• Parent’s Choice Gold Award
  • Family Choice Gold Award

Food poisoning may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to subjects for children’s songs, but you’ll find it on this inventive new album of gastronomic adventures from Gunnar Madsen (“Old Mr. Mackle Hackle,” “Ants in My Pants,” “I’m Growing”). On his first children’s album in a decade, Madsen’s delightfully lugubrious track, “Egg Salad in the Sun,” is just one of many quirky pleasures to be found. Madsen, whose gift for mixing thoughtfulness and wild helpings of humor is on full display, suits his versatile vocals to each song, part singer, part storyteller, part stand-up comedian who knows how to deliver a punch line. (An example of Madsen’s comic timing at the ending of “Egg Salad” is the sly suggestion of picnic-goer Brian’s unhappy fate.) “City of Sardines,” on the other hand, is breathtaking in its delicate musicality (Madsen is a multi-instrumentalist, too) and with its theme of a time of plenty returning to a hungry village: “With lanterns and nets/The people gather/The children laugh, the trumpets ring …” Frances England, one of three guest artists on the album, is featured on the track. Madsen pulls in other talent as well: Bill Harley guests on the seriocomic “Liver” (My brother loves his liver, but me, it makes me shiver”); and Justin Roberts joins Madsen on “The Longest Night of the Year,” a song that tugs heartstrings with its descriptions of a holiday dinner with extended family.

Skipping a decade can be detrimental to a musician (or group)’s career; R.E.M. may have broken up in 2011 and I’ve been waiting in vain to hear about Michael Stipe doing anything substantial musically. On the children’s music front, Raffi took 14 years off but then released two CDs in 14 months. The latest to fill in the blanks is Gunnar Madsen, re-entering the fray with I Am Your Food, a collection of culinary-based chorales.

I’m blowing the significance of the recording gap way out of proportion—Gunnar has been busy with other musical pursuits, including work for the Los Angeles Theater Company, the Minnesota Opera, and National Public Radio. Along the way he recorded the 13 songs (and 3 bonus tracks available through a Bandcamp pre-order) that range from straightforward to curious to tributary (“Riders on the Storm” remade as “Egg Salad in the Sun”).

A foodie residing in the little-known hamlet of Berkeley, California, Gunnar announces his intentions right out of the bread basket, rustling up an appetite in “10,000 Pancakes.” If you’ve ever wondered what a cow might sing, “Divine Bovine” answers that question with a whistling shuffle. Three guest stars deliver numbers solidly within their pantheon—Bill Harley with the giggly, icky “Liver;” Frances England on the fanciful, fictional “City of Sardines;” and Justin Roberts gets the last word relating a holiday tale, “The Longest Night,” about a big Thanksgiving family dinner.

Gunnar reaches Tower of Power territory with the brassy, snazzy “Food Too Fast” and channels Redbone and Randy Newman for the forlorn “Lunch Is in a Paper Bag,” as a student dreams of an actual lunch box. “Shelf Life” uses food expiration to serve as a parable to living life to the fullest before you “go to waste.” Perhaps the most fanciful track, however, is the ethereal “City of Sardines,” with its saga of a rainfall of fish that saves a starving Japanese province.

Full disclosure: I am unfamiliar with Gunnar’s earlier children’s work. He took a break just as I was getting into the medium as a reviewer. For those waiting for him to return, the CD may play as a continuation of his preceding discography. I Am Your Food stands apart from most of this year’s releases, on its own merits, as one of the most intriguing (and aurally edible) of 2018. Bon appetit!

Jeffrey Cohen, GeekDad

I have had SO much fun with this post! I was passed a pre-release copy of Gunnar Madsen’s new album a couple of weeks ago and loved the unique and quirky vibe. The lyrics are awesome! I have to say that I’ve never heard an album for kids that is quite like this. Of course I would HAVE to do something with this music! The songs are all very catchy and memorable and it was tough to decide which one to go with since they are all so fun. There’s a song about food that’s so fast it runs off to the other side of town; a song about worms and why they are the dietary supplement we should all be considering (!) ; but it was the song ‘I am your food’ which I finally went with. I loved this song in particular because it teaches kids that what you eat is what you are. If the food you eat isn’t good enough then you won’t be. This was a great topic for me since I have a 3 year old and a 5 year old and they are at that age where they would gladly eat ice cream for dinner every night!

Mamatomomama

Gastronomy is definitely an underrepresented theme in music. Honestly when I think about music for families I think of bugs and crayons and road trips. Why don’t I think about food as musical fodder? After all, eating is a much bigger part of our daily lives than any of those other things. So it should go without saying that I was intrigued to find I Am Your Food by Gunnar Madsen. I approached as I would any new food: with a little trepidation and a lot of nervous excitement. Sure I worry about not liking something, but I love the idea of finding a new love.

The food is a hit. I mean the music about food is a hit. Even my picky eaters, I mean listeners, loved it. Gunnar keeps things grounded in reality but with a healthy, natural dose of absurdity. In short he walks that same fine line that children love. Take In My Soup, for instance. It’s an entire song built on the joke “waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?” “The backstroke, sir.”

But that’s not the best one. Can I even pick a best song? I love Diet of Worms and it’s nod to They Might Be Giants. I love Egg Salad in the Sun (and frequently go back to replay the ending, it just cracks me up! Don’t judge me.) with it’s clear tribute to The Doors. But if I had to pick a favourite, it would be the one that gets the boys in the backseat singing along with me: the titular I Am Your Food.

You are what you eat, after all. And if what you eat if half as good as this album, then you’re excellent.

Cherry Blossoms

Do you have a budding comedian on your hands? Is your kid the one who who always goes for the silly in just about any situation? Have you taken your kid to see Weird Al Yankovic’s show? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then Gunnar Madsen’s latest summer release is the album for you and your family!

As the son of a sanitation worker, Gunnar Madsen has hauled and emptied many a trashcan in his younger, more formative years. The result? A longtime interest in food and the cycle of food production and waste. Now, that fascination with food has birthed a family music album dedicated, stem to stern, to that very subject. I Am Your Food is a silly sonic deep dive into machinations around the origins, production, presentation, and sensory symbiosis of food.

Joke songs are a tricky thing, but Gunnar Madsen pulls it off by being a talented and savvy pop music stylist. Madsen is dead serious about his jokes. “Just because it’s silly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be GOOD,” he states. Musical influences abound on this album. From The Doors to Talking Heads, Neil Diamond to They Might Be Giants, Madsen fuses his content with the perfect musical analogs. Egg Salad in the Sun uses that dark sound first cultivated by The Doors to give his audience a veritable feeling of bacteria multiplying on food left to its own devices under plastic wrap on a hot day. In contrast, the track In My Soup conjures images of David Byrne in his oversized suit, back floating in a giant bowl of consommé. What if I? sounds like Neil Diamond and an older Johnny Cash had a comedic love child, which oddly enough, perfectly pairs itself with the introspective questions that ultimately asks the listener whether love is unconditional, even if things are a little ridiculous.

Gunnar Madsen is testing you, and at the same time, he cares! He cares about your gut micro biome, as exemplified in Diet of Worms (the cure to an overly sanitized world). Food is the stuff of life. It defines culture, comfort, and love. So, don’t fear your serving of liver or starchy carbs–as aptly put by Gunnar Madsen himself, “This is the dawning of the Age of Asparagus.”

Anouck Iyer, Eat The Marshmallow

Roll up your sleeves, pop your apron on and grab your knife and fork! Our High Five this week is a finger-lickin’ good album and a treat for the ears, I Am Your Food by Gunnar Madsen.

There are delicious messages about food production, including a yummy power ballad about the food we consume, ‘I Am Your Food’, a delectable song about the dangers of fast food, ‘Food Too Fast’ and a flavour-filled warning to use what we have, called ‘Shelf Life’.

A crisp, yet juicy record, I Am Your Food is on our High Five menu every day this week!

Kinderling (Australia)

Album Credits & 'About the Songs'
  • Produced and Performed (except for special guests) by Gunnar Madsen
  • Cover Art: Leftover Food artwork by Noah Scalin (noahscalin.com)
  • All other art: Gunnar Madsen
  • Recorded at: G-Spot Studios, Berkeley, ca
  • Mastered By: Myles Boisen at Headless Buddha, Oakland ca
  • Love & Thanks To: Beth Blenz-Clucas, Justin Roberts, Frances England, Bill Harley, Marcella Madsen, Quinn Madsen, Myles Boisen & David Jouris (sampler quotes) and so many more, for their support and inspiration. 

My brain is always thinking, drifting off hither and yon. I like leaving it off leash, seeing where it goes…

Song #1 – 10,000 Pancakes – Back in the mid-70’s, both me and my roommate were earning our way through college by working as custodians. We’d go to work at 5pm (when everyone else at the University was leaving their jobs) and we’d empty trash, clean toilets and polish floors until 2am. When we woke up in the late morning, we’d be powerfully hungry. I don’t know that we ever ate 10,000 pancakes, but our stacks were very, very high! Nothing filled us up so well and so cheaply. These days I’m satisfied with a mere short stack.

Song #2 – Divine Bovine – For years I’ve been buying fresh milk, direct from the cow (well, direct from the farmer who milks the cow). Some weeks it will be all from dear sweet “Buttercup”, the next week from “Bubblegum” or “Frosty”. The color of the milk changes with the seasons, the milk varies slightly from cow to cow. When the cows have babies, their milk goes to feed their babies, and I have to go without their milk for a few months. This all somehow got me thinking about all those cartons of milk, from cows we don’t know, and how those cows might feel about it. Cows seem content, maybe it really doesn’t bother them. But I feel it’s worth a shout out to all those cows, and give thanks for their milk.

Song #3 – Diet of Worms – My good friend David Jouris suggested the song title, told me about how Martin Luther (of Lutheran Church fame) argued with the Catholic Church at the Diet of Worms. The ‘worms’ in this case was the name of the city in which the ‘diet’ (in this case a meeting of a legislative body) was held. Whatever. To me it suggested something more along the lines of a bowl of gross noodles, and I went to work writing a song based on the title.

Song #4 – What if I? – When I was a kid, there was a guy named Neil Diamond who sang searing emotional songs about what it means to be a man (I Am, I Cried; Solitary Man). Other popular songs in the same vein included “If I Were a Carpenter”. These songs were in my mind as I worked on a song idea about a man who loves certain foods, but wonders of his lover will accept him, weird foods and all. The song came into focus when I put the man behind a deli counter – smelling of all things deli. Is he still love-able? Is he worthy?

Song #5 – In My Soup – There’s an ancient joke, popular in American Vaudeville but probably dating to the Pharaohs of Egypt, that goes…
          DINER:   Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup!
          WAITER:   The backstroke, sir.
That’s basically what this song is all about.

Song #6 – Egg Salad in the Sun – Driving home one day, I heard the comedy duo Drennon Davis & Karen Kilgariff introduce a song they’d written called “Goths in the Sun”. The song title kicked my mind into overdrive, and before I’d opened my front door the idea of Jim Morrison singing about an Egg Salad in the Sun was a completed thought. All I had to do was write the song 🙂

Song #7- I Am Your Food – “You Are What You Eat” This old phrase is used to admonish us all to think about the food we put in our bodies, to try to eat a healthy diet. But, what if the connection between what we eat and who we are were a little more real? That’s the question I endeavor to answer with this song. Why should the voice of food sound like Tom Waits? I don’t know, but when I tried it as Lionel Richie, it just wasn’t right.

Song #8- Liver – I’m not a fan. It is truly the only food I can’t stand. Never could. As a child, when liver was served at our home, I was forced to sit at the table in front of my uneaten liver until bedtime, when I would be served a spanking and then sent to bed. My dad thought that experience might make me change my mind about liver. He was wrong.

Song #9 – Food Too Fast – I was wondering one day: What if food were really fast – I mean, like a car is fast? What if you had to chase it? I suppose that’s how it was for early humans. Chasing their food (animals, not berries) was a literal concept for them.

Song #10 – Lunch is in a Paper Bag – Inspired by Charlie Brown, sitting on a bench with his lunch, pining for the little red-headed girl. Also inspired by my own memories of all the cool kids with their lunchboxes with all the latest superheroes or cartoon characters on it, while I’ve got a wrinkled paper bag. They seemed so lucky, like they owned the future and everything in it.

Song #11 – City of Sardines – On a family vacation to Japan, we visited a restaurant that served nothing but sardines. Sardine salad, Sardine soup, Sardine bones (delicious and crunchy!). The restaurant is called “Iwashigumi”, which means Gang of Sardines. Back home, the idea of a bountiful harvest of sardines came to me, and the words poured out. For the music, I toyed with various synthesizers in the computer, creating loops, and then cut up the music and pasted it together in different ways until it became what you hear.

Song #12 – Shelf Life – My father ran a garbage company. I worked at a recycling center all through High School. My older sister, who I admired greatly, was a devotee of organic gardening and composting and aphorisms such as “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”. And so I carry, deep in my consciousness, a sense of frugality and a concept of utility. The music for this song was intended as an instrumental, but when the phrase “Shelf Life” came to me, so did the whole idea of a song about not letting food go to waste.

Song #13 – The Longest Night – I’ve known Justin Roberts for years – he’s hosted me at his home and at some of his Chicago concerts over the years. He’s a cool cat. And I love his voice. I really wanted him to sing with me on this album, but the song had to be just right to take advantage of his charms. I sent him many different ideas, but this one, a memory about big family meals at winter holidays, struck home for both of us. I’m so pleased to finally get to sing with Justin on a recording.

 

  • One of 200 CDs that mattered in 2001 (Tower Pulse)
  • Parent’s Choice Gold Award
  • Publishers Weekly Listen Up Award
  • CMW Best Recording for Older Children

Gunnar Madsen, founding member of the a capella group the Bobs, broke into children’s and family music with his delightfully original 1999 release, “Old Mr. Mackle Hackle.” His unique follow-up is even better. Again as much for adults to enjoy as children, with fab, sophisticated instrumentals and vocals–some from his a cappella roots–gorgeous melodies, and musical references to classic Elvis, doo-wop, early 1960s rock and 1940s singing cowboys. It’s as witty as all get-out and often unexpectedly touching, too, reflecting Madsen’s gift for marrying zany lyrics with lovely melodies.

