The Doo-Dads bring garageland to kidsville
David Byrne at his most eccentrically kinetic has nothing on the dancers who take over RecordBar for two hours one Friday a month. From 6 to 8 p.m. on those evenings, enthusiastic music fans dress in bright colors and shake and spin and bop, making for the city’s most literally happy happy hour. They’re not the usual moving targets for the venue’s servers, either.
I wasn’t trained for this, say the eyes of a young woman who has just managed to avoid a catastrophic tray spill as she pulls up short to keep from running into someone. She smiles. The patron she has dodged was underfoot because he — like the majority of the others darting around the room — is a child. A child who’s all but running laps around RecordBar. And what, exactly, has turned all of these kids (and more than a few of their parents) into playing, dancing, shouting obstacles?
That would be the quartet onstage, wearing matching red-and-white bowling shirts and playing music to the accompaniment of bubble machines and projected cartoons. The footage shows the four men tooling around in a red-on-white sports car, playing their instruments and bouncing through scenes that call to mind late-1960s Hanna-Barbera, with a touch of Mike Judge.
The band, called the Doo-Dads, is composed of men in touch with their inner children despite receding hairlines (or all-out baldness) and more than a touch of gray. They all wear blue-tinted glasses.
And what is it about this music, one parent asks Doo-Dad bass player Matt Kesler, that causes waitress-stymieing wildness? Sitting around a barroom table later, this band of brothers has no problem answering the question in unrehearsed unison: “That’s rock!”
Specifically, organ-bright, four-piece garage rock akin to that of, say, the great Sir Douglas Quintet. In fact, any rock-and-roll fan who attends a Doo-Dads show quickly comes to see that there’s not much difference between what’s happening here and what happens at a show by his or her favorite “adult” artist. The Doo-Dads reach back to rockabilly, mix a Bo Diddley beat here, fire up some Count Five psychedelia there, and never stray far from the tattered pop of the Ramones. They concentrate on originals but also cover children’s favorites. The home-brewed porch-swing reflection “I’m So Lucky” shares set-list space with the rap-metal rave-up “Let’s Potty,” along with the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” and, of course, the Rivingtons’ “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.”
The musicianship is first-rate. The band’s “Doo-Dad Theme,” for instance, begins with Kesler’s surging bass riff, which gets its answer from Ken Lovern’s organ, bouncing high with a glockenspiel effect. A fill from drummer Joe Gose throws everything into a tight, swift strut, further energized by sunny harmonies. Not afraid to shred a little, Mike Niewald uses his guitar to fill any gaps in the ultraviolet spectrum that aren’t covered by Lovern’s organ.
It’s hard to imagine a Kansas City rock band covering as much territory in a given set — and covering it well — as the Doo-Dads on this Friday.
Given the members’ individual pedigrees, that’s no surprise. “The stars were lined up for the Doo-Dads,” Niewald says. “We all played in heavy bands, cool bands that were respected and tried hard, always tried so hard to write great songs, significant songs. But we’ve experienced an extreme amount of joy playing for kids and seeing the reaction from them. Joe used to say it was particularly appealing to see parents dancing with their own kids.”
“And singing along,” Gose adds. “It’s awesome.”
Niewald continues: “And the thing is, you know, little kids are incredibly honest. But they would never sit there and cross their arms and go, ‘You like these guys?’ ‘No, this sucks.’ “
“Yeah, they’re ready to have a good time,” Lovern agrees.
Any children needing a lesson in sharing could learn from the Doo-Dads.
“I was always the primary songwriter in the Bindlestiffs and Absolute Ceiling,” Niewald says. “But in this band, I wanted everybody’s investment in the band to be the same — of life, of time, of energy — so, to me, it was like, I don’t care if I write 80, 90 percent of the material. I want everybody to own all of it, so we share everything. Everything’s by the Doo-Dads, and then Ken comes up with this incredible Ray Charles lick for a song called ‘Mama Be Right Back’ —”
“And that song went No. 1 on XM Kids radio,” Kesler finishes.
