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June 22, 2011

Interview: Recess Monkey

Regular YKFK readers will already know of my enthusiasm for Recess Monkey, the prolific (album a year!) and astonishingly talented band from Seattle. Simply put, they're part of the very top echelon of today's kids' music. And while they don't yet have quite the name recognition among parents nationwide that leading lights like Laurie Berkner and Dan Zanes do, well, I think it's only a matter of time.

So as my small part in making that happen, I'm devoting my posts this week entirely to Recess Monkey; on Friday I'll put up my review of their brand-new superhero-themed release, Flying!, here and cross-posted at Momfilter (but I'll leak the gist here: It's their best yet—go get it now!).

As for today, the band was kind enough to take time out from a hectic touring (and teaching!) schedule for an interview. (Many thanks to them for that.) Here's what (above, from left) Drew Holloway, Daron Henry, and Jack Forman had to say about their songwriting process, the Beatles, and faux facial hair:

YKFK: As I understand it, you guys are full-time schoolteachers, and at least some of you are also parents. How on earth do you find the time to write, record, and put out a great new album every single year?

Jack: It’s true—we’re all still elementary school teachers, and both Drew and I have human children; Daron has a canine child.

Drew: It takes copious amount of coffee!

Daron: Or a wormhole! No, seriously—we're really excited about the music, and working in the classroom gives us a lot of inspiration with each new album and each new song idea. We worked our recording schedule into our winter and summer breaks.

Jack: It really is true that we can’t keep up with all of the ideas that kids throw at us each day at school. I think if you were able to record every single thing that a class of kids says in a day, you’d have enough material for an entire career’s worth of albums!

YKFK: I've noticed that many of our favorite kid-music artists have been contributing as guest artists one another's albums lately, in almost a glorious chain: Molly Ledford from Lunch Money on your new album, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo on Lunch Money's last year, etc. How have those collaborations come about—meeting each other at festivals, Tor Hyams, magical brain waves, all of the above?

Drew: As a function of coming together in Seattle and jet-setting to places like Kindiefest, we’ve been able to connect with lots of different bands and musicians.

Daron: Collaboration comes pretty easy for us—we all teach in very collaborative schools, so from our first album to now, we’ve always incorporated our friends and students into the process. It just so happens now that we know more people across the country, so it’s very exciting that we get to broaden the circle.

Jack: Our schools are pretty nontraditional, and are looking for a more diverse group in the faculty than traditionally trained teachers—we learned early on how exciting a curriculum can be when you look around at talents within the faculty. That’s actually how we first discovered each other as musicians. Since forming the band, we’ve worked hard to find inspiration wherever we can. And there are tons of inspiring people in kindie music right now!

YKFK: I'll spare you the infamous "do the music or lyrics come first" question, but can you tell me a little about your songwriting process? Do the three of you write together, or do you come up with ideas separately and bring more fully formed songs to the group?

Jack: We start a new album very much the same way that we create curricula—we reflect on where we’ve been, and we set some goals about where we want to go next. That usually leads to an idea for an album theme, however comprehensive or loose that is....

Daron: The theme helps us focus on ideas that are coming at us every day. For example, when we started talking about a superhero record, I noticed that kids at camp were throwing their stuffed animals from bunk to bunk and called them “super stuffies!” [Editor's note: See the video, below.] That seemed to fit perfectly into the theme!

Jack: The theme helps us listen. So we just keep a list of ideas that fit into the theme, and talk about them. But that’s where Drew takes over.

Drew: It is very melody-driven for me, so having the brainstorm and a list of ideas helps to put words and lyrics together with the many tunes that are running through my head. Some songs are like turning on a faucet, and others are more like a trickle and require a lot of revisions and knuckling down to make progressions, lyrics, and melodies work together.

Jack: The demos are really helpful when we come into the studio, but most of these are songs that we’ve never played live when we record them. So they’re constantly changing, even from take to take. Probably the best example from the last few records is "Haven’t Got a Pet Yet"—it was very different at first, and we actually re-recorded it a little bit later in a sort of Vampire Weekend style.

YKFK: Do you feel your music has changed and evolved over the course of your…let’s see…five, six…seven CDs? Does the songwriting come easier with experience than it did when you first began?

Daron: I believe it’s changed as what we’ve listened to has changed. We continue to be inspired by all kinds of music, and as we get more connected to new kinds of music we blend those styles together and make our own sound. One thing I think we have done is that our albums more now than ever capture the energy that we bring to our live shows. I think our new records have more energy than they used to.

Drew: Through our music collections and new instrument purchases, we’re consciously exploring new ground. It influences our records, definitely, but I think at the core we’re very much still the same band that started over five years ago. It’s important to do our best work but also stretch ourselves creatively.

Jack: Each new record is very much new. We try really hard to never walk a similar path as previous albums. People all have their favorites along the way, but our favorite is always the one we’re about to start!

YKFK: I threw open a round of questions to my family, so...from my wife, Whitney, a dream/reality question: Which pop or rock stars of our youth (or today, if you prefer) did (or do) you each wish you could be? And which do you honestly think you're most like?

Daron: I’d like to be Prince before hip surgery. He’s an amazing musician, and pre–hip surgery he had all of the moves. In reality, I think I’m the child of Ringo Starr and George Harrison: a little bit goofy, a little bit mystical.

Drew: I think I fit the profile of a songwriter pretty well. I don’t know if I’d want to be Andy Partridge or Brian Wilson, because there aren’t always great moments along the way.... Maybe I could take the highs but not the lows? For all of my genre-hopping, I’m probably Paul McCartney—especially, as John Lennon said, with all of the "granny songs.”

Jack: Interesting that we think in reality that we’re the Beatles! Sticking with that theme, I wish that I were Paul McCartney, but I think I’m probably a little bit more like John Lennon...with a dose of Weird Al and maybe a hint of Burt Bacharach.

YKFK: From my six-year-old, Dash (who is obsessed with your album art for Flying!): Could you talk a little about your various superpowers?

Jack: With pleasure! My superpower is being able to put on a fake mustache in public. I keep half a dozen in the glove box in my car for unexpected mustache needs. My last mustache was used in our “Ice Pack” video!

Drew: Think a moment isn’t wistful or corny enough? THINK AGAIN! Super Cheese is here to lay it on thick! “Haven’t I heard that pun before??? YUCK!”

Daron: Not sure if that T-shirt matches those shorts? Up in the sky! It’s...PROFESSOR PINSTRIPE! Whisking you away on a fashion holiday!

YKFK: Finally, from my two-year-old, Griff: What does Mayor Monkey play?

Jack: He plays a band manager, and the cash register. In reality, he doesn’t do much beside print 8-by-10 glossy photos...of himself!

[Photo: Kevin Fry, courtesy of Recess Monkey]

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