A few of many standouts: “Welcome to My Fog,” comfort for any kid who struggles with a short attention span; the wonderfully lugubrious “Ballad of the Lonesome Rider” (“I am a cowboy born to weep/See how my tears water the desert”); the wacky, theatrical, “And the Children Rolled,” about the round and rambling offspring of a crooked man and “a lady as straight as a pin.” Also, songs about car trips are a children’s music staple, but Madsen’s “Are We There Yet?” defies expectations. It’s an exquisitely mellow, Harry Nilsson-ish invitation to dream as the miles go by.

Gunnar Madsen, founder of the genre-busting a cappella group The Bobs, is back with another uproarious, dizzyingly imaginative children’s album.  Nowhere else, we guarantee you, will you find songs like Madsen’s drowsy ode to daydreaming, “Welcome fo My Fog,” his wacky tall tale “And the Children Rolled,” and the bizarre “Mayonnaise and Pumpernickel Bread,” which defies description.

Moira McCormick

Versatile performer and musician Madsen (Old Mr. Mackle Hackle) returns with his second recording for children, a fine-sounding collection filled with humor and irresistible charm. The list of pluses here includes top-drawer singing, funny lyrics and clever arrangements and music. Listeners can’t help but chuckle at songs like “Tuna Fish” about a boy named, um, Tuna Fish, or “Old Baloney” a tongue-twisting tune about the nasty smell that this lunchmeat emits if you “leave it in your locker for a rainy day.” Madsen provides his own catchy back-up singing on the very sunny “I Am Loved,” about the happy felling that comes with knowing one is loved. “Are We There Yet?” features Madsen harmonizing with himself on a wistful, beautiful song about a cross-country car trip with the family. The nonsense number “Mayonnaise and Pumpernickel Bread” contains lots of fun-to-sing words and phrases that Madsen performs in a range of voices. And winding things down, an a cappella verse is but one of the highlights of the smooth version of “Home on the Range” that closes the album. The high production quality and wide variety of musical/vocal styles and sounds here assures enjoyable family listening. All ages.  ‘Star’ review.

Gunnar Madsen’s a cappella roots– he’s one of the founding members of The Bobs– are in evidence in this irresistible follow-up to his first family album, 1999’s “Old Mr. Mackle Hackle.” So are his off-beat sense of humor, his unexpectedly beautiful melodies, and instrumentals that are as adult as they get, without losing sight of young listeners. Some highlights: The Elvis-style title song, dedicated to “all of you out there who have trouble sittin’ still”; a soulful lament sung by a kid named “Tuna Fish,” an irresistibly lugubrious, 1940s-cowboy-style “Ballad of the Lonesome Rider” (“I am a cowboy born to weep/See how my tears water the desert”), and “Are We There Yet?,” a backseat query familiar to any parental driver, that serves here as the springboard to a breathtakingly lovely journey of the imagination.

And then there is the oddest of this deliciously odd bunch: “And the Children Rolled,” a wildly visual story song about the marriage of a crooked man and “a lady as straight as a pin,” whose “round like a ball” children roll out the door one day and fall in love with an ice cream truck. Madsen is a one-of-a-kind delight.

Lynne Heffley ©2002 Parents’ Choice

This New Year delivers two new releases by two of my favorite children’s artists, Bill Harley and Gunnar Madsen. These intelligent and slightly unconventional performers always come through in the proverbial pinch. Never condescending and always interesting, they are blasts of fresh air in what can sometimes be a paint-by-numbers musical genre…

…Now, in a different place but a similar space, one can find Gunnar Madsen’s Ants in My Pants the follow-up to his critically acclaimed album, Old Mr. Mackle Hackle. You’re going to hear a bunch of great voices and some very talented musicians and they’re all wrapped up in one person named Gunnar Madsen! This guys so talented he makes you sick. A song called “Don’t Shake Hands with a One-Eyed Pirate” is a zany mini-musical. In another, a boy named “Tuna Fish” faces a particular set of problems, pointing out that “other boys have normal names like Siegfried or Roy.” “The Lonely Dog Tango” adopts the perspective of the family pet left home alone, while the traditional “Home on the Range” showcases Madsen’s command of arrangement and harmony, not to mention his super-smooth voice and production skills. The entertainment value is off the-charts with Madsen’s sophomore release. Check in and check it out. So, two fine fellows that have a raft of new tunes that will make you laugh until milk comes out your nose – Note to self: don’t drink milk while listening. Catch you on the flip side!

John Wood, United Parent Publications

Berkeley resident Gunnar Madsen has had two music careers; he was the founding member of the a cappella group, The Bobs, and is now a children’s performer and recording artist. His latest CD, “Ants in My Pants,” is one of the most professional recordings for children I have ever heard. From the arrangements and the wonderful Doo-Wop-like background vocals, to the musical accompaniment and wealth of original songs, Madsen has it all. “Ants in My Pants” has cuts done before a live audience, like the opening title song that sounds a little like Elvis. “Don’t Shake Hands With a One-eyed Pirate” is a little Gilbert and Sullivan-like, sounding like a Broadway cast recording. “Ballad of the Lonesome rider” is a stand-out, like something from The Riders in the Sky. I also enjoyed the ballad, “Are We There Yet?” which has a neo-folk, bluesy quality.

Madsen’s music will please adults as well as kids due to the clever lyrics, overall originality, and high production values. What is amazing is that Madsen provides all the vocals and plays all the instruments! He also wrote or co-wrote all the songs! “Ants in My Pants” has already been named a Top Ten recording for children by Tower Pulse magazine, and has received a Parents’ Choice Award. You can’t go wrong with this CD, especially for parents who are tired of kids’ music that underestimates the taste of children. A sure hit!

If you haven’t heard Madsen’s previous CD, you may also want to pick up “Old Mr. Mackle Hackle, “ first issued in 1999. It, too, has received several awards, including a Parents’ Choice Award and the 2000 Children’s Music Web Award. It also contains original songs, all written or co-written by Madsen. These songs represent lots of genres, from folk, to country, to Leiber and Stoller style rock and roll. With titles like “The Dinosaur Song” and “I’m a Little Twerp,” you know this will have child appeal.

Penny Peck, Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California

  • NPR Music #4 of the Top 10 CDs for Kids and Families in 2008
  • Parent’s Choice Gold Award
  • Nappa Gold Award

New York Post

Musical multitasker Madsen founded the a capella group the Bobs and created scores for movies, TV shows, video games and plays. Now, he turns his attention to music for kids. The best here are the multitracked vocals that create wacky-sounding walls of Bobby McFerrin-esque sound, like on “Mozart’s at the Window (40th Symphony)” and “Sun Comes Up.” Weirdness is plentiful in many forms, from the slightly off-kilter “I Feel a Waltz Coming On” (a song about a man’s uncontrollable urge to waltz) to the Talking Heads-y anthem “Library Party.” “I’m Growing” is pretty different from any other children’s album out there, and is all the better for it.

KidsMusicThatRocks

March 12, 2008

Well, I guess I made a donkey out of both of us, because I assumed this guy was just another goofy, over-the-top kids’ performer, judging by his past kids’ album covers and song titles. BOY, WAS I WRONG! I’m Growing has to be the most inventive, unique children’s music CD of the year, and a majority of the magic was achieved using nothing but voices and piano.

Gunnar Madsen is a seasoned songwriting veteran, with several grownup CDs and kids’ albums under his belt. He founded the a cappella group The Bobs in the early ’80s (thus the abundance of voices and vocal percussion on I’m Growing), and has written music for theater, film, television, and video games. He also wrote the score for the musical The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, and produced the documentary Svetlana Village. And all of this experience informs the work on I’m Growing.

Man, where to begin with the highlights: The explosion of vocals on the title track, the Harry Nilsson dead ringer “Walkin’ Back to Texas”, the Todd Rundgren-like “Simple”, or the 7/8 time better-than-anything-on-the-Lion-King-soundtrack “Sun Comes Up”. “I Feel a Waltz Coming On” is the best anti-waltz waltz you’ll ever hear; and “Raise Your Voices”, well, could be a Polyphonic Spree song, could be a tune from Godspell … at any rate, it’s a rousing hymn to the power of love.
And then there’s the ridiculous but amazing “Mozart’s at the Window”, Madsen’s lyrical take on Mozart’s 40th symphony; the witty words of “Pumpkin Hair” and “Library Party”; the kitty chorus of “There’s a Bowl of Milk in the Moonlight” (pair that one with Kevin Henkes’ Kitten’s First Full Moon); and Madsen’s almost mantra-like version of “Shenandoah”.

To fully appreciate and comprehend the music on I’m Growing you should read Gunnar’s bio and the album’s liner notes … the songs will make that much more sense. It wouldn’t matter to a kid, of course, as this is simply a solid collection of great songs, but it’s incredibly interesting to see how the course of Madsen’s life affected the development of these particular tunes: Madsen didn’t simply make up and throw together a bunch of songs just to have a kids’ album on the market.

You’d find out, for example, that “Raise Your Voices” and “I Feel a Waltz Coming On” are from a musical-in-progress; that “Cutest Little Guy” is Madsen’s homage to the songwriting styles of Sammy Cahn and Roger Miller; and that Madsen is replying to Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” with “Walkin’ Back to Texas”.

Brilliant arrangements and performances. Period. And funny! And fun! And entertaining for everyone in the family! What more could a kid and his grownups want?

I have been involved with children’s music for more than 20 years and if I had to name my favorite children’s music artists, Gunnar Madsen would certainly be in the top three—and probably number one. Many of you might be scratching your head right now wondering who Gunnar Madsen is and why you are not aware of him.

It really came as a surprise to me when I first realized that Madsen’s newest family-style music recording, “I’m Growing,” is his first release since his critically acclaimed “Ants In My Pants” in 2001.

Lots has happened with Madsen in the past seven years and his fans were left to imagine what kind of album he would make now that he has become a proud parent. It is clear to everyone who heard his first two releases (his debut “Old Mr. Mackle Hackle” was released in 1999) that Madsen is a gifted and talented artist whose recordings set the standard for all other children’s music artists.

The fact that he doesn’t release an album every year so that there is always something “new” to promote is of no real concern to Madsen. He is an artist in the best sense of the word. It is that “less is more” way of approaching music making—a strategy I wish more artists practiced.

As the cliché goes, it was well worth the wait. Once again, Madsen shines as he offers up a diverse and tasty set of songs with “I’m Growing.” No wonder because Madsen is truly a triple threat. First of all, he is a great instrumental musician. He plays almost all of the instruments on the CD from guitars and piano to accordion and percussion. Secondly, he is one of those rare singers blessed with a toolbox full of stylistic voices that is, in all honesty, incomparable. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, Madsen is a songwriter extraordinaire. He understands that good songwriters are good storytellers. And to be completely honest, Madsen is really a quadruple threat because his production sensibilities are exquisite. You will notice all of these traits within the first minute of the first song, which catapults you into a festive flight of wonderfully joyous songs.

As I sat down and listened to Madsen’s new CD again I realized that I could single out each song and tell you what makes each one remarkable. And those of you who frequently read this column know I often struggle with the idea of painting a picture of music with words, but I’ll give it a try. Here are a few of the gems you will find on “I’m Growing.”

“Pumpkin Hair” is like an old folk song rejuvenated with a ‘50’s kind of early rockabilly feel (due partly to the saxophone licks) infused with rhythmic uncertainties and humorous word play that will even make adults chuckle.

And I’m not sure what Madsen was thinking about when he wrote “Walkin’ Back to Texas” but the first time I heard it I thought it well suited for President Bush.

Maybe my favorite is “Cutest Little Guy,” which opens with Madsen singing “He’s the cutest little guy I ever did see/a little like his momma and a lot like me.” You’ll be singing along before the song is over.

What I like most about Madsen’s family-style music is that, as one reviewer pointed out, “the songs really aren’t kids’ songs—there’s nary a song here about the first day of school or learning your alphabet.” Madsen is content to leave that to other folks.Visit Madsen’s Web site (www.gunnarmadsen.com) where you can listen to each song from “I’m Growing.” And be sure to check out his first two “family-style music” recordings, too. You won’t be disappointed. I promise!

Gunnar Madsen, co-founder of the inventive a cappella group “The Bobs,” enriches the field of children’s music in a style uniquely his own.

His new album, “I’m Growing” is his best to date, with off-the-wall lyrics — “I love that lady with the pumpkin hair / She smells as sweet as butter” — and expert, wildly varied vocal and instrumental textures.

Tender cowboy dreams (“Best in the West”), a tribute to librarians and a hilarious take on Mozart’s 40th Symphony give way to a tender finish: a lullaby with Harry Nilsson-like lilting harmonies and a soulful rendition of the traditional “Shenandoah.”

Los Angeles Times

Gunnar Madsen, co-founder of The Bobs a capella group, cuts no corners when it comes to his inventive family music. It’s a winning combination: rib-tickling, off-the-wall, beautifully textured and tender. His subjects range from libraries, good cowboys and a country gal with “pumpkin hair” who “smells as sweet as butter,” to a hilarious take on Mozart’s 40th Symphony (“Mozart’s at the Window”). Madsen’s musical depth and versatility fuels each moment, shifting into mellow mode just as smoothly, with his exquisite lullaby, “Tonight” (“there’ll be stars on your pillow”) and a soulful rendition of “Shenandoah.”

Lynne Heffley ©2008 Parent’s Choice

Sometimes, I do get a little tired of kid songs. Although the kindie rock industry is cranking out consistently good music, some of the artists out there have gone the way of many pop stars – they’re playing it safe and reconstituting the same album each time out.

Not Gunnar Madsen.

