…A MIX FOR THE TRAIL THAT TEACHES KIDS (AND THEIR PARENTS) ABOUT OUR FURRY, FINNED, AND FEATHERED FRIENDS
Even though our son was fast asleep in the backseat, my husband and I kept the music blaring as our truck sped along the Blackfoot River. It was supposed to be a kids album. But the infectious beat had me tapping my foot, and we couldn’t help singing along with the chorus: “Extinction really stinks…forever.”
Turns out that the Whizpops’ fourth album, Ranger Rick’s Trail Mix Vol. 1, is for big kids, too. It’s fun, catchy, and upbeat—not usually words used to describe media about endangered animals. I liked “Gulo Gulo (Wolverine)” best, a jazzy rap about the dwindling carnivore’s scavenging habits, while my husband’s favorite was a reggae ditty called “Monarch” about the butterfly’s life cycle.
When I told the Whizpops drummer, Daniel Kiely, which song was my favorite, he said, “Did you know that Gulo gulo is the wolverine’s Latin name, derived from the word for glutton? Pretty cool, huh?” And that pretty much summed up the theme of the album: to teach kids (and their parents, by default) fun facts about furry, finned, and feathered critters all over the globe.
Each of the eleven tracks invokes its namesake animal with a different musical genre. “Pika” is as upbeat as the chirpy mountain rodents; the flowing piano and string solos in “Stream that I Call Home” conjure the feel of a river where bull trout live.
Impressed by the band’s ability to mesh diverse musical talent and complex science messages, I asked the Whizpops co-founder, Casey Schaefer, how the album originated.
“We really wanted to get kids excited about these animals. Here in Missoula, we’re lucky enough to have the wilderness in our backyard. But a lot of people don’t have that access. Our goal was to make original music that inspired people to learn more about the natural world,” said Casey.
Along with his friend Kevin Cashman—nature junkie and the other founding member of the Whizpops—Casey began writing animal-centered lyrics a decade ago. The duo kicked off their partnership with a song about owls designed to creatively teach science lessons to Casey’s kindergarten students. Since then, the Whizpops have grown to six full-time members: Casey, Kevin, Daniel, Steve Kalling, Josh Farmer, and Christina Scruggs.
The band mostly performs in Missoula (to crowds of frenzied under-12 dancers, gleefully belting out lyrics), but they’ve also titillated young audiences in Seattle, Sandpoint, Idaho, and Portland. The shows are packed, and not just with kids.
“We write material that doesn’t drive mom and dad insane,” said Daniel. “Partly, that’s because we’re combining art and education.”
The Whizpops are dedicated to writing material that makes a difference. Very few bands in the kids’ music genre are making concept albums with a theme and purpose. The Whizpops previous three albums, The Adventures of Stretch McCoy, Science and Wonder, and Sea Blue Sea, also feature songs about animals.
“Singing about animals is easy. They are the ultimate connector; everybody has a favorite,” said Casey.
With Ranger Rick, the Whizpops wanted to make a bigger impact. The band licensed the Ranger Rick trademark from the National Wildlife Federation and pays a royalty on each sale, which the organization then uses to help protect animals.
“We gravitated toward NWF because they’re geared toward reaching the next generation of conservationists and naturalists,” said Casey.
Ranger Rick turned 50 this year, so it was a perfect time for NWF to rebrand the character to better fit the times. The Whizpops album does just that.
But it wasn’t an easy album to produce, especially with its ambitious multi-genre set. Daniel estimated that it took more than 2,000 hours to create, and over a year working in the studio.
“Original material is very difficult to create. It takes good chemistry between band members, good song writing, good arrangements, good vocals. It’s tough to put all of those together. But this band has really done that, especially with this new album,” he said.
Since each member of the band comes from a different musical background, everyone had something unique to bring to the table when recording Ranger Rick’s Trail Mix Vol. 1. And when there was a gap in expertise, the members were more than willing to bring in a specialized musician.
“Nobody in the band has an ego, which is awesome. We came together to make each song the best it could be,” explained Casey.
For the final song on the album, “Extinction Really Stinks,” the Whizpops worked with children musicians from all over the country, meticulously incorporating audio files sent in from their hometown studios.
“It took a lot of late nights, and a lot of dedication from a lot of people. For me, it was a journey of personal growth,” said Casey. It also contributed to his professional growth, since making the album was part of Casey’s thesis for his master’s degree through the University of Montana’s Creative Pulse program.
“Now more than ever it’s so important for people to be aware of their surroundings, to know that what we do affects everything else,” he said.
The Whizpops are currently collaborating on a host of other educational songs and music videos. The band was recently commissioned to write a song about sea otters, which will be used to teach people how to interact with the animals when kayaking off the coast of California. Several other groups are interested in creating music videos to accompany the band’s existing songs as a way to reinforce the messages about how and why to care for animals.
“A good melody is much more memorable than a PowerPoint,” said Daniel. “We hope kids hear our songs and want to make a difference.”
And, based on the exuberant audiences at the Whizpops shows around town, those kids will also be happily dancing and singing while they learn how to make a difference.