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Farmington grad has a hoppy homecoming

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Farmington Elementary School music teacher Doris McNamara (right) and fifth grade teacher Paul Ahrenholz (center) got to perform "Pop See Ko" with former student Neil Olstad and his band Koo Koo Kanga Roo. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Matthew Steichen)2 / 3
Farmington Elementary School Students held a Hat Day fundraiser to help bring Koo Koo Kanga Roo to their school on March 8. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Matthew Steichen)3 / 3

It's seldom easy to get kids to part with their money, but tell a bunch of elementary students they have a chance to bring the hilariously interactive duo Koo Koo Kanga Roo to their school and they won't hesitate to throw down their dollar bills.

When Farmington Elementary School music teacher Doris McNamara saw that one of her former students, Neil Olstad, was bringing his band's tour through Minnesota, she knew she had to invite them to her school. Olstad attended FES in fourth and fifth grade and graduated from Farmington High School in 2004. He now forms half of the self-described "in-between thing that's kind of like a dance along, comedy, high-energy rap show." He met the band's other half, Bryan Atchison, in the freshman dorms at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota.

FES students were so excited about the prospect of seeing Koo Koo Kanga Roo live, they held a Hat Day fundraiser and reached out to the school's Parent Teacher Partnership to help pay for it. McNamara said the kids were so passionate about the cause, many of them wore two hats that day or threw in extra money just to make sure they had enough.

"They're pretty well known. They're an internet sensation," she said. "The younger kids were really excited about having them come."

The screams were so loud in the school's gym when Koo Koo Kanga Roo performed March 8 that some of the kindergartners had to cover their ears. They were equally loud when teachers announced they had raised enough money to invite them to their school.

"They just were cheering like you couldn't believe when we announced they were going to come," McNamara said.

FES principal Kim Bollesen said she hoped bringing back the popular and successful alumnus might inspire her students to dream big.

"I wanted to show them, 'Maybe that could be you someday,'" she said. "Who knows what their talents or gifts are? Maybe they could take it someplace."

McNamara said she recalls Olstad being a good music student as well as a good role model. She said the garage band he formed in ninth grade inspired some of his peers to form bands of their own. But even though Olstad was a talented drummer in Farmington High School's Jazz Band and Marching Band, and Atchison plays guitar, sings and writes adult music too, it is the duo's children's music that has struck the biggest chord with fans.

"They have an infectious beat and they do silly songs, so the kids really think they're funny," McNamara said. "They have quite a variety of things they'll sing about, from losing a tooth to eating pizza to farts and boogers — all sort of gross things that kids like."

Olstad and Atchison said they never intended to form a children's band. They simply wanted to differentiate themselves from all the other rock bands out there.

"We were experimenting with making songs on our laptops and trying to come up with an interactive and kind of different show than people had seen before," Olstad said.

They put together some videos to help fans learn their dance moves before the shows, but they got their big break when they decided to make a workout DVD for their college fans as a joke for their merchandise table.

"Kindergarten teachers started using them on Pinterest, and then that snowballed into this," Olstad said.

A popular brain break website for teachers called GoNoodle received so many Koo Koo Kanga Roo video requests that it reached out to the guys and asked them to partner. The band's interactive videos encouraging movement have since become a staple in K-5 classrooms across the globe.

Olstad said the partnership has been great because it has allowed the band's videos to reach far more people than they otherwise would have. But he and Atchison want people to know they are more than just their hit song "Pop See Ko." They also perform 21+ shows, tour extensively, sell a variety of silly merchandise, and create more traditional music videos.

"GoNoodle is great, but it's just the tip of the iceberg," Olstad said.

Still, they are OK with kids enjoying their ridiculous antics on stage.

"I love that kids think we're really weird and really different, and that that's OK," Atchison said.

Olstad said he thinks kids appreciate Koo Koo Kanga Roo's humor and enthusiasm.

"We try to be more intense and to kind of get on their level as far as their energy goes," he said. "The songs are pretty out there sometimes."

He said he enjoyed being back in Farmington and performing at his former elementary school.

"I love Farmington. Lots of great memories," he said. "Here at FES, I remember learning to play the recorder from Ms. McNamara, and then one time on the playground I bit through my tongue playing basketball, so those are my FES memories. Farmington is great."