Seattle’s Kindie Rockers Play G-Rated Tunes Even Parents Can Love

By Laura Dannen July 22, 2011 Published in the August 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Green light, green light, green light, green light, go!
Red light, stop. Yellow, go slow.
Go super duper really, really extra slow.

FOR THREE DAYS the song “Green Light, Go!” by the Not-Its! lodged in my head, like it was some brainwashing Washington DMV jingle. It had that “Barracuda”-style hook, those penetrating lyrics. I’d been kindie rocked—or for those new to its charms, “kid-friendly indie rocked,” a national phenomenon for the 10-and-under set and a secret vice for parents. Gone are the days of “Baby Beluga” and Barney; in their place are ’90s rockers who now have children and want to make G-rated music they can share with the family. It’s punk, it’s folk, it’s wry, it’s silly. For musicians, it’s now hip to play the playground.

While record companies struggle to survive, the kindie scene has grown in the past decade, particularly in Seattle, where a collective—yes, a rock collective—of six bands called Kindiependent works together to cross-promote music about bullies, flying, and goats that won’t make parents want to gouge out their eardrums. (Raffi? Shudder.) This month, Kindiependent launches the first annual Tots-n-Tunes festival at Seattle Center with appearances by all six bands—plus Brooklyn favorite Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players.

“Seattle has definitely become a hub for family music,” said Stefan Shepherd, writer of children’s music blog Zooglobble and a nationally recognized source on all things kindie. Shepherd has reviewed hundreds of new kindie CDs by performers better known for making music for grown-ups: Lisa Loeb collaborators (Elizabeth Mitchell), Grammy winning alt-rockers (They Might Be Giants), lead singers of ’80s bands (Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos), classically trained musicians (David Weinstone and the Music for Aardvarks Band). Some don’t even have children (Justin Roberts). But whether they’re on record labels or produce LPs in their basements, kindie rockers from Seattle to Brooklyn keep to an indie credo, says Shepherd. “Indie is more of an attitude than a definition—many of the artists aren’t terribly concerned about making music that teaches lessons. It’s not as heavy-handed [as a generation ago], like, ‘Here’s how you brush your teeth.’”

Instead, it’s a combination of “Green light, go!” and “Moon boots, all right!” Want to learn more before the Tots-n-Tunes festival? Here’s a crib sheet on the Seattle Kindiependent crew.

Kindie For Beginners: A guide to toddler rock.

Caspar Babypants

Caspar Babypants, aka Chris Ballew of PUSA, rocks before bedtime

GEARED TOWARD Ages five and under.
HIS LOOK Yellow tee. Bald head.
PARENTS MIGHT THINK HE SOUNDS LIKE Chris Ballew, lead singer of ’90s rock band the Presidents of the United States of America…because he is.
TAGLINE “Simple good-time singalong music for all.”
HIS STORY Plenty of us have seen Ballew leap off amplifiers while singing the praises of “Peaches,” so it makes sense he’s channeling this energy for a younger demographic. As his alter-ego Caspar Babypants—often joined by Ronald Babyshoes and Frederick Babyshirt—he’s an acoustic-guitar-slinging family man who Itsy Bitsy Spiders his way across the city. “I had been looking for a less loud and less cool way to express myself for a long, long time,” Ballew said. “My wife Kate Endle’s artwork inspires me to make simple, bright, thoughtful, rootsy music, and it turned out to be music for kids. I make it for me, and the fact that kids like it is a great coincidence.”

The Board of Education

GEARED TOWARD Elementary school kids and their families.
THEIR LOOK Public radio chic.
PARENTS MIGHT THINK HE SOUNDS LIKE The Posies, Schoolhouse Rock!, indie band Central Services.
TAGLINE “Listen, learn, rock.”
THEIR STORY Lead singer Kevin Emerson is proof that teachers do have a life outside of the classroom. The former elementary school science teacher teamed up with buddies Eric Goetz, Jeff Blancato, and Andrea Wittgens (and recently Jon Goff) to form the indie band Central Services in 2005, which was in rotation on KEXP and toured the West Coast. But their side project the BoE found a rabid following with third graders. Ever hear the tale of “The Lonely Tomato”? Poor guy can’t figure out
if he’s a fruit or a vegetable. “[We have] an affinity for old-school kids’ music like Schoolhouse Rock! and early Sesame Street—stuff
that’s musically sophisticated and educational, but still rocking fun and doesn’t talk down to kids,”
said Emerson. “That’s what we went for with the BoE.”

