Mike, Dan, & Jonathan dressed up as vegetables.
Playing music for kids is a completely different experience than playing music for adults. Kids are “honest,” says Mike Flannery. They don’t care how many awards you’ve won or what the reviews say about you. They just want you to rock.
And The Flannery Brothers, a kids’ band based in Bangor, Maine, and comprised of Dan and Mike Flannery and Jonathan Merrifield on drums, certainly do rock (even when they’re dressed up as vegetables). Their debut album, Love Songs for Silly Things, is one of the best we’ve heard this year.
So of course I was thrilled when they played a free show at our local library and I got the chance to sit down with them and ask them a few questions…
Boston Children’s Music: We love the Rutabaga song and I thought it would be fun to cook rutabaga for dinner, but I have no idea what to do with them. Do you actually eat them? How do you cook them?
Dan: Rutabaga’s in the store are big ugly things because they chop the really beautiful green parts off and then they cover them in wax, so nobody wants to eat them. But rutabagas at the farm come with a huge luscious green top and aren’t covered in wax. I actually didn’t think of the wax version when I wrote the song. I do eat them a lot in the fall and winter because they’re root vegetables and store well. I put them in stew with other root vegetables.
Mike: Actually, if you roast them, they caramelize a little bit, which is really nice.
Dan: The best way to see a rutabaga is at the farm. And they’re a fall vegetable so they’d be available now.
BCM: OK. So how do you make Dilly Beans?
Mike: Well, it’s a Maine delicacy…
Dan: It’s not necessarily Maine specific.
Mike: I never met a dilly bean before I moved to Maine.
Dan: My first one was in Connecticut.
Mike: They’re string beans that are treated sort of like pickles, but there’s a higher garlic content.
BCM: So you can buy them at the store?
Dan: Well, the right store. And at the bottom of the dilly bean jar in the brine they’ll put hot peppers and garlic and other spices so they have a little kick to them.
Mike: They’re really good. They’re crunchy.
Dan: When I moved to Maine, I rode my bicycle from New York city to Maine to make the decision to move there…
BCM: Wait, you rode your bike from New York to Maine?
Dan: I did.
Mike: To Bangor Maine, which is up there.
[My] overall goal is just to increase children’s level of engagement and curiosity with the world around them…. I sing about being a person.
Dan: On the way I camped in Connecticut and there was a group of old folks camping in the lot next to me. They saw me roll in on my bike and I was exhausted so they invited me over for dinner.
They told me they have a canning party every year and pickle tons and tons of dilly beans and they gave me a jar. And I was so amazed by them and said, “I am going to show these to Mike.”
So I tried to ride to Maine with them, but by the time I got there I think there were only three beans left, because they are that good.
BCM: How long have you guys been playing music together?
Mike: Twenty-two, twenty-three years?
Dan: I was four and you were eight.
Mike: So we started playing approximately twenty-two years ago.
BCM: Was that music any good?
Dan: Well, for four and eight, yeah, it was pretty good.
Mike: As the Flannery Brothers we’re coming up on about a year of live shows.
BCM: Is there any sibling rivalry?
Dan: I don’t think so. There’s sibling constructive criticism.
Mike: It’s actually been a really good process. We’ve been working together for a couple years and we act less like siblings and more like friends now.
Dan: We’re actually really on the same wave length. We say the same things at the same time a lot and that really helps when playing music. Sometimes I get things wrong, like today I switched verses in a song, but Mike just sang along. He got it. He knew what was going on.
Mike: And we collaborated on all the songs on the album. Dan and I just sat in my studio in Bangor and hashed out every note in every song.
BCM: Love Songs for Silly Things has won a lot of awards. Are you handling the promotion of the CD yourself?
Mike: Dan is a promoting machine.
Dan: It’s tough. I do all the graphic design and I learned how to program websites just to make our website, which is sculpted entirely out of clay. I also do all the artwork and marketing. It’s all do-it-yourself. I made the shirts, too. But it’s really rewarding.
BCM: The children’s music market is so big right now. Can it be hard to get your music heard?
Dan: In Maine, that’s not the case. So we’re actually very lucky to be in Maine. There isn’t a lot of competition. But reaching out past Maine has been difficult.
Mike: We got a lot of news coverage during the John Lennon Songwriting Contest because we needed to drum up votes. We were on the local Bangor news four or five times during the course of the contest. We’ve been in all the papers.
Dan: It’s definitely worked to our advantage to be in Maine.
BCM: What’s the best thing about performing for kids?
Mike: They’re honest.
BCM: Is that good or bad?
Mike: It’s great. You know if something is working.
Dan: …or not.
Mike: But most of the time what we do works. And we never come with a set list, because you never know what the energy level is going to be.
So if it’s time to get moving, we’ll play Jump Up and Down, if it’s time to calm down we’ll play Broccoli Yet. There’s a lot of back and forth. It’s not like at a rock show where you play at the audience, we’re playing with the audience.
Dan: And kids dance. There’s a lot of dancing.
BCM: Do you have an overall message you try to get across through your music?
Dan: I think the overall goal is just to increase children’s level of engagement and curiosity with the world around them.
Mike: When we go to write a song it’s always about something that gets us excited.
Dan: My rule is that if it doesn’t apply to me as an adult, then I won’t write about it for kids. I think there’s an inherent dishonesty in that. I don’t ride the school bus, for example, so I won’t write about missing the bus. I sing about being a person.
BCM: Any plans for new projects?
Dan: We’re developing a new website called makeupsongs.com where kids send in their song ideas and then we’ll take those topics and develop video shorts online where we explore those subject matters and then write a song about it.
So if a kid wants to hear a song about popcorn, then Mike might go to a farm and talk to the farmer to learn how corn becomes popcorn, and Jonathan, our drummer, will go to the movie theatre and eat ten huge boxes of popcorn and totally immerse himself in the world of popcorn.
We want to have as much of a collaboration as possible with our audience.
Mike: And we’ve already started working on another CD.
Dan: I’ve also written some songs for an EP called Move Over Lullabies, It’s Time for the Wakeup Songs. It’ll be four or five songs designed to get you up in the morning.
BCM: Sounds like you’ve got a lot of new things planned, but they all work together. Do you think you have a defining style? How would you define your music style?
Dan: We’ve been called the Grateful Dead for little kids. I think the band’s writing style is very Harry-Nilsson-like. I also get a lot of inspiration from Jonathan Richman.
Mike: Oh yeah! Jonathan Richman!
Dan: I’d say that if we had to define ourselves, we’re “Jonathan Richman approved fun rock and roll for kids.”
Mike: But we don’t know if he’d approve.
Dan: He does.
Dan: I’ve seen him play before. He approves.
The Flannery Brothers are playing at Halloween Town Boston on Saturday, October 24th at 11:30 and 2:30 (on the Library Stage). Don’t miss it!
You can learn more about The Flannery Brothers shows and CDs by visiting their website: www.FlanneryBrothers.com.