When Missoula elementary school teachers Casey Shaefer and Kevin Cashman got together in 2007 and decided that a fun and interesting way to educate might be to put their lessons to music, it was quickly apparent they’d struck paydirt.
“The reception that we got from kids in our classroom, just playing the songs live, the kids really seemed to latch onto the songs and the ideas,” says Shaefer, a singer and guitarist.
Shaefer and Cashman took their act to places like bookstores and the Pea Green Boat radio show on KUFM and heard more positive feedback. At the time, it was just the two of them singing and playing acoustic guitar, but they knew there could be “something more” to the arrangement. “We realized we needed to add more members to the band,” Shaefer says, “and people kind of filtered into our lives.”
Those people became the assorted members and “honorary” members of the revolving cast of local musicians comprising The Whizpops lineup. Depending on the venue and availability (most of the members share their talents among several other local bands), The Whizpops may crowd anywhere from three to 10 members onto a stage. And there have been many stages.
“Just in the last year alone we’ve played 40 venues,” Shaefer says. “We’ve been all over: playgrounds, cafeterias, pool halls, Symes Hot Springs, the governor’s inaugural ball, the library.”
The Whizpops are in increasingly high demand because they don’t dumb down in an often mind-numbing genre. This isn’t the kind of kids’ music one may remember from elementary school, like rounds of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or other simple melodies repeated ad nauseum. This is a crew of legitimate musicians, and their enthusiasm for what they do is infectious.
Bassist Steve Kalling remembers that his reaction the first time he played with the band was realizing, “It isn’t kids’ music, it’s ‘real’ music.” Drummer Daniel Kiely says he considers The Whizpops a family band, as opposed to a kids’ band. “We’re almost like a jam band singing educational content, with the lyrics for kids, but also playing music Mom and Dad can enjoy at the Top Hat too,” he says.
Shaefer says they can play any style, from jazz and bluegrass to rock and blues, “but the core message is there: education, humor.”
The band’s enthusiasm and musical chops are captured perfectly on its second record, Science and Wonder. Shaefer says he and Cashman have been the principal songwriters, but the record includes songs from other band members, including singer Margi Cates and fiddle/mandolin player Cameron Wilson.
“The lyrics always come first and we build off of that ... and then the arrangements are completely a group effort,” Schaefer says. “We come up with a chord progression, then that chord progression kind of determines the style the song will be.”
Kalling says on the first record, The Adventures of Stretch McCoy, the band had been brought in to play songs that were already written. “On this one, songs just grew from ideas in rehearsals and even onstage. Songs changed shape playing them live, and that knocked the corners off,” he says.
The result? Ten tracks with subjects ranging from dinosaurs to allergies, penguins to rainforests, all backed with a richer accompaniment than their debut. The album is also perfectly packaged with the playful art of Missoula illustrator Josh Quick.
With the second record release set and a trip to Seattle booked over Memorial Day weekend, it’s entirely possible that The Whizpops may become more than just Montana’s favorite kids’ band. Soon they may be Mom and Dad’s, too.