“We’ve all brought ideas for tunes to the table,” Lovern says. “Mike’s written the majority. Matt’s brought a few in. I’ve brought a few in. Joe’s brought a few in. But once it’s brought in, we all help shape it.”
Driving home the collaborative point, Gose says, “I don’t know any notes, so I just say, ‘I think you go [singing guitar sounds] ga nuh nuh, ga nuh nuh —‘ “
“And when Joe says, ga nuh nuh,” Mike picks up, “I say, ‘Oh that’s the way I speak,’ and then I go da nya nya, da nya nya, da na na, da na na and I say, ‘Perfect, I got it!’ “
“It’s language,” Kesler says. “It’s communication.”
There is, in fact, no shortage of communication in this band, in which conversation moves in pingpong bursts of supportive dialogue.
Lovern: “Things get filtered.”
Niewald: “I get shut down plenty, but with these guys, it’s complete trust. These are my best friends. And I respect them so much musically that it’s like, the older you get, you realize you don’t know all the answers. That’s the beauty of our — for lack of a better word — maturity. We’ve never been in bands for 10 years straight with anybody else, but this band’s been on the road for the last month going to Salina, Tulsa.”
Lovern: “Eight shows in five days.”
Niewald: “And we had a blast. We cracked up the whole time. We enjoyed each other’s company.”
Lovern: “We had an acoustic jam in a hotel room.”
Niewald: “There’s not the ego involved. This is not only the coolest band I’ve ever been in but the most creative, musically and artistically.”
“That’s why it’s worked,” Jim Cosgrove says. Cosgrove, known to his core audience as Mr. Stinky Feet, is one of the local pioneers of the kids’ music scene. He recognizes the Doo-Dads’ camaraderie as a key characteristic among other success stories in a swelling movement.
“Other bands have come here and seen what we’ve done with Jiggle Jam [an annual kids’ festival that now draws around 25,000 people a year], and they’re surprised how we all work together. But our philosophy is, ‘If I’m working, you’re working.’ The Doo-Dads are a full-fledged rock band, pulling on their experience and making a different kind of experience than I could, and that’s great.”
Cosgrove’s wife, Jeni — one of Jiggle Jam’s founders, along with Keli O’Neill Wenzel — often books the Doo-Dads. The late “Bongo” Barry Bernstein, area music therapist and entertainer, was the one who suggested that Jeni take on this centering role, booking children’s acts for the many festivals and events where they might be needed.
“I’m having a hard time finding enough acts to fill all of the need,” Jeni says, “which is a wonderful problem to have. And with the exception of Disney, all of this kids’ music is a grassroots effort, and it cannot work as a competitive industry. That’s what makes this such a wonderful subculture.”
In the 10 years since the Doo-Dads arrived, the subculture has arguably become a nationwide musical force, and Kansas City has played a crucial role. After the band Recess Monkey played Jiggle Jam, the band members returned to Seattle and helped start something that Jeni Cosgrove calls “the only scene comparable to Kansas City’s in terms of collaboration.” In 2002, the Austin Kiddie Limits festival began in Texas. In 2005, one of the organizers of Kindiefest, a national music conference, joined forces with Perry Farrell to create Kidzapalooza.
When another icon of KC children’s music, Krista Eyler (aka Funky Mama), is asked about the Doo-Dads, she further proves the Cosgroves’ point. “I love the Doo-Dads!” she says. “Their music is so unique, and the musicianship of their rock and roll is some of the best in the kindie world nationwide. Doo-Dad Ken [who also heads up the accomplished instrumental trio OJT] is probably one of the top two organists in Kansas City, if not the best, and adds such spice to their songs. All the guys are gifted musically.”
Kesler’s wife, Lendy, says, “Getting drawn into the kids’ music thing has been a blast, a great experience for everyone involved. I love the fact that the scene is growing and the possibilities are endless. It’s fun seeing some of the kids, who were die-hard fans of the Doo-Dads from the early days, now that they’re in middle school and high school. We’ll see them at one of [daughter] Audrey’s basketball games or at the store or some band concert, and they’ll recognize Matt immediately and be a little shy but really thrilled to see him.”
