Gene Davis of The Que Pastas on making music for kids
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Kids’ music has a long and spotty history. (Witness Barney, Raffi, and The Wiggles.) But recently, with the rise of Yo! Gabba Gabba, a new kind of kids’ music—so-called “kindie” rock—has emerged. It’s music for kids that’s hip enough (and, more to the point, good enough) to interest parents as well. When Gene Davis, of local alt-country outfit Weird Turn Prose, got inspired to write a batch of songs about rhinoceroses, cowboys, pirates, and numbers, he decided to embrace the silliness and play music for kids.
Joining up with Era S. (The Tanukis), Ryan Elwood (FaceMan, Chris McGarry), and Chris Kolakowski (Chris Kolakowski Jazz Ensemble), he formed The Que Pastas, a group of superhero musicians from a planet made of pasta. Using an $8,600 jackpot he won in Central City, Davis recorded and released the act’s debut EP (available for free at TheQuePastas.com) and headed out to county fairs and museums to play for audiences whose idea of a wild night is staying up until 9 p.m. and having an extra juice box. The A.V. Club talked to Davis to find out how it all happened.
The A.V. Club: Where did the idea for a kids’ band come from?
Gene Davis: Basically I moved down to Denver from Boulder two or three years ago, to see as much local live music as possible [so I could] do entertainment writing. I was seeing two to three shows a week, plus playing out in my alt-country band. And without realizing it, I kind of burnt myself out on the nightclub scene. After one of those soul-crushing Tuesday night shows at the Larimer where there are like 10 people in the audience, I came home and started playing my guitar, and came up with this sort of pirate-y sounding riff. I kept playing around with it, and came up with this song about pirates and cowboys fighting each other and coming to blows. It was the funnest song I’d written in as long as I can remember. I had been writing alt-country songs, which can be a limiting genre if you’re not careful. Within the next two weeks, I wrote a whole bunch of these kids’ songs, from a [song about a] whale singing to a love song about the number nine. The possibilities seemed endless once I realized you can play this whole different genre of music.
AVC: Why make them kids’ songs in particular, and not just quirky, goofy indie rock songs?
GD: I can’t really say what the inspiration for those first few songs was, since they came out without much pretense. But there is this entire “kindie” market out there. I got the idea that maybe I can take a stab at this, and do it maybe not as a career, but as a significant side project. I definitely have the kind of quirky, goofy personality for it.
AVC: Do you have kids?
GD: I do not. The drummer, Ryan [Elwood] has a kid. The bassist Chris [Kolakowski] has a kid, and his wife is pregnant.
AVC: How did you go about putting the band together?
GD: I was a huge fan of Era [S.] and The Tanukis since I first saw them, and I was looking for a reason to play with her. So when she wanted to play on some of the songs, it was a reason to make it The Que Pastas instead of Gene Davis Presents Quirky Kids’ Music. It was an excuse to play with one of the musicians I respect most in the city. Ryan is one of the best percussionists in the city, a true professional. Chris I met through a Craigslist ad.
AVC: How is writing and playing for kids different from your typical indie rock song?
GD: The songwriting process itself is not a whole lot different—alt-country songwriting itself is kind of quirky. [For kids’ songs] it’s just losing every pretense of cool and embracing the goofiness. But really, the process is the same: coming up with a melody and some cool words to sing over it.
Performing for kids is a completely different world. I learned early on. The first one I did was … I won’t say a complete disaster, but close. They gave me this wireless mic so I could run around, and I got myself winded after four minutes. I learned early on you have to have a lot of audience interaction, but once I got that, it was really fun. It was the most fun I’d ever had performing. The kids pay attention. They’re not getting drunk and trying to pick up a girl like you see at the indie rock shows.
AVC: What kind of response do you get from kids?
GD: The first show was a disaster, but the second show, I picked up a little more what I should do. By the fourth show, I had a handle on it. The last few have been good; I don’t feel out of my element anymore.
[With kids] if you bomb, you bomb. And since it’s so uncool to do kids’ music, you don’t feel like a cool badass up there—I feel like my nerdy self, and if you’re bombing in that environment, you’re like, “Oh wow, this is awkward.”
AVC: You’re still doing your alt-country thing with Weird Turn Prose? How does doing kids’ music affect that?
GD: I guess, if anything, the kids’ music has taught me to drop any pretense of being cool. I generally kind of did that before, but now I really go for it. If I want to dance like a robot up there during a song, I do it. I think if you have a good time onstage, whether you’re playing kids’ music or adult music, it translates to the audience.
The Que Pastas play at 1 p.m. today at the Colorado Performing Arts Jamboree at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds (15200 W. 6th Ave., Golden). If you and the kids are otherwise engaged, you can next catch them Feb. 26 at the Butterfly Pavilion, or visit them online at TheQuePastas.com.