Category Archives: Interviews

A conversation with Jiro Yamaguchi of OzoKidz

After 15 years of enjoying a devoted following, Ozomatli knew it was time for a change when they couldn’t give away tickets to some of their fans. But they could to their kids.

On September 25th, the Grammy-winning band will release its first full length kids album, OzoKidz. This follows a few years of dabbling in side projects such as recording for PBS Kids and the Happy Feet II soundtrack.

I spoke with Ozomatli percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi about his kids musical inspiration, the similarities between playing for kids and adults, and why it’s necessary for them to diversify their sound.

Why a kids album? Why now?

We decided to start doing kids shows at first because we realized that a lot of our fans were having kids. We would do a show on a Wednesday night, and normally in the past we could pack a house. Four years ago and were noticing that people weren’t coming. We put a message out there on Facebook to have an unlimited guest list, and we got responses that we’d get was “We can’t, we have kids.” So a light bulb went off, we were getting older and our fans were too. They were having kids and needed sitters. We just started adapting our old music for children. That’s kind of how it started. And then coincidentally we got these recording gigs for PBS Kids were they wanted us to do 30 second bumper music with a theme — one was on opposable thumbs, one were for mesasurement. Several of those. They made videos with them. And then we had the opportunity to do the entire music for the Happy Feet II video game. They approached us and gave us a list of 30 different songs, everything from “Funkytown” to Harry Belafonte. We went into the studio and did it and it was great. It kind of developed our chops for recording kids music. It was really freeing and it was a lot of fun. So the next steop was to make our own record.

Before you dove head first into Ozokids, did you realize there was sort of a independent cool kids music scene?

I have a duaghter who is 4 now, so I’ve been aware of it, but even before that I had heard of people like Dan Zanes and They Might Be Giants. I became more aware of it once I had my own daughter. I think we’re going to fit right in with that team and offer something a little bit different as well.

Who are some of the artists you looked towards for inspiration?

They Might Be Giants stuff was really inspiring to me. I could listen to it myself and enjoy it as well as my daughter, and that kind of helped me. There was other kids music, and I would say, really, do we have to listen to this? It was not relatable to me. I was like, Oh we need to make music that transcends age — from something really young to adults can listen to. I think our music does anyway. Even if we’re not doing kids music per say, I think it’s broad appeal.

What was the music/band/artist that inspired you to pick up an instrument as a child? Is that your hope with this record, inspiring children to pick up instruments?

I listened to a lot of different stuff from classic rock to punk to jazz. Some of the jazz I listened to as a teenager was mind opening and broadening. It’s kind of like an education without going to school. Later percusionist Zakir Hussain and Prithiraj Chowdhury inspired me to go back to school and study Indian drumming and world music drumming and percussion. I don’t know if our intention was necessarily to get kids to pick up an instrument, but if that’s something that inspires someone picks up, that a great bonus. There are some kids who always come to our Los Angeles shows with Brazilian hand percussion, using the same model that we use and have an Ozo logo on it. It’s kind of cool to see children pick up those things. They are looking at us and saying, let me try that. If that can lead something — music or not — that’s great.

Is there a formula or process to take your sound and make it for kids?

We have a little more freedom when making for kids. There’s a certain amount of freedom to do songs we wouldn’t with Ozomatli. It’s more of a fun element.

Was the song writing process the same, but just with lyrics for kids?

The process is pretty similar. Everyone brings in their own subject matter and ideas. It’s a pretty easy process in terms of what we want to do. That’s a really great place to be when you’re creating in the studio.

You’re back in the studio recording an adult record. Has it been difficult to change the writing process?

Not at all! We’re in pre-production for an Ozomatli record, and I think it actually helps the creative process because our juices are flowing. When you get back in the studio, it’s not hard to switch gears at all, and if anything it helps to keep grease the wheels.

Do you play songs for your kids first to get approval?

We don’t do it to get approval, and most of the songs we haven’t played live yet. A few of the cuts on the album — like “Sun And Moon” and “Piraña” — we were playing before we were recording. I think we work backwards that way. We make them first, then see what works live. The ones that don’t work as much live fall back, and the ones that do rise to the top. This goes for our Ozomatli records too.

