Pizza. Cats. Unicorns. Flushing the toilet. Hot sauce. Panera Bread. Milkshakes. Ninjas. Seriously, no topic is off the table when it comes to the fun and zany tunes of dance-pop duo Koo Koo Kanga Roo. For way over a decade, college buds Bryan Atchison and Neil Olstad have put their creative minds together to create catchy sing-and-dance-along songs that are even equipped with custom moves for their live audiences to participate in — and they do, creating more of a dance party than a live concert.
The musical pair’s songs are actually written explicitly for the purpose of audience participation, using the call-and-response technique to get their audiences moving, shouting and singing the second they hit the stage. The Minnesota-grown group is making their way to California rock clubs to perform their fun show, including the Voo Doo Room in San Diego on Jan. 23 and Chain Reaction in Anaheim on Jan. 30.
Bryan Atchison chatted with me about everything from “Darrin’s Dance Grooves” to punk rock influences to the science behind writing a song about cats.
My sister is a 4th grade teacher and her students warm up to your songs and dance moves every single morning. They are so excited that you guys are playing the all ages Chain Reaction!
That’s so awesome! I am so excited. I know that some parents are like, “Why is this kids band playing the Chain Reaction?” But as a kid that loves punk music, I’m like, “Yes! We get to play Chain Reaction. That’s the coolest.”
So I just rocked out to ”Cat Party.” You have to tell me what’s the inspiration behind this song?
Well “Cat Party” is one of five cat songs on an album called “Viral: Songs About Cats and Stuff” and it was made in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We have a modern art museum called the Walker. And they did like a hundred events in a hundred days, and one of the events was having this internet cat video festival. I’m going to give you a little backstory. So they were like, “Hey, hope 15 people come to this.” And 12 thousand people showed up. So they were like, alright we’re going to do this again in the next year. And they did. And then at the State Fair, which is a huge staple in Minnesota, they did it at the amphitheater where like Usher plays and stuff like that. And there were 15,000 people. They sold it out. It was ticketed like $15-$20 to get in. And all the famous cats came, like Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, all the cats who are now deceased. But anyways, they asked us to make an album for the promotion, and then we played the festival stage. We played the five cat songs with Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub. The funny thing is, we are not cat people at all. So the whole album is kind of like how can we make tongue-in-cheek songs that are like cats are cool, but people are crazy.
Before we started mainly playing like kids’ shows, we were in punk bands. We opened up for a guy named Frank Turner from the U.K. and “Cat Party” was like the jam on that whole tour. So we just kind of stuck with it. We were just kinda trying to make a dumb cat song that would be a crowd pleaser for this singular event, not knowing it would go anywhere else. And since then, every show people are coming up to us showing us pictures of their cats and I’m just kinda like, I don’t care. (laughs) Well I do, I just didn’t grow up with pets, cause my dad was like allergic to everything. And Neil’s a huge dog person. So we have a song called “Puppy.” We have a dog song too, but people don’t even know it exists because it’s not like “Cat Party.”
There’s definitely an internet trend of cat people with figures like Grumpy Cat, cat videos, and memes that are cat-centric. It seems like you were right at the forefront of this trend that you probably didn’t even realize at the time.
Yeah, not even, we didn’t even have a clue. I mean, if you think about it, in the age of the internet, fanny packs, cats, rainbows and unicorns are all super popular and it feels like we were like devising a way to like monetize the system or something like that. Not that we have (laughs), but I feel like we were just making music; like we’re camp counselors that kind of really dug things like Lisa Frank, and now that’s kind of what the internet is nowadays. I mean, it doesn’t bother me either way, but now that I look back on it, I’m like, wow, weren’t even planning on it but it works. That’s cool. It’s been fun.
I heard your newest song “My Jam,” which is instantly catchy. What exactly is your writing process?
Yeah so we basically have like four different kinds of songs. We have like a hard topic like, writing some songs about cats or pizza, and then songs like “My Jam” is kind of a fun generic dance song. We just have a couple of those. This is just kind of a party jam as our newest single. We put out a song later in September called “Glitter” and one about hot sauce, and then “My Jam,” and we have another one about air guitars coming out. So we just kind of have a topic and try to hone in on it, and sometimes in either of our brains, we think of the chorus first and then we build up from there.
“My Jam” has been kind of kicking around in my head for like four years or so, since I was on a camping trip, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to crack it. I was trying to put other things on top of it, like themes on top of it, because I was convinced just saying you like a song is not enough. And Neil was like, ‘No, that’s it. That’s the song.’ You can just have a song about liking a song! So we’ll see how this one does. I always get a little nervous about songs that don’t have like a hit-you-on-the-head kind of theme. I don’t know how it’ll do, because songs that are about something like pizza take off way more. But we have a fun video that I have planned for it and a couple of really cool dance moves; I think it will go well live.
