I tend to think of Tito Uquillas' Bay Area band The Hipwaders as being one of kindie's "old guard" -- not that they've been around as long as Raffi or Trout Fishing in America, let alone Ella Jenkins, but having released their self-titled debut in 2005, their sharper guitar-pop was one of the early examples of the kindie wave that swept over the kids music world in the second half of that decade.
So Uquillas has some history and perspective on kids music in the past decade. His band's also got a new album coming out, Year-Round Sounds, on September 23. The new album features a number of songs celebrating seasons and holidays. In our chat, he and I talk about favorite holidays, the stop-and-start process of recording this new album, and how he views the balance between his day job as a paramedic and the rest of his life.
Zooglobble: What are your favorite holidays?
Tito Uquillas: As a kid, always Halloween, that was always fun. Dressing up, trick-or-treating, those things. Now they're fun from a different perspective. As an adult, it's even more fun when we play, we dress up a bit. For Halloween shows, I would dress up with a wig and costume beard and felt invincible, it was a great confidence booster. Now that I've been playing for a while, I'll just dress up with a hat.
Christmas shows are a blast, too. For Christmas we always dress up as a Victorian band. Because everybody’s in the spirit.
It’s probably a tie now between Halloween and Christmas.
You did an entire EP of holiday/Christmas songs (A Kindie Christmas) -- what are your favorite holidays to write songs for? Is it easy to write for a particular holiday?
I’ve been writing songs since I was 15. I always liked writing jingles. I remember writing a fake commercial for "The Starving Martyrs," who would starve for whatever your cause was. The Christmas album included songs I'd written over time, some dating back to the 80s and I realized I had almost a full album.
The problem is it’s not until the actual holiday that I come up with a song. People will hear it and ask, “Aw man, you have that recorded?” And I'll say, “no, you have to wait a year.”
We've got a new song that was based on a tangent of a discussion between the bassist and drummer about the animal the chupacabra. It's a fun song -- it’s a good feeling when your latest song is your band’s favorite song to play.
But, no, it’s [not a particular holiday but] whatever inspires you in the moment. Writing about something [on demand], that’s hard. Sometimes I can do it “on spec.” There’s a song on the new album ("We Can Be Heroes") written as a theme song for an animated series. The cartoon was going to be shown in Europe. And then the studio got an attorney and said that it would be better to just be made for Wales. So the song would have to be sung in Welsh. That wasn't for me. So now it's on the album...
Can you talk a bit about recording with Willie Samuels?
I work in a town called Crockett, which is the home of the C&H sugar factory. A firefighter there went to school with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. I thought Green Day [recordings] always sounded good, so I tracked down the studio where they recorded their stuff. I once thought you just hired a studio, but it’s not like that, you have to find an engineer. I found Willie Samuels, but he'd moved to a different studio, a top-notch studio, and I thought there was no way I could afford that.
But that's not how it works. We set up a budget, and sometimes you get kicked out. For our album The Golden State, which we also recorded with Samuels, we got kicked out for Lady Gaga. Samuels recorded spoken word with Danny Glover, with Al Gore. He recorded 20-piece salsa band. So we recorded at odd days and times.
I've recorded whole albums at once and didn’t like intensity of recording 14 songs. So we had 6 songs for a session, which was much more relaxed.
Besides he does what he wants. He doesn’t like hand percussion, so on one song he mixed it really low. I know what to expect.
How do you view the interaction between your day job as a paramedic and your life as a kindie musician?
I just celebrated my thirtieth anniversary as a paramedic.
Thanks, I think. You know, if there was ever a panel at a kids music conference on being a “slacker,” that’s me. I've got to get that balance going between job, and marriage, and music.
I like the stress of my job, which is sick in a way. As a paramedic we’re used to handling very stressful situations. When I was 10, my mom got cancer and passed away when I was 12. And that messed me up a bit as a teenager. I was quiet and didn’t come out of my shell until 15 or 16. I wanted to control the situation more than I could before.
I had a band at 15 and that was a relief. The music thing was much more satisfying. Much later in the Hipwaders, we’d play at children’s hospitals and parents would be crying out of gratitude. Wow, thirty years of being a paramedic, nobody ever cries out of gratitude. The 2 things parts go hand in hand. The job is very clinical.
