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The Okee Dokee Brothers bring nature to life in new LP 'Brambletown'

Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander of The Okee Dokee Brothers
Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander of The Okee Dokee BrothersAlex Johnson
  Play Now [22:53]

by Diane

April 20, 2023

Grammy Award-winning, family-friendly band The Okee Dokee Brothers are back to inspire kids and their parents to get out, enjoy — and protect — nature. By giving voice, charisma, and melody to the critters of Brambletown, also their new LP’s title, the musicians hope to get children thinking about Earth and human connection more critically.

I spoke with banjoist Justin Lansing and guitarist Joe Mailander about the inspirations behind their new folk record, which will be supported by three upcoming shows at the Ordway Concert Hall in St. Paul, April 22 and 23. They even gave us some tips for celebrating Earth Day.

Transcript edited for clarity and length:

Diane: Lucky me. I am sitting in the studio, got two awesome dudes on the line with me, Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander of The Okee Dokee Brothers here as my guests on The Local Show. Thanks for being in Zoom with me today, virtually. 

Joe Mailander: Yeah. Good to be here. Thanks for having us, Diane. This is awesome. We're glad to be on The Local Show. 

Just listened to your new record, Brambletown. It's incredible. You two are a family friendly band. And also play folk Americana music, and just released this record, and also have three big shows coming up at the Ordway Theater. Congratulations, by the way.

JM: Thanks so much. Yeah, we're really looking forward to those shows. And Minnesota always shows up for us. So we got to add a show on Sunday morning. And we're looking forward to seeing all of our family fans. 

Listening to this new record, even the cover art, it does almost feel like a Disney animated movie in a lot of ways. Tell me about some of the concepts behind the new record. It feels like, song after song, a storytelling experience. It's an imagination boost – yeah, please, enlighten me.

Justin Lansing: Yeah, it's kind of funny you mentioned some of that Disney stuff. Obviously, Disney has always had those forest critters and different things that we definitely drew on as we were drawn into this forest. One of our favorite things is Disney's Robin Hood. And they have foxes and bears and all this stuff. And yeah, that's kind of where one of the places we started with all of this. And then once we started getting deeper and deeper into the forest, there was so much more to explore than we expected, more than what Disney ever put into their movies, I think. And yeah, we met a few critters, and they were all just sitting in the forest kind of waiting for us. And they're sitting in ourselves waiting to be explored. So it's kind of an exploration of the underground. And all the darkness of the forest, and the characters that kind of guided the way. 

[“The Varmints” plays in background]

Yeah, Joe, is there anything you'd like to add to that? 

JM: Yeah, I think Justin's getting into it, for sure. He kind of mentioned how these little critters are kind of parts of us too. We started writing a lot of critter songs. And then we noticed that we were also just reflecting on society as a whole and different parts of ourselves. And that this is a story and myth and song are good ways to just mirror back what we're going through in a different way. So we figured it'd be a good way to explore some of these bigger topics that are going on right now for kids, and start conversations with their parents about things like social disconnection. How we're all kind of feeling a little separated from one another through different things. The pandemic, obviously, but climate change is a theme in this album. And more so, just environmental degradation and being separated from nature. So how to kind of deal with that in these giant themes for kids might seem a little daunting or depressing to get into. But we found hope exploring through the critters and the plants that they can kind of show us how we're interconnected, and how we find our way back to community. 

[“Child of Nature” plays in background]

And I love that these shows are around Earth Day, which is coming up. There's a significance with that. And you are obviously big nature fans. I think the first song I heard by you was that “Way, haul away” –

JM: Yeah, we'll, “Haul Away Joe." 

[“Haul Away Joe” plays in background]

You were peeking out of trees and – tell me a bit more about this very innate connection that both of you have to nature ... especially as people who are touching on subjects such as climate change. Having such a deep connection with nature, I feel like really motivates and inspires you to really want to protect the Earth. And I'd love to hear you talk about that a little more, about your connection with nature.

JL: It starts with what the core of our band is, which is our childhood friendship. So we grew up together. We've known each other since we were three. And one of the places we always connected was being outside at the neighborhood creek, hanging out there making forts, playing around there. And then as we got older, sitting around the campfire and passing the guitar back and forth. And the connection with each other is also a connection with nature. And that's what we've drawn on as The Okee Dokee Brothers from the beginning. So we then decided to take a canoe trip down the Mississippi River, and then hike the Appalachian Trail, and go out into the winter time in Northern Minnesota, and do all these things we've done. And all of that is just based on a connection to – kind of like, the more we get out and feel like we're in nature, the more we feel like we need to protect it. And that it's important to ourselves, to our own livelihood, and health. And it only goes further from there.