A child’s life can be a dark and lonely place. Five minutes of perceived abandonment feels like eternity. Such is the truth addressed by the Doo-Dads’ new single, “Hey, Mr. Robot.”
That theme lies just under the surface in several of the group’s songs, especially “Mama Be Right Back” and the Alejandro Escovedo-sung “Forever I Love You.” This time, over a spooky mix, the tale is of a child whose robot best friend dives to the bottom of a swimming pool and refuses to come up.
Niewald says, “We started looking at people like Mr. Rogers, who, in retrospect, appealed to us because of the kind of groundbreaking things he did. Like, he brought the subject of death to his audience, and the way he explained it was really honest. As we were progressing with the band, we agreed: Let’s not be too sugarcoated.”
The Doo-Dads’ own story is far from sugarcoated.
“We had big-time doses of life hitting us,” Niewald recalls of the year before the Doo-Dads’ formation. In 1999, Jim Strahm (Kesler’s partner at the music store Midwestern Musical Co., as well as Niewald and Gose’s former bandmate in Absolute Ceiling and Gose’s fellow Saddlemen member) was diagnosed with throat cancer.
“Joe and Matt sat in with the Bindlestiffs,” Niewald explains. “There was a brotherhood of bands, and Jim was always part of that. We were all really close.”
“It was intense,” Kesler adds, “because he didn’t tell anybody much besides us. He didn’t want to stress out his parents. It started out, they were going on a vacation, and then it was almost Christmas and he didn’t want to ruin Christmas.”
At the time, both Kesler’s and Niewald’s wives were pregnant. That December, the women wound up in adjoining rooms at the hospital, Kesler’s daughter and Niewald’s youngest son born just a couple of days apart. Grand Emporium owner Roger Naber dropped by with champagne. Within five months, Strahm would be gone.
“Jim’s death was one of the worst things that could have happened,” Kesler says, “And then this beautiful little baby comes along, and it’s such a roller coaster.”
“When he passed on, it left us all —” Niewald searches for the right words.
“He played a ton of roles,” Kesler says. “Jim called people on their own arrogance, and he did it with a smile. And he taught me all about guitars, about vintage guitars.”
“He was a real musician,” Niewald says. “He was a real guy. That’s why he could relate to guys in other bands. That’s why we became friends with so many musicians over the years. And they opened up that music store, and people loved Matt and Jim and the store and the vibe. And that became ground zero for a whole lot of interaction. The True Believers [featuring Alejandro Escovedo, Javier Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham] would be over for parties in the old days.”
Alejandro Escovedo played Strahm’s funeral, and the culture that Strahm (along with Kesler) had cultivated around Midwestern Musical Co. would become a part of the Doo-Dads’ story. In addition to Escovedo’s Doo-Dads contribution, Dave Gonzalez of the Paladins and Hacienda Brothers performs on both “Sweet Stuff” and “Brush Your Teeth” from the group’s self-titled second album.
Niewald made one last Bindlestiffs record after that, and it included songs for two of his three children, “Emelia Mae” and “Eli’s a Cowboy.” The latter went on to win a competition in the children’s category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. “I kind of thought I may be on to something,” Niewald says. (He eventually completed the trilogy with the Doo-Dads’ “Ethan B.”)
“Yeah, Mike had written a couple of songs for his kids,” Kesler says, “and it just kind of evolved that way. We talked about how, at the time, everybody who did kids’ music was acoustic-based and participatory —”
“And we wanted to share something different with kids,” Niewald finishes, “make it pretty much straight rock and roll. I just wanted to do a little studio record of some kids’ songs, and Matt’s the one who went, ‘Maybe we should do this as a band, an official band.’ And we knew Joe had kids.”
“Actually,” Kesler corrects, “I think we were trying to program a drum machine and having trouble, thinking, ‘This is stupid. Let’s call up Joe. Let’s call up a drummer. He can do this in about two seconds.’ And the same thing happened with the keyboard. We started to try to set up a keyboard, and we called a keyboard player.”
