In hyper-speed, Dan Zanes moved from big boy rock-n-roll on MTV to little kid rock on Noggin to a sort of multi-cultural family arts ambassador for his beloved New York City, a place he has called home for decades since moving from the decidedly mono-cultural suburban New Hampshire town of his youth. We spoke with Zanes on the phone this week from his Brooklyn apartment to get the scoop on his upcoming Song Gusto Hour concert at Symphony Space this Saturday, Nov. 1st, his first “best of” album, the early education music program he launched this year, and to get some of his unique insights as to how family life has evolved in the city in the 20 years since he became a dad in the West Village.
On The Dan Zanes Song Gusto Hour at Symphony Space, where the audience is encouraged to bring their own instruments from home and be prepared to sing and play along:
Dan Zanes: I’ve been doing [these shows] for the past year. It was really scary at first but I was getting offers to play in some places that I really wanted to go to but it costs something to get the band out there. We just couldn’t do it but I didn’t want to say no. I was terrified of the whole idea of playing solo shows but I did it and it turned out to be really enjoyable and I wanted to do more. It’s exciting and still a little scary but there are a couple of people that’ll help. There’s a kid that grew up in the city on my music, his name is Leo and he’s 9 now, and whenever I play in town he asks if he can join me, so he’ll play with ukulele on a bunch of songs. My friend Sharif will come too, to tap-dance and do a little bit of rapping. Most of the tunes are so simple that even if you didn’t know them you can easily learn them in a few seconds, so I’m open to the possibility of audiences bringing their own instruments and playing along with me. It can be difficult with a lot of percussion and everyone not playing in time, but it’s all about participation — less about me and more about the group adventure.
(Note: Holiday music fans in and around NYC can look for the return of the Dan Zanes and Friends Holiday Sing-a-Along at City Winery on Dec. 14.).
On “Get Loose and Get Together: The Best of Dan Zanes” album and what’s next:
Dan Zanes: It feels like the end of an era, and I’m feeling good about it – it was a good era!
So it seemed like a good time to look forward and where I’m going to go from here. I started to play solo shows and feel good about that and I started an early childhood program, which seems like the next phase. The next recordings will probably be very minimal. I kind of like just singing, I don’t know if I need to even play instruments any more! In doing the House Party program, I realized that a bigger sound isn’t always a better sound. I’m into the possibilities of minimalism.
On his House Party Music Program at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music:
Dan Zanes: It’s in its second semester and we were able to take it into six Head Start centers, which was great because we were able to see that it worked for different demographics. It is important to me that we are making something for everyone, for the multi-cultural society we live in. I think it’s important to be deliberate to make something that reflects the traditions we all live with in this multi-cultural country of ours. The Euro-centric perspective is what we are generally getting and giving to our kids. I wanted to break from that and get the balance a bit more to resemble our country.
What’s the best part of raising kids in New York City?
Dan Zanes: The best part about living in the city is the possibility for multi-cultural life and the possibilities for inter-racial friendships, family mingling and understanding.
They’re not a guarantee in any way just because we’re on the subway car together, but the possibilities are incredible.
How has family life in the city changed?
Dan Zanes: When my daughter was younger, nobody was making Ramones onesies and the strollers were small! Those are the two biggest differences I see. Now you can get a onesie for every classic rock band known to man and strollers are the size of my Prius! It is pretty cool that it’s easier to find organic milk though!
There’s also so much more to choose from for families [from a kid’s concert standpoint] although it still feels very Euro-centric as far as the types of music for families and where it is being performed. I’m looking forward to the day when the performing arts in New York really look like the people who live here, and the board of directors and board of advisors for every arts institution in New York looks like the people standing on a subway platform in here. I think that’s going to really open up the conversation and make the offerings much richer and make the whole thing come alive. We’re moving in that direction, but it’s too slow for me. Our children don’t get the best of everything; they don’t get the rich tapestry of culture that’s here in the U.S and in a way they aren’t prepared for the world we live in.
What are your favorite family-friendly spots to visit and play music in the city?
Dan Zanes: One of my favorite spots is Celebrate Brooklyn at the bandshell in Prospect Park. I love, love, love Prospect Park in so many ways. They have a new ice skating rink – it’s outrageous – and I would walk through there every weekend for months this year. The park is free too, which is great and if you go to the concerts at Celebrate Brooklyn, there’s just a $3 suggested donation. It’s really a good scene and everyone is there. And Coney Island, too. I love it there.
I love to play Celebrate Brooklyn, and my other favorite place to be and play music in the city is on the stoop and steps of whatever house I’m living in. I’m in a temporary apartment now and it is killing me to not have that outdoor space!
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Jeff Bogle, co-founder of our Philly Dads Group, is an at-home dad who writes humorously about parenting and all things Childhood on his site Out With The Kids.