A Conversation with the Okee Dokee Brothers

When I was a kid, nothing was more important than playing outside. My family lived in northern New Jersey, near the New York border, and the Appalachian Trail angled through was was basically our back yard; I spent some of the happiest moments of my childhood running through the woods with my dog in tow. And though we eventually moved to the more concrete-friendly environs of the Bay Area in California, I still spent countless hours riding my bike, exploring creeks, camping with my Boy Scout troops, and just generally exploring the outdoors.

I wanted my own children to experience those joys, and I’m happy to say they spend a lot of time exploring here in rural New Hampshire — but for a number of reasons, outdoor play isn’t the universal rite of passage it used to be, to the point where we have organizations like Play Outside dedicated to preserving it. If you think that’s as unfortunate as I do, you should be a fan of the Okee Dokee Brothers — and you’ll be excited to hear about their plans to spend a month canoeing down the Mississippi River while writing songs for their next album.



I was certainly excited — and I knew I needed to talk to the Brothers about their plans, their music, and what makes all of it special. Here’s what we discussed.

Let’s start off by talking about how you decided to enter the world of family music.

Justin Lansing: Well, we kind of fell into it. We’d been traveling around the nation as part of a bluegrass band, and it was awesome — it was really fun. But we eventually realized that six people was too many to travel with, and Joe and I wanted to start our own thing — something different.

One thing we’d been successful with, on a whim, was playing for kids in low-income communities — places like homeless shelters, daycares, soup kitchens. We thought if we developed that part of our act, so to speak, it might be something we could do full-time, and so we started writing songs in the absurd crazy styles that are accepted in kids’ music, and we just went for it, you know?

Joe Mailander: Yeah, we were kind of hooligans who would go around playing bluegrass for whoever would listen, and we started a non-profit organization that was funded through donations and grants, and we did a lot of free concerts through that.

That’s amazing. Where did you get the initiative, or even the idea, to do that?

Joe: Well, we…I don’t know. We just went for it, I guess. We were interested in social justice, and it was an opportunity that we wanted to explore, and we’d been involved in the non-profit sector through other things. And once we got into that touring culture, so to speak, we just couldn’t get enough — leading sing-alongs, call-and-response, things like that. And we made the connection from there to kids’ music, where that kind of thing is more accepted. We just kind of found a niche.

What’s your creative outlook when it comes to writing these songs? I think writing a good children’s song is trickier than it looks.

Joe: True statement. It really is. And we’ve written a lot of those — we just don’t put them on our records.

Justin: Definitely. A lot of people think it’s easy — probably because they’ve heard a lot of kids’ songs that sound like they were easy to write. [Laughter] There are a lot of limitations, and that can be a good thing for writing music, or it can be tough to get around. I mean, we can’t write about whatever we want, necessarily. We have to direct our songs toward our audience.

But it’s also a matter of keeping your perspective honest — of embodying a childlike spirit without sounding self-conscious about it.

Joe: Yeah, you have to approach it with a very free spirit, because you want to capture the freedom of childhood, but at the same time, you have to have a very direct focus. You have to channel that energy the right way, or else you aren’t going to communicate a universal thing. I think it really has a lot to do with how you live your life. Even something as simple as what you choose to do that day can have a real impact on whether or not you’re going to stumble across a good song.

Justin: Yeah. I think what we try to do is just take from what we know, and what we remember from our own childhoods. But it’s tough not to write songs that are overly preachy or moral. You know, “wash your hands, brush your teeth,” that kind of stuff.

And also, there’s a difference between trying to tap into that youthful spirit and just writing a song about…I don’t know, getting messy or whatever.

Justin: Right, and at first, I did go in that direction. My first instinct was just to write a song that was kind of stupid and gross, that wouldn’t have any meaning. You know, about picking your nose or boogers or whatever. And you know, I just realized over a long period of time that that isn’t the most meaningful aspect of childhood, and we’ve strayed from that. But not at first — at first, we thought it was genius. [Laughs]

Joe: We’re still exploring the difference between those things. There’s an overlap. But I think our audience deserves more.

Kids’ music in general is fairly reliant on traditional songs, and the same thing is true for bluegrass, so I think it’s interesting that you guys play so much original material.

