Interview: Koo Koo Kanga Roo’s Neil Olstad

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Koo Koo Kanga Roo combines enthusiastic choreography and hip-hop dance beats for an all-out, over-the-top live experience. The duo uses songs (subjects include dinosaurs and PB&J) and props (parachutes, fake mustaches) to create a participatory spectacle that is as much about nostalgia as it is having fun. Koo Koo Kanga Roo wants you to relive the best parts of being a kid, and they want you to do it via interactive dance party. Prior to tomorrow night’s show at The Fire, The Key spoke with Neil Olstad about indie-rock feuds, bad days, and the laws of friendship bracelets.

The Key: How does your onstage persona differ from your actual personality?

Neil Olstad: When we’re onstage it’s more about the persona of a child. Or, like, a really excited teenager. It’s all energy, all the time. I guess off stage I’m a lot different, and Bryan is a little less different. We’re not literally going into character so much as we’re just amping up our energy and smiling all the time, I guess. It’s basically just a burst of energy.

TK: What do you do if you’re playing a show and the crowd isn’t having it or refuses to participate?

NO: That happens all the time, when we play to crowds who don’t know what’s going on and don’t feel comfortable doing the dance moves or singing the response portion of our songs. Which is kind of the vast majority of what we do—it requires you to be able to participate. So when it doesn’t happen, we don’t really change what we do, we just keep going, we just plow through. If we don’t have participation, then we’re just going to dance around like idiots, and that’s fine with us, because we’re having a good time. It’s pretty hard to—some shows are better than others—but it’s pretty hard for us not to have a good time at shows. If no one is dancing, if they think it’s weird, that’s fine, we’ll just put on a show and you can watch.

TK: As a performing artist, do you feel that the audience owes you participation?

NO: I guess it depends on the show, but for most shows we expect that at least some people will participate. If we’re playing at a venue, that means that you have to pay money and you have to want to be there—so, in those situations, people are more prone to go ahead and dance with us. Sometimes when we’re in situations where people are forced to be there, then that’s where you can get into trouble with people not following along. Like when we’re playing in Philly, people who come there are looking to have a good time so they’re more apt to party with us.

TK: Do you think if the audience doesn’t participate, they’re not getting the full experience of your show?

NO: If you’re not doing the dance moves and you’re not singing along with us, then yeah, I’d say you’re not getting the full show. I would say that it’s more of an experience to do it with us. But I guess you could just sit back and watch and laugh, that’s fine with me. I don’t care. That’s probably what I would do, maybe. For us it’s as much kind of a jokey thing as it is a dance party. We’re trying to make you laugh too, doing comedy and stuff. So if you want to sit back and laugh at two goofy guys dancing around, that’s cool with me, but I think for the full-on experience you do need to be up front dancing with us and grooving with us and getting our sweat all over you.

TK: How do you act when you go to concerts to see other bands perform—and how would you respond if you saw your own band on stage?

NO: I’m a little bit more reserved, so I often wonder if I would do these dance moves if I didn’t know who Koo Koo Kanga Roo was. I think I would, because I really value showmanship and theatrical craziness. If I see a band who’s doing something a little different I’m more apt to come out of my shell and do anything they ask because I’m just so thankful that they’re doing something different. And thankfully, because of who we are, we see a lot of bands who are doing weird cool stuff and have an original sound. I just appreciate it so much that I want to jump in and do what they ask.

TK: Do you ever get tired of being so high-energy and enthusiastic?

NO: Yeah I do, but I feel like I have a lot of time to relax though. Especially if it’s an all-day show or a ton of bands, it gets kind of tough to keep the energy up. It’s easy for the show but after that it can get tough to have that level going all the time.

TK: What if you’re having a bad day?

NO: It doesn’t matter. When we’re having bad days, or when we’re sick, it’s still our job to come to the venue and put on a killer show. And the show is fun for us, too. Our set’s only 30 minutes, so that’s pretty doable, right? We’re just so used to it, it’s just what we’re supposed to do. It comes easy to us. We have to do it regardless of what kind of day we’re having or how our bodies are feeling. I mean we’re sore all the time but we still have to put on a show, and there are people who are coming to see us so that makes us want to put on a good show even more.

TK: You’ve said you used to be in a “real” band before this. What kind of band was that?

NO: The real band was a folky pop band. We had a trumpet and a piano and everything. Bryan wrote poppy folk songs. It was pretty accessible, non-threatening. It had lots of the same energy as Koo Koo Kanga Roo, but that’s about the only thing they had in common. Then the band fell apart, but Bryan and I still wanted to make music. You know, we grew up looking at bands who were touring and we were in awe of that, and we grew up around the music industry, and it’s every band’s goal I guess to be on the road—because that means you’re relevant and working. And we still wanted to do that, but we wanted to do it with a different look, not a traditional format. We both like hip hop so we went with that. We got really excited about doing something totally different and having no rules and it kind of evolved into what we do now.

TK: When searching for information about the band, the phrase “Beastie Boys meets Sesame Street” pops up a lot. Where did that come from?

NO: We came up with that. Any band has to explain what they are, especially when you’re in a band that doesn’t adhere to the traditional set up of a band. You can’t just say “two guitars, a bass and a drummer.” It’s beyond that. So we have to think hard about how to describe our band to people who haven’t seen it yet. And that’s one of the first things we thought of because it’s kind of cutesy and innocent but it’s also two white dudes grooving, doing hip hop and dance music.

TK: What is the purpose of your music and your act? Is it about purely having fun or nostalgia?

NO: It totally is. We say nostalgic a lot, we talk about that a lot. After a show, we get that a lot, “Oh you made me remember this from when I was a kid, I really enjoyed doing that.” As adults, we’re using nostalgia to create these songs, we’re looking back on things that were goofy to us, so we’re definitely hoping that they make you remember. At the end of our show, we throw out a large parachute—literally a rainbow parachute that you remember from PE class in elementary school—so there are some literal things, that we literally bring stuff from your past into the show. We have a friendship bracelet making station at our merch table. But there is a strict rule—and we’ve kicked people out of clubs for this—if you make a friendship bracelet, you have to give it to someone you’ve never met before. People think they’re above the law, but no, what is the point of a friendship bracelet if you’re not making friends?

TK: You’ve actually kicked someone out of a club because they gave their friendship bracelet to a friend?

NO: Yeah, we did! We had to give them a piece of our minds.

TK: You made a video mocking indie labels. What do you think about the indie music scene and your place in it?

NO: This is one of the things we get asked the most about. We created it when we were messing around in college. People think that we have some weird vendetta against indie labels, but we don’t. We both grew up paying attention to the music industry really closely. When you’re in a band, you read everything and try to keep up with everything, and you end up seeing these trends that you have no choice but to make fun of it. Because we’re part of it too, we’re part of that system too. It’s so silly, so we wanted to make a video to poke fun of what we saw and what was going on. We have no hard feelings against the bands we made fun of—or is there? What if we called out all those bands? That’s how you get press these days. Yeah, Vampire Weekend, we got a beef with you! —Kiley Bense

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB83aRn9fkw

Koo Koo Kanga Roo performs with Brick + Mortar, Ecomog, and Attack Slug at 5 p.m. at The Fire; tickets to the all-ages show are $10.

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