“Matt and I were playing jazz gigs and casino gigs at the time that was all going down,” Lovern says of the Doo-Dads’ genesis, the days after Strahm’s death. He’s the band’s second keyboard player, having joined in 2006. “I couldn’t be in the band because I didn’t have a kid,” he recalls. “But by the time they got back from South by Southwest in 2006, I had a kid and I joined. The songwriting’s a lot easier when you have kids.”
We’ve all been friends forever,” Lendy Kesler says, “and we were all having kids. And as most parents know, it’s sometimes hard to see your friends as much as you used to. The Doo-Dads made that possible for us.”
Lovern’s wife, Jamie Ledbetter, says, “I think it helped us bond as a family. I could take our daughter Zoey to Ken’s shows. And she wants to be a performer herself. They are very connected because of the music.”
“I play violin, drums, and I sing a little,” 9-year-old Zoey says. “Dad has some drums in the garage, and I learned on them.” She recalls getting onstage to dance the robot for “Hey, Mr. Robot” — “My dad did that dance, and I copied him” — and reports that she has written an as-yet-unreleased Halloween dance song with her father.
Her favorite Doo-Dads song is “Dinosaur Party,” which Matt and Lendy Kesler’s daughter, 11-year-old Audrey, also cites as one of her favorite moments with the band. (Another budding musician, Audrey sings and plays clarinet.) “That was Emmy, Eli, Ethan, Zoey, Cara, Jake and me, and we had, like, these two song lyrics to sing, and then we made a big dinosaur roar,” Audrey says. “We had a lot of fun recording with the band.” Sharing the album with Escovedo, the kid singers were dubbed the Doo-Drops.
These close interactions between grown-ups and their children are particularly meaningful to Niewald. In 2006, as the band was cementing its place on the scene, he went through a divorce.
“The band was painted [in court] as a ‘hobby’ that took my time away from my kids,” he says. “It ultimately affected how often we could play. Though this was not court-ordered, it was ‘watched.’ This was easily the most difficult time in my life, and the band was an absolute lifeline.”
“That was rough for the band for a while,” Ledbetter says. “But now it seems that they’re having a resurgence of energy.”
Lendy Kesler sees the lifelines extending in multiple directions. “Even as the kids are getting older, they still love getting together. They go to different schools, have different interests, are different ages, but they still have a lot of fun together. I know this sounds cheesy, but we’re all kind of an extended family.”
When the Doo-Dads were little ones themselves, the culture’s generational divide made a slogan like the band’s “Kid Cool Rock” impossible. The variety of music that the four men draw upon tells that story. Gose, for example, remembers the School of Rock-like moment when he decided to play drums.
“When I started playing basketball in sixth grade, my coach used to have a secret practice place, and he’d pick us up from school on Fridays in a big red-and-white van with a hole in the tailpipe and bean bags for backseats. One Friday, he picked us up, held a cassette tape in his hand and said, ‘This is New York punk rock!’ and proceeded to play the Ramones. We all went crazy — 12 sixth-grade boys. I thought I’d never be able to play drums as fast as Tommy.”
“My earliest memories of kids’ music are things like the Partridge Family and the Osmonds,” Niewald says, “but things like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ were kids’ songs.”
“I loved the Monkees,” Kesler adds.
“I had [the Royal Guardsmen’s novelty song] ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’ ” Gose says. “Is that kids’ music?”
“I remember stealing my brother’s and sister’s records with all kinds of stuff — Beatles and Stones,” Kesler says. “And my sister was way into soul music — the Spinners and the Tops and the O’Jays and the Commodores. The first concert I went to without my parents was Stevie Wonder, right before Songs in the Key of Life.”
“My sister had that record,” Lovern says, “and we played it to death, in Pittsburg, Kansas.”
“I remember those K-tel records,” Gose says, “and they had this Elvis set. The TV commercial played a clip from the Jailhouse Rock movie, and that’s the song that hooked me.”
“My parents took me to see him when I was 9,” Kesler says.
“I’m so jealous,” Lovern answers.
“I think I was 5 or 6,” Gose says, “and I begged my parents to get it for me. And I remember them grilling me about what exactly I liked about him. The words? The beat? I think I told them, ‘Well, it’s just everything!’ “