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A Conversation with Recess Monkey

In the kindie world, there are few events more momentous than a new Recess Monkey record. The Seattle-based trio is set to return on June 21 with Flying!, a 14-song set that, per Monkey custom, follows a loose concept. This time around, the band was inspired by superheroes, which is fitting, seeing as how these stars of the junior set moonlight as teachers when they aren’t plugging into amps. (It’s like they have secret identities or something!)

If you don’t think the world needs more songs about Superman, not to worry — Flying! is about real-life heroism, the kind we see in our own families (“Grandmom’s House”), our friends (“Sidekick”), and even ourselves (“Bravest Kid in the World”). More importantly, the music is every bit as vibrant and joyously eclectic as fans have come to expect — and the band invited a few famous friends along for the ride, too.

To celebrate the new record, we lined up an interview with a pair of Monkeys: Jack Forman (bass, keys, vocals) and Drew Holloway (vocals, guitars, keys). Here’s what we discussed:

So let’s talk about the new album! The world is waiting with bated breath to hear new music from Recess Monkey.

Jack: And we’re waiting for them to hear it! Especially my wife, because there are several thousand copies in my basement. We can’t do laundry. [Laughter] It’s good that we seem to have some listeners, because otherwise, the inventory would start to take up some serious square footage. We still have CDs left over from our first band, and that was ten years ago.

You guys are impressively prolific. Was there any overlap between Flying! and your last album, The Final Funktier? And how did you settle on the superhero theme for this set?

Jack: Thematic thinking is something we learned teaching at the elementary school where we all met several years ago — every year, there’s a new curricular theme, and every level literally rewrites their curricula based on that theme, and each class looks drastically different than it did the year before.

We started working together the year that the school theme was “Rhythms.” Obviously, there’s a direct musical tie-in to that theme, so we put together a band of teachers, wrote a few songs, and played them live for the school. But more to the point, in our professional lives, we just got really used to that kind of thinking, and it’s helped us to kind of perpetually pull the rug out from under any kind of stasis. It’s only just now that we’re starting to see how we do that as a band, but we definitely take a similar approach — as soon as one album is finished, we start thinking about what could be our next topic. And that’s really based on what we’re hearing kids talk about.

Drew: It’s very much like a season for a sports team. We’ve figured out that being teachers and having the summers open, that’s when we really want to time our releases, because we have that time open. We’re performing heavily during the summer and not really writing new material, but during the fall, we set aside that time to kind of let the creative juices build up again. So when it’s dark and rainy and we only have a few hours of daylight here in Seattle, we spend those months working on a new record.

There are ideas that are beginning to percolate for me now, melodically, that I’m singing into my phone and saving for later when we have a bit more time. It’s very much a melodic thing for me at first — it’s about capturing the melodies when they’re in the air and making sure they’re around when I have the ability to really knuckle down on them and bring them together with the lyrical ideas I have, and the ideas we brainstorm on together.

I spoke with Chris Ballew a few weeks ago, and his creative cycle sounds similar to yours. He wants to be in the studio when the weather is crappy, and then be out having fun when it gets warm.

Drew: I saw that, and he really captured how I feel about the process. It’s very similar for me.

Jack: A major part of that is that he lives in Seattle too, and you’ve really got to strike while the iron is hot here. Last summer, we were having lots of meetings about Kindiependent, and at one point, he said to us, “Hey, guys, this is great and everything, but we could be at a lake right now.” We ended the meeting and went to a beach. [Laughter] There’s something to be said for taking advantage of Seattle when the weather presents itself.

So your releases are essentially timed out for you. You don’t have to deal with the old-fashioned major-label rigamarole of record, video, tour, repeat, but you do have to work around your school schedule.

Jack: Yeah, and there’s also a parallel with performing, too — we do a lot of shows in Seattle that are free to the public, because they’re being paid for by a library or a similar program, and when we try and set up a date where we’re actually going to charge for tickets, promoters think we’re nuts, because they want exclusivity around the show. Both for live performances and for albums, our perspective is that more is more.

