It’s Saturday morning. This isn’t a time for live music. For some musicians, it’s time to go to bed. If you’re the Imagination Movers, this is a fine time for a Halloween costume concert. Your target audience is slightly hyper from breakfast cereal and cartoons, but nobody’s cranky and in need of a nap. When the Movers—Rich Collins, Scott Durbin, Scott “Smitty” Smith and Dave Poche start “Shakable You,” Durbin asks the kids, moms and dads at McAlister Auditorium to shake their arms, legs, hips and head. Little pirates, princesses and cowboys try to do the moves when prompted, but many just bounce.
A week and an hour later, the Movers are opening the WWOZ/SoCo Stage at Voodoo Music Experience. There are some moms, dads and kids present, but curious teenagers far outnumber them. When they hear “Shakable You,” they’re better at shaking the appropriate body part, but some still get confused. It would seem like this audience wouldn’t be terribly receptive, many are at the age when being cool is a full-time preoccupation. But aside from a few teenage boys who glare at the Movers sullenly during their set, for an hour the crowd sings, dances, and admits that they’re “goofy goobers.” The teenagers play along, joining the call-and-response of “What’s in the Fridge?” knocking during the chorus of the Halloween song, “Knocking on Your Door” and jumping, squatting and spinning for “Mover Music.”
In that way, the Voodoo audience is like the audiences that saw the Imagination Movers at Jazz Fest and at Austin City Limits Festival. The Movers make kids’ music, but it’s kids’ music that often recalls the Beastie Boys. A Jive Records executive described them as “alt-rock for kids.” When the Bucktown Allstars horn section and organ player Robert Walter—all part-time Movers—left and the band and drummer Kyle Melancon (ex- of Dash Rip Rock) to finish the Voodoo set on their own, they showed themselves to be a good, fast, power pop band. If the words were about love, heartbreak or standard lyrical fare instead of healthy snacks and taking your medicine, they would be one of the city’s most popular bands.
They’re big, though, in ways that have nothing to do with festivals. They’ve probably outsold most bands in the city this year, and they’re poised to be huge. Playhouse Disney started showing Imagination Movers videos in September, causing sales of their three independent albums—Calling All Movers, Good Idea and Eight Feet—and the Stir It Up DVD to accelerate exponentially. In February, Walt Disney Records will release a compilation of the highlights of the existing albums tentatively titled Juice Box Heroes, and they’re shooting a pilot for a Disney television series next month. It’s easy to attribute such progress to calculation or an uncritical audience, but anyone who has ever tried to entertain a child knows it’s easier said than done. For the Imagination Movers, success stems from being parents.
“Really it was the factor,” Rich Collins says. He, Smith and Poche are parents, and the music and show emerged from trying to entertain their kids. “We were inspired to make some content, music, and video that would entertain them. It is all inspired by them. They are the source of every song.” You get the sense talking to the Movers that they live the things they tell their children and sing in their songs. Before sitting down to coffee, Collins casually but carefully cleans the table.
The Movers unofficially started at the end of 2002 when, at a kids’ birthday party, they started talking about making rock ’n’ roll-infused kids’ music. Durbin was teaching at Isadore Newman School and had made some fun, educational videos for WYES at the time. He pitched WYES the idea of a kids’ show with the Imagination Movers, even though the band hadn’t played yet.
“We have this idea called Blue Suit philosophy,” Poche says, “which is essentially we’re thinking five steps ahead of where we really are.” They bought their trademark blue jumpsuits before knowing how they’d use them, and only found out for sure that they could play when they agreed to perform at a float unveiling party for the Krewe of Muses. They learned to play together recording in Collins’ home studio and released Calling All Movers later that year. Now they’re all full-time Movers except Smith. “He’s a firefighter, and he loves being a firefighter,” Durbin says.
Kids’ music was not, however, the band’s first love. Durbin was a member of Clones at Play. “I remember having a CD-release party at New Orleans Music Hall the same night Better Than Ezra was playing at Howlin’ Wolf,” he says. “We got over a thousand people at our show.” Poche had an older brother in the Bagdaddies and Collins played in a string of uneventful bands. “The people in them were good,” he says. One included Ed Conway, who would go on to play in the Bingemen and with Jim McCormick, and bassist Grant Curry. “Grant was like my guy. Then James Hall moved into the practice space next to me and stole him. It was definitely more appropriate. My band was incredibly light, bubbly, and major chord-y. James Hall was much more intense, and I think Grant was a really good fit for that.”
In the Imagination Movers, the band members saw their future. Collins and Durbin spent much of their time promoting the band and trying to develop connections including Louisiana Public Broadcasting, which aired a number of videos and a live concert. Durbin went so far as to do education research about what they were doing. “I’ve even correlated our live show to standards and benchmarks of the state so kids could cut classes to go to our shows and still be educated,” he says. All his research paid off when the band entered negotiations with Disney. “Scott had telephone book-sized stacks of paper of characters, ideas, justifications and endorsements,” Poche says, “and he dropped them in front of them.”