After a five-year hiatus, during which he focused on being a dad, Madsen returns with a CD that delivers aural surprises on every track. He displays the far-reaching musicality of David Byrne (listen to the title track’s unusual arrangement) to the lyrical zaniness of Monty Python’s Eric Idle (“Bottom” and “I Feel a Waltz Coming On” could fit into an Idle stage production).

Madsen promenades down the country path on a number of tunes, though never without other stylistic frills. A ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll thread runs through the knee-slapping “Pumpkin Hair” (how tasty is a lyric that says, “she smells as sweet as butter”?) and the edgy feel of Beck sharpens “Walkin’ Back to Texas.”

Two other standouts are “Simple,” which celebrates the basic goodness of life via a Fine Young Cannibals vibe, and “Library Party,” which lets us in on the raucous inner life of librarians.

This is exhilarating music that never sounds the same with each listen. It’s the best work yet from a true family-music innovator.

Gregory Keer

The first song on Gunnar Madsen’s I’m Growing builds to a delightful crescendo of voices and sounds to introduce the latest creation by one of family music’s true geniuses.

Throwaway lines like “St. Groundhog’s Day” bring the giggles on “Pumpkin Hair,” a seemingly traditional country song that dissolves into a jazzy scat riff. “Walkin’ Back to Texas” is a San Francisco boy’s lament for the Lone Star state that displays the depth of production and songwriting skill Madsen brings to this project.

“Sun Comes Up” brings a nice Caribbean feel to a kid’s daily morning ritual, while “Mozart’s at the Window” is a brilliantly literate homage to classical composition. Madsen’s work with acapella group The Bobs serves him well on the latter song, a litany of difficulty including “he’s stuck at John Wayne” (Airport).

“Cutest Little Guy” is an upbeat love song to the kid who’s “a little like his Mama and a lot like me.” “Always on the Bottom” rhymes with “Hillary Rodham” in its celebration of the place that provides “shelter from the storm.”

“I Feel a Waltz Coming On” is worthy of Sondheim, making this show tune fan deliriously happy.

The recent death of my 20-year old cat made my personal favorite “There’s a Bowl of Milk in the Moonlight,” with its chorus of “meows.” I’m Growing is simply a brilliant album.

Kathy O’Connell

Grammy-nominated songwriter and singer Gunnar Madsen doesn’t always take his own advice. “Keep it simple,” Madsen proclaims in “Simple” before he sneaks in the word obfuscate. Madsen’s songs are joyfully kid-friendly—rich in meaning and musically sophisticated.

He takes a fresh approach to such common topics as growth in the title song, parental pride in “Cutest Little Guy,” and playing cowboy in “Best in the West.” He wonders what librarians do after hours (party fiercely, apparently) in “Library Party” and shows why not being number one is still satisfying in “Always on the Bottom.”

Then there are a number of delightful oddities, including “Pumpkin Hair.” Madsen also sings a sensitive rendition of “Shenandoah” and pictures Mozart as an irrepressible scamp in “Mozart’s at the Window.” A master overdubber, he plays every instrument on the 15 tunes. The music, not easily categorized, ranges from peppy and upbeat to bluesy. An engagingly kooky collection from a versatile talent.

Paul Shackman, Booklist

  • Parent’s Choice Gold Award
  • Amazon.com Editor’s Choice
  • Scholastic “Teacher’s Pick” Award
  • CMW Best Recording for Older Children
  • Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award
  • NAPPA Gold Award

Yes, it’s that Gunnar Madsen, co-founder of the avant-garde a capella group the Bobs. Bringing the same wildly different lyric and musical creativity to his first children’s album, Madsen has tempered zaniness with a keen-eyed awareness that goes straight to the heart of childhood.

Stroll down an unforgettable country “Chicken Road”; listen to a bunch of 1950s-style, tough guy T. Rexes explain that they were “Born to Chew”; learn to live life “The Evelyn Way” (a jazzy life lesson from a happy little pig); or listen to an erudite “Tiny Mosquito” define himself in a deft- and biting–comic operetta baritone.

Madsen changes mood, though not his idiosyncratic lyric spin, in the serene, image-rich “Selling Lemonade” and in “Flying, Flying,” an evocation of the joyous freedom kids dream of: soaring solo until it gets scary, then being gathered in by mom and dad, cozy and safe until it’s time to try those wings again.

Lynne Heffley  Los Angeles Times

What an unexpected, but pleasant, surprise Gunnar Madsen’s Old Mr. Mackle Hackle turned out to be. This is some of the freshest, funniest and most inventive children’s music to come out in a long time!
Madsen is a co-founder of the a cappella group The Bobs, and is an award-winning actor, composer, and pianist. He even provided the singing voice of Sammy Davis Jr. In the film “The Rat Pack.” But he absolutely shines on this, his debut children’s album. His vocal prowess is simply amazing: I had to look at the liner notes to make sure it was him doing all the vocal acrobatics.
From the first listen you’ll be singing along to catchy songs such as the bouncy, feel-good “Summertime is Here,” the rockin’ dinosaur tribute “Born To Chew (We Eat Meat)” and the quirky “I’m a Little Twerp.” Other outstanding cuts include the hilarious “Chicken Road,” “Tiny Mosquito”, which is sung from the mosquito’s point of view in a melodramatic opera-esque style, and “Elephant Traffic Jam,” which offers a musical tip of the hat to Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.”
This is about as cutting edge as children’s music gets. It’s intelligent without being preachy, humorous without being childish and musically eclectic. No wonder Old Mr. Mackle Hackle has already collected a bunch of awards and rave reviews. I just hope Madsen has some more songs up his sleeve.

Fred Koch, Chicago Parent

Founding member of the trend-setting a cappella quartet the Bobs, Madsen was responsible for some of their most sizzling arrangements. Lately his solo career has veered into David Byrne territory. So while the rest of the world would immediately notice that this is a children’s album, Madsen fans will figure that such songs as “Elephant Traffic jam” and “Selling Lemonade” are just his latest adult compositions. Truth is, this is Madsen’s best album, as well as one of the best kids’ recordings of the year. There’s occasionally a dark underside that adds bite to such sing-alongs as “Born to Chew (We Eat Meat).” And his “Chicken Road” not only is the ultimate chicken song, it’s a better pop song than most on the radio today.

Larry Kelp, The Express

Funny how a great deal of the stuff coming out these days that is aimed at children is actually better than the stuff that is aimed at adults. This is true in art, music, film, clothing, food products, games, parties, and even the Internet. Gunnar Madsen’s former band need not be mentioned at this point, as he has now far surpassed his previous endeavors. This collection of tunes aimed (mainly) at children is different than what you might expect. First, the music is much more complicated than one is used to hearing in the world of kiddie tunes. Why is it that children never seem to be given credit for how intelligent they really are…? Secondly, the production is superbly crisp and clean. Third, the arrangements are very mature and intricate The tunes range from simple and straightforward to somewhat goofy and abstract. This is almost impossible to rate because it doesn’t quite fit into any particular slot. So…while we won’t rate this one…we can report that we enjoy this as something out of a different universe…

Babysue Magazine

Gunnar Madsen, co-founder of the cutting-edge a capella group The Bobs, brings the same off-beat sensibilities found in that group’s work to this solo effort for children. These sunny, kid-centered songs are sure to get feet tapping, from the exuberance of “Summertime” to the litany of poultry found in “Chicken Road.” In fact, the most astonishing thing about this recording is its variety. Madsen performs an aria from the point of view of a mosquito (“Tiny Mosquito”), a rock and-roll dinosaur tune (“Born to Chew”), a big-band tribute to a pig’s life (“The Evelyn Way”), a concerto of Jurassic proportions (“The Dinosaur Song”), and a wistful tune of flight (“Flying, Flying”) without missing a beat. Every song keeps kids’ concerns at the forefront. For example, older siblings will smile in recognition at the gleefully mischievous character in “I’m a Little Twerp,” and the title tune about a farmer with a hen that wouldn’t cackle (but squeaks, quacks, and talks instead) is the stuff of classic children’s songs. Like the best of children’s entertainment, this album will be enjoyed by parents and kids alike. Music teachers may find this a fun and attention-getting way to introduce various musical styles. A fine addition to children’s music collections.

School Library Journal

Gunnar Madsen was a founding member of kookily idiosyncratic a cappella group the Bobs, who rose to fame doing arch covers of unlikely rock classics (their take on the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” of all things, was nominated for a Grammy; the Bobs also took on Talking Heads, Johnny Cash, and Jimi Hendrix). Old Mr. Mackle Hackle is Madsen’s first children’s album, and if you’d figure this veteran prankster would deliver yuks aplenty here, you’d be right. Employing a wide array of styles from rock to blues to music-hall, Madsen takes a walk down “Chicken Road” (“There’s chicken pickles, chicken gum/Chicken juice and chicken candy…”) and proudly proclaims, “I’m a Twerp” (“I’ll rat on you to Mom and Dad/I’ll get dessert when you don’t/When I’ve cleaned my room and mowed the lawn/I’ll go to the movies – you won’t.”) Madsen’s take on what it’s like being a kid will make yours giggle plenty. And he’s not above pulling a parental heartstring or two as well – just try not to get misty-eyed during ‘Selling Lemonade” and “Flying, Flying.”

Moira McCormick

Spinning World: 13 Ways of Looking at a Waltz
Music for Chamber Orchestra
As heard on Sex and the City

Gunnar Madsen is best known as the founder of The Bobs…a band that I admit I am unfamiliar with. This could be a plus, as I have no preconceptions in reviewing Mr. Madsen’s newest release. Spinning World is, in a word, magnificent. Instead of playing the pop music (which is most likely expected of him because of his past), Gunnar heads off into the world of instrumental music. The disc contains mostly piano-based pieces, but the arrangements are filled with a variety of other instruments…making this disc a pure delight. This harkens back to a time when music was uplifting and spiritual. With so many artists stumbling over their feet attempting to recreate music from the past (and failing miserably), this disc stands out from the crowd. Aesthetically and sonically delightful.

If “The Power of a Hat” doesn’t convince you of Gunnar Madsen’s eclectic taste in music, then take a look at “Spinning World: 13 Ways of Looking at a Waltz.” Yup, that’s right, this is an instrumental consisting of thirteen distinctly different waltzes. There’s no rock band here, but there is a small orchestra backing up Madsen’s keys. While I don’t usually go in for this type of thing, I have to say that I really like “Spinning World.”
I’m not much of a dancer, so I didn’t get up and swing around the ballroom as the music beckoned me to do. Instead I kicked back and lost myself in the intricate beauty of the arrangements. I found this disc so damned relaxing that I didn’t get anything done the first two nights I played it!
I especially enjoyed the very first track, entitled “Anna.” I have always loved the sound of a clarinet, and this arrangement features such a gorgeous clarinet lead, I just became myself lost in the rich woodwind and string arrangement.
The whole disc is easy to lose yourself in. “Spinning World” gives you thirteen different, relaxing, romantic ways to look at a waltz. It’s 100% wonderful!  Robert Lewis

Raves from Fans

“This is an AMAZING CD! I bought it for the song Anna which is featured on a Sex and The City episode. When I listened to the rest of the CD, I couldn’t believe what I heard. It’s wonderful, soothing and hypnotizing! Everyone in my office LOVES it and let me play it loud so that everyone can hear. Thanks again! It’s a fantastic CD!!”
Paula Engle – Pueblo, CO

“This is, to put it simply, one of the most beautiful records I have ever listened to. This album stands outside of almost every recognized category of style or taste… and rather than making it an obscure niche work, instead this makes it universal.”
Paul Kienitz – Oakland, CA

“Just wanted to let you know how ecstatic, enthralled, amazed, and downright happy I am with your “Spinning World” album, having recently purchased it after hearing “Anna” on Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” several weeks ago. Its uniqueness is astounding and refreshing beyond words. Thanks for sharing your creativity!”
Robert Pohl, MN

“There’s this huge outdoor mall near my house, and right in the middle is an ice rink (concert pavilion in the summer). The owner suggested I bring any CDs that I wanted them to play, so of course my first and only thought was Spinning World. So my friends and I skated to your fabulous waltzes for a couple of hours. Lots of other skaters asked about it, and a crowd of shoppers started to gather around the rink to listen. It was great fun! I hope lots of Reston folks visit your web site and buy your music!”
Chelle Fulk, VA

“Saturday morning I was sitting in the atrium of the San Diego Embassy Suites, eating breakfast with my family, still feeling the tension of Silicon Valley, trying to keep my squirmy 15 month old from annoying the other guests, slightly groggy, badly needing a good strong cup of java (which wasn’t to be had at the hotel), when lo and behold, euphoria set upon my soul. Was it a coincidence that at the same time I noticed one of your waltzes being piped over the restaurant’s music system? I think not.”
John Paul, CA

The Power of a Hat
Pop/Folk/Art/Rock

Gunnar is a Grammy-nominated songwriter who decided to head off to a log cabin in outermost Washington State, with the intention of creating a folk/pop opus full of haunting, funny, warm and surprising songs. And he’s had a good crack at it.

The musicians he managed to persuade to go along with him lived and cooked and played together for a whole week, from 9am to 4am every day and night, laying down their sounds in a collaborative manner. And if that smacks of hippiedom, then so what!

Amongst some interesting, and sometimes very special originals, there is a remarkable reimagining of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”, which manages the remarkable feat of not being hurled through the window, unlike every other Talking Heads song I’ve ever heard. The music always sounds fresh and sparkling, no doubt helped by the production skills of Kent Sparling (who mixed the films “Adaptation” and “Lost in Translation”).

