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!
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!
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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…
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.