OWTK Interviews / OWTK Kindie Music News

John and Mark’s Children’s Record – OWTK Kid’s Music Interview

John Upchurch and Mark Greenberg, under the John and Mark’s Children’s Record moniker, have released one of the better family albums of 2009. Being new to the family music playground, I wondered about how they got here, how long they’ll be hangin’ around, if we’ll ever get the chance to hear “Pat, the Alligator Lady” and “A Counting Error” live, and if The Coctails will be reuniting anytime soon

Both guys took a few minutes to answer a handful of questions. Read on…

OWTK: What was your experience with/perception of the kid’s music genre before making the record?

Mark Greenberg: There is a lot of “kids music” that stands so well on it’s own without relegating it to just that sub-genre and audience. Raymond Scott created amazing electronic records for infants and toddlers using the very first synthesizers… Woody Guthry and Ella Jenkens childrens records stand among some of the most fun folk recordings ever made… Joe Raposo and his great music on Sesame Street seeped into our generation’s subconscious… then there was the bizarre world of Bruce Haak’s electronics for kids too…. A lot of our time in the Coctails we were seeking out likenesses between different music forms rather than getting hung up on the differences. Free jazz and folk, lullabies and dirges, pop songs and rainy day melancholy, the sad and the silly… it’s all fair game and seems to mix and match well. I feel like a lot of the music the Coctails made could be good music for kids.

John Upchurch: I think any parent is exposed to a a certain range of kid’s music through friends, family and cultural osmosis. I’ve spent road trips listening to Raffi, Tom Chapin, and other collections of children’s folk songs–and I do sort of like that my oldest learned a mess old traditional songs that way, but by the time our sons were born we had sort of graduated (or devolved) to just singing them ourselves in the car.

Limiting what you listen to with your kids just to those things from the kids section unfairly constrains the options for both the parents and the kids. I enjoy that you could take a song off of a They Might Be Giants kid’s music album and put it on one of them for the older set or vice versa and for the most part none would be the wiser. There’s that whole magically ineffable quality to music that can make a rhythm or melody funny or joyous or melancholy that goes beyond a single genre. Kids are sensitive to many of the same moods and emotions found in the broad spectrum of music. Judging by the soporific effects, my middle child’s favorite lullaby albums when he was a wee one included Neil Young, Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye (though I obviously had a fair amount of control over the playlist).

I heard one of the folks from Pixar once say that essentially they write for themselves in an effort to make something that they would enjoy and then they just make sure that it works for kids. I think music that comes from that same space works best.

OWTK: Musically, J& M’s Children’s Record has an old-fashion, loose, organic feel to it. What music influenced your first recorded collection of family tunes?

MG: With the songs I wrote on the record, I had in the back of my mind to try and create strange little settings for each trying not to depend on traditional forms and instrument combinations… wanting them to seem more like something odd found under a rock…. that’s how they started anyway. You never know where things will go but starting in a specific place with a specific idea can help cast them in the right direction.

JU: I was a fan of the Woody Guthrie “Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child” tunes even before I became a dad and, in time, I sung variations of many of those to my kids. I’m also a big fan of the Pete Seeger Town Hall Concert for Children.

The Woody Guthrie tunes have such a natural, informal simplicity that you can almost see them being created on the spot for his kids. That was a bit of the inspiration for a few of these–Piggyback Ride, Humdrum Bumblebee and A Counting Error all started with me singing to a kid in the moment. A lot of the tracks on the record evolved organically by singing to a kid while playing or putting them to sleep and–especially in the latter case–you have a lot of time to let the song find its own way.

The great thing about that Pete Seeger concert is the songs he plays and the interaction with (and reaction from) the audience. He’s keeps that comfortable, storyteller stance and sings songs from ballads to silly songs and he never seems to be performing down to them. He’s got this high level of respect for both the kids and the music he performed and it just made this great atmosphere. I’ve listened to our record in our van with our kids and other kids and I really enjoy hearing them laugh over rhymes and imagery or finding some weird detail to focus on.