Gunnar Madsen has been a working musician for nearly 20 years, including 10 years of road dogging it with vocal harmony outfit, The Bobs. His first solo album, “Spinning World, 13 Ways of Looking at a Waltz” was exactly that, a collection of waltzes, which ended up being licensed for use in the TV series, “Sex and the City”. But this album is more an amalgamation of folk, pop and art rock, sometimes a bit too clever, but fundamentally an invigorating collection.  Stuart Hamilton

The founder of the Bobs has worn a lot of hats since leaving that new wave a cappella band in 1991. He has composed for film, theater, dance, and radio; written and recorded an instrumental album of lovely waltzes, Spinning World; and supplied the Sammy Davis Jr. Vocals for HBO’s forthcoming Rat Pack. But it’s as a David Byrne meets-Rinde Eckert art-pop singer-songwriter that he wears his musical heart of his sleeve. Playing piano, organ and guitar, Madsen explores the internal workings of different faith-tested, vulnerable, paranoid, dirty, desperate, and naive minds. Madsen creates an absorbing song cycle that narrowly escapes self-absorption by lifting the lid on a busily percolating cranium.  Derk Richardson

As is my usual routine when picking up a new piece of music, I purposely ignored the press kit that came with Gunnar Madsen’s “The Power of a Hat.” The name didn’t ring a bell, but I was intrigued by the cover art (usually a good sign) and put it at the head of the pack for this month’s new listening. What met my ears first was “Naked in the Garden” and I thought, “What the hell is this?” It started out funky enough, but weird and not necessarily pleasant. I’m happy to say however that by the time this track reached the halfway point, I was hooked.

Turns out this guy is more of a “name” than I originally thought. Making up part of the ‘80’s acapella sensation “The Bobs,” Gunnar and company was responsible for one of my all-time favorite remakes — the acapella version of “Helter Skelter.” But Gunnar Madsen has picked up the instruments for this CD and proven that he’s even better when there’s some music to back him up!

I’m not so sure that “The Power of a Hat” is for everybody out there. While the music is certainly well executed and about as eclectic as one can get on a single CD, the lyrics were disappointing – I just didn’t get where he was coming from most of the time. I’d file Gunnar Madsen somewhere between Peter Hammill (for his eclectic taste in song styling) and Adrian Belew (for his vocals and strange taste in lyrics).

Two songs stood out as absolute winners in my book however, making “The Power of a Hat” a buy for anybody serious about experimental music. One was the piano ballad “Something Special,” the stark simplicity of which just struck a chord with me as I remembered many events in my own life that mirrored those of the song. “Something Special” was the track that really drove home the parallel between Madsen and Peter Hammill.

The other song I absolutely loved was “Gentle Is the Lamb.” I think that the song could have been more powerful lyrically in spots, but the tribal beat and backing melody took me by surprise and kept me hitting the repeat button over and again.

I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t like the rest of this album. Yes, my work is done here and I don’t have to listen to “The Power of a Hat” anymore. But I probably will anyway. The music keeps me coming back for more. The lyrics have yet to grow on me. Check back in a year; maybe I will have changed my mind.  Robert Lewis

Gunnar Madsen was one of the founding members of The Bobs, a quartet often credited with re-defining acapella music. With amazing harmonies (often accurately simulating the sound of other instruments) and lyrics that range from hilarious to profound, The Bobs have developed an international reputation, and have been heard nationally on All Things Considered, Morning Edition and other media. The writer of perhaps the wittiest lyrics in the Bobs, Madsen left the group to launch his own solo career. Now working with more conventional instrumentation, Madsen nevertheless continues to create songs that are as interesting as they are fun, and to perform them with his remarkable vocal technique. While the San Francisco-based Madsen is not exactly a regional artist, The Bobs and Madsen’s own CD The Power of a Hat have been such regulars on WVIA’s Mixed Bag program that his music will feel right at home.   George Graham

“This CD gives me tremendous hope for the music industry. I love this one. Every moment.” – a fan from Amazon

“Ooh, I just love it!” – Beth Holland, KFOG

“Gunnar Madsen writes amazing songs” – Bob Campbell, KALW

“The song ‘The Pants’ is alone worth the cost of this CD” – Charles Dawson, fan from Seattle

I was driving home from Beanbenders Sunday night after being wowed by Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago playing with Dan Plonsey and 15 of the top Bay Area improvisers. Anyway, I’m driving home in a great head space and I turn on KFOG which is playing this incredible music that I had never heard before. To my surprise, it turns out to be you and the jock gives your website. Surprise, because the last time I listened to you was on a vinyl BOB’s album I bought after taking my kid to see your concert at the Julia Morgan Theater maybe six years ago or longer (his favorite was the Helmet song). I had no idea what you had gotten into since then. I’ll pick up your CD at Hear Music which is walking distance from home and one of my favorite places to chill.  Dan Glassoff, CA

Just gave the CD a spin. Absolutely fabulous!! I’m not sure if I ordered it out of curiosity or loyalty (FOB) but the fact is I did, and now I am thrilled. This is really an excellent collection of work. I will be recommending it to everyone, even my head bangin’ punk ass teenage sons. They may never let on to their peers, but the old man has managed to instill some sense of quality music in their degenerated little minds. I catch them listening to The Bobs, Count Basey, Frank Zappa and Brave Combo, but they would deny it if confronted. Anyway, thanks for incredible music. I’m looking forward to the next release.   Perry Reed, TX

Two Hands
Music for Solo Piano
Audiophile recording from Skywalker Sound
Best New Age Album Nominee Independent Music Awards

The first time I heard Gunnar Madsen’s group The Bobs was on an episode of the Dr. Demento Show in the late 1980’s. The song “Cowboy Lips” inspired me to go out and buy several Bobs albums and turned me on to acapella music. After ten years of The Bobs, Madsen has been involved in everything under the sun. He’s written music for movies (Just A Kiss, The Break Up), television (Sex And The City, HBO’s Asteroids), done voice work (HBO’s The Rat Pack as Sammy Davis Jr.), released critically acclaimed albums for adults and children and even been nominated for a GRAMMY Award. Madsen’s musical theater work (The Shaggs, co-written with Joy Gregory) has won awards for Best Original Score, Best World Premier Musical and Musical Of The Year from various groups. Ever on the move, Madsen returns in 2010 with an album of solo-piano compositions (occasionally aided by Turtle Island String Quartet’s Irene Sazer on violin) entitled Two Hands. Recorded at world-renowned Skywalker Sound, Madsen delivers a collection of sixteen songs worthy of its own award consideration.

Two Hands opens with “Break Into Blossom”, a pretty, peaceful composition with its own internal vibrancy. The song builds slowly in strength and confidence like the budding of a flower, highlighting a pretty melody against the gentle but unyielding pressure of burgeoning life. “Kerenyi” has an opening line that sounds like a variation on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”; the comparison ends there however, as Madsen takes us on dark and moody journey with hints of Celtic music in its heritage. One of the more compelling pieces on the album is “Nino And Me”, a depressed and disconnected waltz that deconstructs a noble beauty against the background of deep sadness. You’ll have this particular composition on repeat.

“Ordinary Day” shows off Madsen’s ability to hide simple beauty right in front of your eyes (or ears). The song has an incidental feel, but the pure sweetness of the theme buried in the mellow musical shell will call to you. “The Blackbird Whistling” feels exploratory, with a theme that comes alternatively in straight lines and scattered bursts. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition of the steady feel of nature and the vibrant intercessions of life. “Frank Grows Flowers” is built around a similar concept, displaying the vibrancy of simple, every day actions while setting a pace that’s simultaneously with purpose and at ease. There is a joyful feel to this song that cannot be denied. Madsen gets more pensive with “Down Moon”, building to dark, muddy resolutions that push to break through but never quite manage, falling back into themselves to try again. The song comes to rest in a state of sadness, but there is a beauty in this struggle that shines through almost as a post-harmonic theme. “3 South Trail” finds Madsen treading a lazy/dreamy path with elements of melancholy woven in. It’s a pretty set-up for the closing track, “Red Bird”. “Red Bird” is jarring and beautiful, sounding at times like two separate and distinct thoughts occurring between piano and violin. This conversation occasionally aligns into brief moments of clarity where the two are so in-synch that you’ll wonder how you ever thought otherwise.

Gunnar Madsen is one of those artists who seem likely to explode if he stops creating. Madsen’s muse runs in some many directions it’s dizzying, but nearly everything he touches turns to gold. That trend continues with Two Hands, by far the best instrumental piano album to cross this desk this year. Madsen’s compositions come to vivid life on Two Hands, avoiding classifications such as classical, pop or new age by transcending them all. Two Hands is not an album you pick up for light dinner music; it’s an album you buy to listen to. If you do, the music is its own reward. Two Hands is a Wildy’s World Certified Desert Island Disc.

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)

Kathy’s Favorites 2010
It’s a daunting task to adequately introduce an artist with Gunnar Madsen’s experience and diverse background in a few short sentences. He is an award-winning composer, singer (The Bobs a capella group), pianist, writer, sound designer, filmmaker, and actor. He has composed and written music and books for all age groups, acted in stage plays and musicals as well as films; he has received commissions from Lincoln Center, the Los Angeles Theater Center, the Minnesota Opera, Oberlin Dance Collective, and on and on. Two Hands is Madsen’s eighteenth album to date, and is comprised of fifteen original solo piano compositions and three pieces for piano and violin. (Violinist Irene Sazer of The Turtle Island String Quartet appears as a guest artist.) While the album is very cohesive as an entity, there is variety in the music that reflects Madsen’s wide range of life and artistic experience. Deeply personal and often cinematic, the music conveys an abundance of emotions without becoming overly complicated or flamboyant. This is the music of a very accomplished artist speaking from his heart via the piano. Recorded on the much-loved piano at Skywalker Sound, the audio quality is stellar. Two Hands is certainly in the running to be one of my favorite albums of 2010.Two Hands begins with “Break Into Blossom,” a soft-spoken piece that suggests hope and optimism. “In These Lonely Regions” was inspired by a line from a poem by Neruda as well as the passing of a favorite uncle. Very spare and open, strong emotions are expressed with a minimum of notes. “Kerenyi” was adapted from a play Madsen wrote in 1981. Dark and mysterious as a piano solo, the violin enters about 1/3 of the way into the piece and casts an even more haunting spell. “Nino and Me” is a lovely romantic waltz with a tender and graceful melody – very visual. “The Blackbird Whistling” is one of my favorites. Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem, “13 Ways of Looking At a Blackbird,” it more than hints of Erik Satie. The title could also be a nod to Satie’s odd titles and playing instructions. Most of the piece is very slow, spare, and flowing, trailing off at the end – exceptional! “Bandon” refers to a town on the Oregon Coast where Madsen’s great aunt and uncle had a cranberry farm that he visited one summer as a young boy. It’s the music of memories – simple and uncluttered. “For Wendy” was Madsen’s first composition, written for a girlfriend years ago. The heartfelt emotions convey the unbridled passions of youth. “Down Moon” gets me every time I hear it and is my favorite piece on this excellent album. Very dark and melancholy with occasional flickers of hope, it really makes my fingers itch (sheet music???)! I also really love “Oak Sky.” Simple yet incredibly moody, it says so much with so little. “Red Bird” ends the album with a gorgeous piano/violin duet that is perhaps the most cinematic piece of the album. Dark and expressive, it’s an evocative musical dialog between two artists.Two Hands is an incredible musical experience that I very highly recommend. Check it out!  Kathy Parsons

These instrumental melodies touch the heart with their incredible sincerity. The album “Two Hands” by Gunnar Madsen is only his acoustic piano with a delicate violin accompaniment by Irene Sazer on several tracks. But you don’t need anything else when you listen to this music which has a purity and a clearness in its expression.

Gunnar Madsen is a bright composer and performer. Sometimes his music reminds me of the great French impressionists like Satie or Debussy, sometimes Gunnar Madsen’s piano is a bit similar to a meditation stream by George Winston, sometimes his instrument sounds even in an avant-garde style but always Gunnar Madsen’s music is very fresh and unique.

In general a strong individuality is felt in every note of the album “Two Hands”. And yet Gunnar Madsen’s music is exquisite and deeply emotional. At the same time “Two Hands” is listened to easily for perception. Melodies of Gunnar Madsen are picturesque. They invite you in to an attractive colored world which is created by a great piano master.

One wants to stand this album in a row with the best samples of the famous Windham Hill Records.

Fall of Troy
Epic cinematic music suitable for an 11 year siege
From the video game you never got to play

“This has become the only music I play while I work. Over and over, it puts me in exactly the mood I need.”
Max, CDBaby

Creating “soundtracks” for literary classics is nothing new … consider “Scheherezade” by Rimsy-Korsakov, or ballet scores. But a soundtrack to a (never-completed) videogame … that’s modern. Even if it’s for one of the oldest stories ever: the Trojan War. Laid-off composer Madsen developed some of his “musical sketches” for the game into this album of ominous atmosphere. Ponderous cello in “Crossing the Plains” evokes a marching army, while timpani and a buildup of horns and strings signify that something big is about to happen during “Behind the Gates.” Horse not included.

“This has to be one of the most impressive albums in your entire discography, which is impressive to say the least.”
Eric Cohen, Music Director WAER

“Epic, classically influenced instrumentals filled with rich textures.” – Babysue

George Graham’s Best Albums of 2006 – WVIA Music Director George Graham

“This rather splendid soundtrack that never was. Brooding, dark and moody.” – Zeiteist Magazine

Although there have been previous productions of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World since the musical premiered in Los Angeles eight years ago, thanks to a 13-year-old girl’s fondness for Friday, the show has never been more relevant.

Just three months ago Rebecca Black was thrown into the public spotlight when the roughly 19,000 subscribers to comedian Michael J. Nelson‘s Twitter account received a link to her music video, “Friday” (essentially an inexpensively-made demo meant to introduce the young singer to industry people) with a note calling it the worst video ever made. That same day, the popular Comedy Central series Tosh.0 ridiculed the video with headline, “Songwriting Isn’t for Everyone.”

As of this writing, “Friday” has amassed over 163 million hits on YouTube, and while Black and the video are still the butts of many jokes, she’s also won over hearts by accepting her awkward situation with a smile, donating her newfound income to Japan relief and school arts programs and working to improve her skills as she prepares a second video.

