The Winnipeg Folk Festival is all about discovery. Every week from now until the festival, we are digging into the lineup and profiling the artists we think should be on your radar.
This week: Koo Koo Kanga Roo.
A kids' band for adults too.
That's how vocalists Bryan Atchison and Neil Olstad, both 28, sum up Koo Koo Kanga Roo -- their interactive dance party/comedic pop project. With songs such as All I Eat Is Pizza, Unicorns R Real, Awesome Rainbows and Squish That Bug, the Minneapolis duo appeals to both the preschool and post-grad set, able to play a 10-day stint on the Yo Gabba Gabba! live tour and open for U.K. folk-punk singer-songwriter Frank Turner on his North American tour.
In fact, it was at the Turner gig here in Winnipeg last October that Koo Koo Kanga Roo caught the attention of Winnipeg Folk Festival artistic director Chris Frayer, who was eager to book them for this year's festival. Not everyone was down with Atchison and Olstad's idea of a good time at the Garrick, however. "Someone came up to me, shook my hand and said, 'I despise what you do and I hope you never return' -- while shaking my hand," Atchison says with a laugh.
Still, Koo Koo Kanga Roo wins over more people than it repels. "That seems to be a good thing for us, typically, when we play for people who don't know what they're in for," Olstad says. "We catch them by surprise. But mostly people come to our shows prepared to dance."
The duo puts an emphasis on audience participation -- not unlike Halifax electropop experimentalist Rich Aucoin, who played near-identical sets at both Big Bluestem, folk fest's alternative mainstage, and the Chickadee Bigtop, the kids' stage, at last year's festival. Kids and adults alike can learn the duo's signature dance moves and clap and sing along.
"It's really silly," Atchison says. "We're more ridiculous than not." But they're up there giving it their all. "Hopefully that disarms people. I mean, we sing songs about dinosaurs and cutting crusts off your PB&J." (Personally, I'm convinced that anyone who doesn't feel compelled to sing along to "I want a PB & J but I want NO CRUSTS! I said I want NO CRUSTS! I said I want NO CRUSTS!" doesn't like fun.)
Koo Koo Kanga Roo's energy and enthusiasm is infectious.
"The kids love it because we're singing about things in their world," Olstad says. "For adults, I think it's more about laughing at us."
Koo Koo Kanga Roo's songs are deceptively effortless. "As simple as they are, they take time," Olstad says.
"We come up with a huge list of ideas for songs -- a lot happens when we're driving," Atchison adds. "Usually it's build around a tune. I write the melody and Neil writes the lyrics. We don't have instruments, so it's a back-and-forth thing."
Atchison and Neil have been making music together for a decade, having met in college in 2004. "We were in another band that was a little more of a rock band," Atchison says. "Then everything ended with that. Neil and I were roommates and wanted to try something different and dancey."
Flash forward a couple years, and Koo Koo Kanga Roo was booking gigs at both rock clubs and children's birthday parties. The duo began touring with the Aquabats, whose lead singer, Christian Jacobs, is the co-creator of Yo Gabba Gabba! -- Nickelodeon's groundbreaking musical kids' show-turned-cultural phenomenon. Children love it, but the show also has plenty of cachet among child-free music fans and hip parents alike; the Flaming Lips, Band of Horses, MGMT, Chromeo, Weezer and more have appeared as musical guests -- or Super Music Friends -- singing kid-friendly versions of their songs or originals.
So, in 2011, when Koo Koo Kanga Roo was invited to hit the road with Yo Gabba Gabba's DJ Lance Rock and friends, it was a no-brainer. "We were the Super Music Friends and it was awesome. We were playing big rooms. It was a new experience."
The duo's release model is almost as unorthodox as its music. With the exception of this year's Whoopty Whoop and a best-of package called Rad-trospective, Koo Koo Kanga Roo has released all of its music digitally, in a pay-what-you-can-model.
"We don't think about physical product so, in our brains, no one else does either," Atchison says. "In our old band, we'd order 500 CDs, sell 50 of them, and the rest would sit in someone's basement. We were experimenting; we didn't know if people would want this. After six years, we made a "best of" compilation. We waited until there was a demand -- or until the point where people got it."
Atchison and Olstad encourage pointing and laughing at their upcoming folk fest gig. "Bring rotten fruit to throw at us," Atchison says.
As for the passive-aggressive concertgoer from the Garrick? "Let's call him Franklin," Atchison says. "I hope he's there."