Was there a thought of expanding the 4 60-second songs from PBS kids into full songs?

Those were kind of appetizers and one-offs, but we have played some of them live. We could work them into our live set.

Do you find those songs get more recognition?

It’s hard to tell because we’re such a high-energy band and we just want kids to do something on each song to get moving, so I’m not sure if there is a recognition factor.

Little bit different than an adult crowd, then.

Totally different. Well, but now that I say that, maybe it’s different in that the attention spans are a little bit shorter, but what I did notice is, you know what, this is just little people. But they react in the same way that adults do. Underneath it all it’s all the same thing.

Seem to wrote songs from an educational perspective rather then from the eyes of a child, was that done on purpose?

I think that partly came from the PBS kind of thinking. I think that came fromthe process of writing a song on a theme. We just wanted a balance, we wanted songs that are.

The record industry so much different and less stable than it was when you started, was that a motivating factor in this new evolution? 

I think it’s kind of necessary. The more diverse in what we can do, the better it is for our band. Having a whole branch of Ozo kids being a completely seperate entity would be a great thing for us. The more things that we have as a band, the better. Whether that’s making music for movies, commercials, movies, while playing kids shows, all those things combined are good for us and the longevity of our band in the way the music business is right now. We’ve been a band for 18 years, and I think part of that is the reason to adapt and not rely on the industry. When we first started, we recorded on tape and pro-tools were just coming out, there wasn’t anything like a 360 deal, Tower Records was still in business, and we’ve seen a lot of changes. Our ability to diversify and do other things has helped us survive, and we’ll keep doing that.

Listen and download the track ‘Trees’ for free! (only until 9/3)

You can now preorder the album at Itunes or Amazon.

A Conversation with Dean Jones of Dog on Fleas

The music of Dean Jones and Dog on Fleas has been a constant presence at Dadnabbit HQ ever since my daughter (who’s currently a proud six and a half) was very small. As you’re no doubt aware if you’ve read the site for any length of time, I’m a big fan — not only of Dean and the Fleas’ songs, but their warm, quirky production aesthetic, a style that lets the music breathe while making room for all kinds of unexpected stuff.

Dog on Fleas’ new LP, Invisible Friends, includes everything I’ve come to expect from Dean and the band — exotic instruments, lyrics that are laugh-out-loud funny one moment and heartbreakingly tender the next, instantly hummable hooks, rock-solid arrangements with deceptive depth — while demonstrating that they’re still growing as songwriters and recording artists. Basically what I’m saying is that Invisible Friends is their best record yet, but don’t take my word for it; enjoy some of the videos embedded in our chat below.

Between your solo career and all the music you help create for other artists, I feel like you’re probably writing constantly. What’s the writing process like for Dog on Fleas? Is it more democratic, or is everyone off starting songs on their own before they bring them to the group?

I guess it’s mostly me writing stuff. I’m trying to get [bassist/guitarist/singer] John Hughes to write more. [Laughs] He’ll bring in something great and then say it isn’t quite done. We work on stuff a lot.

What about you as a writer? Are you the type of guy who punches in every morning, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?

Here’s my philosophy: I’m kind of all or nothing. The window is either open or closed. For instance, when Invisible Friends was done, I had no time to write, because I was working on everything else — so to get that window open again, it takes a little bit of work. And then once it’s open again, I’m writing three or four songs a day. I actually carry a little recorder around with me at all times, just in case I stumble over a little idea, and then I don’t listen to it for months.

I feel like this kind of thing is probably common for a lot of artists. You have to write a lot of crappy songs to write a good one, you know? I’ll write songs I don’t even think are really all that good, just to exercise my songwriting muscle.

I’m always curious about the answer to that question, because I’ve known artists who don’t write unless they’re working on an album, and I’ve known others who treat songwriting like a day-to-day job.

