The Okee Dokee Brothers
Like many of today’s children’s entertainers, Mailander and his banjo-playing partner, Justin Lansing originally started out entertaining adults. That is, until a friend asked that they play to a somewhat younger demo. Little did they know that request would not only launch them on a new career path, but also earn them a best children’s album Grammy for Can You Canoe?, the duo’s debut disc in their adventure album series.
Friends since early childhood, Mailander and Lansing will release The Okee Dokee Brothers’ next album, Through The Woods, May 20. Coinciding with the release will be an independent documentary film chronicling their trek on the Appalachian Trail.
While speaking with Pollstar from his Minneapolis home, Mailander talked about how the group evolved into a family entertainment act. As it turns out, their still-developing story is as much of an adventure as are their acclaimed albums.
Playing for children puts you in a slightly different musician’s universe in that your nights are your own.
We used to play bars, coffee shops, clubs and college campuses when we were playing more for the adult crowd. While that was fun, falling asleep at three or four every night is very different than getting up for a 9 a.m. library show or a 10 a.m. theatre show. But we get the nights to ourselves.
What was the turning point that influenced The Okee Dokee Brothers to play for children?
It all started [with] a few random gigs where a community member asked us to kind of go outside of our comfort zone and play a park concert. We were playing old bluegrass traditional standards anyway, so we took out some of the whiskey references and went for a family show. At one point it went so well that we started incorporating more of those into our touring schedule and just playing old traditional songs for kids. As we noticed the audience reacting positively through the interactive nature of those shows, we started writing our own songs that we could play for families and started doing songs with activities, hand motions, dances and all sorts of things. We just gravitated towards that direction. It seemed like something we were good at and there was a market for that as well.
Some of your songs do sound as if a couple of lyric changes would transform them into songs for adults.
Definitely. We walk that line. We make sure we’re not putting out too much of a questionable message. But at the same time I think the message works for adults and kids alike. It’s been our goal this whole time to try and get as close to a universal message as we’re able to.
Is it a challenge to present entertainment for kids without talking down to the audience?
Sometimes the easiest way to go is to always, maybe a little bit, dumb it down. We do hold ourselves to a higher standard of taking a little more time, thought and effort to put the kids first and say, “They can handle this and we don’t need to be completely silly, wacky or off the wall.” Some kids like that stuff and there’s plenty of media out there for them. But at the same time, our fans, we’re expecting them to grow into our lyrics. If they don’t understand something, they can ask and start a conversation, so that listening to our music is an experience of growth.
How do you entertain an audience that has such a short attention span?
We definitely have to keep things interesting during our shows. The set list, first of all, is, … maybe a little bit longer than an hour. Typically it’s 45 minutes but now that we’re doing theatre shows and people … we think 60, maybe 70 minutes is as far as you can go. Every other song needs to be a complete change up with a new idea or activity to do. One might be a square-dancing song where you swing your partner. One may be slapping your knee and clapping your hands. Another might be making a train, so link up with the person in front of you. We do an auction song where we auction off a CD. There’s just all sorts of different things the show goes through in order to keep kids interested. While, at the same time, making sure it’s fun. In perspective, there are times we just say, “Let’s just take a deep breath, sit down and relax” … as we sing a nice, slow and soothing song.
How do you keep the intimacy when you’re playing larger venues such as theatres or other, more structured rooms?
We find that the lighting in a theatre is really important for kids. It acts as a cue. When the lights are up and bright, this is where you can get up, dance and run around. When the lights go down and turn to a softer blue, find your seats, take a breath and that’s when we can bring the focus in and it feels a little more intimate that way.
How do you give the kids room to run around and dance in a theatre where the seats are bolted to the floor?
Usually there’s a small space in front of the theatres where the kids can dance. … A lot of times, if the seats are movable, we ask that the first five rows are [removed] so we can have a little area in the front where the kids can sit down or dance.
Considering that there are parents as well as children in the audience, about how many people can you play for and still keep that level of intimacy?