JM:  Yeah, so we would do these things called adventure albums, right? Where we would, like Justin said, take those trips, and we'd find inspiration by listening to the landscapes that we would go visit. And they would inspire the songs. So we get to talk to kids a lot about ways to find inspiration. We throw that word around a lot. And what we found is that being quiet in nature and kind of emptying out a little bit so that you can start hearing what the plants are singing and what the river is whispering, and the wind is singing to you. These little melodies show up and ideas kind of plop down in your head, and you get to sing it back to nature. And that's kind of this reciprocal relationship that feeds us. And the more we kind of tap into that natural inspiration, the better we feel. And that's what we want to share with families, is that it's not this task to get outdoors and do these things, check it off the list. It's a vitamin to get out there and slow down, and feel your body, and feel your feelings. And that's the thing that's going to get us to a point where we can start empathizing with what's going on with this planet. And I think that's the first step in it – is that deep relationship of slowing down and having an actual back and forth with nature. And then maybe we can figure out what to do from there when it comes to these bigger questions about the planet and climate change.

[“Junkyard Racoon” plays in background]

That makes me want to talk about some of the creative choices in the music. One of the first songs (makes) the use of tin cans and sticks hitting glass as percussion. I love that. Because anything can be made into an instrument. Tell me about some of those creative choices you make, musically.

JL: Well, I'm not sure exactly which song you're referring to. But there's a song called "Junkyard Raccoon" on the new album. It's like the third song. 

I think that's the one, yeah. 

JL: And it's kind of all about taking what's broken and fixing it, instead of throwing it away. And this raccoon, it lives in the junkyard, and he fixes all these things up and kind of makes them into sort of fancy things. And so, sonically, what we felt goes along with that is tin cans clanking and pots and pans. And that goes back to – our producer is a guy named Dean Jones. We've worked with him for 10, 12 years or something. And he lives in upstate New York, and he has a hay bale studio in his backyard with just walls that are made of hay bales. And it's a one-room studio, and he's just like the clanky guy. He has this really great taste for blowing bottles, and he'll just grab any old thing and if it makes a good sound when you record it, it'll go on the record. And so yeah, "Junkyard Raccoon" is just sort of a perfect fit. He's kind of our Junkyard Raccoon, Dean.

JM: Yeah, and I think you could take it to the other level too of folk music and clinky-clanky music that a lot of times, maybe people think that's junky throwaway music or something, old-timey grandpa music. But we think that's the kind of stuff that we keep, as there's treasures in there, right? And sometimes, we'll blow off the dust a little bit or breathe new life into an old traditional song. But that's what we do with music too, is kind of find these old forgotten things and turn them into treasures.

[“Little Bird” plays in background]

I gotta say that kids can be tough to perform to because they can be about as honest and brutal as any audience, because they're just as innocent as they come in. Especially, you're doing it in a theater, and you do theaters all the time. What is that nuance of keeping children's attention when playing music?

JL: Yeah, we talked about this a lot with which songs we decided to put on albums, which songs we decided to put in our setlist. And first of all, engagement is key. We always notice those songs that have just a little thing like, throw your fist up in the air and yell out the word jamboree. And things like that are really effective in terms of engagement. And then, at the same time, we're always balancing that with sort of songs that are as meaningful as possible, because we have so much of that and we want to get our messages across. But we can only play so many of those songs in a set to keep the engagement up. So it's a constant balance that we're always talking about and working with. As we're molding our setlist. And each show changes just little by little, and then over time the whole setlist is changed up. 

JM: Yeah, one of our favorite things to do with audiences is get them singing. So even when we're writing even a slower or more meaningful song, we always add an element of singing ability; just so that the folks that have listened to the albums know at least the chorus. And sometimes we'll even throw the lyrics up behind us on a projector so that we get everybody singing together. And I just think it's such a powerful experience to be there with your family listening to your parents sing, everybody around you singing. We'll do call-and-response songs. We'll do sea shanties. These are the types of things that get people really energized. And of course, at our shows, too, I don't know if you know this, but we always say anytime you're feeling like dancing – get out in the aisles, come on up here, find a place in the back, whatever. Swing your partner and have a good time. We don't make kids sit there the whole 60 minutes.

Oh, yeah. Music is made for dancing. I get it.

[“Night on the Town” plays in background]

In 2021, you declined your Grammy nomination due to the lack of diversity on the lineup (for Best Children's Music). And that's so admirable. I would love to hear you talk about your experience and your thoughts behind pulling out of your nomination.