Yeah, I hear artists like…you know, John Hiatt. I hear him on the radio, and I’m like, man, that guy gets up at 9 o’clock, he has a cup of tea, and he has a song written by 10. Cut it out, man — I’m so sick of him. And there are a lot of people like that, who seem like they just write a song at a certain time of day, and it doesn’t seem like anything to me. Just pumping it out — Hiatt can write a song in 10 minutes. You can tell they were written during “songwriting time.” I feel like my best songs come when I’m in the car or on a bicycle, and I have to pull over to grab them.

I feel like a lot of the best creativity happens almost by accident, and usually while your brain is occupied doing something else.

Right. Yeah, for me, it’s the bike. It’ll hit me in a field or something. I’m serious — I just drove to a gig the other day, and I wrote four songs on the way to the gig. One came and I was like, “Hey, that’s amazing! I just wrote a song!” Ten minutes later, another one popped up. I don’t know how they are yet, but… [Laughs]

You’re probably at an advantage in the kindiesphere, because a lot of artists have to take day jobs that don’t have anything to do with music…


Whereas running No Parking Studio allows you to marinate in other artists’ music a lot. I feel like that has to have a profound effect on your creative process.

I love it. Even if I’m working with a song I don’t love, I’m going to be able to bring my creativity to it. If the artist gives me a little bit of leeway with it, I’ll take it. And in the kindie world, there are a lot of people seeking me out as a producer, which is really cool. I actually have to worry about whether the Dog on Fleas record is going to cut into the Okee Dokee Brothers album, you know?

How do you think your production career has impacted Dog on Fleas as a band? I’m sure it’s had an effect on scheduling, but I’m also interested in hearing how working with other musicians has helped color you as an artist.

I don’t know. I’ve been doing other records for people for awhile. Invisible Friends definitely would have been finished sooner if I hadn’t been working on other people’s records, but I think we’re probably the same. I’ll tell you, the Okee Dokee Brothers were really interested in pre-production, and I appreciate that, although I’m not sure we’ve really gotten into it with the Fleas. I mean, it’s my studio, so we can just spend the night and record a song, and if it doesn’t work, we can throw it out and start again.

I really love the job you did on that Okee Dokees record. The production is pretty involved, but you won’t notice unless you’re really paying attention. It breathes.

I don’t owe the musicians anything. It’s the song, you know? I remember reading something about how Tom Waits talks to his songs. He’ll be sitting in the corner, asking them what they want him to do. I love that — you can go in so many directions, and that was the case with the Okee Dokee Brothers. They’d hear something and say it was cool, but they knew there was something else that was still waiting to be done.

What’s the tracking process like for Dog on Fleas? Your sound is very live, but I know plenty of overdubs are involved.

We have our routine. We’re always in the room together. There are overdubs and stuff, but if I’m playing guitar, it’s guitar-bass-drums, and we’re all in a room. Maybe the amplifier is upstairs, so there isn’t any bleed. On the new record, the vocals were redone for most songs, but there are a few that were live. We’re definitely always playing three instruments live and overdubbing the rest.

So start to finish, how long did it take to record Invisible Friends?

That’s a tough question. It was actually a different album at one point — like three years ago. The songs wanted to live together, you know? It took on a different quality at some point and shifted the songs in a new direction.

It takes a certain amount of bravery to listen to that — to lose those other songs along the way.

It’s hard to throw out a song. I’m arguing with the guys in the band, and arguing with myself — but ultimately, every song on this record is talking about a little world. Little people. Even the ones that don’t really relate can still live in the same little room.

A lot of family entertainers struggle to strike a balance between “kid-friendly” and “stupid.” You guys manage to consistently stay on the right side of that line.

Wait until you hear the next one! [Laughter]

Let me put it a different way — you guys don’t write songs about learning the alphabet or washing your hands.

No, I know. And I know people are trying — or they come up with a song title, and that becomes an idea. If you ever think something is a good idea for a song, it should not be written. [Laughs] I’ve probably ignored that advice. But people come up to me all the time and say, “I had this idea for a song,” and I tell them, “It won’t be any good.”

So then how do you come up with a song like, for instance, “Fortunate Mistake”?

