On March 12, Area 5 Art Gallery donned decorations seemingly better suited to a kindergarten classroom than an alternative music venue: balloons adorned the entrance; a large, crayon-scribbled “No Smoking Inside Today” sign hung on the front door. Inside, among the expected drum kits, amps and swarms of cords, kid’s musical toys and balloons littered the floor. Colored markers, lollipops and what looked like a 10-pound bucket of animal crackers sat on a table usually used for peddling touring bands’ merchandise. Instead of concert attendees clutching 40-ounce beers and walking sociably around the dim and smoky venue, there were young kids and young parents sipping apple juice and Hawaiian Punch from paper cups. It was a peculiar scene.
Among those attending this rock show for kids were members of local rock bands Volumen and Oblio Joes who had kids of their own, and two married members of one of the bands on the bill had just six weeks earlier given birth to their baby boy, who joined his guitar-playing papa and singing mama onstage, strapped to his mother’s chest in an infant carrier. Kids played, kids kicked balloons, kids danced, kids chased each other; kids even joined the bands for impromptu numbers with toy keyboards and flutes. My own 3-year-old son beat a toy snare drum with a pair of lollipops.
Step outside your door and walk to the nearest park as the cold temperatures give way to the first signs of spring and you will see a familiar Missoula scene: children at play. Or take a stroll on any given First Friday in downtown Missoula and see a crowd of parents pushing strollers or carrying their offspring in backpacks and baby slings from gallery to coffee shop to gallery. This, after all, is a city that boasts a children’s museum, a children’s theater and a famous carousel. If you’re not having kids of your own, chances are you know someone who is. Missoula is a city swarming with kids.
But nightlife brings forth a different aspect of Missoula: a vibrant independent rock scene. It’s a scene whose opening shots were filmed at Jay’s Upstairs; whose actors include bands like Volumen, Oblio Joes, The International Playboys, Sasshole, Ass-End Offend and others who have since moved out of town, morphed into current bands or become part of some “best of” compilation of olden- (or golden)-days Montana punk rock; it’s also a scene whose producers are homegrown, whose records are mostly self-released, whose soundtrack is a Wäntage USA compilation. Is it any wonder that in a town like this, the worlds of do-it-yourself rock ’n’ roll and parenting were bound to collide?
Missoula’s rockers are having babies, and if current signs are any indication of things to come, there will be more kids, more music and a continual spree of growing up. But while growing up (for kids as well as their parents) has its pains and moments of doubt, it also has its pleasures and lasting rewards. That’s what I found out when I sat down with some of Missoula’s rockers to talk about how parenting has affected their music, their personal and public lives, how it has changed their motivations and inspirations, and even how it has given them a reason to stay alive.
Matt Svendsen is sitting at the downtown Break Espresso drinking a natural cola and reading his sociology schoolbook. Svendsen is the guitarist for hardcore punk band Ass-End Offend. He’s a straightedge punk: no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking. Tattoos decorate his left arm down to his knuckles. Although he’s 26 years old, the tall, lanky figure with a metal-studded leather bracelet can easily pass for 17 or 18.
“I don’t go for more than two months without seeing her, she was here a couple weeks ago for one week,” Svendsen says of his 8-year-old daughter, Kieran, who lives in Seattle with her mother, Svendsen’s ex-wife. Kieran is a Gaelic name that means “the little dark one,” but the name doesn’t suit her, Svendsen says. It was chosen in haste.
To hear Svendsen talk about his daughter, his life and his current situation is to hear the story of a young teenage couple suddenly faced with the responsibility of raising a newborn baby. At the time of Kieran’s birth, Svendsen was 18 and his girlfriend was 16. “When it turned out that [Kieran’s mother] was pregnant, her mother tried very hard to make it so that we would never see each other again. She had [her] sent to a home for pregnant teens. She especially did not want me to see Kieran when she was born.”