We’ve been able to do that for up to 1,000 people. In the really nice performing arts centers I feel we can still keep a good attention span. When you get outdoors and there are people walking around, over 1,000, of course, you really can’t connect with everybody. I guess our favorite number would be around 400 people. That seems like a good amount of people for us, to keep the energy high enough while still making sure we’re connecting.
The latest album – Through The Woods – is another adventure album.
We were hiking out in Virginia for a month. 30 days of hiking in the wilderness and also meeting mountain musicians. So we stopped in on some front porches, went into some old-time jams, jamboree clogging and live music festivals where we met people, interviewed them, learned old traditionals and had them influence the record.
During the journey did you meet any amateur musicians that are just as talented as anyone people pay to see perform onstage?
You do find a lot of people down there who have amazing chops and they’ve only played in house concerts or on their front porches. A lot of times these guys can pick just as fast if not faster and know twice as many songs. It’s humbling.
How long have you been playing music?
Justin and I grew up together. We’ve known each other since we were three and we started playing music together when we were 12.
When did you begin switching from playing for adults to performing for children?
That was 2008 when we put out the first family record and started playing children’s shows.
At that time was there some kind of plan to take you from smaller venues up to theatres or have you and Justin been playing it by ear?
We’ve been playing it by ear and seeing what the best move would be. The Grammy win was a big help in spreading the music out further … and moving up to [higher levels].
How does the world of a family entertainer differ from other music artists?
It is a little bit different. I think there’s always a question in artists’ minds of am I performing for myself or am I performing for my fans? Each musician has to find that answer on their own. In our case as family entertainers, we definitely have to stay true to our inner artists but we do understand that we’re here to serve our audience. We’re here for the kids to learn and grow and use us as a resource that’s educational and inspiring, to get outside and to get in touch with old-time music and outdoor adventure. We’ve accepted that and we’re happy to be involved in an entertainment world in a way that serves others rather than ourselves.
Calling an act “family entertainment” often covers a wide area, but individual artists often target a smaller segment, say pre-school or elementary school kids. What age groups do you see at your shows?
We try not to limit any ages. We don’t officially put anything out there like that. We can see that 8 to 10 year olds are getting into it. They understand all the lyrics and it seems like a sweet spot in our fan base. We’ve [seen] babies bop to it and grandparents get into it, too. Even teenagers get into it. Obviously they’re the hardest demographic to hit when it comes to this kind of stuff because they don’t want to be listening to kids’ music. But if you don’t tell them it’s kids’ music, I think some of them still get into it.
Do you think it’s the musicianship more than the content that attracts teenagers?
Yeah. They’re listenable songs that can attract a wide audience. It’s not for everybody because some people don’t like the acoustic nature of the music, maybe they’re more into the more modern pop music. But I can say we have a fan in most every age group. … I think adults can gain something from what’s in the album. Justin and I are adults with free and adventurous spirits. Hopefully, that means something to parents, too.
What’s the hardest part of writing for kids?
Not lowering your standards and not dumbing down a message. It’s to find a way to respect the listeners without putting the content too far over their heads.
Do you have kids?
I don’t. Justin and I are both bachelors. I’m engaged to be married but no kids.
We’ve talked with a few children’s entertainers that don’t have kids of their own. Is that a common situation?
It’s becoming more and more common with the whole independent music movement of people being able to put out music on their own without labels. There’s a movement right now in this country called “The Kindie Movement ,” which is independent kids’ musicians. There are a lot of folks making real music for kids that isn’t … Disney, Nickelodeon and plastic, marketed corporate act music.
What other adventures can your fans look forward to?
We’re definitely kicking around going out West for the next adventure and doing something on horseback, getting more of a country motif to the music. Colorado, Wyoming, and maybe some of Montana, too.
Considering all the negative factors that might be in a child’s environment today, ranging from divorce to alcohol and drug abuse, just what do you and Justin see when you look out into your audiences?