Our writing process is pretty collaborative, whichever way a song comes in the hamper. We always have a running list of themes or topics, and then we just try to figure out what we think is funny about that. So either like the funny joke will be the chorus hook or the chorus hook will be kind of a generic saying, word or topic. And then within the verses, we think about how we can explore that thing even more. And we are always making different beats and melodies. Or we make it specifically for that song and then whatever producer or engineer we’re working with will help mix and sparkle it up. And then we’re also thinking about sing-along parts and dance moves and video concepts later.
But that’s kind of how maybe a generic song comes through. Most of the time we like to have a theme album where all the songs are a minute long, like we have a motivation record but we also have an album about Panera bread. So we create a box around the theme so we can kind of work within that. I don’t know what I would do if I was somebody who we used to be and just wrote songs about love and stuff. I can’t even think about being in a band like that because topics and themes and concepts help me focus and gives me something to construct.
Are you continuously looking at things and coming up with songs in your head now?
Definitely! I’m always thinking about songs in my head and I was before Koo Koo existed too. So that’s why I’m glad this exists. I have an output for that. It kind of helps me focus. I love driving cause that’s when I think the most; so I’m always trying to think of things and how they work and how that could be a dance move. Neil’s always trying to make a really funny song and I’m always trying to make a song that’s going to be like the next rock arena. Like I want to be a one hit wonder wedding hit band. I want the next “Cupid Shuffle” so bad. I don’t care if that’s like our only hit, and we just play like Laker game halftime shows for the rest of our life. I’m cool with that.
You guys could be like the next Kool and the Gang.
I mean, that’d be great to have lots of hits like them to party to, and my head is always thinking of songs and dance moves to hopefully create that.
Glad you brought up dance moves. Who creates your choreography?
That is fully Neil and me. We’re just mashing it out always, and it’s getting harder now because we’ve made so many videos with new moves. We think what’s a really dead simple move that you can still do with a microphone? We run through the song a bunch of times and think about the moves. It has to be like really bad and really easy. Like it’s gotta be something my dad can do. If my dad can do it, then everyone can do it and will want to do it.
I always would watch these backup dancers or — do you remember the VHS “Darrin’s Dance Grooves?” It’s funny, that just popped in my head. So I had that and I’d watch it a lot and I thought it was really fun, but I was always a little angry at it. It’s like, “Why do you have to be like that? I get it, you’re good, but you’re trying to teach somebody to dance with this. So why you gotta show off and be perfect?” (laughs) I don’t even practice, because we’re lazy or too busy or don’t want to. And that benefits our show because it shows that these guys are half-assing it, so I can do it too. I just never aspire to be perfect; I like everything a little sloppy.
It’s really cool that you are bringing that punk rock feel to younger generations by playing all ages rock clubs.
I appreciate that a lot. Yeah we’re playing seven shows in California. I asked Neil if we could play at least two shows on the way out, so we don’t just drive 36 hours to Southern California. We wanted to go up to Northern California too, and Neil could not find an all ages place. I would like to have an all ages show that we didn’t have to bring in our own PA. We really care about all ages spaces, and most of the time when venues and promoters think about all ages they think about 14 years and up. And we like to have four-year-olds and their parents as part of the party. Our target is everyone from 4 years to 4th grade to 22 year-year-olds and their parents.
Besides live shows, do you guys have any hopes of bringing this to a different medium, like television?
Oh heck yeah. We’ve been working with a couple of different groups to get a pretty darn good pilot we have been pitching. I can kind of understand the music game, but the TV game is another beast and so it’s changing constantly, and we just kinda have to keep trying. It’s almost like winning the lottery is what we’ve been told by people. Even Steven Spielberg gets shut down. But we keep working at it. We’re not stopping.
Koo Koo Kanga Roo
- January 23 at 6 pm: Voodoo Room, San Diego, CA
- January 24 at 6 pm: Temblor, Bakersfield, CA
- January 25 at 6 pm: Cornerstone, Berkeley, CA
- January 26 at 6 pm: Holy Diver, Sacramento, CA
- January 29 at 6 pm: Strummer’s, Fresno, CA
- January 30 at 6 pm: Chain Reaction, Anaheim, CA
- January 31 at 6 pm: Rock City Studios, Camarillo, CA
These shows are open to all ages. Details and advance tickets (unless otherwise noted, $15 general admission; $40 VIP admission) are available now at http://kookookangaroo.com/shows.