OWTK: What are you and your kids, as a family, listening to these days?

MG: We actually listen the the J&M record a lot. Our two year old loves it and dancing around to it which of course cracks up our two older kids… so they play it over and over for him. Other than that a lot of Abba has been playing in the house lately as well as the new Azita record when I can elbow my way to the stereo…. and a great Folkways compilation and a CD of the ‘Frances’ books read by Glynis Johns for long car rides.

JU: We’re kind of all over the place in our house. My daughter is thirteen and she’s notably more selective, but she’s fairly sophisticated in her listening habits–we’ve avoided all the tween musical acts (with the happy exception of Smoosh). The boys are all over the place with my ten year old with Queen and Django Reinhardt getting equal time on his iPod. I’ve been on a classical kick lately and my wife listens to a lot of middle eastern stuff.

The family listening is most pronounced when planning road trips. While we generally listen to audiobooks on long drives, I generally keep an eye out for oddball stuff to surprise the kids (and, in turn, occasionally annoy the wife) with. That usually entails a trip to WFMU’s blog where there are always a few gems. One of these was a cover of the Star Wars theme played by a Canadian mom-dad-son combo, The Bordens that was played easily thirty times. Another winner is the collection of video game themes arranged and played on by Martin Lueng, the Video Game Pianist–mostly Nintendo 8-bi
t stuff played like they’re ragtime tunes. He has a playing style that lets us segue into some Scott Joplin, Gershwin sometimes even Satie. We’ll mix tracks from King Kong, The Ramones, various mash-ups, stuff from the old Ernie Kovacs show and generally try to keep things fun and varied.

OWTK: What is your favorite track on your children’s record? Why?

MG: I love all the songs but my current favorite is John’s “A Counting Error”…. it was the last one we did and is the freshest in my mind… I think the simplicity of the lyrics, the playful melody, the horn section, and the funny voice all works really really well. It says and does so much with so little.

JU: I really enjoy “Pat, the Alligator Lady”. There’s this degree of lunacy in the instrumentation that matches the imagery really well. The variety of sounds layered in there make carries it along like some cock-eyed calliope.

OWTK: Are there any plans to hit the road behind the Children’s Record?
MG: No, but hopefully we will start on our follow up record… it took so long to finally finish this one that John came up with the idea to name the next one “John And Mark’s Grandchildren’s Record”. I already have a few I’m working up for it.

JU: Considering that just the two of us played all the instruments, I’m not sure how we’d pull it off on stage. We did do sort of a karaoke-style show at a street fair a few years back that went OK if I recall. Still, I think the most likely road for us to hit is the old information superhighway.

OWTK: What does the future hold for you two as an all-ages/children’s music act?

MG: I love making up songs and music and recording them. I hope we can do some more of that together. It’s a fun way to hang out with John, too.

JU: There were a couple other songs that weren’t quite ready to go when the time came to wrap this effort up, so I wouldn’t mind seeing those come to fruition. Right now, I think we’re both enjoying the fact that we can see each other without having this project hanging over us.

OWTK: (As the members assisted in the making of the record) Can we expect a proper Coctails reunion coming on the heels of your debut children’s release?

MG: We are all four still friends and see each other and work/play together in some way or another which is really nice. No more Coctails reunions though I fear. I think we already did too many… but during our post break-up years we got to play with the Pixies, tour Japan, record a Japanese released 10″ record, record a version of “Sixteen Tons” for our label’s 16th birthday as well as being the final band to play on the Lounge Ax stage…. so I have no regrets, but I can’t imagine more.

JU: I have to agree. I enjoyed our time together as an actively touring, writing and recording group–and I enjoyed the various occasions that have brought us out of “retirement”, but I can’t think of anything else that could sufficiently entice us. We’ve had a few irresistible opportunities that Mark mentioned (Pixies, Japan) and some occasions to express our gratitude towards some people who were invaluable in their support back in the day (Lounge Ax, Carrot Top). I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to work together in twos, threes or maybe all four of us, but I can’t see a formal reunion.

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