JM:  Yeah, well, that was an interesting experience that came about from listening to our fellow children's musicians in the genre. We kind of reflected on it after it happened. And this wasn't necessarily the first time that there's been some issues with the five nominees in the Grammy selection process. There's a committee that chooses from the top vote getters. And we've just noticed that it tends to lean pretty white and pretty folky. And that there's so many more genres like reggae, and hip hop, and jazz, and Latin music, and all these different genres that aren't necessarily getting their time in the spotlight. And so after probably five or six years of noticing that there weren't great representations present, this one was kind of a glaring issue where all the nominees were white and a lot of folk albums. And it just didn't represent what we thought was a reflection of the society and what kids are looking at around the whole country, around the whole world for this type of award, because the genre has so much more diversity to offer. 

So we had a conversation with a lot of the artists of color, and we decided that it would be a good idea to decline to raise awareness that this is happening. And especially after all that we've been through as a community, and as a country, that this happened. We just wanted to say, oh, I think we missed the mark here. And it's not to say ... Oh, I guess everybody deserves a trophy. And it's really not that. It's just that there are old institutions in place that tend to overlook new and diverse sounds, because maybe they don't sound like what they think children's music should sound like. So we had to just make our point. And it started some really good conversations. We all learned from it. It wasn't a perfect decision. But it was something that brought awareness to this type of issue. 

Yeah. It's so important, especially with something as prestigious as the Grammys, to really hold accountability towards them. 

[“The Mycelium Underground News” plays in background]

Since it's Earth Day on 4-22 coming up, each of you give us an Earth-saving tip that anyone can implement in their day-to-day lives.

JM: One of the tips I like to give – this isn't necessarily something about the physical world, but it's kind of the metaphysical, like magical world of how we think about our actions, is that we're a part of a big super organism called Earth. And I like to explain to kids that we're like a little tiny cell in the muscles or the tissue of this big being. And the animals, and the land, and the air, we're all kind of breathing together. And our little actions have effects on this big body. And not only our actions, but even our thoughts, and the energy that we're putting out into the world. And so the next time you pass a little piece of trash on the ground, and you think to yourself, well, I could pick that up, or what good is it actually going to do? Right? There's so much trash out in the oceans and all this, it's kind of hopeless. The way I look at it, is the action actually is bigger than just the mere little action. It's what you're putting out energetically in the world, when you bend over and pick that thing up. You're saying, I believe that there's hope out there. And that we can make little differences. So as you pick it up, it probably doesn't matter too much that the trash is being picked up. But you resonate with love for our home. And that can change the world, in my opinion, and Justin believes this, too. So those are the types of little tips I like to give around Earth Day.

JL: Yeah, I guess, sort of in a very similar vein, I was just going to say, going out into whatever form of nature you have available to you, and looking at the world as that living being. So, of course, we have animals that we see as living and alive, and trees and plants, but also rocks or the sidewalk and everything that helps us on a day to day basis is really alive in some way. And I think that sort of appreciation is putting out that same energy that Joe's talking about into the world. And I think that has an enormous effect on the rest of the world in very small ways. But it does a lot for you too especially.

Well, I appreciate you two. The work that you do and the music that you make. It's wonderful. 

JM: Well, thanks so much for helping us spread the word. Diane. And the local show is so awesome. We're big fans.

Aw, thank you.

JM: Appreciate you having us on.

Absolutely. Anything else that we might not have covered that you would like to add?

JM: So one of the interesting things about writing this album was that we were writing about critters in the woods. And when you're writing about characters like this, it seems like you might be leaning in more of a fantastical kiddie direction, like you mentioned Disney earlier. But we noticed as we went in that direction, we were kind of allowed to go in a more adult direction in our writing, sometimes. And so we did not only the climate change themes and the environmental topics that we brought up. But there are a few songs too, that adults might appreciate listening to, that have to do with some struggles, like there's a song on here about domestic separation or divorce. And there's a song also about dependency on substance, a song about recovery really. And this might seem like really heavy topics for kids to explore. But things are present in family life. Families do go through these types of things. So it's good for kids to at least have a little bit of a touchstone on what these look like. Both songs kind of end with some hopeful takeaways from a really hard situation. But we thought it was an opportunity – Justin and I both went through one of those each. And to kind of process those situations in our personal lives through this art form of writing kids folk songs about critters. And it was just an incredibly healing process. And we hope other people can take some wisdom from that too.

Yeah, it's not just music for kids. There's lots that adults can enjoy in this music as well.

JM: Yeah, we hope so.

[“The Fox and the Hare” plays and fades out]

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.