Tunes for toddlers — it's a booming business, and former rock 'n' rollers like Caspar Babypants and The Not-Its aren't missing their late nights at all.
The first time Michael Welke took his son to see The Not-Its, he turned to his former wife and grimaced.
“Don’t ever let me do this,” said Welke, a drummer who has played in bands like Harvey Danger. “I could never do this. This is too cheesy and too birthday clown for me.”
A few years later, Welke is just where he said he would never be: behind his kit, wearing striped socks and bright sunglasses, playing most Saturday mornings as a member of that very same band — The Not-Its.
“There’s some burning shame at the beginning of it,” Welke said with a laugh. “But once you get over it, it’s all good.”
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It’s better than good. It’s part of Seattle’s thriving, nationally recognized “kindie-rock” scene led by three bands — The Not-Its, Recess Monkey and Caspar Babypants. All are made up of accomplished musicians who have traded in their late nights in bars for morning shows in community centers; beer cans for juice boxes and leather stage wear for pink tutus, bright socks and baseball hats.
“(Seattle) is kind of a beacon in the world of kids’ music,” said Danny Adamson, the lead singer of The Not-Its, which just released its seventh record, “Ready or Not,” and will play a CD release show on Sunday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. at Sonic Boom Records in Ballard. “You grow to love it, that’s the thing,” he said.
As Seattle grows, so does the bands’ fan base, packing everywhere from the Hiawatha Community Center in West Seattle to The Neptune Theater to doughnut shops and libraries as far as the eye can see.
The fan base is, shall we say, formidable: According to the Public Health — Seattle & King County, there are an estimated 255,122 children aged zero to 9 living in King County. But these bands have fans around the country, and beyond.
“There’s a new fan born every day,” Adamson cracked. “And kids want to rock. Even if they’re little, they want to stand up. We have had kids holding on to the front of the stage, banging their heads. Kids want to go for it.”
And so it was at the Si View Community Center in North Bend, where a few hundred parents and children packed the place for a 10:30 a.m. show by Chris Ballew, former lead singer of the ’90s band, The Presidents of the United States of America, who goes by the name Caspar Babypants. There were kids in sunglasses, kids in sequined yellow pumps. Kids in diapers and Spiderman hoodies and rainbow skirts, stomping their light-up sneakers and shaking their heads.
At the front of this rollicking room, Ballew sat on a stool while a crowd of kids hopped and hovered within inches of his knees. Kids ran into the crowd and ran out, babies lolled on blankets, parents waved to each other and others were just happy to sit down for a second.
Charles Beacham, 30, came with his wife, Hadley, and their 18-month-old daughter, Laurel. He had been turned on to Caspar Babypants by a friend after complaining about countless listens to the “Frozen” soundtrack.
Added bonus: Beacham was a Presidents’ fan from way back: “I grew up listening to them,” Beacham said. “Saw them on the Warped Tour.”
Just in front of him, Jenna Beltz — sitting on the floor and cradling her daughter, Addilyn, 21 months — spun around.
“He was in that band?” she asked Beacham, who nodded and smiled.
“It’s little-kid music, but it’s not ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ ” he said. “I can put this in the mix with Coldplay and stuff that she likes.”
At the back of the room, Ballew’s wife, the artist Kate Endle, had set up a merchandise table covered with her husband’s CDs (his 15th, “Keep It Real,” came out in August) and her own work: books, prints and jewelry, all featuring her whimsical, clean, kid-friendly style. The couple collaborated on two books, “Penguin on a Scooter” and “Ocean Motions,” which include a downloadable song to accompany the text.
Meanwhile, Ballew was preparing for his big finale by inviting eight parents to come up and help him with “pyrotechnics”: pulling the string on tiny plastic bottles filled with confetti. He climbed onto a stool — with several fake near-falls — and then jumped off, rock-star style. The crowd went wild, and then the kids scattered, their parents scooping and steering and herding, diaper bags slinging over shoulders, hands being grabbed. It was 11:15 a.m. and Ballew was done for the day.
