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Seattle kids’ band Recess Monkey is made up of three smart, goofy guys who laugh a lot at each other’s jokes and really, really like The Beatles. The band has only been together since 2004, but in that time it’s released three albums, each one more ambitious and interesting than the last. It’s also gathered an enthusiastic following among local families, who pack the band’s high-energy live shows to rock out Monkey style. It’s a side project for band members Jack Forman, Daron Henry and Drew Holloway, who are also elementary-school teachers, a job that has had a deep influence on the way they approach their music.
It all started out respectably enough. The idea for a band evolved from a graduate class in child and adolescent literature that Drew took at Seattle University. “We had just had Jack Prelutsky come through our school, and I was really inspired by how he put his poetry to music,” says Drew, whose soft-spokenness and fine features belie an ability to make seriously funny faces when in front of a camera. “I pitched a collection of poem songs to the class, and many of them became our first album [2005’s Welcome to Monkey Town]. A couple of months later we decided to take it from that project to putting the band together.”
After the first CD, the band careened off in a unique direction, one you might call totally nerve shattering — or the most fun ever — depending on your temperament and tolerance for chaos. University Child Development Center, where both Jack and Drew teach (Daron teaches at Giddens School), offers a new summer camp program every year. It occurred to Jack that a music camp for kids might be a fun change of pace, and hey, maybe the kids could help record Recess Monkey’s next CD! So they did, for two summers in a row.
Aminal House (2006) and Wonderstuff (2007) were recorded under the influence of children ages 3-11, who came up with song ideas, did recording and engineering, and worked on some nifty cover art. “It was creatively really inspiring,” Jack says. “It was grueling, just being in the studio for 40 hours a week, then being teachers for another 40 hours a week.” Jack, who speaks enthusiastically and laughs quickly, doesn’t sound as if it was actually that grueling. Asked whether they had a backup plan in case something went terribly wrong during camp, he humorously answers, “Nope.”
“Once kids are in the room, you gotta ride the wave,” Daron adds. “We do that as classroom teachers, so we knew that whatever we got we’d be able to use [it] somehow.” And what a wave. Both CDs sparkle with creative energy, clever references for adults tucked into silly lyrics — about bees, iguanas, dogs and cats — and a sound that echoes (yes) The Beatles and other melodic, well-crafted pop.
I had a chance to sit down with Recess Monkey in the band’s recording studio on the University Child Development Center campus right after New Year’s, as the band began recording its fourth CD, Tabby Road. We talked about the group’s approach to creating music for families and their upcoming plans — which include a fantastic opportunity for kids to take part in the recording of Tabby Road, to be released this summer (scroll down for details).
ParentMap: So how did the name come about?
Jack Forman: That was totally Daron.
Daron Henry: (laughs) Yeah, we were trying to come up with names for our other bands that we were in previously, an adult band . . . and “Recess Monkey” popped into my head. We were all kind of into puns and stuff, but then we realized it was more of a kids’ kind of name.
PM: I noticed that all of a sudden last year you guys really seemed to be everywhere. Was this something you went for from the beginning — to become so successful? Or was this just something that you put together and thought, eh, we’ll see where this goes?
JF: I think we’re all a bit different, and we talk about that a lot. I tend to be the most guardedly optimistic. Although I’m starting to be less guarded and more optimistic. There are so many people in this town who are so passionate about music. So many parents and kids just seem to … everything we make, they just seem eat it up. There’s no such thing as an overnight success, and I don’t think we are an overnight success. There’s 30 years of teaching between the three of us, where we feel like we can connect the way we do. But that said, it just seems amazing how fast things are moving.
DH: It’s been a pretty fast evolution from that first project to now. I’m the more optimistic of the three.
JF: A reckless optimist! (laughter)
PM: There’s a huge market for music that an entire family can listen to together. When you started doing this, did you craft your sound to fill a niche out there or was it just an outgrowth of your interests as musicians?
JF: I think it’s more the latter. I don’t think we were terribly conscious about wanting to find any particular demographic.
DH: It’s about making good music and fun music that we would enjoy listening to. I think that’s something that we always try to bring to the three albums and the one we’re working on now. It’s good music for us and music that we’d want our kids to listen to. It just happens that the lyrics are something that kids would be into. It’s two creative worlds coming together.
PM: Do you have plans to tour or play summer shows?
JF: Oh yeah. And that’s the reason why we’re not doing a summer camp this year. Those July-August months are so prime. We just got an invitation to play at Austin Kiddie Limits in September. This is our first time with a gig that’s that high status, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed so that actually happens. We’ve gotten a lot of interest from radio stations back East, and venues in Pennsylvania and New York. We’re not sure if we’re going to do that yet, because the demand here is so strong.
DH: We’ll do the libraries again, and Folklife this year.
PM: How many kids do you expect at your March shows? Four hundred?
JF: That’d be nice.
DH: I have no idea.
Kris Collingridge is ParentMap’s Out & About editor.
Photo credit: David Birks
Catch Recess Monkey in Seattle:
- What: Family Day at the Henry Art Gallery, which means tours, crafts and visitors from the Burke Museum; music courtesy of the band.
- When: Saturday, March 15, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
- Where: Henry Art Gallery, 15th Ave. N.E. and N.E. 41st St., Seattle.
- Cost: Free
- What: Sit in (and help out) on a recording session. Recess Monkey warms you up with a set of faves, then you sing along on tracks that will be included on Tabby Road. Kids can also be part of the creative process by emailing the band with song ideas. Come for both sessions if you like.
- When: Saturday, March 8, and Saturday, March 22, at 11 a.m.
- Where: University Child Development Center, 5062 Ninth Ave. N.E., Seattle.
- Cost: $20 per session, which gets you a guaranteed spot and an advance copy of the latest CD.
- Buy in advance: You bet.
- How: Visit Recess Monkey's Web site.