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A Conversation with Lloyd Miller of the Deedle Deedle Dees

The Deedle Deedle Dees

Even by the relaxed standards of kindie rock, the Deedle Deedle Dees are wild, woolly, and wonderfully eclectic, a hard-rocking crew of roots musicians who just so happen to record music that makes sense for a family audience. Once I saw them leading a crowd through a rousing singalong of “Tub-Tub-Ma-Ma-Ga-Ga,” I was hooked forever. Here, listen:

Needless to say, I’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for the Dees’ new release, Strange Dees, Indeed, and it does not disappoint — it’s a rollicking blend of history and hooks unlike anything you’ll hear anywhere else. Truly, these are strange Dees…but strange isn’t bad. In fact, in this case, it’s so, so good.

I’ve been idly talking to Lloyd Miller of the Dees about doing an interview for months now, and we finally got around to setting aside 15 minutes for a chat about the new record last week. Here’s what was said:

Aside from the fact that the new album was produced by the mighty Dean Jones, what made Strange Dees, Indeed different from your last record?

I think this record sounds more like we do as a real band. At night, we do shows that aren’t for kids — we do klezmer, and swing, and R&B, jazz, all sorts of stuff. We get pretty raucous. I talked to Bill Childs before we started recording this album, and one of the things he said was “I think the last two records were good, but they don’t really capture your live feel.”

So that’s what we were going for, and I think we got it for the most part. Not only the live sound, but the wide range of sounds we have. Songs like “The Golem” and “Mayor LaGuardia’s Stomach” — we’ve been wanting to get at those sounds for awhile now. There are a lot of different flavors in there that weren’t in the past.

I’ve heard from a number of artists that they feel a greater freedom to be eclectic for the family music audience, but you guys take that to a completely different level.

Yeah, we get bored really quickly. And Dean was good for that approach, too, because we built a lot of these songs in pieces, and he came up with a lot of new sounds. It opened up all these different options besides your standard bass, guitar, drums, and keyboards.

Well, it isn’t just musically. You cover a lot of lyrical ground that’s off the beaten path, too.

Yeah. I mean…the songs on this album have been the result of a lot of different projects we’ve been involved in over the past two years. School writing projects as well as this series of monthly variety shows we’ve hosted. Each of those shows had a different theme, so I’d write songs for them — topics like, you know, bike safety and folklore. Not everything was written that way, but these are sort of a mashup of the best of everything we’ve come up with lately.

That’s a great way of writing for an album.

I was nervous before we started, because I didn’t know what kind of kids’ record it would be. There isn’t really a big singalong number like “Nellie Bly.” I mean, kids like these songs, and they listen to them, but they don’t fit into that same sort of mold. Finally, I just accepted that these are the songs we’d written, and the songs we like. The band was really more excited about recording these songs than we’ve ever been going into an album.

My landlord is Roy Nathanson of the Jazz Passengers, and he was one of the first people I played it for. Within the first five seconds of “Phineas Gage,” he said, “This is already better than your last record. No one’s gonna buy it, but this is art. You know, Lloyd, this is not a kids’ record.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know.” And he said, “No, but that’s good!

I want to circle back around a couple of things you’re talking about here. First, I think Bill had some sage advice for you, because the Dees have a live energy unlike anyone else on the kindie scene. It’s almost aggressive in a way.

That comes from a lot of places, including the people we play for. Last year, we played at the Many Hands release concert, and there were a lot of other artists there — you know, people like Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell. It was more of a folky vibe. We went up there and we were screaming in everyone’s face, and I realized we might need to pull it back a bit. [Laughs] We also play for a lot of crowds in New York where we’re seeing kids who are part of violence prevention programs, and they’re looking at us with our ties and wondering what we think we’re doing.

So we’re always having to prove ourselves in a way, and I’m always trying to figure out what to bring to a certain show. When we’re in a New York public school, the energy definitely has to be very high and very aggressive, just so they know we’re a real band.

There’s a bravery there, as well as in the subject matter you cover. I’ve often wondered how much blowback you get from parents who might not be comfortable with the topics you cover or the energy the band puts out.