But this isn’t the first time the music industry has propelled someone from nowhere to national attention on the basis of their perceived ineptitude. In 1980, Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino of the rock band NRBQ convinced their label to reissue a favorite album of theirs; a little-known 1969 pressing titled The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World. This was the one album released by sisters Helen, Betty and Dot Wiggins, whose only live appearances were at the weekly dances at the Fremont, New Hampshire Town Hall. (For a sample of their sound, listen to the album’s title track and to “My Pal Foot Foot.”) That alone probably wouldn’t have pulled the band out of obscurity, but Rolling Stone got a hold of the album and with tongues firmly in cheeks honored them as “Comeback of the Year.” With that kind of high-profile attention, their music, for the first time, started getting radio play, though usually as the object of ridicule, but they were also praised by admirers of outsider art for their raw naïveté. Frank Zappa called them, “better than the Beatles.”

You might think a musical based on this odd little story would aim to be a comic celebration of delusional underdogs who dream of rock stardom, but what makes The Shaggs so daring, original and outright fascinating is that bookwriter/lyricist Joy Gregory and composer/lyricist Gunnar Madsen have taken what is essentially a joyless story of a bullying father who takes his children out of school and forces them to spend hours a day writing and rehearsing pop songs with the belief that they can’t be any worse than the bands on The Ed Sullivan Show, and whips it into a touching and even loveable evening of smart musical theatre. (Though the facts are altered a bit for the stage, the script comes with the approval of the two surviving sisters.)

Peter Freidman has his work cut out for him as blue collar patriarch Austin Wiggin, playing a tyrannical figure that could easily come off as a villainous stereotype in lesser hands. His forceful and intimidating vocals, a rage against a world that offers him no success despite a lifetime of sweat, could make you genuinely fear that he might physically lash out at his family. But the excellent Friedman infuses the character with awkward moments of affection, showing the emotionally strained man is loving them as best he can.

As the dutiful Dot, the sassy Betty and the terribly shy Helen, Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic and Emily Walton sound terrific/terrible together. None of the sisters have any desire to write and play music, and they seem fully aware of their inability, but Hood and Sokolovic endearingly convey the sense of humor their characters maintain to make the best of the situation. Their New Hampshire accents may seem a bit broad, but listening to recordings of the actual Shaggs proves their accuracy. Helen, who doesn’t talk, plays drums and Walton bangs them with such fury that you know her character is trying to release emotions she cannot, or will not, express.

Annie Golden has more of a secondary role as the gentle housewife just trying to keep her family happy, but the authors give her a moment to step out of reality and display her dynamic rock vocals.

Aside from the snippets of vintage Shaggs songs that are used, much of the score has the characters singing in such steps out of reality, but the music and lyrics are cleverly written to sound not much better than the music that was produced in their real lives. It would be unreasonable to expect the audience to listen to a full score that sounded like the selections from Philosophy of the World, but the authors achieve dramatic strength and reinforce the fact that these are not musical people by having the songs within them sound no better than adequate.

A sterling example is Dot’s “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Dad,” an angry anthem that is remarkably heart-wrenching in context because the artless simplicity of the lyric, the unattractiveness of the melody and the bottled rage of Hood’s performance are so starkly real. Another moment that nails the same audio image comes when Helen first hears The Association’s hit recording of “Cherish” and is inspired to lead the company in an imaginary version of their vocal harmonies, which is achieved with enthused, but not especially inspired, results.

Along with the authors, director John Langs deserves credit not only for the excellent performances, but for keeping a sympathetic tone that never tries to draw laughs from the inabilities of the Wiggin sisters, and manages to keep the story interesting despite an overwhelming lack of optimism for their artistic growth. While Austin has dreams of wealth and fame for his daughters, he never seems to believe they’re any good; just no worse than those rock bands on television and the radio. The small-label record producer who signs them (Kevin Cahoon) knows they’ll never get radio play, but thinks it’s possible they can gather an underground following of other kids who, despite their dreams, came to realize they’re not good enough to be the next Beatles. In the second act, the creators tease the audience with a taste of what we might hope The Shaggs would grow to be, only to have our ears forced back into a reality.

Though Cory Michael Smith is very empathetic as Helen’s secret boyfriend, their subplot seems superfluous, though it does help show how the Wiggin girls were not allowed to lead normal teenage lives. More time could be used to show how the sisters went from knowing nothing about music to being able to compose and play songs and figure out whatever arrangements they could by themselves. In at least one interview the surviving Shaggs said they were teaching themselves music without any guidance. Who knows… with some decent teachers maybe they really would have wound up better than The Beatles. Or maybe even better than Zappa.  by Ben Peltz Jun. 14, 2011   Broadway World

Brilliant, irreverent ‘shaggs’ showcases an off-kilter world

If you believe the great American musical is little more than a memory from some golden past, “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World,” the enthralling new show that opened Saturday night at the Lookingglass Theatre Company, is bound to make you think again. Like the bizarre, all-girl rock band of the late 1960s that inspired it, this musical – a strange, brilliant, unexpected flight of the imagination that takes you by surprise and never lets you go – proves that the form is fully alive, well and ripe for reinvention.

At once haunting and entertaining, “The Shaggs” also is a reminder that this classic theatrical form is at its best when it blends a highly accessible story with a deeply subversive message (see “Show Boat” and “Gypsy”), and that in doing so can be unparalleled in its ability to strike directly at the heart and soul of American life.

First produced last year in Los Angeles, “The Shaggs” is the work of Lookingglass veteran Joy Gregory, who penned the book and co-wrote the lyrics with Grammy-nominated composer Gunnar Madsen. The two teamed with ingenious director and story contributor John Langs and Chicago set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, a wizard of architectural poetry who has devised a piece of pure American gothic. Now, with a cast that blends top Chicago talent with exceptional guest performers, the show, with that “ready for New York” look, should run well beyond its stated closing date here.

Had the Shaggs not really existed, perhaps only Andy Warhol – himself a working-class kid who devised his own very particular concept of art – could have invented them. But the Wiggin sisters of Fremont, N.H., were (and are) real: the mostly mute and love-driven Helen (the wonderfully expressive Hedy Burress), the brash and combative Betty (a palpably aggressive Sarah Elizabeth Hays), and the brainy, fiercely loyal Dorothy (the ineffably touching Jamey Hood). They were the daughters of a dirt-poor mill-worker father (the peerless Larry Neumann Jr., who claims this role with an indelible stamp of truth and pain), a man driven by visionary dreams of escape and salvation, and his long-suffering wife, Annie (Christine Mary Dunford in a performance of tremendously quiet fervor), who was clearly far more intelligent than her circumstances might suggest. The story of all these people bears telling.

Outcasts at school, and alienated and overprotected by their parents, the sisters are swept up in what their father believes to be a prophecy about the family’s route to fame and fortune. His abiding fantasy is that the girls will make it big as a rock band. Wholly untrained and even musically ungifted, yet possessed of the kind of naive poetic and spiritual vision often found in “outsider” visual artists, the Shaggs emerged on a self-produced record- ing, “Philosophy of the World,” in 1969. Their album, with its mix of deadpan schoolgirl observations, Woody Guthrie-like folk wisdom, undertones of Christian hymns and overtones of sheer eccentricity, could be deemed either a quirkily inspired effort far ahead of its time or a dreadful cosmic joke. In the short term, it ended up being a financial and spiritual calamity for the Wiggin family.

Nevertheless, by some fluke, the recording eventually surfaced from the rural underground where it was made, and when it was re-released in 1980, Frank Zappa asserted that the Shaggs were “better than the Beatles.” Cult status was immediately assured.

The blend of tragedy and comedy captured in this production is sublime – rendered beautifully through a sophisticated original score, which transcends the work of the Shaggs while remaining true to the spirit and tone of their music. One song that takes off from the home-schooling workbooks used by the girls is particularly stunning, as is a daughter’s ode to her father. The inclusion of several of the Shaggs’ own songs adds an additional layer of richness to a show that, among many other things, poses the quintessential question: What is art and who can make it?

The performers (including, in multiple roles, the expertly comic Phil Ridarelli and Joe Dempsey) weave their voices in strange – and strangely lovely – harmonies thanks to Rick Sims’ ideal musical direction and the work of ace musicians LeRoy Bach, David Hilliard, Matthew Lux and Jonathan Mastro. Choreographer Ken Roht finds just the right demented vaudeville in it all. And Mara Blumenfeld’s wonderfully grim costumes seal in the sadness.

As Kyle, the curly-headed innocent boy who adores and secretly marries Helen, Rob Moore may end up stealing your heart. In an eerily timely echo from decades past, it is Kyle who heads off to the war in Vietnam only to return drastically altered. As the Shaggs knew all too well, every day brings a certain little death, and a dark fatalism invariably worms its way through the American dream.  BY HEDY WEISS

A ‘Requiem’ Worth Its Puff
By Joseph Mclellan
Washington Post Staff Writer 4/2/1994

“Requiem for a Butthead,” a short, pungent piece of musical theater, handled intense passions with witty metaphor in its premiere performance Thursday night in the Church Street Theatre. Exploiting and inverting the subliminal association of smoking and sex implanted by a century of cigarette advertising, this tiny opera by Gunnar Madsen and Richard Greene treats the breakup of a dysfunctional, obsessive love affair in terms of a long, repeatedly unsuccessful effort to quit smoking.

The cigarettes with which Virginia (Marvette Knight) has a love-hate relationship symbolize her lover, Nick (Dan Dressen), whose smooth, hypnotic charm, alternating with domineering, manipulative, self-confident power, would strike a familiar emotional note to anyone ever enslaved by nicotine.

Stage director Karen Miller exploited the metaphor thoroughly but tastefully, using a coughing spasm to indicate Virginia’s disenchantment with Nick and the familiar gesture of rubbing out a cigarette under her shoe to symbolize the final split. It is an amusing, emotionally satisfying work and, in its 10 or 12 minutes, a remarkable demonstration of how much can be accomplished in a short time.

JASON WOODEN Exeunt Magazine

Plug your ears or prick them up? Photo: Joan Marcus

Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? Or can time reveal an unknown or unheard treasure?  The new musical, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, based on the 60’s underground girl band known as The Shaggs, dares you to dream big, rethink what you know about traditional musical theatre, and open your hearts and ears to one of the strangest times in American music history.

Most people arriving at Playwrights Horizons to view a performance of this new musical, that opened on Tuesday night, will probably not know much about this infamous group.  The Shaggs were a sister rock group formed in Fremont, New Hampshire in the late 60’s.

As the musical would have it, the patriarch of this family, Austin Wiggins, employs his talentless daughters to form a band in hopes that this would rescue his family from their poverty-stricken, mill town lifestyle and fulfill his destiny.  Armed with two guitars, a drum set, and microphones, Dot, Betty and Helen are ready to rock. There’s only one problem.  The girls cannot play instruments, read music, write songs, or even sing.  Okay, I guess that’s four big problems when you’re being groomed to be the next big thing since the Beatles!

Depending on what decade you consider, The Shaggs have been appraised as inventive and revolutionary but also as unintelligible and just plain terrible. The trick here then is how do you present a musical about one of the worst bands in history?

Well, unlike a lot of big budget Broadway jukebox musicals such as Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys and the short lived Good Vibrations (one of the worst musicals of all time), the book, music, lyric and story writers of The Shaggs, Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen, do not use the preexisting songs of the group and attempt to interlace a cohesive story around those songs. However they do employee the raw, non-traditional, unconventional, fearless temperament of the band to tell their true-life story.

The result is a completely compelling and engaging piece of musical theatre. The story is as funny as it is haunting and disturbing.  At times we hear the band musically at its worst and yet at other times we hear a beautiful blend of harmony, compassion and melody.  This is no doubt the daydream that Austin must hear and what compels him to put his family’s life savings, reputation and home on the line to hear his girls on the radio.

Dot, Betty, and Helen are fully realized characters portrayed by the immensely talented Jarmey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic and Emily Walton respectively. The three girls begin the show as disillusioned siblings. However, as the intense passion of their father (wonderfully portrayed by Peter Friedman) slowly turns to obsession and into his own disillusionment, each sister goes on her own emotional journey into womanhood as they all find their voice so to speak.

One of the best performances of the evening comes from the matriarch of the family, brilliantly embodied by Annie Golden.  Early in the second act Ms. Golden belts out a tune called “Flyin’” that shows off her powerful fluid vocals but more importantly draws us into the raw emotional center of a women whose husband is losing his grip on reality and driving her family into the ground.

Yet at the center of all of these women is the excellent Peter Friedman as Austin Wiggins.  Without an emotionally charged, honest, compassionate performance by Friedman this show would not work.  There must be a reason this family believes in him and continues to put everything on the line for his vision of success.  Friedman’s portrayal of Austin Wiggins provides the emotional heartbeat of the show and the Shaggs.

This show could easily be as much of a mess as its subject matter.  However, there is a strong sense of cohesion here starting with the creative team and branching out to the actors and production team. At the helm of all of this is director John Lang. With his expert guidance and vision this show about a father’s desperate ambition to push his family out of obscurity as his three girls frantically fight for a sense of normalcy is as unsettling as it is emotionally moving and satisfying.

You may not leave the theatre humming any of these tunes but that is not necessarily a bad thing in this case.  The group, the Shaggs, were not remembered for their music either.  What you will remember, though, is that you saw a courageous new musical that dared you to think and feel in an unconventional way.  You will remember that you saw a piece of musical theatre where the songs, the book, the acting, the design and the direction all seamlessly flowed together to tell a remarkable story and create beautiful music (seemingly out of unintelligible noise)!

I probably should stop apologizing for my lack of time to properly blog. But in response to seeing The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World last night, I essentially wrote a fan letter to its creators (songwriter Gunnar Madsen, bookwriter and co-lyricist Joy Gregory, and director John Langs). Rather than reshape it for the blog, I’ll just reprint it here.

Dear Joy, Gunnar, and John:

I was in L.A. for the TCG conference last week, so I didn’t get to see The Shaggs until last night. I was semi-dreading it after the mixed reviews and my fear that I had hyped the show with my NYTimes piece, and what if I’d steered people wrong?