The Movers started talking to Disney about a possible show in 2004, when representatives of Playhouse Disney and Walt Disney Records came to see them at Jazz Fest. The band had dinner with the Disney people that night, talked business, and shortly thereafter, started the time-consuming process of hammering out a deal with the entertainment giant. Needless to say, figuring out who will own what has been an ordeal, and it has temporarily left the band in a creative limbo, unable to record or release new material.
“We’re in a weird time right now, doing a lot of waiting,” Poche says. “Our energies aren’t going toward anything immediately tangible.” They have used the time to remix the songs for Juice Box Heroes, with Robert Walter adding organ parts to five of the songs. Walter became involved after hearing the Movers’ music with his son. When Collins asked him if he wanted to play a gig with them, he thought it would be fun. “Having a young son, I thought it was something I could do where he could come and see me play,” he says. Walter now plays with the Movers whenever his schedule will allow. “It’s good pop songwriting, but in another realm.”
Music will be a central part of the proposed television show. “It’s four friends with unique personalities coming together to solve problems,” Collins says. Each Mover will have a characteristic, Poche being the professor and Durbin being “the ‘naïve’ one,” Poche says, laughing. “The look and tone borrow heavily from rock videos, and back to Laugh-In, Monty Python, the Monkees, the Beatles movies and Benny Hill. The guys in the four suits are basically cartoon characters,” Collins says.
But, Poche adds, “We aren’t cartoony in the way that we’re dumber than the kids or we solve problems by using our super X-ray vision. We’re modeling problem solving.
“We came in with our vision but when we signed, we had no idea what they were actually going to do and if they were going to change us,” Poche says. “They’ve allowed us a great deal of creative freedom. It’s gratifying to know that after all this, we’re back to our original idea.”
The issue of who owns what is important where kids’ music is concerned because it is such a lucrative market. Putumayo, the world music label, started its “Playground” imprint for children in 1999 and according to label president Dan Storper, “World Playground is still one of our top five sellers of all time.” The label has since released 13 kids’ titles including the recent New Orleans Playground, and it has developed a kids’ music division oriented toward selling children-friendly CDs in children’s stores in addition to adult stores. It may be a bitter pill for roots music fans, but, Storper says, “look at Soundscan. The top 15 kids titles versus the top 15 blues titles is at least 10 to 1, maybe 20 to 1.” Both XM and Sirius have satellite radio stations devoted to children’s music, and two more cable networks, Sprout and Noggin, were launched to air children’s programming.
For years, Jason Ringenberg led the country-punk band Jason and the Scorchers. Now a father of three, he recently released Rockin’ in the Forest with Farmer Jason and A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason (both on Kid Rhino), and performing to kids as Farmer Jason pays far better. “I am primarily a children’s music artist now,” he says, “and will be for the rest of my life.” Jon Langford of the Waco Brothers and punk band the Mekons also found making kids’ music lucrative. He first did a kids’ music show with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco when they were asked to perform as fathers of children in the same program in Chicago. That led to people at the Brookfield Zoo asking him to do a kids’ music show and, he says, “they offered loads of money so I’d be stupid not to do it.” He, fellow Mekon Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan and Devil in the Woodpile performed as the Wee Hairy Beasties and recorded Animal Crackers for Bloodshot Records.
The album is the insurgent country label’s second venture into kids’ music, having released the compilation The Bottle Let Me Down in 2002.
Though there’s good money to be made in children’s music, it’s not the only reason why so many artists are making it. “What kids and parents like is that they can both listen to a CD together,” Dan Storper says. Such music isn’t always easy to find. “I was acutely aware of how painful kids’ music can be for adults,” Jon Langford says, and speaks admiringly of Dan Zanes—formerly of the Del-Fuegos—who is now one of the most established kids’ music artists. “He’s not afraid to talk about Carl Sandburg and Woody Guthrie,” Langford says. “He doesn’t talk down to (kids) at all.”
For parents who never put their music away when they got careers, husbands, wives and children, the challenge is finding music that has some musical richness to it. Storper looks for songs with strong melodies for Putumayo’s “Playhouse” albums, and Ringenberg stresses the importance of a “stick-in-your-head hook.” Langford, whose “Cyril the Karaoke Squirrel” is “a gothic horror story about the intolerance of the mainstream,” says, “I was appalled by the crap most kids’ music was. I wanted [my son] to listen to Burl Ives.”