I dressed up for Halloween this year, and people were surprised, because I don’t normally do it. I explained that it’s from my earliest days of performing for kids, when the slightest difference in my appearance could freak them out, because they expected me to always be a certain way. You know, even a hat could upset a child — “It’s okay, honey, that’s still Lloyd.” We did our first Halloween show with facepaint and costumes, and maybe it was a little scary or edgy for the kids.

But since then, no one has said anything along those lines. I definitely have…because so much of the work I do is singalongs with little kids, I definitely feel like no matter what kind of writeups the Dees ever get, people still like me as the guy who does the singalongs. There are certainly people who like the Deedle Deedle Dees, especially teachers and librarians — that market really goes for us. But in terms of the sort of high-end kindie parent market, parents come to our shows, and I can tell they wish I was sitting on the floor. I really have yet to find the commercial outlet for what we do. If I was smart, what I would do all the time would be birthday parties and singalongs.

I think that’s a struggle for a lot of kids’ artists. How do you balance the market against what you really want to do?

Definitely, but that struggle doesn’t come across in the Dees’ music. I started thinking about this question while I was listening to Strange Dees with my kids, and after “The Golem” came on, I had to spend a few minutes explaining Jewish history to them. It’s one thing to be educational, but these songs are conversation starters, and I get the feeling that that makes some parents uncomfortable — particularly now, when so much children’s entertainment is soft and round and perfectly bite-sized.

I personally have always liked stuff that invites me to do more research. As a young music fan, I was always the kid who’d get into Led Zeppelin, which sent me back to Willie Dixon, and so on. To the point where I was like, “Oh, you listen to Zeppelin? That’s lame. Listen to this.” It’s the same with songwriting. I never want it to come across like “Let me tell you the whole history of this.” People tell me that would be good because it would help kids with tests, and that’s a valid thing, but it isn’t really where my talent lies.

I want to get kids excited about history and other academic areas, and if they want to take it further, we have suggestions for books they can read. But I don’t want to be that guy who stands up there and lists things off. People are always telling me I should write a song about, you know, the state capitals. Maybe I will.

It’s much more interesting, I think, to be dropped into the middle of the story and be invited to figure out the rest on your own. But that’s decidedly not the norm. People seem to expect things that are more easily digestible in bite-sized chunks, and this doesn’t really fit that mold.

And that’s been my struggle ever since the band began. I’ve always thought we were doing really good work, and been frustrated by the fact that it seems like people would rather hear traditional children’s songs, or songs about more traditional children’s subjects.

How much thought, if any, have you given to what might come next for the band?

There are a couple of things I’m batting around. One is sort of a personal history project — you know, on this record, we have “Mayor LaGuardia’s Stomach,” where our guitarist Ari listens to his grandmother tell her story. I’ve thought about doing a record that’s all that kind of thing. Maybe people who are more well-known, like Abigail Adams, but songs based on those personal stories. Collecting them in that way.

You’d be the Studs Terkels of kindie!

Right, right. One of our fans is one of the founders of StoryCorps, and I’ve talked to him about legal stuff — how you clear those rights to people’s stories. We’ve also talked about doing an Old Testament record, which might sound crazy. But Chris, our multi-instrumentalist and my main partner in the band, is a church choir director. That’s his day job, and he’s always bemoaning the fact that all the music that’s published for children and free for use is pretty bad, so he’s always using older public domain stuff, and he’s forever after me to write some songs in that vein.

I think the Old Testament stories fit pretty well in the vein of the Dees. We can approach them as tales. We also did a few traditional songs for Scholastic a few years ago, and they didn’t put their legal team on it until after the recordings were finished, and they figured out there were some unplanned publishing fees and they shelved our stuff. They’re there, and this would build on that. I don’t know if we’ll do either of those things, but they’re the two ideas that appeal to me the most right now.

Laura Veirs

A Conversation with Laura Veirs

Laura Veirs

Photo by Alicia J Rose

The family entertainment market is so saturated with artists venturing over from the “grown-up” music world that I’m not sure there’s any such thing as an unexpected candidate for a kindie record anymore — but having said that, I have to confess I raised my eyebrows when I found out about Tumble Bee: Laura Veirs Sings Folk Songs for Children.

