio keyboard demos and rhythms. I didn't realize until much later in life that these were based on actual songs and styles of music, I just thought that this little machine was a genius device. I started taking proper piano lessons at 7, and I can still play my first recital piece, "Ballade" by Friedrich Bürgmuller.
Jen Aldrich: One of my first strong musical memories is of listening to Cat Stevens' song "Moonshadow" many times over. It was the first song that really got under my skin and put down roots. There was something both creepy and comforting about it, and it was my first real awakening to the visceral power of music.
When did you first start writing songs?
Brian: I was an avid music fan long before I realized that I too could actually create this magic. I didn't start writing songs till I was in my twenties. I was living in Japan and playing in a busking band of international misfits. We were writing really ambitious material - stuff that was way out of our ability to play - but we did a decent job of it and had an unbelievable amount of fun.
Marcus: I was lucky enough to have a full upright piano in my living room, so I would spend a lot of time tinkering with it when I was really young. I started making up songs when I was 6 years old. I relished in creating variations on "Heart and Soul", because you could play just about anything over that progression. When I picked up the guitar in the 7th grade, I pretty much made up everything that I taught myself, just combining different chords that I found interesting. I think I wrote my first proper rock song in the 8th grade.
What was the inspiration for Rock Band Land? Was it hard to convince parents to bring kids to a music-writing-focused workshop/class as opposed to one where the kids mostly just play music?
Brian: I started what later became Rock Band Land while working as a touring musician and preschool teacher. I was unimpressed with what I heard people encouraging kids to listen to and selfishly was going mad listening to sugary sweet music that I thought underestimated my students' intelligence and artistic sensibilities. At first it was an experiment: one afterschool extracurricular program just to see what would happen if I took some of the kids' ideas and help them shape them into a song. This was very much the rough and loose beginnings of what Marcus and I would later refine.
We have been very lucky. Rock Band Land has taken zero convincing. All of our advertisement has been done via word of mouth. The fun that we have in RBL is infectious; any kid who is in the audience of one of our The Big Shows (the culminating show for our Rock Out classes) wants to join one of our bands.
Marcus: Brian answers the first question most fully, but the simple answer to your second question is "no".
Can you give a very broad overview of how you work with the kids to develop the songs?
Brian: In the second week of a Rock Out [class] we brainstorm and collect musical and narrative ideas for what will later become that band's song and story.
For the music, we discuss the difference between music and noise: noise are sounds randomly coming together without any specific thought or intention behind them and music is collection of sounds that have been intentionally assembled to rock your face off.
Though it's a bit of an oversimplification, we use the idea that all music is based in patterns, so when a rocker offers up a rhythmic or melodic idea to be considered for the song it has to be in a repeated pattern - this can be just one note played in a specific rhythm, the relation of a few notes creating a simple melody, or more involved chord progressions. We write down or record ever idea and generally before we even finish the rock out session Marcus, Rock Band Land's Maestro, is already stitching together the ideas of different rockers and the music for the song starts to come together.
The story for the song, and what will also be the basis song's lyrical content, is written with the entire band after we collect the musical ideas. The process is entirely led by the rockers' ideas and interests. We have 4 basic rules that guide us through the process:
- The story must be original
- Anything can happen in a Rock Band Land story, but its message must have some sense of redemption
- Potty words are hilarious, but not allowed in the stories because once we go down Poop Road there is no coming back (occasionally a diaper or some underwear will make it in the story, usually as some comic relief at the height of some tense spot in the story arc)
- If a rocker doesn't like an idea that someone else has suggested, it is their responsibility to change the idea into something that they think is better. This is possibly the most important rule for our stories as it makes each member of the band accountable to themselves to find something that they like in the story, to better it if they think it is lacking, and it sets up a dynamic of respect for each others' ideas even if we don't agree on a specific point.
Rock Band Land is largely an exercise in improvised creative collaboration. The first rule of improvising with others is to take whatever your partners are saying or doing and say, "Yes, and..." and then you build on whatever they just offered. This 4th rule of our story writing is basically our rockers always saying, "Yes, and..." and thereby supporting their bandmates' creativity and the process itself.
Marcus: Brian and I both lead different sections of the creation process, namely the musical idea collecting section, which I lead, and the story writing section, which Brian leads. Since we work with really young kids, most of them don't necessarily have the know-how to create cohesive parts but they do know what patterns are, and I've heard some really intricate patterns come out of the mouths or fingers of a 5 year old. We spend about 30 minutes jamming and listening to each other play different instruments, and by the end of that process I have a good idea of what the key or mode will be, the tempo, some of the melodies, etc.
After going through the story writing process, Brian and I take everything we have learned and been inspired by and then write the songs. We bring the songs back to the kids the next week, and they can hear some of the parts they contributed in the context of a fun and engaging song.
