“Monster NO!” is a new song by award-winning musical artist Ben Rudnick that helps parents discuss the current pandemic situation with their children in a way that is non-threatening not frightening. In his trademark down-home style, Ben sings about washing your hands with soap, doing a silly dance, jumping up and down, and even talking like a frog.
Ben recently discussed this song via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in music and how come you focus on family friendly in particular?
Ben Rudnick (BR): My interest in music kicked in with a few definable moments. The first was going through my parent’s record collection which had quite a few soundtracks to Broadway plays and movies but also featured a 78rpm of Ravel’s Bolero. I’m not sure you can actually wear out a 78 but I’m pretty sure I tried. The insistent melody felt like it came from another planet as far as I was concerned. The argument can be made that my band’s most popular song, A Frog Named Sam, has shades of that otherworldly vibe. But that just might be my impression!
After that, I’m sure, really, I’m sure, although I’ve tried in vain to find the episode, I saw Corporal Agarn’s gypsy cousin on the TV show F Troop play a concertina. I wanted one! My accordion playing grandfather got me an accordion instead. After the shock and in hindsight, it really was a good vehicle to learn how to read music. I did switch to piano and then guitar after that. The accordion has played a prominent role in the band’s sound both in the studio and at our live shows for a stretch of years.
Lastly… The Beatles! The first song that caught my interest on the juke box at the pizza place near where I grew up was the very loud version of Revolution. I really hadn’t heard The Beatles much before that. It took a while for me to figure out what that song was but what a way to start!
As for focusing on family friendly music in particular… that evolved out of singing made up songs with my daughter Emily when she was three and four years old. Those made up songs were the staples of my first recording, Emily Songs, which I really considered a knock off for my daughter and her friends. By the time that first recording was done, I was sort of on a mission and managed to get reviews in publications from Nashville Parent to The Rolling Stone. YES… the Rolling Stone magazine! We had Jeff Bird (harp, mandolin, percussion with Cowboy Junkies) on the recording, which is a whole other story, but The Rolling Stone must have liked that aspect and mentioned it. After that, one thing led to the next. Opportunities to play live shows came along, the second recording, again geared toward families, was better than the first and we were off and running. Not making music with the family in mind didn’t even really occur to me for a while. We had a good opportunity and just kept building on it. It wasn’t until 2013 that I really took a side trip into the fingerpicking blues world of Jorma Kaukonin and Hot Tuna’s music and I started going off in another direction. We have a side band, Don’t Tell Jack, playing that music now.
Also, as your question implies, I really do feel that our music is geared towards the whole family. That was my intent when I wrote the songs and that’s always been our intent at our live shows. Really, first and foremost, we have to entertain ourselves and we’ve succeeded. Some songs are obviously skewed to the youngest set but I’ve always found that once we win the kids over, we can play almost anything we care to play and it works.
Lastly on the “family music” perspective – I think our songs transcend the it’s-for-kids thing. Songs I clearly didn’t write for kids but recorded anyway (“we’re making a record… why not!”) like Chet’s Fabulous Diner on our Grace’s Bell album led to parents telling me they had to perform that song before bed. The parents were required to play air bass guitar or air drums while the kids were playing air guitar and mandolin. And this was every night. They had to do this every night. By then my particular view of family music had already gone down its own path but reports like this certainly gave me positive reinforcement into the direction I was taking.
MM: How did you first break into the music industry and how did you think up “Monster NO”?
BR: I think it’s fair to say that I broke into the music industry by sheer force of will and the belief that what I was doing had to be done. I think that’s probably the purest way for this kind of thing to happen. At some point, I just had to make this music. I also had to get it in front of people. I did mad publicity by myself for the first recording. If you think about the timing, Emily Songs came out in late in the year 2000. The early staples of those making music for children were well known but there was only a few of them. Emily Songs came out just before Dan Zanes’ first recording. So, I started my ride right on the cusp of the new “kindie music” scene. Unbeknownst to me, my timing was impeccable.
“Monster NO,” came about from an acquaintance who was looking to connect with me on Facebook and found someone else who happened to be a doctor with the same name. The doctor, a fan of ours, asked her to, when she found me, could she ask me if I would write a song about the current situation for kids.
MM: How can this song help kids learn about the coronavirus?