The performing part of the band has actually helped me. Learning to play to the room, looking around making sure everyone is calm, cracking jokes, making sure everyone is put at ease. It’s almost like a performance too, having to treat a patient.
I imagine a paramedic team is sort of like a band, everyone with their own roles and strengths.
Yeah… I like going to different people’s houses and cultures. The last call I was on had this Middle Eastern war rug hanging -- it's a map of Afghanistan with pictures of guns, artillery. When the Afghans kicked Russians out, they made these rugs -- our military would buy them, so would Afghanis. The call before that was the tackiest house, looked like something from King Louis XIV; it was owned by an elderly Russian couple. To me, that’s always fascinating. Or seeing different religious shrines. Especially in the Bay Area, which is so diverse -- Cambodians, Phillipines, Middle Eastern.
How do you integrate those two parts of your life? I was recently having a discussion online with some kids music folks and talking about how major corporations are selling only Dora the Explorer or Kidz Bop album, but also the huge changes in the recorded music industry make it easier than it's ever been to be a part-time creative.
It’s three parts, actually -- family, job, and creative life. I always have to have a project going -- in between bands in my youth, I might have had a visual arts project. Now it’s just music.
The Dora and Kidz Bop stuff -- I don’t even think about that. That’s a multimedia thing -- TV, merchandise, it all goes together, there’s no way the kindie crowd can get into that. People ask me, "Can you play Frozen?" I say no, it’s just not me. I like Frozen but I really don't like show tunes. I had a partner doing pediatric care, and he was talking about preschool theme shows I don’t know at all.
The band is happy that we can make albums, play shows, and maybe release an occasional video and not use our own money. But I’m really cognizant of maintaining the balance between family and playing shows. We can usually make a day of it as a family. I don’t want to disrupt that balance. If I were offered a two week tour on the East Coast, I'd probably say, “Ahhh, I don’t know” unless they paid us a lot of money.
I’m not big on the PR thing now -- we can’t take time from our day jobs and tour the country. So written press is not that important to us. Being a regional act is fine for me. We can get plenty of bookings; there are a half dozen musical acts and we all get gigs. I'll do it yourself and hope for the best.
You’re not going to get rich, but you’re not going to go broke, either.
Lots of people record, teach music. I’m not sure I could do it every day or every other day as a job. What if I had to teach preschool, would I have to write more preschool songs? That’s not me. Laurie Berkner is really good at it, but a lot of the other preschool songs I hear are insipid. I'm fascinated by people who do it as a job. It's not for me, worrying about [it as] a job. Hopefullly it’s working out well [for them], that they can retire.
Are their new tracks on the upcoming album you’re proud of?
“Kings and Queens” song was fun to write. We’ve had Gunnar Madsen sing [Ed: and Charity Kahn also duets with Uquillas on the album], but never an actual musician. I was listening to a podcast with Mike Myers, who has a reputation for being difficult. His was saying his art has a quirkiness, particular style.
Sometimes musical guests dilutes that. I was really struggling with the keyboard part on "Kings and Queens", but couldn’t get it out of my brain on the recording. So Chris Wiser from the Sugar Free Allstars came on board, said, "Oh, you want a funky clavinet... strings on the chords." My wife said, "You can play that," and I'd say, "Yes, but I can’t get it out of me."
Oh, and the Buck Owens Christmas song ("Have a Very Merry Christmas") -- I couldn't make it just like Buck, then realized, I'll just make it an R&B song. Also, I realized that there were just 2 bluegrass song covers and those weren't available on CD, so it was "Oh, nobody’s recorded that."
What’s coming up?
We have a new video (hopefully within a couple weeks) for “Just Not Me.” Visually, I thought it would be a funny cartoon. I saw Thessaly Lerner’s videos, which were a little Ren & Stimpy-like. The animator's cartoons are a little more edgy. He’s doing the animated video for that. There's an album release show in a couple weeks, and Halloween shows and Christmas shows are already lined up. We'll record a new song, too. Got feedback from one woman who said her kids had [Year-Round Sounds] constant repeat. That was nice to hear.