Not Just for Kids: an Interview with the Banana Slug String Band
Go to any Jamband festival and you’ll see dozens of kids wandering around eating sticks and generally being ignored—while thousands of young adult’s rock out, acting like children themselves. Where then is music specifically designed for the munchkins? Enter our four heroes Airy Larry, Solar Steve, Marine Mark and Doug Dirt. For 25 years the Banana Slug String Band has been performing around the world—spreading a message of eco-hope and teaching children the magic of our blue and green orb. Based in Santa Cruz, California the Banana Slug String Band has a new CD featuring some of the biggest names in the Jamband scene and is available at their website www.bananaslugstringband.com
You were all naturalists when you met and now Steve and Mark run the very programs that were your original inspiration.
Larry: They actually run San Mateo outdoor education—a resident outdoor education program. 200 kids come with their teachers and for five days are taken on trails where they learn about Redwood trees and the ocean and environmental education.
Doug: For years and years and years. They are actually famous curriculum developers, educators and trainers. One is a county wide administrator and the other is a Principal on site—legit nine-month a year jobs.
Larry: We all met at these camps thirty years ago. We were naturalists also, teaching the kids. I was coming out of the University of Michigan with a degree in environmentalism.
Doug: I graduated from Ohio University with a pre-law and communication degree that I wrote, and came to California to go to Law School. The early part of my career, environmental education was done at a YMCA camp in Dayton, Ohio—that’s where I first started being a counselor in High School. I found a love of nature and kids and that’s where it all started for me.
Larry: I was like a science teacher/naturalist that would lead trails and teach the lessons.
Most bands are very exclusive—audience members are lucky if their presence is acknowledged. A Banana Slug String Band show is more like being around a campfire—everyone is included.
Doug: The focus for us has to always been to be edutainers—educational educators. Our message has always been about love for the planet, families and kids. All of our music, our issues, anything we do is about that. Since we all mostly come from an outdoor camp environment we all have a framework of inclusive interactivity. Singing and dancing allows the message to go deeper. The kind of things we were doing in our outdoor education totally translates to being onstage. It might be for a couple of thousand people, but it’s a big campfire.
Larry: The more audience participation, the better the show. When we have a really great kid get onstage and sing it raises the energy and everyone gets pumped up. When we started we were more a string band and acoustic. Over the years, we have evolved into more of rock band, so it’s gotten louder, but we always try to break on through to the audience. Break through all the barriers and interact with the audience.
Doug: Bringing kids onstage. Bringing adults onstage and getting them to do spontaneous theatre or even to have them sing-along with us. There is always a kinesthetic side. The songs get everyone moving with us.
Do you think that even though kids may not pick up on the environmental messages in your songs, that just by participating in the Banana Slug String Band ritual of song and dance and levity, that there is growth that occurs?
Larry: Yes. If we were just singing to them it would be on one level. But since we are sharing in kinesthetic movement with them and song and making them laugh I think it gets in deeper. I have been told over the years from people who now bring their own children to the shows that they always remembered our message. Teachers tell us that their students will be singing our songs throughout the semester because they are fun to sing.
You don’t dumb it down as so many acts that play for children do. And, ultimately I don’t feel like you “push” your message, as much as, share your own love for planetary studies. When you first got together, was everyone a musician?
Larry: We were all musicians of various backgrounds and we were all writing songs. Solar Steve has always been a prolific songwriter and as his songwriting evolved, ours, kind of, decreased. Everyone still helps on arrangement. Our new album will be released nationwide in 2011 with 14 new songs and it’s called Only One Ocean. It’s about ocean conservation.
Doug: What’s cool about being 25 years in to this process of being a band, is that we’re getting a lot of adults, who are in all kinds of fields, but definitely educators. They are clear that seeing us at an early age was a significant experience that affected different parts of their lives. We want to bring awareness to the magic of the planet and why it’s worth caring for, exploring and learning about. To be able to get feedback like that about the long term effects of the band is encouraging and heartwarming. It lifts my spirit and it is the reason we have stayed together for 25 years.
You’re like a Dr. Seuss book. On one level the parents are enjoying the show and on another level kids really respond to your edutainment.
Larry: I love humor. I love making people laugh. Even if at that the moment, the kids are not learning about saving the earth, they’re opening up. Even though environmental issues aren’t normally funny, global warming is a serious issue—we never make kids feel guilty, there’s no negativity in the show. We have a new song coming out about Global Warming, it’s hilarious and it’s called “Too Hot.”
Doug: Our goal is not burden kids with giant adult issues that they have no empowerment to do anything about. It is our goal to awaken kids to the issues that they have the tools to do something about. People depressed are overwhelmed and the hopeless do not aspire to change the things around them.
Steve: Our passion is to educate kids about nature and the environment. The music, theatre, lyrics and the language arts is how we do it—it’s such an effective way to get the message to children.
Mark: Right, we do not dumb-down the music and the lyrics. We use sophisticated musical styles and the lyrics that Steve writes are catchy and informative. We use costumes and design to bring the kids into the experience of the show. And that is also why we are able to do this for 25 years, it’s not boring.
Larry: We want to unify around a positive message. Not pie-in-the-sky, but, real goals we can achieve if we work together.
What are your musical backgrounds?
Doug: Solar Steve is a folkie guy—loves Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He comes from a strong tradition of singer/songwriting. Marine Mark is an old rocker. Larry loves the Dead. I come from a soul and funk background. We are very interdependent as a band. Steve brings in these raw gems and we use our influences to turn it into all kinds of music.
Both of you, Airy Larry and Doug Dirt are in a side project called Slugs and Roses celebrating the music of the Grateful Dead—what’s the crossover between bands like?
Larry: Both bands rely on the energy of the audience. It’s an intimate relationship between our audience and the band.