I shouldn’t have worried: It’s the most exciting, moving, intelligent, and freakishly good new musical I’ve seen in a long time (and yeah, I liked that Mormon show a lot, too, but I don’t consider that especially groundbreaking, and both Scottsboro and Bloody Bloody were drastically overrated, in my opinion). The first act I more or less recognized from L.A., but that second act—wow, it’s a whole other show, and what a revelatory one it is. I love Annie’s new song; the “empty birdcage” tune sounded brand new to my ears; Charlie D’s rap hits the right note of outsider appreciation; and the car rant, with the keening sisters’ vocals, is one of my favorite musical-theater moments in the theater in years.

It’s been my experience that in a form as encrusted by routine as musical theater, it’s really easy to spot when a show is going through the motions, falling back on old tricks, when it’s essentially “vamping.” What I loved about The Shaggs is that not a moment felt that way; all of it felt alive and pulsing with weird energy and subtext. As my musical-writing colleague put it, on both the “macro and micro level” (set, vocal direction, staging, pacing), everything has been shaped with such care and attention to the story’s unique needs.

In short, I think you three pulled off the big trick of telling this odd, haunting but life- and even joy-filled story in a correspondingly odd, haunting, joyful way, and for that you have my extreme admiration and praise (and envy! The aforementioned musical-theater colleague and I are working on a musical about Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, and facing similar issues of tone).

Congratulations! And thanks for following the Shaggs muse all the way.

Rob Weinert-Kendt   Editor-in-chief American Theatre Magazine

“Dante’s View” is one of the highest mountain peaks in the Death Valley National Monument. It’s also the title of the New Music-Theater Ensemble’s latest work, a striking assemblage of 10 short pieces.

What amazes about the evening is how the New Music-Theater Ensemble manages to express a quicksilver range of emotions in pieces that last from three to 23 minutes. Some companies take all night and even then, you often leave the theater unfulfilled. Not with “Dante’s View.” Some of the work may perplex you, but most of it astonishes whether or not you understand it.

The most striking piece is the mini-opera “Requiem for a Butthead,” with music by Richard Greene and Gunnar Madsen, songwriters for “The Bobs.” Against a colonnade of lit cigarettes, Nick (Dan Dressen), Virginia (Sally Ramirez) and an a cappella ensemble flirt and sizzle around an addictive relationship, one that is a metaphor for smoking and the seduction of cigarette advertising.

This is a doo-wop tango of obsession, charting the course of Nick and Virginia’s attachment, which began when “his lighter caught my eye.” The affair moves from exhilaration to suffocation and, finally, quitting cold turkey. Along the way there are wry equations of passion and nicotine through the use of lyrics alluding to “I was breathless,” “he calms me down” and “inhale me.”

Another compelling piece is “The Long Goodbye,” with text by Laura Harrington and music by Paul Dresher. Fading images of mothers and daughters are projected on a backdrop screen as two women sit quietly on chairs. The mother (Elizabeth Albrecht) and daughter (Molly Sue McDonald) sing an elegiac aria about the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, which unravels the memories the women share while increasing their feelings of abandonment and need. This still, beautiful moment ends on a wistful note of connectedness, suggesting that the bond between mother and child exists beyond memory.

Further highlights include “Long Island Dreamer,” text by Paul Selig and music by Kim D. Sherman. This piece features pop singer Amana Del Ray (Elizabeth Albrecht in a stunning performance), grasping to recover her confidence and symbiosis with the’ audience after being raped. Her breakdown is counterpointed to the music, which ironically employs crisp girl-group rhythms that recall the best of Motown.

“Moonface” centers on Mindy (Elizabeth Albrecht), returning to her parents’ home after her father’s funeral and discovering a cherished childhood puppet (Molly Sue McDonald). The puppet represents a vestige of Molly’s young and dreamy self as the two sing a duet about the power of a child’s imagination.

There is so much good work in “Dante’s View,” directed with skilled expressiveness by Ben Krywosz and Karen Miller. And the ensemble (Albrecht, It{cDonald, Timothy Kuhlmann, Dan Dressen, Sally Ramirez, Carolyn Goelzer and Philip Ross) is superb. This “Dante” is more paradiso than inferno.  – JAYNE M. BLANCHARD

I THINK WE’RE ALL BOZOS ON THIS BUS
By the Firesign Theatre 
Bay Theatre Collective  Julia Morgan Theater

It was more uncanny than annoying: in low but clear tones, the nan seated behind me in the audience was reciting the same lines as the performers on stage, word for word, inflection for inflection, almost in unison. Moreover, he was not alone. All around me I could hear other men and women doing the same-Firesign Theatre freaks who knew some, if not all, of the script by heart. I couldn’t gauge the basic motivation for this phenomenon: whether it arose as a spontaneous expression of pleasure and an affirmation that the stage adaptation had succeeded in realizing the record’s characters and incidents; or whether it arose from a felt need to supplement the dramatization with the richer visualizations of one’s own imagination, evoked through ritualistic recitation. But it was clear that the Bay Theatre Collective’s production of I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, even within its limited four-week run, threatens to develop a Rocky Horror type cult following.

The translation of a typically zany and. chaotic Firesign album into a stage production is an enormously ambitious undertaking, which may help explain why the Collective undertook it in the first place. They seem to thrive on ambition. Their first production, after moving to Berkeley from Palo Alto last year, condensed Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking G/ass into a remarkably successful two hour show, using only four performers to represent Lewis Carroll’s host of characters. They followed this with a Somewhat less successful presentation of Yeats’ difficult Cuchulain dramas, and for their next feat, the group will take on Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone. But there is an obvious difference in kind between these literary challenges and that of adapting a record album to the stage.

Like a movie, a record can jump from one scene to another without the bothersome business of changing sets while the audience waits. The record has an advantage over even film in being able to create the illusion of complete environments and of cataclysmic events with only a few simple sound effects. The Firesign’s Bozos takes full advantage of these possibilities and adds several levels of reality as well. The record follows Clem and his Bozo companion Barney as they are enticed into a bus, by the vegetable hologram servants of Dr. Memory, and taken to the Future Faire to experience today’s modern world of the future. Clem wanders through the Faire’s Funway, a madcap jumble of suggested outrageous rides and exhibits; takes in a few specific rides such as the Wall of Science and Meet the President; begins to dismantle Dr. Memory’s technological paradigm, starting with the president and finally confronting the doctor himself; and ends up in gypsy camp today telling Barney’s fortune with today’s modern world of the future but a memory of what might be.

Carp has coped with this challenge not by mounting a series of illusions which move rapidly past the spectator but by simply attempting to create the actual environments and move the spectators through them: enticement, bus ride, Funway, Wall of Science, and all (an approach which has the added merit of solving still another problem, that of the hard wooden pews at the Julia Morgan Theater, since the audience never gets to sit still long enough to experience how uncomfortable they can be). To do this Carp and producer Patty Brown have assembled a large cast and an even larger crew for a multi-media presentation that includes dance, original music, video tapes, animation, and lighting and sound effects. The various and varied contributions of this crew deserve a closer look.

As adaptor Carp has done a remarkable job. His approach works well for much of the evening, bringing to life much of the record’s zany humor and making the story far easier to follow. He has fleshed out the Funway with well- chosen video and live action sequences copped from other Firesign albums, most of which work well to underscore the humor of the piece; and with improvisational material, most of which needs more work. As director he has done a fine job of casting and of using his stronger performers to support the weaker ones and to carry the more difficult scenes. Most of the individual scenes are well paced. Some have been worked to a fine polish, such as the gruesome hilarity of Beat the Reaper, the video-taped commercials, and the serenity of the gypsy camp sequence. Other scenes don’t come up to this level but still work well. What Carp has been unable to create, however, is a smoothness of transition between most of the scenes, a fact which remains unimportant so long as the audience is kept moving but which becomes apparent when we are sitting still. This is especially true of the final transition to the gypsy camp, which would probably be better handled with a slow fade from one scene to the next, the gypsies quietly entering even as the Funway comes apart, rather than with an attempted cataclysmic effect that doesn’t come off.

The same transitional problem crops up in both the video and animated sequences. Cindy Salisbury has created eight tapes, all of them funny, some rising to commercial slickness, such as the ads for “Bear Whiz Beer” and “Glass of Meat.” But most of the tapes tend to keep running for a bit too long after the dialogue is finished, leaving the performer stranded, bare face hanging out, which, if intentional, is only funny the first time. Christina Andreae’s animated creation sequence is as delightful as it is imaginative and hilarious, but it is poorly edited with too many dead spots interrupting its flow.

The video sequences are nicely used by Carp to cover some of the set changes and feature some very strong performances by Frank Knowlton as Ralph Spoilsport (the familiar tv car salesman) and Ralph Icebag (pot salesman), Jeff Elliot as the Big Hairy Guy who drinks Bear Whiz Beer, and Richard Benesevich and Ron Seff in the Powerhouse Church of the Presumptuous Assumption. In live performance, the three major roles are also well handled. Stephen Furrer is a believable and sympathetic Clem; Steven Jensen is appropriately doltish as Barney; and Peggy Scott is delightful as the omni-pleasant and deceptively decent Artie Choke. Outstanding among the more than 40 cameo roles are George Greer as Topless Nurse Judy and Sarah Nelder as the contestant in Beat the ReaPer; Lani Fantz as Fudd; and Harriet Garfinkle as the affably vacuous presidential hologram.

The production bounces between weak and strong Parts. Set designer John Prosise seems to have concentrated his efforts more on adapting the theater space to the needs of the production (constructing passageways between rooms, rearranging and installing seating) than on the sets for the individual scenes. Costume designer Drury May, on the other hand, has done a fine job of creating a wide variety of striking and original costumes and Mark Wagner has handled well the difficult assignment of lighting a[ the different performance areas. Technical director Jeff Elliot has the monumental task of coordinating all the different tech elements and generally handles the job well although there are some acoustic problems, especially on the video sequences and when live speakers and taped sound_mix.

Gunnar Madsen’s original score is one of the highlights of the evening, a rich mix of styles employing the talents of some 20 musicians to set moods and amplify effects. Suzanne Clements has choreographed an effective primitive dance Creation sequence and an amusing song and dance number complete with a lively tap dance by Clements and Joyce Umamoto. Other items worthy of note are Steve Volz’s marvelous Motor-operated Pushover and Grant Johnson’s video feedback tape, a kind of visual electronic symphony.

In sum, the parts seem greater than the whole. But the production is rich in parts; richer, it seems, than can be mined in one visit. It is flawed, funny, outrageous, entertaining, disappointing and delightful.  By Robert Hurwitt 4/25/1980 The Express

Awards and Honors include:

Grammy Nomination (vocal arranging)
Drama Desk Nomination – Outstanding Lyrics – The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
Lortel Award Nomination – Outstanding Musical – The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
Collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History – an eternal loop of his award-winning work with The Bobs and IsoBobs (between Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers and Mister Rogers’ Sweater)
Commissions from: National Public Radio, The Minnesota Opera, Lincoln Center, ODC/SAN FRANCISCO, Aurora Theatre Company, Los Angeles Theater Center
ASCAP Songwriter’s Award (13 consecutive years)
Ovation Award – Best World Premiere Musical – The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
LA Weekly Awards – Musical of the Year 2003 and Best Original Music for The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
LA Drama Critics Circle Award – 2003 Musical Score
The Eisner Prize (University of California)
Chosen by Amazon.com as one of 6 children’s music artists to watch in 2001
Izzy Nomination (Isadora Duncan Dance Award – Outstanding achievement in Sound/Score)
Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award (best score)
Emmy-winning shows for which Gunnar provided music: The Rat Pack (HBO), Sex and the City (HBO)
Parent’s Choice Gold Award (for all 4 ‘silly’ albums)
Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold
Nappa Gold Award (for Old Mr. Mackle Hackle and I’m Growing)
Amazon.com Editor’s Choice
“Best Recording for Older Children” CMWA
Teacher’s Picks Award – Scholastic Parent & Child
Parent’s Council “Outstanding”
Crossroads Music Awards Finalist
Publishers Weekly ‘Listen Up 2001’
Tower Pulse “Top 10 Children’s CD’s of 2001” and “One of 200 records that mattered in 2001”
NPR #4 of Top Ten CDs for Families 2008

 

We had a few questions for this unusual songwriter (and a pioneer of the independent family music scene).
He replied in between writing and recording new tunes in his home studio in Berkeley, CA:

KM: What gave you the idea to create a bunch of songs about food? Were you hungry?
GM: I’m always hungry. And eating is one of the divine pleasures of life for me. I’ve always got music humming and drumming in my head. And music is my life’s passion. I don’t know why it took so long to simply combine the two aspects.

KM: Were you thinking about the dietary habits of children when you wrote these songs?
GM: Since I still cannot claim to have grown up (and it seems unlikely anyone else will claim maturity on my behalf), I was thinking about my lifelong dietary habits from the point of view of being a lifelong child. My memories of childhood and food are still fresh – the loveliness of cheesecake (my cake of choice for every birthday), the tang of Sweet Tarts. And the bleagh of Necco Wafers and the absolute horror of Liver. The delight of a dish that’s ‘just right’.

KM: Did you perform all of the instruments on this album?
GM: Aside from guest vocalists, I perform it all. Mainly out of necessity. I recorded this album in fits and starts, in bits and pieces, over the course of many years, so there wasn’t a recording session where I could get a band together. I also derive some pleasure from learning how to play all the parts. I’m by no means an accomplished bass player, but it was really fun to ‘learn’ how to play the bass parts for each song, and learn more about the bass with each song I completed.

KM: What do you think are the elements of a good song for children?
GM: A good song just has to be good, whether for kids or adults. Thinking back to when I was a kid, my favorite songs at school were minor and dark – Volga Boatmen, Erie Canal. Songs about towing barges, mainly…so I’m not sure if it was about the towing, or the minor keys :). But I liked the sound of struggle. Happy sunny songs we sang at school were uninteresting to me. BUT, I loved humor. There were some great humorous musical groups at the time (The Smothers Brothers, the Limelighters, Allan Sherman), none of whom targeted kids per se, but they were family friendly, and I loved listening to their records both by myself and with my family. And the music that changed my life as a kid? The Beatles. Before I heard them, music was not important to me. The instant I heard them, a world opened up. Their songs had enough ‘sunshine’ in them to appeal to all, but even from the beginning they had dark undertones of jealousy and self-doubt that drew me in, that made me trust them.