Justin: Yeah, that’s true — we really wanted our albums to have original songs, although I think traditional songs definitely have their place, especially if you can sort of mold them into your own style. We’ve focused on original material for our entire career, but we’re actually thinking about putting a couple of traditional numbers on the next album, just to kind of hearken back to the roots of our music.

Joe: We do use traditional forms in our music, and those are our roots — that’s the stuff we grew up with. We’ve focused on originals mostly because we just really like to write. We write songs all the time. Songwriting, poetry, whatever — that’s what we do. We’re both writers, so it’s hard not to put originals on an album when we make one. But yeah, with the next one, we do want to incorporate more of the traditional element.

Is this an idea that was influenced by your plans for the river trip?

Justin: It sure was. We were actually just at the Smithsonian Folk Life Archives, and we were checking out some old songs, some old kids’ songs. There’s so much good stuff that has to do with rivers and Mississippi and anything related — even just nature in general. We found a bunch of songs, and we may use them on the next record, we may just play them live, or we may not use them at all, but they definitely helped us achieve a deeper understanding of folk music.

How did you come up with the idea to take this trip? I’m jealous. I wish I was doing it.

Joe: Hopefully, it’s the first of many adventure-type albums.

Justin: We took a drive one day. We had a few days off, and we just thought we should go somewhere — we couldn’t get anyone we knew to come with us, so we just got in the car and started driving without really knowing where we were going.

There’s this road called the Great River Road that goes quite a ways — we took it from Minneapolis down into, I think, Davenport, Iowa. We just drove along it, checking in on little towns and finding little cool stuff along the river. And as we were driving, we realized how special it is, and we hit upon this big idea that we basically talked about the whole way there and the whole way back — of touring the river, writing our songs, and making that the basis for our next album.

Not many musicians have the opportunity to really research their music like this — the way an actor would prepare for a role, you know? We really want to be a part of these songs. Their histories, the nature itself — just being in it is huge, instead of just writing about the river in, I don’t know, a basement.

Joe: The river is pretty symbolic, too, you know? I think it represents going with the flow on your adventure, and that’s where we are right now.

I think one of the key components of your music is a love of adventure, specifically outdoor adventure, and I was really excited to see that reflected in your plans for this trip.

Justin: Yeah, that’s always been a big part of who we are. When we were kids and Joe would come over, we’d run outside. We had this river nearby — well, you probably couldn’t really call it a river, but it seemed like one to us. We’d hang out and fish for crawdads, things like that. Those things are important, and that’s part of what’s always felt so good about our friendship — and now it influences our music. Hopefully, it pushes kids to go outside, too.

Joe: We were never big TV kids or big video game kids. Even now, when our friends are playing video games, we try and play, and we’re horrible. We don’t even know which buttons to push. I don’t really know why, but we were always in the back yard. So it makes sense for us — when we think of childhood, that’s the kind of thing we think of.

That’s the most beautiful thing about your music — that it’s being made by two lifelong friends.

Justin: Yeah. For sure, man. Thank you. It can also be hard sometimes — we don’t always get along. But there’s a lesson there, too. It’s a rare friendship, but I think hopefully people can hear something of their friendships in our music, too.

The thing that I really appreciate is that very often, you can tell that people don’t have the purest motivations for making family music, but these songs are the outgrowth of a friendship. What’s more important when you’re a kid than your friends and the adventures that you have?

Joe: You got it, man. That’s a really important element of adulthood, too. Thank you. I hope that’s conveyed.

Justin: Yeah, exactly. It isn’t about, you know, wanting to grow up to be a rock star. And yeah, you do hear that a lot. It’s a business, and I understand that, but there’s also a deeper calling, and we’re incredibly lucky to have found something that fits. We’ve done other stuff. [Laughs] But it feels like we’ve hit it, finally, and I’m proud to say that.

You should be, because I don’t think there are more than…what, ten or a dozen family artists who can support themselves by touring and recording.

Justin: Well, we’re poor. [Laughs] We live cheaply. But that’s all we need right now.

Can you talk about that? How much of what you do is art, and how much is just hustling on the business end?