The first few months were difficult, he now says, but the parents knew how important Kieran was the moment they saw her, “and since then, we have both done everything we can to give Kieran all the opportunities possible.” They were married shortly after the baby was born, but later divorced and two years ago Kieran’s mom moved to Seattle with her boyfriend. Her daughter lives with her during the school year and returns to Missoula to spend time with Svendsen on school breaks and holidays. “Pretty much anytime she gets out of school for more than two days she comes here,” he says.
Svendsen admits that being a parent and a punk rocker at such a young age was difficult. “I dressed more hardcore back then and people would see this young guy with spiky hair pushing a stroller and they didn’t think it was very funny,” he says with a chuckle. “I really felt looked down upon a lot of the time when I was in public with her.”
Svendsen grew up in Great Falls and moved to Missoula 10 years ago. He spends his time attending classes at UM, working part time (delivering the Independent) and running Poisoned Candy Records—a label devoted to Montana punk and hardcore music. The label puts out all of Ass-End Offend’s albums and recently released a record of new and old Montana hardcore bands dating back to 1984, including the band Deranged Diction, whose bass player, Jeff Ament, is now a member of Pearl Jam.
Anyone who’s seen Ass-End Offend play live knows the band demands attention. The music is in your face, and its fans like it that way. True to its punk origins, AEO is politically conscious, creative and undaunted about positioning itself in opposition to mainstream political and cultural convention. (“I want to say to all of the uptight conservatives of our community that I am a punk; an Anarchist; I despise the United States of neo-colonialist exploitation; I am in a hard-core punk band called Ass-End Offend, and I’m raising a child against society’s norms and values. DEAL WITH IT!” Svendsen wrote to me in an e-mail recently.) The band is also responsible for a good amount of the all-ages punk rock that transpires not only in Missoula—at venues like Area 5 and the Union Hall—but across the state via the website mtpunk.com, run and maintained by Ass-End Offend’s other guitarist, vocalist and fellow parent Brent Schultz.
AEO has toured the U.S. four times, has several vinyl EPs to its credit, and last summer released a full-length CD (and LP) called Character Assassins. Touring is a big part of Ass-End Offend’s repertoire and happens only in the summers, when Svendsen has Kieran at his side.
“It’s really frustrating,” he says. “The summertime is when I’m supposed to have her, and the only time we can go on tour is the summertime.” That was the case before he joined the band in 2002, and he really didn’t have much say in the schedule, he says. Svendsen will have Kieran for a month this summer before the band leaves on its three-week European tour, and he’ll get to see her again two or three weeks before she starts school when the band returns to the states.
What does Kieran think of her punk-rock dad? “When she lived here she went to a few shows. She probably goes to a show about once a year,” he says. “She really likes it, she runs around and tries to get people to mosh with her. If her dad didn’t play that kind of music she probably wouldn’t listen to it. She likes stuff like Björk.”
For Kieran’s eighth birthday, Svendsen bought her a guitar and she’s learning to play it.
“Above all, I want her to learn that the only person who can take care of her is her and it’s her responsibility,” he says. “There’s a fine line between being too much of an authority figure and letting them do whatever they want. I want her to be able to make mistakes and learn from them, but I don’t want her to make the same mistakes that I made.”
The idea that having a child can save your life is not far-fetched, and to Svendsen it’s just the way things turned out in the end. “Before Kieran was born I didn’t really have the concept of a future and I was very irresponsible. I didn’t really plan on living too long,” he says, but now “I guess I have more of a positive outlook on life. I feel like I have more of a reason to be here. Kieran is one of the main things in my life that make me happy; I call her every other day, but it’s not the same. I definitely feel like there’s a piece of me missing since she’s been gone for the last two years.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
“I had a toque (a beanie, for all you non-Canadians) that I dearly loved, wore it every day. I lost it at a show at the Boys and Girls Club and somebody said, ‘that’s your two-year toque,’ and I was wishing I had a band to start called Two Year Toque,” Paul Copoc, singer and guitarist for the five-piece band Two Year Touqe, says (and yes, he knows his band name is a misspelling—he prefers it that way). Copoc got his wish in the fall of 2003 when the band formed as a four-piece that included his wife, Sarah Copoc. And six weeks ago—Jan. 19 to be exact—the Copocs were granted another wish—a healthy 7-pound, 4-ounce baby boy named Milo.