Part of the young, Pitchfork-approved crop of neo-folk artists who have helped breathe fresh life into the traditional music scene over the last decade, Laura Veirs is actually a perfect fit for a record like Tumble Bee, which sits public domain favorites like “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” and “Jack Can I Ride” alongside newer family-friendly numbers like “Jamaica Farewell” and “All the Pretty Little Horses.” The warm fragility of Veirs’ voice has often acted as a softening agent in albums like Year of Meteors, which add icy textures and hard angles to folk forms, but here, it’s cut from the same weathered cloth as the music.

I love Tumble Bee, in other words, and I think your kids will too. Veirs offered her perspective on the album during our recent conversation — here’s what we talked about.

One of the big differences between the kindie scene and the broader pop marketplace is the way covers albums are received. Outside this little bubble, they’re usually something an artist does to fill out a contract or kill time between new material, but it’s still a really vital tradition for family artists.

You know, I can tell there’s a stigma attached to this record already, with friends of mine who don’t have children. Their eyes will glaze over and they’ll be like, “What else is going on?” There’s definitely a divide there. And in doing our research for this, I felt the bar…you know, there’s mediocre music everywhere, in every style, but I think the bar is often set lower for children’s music. Or it’s just aimed at really young children, so it isn’t as interesting to adults. In fact, it can be annoying.

So I’d say those friends are probably thinking I went and made one of those goo-goo, ga-ga records, but I didn’t. I wanted to make something parents could enjoy with their children — or without them, really, but maybe that’s too much to ask. It’s really more of a covers record than a kids’ record. I think a song like “Prairie Lullaby” is strong enough to capture anyone’s attention.

We tried to do these songs in our own way, but we realized some of them have been around for 500 years. I can see how some people would say, “Oh, I’ve heard this.” But not all of them — some songs were technically traditional, but we found them in places like Peggy Seeger’s Animal Folksongs for Children — so we were familiar with the words, but had maybe never heard them in those arrangements. Just from a folklore perspective, doing that research was a lot of fun.

You’ve been pretty prolific as a songwriter so far. What made you want to take this detour into covers now?

Well, I have an 18-month-old, and when I was pregnant I toured with him — both in the womb, and after he’d been born. So after that was done, I felt like I needed to catch up on sleep [laughs], and I’d also made the choice to cut back to part-time music. I’d block out four-hour days in the backyard studio, and that’s how we made this album — four hours at a time, which took awhile.

So there was that reason. I felt like I’d just created this human being, and toured my ass off, and I needed to recover myself in some way and just relax with music. I enjoy songwriting, but in some ways, it’s much harder work. I didn’t feel like I quite had the juice for that.

You spent some time in China when you were younger. Did that affect your relationship with American folk music at all?

Well, that was a long time ago, and although I was obsessed with learning Chinese, I never really became enmeshed in the culture, so to speak. If anything, I think it was more a question of having a lot of Buddhists in my family, and I’m not a religious person, per se, but there’s something about that philosophy that appeals to me as a musician. I like music that has a lot of space, and that toys with the fantastical surrealist aspects of life, and I think there are interesting parallels there.

If being outside the U.S. has affected my relationship with American music, I think it’s probably happened because I’ve toured Europe a lot — I’ve really dedicated a lot of time over there, and gotten a lot of really positive feedback because of it. I hear their perspective on America while I’m there, and how a lot of them are horrified by things like healthcare, the military, the school system — but they’re fascinated by our music, and our overall culture. And they should be, because it’s awesome. African-American rhythms, Irish melodies, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll — they don’t have that melting pot.

And we also have these vast wildernesses, these huge untouched tracts of land. I grew up doing a lot of camping with my family, and I think that has probably had a bigger influence on my music, as well as my lyrics.

What was your research process like when it came time to decide which songs you were going to cover on the album?

We listened to the whole Harry Smith folk anthology, which we’d done before, but never with something like this in mind. We listened to a lot of Neil Young, which didn’t make it onto the record, as well as a lot of friends of ours — like Karl Blau, who wrote the title track. Harry Belafonte was a biggie, as well as Peggy Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger…you know. My husband has a ton of albums — he’s obsessed. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed, so he did the bulk of the searching.

You did a stint on a major label (Nonesuch), and now you’re releasing albums independently again. Is Tumble Bee part of an overall plan, or are you just taking things as they come?