Justin: We put a lot of time into the business aspect of things. It makes us look professional, hopefully, and we’re always struggling on that front, because the most important part of our job is our craft, and it can be hard to remember to devote time to that growth. But there are so many emails to get back to all the time.

I would say we spend probably 75 percent of our time on the hustle part, and it’s important, and we realize that. But our health is also key — you know, creative health, the health of our relationships with other people.

Joe: Yeah, we set aside two days out of the week for that kind of enrichment, which can mean a lot of different things. It can mean going to the park and reading, or researching something, or anything along those lines. Because it’s really easy to let the emails overwhelm you — Flickr, Twitter, all that kind of stuff. If you feed that machine, it just gets bigger and bigger until it takes over. We had to draw a line, because we know the most important part of our business is the art we create. It does take a conscious effort to remember that.

In the music industry as a whole, we’ve seen a really steep erosion of the infrastructure that supports artists, but a lot of musicians still hold on to that romantic notion that you’re going to make an album, someone’s going to hand you a check, and your problems are solved. The business end, and the idea that you’ve really got to achieve your own success on your own terms, is something a lot of creative people have never learned the discipline for. How did you do it?

Justin: I think part of it is that we push each other, and we always have. From the time we started playing guitar, we’d do it. I’d see that Joe learned the F chord, and I knew I needed to learn it. Or I’d hear some great song he’d written, and I’d work that much harder to write more of my own. In a way, it’s just brotherly competition, and that grew into the business, where we’ve also always pushed each other to work long hours. To spend eight hours a day on office stuff, and then go home and write a song, too. It’s always worked for us because we hold each other accountable, and there’s a respect there, too, which is really important.

We also saw other artists doing it. You know, we saw Justin Roberts being called the hardest-working man in kindie, and we thought, “Well, we can do that. All we have to do is work hard.” We were raised with that mentality.

Joe: Yeah, it’s hard to take credit for our success in that area, because in the beginning, Justin and I spent a lot of time meeting with dozens of kids’ musicians — over coffee, over the phone, email, whatever — and asking lots of little questions. Specific questions. Instead of “how do you do it?” or “how does it work?,” which are really hard to answer, we asked about things like royalties, promotion, PR aspects, and those puzzle pieces came together to form a guide.

I also really enjoy the work. I think it’s admirable work. It’s for kids, it’s for education, it’s for families. If we were promoting something I didn’t necessarily buy into, I think it would be a lot harder, but I’m very passionate about what I think kids’ music does for families, so it makes it easy to wake up in the morning and do it.

So you’re going to take canoes down the river. You have a field guide, right?

Justin: Yeah, he’s a good friend and an amazing outdoorsman. He knows everything about Minnesota wildlife, and he’s doing a lot of research right now on the Mississipi River. We also have a documentarian coming along, who is really creative and an incredible photographer — he’s taken pretty much all of the photos on our website. The main thing is that these guys are our friends, and they’re awesome people. They have a really childlike spirit — they’re guys that I would have loved to have been friends with as a five-year-old, so that’s exciting. I’m really pumped.

And you’re going to be doing some field recording too, right?

Justin: We are. We’re going to bring a little microphone on the river — that’s kind of important to us, to get the river sounds, the wind. I think that’ll come across on the record, if we put a couple of those songs on there.

Do it all there! You’d end up with the greatest live album of all time!

Justin: Yeah, us playing for the frogs and fish! [Laughs]

How many miles do you think you’re going to cover?

Justin: That’s a good question. What is the mileage? I don’t know. From Minneapolis to St. Louis, depending on how far we get, I think it might be 1,000 miles.

Will you be doing any riverside concerts?

Justin: We’ve definitely thought about it, but we feel like we…won’t have showered for a long time. [Laughter] We like to be prepared for our shows, and being dirty and grimy might not be the best thing. We’ll save that for later in the summer.

And will you be blogging or tweeting from the river?

Justin: Yes. Well, I’m not sure about tweeting, but we’ll be posting to the blog on our site. And one really cool thing that just came up in the last couple of days is that maybe a few times a week, we’ll be checking in with Mindy Thomas, who hosts the Absolutely Mindy show on Sirius XM. We’ll call in from the river, if our cell phones get reception, and play brand new songs. That’ll be an extra little thing for people who want to keep track of us.

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