Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week we're highlighting Seattle children's band Recess Monkey, who play KEXP's Deck The Dock this Sunday from 2 to 4 PM.
Making children's music doesn't mean sacrificing your pop sensibilities. Seattle's Recess Monkey have a firm understanding of that. The trio of teachers has received plenty of much-deserved acclaim for their enthusiastic blend of children's music with real hooks and plenty of laughs. They've been nominated for a Grammy, filmed music videos of them gallivanting around town in Segways, and continue to delight families with their eccentric and fun live show. We caught up with Jack Forman from the act to learn about their beginnings, what it's like to be nominated for a Grammy, and their love for acts like XTC and Elliott Smith.
What inspired you to get into children’s music? Have you always written songs for younger audiences or do you have musical backgrounds in other styles of music?
We were all playing in tiny indie bands around Seattle (Pop Interstate, The Dead Science, The Waiting Room) but we were also teachers at the same time. That was a really tough dual-life to lead! Our original lineup met teaching together at University Child Development School in the U District, a really fun, progressive school. At first, our music lived completely separately from the school day- we taught full days, then loaded into clubs in the evening, played sets, loaded out, and maybe made it to bed by 2 AM? Then up a few short hours later to repeat the process. That was crazy and unsustainable… While the music was fun, teaching young kids was each of our primary passions, so band life took a backseat.
Soon, we experimented with blending our songs with the things we were hearing kids talk about during school. I was a little hesitant at first: I had really zero experience with making "kids music" but what I'd heard really didn't resonate with me. But once we were in the studio, back-masking snare drums against a particularly psychedelic track we were experimenting with, we all realized that we could bring all of our pop sensibilities to this music- and that if you stripped the lyrics away, our songs could be fully indistinguishable from what we were playing out at night.
Soon we started playing shows out, and it didn't take long to start building a following of families that liked what we did -- little did we know that we were part of a movement of lots of bands nationally just like ours. We met a lot of other artists like us who felt drawn to family audiences and toured nationally to play all around the country. It was this really fun, fully organic process of building a new genre which I guess now is known as "kindie."
Outside of the band, the three of you are all teachers. How do you feel music and education overlap? Do you ever perform in your classrooms?
UCDS, the school where we met, is a super supportive place that encourages its faculty to explore their passions outside of school and share them with students. We ran several summer camps with kids, learning songwriting, recording and the visual elements of making an album. Drew, our lead singer, has been a music specialist and Korum teaches drums to several private students.
Certainly, music itself is a powerful way to capture kids' attention and reinforce understanding- and we've all used music in our classrooms regularly. But we think the most important thing that we teach kids with music isn't necessarily about music itself. It's more about modeling what it looks and feels like to be passionate about something- the kind of dedication and love that you can apply to something that captures your imagination like music can. For some kids, it's not music: it's art, or sports, or math or something else. As teachers and as musicians, we think our most important task is to help kids find their own passion and coach them on how to cultivate it.
One of the things that’s immediately noticeable about your music is your understanding of pop melodies and structure. You also have some great Beatles imagery in your back catalog. What draws you to classic pop melodies and composition with your music?
We're music fans first and foremost. We have some pretty expansive tastes and preferences between the three of us and are always motivated to explore new genres or feelings. But of course, bands like The Beatles and XTC are huge influences for each of us. I'm a huge Paul McCartney fan, and it seems like most artists that I go deep into in one way or another lead back to them: Jon Brion, Elliott Smith, the list is long. One thing we learned early on is the importance of lyrics in our music, and the more that the melody and lyrics can work in perfect pair, the more direct we feel the connection to kid ears.
Last year you received a Grammy nomination for your album Novelties. What was that experience like? Have you found a new audience since the nod?
The Grammy Nomination was truly a huge honor. Novelties was our 13th album (our goal all along was to match the Beatles' number of studio albums, so there's some poetry that it was the thirteenth album that finally got the nod). We found out about the nomination just about exactly a year ago, and we were all truly shocked that it happened- -- we'd not campaigned at all to earn the nomination, and honestly had kind of forgotten about the award. We were thrust into a totally surreal two months: from full page Billboard ads for our album to the experience in Los Angeles itself. It's kind of crazy to imagine how an acoustic guitar song that germinates in a circle with kids can lead to riding in a limousine down Sunset Boulevard. But the truth is, despite the really great feeling of getting this compliment, our lives have been pretty much unchanged. The thing about family music is that every show is intimate: we playing for small kids with small ears, and we derive our greatest joy from connecting individually with those kids in the live context. Though the Grammy nomination happened in 2017, we really "made it" about a decade ago, and it's been such a sweet ride since then.
For those who’ve never seen Recess Monkey before, what can they expect from your set at Deck the Docks?
We're playing immediately after the amazing Not-Its, who put on a really high energy and entertaining show! Our set will be a coffee-fueled collection of songs from all of our records -- lots of opportunities for families to dance and sing along. We're excited to finally connect with KEXP -- we're all active listeners!
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