The Kids of Widney High – Interview

int_widney_headThe Kids Of Widney High have been raising more than a few eyebrows since the release of their sophomore album “Let’s Get Busy” for Ipecac last year. The band has supported such acts as Mr. Bungle and Fantomas, and played such illustrious venues as The Knitting Factory, and yet, all of them are in High School. To get a better understanding of the band, and the way it works, I interviewed Michael Monagan, founder and teacher of The Kids Of Widney High. -Jason Walton

The Kids of Widney High, as a musical group, has been around since 1988. How did you first decide to start the group, and typically, how are the songs written?I started the group as a song writing class writing songs for Widney’s drama productions that I thought should be musicals. We wrote original songs for “Snow White”, “The Nightingale”, “Robin Hood”. But we also had time to write songs about things that were on the kids minds. As the year progressed we had a bunch of songs that I thought should be recorded for the kids if nothing else. My brother-in-law John McCutcheon is a folk artist on Rounder and he sent them a tape after he heard it. The signed us to a one record deal. John also recorded two songs on one of his albums. The inspiration for the songs either come from the kids or as some sort of an assignment, the musicals, etc. I will make notes of what the kids say to a particular idea and then try to organize them into a song. They will offer some notes on the piano (or just sing them) and I will flesh it out into a melody. None of the kids are musicians although there is a student currently who sits at the piano every day and will try and pick out melodies. As with any song writing we try and come up with a slant on a particular topic or idea. Thus our newest song “Life Without the Cow”.

 

I first became aware of The Kids of Widney High when Mike Patton listed The Kids on a playlist in Metal Maniacs Magazine in the early 90’s. How did you become affiliated with Mr. Patton?

I have absolutely no idea. But he’s been a great supporter and I’m eternally indebted to him.

The Kids seem to have gained more national recognition since the release of “Let’s Get Busy” on Ipecac last year. Has touring and album sales helped the band continue to make music, or is it simply an added bonus?

Actually our first CD “Special Music from Special Kids” on Rounder has outsold “Let’s Get Busy” over the last six months. We may get a cameo in a new Fox movie and that might make a difference but who knows. We just keep plugging along at school. That’s where the real satisfaction is anyway.

I’ve heard many people question the motives behind Patton wanting to release The Kids, claiming it seems as though he wanted to release a novelty act, rather than a fine album. I’ve read Patton feels The Kids are the most honest and sincere band he’s heard, and has no ill intentions. Have you encountered these same detractors as well?

Sometimes. But it seems that when people actually see the act they can’t help but fall in love with the Kids. Any real art is based on honesty and the Kids have that in spades.

“Let’s Get Busy” on Ipecac is actually a re-release of the album, is it not?

It’s one of those things. Some people call it syncronicity. I was determined to make a record and with the generosity of Jackson Browne (a friend of a friend) we got into the studio and recorded some songs. I was just going to do the whole thing myself but right at the same time Mike was coming to LA on tour with Mr. Bungle. A good friend and fan of the Kids John Pantle books the House of Blues and when he got wind of Mr. Bungle coming he set up the match. Patton was so excited that we were available he asked if we would come to San Fran and open the first three shows of the tour, two in SF and one in LA. We did the shows and after the third night Mike asked if we’d like to be on Ipecac. I had already finished the CD so all we had to do was put the Ipecac logo on it and bingo we had a home for the CD.

The Kids are a group of mentally and physically handicapped children who attend Widney High School in California. What do you find rewarding in directing these kids in such a huge endeavor?

Well, I love teaching, I love music and song writing so it’s a match made in heaven for me. I just wish it weren’t so hard to raise a family on a teachers salary.

How did you start teaching, and what is your background in music?

I came to LA from Boston in 1980 looking for a career in music. But without much success I fell back on teaching. Substitute teaching at high schools in south-central LA was pure hell but then one day I got sent to a special-ed school and it was like an oasis in the desert. The kids were great the staff was great and I’ve been there ever since. My background in music aside from a few years of violin as a kid is self taught. I started playing guitar in high school (like everybody else) and have played in bands ever since. I’ve had original band of my own time and again.

How do you feel about The Kids of Widney High being lumped musically with bands like The Shaggs, Wesley Willis and Especially Likely Sloth?

I don’t know those bands. But I do know that the band is an unusual idea and most wonderful things are unusual. And it’s something that just happened on it’s own so as long as everyone is having fun it’s ok with me.

Can you give me a brief overview of the two albums?

The first album was written over the first year of the class and was done very quickly in the studio. We didn’t have a band so I sequenced all the songs on my Mac. I was really just a present for the kids in the class. Most of the songs are things that the kids wanted to write songs about; new cars, insects, girlfriends, and then some were assignments. “Trash” was written for a school beautification project. “Mirror” and “Ride Away” were songs written for Widney musicals. The second album was basically made in two three day sessions (courtesy of Jackson Browne). I didn’t have a band for the first session so a friend got me in touch with “World Tribe” a great local ska/punk band. By the time we got the chance to go back in the studio we had a regular band and they appear on the second half of the record. Again all the songs are original ideas from the kids except our reworking of “Respect”.

What are the future plans for The Kids? Any upcoming shows?

We play on average about twice a month. The shows are listed on the web site www.kidsofwidneyhigh.com

I’ve heard that the members of Mr. Bungle sometimes perform with The Kids on stage. Can you elaborate?

Untrue.

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~ by scottsplatter on January 4, 2009.

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