Although Collins never aspired to be a children’s entertainer, the former journalist is having a blast playing drums in the popular kids’ group.
Collins and his band mates – Scott Durbin, Dave Poche and Scott “Smitty” Smith – formed Imagination Movers in New Orleans in 2003 and quickly found support from local PBS outlet WLAE.
Disney entered the Imagination Movers’ universe a few years later, releasing the group’s first nationwide CD – Juice Box Heroes – in 2008, the same year the Imagination Movers became TV stars via the Disney Channel’s Playhouse Disney preschool programming block.
Fast forwarding to 2012 finds the Imagination Movers releasing a new CD/DVD dubbed Rock-O-Matic and a tour beginning in early April. The group’s Emmy-winning TV show returns to the airwaves on the new Disney Junior channel during “Movers Week” April 2-6.
While all that activity might sound a bit hectic, Imagination Movers drummer and keeper of the “Scribble Sticks,” Rich Collins, had a few minutes to talk with Pollstar about the group’s rise to success and how he loves rocking out for kids.
Children often talk about growing up to become pro athletes or rock stars, but they rarely aspire to become children’s entertainers. How did you start on that path?
This summer is our 10-year anniversary. Our story is that we were people in the neighborhood – an architect, firefighter, journalist and school teacher – all had kids around the same time. In 2002 all our kids were one or two years old. We started seeing all the content out there. A couple of us had rock music backgrounds, we were fans of the music, and we thought we could do a show and combine the old-fashioned show we grew up with like Mr. Rogers but with a rock’ n’ roll esthetic that we weren’t seeing. Something like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Beastie Boys, more of a resonance or connection with people of our generation.
That was the inspiration. We had been working for years in other professions. Our combined experiences, whether it was newspapers or education, those kind of things influenced us and helped us get the project off the ground.
So when you were a child you never watched Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Rogers while growing up and said you wanted to do that when you grew up?
No. Our kids were the inspiration for all this. I’ve got five kids and if it weren’t for them I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t be in this field. In a lot of ways what we do as the Movers and what inspired the TV show and all the records is essentially being goofballs or acting silly just to make our kids laugh. When you boil it down, that’s the entirety of it. In the same way we were trying to encourage our kids to be creative, grow and find their skills and the best use their time. Just like we wanted that for our kids, that was our inspiration.
Did you look at other children’s entertainers, past or present, to see what was being done or what you and the Movers might want to avoid?
We did some of that. I think, for us, the research and planning took more of the form, it was a little academic. My wife is a social worker specializing in infant development and early education. Scott [Durbin], my partner in the Movers, he was an early grade teacher and other guys had a similar focus. I think, for us, we came at it from what’s a good way to teach kids, reach kids, and we got involved at the local level here in New Orleans.
We were aware of The Wiggles. I was really impressed with the thought of here were these guys who had this idea of creating a category – let’s create a concert where we can get parents and kids to show up and have a true concert experience. It’s not like a Mickey Mouse On Ice kind of thing. It’s like guys playing music in a cut-down arena or large theatre. We saw a brilliant idea. We wanted to take it a step further. Our vision of what the Movers would become was more like being the U2 of a family act where Mom and Dad are 30 years old and they haven’t seen a concert in four years because they’ve been changing diapers. Here they have a chance to come out to, say, the Fox Theatre in St. Louis or wherever their town is and see a real rock show. They’re plugged in, playing every note, hitting wrong notes, having fun, the whole bit. And we thought let’s make it a rock show, create something that has real energy, a real concert experience.
Our tour last year, obviously fueled by the TV show, there’s very much a symbiotic relationship, the more we’re on the air on the Disney Channel, the more we can reach people on our tours, but our tour was a huge success. I think a lot of it goes to the fact we weren’t there to do an intermission and walk people around to sell you stuff, whatever. We’re there because we want to use the power of live music to try to make something special for these parents and kids to enjoy together. And we have as much fun as anybody. We have to work hard every time to make sure we get people there.
As kids grow older they also eventually leave your target demo. Do you see adults coming back to the show by themselves?
There’s a devoted diehard segment of fans. There are a lot of people out there that know a little about us. Then there’s a really hardcore group of people that come. We have some grownups that come a lot that don’t necessarily have kids. It’s fun. We mix the show so that it’s different every time. There’s a lot of improv goofy stuff that goes on between the songs. The magic that happens when you have a hook, a cool catchy chorus and you can get people invested in it, singing it, all those things. So we do have a good following.
