Exposing young children to rock, punk, and indie sounds has become a hallmark of hipster parents, and the new interest in music for parents and kids to enjoy together has led to a growing number of rockers-turned-kids’-artists. One of the earliest artists to cross over into kids ‘music was Dan Zanes, who, after rocking through the ’80s with the Del Fuegos, released his first kids’album, Rocket Ship Beach, in 2000. Since then, he’s released four more kids’albums (as well as two folk albums for grownups), becoming a central figure in what is now known as kindie rock. Zanes’intentions go beyond turning kids into mini punk-rockers. At his live shows, he routinely encourages the crowd to sing and dance “with wild abandon,” in the hopes that families will continue to sing together once they return to their homes. Although his name has become synonymous with kindie rock and hipster parenting, Zanes transcends the seeming trendiness of these labels, with a pure aesthetic focused on communal singing and community-building.
eMusic: A whole decade passed between the end of the Del Fuegos and the release of Rocket Ship Beach, your first album of family music. What kind of changes, either personal or artistic, took place for you during those years?
Dan Zanes: I sort of felt like an old man, like I was out of time from everything. I stepped back from rock & roll, stopped reading the magazines, stopped listening to the radio. I started listening to gospel music. The day I first heard the Blind Boys of Alabama was the day I stopped caring so much about rock & roll. Then I got into Jamaican music, then bluegrass. All of those kinds of music were really connected to a community. For me rock & roll was that way in the beginning, but hadn’t been for a while. I was looking for different sources of inspiration, just trying to learn how to be a grownup and do all that stuff you don’t have to do when you’re in a rock band.
eMusic: How did parenthood influence your music?
DZ: It’s completely changed the way I think about it from top to bottom. Until I was a parent, I wasn’t really able to conceive of the bigger world, I was just so wrapped up in my own self… I started thinking more about community — starting with the family, and going out into the community, thinking about the health of our country and the health of our world. And that’s all led to where I am now.
eMusic: What other kids and family artists — past or present — do you enjoy?
DZ: When Anna was first born, it was David Jones’Widdecombe Fair — we all went crazy for that. That was one of those perfect records. We liked Peter Paul and Mary, Burl Ives, Sweet Honey in the Rock. I really liked Pete Seeger, but couldn’t really get my wife and daughter to. I think Elizabeth Mitchell is great.
eMusic: What do you think makes kids respond to music, and how does that inform your recordings and/or your performances?
DZ: I think they like the same things I like — a good beat, a good melody, some lyrics that have a little bit of poetry, something that makes your imagination go. Sometimes when it [music] gets too complicated, I get lost. I think we all like a good beat, and maybe a little bit of humor.
eMusic: In the last year or so, there’s been a lot of talk about “cool” kids’music or kindie rock. You’ve been held up as a central figure of the kindie rock movement. What has been your reaction to that?
DZ: My first reaction was, couldn’t they come up with a better name for it? It’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? There’s something slightly demeaning, like it’s a lesser art form. How could anyone take anything seriously with the name “kindie” in it? So yes, there’s a little horror there. Whenever people say it’s cool or it’s hip, I have a little problem with that, because for me that was never an issue. For one thing it’s so subjective. And why would kids or families care? Kids especially — being cool is not a part of their world, and thank God for that. I think in a way, that’s the beautiful thing about families and music and listening — that’s where we’re able to get away from all that, from worrying about what’s cool. The whole experience can be so innocent and so freeing, to be enjoying music with your kids. To bring this idea that what you’re listening to is either cool or not cool is really re-imposing the grown-up limitations on music.
When people started writing about kids music, I was worried. When a movement is being written about, it sort of signals the end. Once it’s being talked about a lot and has a name, you think, well, something’s got to give. Things are gonna change. But I’m also grateful that people are feeling excited about it, and I’m glad that parents feel excited about the possibility for shared musical experiences with their kids. When Anna was born, I don’t remember people feeling really engaged with family music.
eMusic: A number of musicians have followed your model and crossed over from rock/punk/indie to kids and family music — Jason Ringenberg, The Terrible Twos and now Luscious Jackson is working on a kids album. Who do you think has done well at this?
DZ: I think everybody has, because everybody’s doing their own thing, and people are doing it for the right reasons. I can’t imagine someone’s doing it because they think there’s a lot of money in it. I think they’re genuinely interested in making good music that families will enjoy together.
eMusic: The media has focused a lot of attention lately on so-called “hipster” parents — and one of the ways hipster parents are often defined is by our tastes in music, and how we try pass on our tastes to our children. Do you identify with hipster parents? Do you consider them a significant part of your audience or fan base?
DZ: I don’t know. I know hipsters and I know parents, but sooner or later you’re out there changing a diaper on a park bench, and how hip are you then? Parenting is such a great equalizer. I had so much invested in being hip when I was in my twenties, and when I became a parent, it was such a big relief not to have to think much about that anymore. The thing about being a hipster is that it means there are people who aren’t hip. When some people are hip, and others aren’t, it limits the possibilities for true community… I think some people are attaching a little more to it than is really there.
We’re all in this together. Hip or not hip. I have plenty of friends who are pretty cool people, and they like the Wiggles. And I’m all right with that. Who am I to say that one thing’s cool and one thing’s not?
eMusic: Has your daughter reached the age yet where her musical tastes are moving away from your influence? How have you handled that?
DZ: I think she has great taste. She knows a lot of music that I don’t know. She turned me onto Outkast, and that was pretty cool. That was the first record she asked me to get that I didn’t know anything about. She really likes Tom Petty now. She turned me onto Shakira, which I’ve been really grateful for. It’s fun to have a 12-year-old in the house.
eMusic: What do you have planned for your next album?
DZ: It’s all songs from various parts of Latin America. In some ways, it’s my pro-immigration record, celebrating all the things that come from the Spanish-speaking Americas… There are people who don’t feel welcome in our country, and that’s not right. Not on any level. That’s part of why we’re making this record when we are.
eMusic: What’s next for the genre of kids and family music?
DZ: I’d love to see a more diverse offering. For Latino families and African-American families, there’s not as much out there. And that would be great for me as a listener, too. America is changing so quickly. We’re a bilingual country, whether people like it or not. I think it’s exciting that all over our country, there is this incredible cultural exchange going on. And I think musicians and lovers of music are in a privileged position, because music can build bridges.
I think our government, and this administration in particular, does better when there’s fear in the air. But when these musical bridges are being built, the sense of life’s possibilities become more clear, more hopeful. To be in the world of parents who are starting to think about the bigger world, I feel like there’s so much good that can come of it all. Listening to each other’s music, getting in touch with our own culture to the point where we can share it with someone from another background — that goes a long way to making a better future. It’s very exciting to think about what’s around the corner. It fills me with optimism.