INTERVIEWS

Interview: Justin Roberts


Justin Roberts was in the Minneapolis-based indie rock band Pimentos for Gus before becoming an award-winning children’s musician who writes clever, thoughtful songs with a well-crafted power pop sound. His latest CD is 2008’s Pop Fly.

This interview was conducted in person in Evanston, IL on 6/25/08.


Jeff Moehlis: What were you like as a kid?

Justin Roberts: Two of my earliest musical memories are being in preschool and listening to this record player – a vinyl record player – all day long. I remember the teacher took my mom aside and said, “We’re a little worried about Justin. He doesn’t talk to anyone else. He just listens to music.”

Later on my parents took me to some event where there was a band playing. I was about three years old, and I just stood up with the band and played air guitar for an entire set. They took a break and I did too, and then I got up with them again and played more.

I was shy in terms of sitting with the record player, and then again I would get on stage and play music. It’s probably similar to who I am now.

JM: Did you take music lessons when you were a kid or play any instruments?

JR: My parents were very supportive of whatever I wanted to do, but they were also not at all pushy. I would start and stop instruments regularly, and they were supportive. If I was practicing and into it they would let me have lessons, and if I decided I didn’t want to do it, there was no, “You have to play this instrument through high school.” All my friends who had parents like that often quit their instruments when they got to college.

JM: Did you do the standard piano lessons?

JR: I did piano lessons and clarinet in elementary school orchestra. I sang in a lot of youth choruses and things like that. I did a little bit of musical theater up until about 7th or 8th grade. Then I had some friends who were starting a band around that time that was like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix covers, and things like that. They wanted someone to sing, and they knew that I sang in choruses, so I started singing with them.

JM: This was junior high?

JR: Yeah, junior high into high school. Then I picked up the guitar and a friend taught me chords, and I started learning the guitar.

JM: Was your first song “Smoke on the Water”?

JR: Yeah, I think it was. [laughs]

JM: Did you ever play “Battle of the Bands” in high school?

JR
: We didn’t do that. That band kind of morphed into an original group. I started writing songs at the time, you know, just a complete REM ripoff. Early REM. I realized you could mumble lyrics that didn’t mean anything, and that made it a lot easier to write songs. So we had a band called Septic Spring, which didn’t sound at all like the name. We were very clean, but we would play with all the hardcore punk bands in town. We would be there with the jangly, Twin Reverb Rickenbacker sound. We played at a lot of political events in town like Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Unitarian Church for some reason would have a lot of punk rock shows in Des Moines, so we would play those. It was an kind of an interesting mix, because it would be a whole bunch of mosh pit, high speed thrash stuff, and then we would get up there. But they let us play with them, so that was nice.

JM: Is that when you actually first started writing songs?

JR: Yeah, at the beginning of high school. We went to studios and recorded some of the songs, and we made a bunch of cassette tapes. At the high school reunion I met some people who still had them.

JM: Do you remember what your first song was called, or anything about it?

JR: I don’t.

JM: Backtracking slightly, when you were a kid, what sort of music did you listen to?

JR: My brother was a big Beatles fan, and had a huge record collection. So he was very influential in what I listened to. But along the way – as big brothers often do, they don’t like you being into what they are into – so my brother was like, “You have to find your own group, you can’t listen to the Beatles.” So I went to the record store, and I was in the “Bea” section, and I found the Beach Boys and so I picked up a Beach Boys record and started listening to that. And Cheap Trick at the time, that was one of my early concerts. I was probably 10 or so. Really early on I had the Fantasia record. I remember listening to that a lot – classical music that I liked quite a bit.

In terms of kid’s music, the only real memory I have is the School House Rock stuff that was on television. I returned to it in college, and found it to be really beautifully recorded, complex songs, just gorgeous stuff. That’s certainly an influence in terms of quality.

JM: Then you went to Kenyon College. What did you study there?

JR: I did a degree in Philosophy of Religion. Because I was traveling to school I just brought an acoustic guitar. I didn’t want to bring an amp. One of the first days I was there on my dorm hall I heard a guy playing guitar, and I didn’t have a pick with me so I borrowed a pick from him. His name was Mike Merz and he and I started a band together in college that continued after college.

Kenyon was 1200 students, a small liberal arts students in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of an interesting place. People either ran screaming from it or loved it, as I did.


JM: You started a band there called Pimentos for Gus. According to the website for the band the name came from a b-side from the Kingston Trio. I don’t know if I believe that. Is that really true?

JR: I think with Google you can probably figure this stuff out a lot easier than it used to be.

JM: Do you want to come clean?

JR: We have a lot of different stories of where the name came from, because it wasn’t really that exciting of a story. “It was a vegetarian restaurant in St. Louis” was one of them. It was all over the map. Before the internet people would be like, “Oh really” and they reprinted the article. I think it’s better as a mystery. Sometimes stories are better than truth.

JM: How would you describe the music of Pimentos for Gus?

JR: I think it was a combination of Mike and I as very different songwriters coming together. Then Tracy Spuehler joined us the second year, and she plays violin. We all loved Camper van Beethoven and the Pixies and groups like that. Mike tended to write the more political, a little bit more punk-rock type songs. I did a lot of ballads. Together we did some sort of faux world music type stuff, that was just sort of silly. We had a lot of fun performing and making music together. He had a real gravely voice, and I have a kind of horn-like voice. If you heard them separately it wouldn’t make much sense, but sometimes it worked really well, the combination of the voices. Very eclectic, all over the map. We liked to change gears really quickly in concert.

JM: The band started at Kenyon College, and then you moved to Minneapolis. What was the music scene like in Minneapolis at that time?

JR: We were drawn to Minneapolis by what was happening there in the 80’s, which had long since passed. The Replacements, Husker Du, and Prince even. The idea that it was a small city with a really burgeoning music scene appealed to us. We actually looked into moving to Chicago, and it just didn’t feel right to any of us. I think we had more friends in Minneapolis, people that had gone to Kenyon that had moved there. It just felt like a nice-sized city to go from small town Gambier to. We lived there for five years, put out three CDs with the band, and toured around regionally, in the Midwest primarily.

When I first got there I worked as a preschool teacher which is when I first started writing kids songs. But I soon found that playing at nightclubs on weeknights until really late and then getting up very early in the morning and trying to work with three and four year olds was not a great combination. So I only did that for one school year. Then I started temping, and ended up in computers, like a network administrator eventually, just kind of on-the-job training. Still playing music.

JM: So the scene wasn’t really happening at the time?

JR: It seemed it was a little past its prime. There were some great groups that were playing there still, but it didn’t seem like the focus was on Minneapolis like it had been.

JM: This was, what, early 90’s? So Seattle was taking off.

JR: Yeah, the grungy, shoegazing audience that doesn’t clap kind of thing was happening. We seemed to attract strange and sparse audiences that were very devoted, but kind of on the fringe of what was happening musically at the time.

