They’re elementary school teachers by day, and rockin’ musicians by night. (And weekends, too.) The band members of the super popular kids’ group Recess Monkey —Jack Forman, Drew Holloway, and Daron Henry— are creating cool kids’ music that both parents and kids alike can rock out to. Bubbly and bursting with energy, we spoke with the gentleman of Recess Monkey about good kids’ music, authenticity, and combining work with family life.
Let’s talk about the history of the band.
Jack: We were all teachers together in Seattle. The school is progressive; teachers are called by their first names and we’re very rarely standing in front of a classroom, delivering a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We know each and every child individually and build relationships. Drew teaches pre-K and Kindergarten and music; Daron teaches Kindergarten and first grade. And I teach first and second grade.
We appreciated each other as colleagues first and foremost. Then we discovered our mutual love of music, and tried to tough it out in the indie music scene in Seattle but that’s hard to do when you’re teaching. Late nights and early mornings don’t mix. When we did our first kids’ show, there were hundreds of people there. It was like turning on a light switch. It felt like something really authentic to us.
I know that you first started out in the adult market but then switched to kids’ music. How did that come to be?
Drew: I was in a graduate class and we proposed our final project, and I proposed an album of songs about preschool and kindergarten. That was the catalyst to getting us behind the songs.
Jack: And they were exactly what we do now. They were indie rock songs but with kid-driven content. It took a little bit of experimenting to realize that we didn’t have to change what we were already doing that much. Making that discovery was huge for us, because we didn’t know what kids’ music could be, and then we realized that it could be pretty much what we were already doing. What a cool circumstance to find ourselves in.
As a parent, you pray that the song that your child wants to listen to incessantly is a song that you can groove to, too.
Daron: We definitely feel that adults are the core part of our audience. More than adults listening to our songs, our band has to listen to our songs, so we have to love them. There’s a place for all kinds of kids’ music, and that diversity is great.
Now being from Seattle, which is the birthplace of indie rock, what is that like?
Daron: Well, we were influenced by everything around us. The music, the artists, and also the environment.
Jack: I agree; I think it’s the weather, too. It feels like Alaska for 3 months out of the year. It’s not cold but it’s dark, so it’s a great time to make music. We spend a lot of time in the studio from November to February, writing and recording songs. So that way when the sun comes out and everyone in Seattle leaves their home and rejoices with so much more energy, we have new songs that we can play.
How has the band’s style changed over the years?
Jack: Boy it hasn’t been calculated. I bet that if you look through our records you could predict what we were listening to when we were creating it! The Beatles is a constant source of inspiration, along with 80s pop. We love music but we also love instruments, so for every new album we buy new instruments and you can hear their appearance in one album and see their development over later records. I bought a really cool vintage synthesizer a few records ago and we keep using it over all the new records.
Your music then becomes a journal for you.
Daron: That’s true. And we’re also influenced by the kids in the classroom. Drew is an amazing songwriter. We get inspired by our kids and then Drew funnels that into songs. And keeping track of what kids are talking about and training ourselves to listen in a certain way is very important. The music also reflects big milestones that have happened to each of us, too. When we bring on new people to collaborate with, it keeps it creative and pushes us to try new things. We’re not pigeonholed by a label, and that’s extremely liberating as artists.
As rockstars who are also teachers, what is that like for you in the classroom?
Drew: In the classroom, you’re sitting next to a kid who’s wearing a Recess Monkey tee shirt and you’re doing math with him. [laughs] It’s so much fun, but when we’re in the classroom, it’s not about the music.
Jack: It’s all about having interests outside of school, and in this case, both the teachers and the students do. If we were teaching in a more buttoned-down, necktie type of school where it was more strict and totalitarian, it would seem stranger to the kids. But we strive so hard to be human and model mistake-making that it’s not difficult at all.
Daron: We look the same in the classroom as we do on the stage. We look and act the same so there really is no difference.
Drew: On Friday’s you get to wear the sparkly pants, though. [laughs]
Gotta love a good casual Friday. Now, let’s talk about the new album, In Tents.
Jack: We had been talking about a circus album for years, but we never did it because the circus is such a ubiquitous kids’ theme. Every preschool has a circus day, so we would joke about that. But the more we thought about it, circus can be caricaturized, but there’s such a rich tradition and a lot of history, too. The energy is so magical and mysterious all at once. We teamed up with Teatro ZinZanni to perform some shows—it’s a beautiful show that’s part circus and comedy and cabaret. We’ve been learning how to do some tricks, too; we’re trying to do the human pyramid. Our music becomes the soundtrack for this show. It’s a jaw-dropping show and a truly eclectic experience.
Now, as dads, how do you balance it all?
Drew: We drink a lot of coffee. Being a dad is my most favorite hat to wear; it’s the best job and the hardest job. I have a really great support network that allows me to do this. It’s great to have an additional job like this, one that the whole family is a part of. My six-year-old is already giving me pointers and telling me what the next album theme should be.
Jack: My son is fifteen months old, so he’s just coming online to know what to do when music plays. There’s no feeling when you see the kids dancing at your shows. It’s truly an honor. But when you look out and see among all the dancing kids that one of them is your own, there are no words to describe that.