Actually, I had a band a long time ago called the Falling Wallendas. We had a song called “Fortunate Mistake” with this whole mythology — we were really into performance art, with a tap dancer and this little old lady who made our clothes. I don’t remember how that song went, but I’ve always really liked the idea of fortunate mistakes. I’ve written like 10 songs with the same title, I just like it so much.

I love the message behind that song, but what I love even more is that it isn’t overt. I think a lot of your songs trust people to hear what they need to hear, instead of beating them over the head with a message. That’s a pitfall that a lot of kindie artists find it hard to avoid.

Yeah, right. I love someone like Robyn Hitchcock — maybe he’s saying nothing, but I always feel like there’s some thing. I understand. I might not be able to put it into words, but that’s what I prefer — that feeling where you feel like you understand the song, even if you can’t put it into words.

If it works, it works. I was just thinking about this, and I think I have a typical type of song that I write, but I think there’s only maybe one of them on Invisible Friends.

What do you think makes a typical song for you?

Oh, I don’t know. It’s like Fred Eaglesmith — he grew up in the town next to me in Canada. He’s great, but he can write the same song over and over again, he’s so freakin’ smart and he’s such a great word guy. Anyway, I remember this story about him losing a book of songs at the airport or something, and his manager was freaking out, and he just shrugged — “I’ll just write more songs.” [Laughs] I can’t think of what my typical song is, but I’ll start to write one and feel like it’s something I’ve done before. A few words, a little melody, eh. There has to be something that sparks something in someone other than me.

I like that your songs demonstrate a willingness to be strange, or even a little dark.

I like that. And I think kids like it too — they’re into that, and they always have been. I can recall hearing the Beatles — they had stuff that left me wondering, as well as some fairly grotesque lyrics. It was appealing. I won’t go into the problems of the kindie world, but…get a little weird, man, you know? Kids can take it.

How did you develop your fondness for such an eclectic array of instruments? The credits on the booklets for the albums you’re involved in are always pretty entertaining. Did I hear a baritone guitar solo on “Smelt,” off Invisible Friends?

No, that’s just a regular guitar — it’s just the E string. That’s my style. One string is enough for me. [Laughs] I’ve always just been fascinated by instruments, and I’ve played in a lot of improvisational settings. Up this way, there was a school — the Creative Music Foundation is near here, which was founded by a guy named Karl Berger. Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, all these guys were up here. There was a whole school up here in the ’70s, and people were coming up to really explore world music. You think about all the “out” jazz guys, and they were probably up here, along with musicians from all over the world. That bleeds into the Fleas.

I wonder if that makes it harder to create arrangements — the presence of so many other colors on your musical palette.

No, because they just call out if they’re needed. I feel like I don’t — I’m conscious of not reaching for that stuff too much. But I can go there. [Laughs] Daniel Littleton was just over here, and we were talking about this homemade instrument that I asked a guy to build, which is a West African two-string fiddle. Daniel and I get along like that — talking about something that sounds like, you know, an ngoni. I don’t know how many people do that.

And you’re already working on your next solo release, right?

Yeah, actually, we had another Dog on Fleas CD planned — we were going to do a Tin Pan Alley record, and we had the songs picked out and everything. That’s a fascination of all of ours. We’ve played some of the tracks live. But I think we’re going to write our own, because you have to pay for them unless they’re in the public domain, and that’s just more paperwork for me. I think we’ll cover a couple of public domain songs and write a bunch of our own.

But yeah, we were all set to go and then I pulled the plug because of all that, and started writing more — and now there’s going to be a solo record and a Dog on Fleas record. The solo record is going t0 be — the first song is called “Absurd.” I think that’ll be the album title. And it’s interesting, because one day after I decided to hold off on the Fleas, I went out in the back yard with an acoustic guitar and wrote a song and I thought, “This is what the solo album is going to be like.” And then I wrote another one, totally opposite. The new one is synthesizers and drum machines. So much for the folk thing. [Laughs]

A Conversation with Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

The undisputed King of Kid-Hop is back with arguably his strongest album to date: Make Believers is a genre-bending retro radio party.

I talked to Mr. Skidoo while getting his hair cut prior to a CD release show in Ashville, NC this past Sunday. We chatted about going the Kickstarter route, swearing, why teenagers scare him, and pondered one of life’s most interesting questions: “Is it still called skinny dipping if you’re fat?”