Johnny Bregar

HIS LOOK A salt-and-pepper Elvis Costello.
PARENTS MIGHT THINK HE SOUNDS LIKE Harry Connick Jr.; Lyle Lovett; Seattle bands Big Spoon, North Twin, the Country Dawgs.
TAGLINE “Rootsy, jazzy, bluesy music for kids/adults.”
HIS STORY “After about 20 years playing in folk/rock bands, I never expected my first solo release to be a kids’ record,” the Ballard-based musician writes on his website. “I sort of pictured myself as a rock star and never imagined that the first song on my first CD would be ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It.’” But along came his son Tobias, and Bregar made the transition to what critics dubbed a new, “funkier Raffi.” (It was a compliment, they insisted.) Since his kindie debut, Bregar has moved on from the toddler standards to create original work and cover adult classics like Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In”—with kids shouting the chorus like miniature cowboys.

The Harmonica Pocket

GEARED TOWARD Ages 2–8 (and their parents).
THEIR LOOK Vaudeville meets Dr. Seuss.
PARENTS MIGHT THINK HE SOUNDS LIKE Everything: reggae, Simon and Garfunkel, a pared-down Antibalas.
TAGLINE “Acoustic story songs and clever classics.”
THEIR STORY By all accounts, Keeth Monta Apgar and Nala Walla could be a trendy cirque act, complete with harmonica, loop pedal, and hula hoop. They debuted playing pop-rock at the Mars Bar in 1999, but got their first preschool gig in Renton when a children’s performer fell ill at the last minute. (Apgar was also a substitute preschool teacher.) “I began writing songs and singing for the kids before naptime,” he said. “After getting tired of telling parents I didn’t have a kids’ album, I decided to record my first.” Mary Macaroni came out in 2005, and the rotating Pocket cast continues to redefine kindie rock, using a sitar and tabla on “O Susanna” and reggae to teach kids to count in “Ladybug 1-2-3.”

The Not-Its!

THEIR LOOK Skinny pink ties and tutus, Blondie.
PARENTS MIGHT THINK HE SOUNDS LIKE The B-52s, ’90s Sub Pop indie band Velocity Girl.
TAGLINE “Your child’s first rock band.”
THEIR STORY This is what you get when five friends and ’90s rockers start having kids—eight among them­—and a captive audience for testing new music, says rhythm guitarist Danny Adamson. Their high-energy bubblegum pop (they literally blow bubbles for photo shoots) benefits from the vocals of Sarah Shannon, former front woman of Sub Pop indie band Velocity Girl. “Those indie-pop sensibilities definitely carried over to the Not-Its!,” said Adamson. “Once we started having kids, we still wanted to rock like the old days and do something family-friendly and kid positive. We never dreamed…it would take off like it has.”

Recess Monkey

School’s Out Seattle trio Recess Monkey

GEARED TOWARD The under-nine set, with a core audience aged 3–7.
PARENTS MIGHT THINK HE SOUNDS LIKE The Beatles, the Beach Boys, indie bands Pop Interstate and the Waiting Room.
TAGLINE “Three elementary school teachers who rock.”
THEIR STORY Call them kindred spirits: Drew Holloway, Daron Henry, and Jack Forman are all educators, Brian Wilson fans, and big kids at heart who wanted to make music they could stand to hear offstage. To wit: “Grandmom’s House” is a clever, funky track about a sugar-cookie-making, Honda Civic–driving granny. “As teachers we’re constantly surrounded by great kid-driven song ideas. We can’t keep up,” Forman said. It’s true—they’ve recorded an album a year since 2006 and have become one of Seattle’s biggest kindie exports. They’re Dalai Lama approved.

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