KM: What’s your home studio like? Do you snack while you compose songs?
GM: My studio is snack-free. I do drink tea while working, but no food. My studio is across the back yard from my house, so if hunger is an issue (and I’m always hungry) I force myself to go into the house to get food. Keeps me trim! The studio is large and full of light. We built it as a studio for my wife to paint in (fine art painting), but she ended up enjoying other pursuits, so we moved my grand piano in, and I put in all my electronics and instruments. I’ve got a toilet and a sink, a couch that folds out into a bed for guests, a drum set that I STILL don’t know how to play very well but dream of mastering some day, and various works of art and goofy stuff on the walls.

KM: What are your favorite foods to bring on a picnic? Is egg salad or liver or sardines on the menu?
GM: Liver? Never! Pate? No way! I just don’t like liver. Eggs are something I do like, but in a tragic twist, I don’t like them hard boiled. So, no egg salad for me. Sardines or smelt, grilled, are divine! A loaf of sour bread and a selection of cheeses is sure to pleases (cow, sheep or goat, aged and stinky or fresh and tangy, I like ’em all). Olives! Lemonade! Berries, apples, nuts. Man, I gotta go on a picnic soon…

KM: How did you select your guest artists and why did you ask them to sing these particular songs?
GM: I picked them because I like them as people, and admire their work. I’ve known Justin for a long time, he’s been so supportive of me, and has helped me get gigs in the Chicago area. I remember fondly hanging at his apartment and listening to Wayne Shorter and some other jazz from the 60’s, sharing our love of music long into the night. Frances I’d met through the San Francisco Grammy chapter, and became an instant fan of her work. And Bill Harley – I forget when I first became aware of him, but when my son was younger, Bill’s songs and stories were #1 in our car. When Bill came on tour to our area, we of course went to see him, and I invited him to our house for a visit. We’ve stayed in touch since. As for the song matchup – Of the songs I’d written, “City of Sardines” seemed like a perfect song for Frances – it’s just a song I could hear her on. The parts she sang were all hers, though – I was so pleasantly surprised to hear where she put things, it brought the song to a whole new level. “Liver” started as an instrumental, and Justin said he’s like to try singing on it. I worked and re-worked different lyrical ideas, none of them quite gelled until I hit upon the “Liver” lyric. But Justin wasn’t sure that it was the right song subject for him. I meditated on some of my favorite Justin songs, and came up with “The Longest Night”, which I thought would fit his voice and character. He agreed, and we got it done. That left Liver in need of a duet partner. Bill’s voice and delivery were exactly what the song cried out for. Now, the song is happy.Your composition credits are impressive. What are some of the other projects you’re working on now or soon?
The musical I co-wrote with Joy Gregory and which was produced off-Broadway in 2011 is being transformed into a movie (The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World). It’s been a long road, but all the pieces seem to be coming together and it’s very exciting. While we are using the stage play as our springboard, we are writing mostly new songs for the movie, so that has me pretty busy. The movie is set in 1967, and my task is to write songs that sound as if they could have been on the radio in that era. So I’m listening to tons of mid-60’s songs (all of which I grew up with), absorbing the tone and the vibe of that music. And songs back then were shorter, got right to the point. So I’m learning a lot about song construction. I’m enjoying the discipline of writing 60’s style pop hits.

KidzMuzik

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in music and how had your background in food translated to audiences?

Gunnar Madsen (GM): Before the age of eight I had no real interest in music. We had a record player of sorts (it was a record-playing contraption with a clock on it that my dad bought to try out ‘sleep teaching’) and my mother had about fifteen records of various styles of music that she played while doing housework. I liked the comedy records (Allan Sherman, the Smothers Brothers) but otherwise music was invisible to me. Then one fateful Sunday night at my grandparents, my sister and I were watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” when our teenaged Aunt came into the room and changed the channel to Ed Sullivan. “The Beatles are on!” she said. We had no idea what she was talking about. But when the Beatles started playing, my life changed. I heard music for the first time. I ended up spending all my allowance on Beatles albums, then started listening to the radio and heard all kinds of other music. I didn’t start playing music until age fifteen or so, teaching myself guitar and then piano, but from the moment I heard the Beatles music was my everything.
Food – It was in college when I really learned to cook and started to discover the joy of cooking (so to speak). Chance led me to have one roommate whose girlfriend had attended the Cordon Bleu, and who not only cooked for us but made the whole process of cooking seem do-able and taught me a lot about cooking. My next roommate worked as a caterer on weekends (he would later go on to become one of the top chefs at Chez Panisse and at his own restaurant), and he made cooking seem easy, simple and improvisational. Until the writing of I Am Your Food, I never thought of focusing on food and music together. But if I look back on songs I wrote for The Bobs, there are many examples: “I’m Hungry”; “Food to Rent”; “Banana Love”. So, food must have been on my mind… As for how it all translates to audiences, we’ll see once the record comes out.

MM: You’re famous for your offbeat lyrics, so how do you think these things up?

GM: It seems to be just how I’m put together. I often wish, and I’ve tried, to write songs in a more traditional vein, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it, and the results seem, to me, a little forced. If I take a more poetic view of things, and follow my unconscious where it leads me, I’m usually rewarded with something I like. Sometimes I have existing music I like, and spend a long time searching for lyrics. That was the case with “Liver.” I recorded a version as an instrumental, and then went through dozens of different lyric ideas, none of them ever working. I felt I was working too hard, so I cleared my mind, heard the music fresh, and the germ of the “Liver” idea came to me. For “10,000 Pancakes”, the shouted phrase came to me one day while taking a walk in the hills. I knew it was special. Why? I don’t know! I continued taking long walks, hoping that song would reveal itself to me, but nothing came. The shouted phrase kept popping up in my mind from time to time and then, years later, I melody formed around the shouted phrase. And then, finally, lyrics came that kind of justify the shouted refrain.

MM: Do you typically write lyrics or melodies first and what do you think makes this new album stand out?

GM: Sometimes it’s lyrics, sometimes melodies. Often, I’ll write really rough ideas of lyrics to go with a melody, and then it will take weeks of work to fine-tune the lyrics. What makes this album stand out from my previous ones is the quality of the songwriting. While I’m proud of my previous releases, I’ve learned a lot in the past 10 years while writing an Off-Broadway musical (“The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World”) and adapting that musical to an upcoming film. I’m much more aware of song structure, and I feel like I’m able to zero in on a point and get to it quickly. It’s fun.

MM: What can people expect to experience at your concerts and/or live shows?

GM: Not much, since I’m not planning any! I absolutely LOVED performing when I was younger, the stage felt like a free and welcoming place for me and traveling around the world was exciting. I’ve had enough traveling for one lifetime, so touring does not appeal to me. But even the stage no longer gives me the thrill it once did. That may change as my son gets older and moves on, but for now I like being a stay-at-home dad and living life off of the stage.

MM: Of all your songs, do you have a favorite?

GM: A song I wrote for The Bobs called “Helmet.” It came to me while taking a hike, and which was finished in a matter of days. It just popped out of me, and both the music and the lyrics (co-written with Richard Greene) feel true and right. Of the songs on my ‘family’ albums, my favorite is “Tuna Fish”. It’s another example of a song that was very easy and fast to write, and that seems like a great balance of lyrics and music.

MM: What are the challenges of being a professional musician, especially one who has formed such a unique persona and niche a la food?

GM: Having a unique persona makes the challenges easier, I think. If you stand out in some way, that can only be a plus. Being a professional musician isn’t easy, but then, nothing in life is without challenges. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, and by dint of wanting to do it, and enjoying it, the work is bearable and often enjoyable. The things I love, (or have loved)? Being in the studio, having a recording of a song, finishing a song, being onstage. The things that are hard, but still enjoyable? Writing a song, practicing, doing interviews and publicity. Things that are hard and not that enjoyable? Flying, driving, hotel rooms, and running the business (accounting, ordering, legal paperwork, social networking).

Kidskintha

Rockmommy: What do you love best about being a dad?

Gunnar Madsen: I love working on being a better dad all the time. The idea that there is no end to parenting used to scare me – in school or in work, every project has a due date, or a production, or has a finished product. But the growth of a child is never-ending, it presents constant new challenges, things I could never have imagined. And the learning goes on and on, no due date, no completion. That’s an amazing teaching to get ahold of.

Rockmommy: Tell me about your latest musical project, “I Am Your Food” — how did it come about?

Gunnar Madsen: I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for all of my son’s school years (he’s 15 now). Parenting took up much of my time, but in spare moments I dreamed of my next album, and I had the idea that it could be about food (which I love). I wrote some of the songs from this album over the course of many years. It’s only in the past 2 years, as my son matured and required less of my time, that I was able to focus on bringing this album to fruition – finishing up the writing of the songs, recording them, and preparing to launch the project.

Rockmommy: Has your music changed since you became a dad? If yes, how so?

Gunnar Madsen: I think the things I’m learning from fatherhood, like patience, generosity, and a greater awareness of myself and who I am, are coming through in my creative life. I’m still writing funny, sometimes goofy, songs, but I sense a different spirit in them.

Rockmommy: What’s it like trying to balance music with parenthood? Are there other factors in the mix — e.g., time with a spouse or partner, a day job to pay the bills, etc.? Is your partner involved in the music project?

Gunnar Madsen: The main shift in my music career came when our son was born. It was not reasonable to go on tour and leave my partner at home alone with the care of a baby. And I didn’t want to be away, — the gravitational pull of fatherhood kept me at home. I continued performing locally, but over time my desire to perform diminished. I found that I was happiest just writing music at home, and left the stage. Luckily, being a stay-at-home composer and a stay-at-home dad work pretty well together. My partner is not involved in my music – she’s has a store she runs with her mother, antiques and fine things for the home and such, which has paid the bulk of our bills over the past years. But I trust her opinions very much, and share everything I’m working on with her to see what she thinks.

Rockmommy: What’s your advice to other rockin’ dads?

Gunnar Madsen: If you’ve got to rock, you’ve got to rock. It’s not like I made a decision to become a musician. It was a calling, a fire burning inside, that wouldn’t allow me to do anything else. It has maybe saved my life, it’s a joy, and it’s also caused a heap of trouble and pain. I can imagine a whole lot of easier ways to get through life, but this is the only way I know how to do it 🙂 In the end, I’m grateful for having such a passion.

RockMommy

Sept. 1991 interview conducted by Brannon Wiles

CAN: Tell me a little about your musical background: your training, influences, etc.

GM: It’s funny having started an a cappella group that I find myself in the midst of all this a cappella mania. Here’s an entire newsletter devoted to a cappella, and it’s like, “Gee, I never even thought about a cappella music before.” I just started the group as a whim, and it’s kind of funny — my background was not in voice at all.
My first musical inspiration was probably the Beatles — when I was 8, they came on the Ed Sullivan show — the same can probably be said for millions of young Americans, but it affected me as well. I took some piano lessons for a year and then quit, because I didn’t sound like the Beatles. Later on, when I was about 15 or 16, I picked up the guitar and taught myself guitar and piano (figured out from the guitar). Then my mother gave me piano lessons for my 17th birthday, and that was heavenly. I practiced for like 4 hours a day. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, really, but I thought maybe if I could major in music, that would be great. So, I worked really hard all summer and got into the music department here at Berkeley, and ended up studying music for 5 years.

When I taught myself, I was teaching myself rock and folk, but studying music here at Berkeley was strictly classical. So I didn’t really know what was happening in the music world — for all I knew, it was just the Bee Gees and nothing else.  During school, I music-directed some shows for theatre groups and found myself arranging and writing music, and I continued after college. A couple years after I graduated [’79], I was writing music and singing telegrams, and it was when the singing telegram company — that’s where I met Matthew — went out of business that the Bobs were formed.  There was an a cappella group here in San Francisco called the Baltimores which are no longer, but at the time they put out a couple of singles, I think. I just loved what they were doing, and I said, “I’d love to do that.” I got together with Matthew, found Richard through an ad in the paper, and then the Bobs got launched.

CAN: When exactly did you start, and how long was it before it became full-time?

GM: We started in 1981, and it was a great ride. Richard had a good background in music. Where I was used to cheesy little recording studios, Richard was an engineer at a very fine studio in San Francisco. The Bobs got a pretty fast break that way — we got some good recordings done and they got on some radio stations that would play demos of local groups. It wasn’t all computerized back then. We got some notoriety by being able to get some stuff done in the studio.
Janie joined us in ’82, after about a year. Writing music with just three parts is all right, but it’s a little difficult. You’d love to put a seventh on a chord sometimes, you know — or take a breath — and four is great. Then we added Joe a few years ago, and five is all right, but sometimes it gets a little mushy if you overuse the voices. Overall, I would say that five voices is even better than four but you have to arrange carefully. With four there’s always clarity, but five can sound a little “Swingly-Singery … Gene Puerlingy … Hi-Losy …” Take 6 sometimes borders on sounding like that, but they’re such incredible singers, I don’t care.

CAN: If you didn’t have any real a cappella background, how did you find such a distinct style? What made you choose your direction?

GM: The Baltimores were headed in a similar direction [away from traditional doo-wop and barbershop] although they stayed more in a pop vein. Where Richard and I got off as arrangers from the very beginning was to try and “push the envelope” as they say. We would say, “Can we do heavy metal? Can we do punk?” I suppose the judges are still out on that, but that’s okay, we were having fun with it.
Though I was a composer, I really hadn’t written any songs, and Richard hadn’t either. We essentially taught each other how to write songs. Virtually every Bobs song was a collaboration. The genesis of the group was saying, “Can we do Frank Zappa?” After awhile, it was, “Can we write our own songs? Let’s see.” “Art for Art’s Sake” was one of the first ones, as was “Cowboy Lips.”