JM: When you look back at Pimentos for Gus, do you feel that it was a successful band?

JR: You know, I have fond memories of working with Mike and Tracy, and other people that were in the group. I think we did some fun stuff together. It certainly, I think, was very influential to what I do now. Working with Mike, and seeing some of the stuff he was doing, I think some of that stuff rubbed off on me as I started writing songs for kids. I felt this kind of freedom that we had in Pimentos, where you could do anything… You could play a fast punk song on an acoustic guitar, or play a ballad after a weird instrumental that had a bunch of parts that didn’t really fit together. Just kind of a general silliness. We would do this instrumental called “Hurling Sprouts Part II” where there was a faux James Brown section in the middle where we do “Hit me one time, Hit me two times, Hit me seventeen times.” But live we would do “Hit me ninety-eight times – unnh, unnh, unnh…” just drive the audience crazy. Stuff like that made me laugh at the time and maybe the audience did or didn’t like it.

I felt that kind of freedom when I started writing songs for kids, realizing you could almost do anything and kids would dig it. They were really open-minded about the music when I was playing for them at the preschool. I even played them a Pimentos for Gus song that they really liked a lot. So I think in that way it was very influential in what I did. I think with anything, as a musician or artist or whatever, you look back on stuff that you did, and you have mixed feelings about everything about it. Sometimes I’m really proud of certain things, other times I cringe. It’s the same with the stuff I do now. [laughs]

JM: Can you expand a little more on your transition to children’s music?

JR: At the time, the kids were singing a lot of the traditional children’s songs that I knew, and watching Barney on the television set. I was just out of college, and I found some of that stuff at the time to be not something I wanted to listen to personally as an adult. So I started singing stuff like “Cupid” by Sam Cooke to them, and Irish jigs, and various things. And they responded to that music just as much as they did “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, which we would also sing. Then I started playing them a Pimentos song, a ballad called “Giraffe/Nightingale” that is four verses with no chorus and no catchy repetition or anything. I thought they’re going to be bored, and the next day they requested it again. I played it again, and eventually they started singing along. We had an open house a few months down the line and the kids sang the song themselves to their parents, and I was like, “Wow, they can remember all these words.” It goes against everything that everyone told me about kids music.


Then I just kept writing kids songs. I was living in this apartment in Minneapolis and it was 20 below zero outside. I’d be sitting down with my cat and write a song called “Kitty Cat, Kitty Cat” for no apparent reason. I really had no desire to be a children’s musician, and I wasn’t planning on making a record or anything. It was just sort of for fun. But I amassed these songs, and I thought they were funny. I just sent them to friends of mine as a gift. None of them had kids, it was just sort of like, “check out these weird kids songs I wrote.” One of my friends Liam Davis loved it, and said “these are great. We should record them professionally, and I’d love to produce it.” So we made “Great Big Sun” right as I was leaving Minneapolis and going off to graduate school at the University of Chicago.

The band broke up. It was just sort of a mutually agreed thing. We felt that we all wanted to go our separate ways. Mike went on to make a bunch of really great solo records after that, and he has since gotten into sound art, and does things at galleries. He also does sound design for theaters and stuff like that. Tracy started writing songs a lot more as the group was coming to an end, and she has put out a few solo records – Liam produced three of them – that are great.

So we made this record, and printed up probably 500 copies. I went off to graduate school and carried some of them with me, and thought nothing of it. I thought it was going to be, “Oh, here’s some funny kids songs that I wrote.” So I moved to Hyde Park, and was going to do the philosophy of religion track, with maybe a comparison of Buddhism and Christianity. But once I started studying Sanskrit all of that started to fade. I don’t really want to write a book about a verb tense for 100 pages. It’s not my thing. But the record kind of took off. At first it was giving it out to friends, and
I played a couple of bookstores and things like that. We had no promotional budget or anything. It ended up getting reviewed in a national magazine, which never happened with Pimentos when we were actively sending stuff out and pushing. So while I was in graduate school I kept writing kids songs. I’d be trying to procrastinate from studying for a language exam or something, and I’d sit down and write “Willy Was A Whale”. It was just sort of weird. It felt like a good release and something different from what I was doing.

JM: You never wrote a song in Sanskrit?

JR: I didn’t [laughs]. Everything but.

JM: Your kids songs often tell a clever stories about common experiences. How do you come up with what you are going to write about?

JR
: Usually I just sit down with a guitar and start singing and playing chords. Sometimes I might start with a vague idea of what I’m going to write a song about, but I don’t really know where it’s going to go or what it’s going to be about. In terms of the childhood experiences, I do have some vivid memories of things, but it also comes from just people telling me stories and weaving those into the songs. A good example of that is “My Brother Did It”. In reality, I have an older brother and I was the younger brother who was probably getting blamed for things more than doing the blaming. But I switched sides for the song. I had a good friend who carved his sister’s name into a Steinway piano. She got in huge trouble. The parents never knew until she was twenty that this wasn’t true. And the brother and sister were friends, they were not evil enemies like my brother and I were for many years. They were friends all along, and something like that happened, and it makes me think that even the nicest kids who are best friends holding hands together, they even did evil things to each other. So I weaved that into “My Brother Did It”, where there’s writing on the wall and someone signed my sister’s name.


JM: And in the song, the younger brother can’t even talk yet, so of course he didn’t write his name on the wall.

JR: I love that idea. I don’t think kids are evil at all, I think they are amoral at times. They don’t really know the difference. But there’s a little bit of treading the line and kind of a glint in the eye that maybe this is wrong. But I think there is something great about that, that innocence.

What makes writing kid’s songs continue to be interesting for me is that I find that for a lot of things a childhood experience is also an adult experience in a different context. The song “Pop Fly” can be about a little leaguer who can’t keep his head in the game and is anxious about a pop fly coming towards him. I was certainly a horrible little leaguer as were many of my friends, you know, that kind of classic experience. The song itself feels very natural to me because there are tons of things like that in grown-up life. You know, you get anxious about things that are coming and you hope that you can do well at it, and you space off [laughs] and end up in la-la land enjoying the wonderful things in the world. A lot of that stuff feels very natural. Some of it I feel comes as much from my adult experience as much as the kid’s experience. I’m just putting it into a story that fits both.

JM: Do you ever solicit ideas from family, friends, or fans?

JR: Yeah, I do. Sometimes I get unsolicited ideas. An good example of what usually happens is that I got an email from a mother who said, “I have two daughters and they cry every time I brush their hair. It’s just a horrible experience. Could you write a song about how it’s OK to have your hair brushed?” And I thought, I don’t want to write a song about how it’s OK to have your hair brushed. It’s probably horrible. But it turned into the idea of “Henrietta’s Hair” and I thought of the idea of this girl who didn’t want to have her hair brushed and then it turned into this bigger metaphor for other things.