It’s 9 a.m. at the Copoc residence. I expect to see a pair of sleep-deprived parents, but both Sarah and Paul seem reasonably awake. Soothing Sounds for Babies by Raymond Scott plays on the stereo. Young Milo is vibrating on a baby bounce seat on the floor at their feet: wiggling, shaking his arms and making funny faces. He’s wearing a hand-sized Jay’s shirt that snuggles his tiny frame like a glove.
Paul and Sarah met on the Internet in the summer of 2001. “You’re going to explain that, right?” Paul asks Sarah. “It sounds funny if it’s just ‘they met on the Internet.’” Sarah turns to me. “We went looking for love on the Internet and it happened,” she says.
For the first three days after Milo was born, they didn’t listen to much music. When the stereo was finally turned on again, the music coming out of the speakers was not rock ’n’ roll. “We found ourselves easing in with alt-country and folk music—the really mellow stuff that we liked but on a given day it would not be all we listened to,” Paul says. “[Eventually] we eased our way back to listening to louder music; the overall birth effect put us in a cloud-nine state, a kind of euphoria.”
Like other young parents, the Copocs are full of questions about the nature of parenting, and about the benefits of alternative parenting lifestyles. The conversation, though, comes back to music. “I wonder what it would be like for a child to grow up listening to good underground music that’s not heard on the radio in your typical Top 40 music,” Paul says.
Two Year Touqe’s music is fun pop-rock, with an emphasis on the fun. Think catchy melodies layered over pop ballads. The subjects of their songs are as random as cats and traveling, but they pull off the simplicity with a vigorous enthusiasm and a devotion to experimentation. You’d be hard-pressed to find another couple lyrically expressing their love and affection for each other onstage more than Paul and Sarah during a Two Year Touqe show.
Aside from the Copocs, Two Year Touqe includes Bryan Hickey on bass, Eric Wimmer on drums and the auxiliary prowess of Craig Domes on flute, keyboards and just about anything else he may find lying around. During practice sessions, Wimmer’s wife, Moriah, watches Milo upstairs, and the band takes a break for Sarah to nurse Milo if he starts crying. “It’s what we have to do if we want to continue playing music, and thankfully it’s important enough to everyone,” Sarah says. Paul adds: “It’s our life now.”
In May, Two Year Touqe embarks on a five-day tour through Spokane, Seattle, Bellingham, Portland and Olympia, and yes, Milo is coming along. The Copocs arranged for a nanny to come on the tour with the band, and wherever they sleep each night the nanny will stay with Milo while the band rocks out at the venue. It is a bold experiment they hope to continue as Milo grows older.
At the Rock Show for Kids, Milo joined his parents onstage wearing a skull and bones T-shirt, strapped to Sarah’s chest in a baby carrier. As Sarah sang into the mic she positioned one hand protectively to keep from singing too loudly into his ear.
“I think it would be pretty cool if one day it’s just me and Paul and Milo in the band,” Sarah says. “Yeah, that’s our mega-goal,” Paul echoes, “to be able to tour around and play music with the family. But if that doesn’t work out, that’s fine.” Possible family touring notwithstanding, the Copocs seem well aware of the parenting challenges that lie ahead, both musically and in everyday life. “I’d like Milo to like our music, and like playing music,” Sarah says. “But if he wants to play football, that’s cool. If he wants to be a cheerleader, that’s cool. I don’t care how he turns out just as long as he’s happy.”
