Interview: Jack Forman (Recess Monkey)

My interview with Jack Forman, bassist in Seattle's star kindie trio Recess Monkey (not to mention to DJ at Sirius-XM's Kids Place Live), about the band's brand-new technology-focused album Wired started, ironically, with an electronic hiccup as I had difficulties getting cellular coverage for my iPhone.

Or maybe not so ironically, as the band's new album is just as concerned with playing IRL, as the kids say -- out in nature, in the real world.  Forman chatted with me by phone a couple weeks ago about growing up in a nerd family, having an album produced by John Vanderslice, and how the shift to digital has -- and hasn't -- affected the band.

Zooglobble: Were you a computer nerd growing up?

Jack Forman: My dad was definitely a computer nerd -- he was in computer engineering in Boeing.  He worked on government contracts, so couldn't tell us what he was working on.  He was the dweebiest spy ever.

My parents met in the computing center at Indiana University.  They had a big VACS machine with big tapes spools, with everybody carrying yellow punch cards.  I distinctly remember being brought into the computer room, and I pressed a red button, and I literally deleted an entire reel of work.

After that, they had a strict "no kid" policy.

My dad worked for IBM, where he dealt with setting up standards for computing graphics languages.  It wasn't until I was a teenager that I even really understood what he did, let alone be able to explain it to others.

Yeah, here in Seattle, we were festooned with dweebs, walking around in Birkenstocks with socks on.

I had computer terminals, the old school modem, eventually the Commodore 64, writing computer scripts.  The floppy disk that was actually floppy.

Did you play with your physical environment?

That was something important with the record, actually -- we were trying to tap into that "maker" movement.  [As a kid], I was a huge LEGO fan -- in terms of the hours spent, far and away that was my favorite.  I was never a big sports kid -- [fellow bandmates] Drew [Holloway] were more so and Korum [Bischoff] somewhat, but me, it was indoor play.  Sometimes my dad would have to evict me, "Go outside, it's 80 degrees."

And sunny.

Right!  I definitely empathize with the engineering nerd.

Switching gears a bit -- pun unintended, I swear, looking at your album cover -- how was working with John Vanderslice on Wired?

We were all fans separately of him before coming to the band.  It's art, how he approaches his songs.  The Beatles, Elliott Smith -- he's up there with them in terms of my favorite artists.

It was actually you on your review of Tabby Road where the idea first came up of actually getting John Vanderslice on the next album.  So the very next day I wrote an e-mail to him which started out, "OK, this is weird," and asked if he'd be willing to do it... We eventually met at Bumbershoot, and we recorded the bit that went on Field Trip.

So last year he was setting up a living room tour, where he literally played people's living rooms.  [Jack's wife] Ellen and I decided to host him -- we had 70 people downstairs, and he put on a great show.  While he was here, I said we would love to do an album with him.  So we went down to San Francisco in December.

It was an interesting conversation in my head.  You can listen to an album over and over, create an exalted image of an artist, have this intimate connection.  And he lives up to those expectations -- he's the coolest guy, so flexible -- but it's tricky to look up and see this person and have this life-changing experience.

What's it like meeting an idol, crossing that divide from fan to collaborator?

It would be more difficult with a diva -- you hear about people with their own... gravity and who are not afraid to exploit it.  That would be challenging, but not the case with John.  He's been running Tiny Telephone for 15-17 years, so he understands that role, it's not "paying homage to me."  He knew what we wanted, he was supportive.  He spent the night at our house [during the living room tour], and I knew him, but you never know.  But he was great -- we've already booked our next record with him.

Did you have to explain kindie to him?

No, he did his research.  Maybe a year or two before this he didn't know as much.  But the Sippy Cups recorded their first album at Tiny Telephone, though not with him.  And he'd actually had lunch with Alison Faith Levy the day before we started with him.


What did John bring differently as a producer to the recording?

His studio is a physical manifestation of the guy.  We were in the B room, which is newer than the A room, but has the same gear, and his same understanding.  He was almost like a tour guide, telling us about the sonic quality, helping us make the right choices.  "What kind of vibe and energy do you want?," he'd ask, and then he and [engineer] Jamie [Riotto] would get to work.

There was a lot of experimentation -- there's lots of gear, all these amazing things.  [John's] a savant, almost.

How did being in that studio affect the songs?

The songs obviously were written beforehand.  We knew we wanted them to be more electric (especially compared to Desert Island Disc, which was almost entirely acoustic).  We wanted the music to feel like a mashup between algorithms and electricity, duct tape and coat hangers.  Sonically, we wanted to push that nexus.  There was this foot-driven pump organ like on that last track on Radiohead's OK Computer.  There were double tape delays, Dolby noise reduction, overdubbed melodies.

It was hugely instrumental, both literally and figuratively.

Since the album is so tied to this digital/analog split, I'm wondering how the shift to digital music generally over the past ten years has affected the band?

Well, I'm going to comment about us as a case study -- I definitely don't want to say that how others have approached it are wrong, this is just what we've decided works for us.  We don't want to do a Kickstarter.  I know that John Vanderslice raised $75,000, enough for him to do not 1 but 2 records.  And it can be great for fan engagement.

Our model is playing shows and reaching fans in the real world.  We do 100-110 shows per year, and others do more -- Jim Cosgrove ("Mr Stinky Feet") did 300 shows per year until he cut back with his new job; Chris Ballew (Caspar Babypants) did 200 shows per year until he cut back as well.  We're constantly playing, and we always have a merch table.  We've been here for nine years, and everything has grown, our audience has grown.  Our sales have grown overall, though the growth has slowed.

Also, the royalties associated with Kids Place Live are enormous -- they've served as venture capital.  Most of the great kindie albums over the past few years could be traced back to funding from KPL, and I'm not just saying that because I'm associated with them as a host.

With digital, more families are comfortable with it, but it's not yet cutting into sales.  We're just making music and hoping it'll sell.  We're trying to make authentic connections.


Finally, I'm wondering if you as a band have an experimentation philosophy since you seem to try lots of different things.

I think that "growth" is more along the lines of how we think.  We're teachers (or used to be), talking about setting goals and how we get there even after the school days is done.  So we're identifying goals and next steps -- right now I'm looking at our nearly finished garage, which I built over the winter.

Music is easy, you buy a new instrument, and the guilt alone of that being there will work on you.  I live 2 blocks away from a vintage music store, and I'm constantly in there trading instruments.

It's super fun to be a funk band for three minutes, a hip-hop band for three minutes.  It's fun to experiment in all these realms.

Band photos by Kevin Fry.