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Notts Kids Band Johnny and the Raindrops Turn Ten

11 September 18 interview: Adrian Shaw
photos: Nigel King

Johnny and the Raindrops have been on the Nottingham music scene for yonks. Ten years this September, to be precise. But rather than dropping drum 'n' bass to goggle-eyed twenty-somethings down Brickworks, or titillating silver tabs with jazz in dimly-lit bars, the band cater to the city's musical nippers. We sat down with founder, musical director and long-time little-fish-shape thrower Liam Maloy...

Tell me about how the band was formed...
I’ve always been a songwriter and when I had my own children, it was natural to write songs for them. I used to take my guitar to their school in Sherwood, and entertain their friends and classmates. I was teaching music at Clarendon College, and all the members of the band were based there. Initially, guitarist Andy played along with me to record some demos. Matt, our drummer, worked in the library, and Darren, our bass-player, was one of my students. Andy is a great instrumentalist, very adaptable.

We used to play at The Guitar Bar at the back of Clarendon, which isn't there now. We moved onto playing regular gigs at the Polish Eagle Club just opposite, so we haven’t travelled very far. Andy played our first seven albums, the DVD and hundreds of gigs all over the place. His were big shoes to fill when he left. There've been quite a few guitarists since then: Ben, Danny, Marcus... It’s a tough job with so many genres and songs to play, plus the challenge of entertaining children; it’s not suited to everyone. We’ve now got Geoff on guitar, who's doing a great job.

Johnny and the Raindrops is very eclectic. Can you tell me a bit about your influences?
There’s Woody Guthrie, of course, plus Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers who mixed his children’s songs into his “adult” albums. I also love the stripped-down sound of the Violent Femmes. I’ve just interviewed Dan Zanes, who used to be in the Del Fuegos, for my book. I remember my first album of Canadian children’s musician, Raffi, having a big influence at the start. There’s also Johnny Cash, the music of Bagpuss by Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner, The Ramones, Yo Gabba Gabba, and loads more.

You've got a PhD in music and you've just been in the USA researching for your upcoming book. How did the trip go?
I was at the Woody Guthrie Center's Archives in Tulsa, Oklahoma for two and a half weeks, looking into the music he wrote for children. I was able to examine his diaries, notebooks, letters, and listen to his personal record collection. I also travelled down to Woody’s birthplace and went to Woodyfest in Okemah. Music performance for children is really big in the USA; the scene is well-developed and has a long history. I went without the band, but got to play a gig of Woody’s children’s songs in Tulsa.

The research is for a specific chapter in my book Spinning the Child, which is all about recorded music and broadcasting for children. It all went very well. I discovered about 300 songs that Woody wrote for children. He only recorded about forty of them, and only initially released twelve.

When you put together an album, do you try to keep all the tunes on it stylistic, or work to a particular theme?
No, once we’ve enough songs for an album, no matter the style or influence of them individually, we record them. Children’s music is not a genre, so we mix rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, punk-rock, soul, pop, folk, blues, electro, disco, you name it.

Your music reminds me of skiffle, specifically Lonnie Donegan, who was also someone putting across the history and theory of the genre. I remember as a kid seeing his band use all kinds of things to make music: washboards, t-chests...
Yes, the basic nature of the instruments he was using... Skiffle was the fifties version of punk. We’ve played kazoos, used paper bags, carrots, celery and guitar cases for snare-drum sounds when recording. We’ve used a stylophone, a zither, any instruments that grab the listener’s attention.

You use costumes when performing. There’s a sort-of Ziggy-Stardust, theatre-rock element to your music...
The music comes first, but we love to dress as pirates, superheroes, or whatever suits the song. On our album artwork, and on our YouTube video for What’s the Time?, we're transformed into cartoon characters. We have props for some of the songs; for example, I’m in the Washing Machine has lots of teddy bears being thrown about.

Children will spot it a mile off if you don’t respect them as an audience

Are kids an easy audience?
No, often they are not. How shall I put this?... Children aren’t going to act as a grown-up audience would. We have to hook their attention quickly, and hold it; the songs do most of the work, but the costumes, props, and actions help. Children won’t clap at the end of songs sometimes, so I’ll say “Give yourselves a good clap.” On one level, you’re training them to follow the conventions of audience participation; children move around singing and shouting, and use the band as a backdrop to their own fun.

We are also keen on actions. With songs like I’m in the Washing Machine, we have the children moving their arms and bodies round and round, like a washing-machine spin-cycle. Or in the punk-rock song, Five Little Fingers, we get them jumping up and down like a pogo, or moving about like robots in the electro song I am a Robot.

The songs often have a strong visual hook in the lyrics, or involve something that children will understand or have experienced: robots, mermaids, pirates, superheroes and animals, for example. We include ideas in the songs that children can grow into as they get older. They might not understand it now, but in a few years they will. It’s a safe, fun and accessible way to help children begin to understand “grown-up” ideas. Above all, what you cannot do is appear condescending or false. Children will spot it a mile off if you don’t respect them as an audience.

Did you perform for your own kids? Try things out with them?
Yes, naturally, but a lot of stuff I did with them has developed. Some of our fans who we performed for when they were three, or five – the ages of my two when I started playing for them – have been our audience members for the ten years we’ve performed as a band and are now fifteen years, or more. And, of course, we also play for much older kids... The parents!

You’ll have to increase sizes of the t-shirts for them...
We do actually sell t-shirts for adults! And we sometimes perform for the parents when their kids are not necessarily present; at wedding receptions and parties after the kids performance is over.

Do the band contribute to your music and lyrics?
Yes, sometimes. They are great musicians, excellent at picking up and running with the music after I’ve introduced a musical phrase, words or ideas to them. They’re just spontaneous, instinctive almost.

It's your tenth anniversary gig at The Polish Eagle Club this month...
We’ve got a few surprises planned! I can’t believe it’s been ten years, and it'll be great to celebrate everything we’ve done in that time. Invite your friends. Let’s make it a big party!

Johnny and the Raindrops perform at The Polish Eagle Club in Sherwood on Sunday 23 September at 3pm.

Johnny and the Raindrops website


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