JM
: “Henrietta’s Hair” obviously has the “Tangled Up In Blue” vibe to it.

JR: That’s why I put that phrase in there, in case it wasn’t obvious all along.

JM
: When you write songs, do you ever think that you want to write in the style of a particular artist or particular genre?

JR
: I knew I was doing that with the Dylan thing, but it just sort of naturally happened. It actually took me forever to finish that song and figure out what the song was about and what I was trying to do. I had “I knew a girl named Henrietta” and that was where it started from, and it went on and on into a lot of weird places until I thought, oh it could be about this. But I don’t usually consciously sit down and think that I’m going to write a song in this style. But I love music, and I love listening to music, and there are a lot of people that I’m a humongous fan of. I know sometimes Elvis Costello’s creeping into the song, so I joke about it, like in “I Chalk” at the end where it says “I’ll draw the radio, radio, radio, radio”. It’s also for the other adults that are listening that have similar tastes in music. There is power pop, Fountains of Wayne: the things I listen to as an adult, that kind of music. I appreciate a really good melody and a good hook, and good lyrics. I actually work hard to make the songs like that.

With every record I’m always like, “are kids going to like this?” I’m more sure that adults will probably appreciate this. Is this going to be too much for them? Are they going to be able to follow the lyrics? The same kind of concerns that I had early on at that preschool. But they’re going to handle it, and they’re going to memorize all the words even if there are hundreds of them, and it’s fast paced, and there are a lot of twists and turns.

JM: At the risk of sounding psychoanalytical, are the moms in your songs like your mom, and are the dads like your dad?


JR: Not always. My dad was the classic dad – he worked a lot of long hours. But he was not the distant dad. I mean, my real memories of my dad coming home from work are him playing with us on the floor and being very affectionate and very attentive when he was around. Not a distant father, and very emotive. Sometimes I joke in the songs about a dad being unable to show his emotions, like maybe in “Nightlight”, where even the dad wants a nightlight but he wouldn’t admit it to anyone. You know, that kind of thing. That certainly is not my dad. My dad was also not a stay at home dad.

I do have overall pretty great memories of my childhood. As with anything, there are things that you remember in a sad and melancholy way and things that are happy. My parents were and are really wonderful people.

There are certain things where I’m borrowing experiences. But there is also a collective idea of what a mom or a dad is in certain different situations, or a brother or sister, older or younger. Sometimes you’re tapping into that collective memory even if it’s not an experience that you personally had.

The song “Moving” is about moving from one house to another. I certainly did that, but I moved, like, five blocks away, which was never really traumatic. Whereas my wife – her father was in the Air Force, and they moved all over the world. She was constantly really leaving her friends behind. We were talking about that, and I thought, “That must have been really sad.” And I thought about it, and that’s when I wrote that song.

Sometimes it’s borrowing other people’s experiences and trying to get into the mindframe of somebody else. Like becoming the child in the song, or I’ve written songs from a female perspective, or other people’s perspective. It’s all about trying to get in the character’s head.

JM: You have a song “Mama’s Sad” which is about divorce. How have kids and parents responded to that song?

JR
: It’s very mixed. I’ve certainly met people who fast forward through that song every time it comes on. Truthfully I never intended to put that on a record. My parents have been married a long time. I never went through a divorce. But my producer Liam’s parents did go through that. I played the song for him, just like, “this is weird, I wrote a sad kid’s song.” Who does that? And he said that I should totally put this on a record, and I think it’s really important. So we did. The good responses it has gotten have been worth a million times over anyone telling me that they skip through it every time or they reprogram their iPod so it’s not on there. I’ve had people that are really going through that experience play that song for their kids for them to understand. You know, kids are very perceptive, and they know when things are not going right. They take in tons of stuff that’s happening in their environment.

I played a show at a public school on the Southside many years ago. The teacher there was playing a lot of the music for the kids, and they were requesting different songs and singing along. It was really awesome. Then someone requested “Mama’s Sad”. It was like, wow, I only played that song for them once, and they were singing along. There were tears… it was really intense. From working with kids, I think sometimes we limit our conception of what kids are, that they are this pure innocence and joy. There is a lot of that in kids that sometimes as adults we lose. But there is also this great emotional base, where just like us they feel a lot of the same things. They are little human beings, and they go through similar experiences, whether its the anxiety of the first day at school, or the boundless imagination of things that happen in backyards. So I think that writing a song like that is trying to appeal the broad range of what kids are capable of understanding.

JM: It is sometimes surprising, but kids are able to process very sophisticated emotions.

JR: Exactly, that’s what I’m trying to say – that’s a much better way of saying it [laughs].

JM
: What is the story behind the song “Sand Castle”?

JR: I wrote that for a good adult friend of mine whose mother passed away from cancer. That was the inspiration. It was one of those things where you’re like, I don’t know if I should write a song like this. But I thought if I couched it in enough of a metaphor and story it would work. For me, it was a very emotional experience writing that song. I’m not always thinking, is this going to be a big hit with kids. Of course, we’ve never played that song live. But, generally from adults, I’ve had people say, “that song reminds me of my dad who passed away”.

I had fans in LA whose father seemed sort of reserved, and was there with his whole family. He said, “my favorite song is ‘Sand Castle’, I love that. Do you ever play that?” And I thought that was so cool that he loves that song.

I also had an email from a mother whose nine-year-old was listening to that song, and she said “Mom, this song is about me.” She was like, “what do you mean?” And she said, “it says, ‘you’re beautiful and brave’, and that’s about me”. So I think kids can pick up on different things and adults can pick up on different things, and hopefully it works.

That’s the great thing about making these records. I don’t feel totally constrained by the genre. Although I want some fast, funny songs, it has to be something that resonates with me as well. So that it’s not just like, “Kids want to hear a song about a firetruck, so here’s the song about a firetruck.” I try not to do that. Sometimes you’re like, “OK, kids like superheroes, so let me see if I can write a song about a superhero.” But it has to be something that makes sense for me, too. So when I’m writing a song about a superhero, it turns into “he can’t even fly, don’t turn invisible, he’s a regular guy, it’s not so miserable.” Not the most uplifting, joyous beginning. But it turns out to be something pretty wild and wonderful eventually.

JM: It takes a gift to be able to write a song about the passing of a someone’s parent and make it a kid’s song. Probably a lot of kids aren’t picking up on that aspect of it, but the parents do. Some adults probably think, “wow, this is really quite deep.”

JR: Even if the kids don’t make it past the metaphor, it’s about building a sand castle and watching it go away. Kids have that experience all the time. Things are tenuous. You draw a chalk drawing on the ground and rain comes, or a sprinkler comes and it goes away. There’s a certain sadness to that, but I think with kids they’re a lot more accepting of that than we are as adults.