I mean, kids are hungry, and we only have them for a short time — our typical listener will listen to our music for maybe three years. Maybe longer if they have a younger sibling, but that’s pretty much it. And more importantly, we’re hungry and excited to be creative. For us, being independent, maybe we’re shooting ourselves in the foot — maybe we’d be more successful if we recorded half as many albums. But the truth is, it’s just so fun to write and record songs together, and to debut new things live. The visceral creative experience is what drives us, first and foremost.

When it comes time to pick a new theme, how does that work?

Jack: The first goal is to not revisit territory we’ve been to before. We’ll look back at the last record and kind of debrief it — what worked, what didn’t, and look at our overall canon as far as what we’ve done thematically, and things we’d like to do musically or instrumentally. And then, after talking about all that, we’ll start going through huge lists of ideas inspired by things we’ve heard kids talk about.

Superheroes — I feel like we’d talked about that before this record. That was one that was shortlisted back when we were talking about The Final Funktier, but an outer space record just seemed so kid-centric and fun that it had to go first.

Let’s talk about writing for an album concept, as opposed to just letting the songs develop organically. How does it affect your songwriting process?

Drew: I feel like it’s really helpful. None of these themes or concepts are 100 percent binding — it’s just more an umbrella for everything to fit under. It really helps to kind of round out possibilities as a songwriter, and still allow space for things like “Flapjacks,” from the new album, which doesn’t really have a direct correlation to the theme, or with a song like “Bunk Beds,” it’ll provide the spark to add a line about bringing your favorite action figure up there with you.

There are ways to massage the concept into certain songs, and then there are overt ways of working it in, like “Bravest Kid in the World,” which is about all the tough things kids have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. So it allows me a lot of freedom, and while there are a certain amount of ideas percolating before we have the conversations leading into a new album, those ideas really help.

Jack: And it’s an easy way for Daron and me to help out in the songwriting process, which really isn’t our forte. Drew is the reason we can be as prolific as we are, because he just writes like crazy — I mean, he’s a wordsmith, and he’s great with melodies. We can throw some energy behind the process while still knowing Drew is going to be the one doing the heavy lifting.

What’s your approach to crafting a successful kids’ song? I think I say this during every interview I do, but what you’re doing is a lot harder than it looks.

Drew: Yeah, it’s…there’s no complicated math or anything, but it really is a craft. I’d go back to what Chris said when you guys spoke — about how sometimes a song just falls into your lap, and sometimes it takes more work. It’s really difficult to explain or put into words. I think with the frequency we’ve been on, and just trying to stretch myself as a writer personally, I’ve tried to be strategic about bearing down on the ones that don’t just fall into my lap. You know, setting aside a little time each day, no matter what comes of it — just to have that routine.

I’ve noticed — and maybe you have too, although you probably can’t say so explicitly — that two of the major pitfalls in family music are either writing songs that are didactic or songs that are goofy with no purpose. You guys avoid both of those consistently, and maybe it all goes back to spending so much time with kids, but how do you do it? How do you manage to make your records fun and childlike without falling into those traps?

Jack: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you for that. I, for one, was hugely dubious of kids’ music in general when we started. I wasn’t really aware of it, but of course there was good stuff happening in the genre when we started out; I just hadn’t heard it. I’d only heard stuff that was one- or two-dimensional — not very interesting to me as a musician, or as a non-three-year-old. [Laughter]

The way we teach at our school, it’s a place with really high expectations for kids. We talk about really big concepts, and we let their inquiries guide us in teaching them how to get to their next steps developmentally. We all go by our first names — we’re not Mr. Holloway or Mr. Forman. We try as hard as we can to be an integral part of our relationships with the kids, instead of coming at them from an autocratic perspective. And I think what people really notice when people walk through our school is that teachers are talking to kids like they’re people. We’re not afraid to really engage them in big conversations.

When we started making music, we tried to do that too, and I hope we’ve been successful without pandering one way or the other. We try to make something musically that we would like, first and foremost — if you took the lyrics out, you’d hear something that would sound a lot like the stuff we’re listening to now, just as music fans. We really wanted to make our work sound like real music with real instruments, and kind of push the edge of the genre a little bit, from our perspective.