Can Make Believers make believers out of the non-believers?

I think so. I think I’ve finally reached the perfect formula — there is a balance between hip-hop and other genres that I deal with on this record. R&B, funk, swing, punk rock, salsa and dancehall, instead of just hip hop beats played with a sample on top. I’ve found a way to incorporate the actual rhythms, the post-production feel and all that into each song so it’s a hybrid — and musically, it’s more sophisticated and unique than what I’ve done. Lyrically, I’m kind of pulling like a Harry Potter-type behavior with this, and I’m kind of letting my albums grow up right along with my daughter. The ones I have to work hardest turning into believers are the people who even wonder why kids’ music exists in the first place. I think this album is both sophisticated and specific enough for families that it justifies itself instantly.

I sense a very retro vibe on the album. Not just an old school hip-hop vibe, but a ’50-’60s vibe. The chorus on “Hi-5 for the Hi-Dive” would sound perfect on Dr. Demento’s radio show.

Totally. The only complaint I’ve heard about the record is that it is too old school. And honestly, I took it as a compliment.

You write a lot of the lyrics with your daughter in mind. What will happen when she gets too old for the kids’ stuff?

Good God, I have no idea. (Laughs) Teenagers scare the hell out of me. I have thought a lot about it, and I know I can’t make a plan for it until it happens. What I will say about her is this: Luckily, she’s both pretty grown up in the sense that she can go on tour with us and she’s really sophisticated about things, reads at a high level.  But she’s not in too much of a hurry to grow up and become a teenager. She’s 10 now and a lot of her friends are trying hard to be a teenager, but she’s not really like that. I’ll play it as it comes. She still has innocence to her and a novel way of looking at things. It’s that innocence and novelty that’s part of being a kid. She just may keep that and keep inspiring in that sense. I think some of the songs are specifically about being a kid — “Hi-5 for the Hi-Dive” being one, or maybe “Back Home.” I think I’m surrounded by enough kids to keep me inspired. I’ve thought about making music for teenagers, but I think the last thing teenagers want to do is listen to “music for teenagers.”

Well, you do bill Monkeywrench on your website as “For teens & grown ups!

Actually Monkeywrench will get a proper release and push this year. I wanted to wait and make sure we did it correctly. We made a really high quality video for “The Zombie Song,” but it’s gruesome and includes eating guts, so it’s probably not best to be sharing that with the kids.

Do you help your daugher, AKA MC Fireworks, with her lyrics at all?

It depends on the song. We pretty much decided that for most of the Skidoo material, its ghostwritten by me. As she put it, it’s a character that listeners are used to and it would be best to keep it that way.  But you know, Bill Childs has the Science Fair record coming out later this summer and she has her first solo song on it. She did the hook, she did the lyrics, and she did the melody since she’s taking piano lessons.  I may have helped out, but it was 90 percent her. She has a collaborative recital in a couple days and maybe one day we’ll work together on an album. So I ghostwrite most of the lyrics, but most of the time it starts with an idea from her. For example, “Space Cadet” started after I picked her up from school one day and she asked, “Is it still called skinny dipping if you’re fat?” and I was like, “Aaaah, that’s a song!”

The first two Secret Agent 23 Skidoo albums were released through a record label. Talk about doing an album supported via a Kickstarter campaign.

The Kickstarter campaign was really great for many reasons. For one, I didn’t really have to worry about the budget during the recording process. Having that extra money allowed for time that would allow me to maybe experiment with an idea that I was working on. I think they really helped with the sounds on the new record being what it is. As an artist, it’s great to know that people are anxious and waiting for new material from you. As I was writing the record I had already gotten the Kickstarter money, so it was nice making a record for an audience I knew was already there.

I count 39 guest musicians on the CD liner notes . Isn’t that a bit excessive?