JM
: Well, to a kid that’s an opportunity. They get to draw something new.

JR: Yeah, to us [as adults] we dwell on it [laughs].

JM: On your new CD, you have a song “From Scratch” which is dedicated to Clara. Is that your grandmother?

JR
: Yes, she just passed away last year. That was another one that was very hard to write, but another one that I’ve gotten some really nice responses to. I’m happy when people really love “Pop Fly” or “Yellow Bus” or “Way Out”, or certain songs that are kind of upbeat and fun. I’m kind of aware of what the response will be. But when I put things like “From Scratch” on record I just never know who is going to respond to it. So when people do, I’m happy that people are picking up on it.

It’s loosely based on her. Some things are not true. She never had a cat – she didn’t really like animals at all. Her stove was not really a gaslit stove. But she was a great cook, and she did grow up in the Depression, so she knew how to take something that cost nothing and turn it into a large meal for everybody. Those memories of being at her house for Thanksgiving and things like that, you know really stuck with me. In our modern world that’s an important thing for people to return to.
That sort of dinner table, slow down, enjoy the present.


JM: Your song “Humpty’s At It Again”, I think is actually deeper than it might appear.

JR: [laughs] I had a professor want to use that for a course she was teaching on The Berlin Wall, or something like that. She wanted to use it for a web advertisement. I thought that was really funny.

That’s one that was total stream-of-consciousness. I was like, I’ll loosely write a song about Humpty Dumpty. It just started off with “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men were really quite confused.” That’s the only thing I had. There are several of my songs where there’s not so well-hidden political ideas or social ideas that I fit into the song. For people that tune into it, it’s fun, and if you don’t it’s still a funny song. What do you get out of that song? My wife loves that song. It was one that I almost didn’t finish but she was like, “you have to finish that one.” It’s almost like “The Fool on the Hill” in a way, that kind of a song. But it’s also the idea of building walls to separate us from other people. It happens in the world.

JM
: I sort of see it as… here we are discussing the philosophy of Humpty Dumpty [both of us laugh]. Humpty knows that he is doing something dangerous because he’s falling down all the time. He knows it is dangerous but he’s willing to take a risk for the beauty of the view. “You should see the view, it’s really nice up here.” And not listening to everyone saying that you shouldn’t be doing that. Just following his own “nose”.

JR
: Several of my songs have that similar theme. The “3 Lil Pigs” song that we played at the show the other day, off of “Great Big Sun”, the same kid requested both of those songs ["Humpty's At It Again" and "3 Lil Pigs"]. I was like, “wow”, because those never get requested. I like them personally, but we just don’t play them a lot. They don’t tend to be the ones that people want to hear over and over. But with “3 Lil Pigs” I wrote that when I was [teaching] at the preschool, I was reading this Disney version of the three little pigs story where the first two little pigs were prancing in the fields – one of them was playing a flute – and the third little pig, who was the hero of the story, was wearing a three-piece suit. I was thinking about how the whole story was about instilling fear in kids to make them build really big houses to keep everything they’re afraid of away from them. The two artists that were dancing in the fields and playing music were the losers in the story. I thought, “what a horrible thing. There’s enough things going against you as you grow up in the world to make you feel that way, why instill that in a child? I hate that story now, and I’m going to turn it around and make it be the opposite of that.”

JM
: You can blow my house down, but I’ll still be OK.

JR
: Yeah, I’m not going to let a wolf run my life.

JM
: So is this your post-September 11th song?

JR
: That’s what someone asked me at the show, but I wrote it in 1994, so that would be impossible [laughs]. That’s what the people who requested it said. You know, that’s a good message. I like that to be out there.

JM
: You had mentioned “Willy Was A Whale” which seems to be another stream-of-consciousness song, but also has such clever wordplay. Was that something that just came to you?

JR
: It really came out of a horrible eight hours of studying Sanskrit. I was living in a basement apartment in Hyde Park, looking out at parked cars. I just was so frustrated, and I picked up the guitar and started singing the chorus. I wrote the chorus, and I liked the melody. It’s fun to write silly alliteration. Then I sat on the song for probably nine months or a year, and finished the song when I was out in Los Angeles. It was just total stream-of-consciousness, one thing led to another. Nothing in it was thought out. “Weno, Nevada” and all of that, it was just the first thing that came into my head. Even the “cactus/fact is” rhyme. Even though that took a long time to write because I waited between the chorus and the verse, it was one of the songs I wrote in probably a total of ten minutes, whereas other songs I spend days trying to get something out and then re-editing it, changing things, adding a bridge, taking it away, and moving things around. Really constructing it.

JM
: When you get writer’s block, do you pull out the old Sanskrit textbook?

JR: [laughs] I get writer’s block all the time. There’s a lot of anxiety involved in writing songs for me. Some of that comes out making the song better, like “Meltdown” which totally came out of the horrible anxiety of writing it. It’s a song about anxiety so it makes perfect sense [laughs]. But other times it gets in the way. Some of the songs that people respond to the most are often the songs that I write at the end, when I’m getting ready to record the record. Because I’m pretty much done. And I know I’ve got ten songs or I’ve got nine songs, and I just have to do a few more. Then I do something that is just silly and natural, and people respond to it.

Getting out of the writer’s block is hard. Sit with it, deal with it, try not to avoid it. It’s like everything [laughs].

JM
: When you’re writing songs, does it ever feel like work, or is it always fun?

JR
: It is almost never fun, I would say [laughs]. It is only fun when everything is flowing and I know I’m on to something. But even then, like “Henrietta’s Hair”, I was like, “this could be a really good song.” But it was days and days of beating myself up and not being able to figure out what the story should be. Even with “Pop Fly”, I started writing it and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be good. I like this. It’s flowing and I see how the rhyme scheme is working.” And then I was working on it, and I finished the verses and the choruses and didn’t have the bridge yet. Then I listened back to it, and I was like, “this is stupid, this is a horrible song.” It’s a total self-doubting process. It’s really weird. I don’t think everyone does this, but it’s just my way of writing. Just very self-critical, I think.

JM
: It sounds a bit like the Paul Simon school of songwriting, where he might spend up to a year perfecting a lyric.

JR
: I think he has an office that he goes to where he writes songs. I’ve read interviews where he’s just like, “I go to work every day, and sit and write.” I do that, too. When I’m writing songs, that’s my job. I wake up in the morning and make coffee, and spend the whole day, whether I write anything or not, working on trying to write songs. Sometimes that’s very frustrating. But out of that frustration, if you get something that you really like, you think, “where did that come from? How did I do that?” You can never remember, and you’re back to the drawing board again.

At the time it feels really weird to be dealing with all this frustration over writing a song for kids, that should be just fun and simple and easy to do. Sometimes that just feels absurd to me. But then I make the record like “Pop Fly” or something, and I get an email from a fan who says, “I wish you could be a fly on the wall of our minivan as we’re driving through San Francisco and my daughters are singing every word at the top of their lungs. It’s awesome that you do this.” That makes it all worthwhile. Little do they know that I’m sitting in my house, sweating trying to come up with something and feeling like nothing is good enough.

