Barney is old news. Raffi? Relegated to an afterthought. Even the classics, the We Sing Silly Songs compilations and the “Sesame Street” collection, are taking an unaccustomed backseat to the latest trend in children’s music: kid-centered indie rock performed by an increasingly big-name list of club and bar-scene performers. Recent examples read like a who’s who of past and current college radio chart-toppers: They Might Be Giants released Here Come the ABCs as both a CD and DVD last year, and it became their first gold album since 1990’s Flood, which featured the hits “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”; whispery wunderkind singer-songwriter Jack Johnson recently hit the top three of the Billboard charts with his soundtrack to Curious George; The Kronos Quartet, Nick Cave and Natalie Merchant all appear on a new children’s album featuring Dan Zanes, the former lead singer of the Del Fuegos; Belle and Sebastian are “curating” a compilation of toddler tunes in September featuring alt-rockers the Flaming Lips, Snow Patrol and Franz Ferdinand; and the popular For the Kids recording series has included the likes of Billy Bragg and Wilco, Robyn Hitchcock, Cake and the usually frightening Tom Waits. And the albums are selling: as of April, according to Nelson SoundScan, kids-music album sales are up 103 percent over the same time period last year, with 5.5 million units sold.
The trend is filtering down to Missoula’s rock scene as well. Sixteen months ago in an Independent article about local musicians entering parenthood, Paul and Sarah Copoc, frontpeople of Missoula indie-pop band Two Year Touqe, mused about starting their own side group with their newborn son, Milo. At the time, Paul called it a “mega-goal.” Today, the three form Helmet Tag, a family-friendly trio with Paul penning the lyrics and playing guitar, Sarah on a toy piano and singing harmonies and Milo, now 18-months-old, doing pretty much anything he wants to add to the sound, be it backup vocals (i.e., talking or singing when dad’s recording) or experimental percussion (i.e., banging on stuff during live concerts).
“We wanted to start a band that was quieter and could allow us to have Milo at shows,” says Sarah, who’s currently nine months pregnant with the couple’s second child, a girl, whom they also plan to add to the band. “It’s a way for us all to be together as a family—and we don’t have to worry about a babysitter.”
Helmet Tag’s self-released eponymous debut CD, which they’re unveiling at an early-evening release show Saturday, July 22, at Betty’s Divine, comes smack dab in the middle of the kid indie rock—some call it “kindie rock”—surge. Full of upbeat rhythms, hook-laden pop melodies and sugary personal lyrics, the album is not much different from a stripped down Two Year Touqe recording, except the content is mostly tailored to families.
“I’ve always really made music that sounded like kids music, but I never really set out to make a kids album before—that’s just how most of this ended up coming out,” says Paul. “The key is it must have a strong rhythm and it should be fun. Milo loves it. Right now, all he’s been listening to is Helmet Tag and They Might Be Giants.”
Helmet Tag’s album has been a year in the making, in part because Paul and Sarah were new parents figuring out how to balance creative aspirations with the responsibilities of raising a newborn. Paul started writing songs shortly after Milo was born, but finding the time to record them was a challenge.
“Milo was always running around, knocking the mics, and all the takes had this stomp, stomp, stomp,” he says, adding that the album was recorded in the family’s kitchen on a laptop computer. “We had the first five songs a while ago, but—and I never do this—we decided to re-record them, mostly during nap times. It was then, during that time, that I had this boon of creativity and these songs started coming out. Usually, we’d just have knocked out that five-song EP and been done with it, but with this we took the extra time and I think it’s better.”
The appeal of the 10-track effort is that Paul often writes songs with upbeat melodies that appeal to kids, but adds lyrics sympathetic to parents. On “Song for My Family,” a lighthearted, singsongy, oomp-pah-pah ode, Paul croons, “I know sometimes I get frustrated and scream, when I feel I can’t handle the life right in front of me/Some days are hard, yes these days are trying, but then I smile thinking what we are buying/Like soothers and diapers and toys that make noise, keyboards and drum kits…” The song goes on to cover such familial territory as dirty diaper piles and interrupted showers, and ends with the lines, “Some days are long, yes we get tired, but if I said I’m unhappy then I’d be a liar/Even when you sadly start crying, taking me away from this song I’m writing/For you.” Other imminently listenable tracks include “Cocoland,” a be-bopping, head-bobber about eating sugar; the alphabet-inspired “QRS”; and the raucous, communal “A Very Merry Sharing Shack Holiday of Your Choice.” (Note there are two exceptions near the end of the album: “Terrible Way to Go” and “The Hiding Place,” both darker songs that Paul included because they fit better with the Helmet Tag sound than with Two Year Touqe.)
Following the birth of their second child (due date: July 31), Paul and Sarah plan to promote the new album with a full-family tour. It’s not an unprecedented step for them—just six weeks after Milo was born, Paul and Sarah arranged a five-day Pacific Northwest tour for Two Year Touqe, aided by the presence of a nanny who helped take care of the newborn during shows. Since then, as Milo’s grown older and more accustomed to crowds, he’s become a central part of Helmet Tag’s live performances. During the band’s typical monthly shows, Milo has free range of the stage, which usually means he’s playing on Sarah’s piano.
“I don’t think Sarah’s actually been able to play the piano once live,” Paul says. “Every time a solo comes up, it’s always Milo jumping in. He’s definitely a rock star.” Adds Sarah: “Sometimes he takes his shirt off, sometimes he throws up, sometimes he pees himself. He knows he’s the main attraction.”
And that’s the thing: Helmet Tag isn’t a shiny gloss on parenthood; they reveal and revel in the trials of raising children—from sleepless nights to untimely relief—without apology.
“It’s all about having fun and being resourceful,” says Sarah. “We realized we wanted to play music that Milo can be a part of, and if we want to do it, then we have to do it this way.”
“It’s turned out to be an amazing creative outlet,” adds Paul. “Two Year Touqe is more of an energetic outlet, but this is more creative and personal for me, being able to write about and sing with my biggest influence, my family. We have so many friends with kids and being able to have something for us, and hopefully them, to listen to is important…There’s already another album in the works.”
Helmet Tag plays a free CD-release show at Betty’s Divine Saturday, July 22, at 7 PM. Travis and Craig and Book Club open. Helmet Tag plays another free show at the Missoula Public Library Tuesday, July 25, at 3 PM, for the conclusion of the library’s summer reading program.