That music is what really sets you guys apart from the crowd. Your arrangements are really smart — really robust and layered — and they’re very eclectic, too. What’s your approach there? How do these ideas develop in the studio?

Jack: This time around it was interesting, because we had Tor Hyams on board as producer, and he really helped us understand some new instruments and ways we hadn’t played them before. We came up with the idea of having a Latin breakdown on the song “Covered in Band-Aids,” but he really brought it into reality. There are a lot of places on the album where we used him as sort of a Wikipedia for music, and it opened us up to trying some things we’d wanted to do, but maybe didn’t know how.

We’re also all addicted to getting new instruments. You can hear how our collection has grown with each record. Go back to Field Trip and you can hear the Moog I bought, which has been on every record since. You can hear when Drew bought a ukulele or a mandolin — it would be fun to go back and listen to the albums that way, to pick out where we picked up instruments. It’s funny how the voicing of an instrument can open up new genre territory.

Drew: I think we’re constantly trying to be creative with every new record, but without saying “We need to have some zydeco on this one,” or “It’s been awhile since we did a blues song” — we aren’t using a tally chart to make sure we get enough genres in there. Often, it’s attributed to just having some really talented people around to help re-author what we’ve done, or look at it through a new lens or style.

Does any of this come from a feeling of responsibility to act as a sort of gateway into different styles of music for your audience?

Jack: Oh, absolutely. And really, if parents ask us which albums they should be buying for their kids, we aren’t going to name kids’ bands, we’re going to say Sgt. Pepper’s. We’re going to talk about the ones that shaped us. There are a lot of kids’ musicians that we love, but we don’t think kids have to listen to stuff that’s written for their age group. I mean, when we were younger, we were listening to artists like Lionel Richie, Neil Diamond…Huey Lewis’ Sports was my first album. There were so many albums that helped me understand music as a kid, and not a single one of them was written for someone my age.

And that’s an interesting line to walk, too. We have a list of easily 100 kids’ musicians we’d love to recommend, too. But the music doesn’t have to be written for kids. There are a lot of things out there that kids can appreciate.

Let’s talk about some of the special guests you enlisted for the new album. Some of my favorite artists joined you here, including Dean Jones — who is a genius — and you even had an Okee Dokee Brother.

Jack: Yeah! We could only get one Brother. We couldn’t afford them both, because they’re just off-the-charts expensive. [Laughter] It’s such a neat window into what’s happening right now in kindie music — people are just collaborating like crazy, asking each other to be on their records, and volunteering time. Some of the people who guested on Flying! are artists we’ve just met over the last year.

I’m guessing this mostly happened via filesharing rather than recording in the same studio.

Jack: A couple of people came to my house — Chris Ballew and Tom Baisden, who is the guitarist for the Not-Its!, were able to record here because they’re local. Everything else was virtual, which is just the best, because it turns your inbox into Christmas morning. When there’s a YouSendIt email waiting for you, containing something that’s just going to blow up a song, and you’ve finished the download and you’re slotting everything up in Pro Tools and hitting play for the first time…oh, it’s the best.

This leads us into something else I’d like to discuss, which is the Kindiependent collective. This is something that comes up a lot in my conversations with artists, and I think you guys are doing something really cool.

Jack: It seems like it may have captured the imaginations of people who want to collaborate with others in their own cities, but maybe hadn’t figured out how to do it. I can’t say we thought of Kindiependent — it was the result of a number of different things. For instance, we played Jiggle Jam in 2009, and came back really excited by what we saw — you know, all these bands working together. We started getting people in Seattle together informally, just meeting for pizza and things like that, and invited some guests to join us on The Final Funktier. We’d done a sort of summer festival the year before that was moderately successful, too.

The idea is that there’s sort of a decentralized government at work here in Kindiependent — six bands and a couple of other boosters, getting together to dream and find opportunities we can take advantage of. It’s been said before, but it’s really true: a lot of people in the kindie scene are really into building community, sharing fans, and really, actively supporting each other. It’s really true. Every time we’ve done a Kindiependent event, attendance has at least doubled — from 400 to 800 to 2,200. It’s really fun to see that if you build it, they will come.

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