Farmington High School graduate makes music for young, old and everyone in between
It turns out, playing music for 6 year olds isn't all that different from playing music for college students. Both groups like to dance. Both groups like to shout lyrics back at the performers. And both groups like to have a good time. Swap a beer for a juice box, and they're pretty much the same crowd.
Neil Olstad knows something about both crowds. For the past four years, the Farmington High School graduate has been half of Koo Koo Kanga Roo, a band whose music one reviewer described as "hyper positive toddler hip hop." Backed by pre-recorded tracks that sound like they could have come from an old-school Super Mario Bros. game, they sing and rap songs about unicorns, ninjas and best friends to audiences as diverse as children's birthday parties, bar crowds and even several stops on the live tour of popular Nickelodeon show Yo Gabba Gabba.
No matter the audience, though, the show remains the same.
"That's kind of what we pride ourselves on. We literally don't change anything," Olstad said. "We have so many different crowds to play, we've stopped being surprised."
Olstad has been in bands since he was a student at FHS, but Koo Koo Kanga Roo came about as a reaction to some of the more tiring aspects of being a musician - hauling instruments, setting up and doing sound checks. Four years ago Olstad and Bryan Atchison, a friend Olstad met at St. Mary's University in Winona, set out to find a better way to do things.
"We kind of just holed up in our dorm room and spread out a giant sheet of paper and threw out ideas of what we wanted to be," Olstad said.
Their list included everything from song ideas to costumes to ideas for what to do at a show. Nothing was off limits.
They fine-tuned their ideas during a series of five weekly shows at the Nomad World Pub on the west bank of the University of Minnesota, and the result defies easy description. No single category seems broad enough to describe two men who dance around on stage while singing songs about rainbows and friendship bracelets.
Whatever Koo Koo Kanga Roo is doing, crowds of all ages seem to enjoy it. Olstad and Atchison discovered early on that the show goes better if they get the crowd involved. Each of their songs has a simple dance that goes with it - it has to be basic enough that audience members can learn it during the introduction - and sections where the crowd can call lyrics back at the band. Many of the band's shows, at least locally, end with audience members dancing on stage, some of them wearing costumes the band brings along to shows and hands out.
"Our show is kind of about getting outside yourself and acting the fool on stage," Olstad said. "It's a lot easier to do that when the songs are about dinosaurs."
Olstad, who graduated from St. Mary's with a degree in music business, talks about holding cake-eating contests on stage and mentions comedian Andy Kauffman as an influence on the band's efforts to create something people will remember. He said the band cranks up the energy level to make up for the fact they take the stage without instruments.
It was during one of their bar shows in Minneapolis that Koo Koo got connected with the Yo Gabba Gabba tour. The show's creator is also the singer for a band called the Aquabats. When Yo Gabba Gabba goes on tour, the Aquabats often follow along and play a show for adults in the evening. Koo Koo was the opening act for one of those shows, and the two bands connected. As a result, Olstad and Atchison were there when Yo Gabba Gabba toured the southeast, playing to crowds of thousands of children in places like the Greensboro Coliseum.
The whole project has gotten bigger than Olstad ever expected from a band that was created as a kind of escape valve -- an oasis away from the rigors of being in a real band. Olstad and Atchison have formed an LLC, and, following the lead of Yo Gabba Gabba, they're putting together concepts for their own children's show. A couple of episodes of Koo Koo TV posted on their website contain some early ideas.
"We've put our whole lives into it," Olstad said. "We think it can go somewhere. It is something we want to do for the rest of our lives."
If that sounds a little high minded for a band that has a friendship bracelet station and a photo booth at their merchandise table, well, Olstad promises the business side of things stays well away from the stage.
"As Neil and Bryan we're really serious about it," he said. "But as Koo Koo Bryan and Koo Koo Neil, we just want to eat cupcakes."