THE SALAMANDERS ELEVATE CHILDREN’S MUSIC WITH THEIR RANGE AND MUSICIANSHIP
They might say it’s music just for kids. I thought it was.
Several months back, and still new to the Zoo, my girlfriend and I were browsing the events section of the Missoula Independent in search of something to do or listen to. Listed was a CD release party at Rockin’ Rudy’s for the Salamanders’ latest album Bubbles. “Excellent,” I thought, until I saw it billed as “family friendly.” I immediately lost interest.
The Salamanders play what’s known as kindie rock, and it’s finding its way into more and more minivan stereos traveling along I-90. According to the band’s lead singer/songwriter Andrew Hunt (aka Cowboy Andy), this genre is “independent music for families and kids.” And it loves Missoula as much as we do. Kindie rock sprouted nationally about 10 years ago and spread from Seattle to Boston. The genre gained ground across the U.S. before planting its roots in Missoula with bands like the Salamanders and the Whizpops.
My assumptions got the better of me. I was expecting an annoying sing-along album with poor production values and even worse musicianship that, after a mere few minutes, would make me want to stuff Barney’s insides into my ears.
Was I ever wrong! Bubbles is a thoughtful, endearing album covering themes of love and inclusion while profiling such topics like Pirate Santa and Matt Damon (yes, we’ll get to it later). But what really set it apart from the traditional kids’ music genre is the quality of their musicianship.
In one form or another, the Salamanders have been performing for nearly nine years. Cowboy Andy began by playing a mix of kids and adult music at various retail shops before meeting up with Matthew Nord, the owner of Tangled Tones Music Studio.
“Matthew has been doing interactive kids music for a long time,” Andy said, “and he and I connected one day at Kids’ Vibration, a monthly kids’ dance he did, and we clicked musically.”
Performers were added, and then it “all sort of just coalesced,” he said. Bandmates have come and gone over the years, but they have settled on an ultra-capable lineup: session drummer Antonio Alvarez; long-time friend and collaborator Russ Gay on bass; original member Matthew Nord on keyboards; and Andy’s sister, Heather Hunt, on saxophone and backing vocals.
Bubbles also features the talents of a host of supporting contributors, including Grace McNamee Decker on fiddle and Jeff Stickney on trumpet, Andy’s mom Jill Miles Davis on piano, Toby Roberts on banjo, and local legend Andrea Harsell on lead vocals to close out the album. Also heard on the album are “a bunch of people and kids [whom we invited to] do background vocals.”
Both the Salamanders’ self-titled debut album and Bubbles earned Album of the Year from Creative Child magazine in 2015 and 2017, respectively.
Andy revealed that the album title came about simply and then took on an additional meaning. “Kids like bubbles,” he said. “But when I started writing the album, it came to represent also the Eastern philosophy of being present and accepting the temporary state of things. A total metaphor.”
Bubbles opens with “Let’s Sing a Song.” It was inspired by the Baltimore riots, which broke out in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. “We are all just the same and if we could just step outside, just a little bit, to see that there is really no difference between us,” Andy explained. “My only expression was to write a song about it and, for me, it had to be a positive and all-inclusive song. We start our shows with that.”
This depth of thought and feeling is heard in the personal tunes, “Poppy, “Golly Gee Gus,” and “Man Cub,” all centered around the band members’ children. Andy described “Man Cub” as “a total nostalgic throwback song to that weird sort of Lone Ranger/Cisco Kid era. Every reference is purposely dated to a different era.”
The album also features an instrumental piece, “Skeleton Rag,” that captures the bandmembers talent for and commitment to producing quality music.
The most interesting track is the surreal “Matt Damon Magnetized Me.” Inspired by a six-second dream and written in 10 minutes, Cowboy Andy’s hazy guitar ballad reminds us that anything is possible, even becoming a human magnet at the behest of one of America’s favorite movie stars. Andy sent their CD and a T-shirt to Matt Damon’s “frenemy,” Jimmy Kimmel. We can only hope that the Salamanders will be making its national debut soon.
The album rounds out with a housecat “sailing and chilling on his cellphone” in the appropriately titled, “The Cat.” This is followed by a swashbuckling tale of Santa Claus and seafarers in “Pirate Santa.” It came to being because Andy’s son loves pirates. “[The pirate captain] had to become Santa,” he explained, “because his crew wasn’t going to be home for Christmas. And they were getting upset about it.
“And,” he continued, with a wink, “Santa says, ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ and a pirate says, ‘Yo, ho, ho.’ If you mash those two up, you get a Pirate Santa.”
The final song “Lovely Goodbye” with Andrea Harsell begins as an instrumental lullaby for Andy’s youngest but quickly evolves into a lovely goodbye…for now.
In the meantime, as the Salamanders continue to make its way onto music’s main stage, one thing is for sure: Kindie isn’t just for kids.