But every writer goes through that. I read stories about other songwriters where they are like, “when I’m starting working on a new record I write ten songs that are just terrible, and I have to go through that to get to the one song that’s really good.” I do that, too. I work days and days on something that I do realize isn’t very good afterwards, and I scrap it. Maybe I come back later and listen to it later and pick up a melody or something.

JM
: How is writing kids songs different from writing songs for grown-ups?

JR
: For me, it’s not all that different other than that the subject matter has to in some ways pertain to something that kids will be interested in, whether it’s a childhood experience, or a story about an animal or some interesting person or something. I think even when I’m writing songs for grown-ups it’s about getting in the character’s head of whoever you’re writing about. If it’s some emotion I’m feeling, couching it in a story or a metaphor or a good rhyme scheme, and a good melody, it’s pretty similar.

JM
: Why do you think your songs for kids do appeal so much to grown-ups?

JR: I think a lot of it is that I’m trying to write something that I am proud of as an adult, and that I would want to listen to as an adult even if it’s based on childhood themes. So musically and lyrically I try to make it really interesting to me as an adult. It goes back to that experience I had at the preschool where I wanted to be listening to something that I enjoyed, too. So I’m trying to make music that parents are going to enjoy as much as their kids. You know, kids can handle anything, and I think they love a good hook just like we do.

JM: How would you describe the evolution of your style of kids music starting with “Great Big Sun” up to through the current album.

JR
: Definitely, for better or worse, things have gotten more complicated [laughs]. Sometimes I think about “Great Big Sun” and I wish I could write songs that simple again. But you just have to do what you’re doing at the time, and try to accept it and move on. You can’t recreate the past.


It started off very folky, me on the acoustic guitar. That record was recorded primarily with just Liam and me. Liam tapping his knee or playing a bongo, or a bass line. We had a horn player and a few other people come in. But as things moved along, I started playing a little bit more with other people, and then started writing songs because I was playing with other people, thinking I should start to write something that’s a little more for a band since we have a drummer that we’re playing with. So I think it gradually turned into more of a full rock band thing. But even early on with “Great Big Sun”, there is “Do You Wanna Go”, which is a silly Ramones-like punk rock song that is on an acoustic guitar. “Yellow Bus” is fairly folky, but it has “One Little Cookie”, and certain songs that are rock songs. And if we were to record them now, they would probably be a little more rock than they are on the records.

I think the style of recording has changed over time, too. With “Great Big Sun” we just got in a room together and recorded thirteen songs in 24 hours. As time has gone on, Liam does pre-production with the band, and we work out some things before we even get in there. We spend a lot more time making the recording just how we want it. I like the natural sound of a room and people playing together, but I also like a really good power pop record. I like the sound of that. For some reason as I’ve written songs over time and have learned more about the craft of writing songs, I’m like, “Oooh, this is how you change keys. Let’s do it three times” [laughs]. You’re on a journey, you’re like, “what can I do next? What will be interesting?” For me that has involved sometimes making the songs more complicated and making the lyrics more complicated. It’s fun.

JM: Do you ever listen to songs by other kids artists?

JR
: I do a little bit just because we often trade records and I keep in touch with different people. I enjoy what other people are doing. It probably doesn’t influence me in the same way that listening to whatever record I pick up in the store as an adult listener does. But it’s cool to hear what other people are doing, because I think there is a wide variety of ideas about how to do it. But as someone who doesn’t have kids, I don’t necessarily find myself listening to too many things that often. I think there are things out there that sound good to an adult, too. I can put it on a Sunday morning, and make coffee, and if it’s a good sounding record and has good songs, it sounds nice.

JM
: Do you think kids have the attention span for a Kidapalooza with various artists such as yourself, They Might Be Giants, Laurie Berkner,…?

JR
: I didn’t think they did but we did an event in Kansas City called Jiggle Jams which was actually with They Might Be Giants and us, Trout Fishing in America, and then the day I wasn’t there John McCutchan and a bunch of other people. It was two days of music and tons of different bands. It kind of ebbed and flowed like a Lollapolooza event does, but it worked really well. There were a lot of people, and people saw different acts. People that came to see us saw another group and enjoyed them and vice versa. It was a good time. As someone who bought They Might Be Giants’ first record when it came out on vinyl, it was pretty amazing to be playing with them. I love what they do. It’s cool to have such a variety of people getting into kids music and making interesting stuff.

JM
: Do you think there is potential for a kids song to cross over and become a Top 40 hit?

JR
: Gosh, I don’t know. In some ways, with the record industry in such dire straits, kids music is doing better than other genres. Some [kids records] are starting to appear in Billboard charts, although I think it has tended to be the Kidz Bop type things rather than original kids music. You never know, I guess.

JM
: What does Liam Davis bring to the songs?

JR
: He’s just an absolutely brilliant musician. He’s often able to help me articulate what I’m trying to do, like if I say “the vibe should be like this or that” he’s really good at how it should go. He does a lot of arrangements on certain songs, like “Liam, why don’t you do something here with strings?” I think we very similar sensibilities. Not exactly the same, which I think is part of what makes it good because we push each other in different directions. That’s helpful. He’s definitely a big part of it. He works with several other artists, and he’s just amazing at listening to what other people do and bringing the best out of them. He is one of the people, including my wife, that I run songs by when I’m writing them. He can be both comforting and critical at the same time, which is helpful for someone who is beating themself up writing the songs [laughs]. He’s good at, “this is definitely good, but you should go back and work on this part,” or “it still needs more of a hook”, or “I don’t think this works.” So he’s a good person to have on your side.


JM
: More broadly, how would you describe your relationship with the band Frisbie?

JR
: That has just kind of gradually come out of working with Liam. He brought in Gerald Dowd who is now drumming with us for a couple of songs on “Meltdown”, “Imaginary Rhino” and “Cartwheels and Somersaults”. He also brought in bassist Matt Thompson, who also plays stand-up bass, to do that made sense for him to be doing. When we play with a slightly larger band than the band that you saw, with the back-up singers, we sometimes have Steve Frisbie. Liam and he are the main singers in the band. He sings with us along with Keelie Vasquez, they do back-up singing. So, at times, we have nearly the entire band on the stage, which is pretty funny. They’re just an amazing rock group. Everyone in that band is pro beyond pro. The more you surround yourself, like I do, with musicians who are better than I am at their instruments, the better you sound [laughs]. You get a drummer like Gerald Dowd and everything sounds good [laughs].