Early on, I started working with bands and I found that working with a band, you make better music and it helps you stand apart from everybody else. I don’t think of myself as just a family musician, but as a musician. I’m trying to push the envelope and expand the market, not just for family music, but the hip-hop market. I know not a great deal of the hip-hop market pay attention to me, but people hit me up with kids who have heard my stuff and people who don’t have kids are hitting me up, because they understand what I’m trying to accomplish. It’s not as if I think the bar is lower is because it’s family music. The short answer is, I do it because I think it is what sounds the best and that’s what can make the song in my head come to life. It helps there are a ton of great musicians here in Asheville.

What makes Asheville so special?

Asheville is a real bohemian type of city. It’s cheap enough to live here and people can try and live out their dreams. A lot of friends have left for NYC, but the cost of living there has prevented them from doing it. Down here It’s  the South, but it’s probably too expensive for the rural South, it’s cheap enough people can have a house or an apartment and still have time to pursue their career as an artist. The quality of culture you get here is still top notch. It’s not as diverse as I would like to see it, but beyond that the restaurants are phenomenal, the music is phenomenal, the bars are phenomenal.

The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown is  a project that you’re featured on with Gift of Gab. How did that come about?

I’ve had some contact with P-Funk from my days with my first band, GFE — Granola Funk Express. We played together for about 10 years. In those times, our road manager had been the road manager for P-Funk back in the day. That’s how I was able to get some of P-Funk to play on Monkeywrench. But for this project the connection wasn’t from that contact, but from Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band who have played a ton on my records. They have a lot of contact with P-Funk, and they’re kind of carrying the torch in a sense — it’s a big crazy funk band live show that talks wild space stuff. So they called me and asked if I wanted to be a part of this project and a remix of a P-funk song.  I did three verses on it and made the beat. Then they called me back and said, “Do you mind if we replace your second verse with Gift of Gab?” and I was like, “Hell no I don’t mind! But in return, I need his contact number.” And that’s how Gift of Gab ended up on Underground Playground and the Monkeywrench album. That was a fun project to do. I have a lot of respect for P-Funk and a lot of respect for Gift of Gab. Being on a song with both of them is amazing.

I had never heard you drop a swear word before, but you drop ‘shit’ on the The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown. Was it hard to turn the adult switch back on again?

You know, I’m not sure how many fans in the kids’ music scene this answer is going to get me: I don’t believe a lot of words that are considered bad words are actually bad words. I believe racial slurs are bad. I believe the word “hate” is bad. I believe it’s the energy behind the word you’re saying that means something. For example, if I were to say Bob Marley was positive as shit, I don’t see how that can been seen as a bad thing. If I tell you, “I hate Jews” — that is a horrible thing. The reason I don’t swear on the kids’ albums is because I’m respecting parents who feel that same way about their children. And obviously, I wouldn’t sell many records. In my personal life, I don’t have a problem with a lot of those words. I’d prefer to use some expletives sometimes. It’d be more fun.

On the first Skidoo record you wrote “Gotta Be Me” and on Make Believers you wrote “Gotta Be You.” So which one is it, me or you?

(Laughs) I gotta say, at some point when I was on stage explaining to the audience exactly what they had say during “you gotta be me,” the irony quickly came apparent. “Gotta Be You” is the shortened version of the hook “your best friend has gotta be you.” Whereas “Gotta Be Me” is about individuality, “Gotta Be You” is about being your own best friend. They’re both rooted in the social interaction kids have, but watching my kid grow up, I could see a little deeper into what actually happens. Yes, you have to be yourself, but you have to believe in yourself in order to make that work. You have to be your first believer. You have to respect yourself first.

Outside of more money for artists, what would you like to see from the family music industry?

I would like to see the media treat it as the phenomenon that it is — not just New York and a few scattered cities across the country. This is something legitimate you can take your families to. Just like when you were in your 20s going to shows, seeing bands on the cutting edge, now you can do the same thing with your families. There is no reason artists like myself shouldn’t be able to book a week’s worth of shows. There is no reason parents can’t take their kids to a family concert at 5 PM on a Tuesday, the same way they take their kid to a movie. I’d like to see the touring circuit expand. I’d like to see the national consciousness of it expand, so people know it’s a much more fun, unique and rewarding experience that you can take your kid to compared to a movie.