What's the hardest part of the process for you? What's the most fun?
Brian: The hardest part is balancing the infinite amount of creativity and projects that pour like hot lava from the great Rock Band Land volcano with the limited amount of time that we have on this earth. Rock Band Land is rich with ideas and causes Rainbow Beast to be an exceedingly prolific band. We are very lucky for that and it's paramount to us that the quality of everything that we do and make for our rockers and with our rockers stays extremely high. Sometimes the press of time can threaten those high standards, but fortunately we've always found a way to pull it off.
I honestly love every bit of our process, but there is nothing like that moment when the band's story all of the sudden coalesces from a series of seemingly random ideas into a piece of collective art. It feels very much like watching something come to life. It's magic.
Marcus: The hardest part for me is wrapping my head around the sheer volume of songwriting put forth in the 2nd week of class. Often times I worry that a song isn't cohesive enough, or too long, or too wordy, and there's always a part of me that can't accept and wants to fix these perceived problems. This is pretty much impossible, because once the songs have been written, that ship has sailed. It's time to record scratch tracks and create Word documents, not rewrite the songs.
The upside to this is the feeling of relief I always get in the 4th week, when I start recording the rockers' voices and begin my guitar and Jen's bass overdubs, when the pieces of the puzzle all start falling into place. The recording session with the kids is my favorite point in the class. Leading them through the song, a song that they all know and love, always feels triumphant. I also love the quiet recording session I have at home, recording keyboard or guitar overdubs, when I can let my creativity run free.
Has writing songs with kids affected your music-making and writing for adults?
Brian: Without a doubt, creating with kids under the simple rules that we have in Rock Band Land, has made me a better collaborator and artist in general. I have long played in a math-y, progressive band called Tartufi. For years we pushed ourselves as hard as we could to write and arrange wildly complex, layered music. What I have learned from RBL and Rainbow Beast is the great value in letting simple ideas shine through.
My writing is has been freed by our process in Rock Band Land. I rarely feel inhibited or experience any sort of writer's block. In the past I may have been attached to my words and afraid to edit. Now everything is fair game and if something doesn't work out I just move on and create something else.
Marcus: I definitely think so, though it's hard to put into words. I think it reinforces my belief that often the most simple of musical choices are also often the best. The kids' spontaneity when rocking out is inspiring and refreshing. Also, because of the prolific nature of the Rock Band Land process, it's really honed my songwriting chops.
An oft-repeated maxim in kids music is "don't talk down to kids." What does that phrase mean to you?
Brian: It means to always remember that kids, no matter how cute you think they might be, are complex people too and their ideas matter and they deserve respect as individuals.
Marcus: I haven't heard much kids' music, but my first, kinda self-righteous response is, "Well then, start writing songs like that." I can't listen to much kids' music because it feels condescending, at least to me.
Jen: To me, it means meeting kids at their level with honesty and respect. Answering their questions with as much real information as you can for their age, giving them room to express themselves without jumping in to finish their ideas or correct them, and engaging with their thoughts and ideas with the same curiosity and patience you would show to any other person you are just getting to know.
What's next for the band and the Rock Band Land program?
Brian: This week we are producing one of our The Big Shows. In the near future we have new sessions of Rock Out, summer camps, and our album release shows that we are in the production phases of right now. These shows will be massive, mutli-media spectacle of rock music, storytelling, comedy, and video - imagine a punk rock, DIY version of A Prairie Home Companion and that will give you some sense of what we are going for.
We are going to continue producing our Broadcast Podcast and all of the songs and stories from our regular session. In the spring we will continue our World Tour of San Francisco Schools where we bring the Rainbow Beast show to public schools.
We are steadily working towards developing some sort of television / webcast show with our production partners The Werehaus. We have a few sketch comedy bits that we are currently producing as well as a new music video.
In the next year I'd like for us to start exploring producing a book or a series of books based on the RBL stories, I'd like Rainbow Beast to develop into a touring act, I want to partner with animators to make some new shorts based on our stories. I'd like for us to create bite-size music lessons that we can share with kids online. I'd like for us to develop an interactive web magazine for kids. I'd like for every kid everywhere to be able to experience Rock Band Land and Rainbow Beast.
Marcus: We're going to keep writing hundreds of songs. We're going to uncover some great mysteries in the forest and in the glaciers of Columbia. We're going to spread out the Rock Band Land territory to link the worlds of the Muzziluhmonks and the Doldies. I'm going to keep singing as high as a 6-year-old. Brian will continue to throw up diamonds. Jen will continue to triumph over all the meanness in the world by overwhelming it with niceness. It will be awesome.
Photo credits: Kristen Sard