CAN: What are your favorite songs, that you either wrote or just arranged?

GM: I always loved singing “Through the Wall.” There’s a depth of emotion to it that not all of our other songs, at least the ones I got to sing lead on, had. Every time I sang it, I could find something to really hook into and really feel deeply, and I like that. Also, we sang “Psycho Killer” at virtually every show, and it never got old for me. It’s a beautiful song in lots of ways. We did it in kind of a funny way, but overall, the words of the song just really describe that feeling of being on edge. [To tape recorder:] I’m not psychotic!

CAN: What were some of the challenges in the early days of a pioneering a cappella group?

GM: Probably finding a slot for ourselves. Our agent, Scott O’Malley, was very helpful to our career, I feel, in that we were a hard act to book. A cappella has achieved a certain stature recently, with the [Spike Lee] special on TV, but when we were doing this — hey, Bobby McFerrin hadn’t even started doing a cappella; he was still singing with the band. I mean, the only people out there were the Persuasions — the Nylons hadn’t even started yet.
We’re also a little bit funny, so we ended up doing lots of comedy gigs. Finding the right slot for us wasn’t easy. Our agent had lots of patience. He put us in Folk festivals, Jazz festivals, anywhere we could fit, and lots of times we did. We opened for Robin Williams on tour, and it worked. It was hard — 7,000 people that pay good money to see Robin Williams don’t want to see anything else. I’d say we did pretty well.

CAN: You also opened for Billy Crystal, didn’t you?

GM: That was only for a couple of nights, so we didn’t get to know him that well. The interesting thing about that was that we did it at a casino in South Tahoe, and singing in a casino is an experience. Everyone’s drunk, and they don’t care for anything too… fine, shall we say? In fact, we opened our first set (there were two shows a night) with the kind of stuff we did with Robin on tour — “Banana Love” and really hit-’em-over-the-head kind of stuff — “Psycho Killer” — and Robin Williams’ audiences really seemed to like that. But here, in this setting, people just sort of looked at us with drunken, uncomprehending faces.
Then Billy Crystal comes on, and his show was full of, like, farting jokes and all kinds of stuff. They loved it, `cause he knew the audience he was playing for. He kept on repeating the same farting noise, and they would roll in the aisles. And we had the entertainment director from Harrah’s come down and say, “You’re a talented, talented young man, but do you have any love songs or something?” So we dropped “Psycho Killer” quick and some other things and played it down the middle as far as we could.

CAN: All in all, would you call the Bobs successful, either by your standards and expectations or the music industry’s?

GM: Yes, definitely. In terms of my expectations, I think in the back of my mind I had the fantasy of the Beatles. As a young kid, you look at “A Hard Day’s Night,” it looks like it’s the most fun thing in the world. Basically, I haven’t had my jacket torn off of me by anybody, but I know what it is to tour now. I know what it is to feel a crowd responding just to your music — it’s great. Also, it’s hard to tour, and it’s like, “Okay, so I lived the life — that’s good.” I might go back and live it again; I don’t know. Life on the road is hard. I can see why the Beatles split up when they did. How any group makes it beyond a certain point is due to magic because you’re talking about a complex relationship.

CAN: If you could go back, would you do anything differently as far as the group is concerned?

GM: No, it seems to have worked out pretty well. I mean, if I were to start another group now, I might put it in writing what we each expected and wanted out of the whole thing and make sure it’s clear up front, because the fuzziness leads to a lot of resentment on everybody’s part. You can never make it all totally clear, but I’d make an attempt at it, at least. On the other hand, you’ve just got to trust that things might work out.

CAN: I think our readers would like to know some of your reasons for leaving the Bobs last December, if you’d care to comment on that.

GM: Basically, I would say that I had many reasons, sort of like the stars lining up and suddenly the forces are all there. It is falling in love with someone, who I’m now married to. We’ve been living together the last four years. Spending time away on the road for the first two years of touring with the Bobs was no problem. When there’s someone at home that you miss, you don’t like going out as much.
I’d also kind of had my fill of the a cappella format. I still love it, but in terms of doing something creative, the songwriting had kind of stopped a couple years back. To get it going, it was kind of like an act of will as opposed to an act of joy, and for my own life I just wanted more joy in it. And it was six months away from home out of every year. I love performing and those two hours [on stage] were great, but after that, it’s like, “Where’s the newness? Where’s the new excitement?” I felt pretty satisfied about all the success and was just looking for something else.
I couldn’t have told you before I quit what I wanted to do, but as the year turned and I was no longer touring with the group, all kinds of things opened up. I’m writing a film score and getting some jobs as a composer, which feels real good. I’m doing some solo concerts, some a cappella and some where I play piano, and it’s a pleasure to play piano again — I haven’t done that in years! I’m starting to teach myself guitar [again] and using that in concerts, and it’s like, “Hey — instruments are fun!”
Also, the Bobs had become a comedy group, and I really wanted to write some more personal, emotional songs. I tried to do that with the group, and it was really hard, because the audience expected it. The group expected comedy too — it was just a real hard mold to break. I didn’t have the courage or the willpower to force it open, and I wasn’t sure it needed to be. I just wasn’t sure what I wanted either. It’s only having been by myself now that the songs are just coming out of me. Some of them are still funny, `cause I’m a funny guy, I think. But when I want to write a song about a relationship or my dead grandmother, there’s room for me to write it and perform it, and you know, it feels really good.
I suggested touring less — there were all sorts of compromises suggested. In fact, Joe joined the group as a result of compromise. We said, “Maybe if we add another member it will change things.” And it did change things — a lot for the better, but it didn’t change things enough for me personally to where I felt comfortable staying still. I just wanted to be home so bad. In fact, I still resent traveling. Here it is eight months later — I’ve got a honeymoon coming up in November that I’m starting to want to go on now. I’ve had enough of it. Don’t put me in an airport, PLEASE!

CAN: Tell me about the Bobs’ most recent album. It was released several months ago, right?

GM: Yes, but it was recorded a couple of years ago. In fact, it was while we were auditioning people for our new group. That’s why you’ll find Joe on some of the cuts and Maureen Scott, who’s a wonderful singer, on a few as well.

CAN: Was she part of the group at that time?

GM: No, we were just busy in the studio and said, “Hey, we’ve auditioned a bunch of different singers over the last 6 months. Why don’t we try some of them out in the studio and see how it works?” We liked working with Joe, and we liked working with Maureen on a couple of the cuts too. Then, according to the votes cast, it was Joe who was next to join the group.

CAN: Last January I heard the Bobs in North Carolina, and there was a fifth member, Roger Bob. Several of the CAN staff heard the Bobs this month in San Francisco, and Roger was nowhere to be found. What’s the story there?

GM: I’m not too sure what went on. He was one of the first people we auditioned down in L.A. [when Joe joined the group]. He’s a wonderful, witty songwriter and a good singer. I really liked working with him, but he has a good career in Los Angeles too, as a jingle singer and stuff. So, it was problematic about him joining the group, but when I finally left at the end of last year, they worked on maybe integrating him into the group. Apparently, the blend wasn’t quite right, and I think he could’ve been a little afraid of the touring schedule as well. So, they tried him and it didn’t work out. I think they’re just going on with four now. I’m not really sure.

CAN: Do you have any other advice for people interested in starting a new a cappella group?

GM: Try arranging your own stuff. Who knows what kind of stuff is bubbling inside each of us? It might be something you’re not cut out for. Maybe you try a few, and it just gives you headaches — that’s fine, but give it try. Don’t let the editor get in your way: everyone has a little internal editor that says, “Oh, that’s too corny” or “Oh, that’s too dissonant.” NO — do it, do it, do it. Just go for it… grab a handful of it… If it doesn’t work, what have you lost? If you just go with the same old arrangements, you can have some fun too, but just dig in with both hands, get dirty, and see how much fun you can have with it. Not everyone has the will to do that — sometimes it’s just nice to have a nice hobby. But, if you want to start a group, why not go all the way?

CAN: Let’s talk a little bit about the art form of a cappella itself. Why the a cappella format?

GM: It’s really intriguing to try limit your options and then work within that. Strip it down to three voices or four, and then it’s really exciting. When you have a whole orchestra or synthesizer at your disposal, you can’t seem to make up your mind between the timpani and the flute. But if all you’ve got is just four human voices, then you know what you’re going to do with them, and you stretch them. You make them do things, you really explore them, and that’s exciting. It’s why the string quartet for classical composers was so incredibly engrossing. It’s like this concentrated essence. You’re not talking about a whole orchestra, but just these four instruments and can you make it work?
The limiting factor is definitely exciting. And the purity of the sound. And the portability of it. You can do it anywhere. It’s, like, almost totally organic, and that’s exciting.

CAN: What makes a song work a cappella? What’s the key to a good arrangement?

GM: It differs from song to song. I think of “I Hate the Beach Boys” from our repertoire. I love that song; it’s just really pretty. It’s got no rhythm — it’s almost like a madrigal in a sense, and it succeeds on that scale. It would never be a hit though. What makes, like, Take 6 happen is their underlying beat, the repetitive nature of the beat, even though their chords are complex on top. The Nylons? Well, they’ve got drums in there — that’s cheating! But if you can set up some kind of a beat. That was always exciting too. We’d say, “Can we pull off a funk song with 4 voices? Can we set up something that’s really funky?” Sometimes its easy. You just keep those back-beat handclaps going and anything you put down is going to sound great.
But it’s not always that simple. You’re looking for a good bass line, or…. I suppose it’s the same rules that apply to any good song. If you’re looking at a Gershwin thing, well, it’s that melody that works. You could play it on a solo piano, you could play it in an orchestra — it’s just a beautiful melody. What makes Tower of Power work? It’s that rhythm. Boppity boppity bah. Can you sing a Tower of Power song to yourself in the shower? Well, … kind of, but basically it’s that rhythm. The same rules apply, but basically those rules depend on what kind of song you’re trying to get across.
One thing I’m finding in writing my own songs now, apart from the Bobs, is the use of the chorus in a pop song — the repetition of words that I used to think was boring. In the Bobs you’ll find that each verse is different, trying to keep going and tell a story. But I’m really digging how a pop song can say nothing but “I love you” and the second line is “I love you, baby” and the third line is “I love you.” If it’s done with emotion, the beat’s right, and there’s a little bit of melody, it could be a fantastic song.
Words and the judicial use of them are really important in getting a good arrangement going. Like, a good challenge would be to do … I don’t know … “Let’s Do It” — a Cole Porter song. [He sings:] “Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas…” Take that and it’s got a million verses. You can do 10 minutes worth of that song just going verse to verse, and they’re great verses. But could you do a 3-minute arrangement of it with just the one verse and recycling the words around. That’s a great idea. [To tape recorder:] Hey, give it a try! It might end up just being an intellectual exercise, but maybe you can make it mean something. Basically you’re talking about a plea. Someone’s begging, “Please let’s do it!” You could work it.
From my current standpoint, that’s really excited me — the structure of just a song, let alone the arrangement. I’m thinking of “Helter Skelter” when we first started arranging. We kind of knew we couldn’t make it really heavy metal, so what else could we do to make it grating? Not unpleasantly so, but to really punch the buttons underneath your skin and make you go, “Oooo — this is weird. Where’s the downbeat?” and “That’s a strange note.” That was a way to approach it. We knew that the essence of the song was unsettling. So, we didn’t use loud guitars and a raucous vocal and an intense beat to make it unsettling, but other aspects. The choice of a chord and the voicing of the chord. A shifting meter that just doesn’t let you settle down.
That would be true of choosing any song, I guess. If you wanted to do a Carpenters’ song, say. It’s got kind of a warmth, maybe a soupy warmth, and you want to make sure that’s in your arrangement somewhere. Or, to intentionally cut across that and instead of crooning, “Why do birds suddenly appear?” you could go for a punk version of it. Could be fun! But to realize what the essence is so you know where you’re going from there.

CAN: Jumping to a completely different topic, as a professional group, what kind of contact did the Bobs have with other professional singing groups?

GM: We did a show with the Nylons once. They were nice, but we didn’t end up going out for beers afterwards and singing the house down. There was a club in Denver called Acapella’s and they had a different local a cappella group every night. We’d always stop in after we did a show at a theatre somewhere in Denver and sit in or something, so that kind of thing is fun. We did a few shows with Bobby McFerrin, but we never quite made a link with anyone else.
I guess the Bobs were somewhat insular in that way, `cause Richard and I are trained musicians and could improvise some. But Janie and Matthew don’t have the training, so it’s not so easy to just pick up something new. Also, we do some covers, but if we do, they’re pretty weird. It’s not like we just get together with the Persuasions and [they] say, “Let’s do that old Philadelphia song, `My Baby'” [And we say] “We don’t know it …we know `Helter Skelter.'”

CAN: In closing, perhaps you’d like to tell our readers a little bit about what the future holds for Gunnar Madsen. Do you have some hopes for where your career is headed next?

GM: I’ve been taking an acting class recently that has been really good. I always loved performing anyway, but did it from an instinctual basis. I wanted to learn more of the tools. When I had a great night, that was wonderful, but I had no idea how to recapture that. I’m doing lots of auditions, and have done some commercials [for a computer he couldn’t name at this point]. I’m not sure I want to be just a stage actor, but it’s really helping me in my solo performing. One would think that I’d feel totally comfortable on stage after singing with the Bobs for 10 years, but it’s so different to have a whole group you can just sit back on. So, I’m learning a whole lot each time I step across the stage. I guess I’ve been doing about one concert a month this year, and I’m really liking the freedom that’s in it. It’s really a kick to take the audience from funny, funny songs to a really sad or angry one — all over the emotional map. I can go there myself and take the audience with me.
My dream is to have a demo-quality tape out just to put some good time into arranging and recording the songs. I like being by myself, and I’d like to get that project done and see where it goes from there in the solo singing career. That seems to be the core of my being right now — writing songs and singing them. I don’t know, we’ll see what happens.