Since Milo was born, Paul’s been writing kids songs, and the couple plans to continue writing kids music not only for Milo but for their friends’ kids. The possibility exists of collaborating with other Missoula rock parents to record an all-original album of kids music, or even playing for kids at schools and libraries in town. “I would have never thought to write kids music before,” Paul says turning to look at Milo, who has fallen asleep rocking in his bounce seat. “The inspiration is right in front of me now.”
TAMING THE BEAST INSIDE
Shane Hickey is 31. He’s a computer network and security consultant by day, and Volumen’s guitarist/songwriter by night. He’s also the proud papa of a bright-eyed, bubbly-cheeked 6-month-old son named Simon. Hickey and wife Erika are playing with Simon as Myakyznak(b) finishes its set and Two Year Touqe takes the reigns during the rock show for kids at Area 5. More than 40 adults and half as many children have gathered by now. It is Simon’s first rock show outside the womb, and he seems to be having a blast; mom and dad eagerly snap photos of Simon as the commotion circles around them.
I spoke with Hickey earlier in the week about the seemingly conflicting dual roles of fatherhood and musician.
“A lot of times, ‘musician’ is another way of saying ‘professional drinker,’” he says. “Musicians drink a lot. You can’t really do that as much. [I] can’t stay up until 3 in the morning gabbing or working out ideas and drinking whiskey and then going home to Simon, you know, I can’t do that.”
The wilder aspects of being a member of a rock ’n’ roll band are “sort of gone” he admits, although he’s thankful Volumen never bought into the whole drugs, sex and rock and roll myth of the stereotypical rocker. “I’ve always said that being in a band is like being in a moving company sponsored by the Catholic Church. At least it is for us. All you do is carry heavy shit up and down stairs and into clubs, you play for 30 minutes, and then you carry it back out to your car. And when we were all single, we’d never get laid. Women never hit on you. And I don’t know whether we’re in a nerdy band or what...so that was a myth.
“My focus has changed,” he says of being a dad. “Simon is the most important thing in my life. To be a really great musician a lot of times you’re an egomaniac. I think that’s kind of healthy. If you start judging and doubting yourself too much, you give in to commercial pressures, or you won’t pursue your vision to try and make a distinctive sound. But it’s hard to be an egomaniac when I’m not the most important thing in my life; it’s all about Simon.
“In the old Volumen, the format would’ve been: We’d show up at Jay’s a little early and drink a beer. We’d hang out with the other bands that were playing. We’d play the show and then it would be time to close and we’d play some more and then they’d close Jay’s, or wherever [the show] was. Then we would go back to the Volumen compound, or somewhere, and we’d have a dance party—listen to Prince or Madonna. Well, [now] I can do just about any of that up until the bar closes. I can’t go to some after-hours party until four in the morning. And some of the Volumen still do that, and sometimes I wish I still could ’cause it looks like fun. Sometimes I’m happier the next day than they are.”
When Hickey found out his wife, Erika, was pregnant, the first thing that went through his mind was sheer panic and terror, he says. “We weren’t exactly planning to have kids. In fact, we had both said, out loud, several times, ‘We don’t plan to ever have children!’ In my opinion, if you want to get pregnant, just say something like that enough times. Thank goodness we did say it, though, because now we’ve got Simon.”
Hickey acknowledges the synchronicity of recent events in the Missoula rock scene with events in his own life—like growing up, starting a family and “settling down.” Right around the time Erika got pregnant—and they knew Simon was coming into their lives—the whole rock scene went into flux, he says. Jay’s closed, the Ritz closed, they were having a kid and everything seemed up in the air. “That’s a lot of adjustments at one time,” he says.
Adjusting to the responsibility of being a parent and giving up the wilder aspects of the rock ’n’ roll life hasn’t been easy for Hickey, but he agrees no one ever said parenting was an easy process—whether for a musician or a regular Joe. It turned out that his body began rejecting alcohol at around the same time Simon came into his life. Not that he will forego the chance to drink a beer during practice or at a show; he just won’t drink to the level he did before. The partying and drinking, he says, “doesn’t seem like a healthy environment for Simon, and he’s my number-one priority now. Being drunk doesn’t seem as important anymore.”
