Three-year-olds are scolded by adults when they misbehave, not vice versa. That is, unless you’re Brendan Parker.
“It’s humbling when a 3-year-old tells you you’ve messed up,” said Parker, a kids’ musician. “It’s a good weird.”
It seems that, regardless of age, everyone’s a critic. But a significant portion of “everyone” has been quick to praise a new wave of musicians who label their music “kindie rock” or “family music.” Parents now have more musical options for their children than ever before, and several metro-area musicians are riding the crest of that wave.
Parker, who recently released “Spaghetti Eddie! And Other Children’s Songs,” found himself writing music for kids almost by accident, when he and his wife were invited to be godparents. Not knowing what to do for the newborn, he wrote songs for the child. Once he performed the tunes, he was encouraged by listeners to write more.
“Then two or three turned to 10 over a year and a half,” Parker said. Having cut his teeth in Oklahoma and California bars, Parker forged ahead and made an album.
The Sugar Free Allstars eschewed the “almost” and fell into kindie rock entirely on accident.
“It was serendipitous,” said Chris “Boom!” Wiser, who plays keyboards and sings. “We weren’t really intending to go in that direction.”
The Allstars have been bringing their funky, organ-driven pop songs to bars around the metro and beyond since 2000. Wiser claims the duo was always “more quirky than normal,” which resulted in several of their tunes (“Stinky” and “He’s Okay (The Spider Song)”) being beloved by kids before they even planned it.
“We accumulated songs over a couple years,” Wiser said. The Allstars played the family oriented Summer Twilight Series in 2006, where he and Rob “Dr. Rock” Martin performed all the kid-oriented tunes they had saved.
“They went over really well,” Wiser said. The event led to a record of the songs, a tour of Oklahoma City’s Metropolitan Library System and eventually airplay on satellite radio.
The pieces fell into place so quickly that Wiser and Martin didn’t even know that they had a song at No. 13 on the Sirius/XM Kids Place Live station. Stillwater musician Monty Harper had to tell them of their success, which since has included two No. 1 charters.
In contrast to Parker and Wiser, Harper’s 20-year career in children’s music was entirely intentional.
“I was doing it as a hobby while I got a master’s degree in mathematics at (Oklahoma State University),” Harper said. “It came down to a choice between being a math teacher, or taking my music to a professional level.”
He chose music and hasn’t looked back. Harper booked tours of libraries almost 10 years before Sugar Free Allstars even existed.
But there’s no ill will between the veteran and the upstarts. Instead, they’re banding together. Harper’s soon-to-be-released album, “Songs from the Science Frontier,” features the Allstars. Wiser even produced it.
Parker and Wiser have discussed collaboration as well, hoping to schedule a “Sugar Free Spaghetti” show together.
“It was cool being the only act in town,” said Wiser, “but you can’t build a scene that way.”
A LITTLE ‘RENAISSANCE’
If a kindie-rock scene sounds strange, it won’t for long. Similarly minded musicians have collaborated and befriended each other in Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Seattle; and more.
“There’s a renaissance going on,” Harper said. “In the last four years or so, it has exploded.”
His wife, Lisa, produces the “Kids Music Planet” podcast, and receives “hundreds of CDs” every week.
“There’s a lot of stuff that wasn’t out there five or six years ago. There’s heavy metal kids’ bands, country, hip-hop, anything and everything. You can find it out there,” he said.
The Sirius/XM radio station that boosted the Allstars has been central to the proliferation of diversity and children’s music in general, Harper said.
“Artists can get national exposure through radio play. It’s something we didn’t have when I started out. There was no national exposure or place to go hear it,” he said.
That central listening place shines light on a shift in musicians’ mentality toward the audience.
“More and more bands are starting to realize that you don’t have to compromise the way you write music to write music for kids,” said Wiser. “You don’t have to dumb anything down. If you give them cheesy stuff, they’ll listen to it. If you give them good stuff, like The Beatles, they’ll listen to it. There’s no difference to them. So it’s good to fill their heads with good stuff.”
Sugar Free Allstars include all sorts of influences in their music, including “full-on James Brown grooves,” ’50s pop à la Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” and even the aforementioned Beatles. The Allstars’ latest album, “Funky Fresh and Sugar Free,” includes a faithful cover of the Fab Four tune “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
Parker’s power pop sounds strikingly similar to the goofy melodies of They Might Be Giants and bright, piano-driven groups such as Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin. It’s not exactly Raffi or The Wiggles, as Parker is equally as concerned with getting parents involved along with kids.
“I don’t want to write something that people want to throw out the window or burn,” said Parker, who was exposed to kids’ music in his preteens through siblings almost 10 years younger than him. “I heard Barney when I was in the car or babysitting. It wasn’t my cup of tea.”
His efforts have paid off.
“I’ve had parents say, ‘I drive around in the car without my kids and listen to it,'” he said.
Harper’s folk-tinged tunes have fostered a similar reaction in parents. And it was pleasantly surprised parents who set the Allstars on their path to national recognition. What’s Wiser’s theory on why mothers and fathers dig kindie rock?
“There are a lot of adults who don’t want their kids listening to shit,” Wiser said.
Touché. Wiser’s doing his best to not write crap, either.
“I am literally not doing anything different in the writing process,” he said, noting their live shows work like their bar gigs did. “It’s as close to a rock show as you can get in a library.”
In turn, the gigs produce almost the same results in wee listeners, despite the generational divide.
“Kids have been bounced out of shows. Kids have puked at shows. Kids have dropped their pants and lifted their shirts up. It’s a lot of similar things to adults,” Wiser said.
Parker enjoys playing live as well.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s funny seeing the kids know the lyrics better than me.”
The success isn’t just in making kids smile, dance and sing. Lucrative benefits also exist.
“We’ve gone farther faster in three years than we did in the first seven,” Wiser said.
Harper, a full-time musician who spends his career exclusively in children’s music, has found much more success there than in adult music, as his efforts in bars “never translated to anything.” The success of the Allstars’ kindie rock has pushed their late-night shows to the back burner.
And they couldn’t be happier.
“Once we started doing this, we realized, ‘You can make money in the daytime!’ That was never even a thought!” said Wiser. “We’re getting up to play a show at the same time that we would be coming back going to sleep from a club show.”
Not that there aren’t still some rock-star perks. The band recently traveled down to Texas to play Austin Kiddie Limits, the children’s stage at the revered Austin City Limits music festival. “Funky Fresh and Sugar Free” also has made it to this year’s Grammy ballot, although the voting to determine the nominees has not yet taken place.
The explosion of new music is helping veterans like Harper.
“In terms of this latest CD, people understand the concept of intellectual, science-y songs. I can find that niche, and five years ago, it would have been too weird,” Harper said.
With a burgeoning fan base, a growing stable of fellow local musicians, a nascent national scene and money to be made, kindie rock is exploding. But amid all the success and spit-up, does Wiser miss singing songs about drinking beer instead of little red wagons? Not at all.
“If you got a new job, and the hours were better, and the pay was better, and you got more respect,” he said, “would that be a better job?”
top photo Brendan Parker. Photo/Caitlin Lindsey
bottom photo Sugar Free Allstars.