BR: Well, my take, and it’s my take, I know there are other perspectives, is that kids don’t really need to know that a virus can come get them. Knowing that something I can’t see is coming to get me is scary. At this point kids really do need to wash their hands more than usual, and of course other health and social distance concerns come into play as well, but it seems like using the monster angle was a good way to go. It can clearly get the conversation going. All kids I’ve ever met play some sort of monster game. It’s something that they can relate to. It felt like a better path to try and get some wisdom across on a level that parents can use to help explain the current deal. Older kids will want more information, but I was thinking of smaller kids for this particular song.
MM: How do you envision the music videos for this song looking? Can you give us any sneak-peeks as to what you are thinking thematically and visually?
BR: I hadn’t actually envisioned much in the way of video production for this song given the current situation. I hope by the time I can produce a video for this song, I won’t need to.
MM: What other “tough topics” might you consider approaching musically in the future?
BR: That’s a hard question! I hadn’t planned on being a tough topic kind of guy. I’ve subtly included messages of acceptance, positive self-image, friendship, family and love in my songs through the years. Like so many others are doing at the moment, I’m just responding to the time we’re in. These are the times we’re given. What we do with it is telling. If this one song helps anyone in any way at all, I’ve done something positive with my day in this peculiar time.
MM: What can audiences expect from your live shows?
BR: Our shows tend to be events unto themselves. At our second show on the Lexington Town Common in July 2001, we had a couple thousand people there to see us. Folks from all parts of the suburban Massachusetts life. The youngest kids to the oldest folks and lots of them. Scared!? I was! Fun? You bet! That experience set the expectation of how shows should be for my band and really the necessity of gearing our sets to everyone. Not just kids.
At the live shows, these days, we typically play as a quartet of acoustic guitar, mandolin, bass guitar and drums/percussion. My guys all have degrees in music, love performing and have mostly been with me, or me with them, since before the first recording or soon afterwards. All of us love to evolve musically individually and as a group. What that means is there is an underlying sense of musical fun that can wander off in various directions at any given time. We easily have over a hundred plus songs on the written and mental lists to select from. What we choose to play really depends on who is in front of us. If there are predominantly kids, we’ll lean toward songs for them, mostly older folks, we’ll choose differently and all the variations in between. Our usual tack is to mix the songs I’ve written for the recordings with cover songs we love such as The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, Johnny Cash’s Big River and San Antonio Rose by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. A string of songs can include Walk of Life by Dire Straits, my song Macaroni and Cheese, in the newer disco inflected arrangement, all before we finally land in Hava Nagila, which we play regularly and recorded for our Grace’s Bell album. At the height of the summer shows, when we’ve been playing almost daily, we get increasingly nimble stringing songs together. I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun this is for the band and everyone around us. Our semi-official motto is “Fun for All” and it’s really how it is.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
BR: Ultimate goals for the band are pretty hard to define! I’ve done 99% of all the band organization, booking, etc., all the while driving the production of twelve recordings, a play written by a playwright in Australia and personal life efforts of helping to keep my family going through good times and bad. A bit of burnout has sunk in here and there after which I have always, ALWAYS come back to wanting to be a better player, have the band find that deeper groove and be happy doing it. It is a job and feels that way sometimes but I’d have to say the ultimate goal is to be ensconced into my spot in the happy machine that is the band, trying to take everything up just one more notch and see surprise and enjoyment on everyone’s faces as they’re dancing along to a song I’ve written. If you asked me this question when we started, my answer would have been “world domination!” Today… it really is to be happy, spread happy and see happy. What’s not to like about that!?
I guess there are two last things I’d like to mention, for anyone getting this far in the interview. One, would be to dive into the band’s music. There is a lot of it. YOU and your kids will like it. It aids and abets you in making your family stronger and happier. A family that dances together is happy. We take pride in being part of the soundtrack.
Two, would be, come to a show if you can. We’ve taken the time and effort to have great gear and the band just sounds good without having to be too loud. On the right summer evening, when the band is firing and all walks of life are in attendance, there is no better place to be in America. It’s a joy and a privilege to be at the center of it.
Stream or download Ben Rudnick’s “Monster NO!” song HERE. Watch Ben performing “Monster NO!” on YouTube HERE. Ben Rudnick’s website is HERE, his Twitter is HERE and his Facebook is HERE. His YouTube is HERE.