But artists before Zanes, Langford, Ringenberg, Tweedy, Los Lobos, the Asylum Street Spankers and the Imagination Movers had children and never made children’s music. When Jade Jagger was five and Marlon Richards was a few years older, it didn’t occur to Mick and Keith that the Rolling Stones should do a children’s album—or if it did, they didn’t act on the idea. When John Lennon and Yoko Ono sang a song to her daughter Kyoko, it was the disturbing “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow).” There was clearly a time when children’s music was dismissed, perhaps because the icons of children’s entertainment were Fred Rogers and Captain Kangaroo, both of which seemed to exist a universe away from Aerosmith and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
It’s a matter for speculation as to what started this changing attitude toward children’s music. Once part of marketing a musician involved hiding his or her marital status because the illusion of his/her availability was considered central to his/her appeal. Me—I blame punk rock and the way it questioned traditional notions of rock ’n’ roll including the role it played in artists’ lives. Rather than being something they do with the goal of becoming hugely successful, music became an expression of their lives that might or might not find a mass audience. During his days with the dB’s, Peter Holsapple once said he hoped to have a career like Chris Butler of the Waitresses. That didn’t mean he wanted the novelty success of “I Know What Boys Like” but that he aspired to a lifetime of making music for a living. If your music is a part of your life, it seems natural that it would reflect as major a change as having children and becoming a parent.
For the Imagination Movers, almost everything is a change these days. After they played the Austin City Limits Festival in September, they went to Disneyworld where they played four shows a day for a week. Such an immersion reinforced the importance of getting the kids to interact with them. “If you don’t, they’re in the space walk,” Poche says, laughing.
“You can’t compete with the space walk,” Collins says, recalling a birthday party they played, which featured an inflatable, enclosed trampoline that proved to be a much bigger draw.
Playing for children’s audiences forces certain concessions. At Voodoo, Robert Walter’s organ solos are notable for their inclusion; a week earlier when the Movers played at McAlister Auditorium, there was only one solo. “It’s in ‘Shakable You,’” Durbin says, “but it’s only 20 seconds long.”
Ringenberg agrees. “With an adult crowd, you can do a really rockin’ song, you can go back, tune your guitar, get a drink of water and they’re still going to be there when you get back,” he says. “With kids, they might leave. You have to always have something going on. It’s much more intense and focused. And you can’t focus on your musical experience the way you can if you’re doing an adult show. You have to focus on the experience that’s happening with the kids and their parents. You can’t go in there trying to get a musical buzz yourself; you’re going in there to create a musical buzz for the kids.”
Movers shows are unquestionably about the kids, and it’s hard to think of anyone in town that works harder onstage for its audience. Almost every song has a dance or an action or something to yell, all of which they demonstrate first then re-enact when possible during the song. While playing, they bounce, kick and often finish songs with Pete Townsend-like guitar leaps. When possible, they go into the audience, as Durbin did at McAlister doing a mock samba to “Take Your Medicine.” They recently covered “I Wan’na Be Like You (the Monkey Song)” from The Jungle Book for an album of Disney covers. Since the song doesn’t naturally call for interaction, they tried largely unsuccessfully to get the kids to walk like apes. The children watched, then got distracted. A young Superman down the row started crawling under his seat to see what was on the floor while it was going on.
You would think that as adults, there would be a tendency to try to be clever and make the sort of multi-leveled jokes that made Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as much fun for adults as it was for kids—though for very different reasons. There clearly are some sly bits that are over the children’s heads, such as the bridge in “I Want My Mommy,” during which the band sings the familiar Kiss tune, “I wanna rock and roll all day / and sleep well every night.” In the intro to “What’s in the Fridge?” Poche talks about liking gray tofu dogs.
“A lot of the in-between banter is for the adults,” Durbin admits, but the show is for the children. At Voodoo, there were girls dancing over to one side—one tried unsuccessfully to throw her bra onstage—but he played to the kids. “They’re our audience. If they’re not having a good time, we’re not having a good time,” he says.
For those parents who grew up with music, being able to share it with their children is important, and finding something that reflects their musical values is important. Jason Ringenberg and Jon Langford admit that when they were childless playing punk rock, it never occurred to them that they’d ever be playing kids’ music, and Walter figures he never would have heard the Movers had it not been for his son. Earlier generations may not have passed their musical passions and aesthetics from parent to child, but for those who had their identities and values shaped by music, having musical experiences together isn’t just a benign way to spend a morning or afternoon; it’s a part of parenting, with parents hoping to inculcate a love of music in their children. In the Imagination Movers, they hear music with wit, passion, intelligence and energy, and the band’s aspirations speak to them.
“You see some of the other kid rock acts and see how much fun it is for the parents and kids to do this together, and you can tell that it can be pushed a little further,” Collins says. “We’re trying to capture the spirit and excitement of Van Halen 1979 arena rock world tour and make it age appropriate for a 5-year-old.”