Brian Vander Ark, of The Verve Pipe, became famous singing about “The Freshmen,” and now he sings about elementary school.
This huge shift in focus — from post-grunge alternative rock to the burgeoning smart-rock-for-kids movement known as “kindie” — gave The Verve Pipe's career a second wind and, according to Vander Ark, a new creative spark.
The Verve Pipe will headline Wiggle Out Loud, Oklahoma City's first kindie rock festival from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at Bicentennial Park, 500 Couch Drive in downtown Oklahoma City, and their audience will be the children of moms and dads who bought Verve Pipe CDs in the '90s.
It all started when The Verve Pipe was asked to contribute a track to “Calling All Kids,” a compilation album featuring rockers singing traditional children's songs. Vander Ark and his bandmates starting culling through the kid stuff and discovered that awful music can happen at any age.
“I have kids, and a lot of children's music is just really bad,” Vander Ark said, laughing, during a recent phone interview. “So we said, ‘Well, we'd love to write something.'”
The challenge of creating good rock music for children inspired Vander Ark and drummer Donny Brown to start writing, and by the time they had four songs in the can, the band was on its way to making 2009's “A Family Album,” a collection of Verve Pipe songs for every age. So, like other acts gathering for the Wiggle Out Loud festival such as the Sugar Free Allstars, The Red Dirt Rangers, Monty Harper, Jim Cosgrove, Eddie Spaghetti and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, they decided to fill the void they perceived in kids music.
“We just thought we'd make it rock, have Queenlike harmonies and just have fun with it,” Vander Ark said. “That's what we did. We had no expectations, we hadn't been into the studio in eight years, and so it was a good excuse to have fun and write silly lyrics and use whatever instrumentation we wanted.”
That level of freedom is what appeals to singer and keyboardist Chris “Boom!” Wiser, of the Sugar Free Allstars, who organized the Wiggle Out Loud festival. Wiser and drummer Rob “Dr. Rock” Martin started releasing kindie music in 2007 after several years of playing soulful rock for adult crowds. Wiser cites Dan Zanes as the first man in kindie-rock space: After several years with the popular garage-rock band the Del Fuegos, Zanes released 2000's “Rocket Ship Beach” album and started a movement.
But Wiser said that several musicians were struck with the kindie inspiration at the same time.
“I kind of have this idea that good ideas drop in several places at the same time,” Wiser said. “People in different parts of the country will start doing kind of the same thing without knowing anything about each other. Our first family album (“Dos Ninos”) came out in 2007, and that was kind of when things really started to roll.”
As the Barney-resistant Generation Xers had children of their own and wanted their kids to hear good music, artists such as The Verve Pipe, They Might Be Giants, Barenaked Ladies, Jack Johnson and others stepped up to release positive, kid-friendly albums. For Vander Ark, the key is to not talk down to the new fans.
“You don't have to dumb it down,” Vander Ark said. “I think kids are smart. It doesn't need to be repetitive to get your point across. All of our songs tell a story; most of our stories are about shenanigans — things they can identify with.”
Wiser said the Sugar Free Allstars made only minor changes, so to speak, in their transformation from a jammy rock-and-soul band playing in clubs and bars to a jammy rock-and-soul band singing about “cars and trucks and trucks and cars.”
“You just make sure that the lyrics are all-ages friendly,” Wiser said. “The thing is, if the subject matter is something kids can relate to, adults can relate to it. If you're an adult, at some point you were a kid.”
As its title suggests, Wiggle Out Loud is all about being active — in addition to cool sounds, the festival features a “garage band” tent sponsored by ACM@UCO that will allow kids to play real rock 'n' roll instruments, plus yoga for everyone, an obstacle course, dancing, an athletic celebrity pep rally, jump rope challenge, parachute games, boot camp for kids, relay races and a hula hoop contest. KOSU radio will host an iSpy scavenger hunt, as well. Arts and music activities will include a bubble tent, sidewalk chalk, a string pole installation, mural painting and a variety of create-your-own projects.
Know when to wiggle
All this happiness, activity and positivity might be slightly different from Verve Pipe shows in the late-1990s — or even two days before Wiggle Out Loud.
On Friday, The Verve Pipe plays a 21-and-up gig at the Cherokee Casino in West Siloam Springs, performing songs from 1996's “Villains,” 1993's “Pop Smear” and their 1992 debut album, “I've Suffered a Head Injury.”
“That's not a kids' show,” Vander Ark said with a laugh. “No, it's a lot of fun. The awesome thing about doing this is that, a lot of times, we'll do two shows a day — we'll do a kids' show first and then we'll do a rock show later.”
But despite the occasional 21-and-older gig where they play “The Freshmen” and “Photograph,” The Verve Pipe is all-in on kindie. In July, the band released its second all-ages album, “Are We There Yet,” featuring “I'm Not Sleeping In (Cuz It's Saturday),” a Paul Simon-influenced song about waking up early: “First order of business is having some breakfast, but I can't reach the cereal station/so I wake up my dad and he looks really bad, saying something 'bout dehydration.”
“There's little nods in there to keep parents interested as well,” Vander Ark said. And, it might keep some unruly dads from screaming at the band to play “The Freshmen,” a slow ballad about suicide that does not quite work with kids.
“We've gotten booed before for not playing ‘The Freshmen' at a kids' show,” he said. “We didn't change the name of the band, but if they don't advertise it as a Verve Pipe kids' show, then you get people showing up at your stage expecting to hear ‘The Freshmen' and you're singing about cereal.”
This, ladies and gentlemen of all ages, is a kids' show.