As the Independent went to press on Wednesday word arrived that Volumen drummer Bob Marshall and his wife Cindy welcomed their baby daughter Phoenix into the world Tuesday night.
THE GREAT MOTIVATOR
Mani Mars Ramirez—18 months old—greets me at the door of his home wearing a huge grin on his face. His dad is Bryan Ramirez—Ex-Cocaine band member, record producer and KBGA DJ. As soon as I sit down, Mani brings me a small, stuffed gorilla with a smiling, pudgy face.
Ramirez is a sturdy figure, not only physically but also in the rock community. His bushy, curly hair and beard make him seem almost sage. He’s sitting on the floor now while Mani Mars (so named because the child was born in August 2003, two days before the planet Mars was the closest it’s been to Earth in recorded history) walks around trying to blow a toy horn.
“I’m blown away by all these fellow musicians having babies,” Ramirez the elder says when I ask his thoughts on the rash of newly family-oriented Missoula rockers. “It shows the maturity of the musician. You’re always gonna have your music, but what’s going to be your next step? Having a child is the next step. It’s something else to focus on. It’s motivating, too.”
Before coming to Missoula, Ramirez was fully involved with music in his native Michigan for a solid 10 years, recording albums and “continually gigging.” At one point he figured he’d had only about four months off from playing music the entire time. When Ramirez moved to Missoula six years ago, he formed a two-piece band called Ex-Cocaine with fellow buddy Michael Casler, whose own child was born two weeks after Mani.
“It seems after we had our children we became more focused,” he says. Last year, from spring to summer, Ex-Cocaine played continuous shows. “When we had [Mani], I was doing music but I wasn’t nearly as involved in music until a few months after he was born. I think it increased my productivity.” Casler moved to Minneapolis to pursue better working opportunities and now Ex-Cocaine is “on hiatus.” But Casler’s departure hasn’t kept Ramirez from playing music. Just two weeks ago he performed a solo folk-rock set at Area 5 with local musicians Purrbot and The Franklins. And a new Ex-Cocaine record is coming out “soon.”
“I don’t think [parenting] should ever stop anybody from playing music, it might slow you down playing gig after gig after gig,” he says. “I just think it’s a great maturing process and inevitable for some people.” Parenting has only sharpened his musical course, he says, and not taken anything away. “I’m doing what I’m doing and it’s a natural progression.” Mani comes over and hands me a board book and then toddles off after one of his cars. “I play for him, too, and he likes it. He’s really into punk rock,” Ramirez says of young Mani’s musical preference. “Australian punk rock—he loves the fast beat, he’s really into drumming.”
Ramirez is compiling kid-friendly songs and CDs from his collection to make copies and give out to friends. Every so often, Ramirez and wife Julie broadcast a family-oriented radio program on KBGA, playing songs they think kids would like from any musician or genre. His weekly KBGA show, Unheard Music, airs every Monday night from 9 to 11 p.m.—a gig he’s had for the past three years. Ramirez also started a label last fall called Killertree Records and is in the process of putting together a compilation of music from one of his old Michigan bands.
Ramirez credits other musicians who have kids—Shane, Paul and the guys from Oblio Joes—for helping him realize that being a rocker and being a parent can be balanced. He says of John Fleming, bassist for Oblio Joes: “He was one of the first guys that I knew who had a child, and it was an admirable thing. You see others and it’s kind of influential that they can do it. I didn’t know how I was going to balance it out.”
PATRIARCHS “R” US
It’s a Friday evening and I have joined Oblio Joes during one of their practice sessions before a scheduled show the following day. Amid the tangle of cords on the floor, the posters on the wall and the empty beer cans all around, the band is playing music. The Joes have as many children as they have band members: five kids, one apiece.