I run my label with my friend now, which has been great. I mean, I’m so grateful to Nonesuch for giving me a springboard into bigger budgets and real promotion, because I had no audience in this country when I signed with them. But financially speaking, it’s much better to have my own label. It was a risk — it might not have worked out that way, but it has.

We’re just going to run this label, hopefully put out some other artists’ music, and I’ll make another album. I’m working on that now. I may make another record for kids at some point — I think it’s been super fun, stigmas aside. Hopefully, I can add to the perception that this kind of thing can be as artistic and valuable as any other kind of album.

A Conversation with Chip Taylor

Chip Taylor and the Grandkids

Smithsonian Folkways Music

You may not know Chip Taylor by name, but you’ve certainly heard his work. As the writer behind a tall stack of hits for a list of artists that includes Willie Nelson, Bobby Fuller, Emmylou Harris, and Waylon Jennings — not to mention “Angel in the Morning” and the stone-cold classic “Wild Thing” — Taylor has been part of rock’s DNA almost from the beginning. Now he’s moving on to a new phase of his career, as the frontman for Chip Taylor & the Grandkids.

The project is exactly what it sounds like: Taylor, guitar in hand, fronting his three grandkids. It’s an adorable idea, but it’s also a pretty terrific album, grounded in Taylor’s trademark earthy (or, as he might put it, “sweaty”) aesthetic while still filled with all the carefree whimsy and lovely harmonies any kindie fan could hope for. Golden Kids Rules is out today, and you need to hear it — but first, read Taylor’s thoughts on the album and his long, storied career.

This is a really enjoyable album, and it’s also a really beautiful idea — in theory, anyway. I imagine there must have been a few moments when trying to make a record with small children seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

[Laughs] The whole thing was totally a labor love. The whole idea at the start was to surprise their uncle for his wedding, so I wrote a couple of songs and talked to the kids, and they seemed really excited. But yeah, it’s hard to get the three of them to focus on something for an extended period of time. It wasn’t easy, but they always liked the results. It was never one of those things where they didn’t want to do it again, but it was funny watching their attention wander all over the place.

And, you know, I’m the grandfather, but this wasn’t like just going out in the field and having fun; there were times when we had to buckle down. And little Sam, for instance, would pout and not want to sing, so I’d have to sit down with her and say “If I go in there with you, will you do it?”

We did our first big performance at the Smithsonian Folkways Festival a few months ago. We’d been rehearsing, but we hadn’t performed for anyone, and every week I’d go up there for an hour to work with them. You just never know what you’re going to get with kids. [Chuckles] One comes in and she can’t hardly move, she just wants to lay on the couch. I just love them so much, and they like working with me, so that makes it easier. The good thing I did, I think, is that when I rehearsed with them, I’d get everyone in their spot and I’d pretend my band was with me, playing. I’d talk to them — “John, will you pay attention back there? Tony, let’s go. One, two…” I’d get them going like that, so the kids would get the feel.

It was good, because when we did the festival, we ended up not being able to do a soundcheck. Right beforehand, I’d told the kids, “You’re each going to have your own microphone, and you have to soundcheck on it. You do it like this — ‘testing, one, two, three; testing, one, two’…you’ll have to tell us whether you’re hearing enough of your own voice.” Then when we got up there, they only gave us five minutes to set up, and all these people were in the audience — the place was packed — and we got up on the stage, I counted off with the band, and one of the girls walked up to her mic and said, “Testing, one, two…” [Laughs]

So I told the audience, “We’re just going to do a little part of one song here — this isn’t really part of the performance yet.” So we did our little warmup, and when it was over, all the people started cheering. That was it. The girls were like, “Oh, this is what it’s all about.”

But the whole thing of working with the kids — that’s part of the fun of it. It’s never perfect. You’ve got three kids with three different personalities, and they’re all thinking about different things. Underneath it all, they all want it to be good, but it’s about working through that, and working through your own emotions. That’s the fun of it. And it’s fun to hear them talk about what their problems are: “Okay, Kate, why do you have to lie on the sofa all day today?”

“Well, Peepaw, this is what I did today…”

“Well, you have to get through that, my dear.” It’s that wonderful back-and-forth where you have to work things out together.

I know you’ve said you didn’t come from a musical family, and I know that — at least according to some of what you’ve said in other interviews — you originally didn’t even intend to be a musician.