The name of our most hardcore fans is the “Mover Mamas.” They’re a devoted bunch, they bring us treats and all sorts of cute things. We get a box full of Christmas ornaments from the Mamas every year. They’re handmade and we use it to decorate the trees at local children’s hospitals. They’re a very dedicated group.
How old are your own kids?
My biggest boy is about to be 13. He’s a rocker through and through. I’ve got five of them down to age three.
Does your three-year-old go around to his friends saying “My Pop is in the Imagination Movers”? Is he aware of what you do for a living?
He is. He’s proud to have all the Movers’ shirts. It’s funny now that I think of it. Rex, my oldest boy, he was three when we invented this thing. That was when we literally were paying dues and playing back yards. So he’s seen it come from birth to where it is now. For Hank, when my little baby came along, we were already in production of season two, for him it’s always been. For him, the universe includes “this.” For him, it’s probably not even novel. It’s funny, all my kids, different ages, I look at them and they all have a different relationships with this thing. I think in every case, the thing I love about it is it’s inspired them. I said, “Look, you don’t have to go through the classified ads and do some job that somebody else invented. You can basically make your own path.”
Not to get too personal, as a student, college and all that stuff, I always wanted to play music. All these jobs people are talking about – I don’t want to be an accountant or I don’t want to do this [or that]. I always felt I wanted to do something different.
For 10 years the newspaper was my life. I dabbled in this or dabbled in that. When I started working on this, I realized I really had a [chance] to create something like this and view all the different things involved in bringing it to life … it was very life-affirming that I found something right to do, kind of like a purpose.
Was there a singular moment when you and your band mates realized the Movers would be successful?
A lot of progress was by degrees but a major watershed moment was when after Hurricane Katrina, which was a major setback when we lost our office, our instruments, all of our CDs and three of the guys lost their houses. Right when that was happening we were in negotiations with Disney to do the show. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there was a laser focus on the part of the guys and, of course, the people at Disney. The whole world was paying attention to New Orleans and there we were doing this deal. I think one of the weird silver linings of that unbelievable mess that was the hurricane, was it took away a lot of the day-to-day obstacles that would have probably slowed down our transition from these guys who had this cool idea to these guys who made three seasons with the show. It really sped things up. It’s a crazy thought, but Hurricane Katrina was an important part of our development.
Does Disney have very much input into the show or the live act?
The TV show, for sure. That was a huge learning experience for us. We made 75 shows, we won an Emmy, we’re all over the world and it was definitely the result of collaboration. The basic premise of the show was something we dreamed up in the first week of talking about this, the characters and everything. To make a show that is fully thought out was a huge effort. We had a crew of 100 people working here in New Orleans. A lot of them were local, a lot of them were from L.A. We did a lot of collaborating on the TV show to make it happen.
Who came up with the Scribble Sticks?
That was my idea. We were coming up with gadgets with each guy. Each character needed his special tools. Drumsticks that could write in the air seemed like a fun ideas.
Were there ideas that you discarded that while looking back on the early days you’re glad you didn’t include them?
There’s a female character on our show named Nina. That character originally began with a different name, was a dude, a gym teacher with short shorts and a whistle. A classic gym teacher. We realized it needed to become a girl. It’s kind of funny when you look back.
By the same token, Knit Knots was a character that we had conceived the same time we were dreaming up stuff like Scribble Sticks and Wobble Goggles. He survived and came through the whole process just as he was. Warehouse Mouse the same way.
There are some characters we hadn’t used yet, like Catnip and Catnap, that are on our new DVD. Those are some ideas we had a while back.
How long does it take to shoot an Imagination Movers episode?
It’s four 13-hour days. A season is 25 episodes and takes about eight months to do.
Do you see the Imagination Movers as a concept that can continue long after you and your friends retire?
I think so. As we look at this 10 years into it, we always think about what is the Movers and what can it be – an animated show, it could be any number of things – I feel confident and excited about our catalog of music. We’ve created 150, 175 songs that the Movers have co-written and used for episodes or on our indie CDs back in the day or on our new CDs. So I think the catalog of music will have a lifespan, whether it’s the song “Clean My Room” being used on a DVD’s opening credits or whatever. I think those songs are going to live on.