[Frisbie, Brian Eno discussion]

JR: Liam brings a Brian Eno-like presence to the table. When he works with other groups he tends to push them in certain ways, but he also brings out who they are in that way. It makes a good producer. There are producers where you hear their records and you know it’s them, but you still hear the artist even more so than you did on the record when they were working with someone else.

JM
: Certainly when you listen to your records, it’s not like, “Oh, that’s just Frisbie with kid’s lyrics”. When you present your songs to him, do you just have demos on an acoustic guitar?

JR
: More recently, I’ve been using Garage Band [for the Mac] quite a bit, I’d say for the last couple of records. It used to pretty much entirely be me playing them on acoustic. But around when “Meltdown” came out I started using [Garage Band] because I’d be recording the vocal and the guitar for myself while I was writing it, and I starting using the program to write the song. It added a lot of stuff that I never would have done before. I’d start adding ideas for back-up vocals and melodies on synthesizers and various things, some of which make it onto the record and some of which don’t. But it at least gives more of an idea of the vibe I’m going for.

I’m horrible at recording stuff. It’s all done in a very working-take way. I’m not trying to make something that I would ever want anyone to hear except Liam, and the band just so that they can get the idea. I’m not trying to perfect anything. I just go through and sing it. If things are horribly out of tune I’m not even concerned because I’m just trying to get the thing down. I end up cutting and pasting stuff, and moving sections around. It’s a really fun way to write.

Unfortunately sometimes it leads to slight disasters, like with “Pop Fly”. I wrote that on Garage Band, and then I realized when we performed it live that there was absolutely no time to breathe in the entire song, because I’d been recording it piecemeal, just one thing into another. It’s just non-stop lyric lines running into each other. When we do it live, Liam sings the harmony part with me on the pre-chorus section, and a lot of times I drop out from one of the words and take a big, deep breath. I can’t make it through.

JM: I’ve read that you play about 200 shows per year. Are you still on that schedule?

JR
: For the most part that is true. This summer has been a little more mellow than usual, which has been very nice after seven years of constant touring. It’s been good. I’m going to be in town for a whole month, I think. We’re playing here and there during that time. But there are a lot of times, like earlier in the year, where we’re out of town Friday through Monday. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I’m back trying to take care of all the things that have fallen apart, then I’m getting on another plane going somewhere else. Every single week. Then I’m gone for a week somewhere. That weighs heavy on anyone, I think. But I love performing, so it’s kind of a Catch 22.

JM
: I asked you this about songwriting. For playing shows, does it feel like work?

JR
: I really love performing. I’m just kind of an anxious person [laughs]. I get nervous before shows. Sometimes I’m not as comfortable as I’d like to be onstage, even if it doesn’t come across that way, which is often what people say if I say “every other line I kept on thinking I was going to forget the words to the song”, or “I just didn’t feel in my own skin”, or whatever. I mean, I really love performing. Most of it is getting to watch the kids in the audience and watch the adults in the audience interact with their kids, just knowing that you are bringing families together. It’s fun to watch that stuff happen, and to know that you’re being a part of that.

Because it’s a lot more abstract making a record and putting it out there. Like that guy I mentioned who wrote me that email who said he wished you could be a fly on the wall of our van. I’m not, so I don’t really know what’s happening. I just put it out there. You get some feedback from people, but I think it’s nice in concert to know what people are responding to, getting to see how it works in reality. It’s all in my head when I’m writing it. Then Liam and I put it onto a record together with a band, and we’re all like, “we do like how it sounds,” but we have no idea how that is going to translate. So live is a good experience for getting some feedback. And it’s fun. It’s a fun band to play with, and then I have a great time when I’m onstage. Everyone’s a pro. Sometimes we take the show off the script and people go with it. It’s fun.

JM: Any embarassing onstage moments?

JR
: Plenty, I’m sure but [laughs] hopefully I’ve forgotten those. I mean there have certainly been times when I’ve forgotten lyrics, and the worst thing is that often it’s because I’m watching a kid in the audience sing along to every single word, and I’m thinking, “how do they know all the words to this song?” Then I’m going to forget the words myself, watching them. It’s a lot to remember [laughs] when you’re trying to make sure that you’re performing well for the audience, and that the interactive stuff is going well. It’s just a lot on my mind to make sure that it’s all coming across.

JM: I would guess that you played several hundred shows with Pimentos for Gus, and over a thousand shows for kids. How would you compare the experiences of playing for young adults with Pimentos for Gus versus playing for kids?

JR: When Pimentos for Gus was playing together, it was kind of that shoe-gazing period of the early 90’s. Especially in Minneapolis, it was like, people wouldn’t even applaud if they were enjoying the
show. There was this weird kind of distance between the audience and the performers.

The great thing about kids music is that we start playing and a kid will jump up and start dancing by themselves. Or a grown-up will start singing along in the back or whatever. People just feel a lot more free to enjoy themselves. You just get a lot more instant feedback when playing for a kid audience.

When either we have people who have joined the band or we have guests join us onstage who are used to just playing for adults, I think every single time when we finish the show the person who has joined us says, “that was the most fun I’ve have had perfoming in a long time. The audience was so awesome and so responsive.” It’s a different experience because it’s a lot of back and forth with the audience.

JM: And you do a lot of interactive things.

JR: Which is something we’ve developed over time. When I realized the first time I tried to play “Great Big Sun” songs in this bookstore and I had the kids there for about three songs and then they wandered off to another section of the bookstore. I was like, wait, I can’t just play the songs and you’ll listen?

JM: Have you ever thought of releasing a live album?

JR: Yeah, we have… we haven’t done it [laughs]. We’ve thought about releasing a live album or a live DVD. We’ve done some recording of things, but just haven’t quite figured out how to make it work the best way. I’m always wanting everything that we put out to feel like it’s the best thing that could be. Sometimes, I’m like, it’s not. It doesn’t feel as solid as a record. I think we might do something at some point, but not yet. We’re more concentrated on DVD stuff, which may be more videos and more interstitial type things. Trying to make something that’s more of an experience, that’s not just a bunch of songs.

JM: What’s the timetable for the DVD?

JR: It was supposed to be done about four years ago. We’ve kind of gone through many transitions. Dave, our trumpet player, made the “Pop Fly” video that’s on YouTube now. It was something he just took up, and was like, “I’ve never done this before, but I’ll figure it out. I’d love to do it.” I think he did a fantastic job for never having done anything before. But we’re also talking to another group in LA that might be working with us this summer, to start recording some stuff. If everything goes as planned maybe Christmas or early next year we’ll have something put together.

JM: Is the plan mostly videos of songs you’ve written already. or new songs?

JR: The songs will probably be things we’ve done already, but there probably be also some interstitial type stuff and some more story line things that wouldn’t necessarily all be music. I’d kind of like it to be more interesting that just a bunch of videos on a DVD, although I’m sure people would like that. It would have that element, but I think it would be fun if there was a little more to it. That’s what we’re trying to develop.

