Everyone wants to be an explorer. The Okee Dokee Brothers really are, charting new paths on foot, bike, and canoe throughout the U.S. and singing about them for an appreciative kid (and adult) audience. The band—consisting of titular “brothers” Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing plus Becky Gaunt, Jed Anderson, and Danny Vitali—plays the Getty Center’s Garden Concerts for Kids this weekend, a pretty perfect match for a group dedicated to “inspiring children and their parents to get outside and experience nature.”
In the midst of recording his latest album with Justin Lansing, Joe Mailander chatted with me about the Okee Dokee Brothers’ creative process and the actual adventures behind their adventure albums.
Tell us about your most recent travel adventures.
We took the month of May to hike, mostly through Virginia, on the Appalachian Trail. We were hiking for about 30 days, writing songs for our second adventure album. We met mountain musicians with roots in bluegrass and old-time music, and we played on porches, in backyards, and on the trail with them. We learned traditional songs and different styles of instrumentation, singing, and harmonies, and we’re incorporating them into the album that we’re writing right now.
What new tricks did you learn in Appalachia?
New guitar tunings, for instance. Justin learned the bones and I started doing some clogging. And it’s such a rich well of great old words and rhymes, and we drew a lot from those old tunes, lyric-wise.
So you’ll have a different coloring on your new album?
Yeah, Can You Canoe is very blue, and this’ll be very green.
What’s a “green” sound?
It’s very green, Appalachia: green hills, green trees, green grass. The sound is a misty, kind of foggy mountain sound.
“Foggy mountain sound.” That’s beautiful.
It’s a nice feel. We focus a lot on the feel of the music when we’re writing. We make sure to get the feel right—maybe the pitch isn’t perfect, or the tempo, but as long as that feel is right, we know we’re doing a good job.
In Appalachia you came up with trail names for each other. What are they?
I did some clogging, so Justin called me “Flatfoot.” I called him “Cricket,” because every time I asked him to take a banjo solo, I’d say, “Pick it, Cricket!”
Your current album, Can You Canoe, was based on a river adventure. Which did you like better: Mississippi River or Appalachian Trail?
I don’t choose favorites, ever! It’s a totally different thing, and that’s exactly why we did it: to try something completely new. I will say that hiking sure takes a lot more energy than floating down a river. When we’re carrying our guitars and banjos and cameras and camping equipment on our backs, it’s quite a workout!
What’s your next adventure?
For our third album, we’re headed out west.
Now that you’re back from the mountains, where are you in the process now?
We just finished picking out the songs for the album. For these adventure CDs, we write twice as many songs as we use. Our approach is to write as much as we can, and as freely as possible, and know that the pressure isn’t necessarily to write the best song ever—it’s just to get stuff down. And then, in the end, you select the great song.
Is it hard to discard some songs, and choose others?
A little bit. But we’re lucky to be in such a friendly and positive genre. We can’t really take ourselves too seriously, because we’re writing for kids and families—we have to keep a sense of whimsy and humor about it.
Tell me how the two of you work together.
We bring a song that might be three-quarters of the way done to each other, and then we work out the details. “We should change this word, or maybe we could rhyme this with this…” We sit there for hours and hours, thinking about words and melodies. At the very end, we put on the finishing touches together.
Rarely does a song go on an album that’s 100% percent written by one of us. It’s always a team effort.
You’re team players all the way?
Yep! It honestly has always been that way. We grew up together writing songs. The first song I ever wrote, I wrote with Justin. And it’s the same for him.
Are there ways to tell a “Justin” song from a “Joe” song?
We’re always changing—I used to write the upbeat, high-energy stuff, and Justin was more contemplative. But for this next one coming out, I’m writing a lot of the slower tunes, and he’s writing a lot of the faster tunes, so…
Any thoughts on the upcoming concert at the Getty Center?
We’re really looking forward to the show because we’re doing extended sets. Usually we play our hits off the records. But we’re excited that we can do some of the “deep cuts” from the album, the B-sides. Some of the slower songs so that families can kick back, relax, and really get into the messages.
And what can we look forward to this weekend?
I always love singing “Can You Canoe” with the kids, because it’s such a welcoming question, and I think it’s a good song about friendship and teamwork.
The Okee Dokee Brothers play this Saturday and Sunday, August 3 and 4, at the Getty Center from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m.