“I would finish a Presidents show and be spent,” Ballew said, as parents waited for him to autograph their CDs. “Now, I’m like ‘What do you want to do?’ “
It’s a big change from late-night shows and touring, from vying for set times, getting people to come show up and hoping to get paid.
“Every other band is playing the Sunset, trying to get their friends to come at 11 at night,” said Adamson, of the Not-Its.
Once they saw how much fun it was to play for kids, many of the musicians were happy to give up their rock ‘n’ roll credibility.
“When you’re in an adult band, you want to be the headliner,” said Welke, a designer who lives in Ballard. “But when you’re playing in a kid’s band, you want to be the opener. Everyone is energized and fed.”
Ballew is especially happy to play a community center or library. It means that local governments are putting money toward the arts with summer-concert series and Saturday morning shows that are free — drawing big crowds and leaving parents with money in their pockets to buy books and CDs, or a treat on the way home.
“Plus, there’s no pressure to be cool, no pressure to capture the ‘flavor of the moment’ zeitgeist,” Ballew said. “It’s perennial. It’s timeless.”
And while there was a goofy simplicity to The Presidents of the United States’ music, Ballew had been longing to make this kind of music.
“It’s been a lifelong search for this style and this place I’m in,” he said. “The whole time the Presidents were happening, I had a very clear signal coming from my gut saying this was not my final destination. Although it was successful, it was not my final stop.”
He remembered first seeing his wife’s art and being struck: “It was a signal coming from the same planet that I wanted to write music on,” he said. “The tone, the characters, the colors, the innocence, the craft, the quality and the humor.”
Ballew writes with a mental image of a family stuck in a car in a five-hour traffic jam, everyone hungry and tired and mad at each other.
“That family is riding on my shoulder all the time,” he said.
The Not-Its’ Adamson approaches writing kids’ music by writing a folksy melody. “And then once we had the structure, what is it going to be about?”
He keeps a list of ideas on his phone, and some have found their way onto the new record: “Staring Contest, “A Lie is a Lie” and “The Battle of Curriculum Night.” You get the idea.
“We definitely try to make it entertaining for both the parents and the kids,” he said. “You know Pixar movies? We’re like that. Not a dumbed-down thing.”
Jack Forman of Recess Monkey has his finger on the pulse of what kids want as the host of “Live from the Monkey House,” on SiriusXM’s Kids Place Live (Channel 78), which he does from his Ravenna home.
“What’s going on now in Seattle is like when people talk about what the Liverpool scene was in the early ’60s,” he said.
Recess Monkey is made up of a group of teachers who met at University Child Development School (UCDS) in Seattle. They released their 14th album, “Family Photo Album” in June.
Before that, Forman was playing what he called “nonaspirational basement rock” in bands called The Waiting Room and Pop Interstate. He brought his guitar into the classroom at UCDS and started writing songs inspired by his students. The teachers got together to play a library or community center here and there,”And suddenly our weekends were being gobbled up,” he said.
The SiriusXM job came along just as Forman’s son was starting preschool.
“I just took my favorite parts out of the classroom,” he said of his show, on which he takes calls from kids all over the country. He’s held on-air spelling bees and talent shows and interviewed pets on the air. He once tried to get one kid to call from each of the 50 states in three hours. He got to 46.
“It’s so fun to learn from them,” he said of his audience.
Ballew looks at Caspar Babypants as his way to strengthen the parent-child bond: “Effectively, I’m trying to save the world one song at a time.”
Years after that day when he swore he would never play in the Not-Its, Welke brought his son, Oliver, now 10, to a show.
“Dad, I was watching you guys play,” he told him. “You make so many people happy.”
And to think he once saw it as cheesy.
“It took me a moment to realize,” Welke said, “that making people happy is what it’s all about.”