JM: What advice would you give an aspiring songwriter?

JR: I think as with anything, it’s practice. Keep doing it, and be willing to write bad songs. Sometimes I look back on some of the simpler songs I wrote early on and think, wow, I wish I could write one of those. But you can’t. So you have to just accept what you’re doing at the time, and try to be content with that. Because you can only do what comes out of you, and you just have to let that stuff come out and not block it too much.

There’s a book called “Art and Fear” that was recommended to me during one of my many sessions of [writer's] block. It’s a great book. It’s mostly about visual artists, but there’s a great story in there where there’s a pottery class, and they divide the class into two groups. They say for one group they say they’re going to graded on the quantity of pots that you make, and for the other group you’re going to be graded on the quality of the pots that you make. They went off and did the thing, and a week later when they came back all of the best work was done by the group that was going to be graded on quantity. And the people who were graded on quality ended up not finishing things or it was half-baked because they were trying to perfect one thing. Whereas the group that was just trying to make as many things as possible came up with the best stuff. I think with songwriting, it’s a lot like that. You have to just try to write as many things as you can, and certainly discard stuff that is not up to snuff, but don’t judge it right away. Try to work with it and see what could happen.

I think being an editor is good, too, for a songwriter. I sometimes find, for me at least, people that make records and have eight million songs on them, I’m like, you know what, this would be a great record if you had gotten an editor and just gotten rid of some of this stuff. No one has the attention span for a 72 minute CD [laughs]. My favorite records are usually over in about 35 minutes. When vinyl was popular, you could only fit about 18 minutes on a side, and that’s it.

So I think it’s a combination of trying to create as much as you can, and then weeding through it trying to only pull out the best stuff.

Also having people that you trust around you that you can play things to that are the best critics. You don’t always agree with what they say but it’s nice to have people to bounce things off, for me.

JM: Would you answer differently if I asked what advice you would give to an aspiring childrens songwriter?

JR: I think the only different advice I would say is to try not to write a song about what you think a kid would like to hear. You just have to write something that is honest, and if you shoot really high then kids will come with you. I think the mistakes people make often is stuff I wouldn’t personally want to listen to, when it sounds like they’re imagining what they think a kid would want to hear a song about and it comes back as condescending and preachy.

JM: It seems that you mostly, or maybe exclusively, write songs alone. Do you ever think that maybe you should write with someone else?

JR: I haven’t had much luck with that, I think partly because it’s a very private experience with myself, and I’ve never been comfortable enough to just sit down and write a song with other people. I don’t know, I’m exploring that area of self-doubt with myself and what I’m making. It’s not comfortable to be inviting someone in all the time. It’s only comfortable when I’m three-fourths of the way done with something and willing to play a bit of it for somebody.

I’m sure I could do it. I just don’t think it would be as personal. It’d be more songwriting by the books or something like that.

JM: Do you think your songs appeal, or could appeal, to people from other countries? In other words, do you plan to “go global”?

JR: Definitely. I’m working on an all-French album so I can go and tour Burgandy [laughs]. No I don’t. I think it would work with other English-speaking countries. A lot of it is very lyric-based.so it might be hard if there was a language barrier. I do get emails from people in other countries who have the records, who have gotten them from friends in the US. They’re either people from here living over there or natives of England and Australia. I’ve gotten even things from Tokyo and stuff like that, which is fun. So people are hearing it.

I think even with, like, London, it’s funny. I got a message from some fans there, and they love it, but some of the colloquial phrases you use, they don’t know what they mean. There’s a song “Billy Was A Bully” where it says “Bullying was so last year” and they didn’t know that sort of phrase, the fashion idea. Once they found out they started using it all the time in common speech [laughs]. Parents were like, “I loved it”, and like, “oh, it’s so last year.” [laughs]

JM: You write and perform and songs, and I understand that your wife is a seventh grade teacher, so between you, you keep kids entertained and educated. What else do kids need?

JR: Love of course from their parents [laughs]. [Pause] Education, entertainment, let’s go! [laughs] That’s what I need.

JM: Can you say more about the business end of children’s music.

JR: I run the label. I work with the distributor RED Distribution, that’s Sony, to get the records into stores. I work with a publicist, and I work with a booking agent, and a management company out in L.A. for some of the bigger idea stuff. I grew up in the punk rock 80’s and played music in the 90’s when the whole DIY stuff was really big and people starting their own labels and all that stuff. With Pimentos we had our own label. So when I started doing the kids stuff it seemed natural to just put the stuff out myself.

Over the years, with touring around and doing better and better and getting more and more publicity, we’ve certainly had people approach us about putting records out on bigger labels. It just hasn’t really seemed like, with the state of music and everything, the right thing to do. Because when you do it yourself there’s a lot more work and all of the that, but you also retain the rights to everything. It just hasn’t really made any financial sense to go to a bigger label. I say that, now I have nine titles on my label and even though they’re distributed for the most part through RED, I have many of them in my garage and basement, and am hauling boxes around and all that kind of stuff [laughs], and making sure things are getting shipped to various places. Sometimes I feel like I’m running more of a warehouse than playing music for anyone. It has its good side and its bad side.

JM: Presumably when you started you didn’t have a publicist and so on. That grew with time?

JR: Right. Yeah. When I decided to actually make another record, I did the Masters Degree, but I quit grad school and didn’t do a Ph.D, and I was working in computers in Chicago and I quit that job, I was really like, I want to make a living at music, I don’t want to do anything else. Otherwise, I will do something else. I had done enough of the play-music-as-a-hobby-and-work-another-job kind of thing. So one of the things that was recommended to me was getting a publicist, that was the best way of spending your money if you’re going to invest in something. That’s been true. It’s a good person to have on your side.

Especially with me early on, basically just driving all over the country and playing in church basements and maternity stores in Soho, and little random fundraisers in parks and whatever, having a publicist, somebody who can call up the local newspaper and try to get an article written about you and send out stuff. That’s been one of the few things I’ve actually been able to delegate well. I wish I could do that with other parts of the business [laughs]. Like most people that start their own business, there’s a little bit of control freak in that kind of person.

JM: What’s your impression of Chicago, where you’re now based near?

JR: When I ended up moving to Hyde Park for graduate school, although the Sanskrit and other stuff didn’t agree with me as much, I loved the city. I was like, I don’t know why this didn’t resonate with me before. Not to knock Minneapolis, but I was like, what was I doing in Minneapolis all those years. This place is awesome. You can get a hot dog at 4:00 AM [laughs]. It’s a friendly place, the people are super nice, but it’s also got amazing music happening all the time, great restaurants. Of course new things like Millennium Park where we’re playing in July. I’ve been telling people all over the country, you’ve got to come to Chicago just to check out Millennium Park, it’s so amazing. It’s so cool, because it’s filled with sculptures and large art pieces that kids love. There’s that thing with the faces that’s so bizarre and weird from an adult perspective but it’s also a fountain where kids play. The bean is mesmerizing to everybody that steps underneath it, and it’s always constantly surrounded by people. I feel like it’s like a modern Sistine Chapel or something like that. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see a concert there yet, but the sound system is beyond anything I’ve ever heard. Anywhere you’re sitting it sounds like the group is right there with you, but it’s not loud, it’s just natural sounding, it’s amazing. You know, free concerts all summer.