The Oblio Joes are not just one of the longest-standing local rock bands (three of the five members started practicing together way back in 1992), they are also the apparent patriarchs of the Missoula indie rock childbearing movement, at least in this writer’s eyes. In speaking with other musicians who have kids, several mentioned the Oblio Joes as an inspiration to continue playing music after becoming parents.
Credit goes to bassist John Fleming for being among the first of his generation of rockers to jump on the baby-making teeter-totter almost six years ago when son Oliver was born while Fleming was the bassist for the band Everyday Sinners. Fleming is followed closely on the parenthood ladder by Oblio frontman John Brownell, whose son Quinn is 4 and already talking about having his own rock band. Guitarist Scott “Stu” Simonson comes in third with 2-year-old daughter Hannah; trailing behind are drummer Dan Strachan with daughter Roxy Lee and keyboardist Ian Smith with son Henry, both just over 7 months old.
But how do they manage practicing, playing shows and being parents all at the same time? They all work full-time jobs so shows have to be on Saturday nights, Fleming says. And practice sessions are regularly scheduled to take place at the same time, same day—guaranteed. “It’ll get easier as more of us get divorced,” Brownell jokes, which sends cymbals crashing and the other Joes roaring with laughter.
The band members are wise enough to credit their significant others with lending an important hand in helping take care of the children while the band practices or plays shows. “All of us, like right now, have to rely on someone else to be taking care of our kids,” Smith says. And it’s harder on the other people watching the kids, Fleming adds, “We’re having fun.”
“Practice is where everybody walks in with grim faces and leaves laughing, it’s like therapy,” Smith says. This is, after all, the time the band can get together, drink a beer, tell jokes, relax and enjoy the company of fellow musicians/parents away from the dirty diapers, kids’ illnesses and general commotion that parenting all but guarantees.
And like all parents, these musicians love talking about their kids.
“The other day I was hanging out with Quinn and he was singing this song, he was going ‘grabby, grabby, grabby,’” Brownell relates. “And I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said ‘Oh, that’s a song I sing in my band.’ I was like ‘You have a band?’ and he’s totally serious, ‘Yeah, me and Katie and Oliver and Spencer.’” At which point Fleming confirms the rumor of the children’s musical endeavor: “Oliver talks about it all the time.” “Really?” Brownell responds, both amused and exceedingly proud. “Well, they have one song called ‘Grabby’ and I thought that was so fucking cool!” According to Brownell—and later confirmed by Quinn himself—the name of the kids’ band is “Water Ground,” and it’s a punk band.
The children’s musical inclinations don’t stop at the realm of make-believe and children’s games. Fleming’s son, Oliver, has joined Oblio Joes on stage several times, playing a Dr. Pepper can or beating the floor tom in the middle of a show. Fleming says Oliver has several instruments including a drum, an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. “He likes harmonica the best. He figures out the harder he blows the louder it airs. He moves it back and forth and it sounds pretty good. It sounds like John Popper pretty much.” And if the beatings taken by their toy keyboards are any indication of Roxy Lee’s and Henry’s love of music, they just may grow up to be as mesmerized by music as their fathers are.
“I think it will be awesome when our kids are like 13, 14 or 15, they can come on tour with us,” Fleming says. “They can be our opening band,” Smith chimes in, considering the possibilities. “Or they can be our roadies and we can go on vacation,” Fleming says, sending a chorus of “yes” all-around. “Little league isn’t that important, touring is.”
The Joes are in agreement that having children is just part of getting older and growing up, for them as well as for other musicians in town. After all, Smith says, they’re all in their late 20s and early 30s.
And what advice can these patriarchs give to other bands and musicians who have recently joined or will soon join the kids club? “Plan everything ahead,” Fleming says. “Get on a schedule; that’s a big one, and…”—here Fleming could be talking about band practice, or parenting, or both—“keep practicing.”