Interview Outtakes: Dan Zanes on Playing in Bahrain, the Impact of Children's Music and the Del Fuegos Reunion

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Dan Zanes
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Children's music isn't just about Raffi, Disney and Kidz Bop anymore, and thank goodness for that. From They Might Be Giants to Elizabeth Mitchell, more and more respected artists are trying their hands at a different kind of children's music, one with an emphasis on inclusive, family-friendly fun.Dan Zanes may be the foremost proponent of this new approach. He frequently speaks of wanting to inspire families to make their own music for fun. Since 2000, he's enjoyed a thriving career with just that attitude. His CDs -- all on his own independent label, Festival Five Records -- combine elements of the blues, jazz, early rock & roll, folk and African music in a lighthearted mélange. In this week's paper, I spoke with Zanes; below, here are some outtakes in which he discusses an upcoming Del Fuegos reunion, playing his children's music in Bahrain and how having his own label has been a boon to his career. Dan Zanes and Friends will be at COCA (Center of Creative Arts), 524 Trinity Avenue, University City. 7 p.m. Friday, March 11. 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday, March 12. 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 13. Tickets are $18 to $22. 314-725-6555.

Mike Appelstein: You have your own label. Has that helped you weather the current music business climate? Dan Zanes: It has. When I made my first recording, it was really just a cassette tape. I was making a solo record when my daughter was born. When she was about three, I made this cassette to give out to friends with kids. I was thinking of all-ages music, and I was also thinking about parents going to get CDs for their kids and not enjoying them. There's a window of opportunity when your kids are young where you can have a musical experience without resorting to pop music. There are a lot of themes of romantic love that are difficult for three-year-olds to understand. So I decided to see if I could make all-ages music, made this cassette and gave it out to people. No one cared about my solo record, but everyone wanted copies of this cassette. So I decided I would leave pop music behind and start a record company. It was an incredibly easy decision to make because I was having so much fun doing it. I have a business that's [been] working for ten years. I have some incredible people running the label, and by staying nimble and independent we've been able to survive the downs of the music business when others haven't.

I once read an interview with They Might Be Giants where they talked about children as being tough crowds. Have you found that to the the case? I love They Might Be Giants, but I disagree with them on that one. Young people are the best audience ever, because having instruments and playing songs is enough. It doesn't even need to be more than that. I love it when people sing along and it's great to have dance parties, so there's a lot for people in the audience to do at our concerts. Music in and of itself is a full meal.

I don't want to forget to ask about the Del Fuegos, because I see that you're doing a reunion show. We're going to play one or two shows in Boston. They're benefits for Right Turns which [the Del Fuegos'] drummer [Woody Giessmann] started. It's an organization that helps out people with drug and alcohol problems. He's doing really well with it, but they're struggling financially. But he's really good at it; he just went to Washington to get an award. I don't know if it's exactly "Counselor of the Year," but something along those lines. It's going to be a one-off thing; we're already having fights about the opening act! But we're still friends, so it's good natured. I'm proud of the lives that everyone's led.

(More below...) Zanes and the Del Fuegos, "Don't Run Wild"

You're playing in Bahrain before COCA? I'm really excited. It will be our second time in Bahrain. That was one of the most memorable trips that we ever made, the first time we went to the Middle East. It was a dream audience. There were people from all parts of the world there, although it was a mostly Arabic crowd. A lot of expatriates there. The craziest thing was there were a lot of teenagers. They were really into it. We've always deliberately tried to make our music all ages, and it seemed like in Bahrain, people were totally open to that. The family culture there is very, very strong. There's a Palestinian musician who plays with us on our records; we brought him to Bahrain with us, so we were able to sing in Arabic. This year he's going over early and working with the group over there. They're doing some music and dance that will be incorporated into our show. So we'll be able to get even further into the culture this time.

Your brother Warren, who was also in the Del Fuegos with you; is he still the Vice President of Education at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? He's actually just left that job. Right now he's working with Little Steven running his foundation. It's a huge project bringing music education, with a focus on rock & roll, into the classroom.

But you're both involved in educational outreach, to some extent. Well, music shaped both of our lives, and we both believe young people need to be exposed to the arts. Whether it's music, dance or theatre, it can change lives, and it does every day.

How have you seen that play out within your own fans? Where I see it all the time is in the youth groups that we work with. Everywhere we go, we try to plan ahead and find the interesting and talented young people in that town. And a lot of times it's well outside the school - it tends to be that there are motivated adults in the town who have organized musical youth groups of one sort or another. Our interest, because we cover the Anglo music pretty well, is people who are doing music from other traditions. Everybody always says the same thing: The young people who come through these programs are much, much less likely to get in trouble with the law, they do better in school, there's little to no teen pregnancy...across the board, the statistics say that young people involved in the arts are radically different, no matter how poor or troubled their town might be.

Dan Zanes, "Catch That Train"

Have you ever had to cut a song from your set for being too risque? No. There were a couple of times where we almost cut songs from a record, but in the end good sense prevailed. Young people and the adults they're with, they can tell when a song is just a song or a piece of history. For example, there's a drinking song that's on our Sea Music CD called "All For Me Grog." We did that with a couple family bands and a 13-year-old singing it. And they started to get cold feet about it, so I played it for my mother. She said, "Oh, no, you've got to put that on there." It turned out to be one of our most popular tunes. Everyone who listened to that record understood that it was just an old drinking song, not a call to arms encouraging young people to drink. Just a little piece of history, and really funny to hear a 13-year-old singing it. By keeping our sense of humor intact, we're able to work through a lot of issues.

Have any families every sent you videos or CDs of the bands they've created, or told you about them later? Yeah, I hear that all the time. Living in the electronic era when communication is so easy, if anyone wants to let me know, all they have to do is send an email through the website. It's encouraged me to start a series of guitar, mandolin and other lessons online. Sometimes the idea is good, but people don't know where to go to learn how to play the guitar that's been sitting in the attic for 20 years. Casual music-making is on the rise!

What do you have planned for 2011? The new CD is the big project. That's due out this summer, and we're well into it now. Different collaborations, and we're trying to relaunch our holiday show this year.

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