[Discussion of Chicago music scene, L.A., Sly and the Family Stone (who I'd recently seen in concert in L.A.)]

I just recently got the reissue of “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” and it’s such a weird sounding record. Now that you can hear everything even better it’s even murkier and weirder than I imagined it was when I heard it on the 1989 CD that I had before.

JM: Are you a Cubs or a Sox fan?

JR: How about I start with this. The two biggest baseball fans in the group are Gerald Dowd, the drummer, and Liam Davis. Gerald is a Red Sox fan, and Liam is a White Sox fan. I can say that I’m a Cubs fan. I love baseball, but I’m not a sports person in general. I love watching baseball games, but I don’t follow it, I can’t talk stats like Liam and Gerald can, you know endlessly about different players from every year that baseball has been around.

The song ["Pop Fly"] is more about my Little League experience, and things like that. I will say between the Cubs and the White Sox, at the risk of alienating my audience, the park Wrigley Field makes you realize why they call it a baseball park. While I love going to see Sox games as well, it’s just not that experience of being right there where you’re looking out at the beautiful field. It’s a little bit more alienating I think as a spectator. That’s because I like just sitting out like I’m in a park [laughs] as much as watching the game. But when I’m there I get into it and I get tensed up, but I don’t watch it on TV or anything like that.

JM: One of the things that shows up in your songs a lot is faux stuttering, like “M-m-m-m-meltdown”, and I was trying to think what other songs are like that. “Ch-ch-ch-changes” or “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, b-b-b-baby”. Where does this come from? Is it natural?

JR: I’m sure it’s not natural. Or “My Generation.” It seems to be just a great hook. It works. It’s funny. At the time I don’t know that I was even… Now I’m very aware that I was do that and have done it, but when I was making… I think that “Meltdown” has the most of that, but I mean I was doing it with “D-d-d-daycamp”. It just makes a good hook. I don’t know why it is. For me it doesn’t seem to get old. If it does for other people, I don’t know [laughs]. But with “Meltdown” and “Maybe the Monster” on the same record, it’s like “M-m-m-maybe” and “M-m-m-meltdown”. It’s probably all of those things you mentioned, and definitely The Who, I listened to a lot, and still do.

JM: A different thing is repeating a sound in a melodically adventurous way, like “Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop…” or like “Ba-ba-ba”. Where is that coming from? Is it just another good hook.

JR: It is a good hook. I mean, I like “ba, ba, ba” a lot. I think part of that is Beach Boys songs have a lot of that kind of stuff. I like all those choruses that use nonsense syllables. Yeah, I don’t know where it comes from. Something about it is utterly satisfying [laughs], I don’t know why. I have several songs where it ends in the character singing nonsense, like “Sand Castle” is even like that. Or “Dad Caught Stars”, a song about a dad and his kid catching fireflies together, the chorus is total nonsense: “He sang na, na, na, na, na, na, blue moon. And I sang, hey, hey, yeah, yeah, mmm.” When I’m doing that with the band and we’ll playing the song, I invite the audience to sing along. The lyrics are pretty simple: it’s just “na, na, na, na, na, blue moon, hey hey, yeah yeah”. But for some reason that is very satisfying. I don’t really know why. When I hear something like that in another song I like it, too. With the “Superkid” song which also has that, it’s kind of like it’s his theme song, he’s not doing too well in the super power area but he’s got a theme song, which is important for any super hero. As they say.

JM: It certainly is good to sing along to. Even kids who may not be able to keep up with fast lyrics are able to sing along.

JR: Yeah. And sometimes words can’t always express what you want to say. Sometimes it leads to that. I think with that “Dad Caught Stars” song it’s as much about that as anything. It’s that beautiful, being out at dusk with fireflies with your father. It’s kind of hard to express what that’s all about. But nonsense syllables seem to work as well as anything.

JM: I guess The Beatles do something like that with “Na, na, na, na, na, na, na” [Hey Jude]. But you do it faster. Can you think of anyone else who does that? Is it your trademark sound?

JR: “Pop Fly” kind of has classical roots. [Orchestra sound] “Da, da, da, da, da, da, da…” Some of the melodies are just so completely random when I think about them afterwards. A lot of times they’re driven by the lyrics as much as anything. If I actually sing just the verse melody to “Meltdown” I think what the hell? Where did that come from?

[chat about Beach Boys]


JR: Brian Wilson’s songs are insane. Even “Surfer Girl”, never one of my favorite songs mostly because the lyrics don’t really do anything for me, but melodically and the chords, it’s so genius.

I’ll totally geek out with you for a moment. One of the greatest moments of my life is still captured somewhere [pulls up picture on his phone]. It’s better than anyone could ever imagine. This was at his kid’s school in LA. Keith Richards was supposed to be the special guest. They were having a big fundraiser and I was playing an opening set. Some people were fans at the school and had hired me to come out and play. And Keith fell out of a tree. You remember that happening? So they got Brian because he’s a parent. They had a Beatles cover band and he sang “Let It Be” and “God Only Knows”, I think, with the band.

So he was there at the soundcheck. I often sing Buddy Holly songs when I’m soundchecking, just because I like the songs and they’re a good warm-up for me to be singing, and I played “Rave On”. The sound guy was like, when you’re done, could you come to the soundbooth? Mr. Wilson wants to talk to you. The person who made my favorite record. He wanted to hear “Rave On” again. He really liked it. I played it for him, he wanted to hear it again and I played it again. He started singing counterpoint melody with me. We ended up spending about an hour together talking about “Rave On”. It was really absolutely weird and it was awesome. Then he said something to me like, “when you sang that song that made my entire day.” And I said, “how could you be thanking me? Pet Sounds is my favorite record.” And he’s like, “Oh, Justin”. It was the weirdest surreal experience. It was hilarious. At first it was just like, “Brian Wilson is at the same thing that I’m at.” I called my wife. Then the next thing I know I’m standing right in front of him singing a song to him. Pretty weird. I just think he made so much great music.

JM: One of your songs on your latest album has the Beach Boys vibe for the chorus.

JR: “Kickboard”. Totally embarassing. I mean, totally fun to do, but geeky. That’s part of the fun with kids music. I would probably never do that otherwise. It’s fun. You can be all over the map stylistically and it’s still kids music. You can do a ska song, you can do faux world beat, you can do a total folky song, you can do a punk rock song. That’s what makes it interesting.

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