Well, what it was — I didn’t come from a musical family, at least insofar as my mom and dad didn’t play any instruments. But they loved the arts. We loved going to movies, listening to singers like Bing Crosby and stuff like that. So it was floating around the house, but what really got me going was when my parents took me to a musical in New York — My Wild Irish Rose. I didn’t want to go, but they couldn’t find a babysitter — I was seven or eight years old. All I remember feeling is that when I heard the music start — heard that orchestra start, right up against it, watching those people create that sound — I got a real buzz. It was like when you fall in love for the first time and you don’t want anyone interrupting your feeling. That was it. We had an hourlong drive back home, and I didn’t want my parents to talk. I just wanted to keep feeling that feeling, and I knew I wanted that to be my life. That’s always been a part of me, and all of my career decisions have been based on that feeling.

That’s what it was like for me when I discovered country music for the first time. You know, it was the sadness that I liked. The warm thing that…the pedal steel playing, you know? I never liked that clicky, poppy stuff. On this record with the kids, we did a song called “Quarter Moon Shining,” and that carries some of that tone. Same with “Magical Horse.” It’s got an honest kind of thing to it. That’s the way I talk to the kids about music, and they love it.

Do you see some of that ambition starting to take root in your grandchildren?

You know, these days, there are so many things kids do. Every minute of the day, they have some activity that they’re going to, and they usually like all of them, but I don’t know if they have enough time to think about what they really want to do. I don’t know that they know that yet, and I don’t know that they’re given a chance to know. Their lives are so filled.

It’s all healthy — swimming, basketball, soccer, band, and all that good stuff. But do they love one more than another? I don’t know. They sure do love performing, though. They love the applause, and the idea that they sounded good.

You’ve seen the best and the worst of the music industry, and you got started at a relatively young age. Is there a limit to how big you’re willing to let this project get?

I don’t have concerns about it. I see such beautiful things in these kids, and they aren’t spoiled by this kind of attention. I’m not worried. Every once in awhile, my wife or the kids’ mother will say something to the effect of, “I don’t want them to grow up like so-and-so young star,” but I can’t see that happening. I know we want to keep doing it. Lately, whenever we’re together, singing or just kind of fooling around, when something silly happens I’ll start writing a song about it. I’ll start to sing, but I’ll leave lines open for one of them to add something, and before you know it, we’ll have a song. They love doing that, and if we get the chance to make another album after this one, it’ll include more co-writing. What a wonderful thing that is.

I think for a lot of artists, it might be frustrating to be so identified with one of your earliest, simplest songs…

You’re talking about “Wild Thing.”

Right. But you seem to have used that simplicity as a lesson, particularly on this album.

Well, I’m a simple guy. [Laughter] When I was younger, the songs I liked the most were the ones that just got to the heart of things. I never liked clever ones at all. Anything that sounds too worked-on, I don’t like. The early country singers, and guys like Elvis — they were just singing with real emotion. So when I started writing, you know, my first hits were for Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, the Brown Family, and Waylon — I wrote for people like that before I started rockin’. “Angel of the Morning” might have a few more chords in it, but it has a very honest movement. It just goes where it goes. I felt a chill when I wrote it — it was just a feeling.

And that’s “Wild Thing” — it’s just a feeling on tape. And you can play it anywhere. I remember being in this little town right above Milan, sitting near this mother and her two young kids, and I started playing that groove — the kids were bouncing back and forth. Looking at me and grooving. There’s a magic to that. I never look at it as a lesser song — it’s one of my most powerful songs.

Those chords are elemental. Putting them together must have felt like discovering fire.

It’s the way the strum goes. It’s a sweaty kind of thing — I like sweaty songs. To me, that’s one of the better ones. I loved all those covers of it. Jimi Hendrix totally got it.

It’s a song that has everything it needs, and nothing more — and I think being hardwired into music at that fundamental level might make you uniquely qualified to record music for kids.

To me, all great music is about feeling. It comes from me as the writer, but it also comes from the people you’re performing with — and for me, that’s the beauty of this album, is coming together with the energy of the kids. That’s what this represents. Their performances are wonderful, and the musicians who worked with us aren’t playing down to kids — these are soulful players, and they’re just playing songs.