I like to think of Steve Denyes as the Pied Piper of San Diego. Denyes and Brendan Kremer are the core of Hullabaloo, which for more than a decade have been recording music and playing literally thousands of gigs in Southern California and nationally.
Denyes' easygoing nature belies a serious dedication to the craft of making music for young fans and building a sustainable fanbase. He and Kremer have also just released Hullabaloo's latest album, Shy Kid Blues, which takes Hullabaloo's rootsy sound and, for the first time, mixes in spoken word to craft an entire story.
In this interview, Denyes talks about his own path to kids music, big gigs vs. small gigs, and, yes, shyness.
Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?
Steve Denyes: I distinctly remember listening to my mom’s voice as she was singing along to a song on the radio. As corny as it sounds, I remember thinking that she had the most beautiful voice in the world. I was old enough to understand that people did this for a living and wondered why she wasn’t a huge star.
Years later, when I made my first album (of music for grownups), I had my mom come into the studio and sing some harmony vocals. For me, it was a great ‘full-circle’ sort of moment.
How did you make your way to performing for kids and families?
Out of college, I spent a number of years working as a singer-songwriter. I made albums, toured the college circuit and the whole thing. Eventually, I got tired of starving and got a teaching credential. I was teaching Kindergarten through sixth grade music in the public schools when both my sisters had kids. I recorded an album of classic kid’s songs and gave them to my nieces, nephew and some friends with kids.
One of those friends was Brendan Kremer. His twin girls were about to celebrate their first birthday so he suggested we play some music at their party. We didn’t have any career aspirations or anything like that. Guests at that first party asked us to play for their kids’ parties and pretty soon we were booked every weekend. It just snowballed from there. Ten years later, we’re still at it!
You perform around the country, but you also have regular, smaller gigs in the San Diego area -- what do you prefer about those regular, more intimate gigs, and what do you get out of the "larger" performances?
The longer I do this, the more I realize that the most important shows I do, big or small, are the ones in my hometown. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing on the big stages and traveling to perform but I realize that touring is more about us having fun than building a career or developing a nation-wide audience.
To go off on a little bit of a tangent, I think a lot of musicians get lured into the idea that touring is the way to build a career. I think the opposite is true, especially in family music. I really believe it’s best to tend the garden you’re in.
San Diego County has a population of well over three million people. That’s a lot of kids and families within an hour’s drive! Staying close to home has allowed me to build an audience and nurture relationships with the families in my community. Doing one-off shows around the country is fun but it doesn’t really allow for that.
When we get an offer to play a big festival or travel to the East Coast for some shows, I jump at the chance because it’s a lot of fun to feel like a big shot for a few days. But, honestly, the real satisfaction for me comes from seeing a young family I know from Hullabaloo at the grocery store down the street from my house.
How do you keep performances fresh?
We do around 300 shows a year so keeping things fresh is important. The thing that does it for me is that we almost never use a set list. We go onstage and construct a show on the spot based on what we see in front of us. Each song choice depends on the age of the kids, their involvement, and their enthusiasm. Is it a wild bunch or a reserved one? Do they want to dance or sing along? All of that is going through my head and it keeps it fun and challenging.
People often ask if I get tired of playing “Run Bunny Run” or even “Itsy Bitsy Spider” a million times but honestly, I never do. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t play those songs for fun when I’m sitting on the porch at the end of the day but the real joy in performing is when your audience is happy. If people enjoy “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, I’m more than happy to play it… again.
What inspired Sky Kid Blues?
I was a shy kid. Every day I see shy kids from the stage. They’re the ones sitting quietly next to mom or dad taking it all in rather than mixing it up with the crowd. I just wanted to share my story with those kids. I was the kid that was too shy to sing or dance with everyone else but would go home and perform a whole concert for my family and my dog when I was back in my comfort zone.
With a lot of love and encouragement from the people around me, I was able to become comfortable onstage singing and being the center of attention – something that seemed impossible to me as a kid. My hope is that Shy Kid Blues helps those quiet kids see that there are no limitations.
What made you want to try the spoken word aspect of the album?
Before Hullabaloo, I wrote and performed two one-man musical plays. I used spoken word monologues and songs to tell one larger story. I always love the format and the challenge of telling a story that way. When I got the idea for Shy Kid Blues, the added spoken word just seemed like the best way to bring it all together. And I love a challenge and trying something new.
What do you do to address any feelings of shyness you have in daily life?
I have a couple tricks up my sleeve! My best trick is to smile. Sometimes a shy person can look angry so I remind myself to smile so people know I’m friendly. In the course of conversation, I’ll ask a lot of questions. It lets people know that I’m interested in them and it takes the pressure off of me to be the center of the conversation.
I’ve also come to realize that feeling shy and acting shy are two very different things. I might feel scared, nervous or uneasy but it doesn’t mean that I have to act that way. I can acknowledge that introducing myself to someone new feels scary and still do it anyway.
Who are your musical heroes, in whatever genre?
Dan Zanes is my family music hero. A dozen years ago, before “kindie” music was a thing, I stumbled on one of his albums. I loved the way he incorporated acoustic instruments and traditional music. He singlehandedly made me realize that family music could be cool, fun and musically legit in an era when it was mostly singing hamsters and purple dinosaurs.
Outside of family music, Steve Earle has long been a hero of mine. He has built a career by writing amazing songs about everything from pretty girls to social change. And, he’s pushed the boundaries stylistically from bluegrass to sample-infused rock. I like an artist that pushes the boundaries and does it well!
What's next for you and Hullabaloo?
In the short term, it’s lots and lots of shows. I think we’ve got 40 shows coming up in June. Beyond that, we produce two family music festivals each year here in San Diego so we’re always working hard to make them grow and flourish.
Creatively, I’m not sure what the next project will be. I’ve been toying with the idea of staging Shy Kid Blues as a small theatrical production where we’d do all the music and monologues live. Once the summer concert season slows down I think I’ll test the waters a little with some workshop performances and see how it goes. If it resonates with kids live, it could be a really fun, new adventure.