You do notice that this new generation is dealing with a lot more than I remember dealing with when it comes to distractions – computers, video games, TV – and all the technologies that keep us from connecting with our families and with the outdoors. For the first time a lot of these kids are hearing about having adventures outdoors and connecting with nature, hiking and canoeing. It’s surprising that some kids don’t know anything about that. But at the same time others are getting out there and connecting. So it really depends on who it is. But I think there is hope. Every kid I see out in the audience, they’re positive kids who seem to be interested in what we’re doing and saying. That gives me hope.
About the business side, do you aim your marketing materials more towards the parents or the kids themselves? After all, it’s the parents that will make the decisions about buying tickets and records.
Just the nature of how things work on the internet – we know the parents are the ones reading the Facebook posts, the websites and the tweets. When it comes to that stuff, we know it comes down to the parents’ decisions. But it’s at the shows where we get to connect to the kids in real time and in real life. After the shows we take pictures, sign autographs and talk to the kids. We even get a lot of fan mail from kids drawing pictures and things like that.
Do you try to answer your fan mail?
We do. We try as best as we can. Because the internet is kind of the adults’ world these days, we’re looking into opening up a voice mail system so the kids can call up, leave messages and we can get back to them.
Is there something you’ve wanted to tell the world about The Okee Dokee Brothers but no one has ever asked you the right question?
I think there is a thought I’ve been kicking around here. I think it comes down to the fact that, like many musicians these days, we’re independently run. We don’t have a record label, we manage ourselves and we’re in the office every day running the business side of things. I think there are a lot of people out there who think musicians just sit around, write songs, record every once in a while and play shows. But it’s becoming more and more that musicians have to wear a lot of different hats to keep afloat. Especially independent musicians who are running a label of their own. So with Spotify, downloads and all sorts of streaming services, we always try to promote the message of supporting independent artists as best as you can through concerts and buying CDs. It allows us to do what we do and what we think will help the community. Community awareness is an important thing for consumers to realize. Just like organic local food movements, people started to realize that that is important. And the same thing is happening in the music world today.
Upcoming shows for The Okee Dokee Brothers:
April 25 – Denver, Colo., EarthLinks
April 26 – Aurora, Colo., Regis Jesuit High School
May 3 – Seattle, Wash., Town Hall
May 3 – Bainbridge Island, Wash., The Bloedel Reserve
May 4 – Lake Oswego, Ore., Mountain Park Recreation Center
May 17 – Saint Paul, Minn., Black Bear Crossings (Through The Woods CD/DVD Release Party)
May 30 – Rochester, Minn., Mayo Clinic
May 31 – Topeka, Kan., Topeka & Shawnee County Library
June 1 – Shawnee, Kan., Wonderscope Children’s Museum
June 7 – Minneapolis, Minn., Icehouse
June 15 – Apple Valley, Minn., Minnesota Zoo
June 22 – Highlands Ranch, Colo., Douglas County Libraries/Literary & Music Fest
June 24 – Le Sueur, Minn., Le Sueur Public Library
June 28 – Minnetonka, Minn., Minnetonka Summerfest
June 28 – Danbury, Wis., Yellow River Folk Festival
July 16 – Woodbury, Minn., Woodbury Lakes
July 17 – Brooklyn Park, Minn., Eidem Park Historical Farm
July 19 – Maple Grove, Minn., Town Green
July 20 – Minneapolis, Minn., Mississippi River Wilderness Inquiry Grounds (Mississippi River Wilderness Inquiry)
July 20 – Stillwater, Minn., Stillwater Log Jam
July 22 – River Falls, Wis., University Of Wisconsin
Aug. 5 – New York, N.Y., Madison Square Park
Aug. 7 – Bethlehem, Pa., Bethlehem MusikFest
Aug. 15 – Longview, Texas, Pine Tree Church Of Christ
Aug. 20 – St. Louis Park, Minn., Shops At The West End
Aug. 23-24 – Saint Paul, Minn., Minnesota State Fair
Aug. 25 – Waseca, Minn., Waseca Public Library
Aug. 31 – Ely, Minn., YMCA Camp DuNord
Please visit OkeeDokee.org for more information.