When you’re writing a new song, do you start with the concept of how it’s going to teach and entertain children or is it like any other song process? Does someone have a melody kicking around in their head and it develops from there?
Mostly the second scenario. We started in the back of my house. Then it was for years in a soundstage. We have a room where we have all these toys, drums and guitars and we can just jam. I’ve always loved coming up with melodies and hooks. For me it’s improving and looking for melodies and hooks. When we’re doing the TV show, the fun thing about is it’s a real deadline, kind of a newspaper world. “By next Tuesday we need you guys to have a song about a butterfly.”
And we’re like, “OK.” And then we go in and start screwing around and more often than not we get something.
In the beginning, in our pre-Disney years, we would sit there and brainstorm, and I’d be up until 2 in the morning at my computer, using Pro Tools to make sense of all our little audio notes and scribbles. For the Disney era we were lucky we had a great guy named Jason Rhein who took over the Pro Tools rig and kind of ran the room for us. So we could run in between takes, I could mess around with the guitar part or a drum part or vocal and he could do all the editing and try to pull it all together into something that was usable. It’s really a fun process.
Our new record, Rock-O-Matic, the songs weren’t written for an episode, it’s just us writing, having fun.
You talked about presenting a rock show for kids. Is a Movers’ concert as loud as your typical rock concert?
We have to work really hard, we’ve done it for so many years, we’ve got it down to a science. We have a great tour manager. For every show we have a sound meter and he checks, I can’t remember the DB level, but he has his ceiling. We play with a lot of energy. We have a road drummer named Kyle Melancon who plays a portion of the show so I can run around and play guitar and stuff. He’s like a Ringo Starr type of guy and we have to work really hard to keep him from getting too out of hand. It’s something we have to give a lot of thought to. The show is rock. But we’ve figured it out. We use Plexi on the drums and all these other tricks. We have no amps on stage. We’ve learned over the years to put the amps off the stage. The only stage volume is whatever drums and symbols are coming up and over the Plexiglas. We’ve had some trial and error over the years making sure we don’t overwhelm anybody.
What can you tell us about the upcoming tour?
Most importantly we’re going to have a robot. Rock-O-Matic is the name of our CD/DVD and the centerpiece of our new stage set is a giant robot named Rocko. He’s going to be part of the show, sing and cut up and be a goofball. We’re having a lot of fun planning it.
It sounds like you and your band mates have the best job in the world.
I know. “Honey, I gotta go to work. I got a conference call with a robot.” That’s kind of what it is. We’ve been really lucky. I think as long as we take the fun seriously and do the work required to make it fun for us and everyone else, we will earn the right to do it. We’re excited about this tour as we are all of them. I think Rocko is going to be hilarious. Every time we go out, we find the set and the song selections to keep people engaged. We try to make this as user-friendly a concert as possible. We play the songs that our core audience wants to hear and try to keep everything as interactive and upbeat as possible. We also throw in lots of references to all of our favorite music by other people.
A nice devoted fan put something up YouTube a couple of months back. It was cut together from the last couple of tours, all those bits of famous rock songs we tackled. I was laughing at the variety of stuff we’ve referenced, whether it was “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith or a killer song. We did “Don’t Stop Believing” a lot at the end of our shows until it became a “Glee” thing and then we bailed on it.
Is there something you’ve wanted to tell the world about the Imagination Movers, but no one asks you the right question?
I think the most important thing we want people to know is that we are real dads, real guys from New Orleans. When we play music, we’re playing it from the heart. Most importantly, we’re actually playing it. We’re not there to put on a CD, put on a fuzzy animal concert, dance around and then take your money during intermission. We love what we do. We’re very proud of our catalog of songs. A ton of love has gone into making this music. When people come to our shows and we get these great responses where we have these wild crowds, I think it’s because people realize we’re there to create the closest thing we can in our world to a big U2 concert experience and we’re playing it from the heart. We mean what we’re saying.
The Imagination Movers’ Rock-O-Matic tour begins in Buffalo, N.Y., at the Center For The Arts April. 10. Continuing through the spring and fall, upcoming stops include Ottawa, Ontario, at Centerpointe Theatre April 13; Pittsburgh at Benedum Center April 21; Boston’s Orpheum Theatre April 28; New York City at Best Buy Theater May 5; Nashville’s Jackson Hall May 18 and Atlanta at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center May 19. Visit ImaginationMovers.com for more information.