Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing grew up exploring Colorado’s great outdoors. It was those early experiences hiking, sitting by the campfire and learning to care for the environment that influenced the music they bring to families today. The GRAMMY award-winning family folk duo, known as the Okee Dokee Brothers, are set to release their third adventure album on May 13 and a picture book on May 17. We caught up with singer and songwriter Joe Mailander, who muses on everything from Front Range childhood memories to making music accessible for little ears.
Colorado Parent: The Okee Dokee Brothers have garnered acclaim for a series of so-called adventure albums — the latest being your upcoming release, Saddle Up: A Western Adventure Album. What, exactly, is an adventure album
Joe Mailander: These adventure albums started in 2012, with Can You Canoe, which won a GRAMMY the following year. Justin and I were on a road trip down the Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi River south, and we saw some canoers. We”d never realized you could canoe there, and we felt inspired to take our own trip down the Mississippi. That’s where it all began — as a way for us to unplug and write songs out in nature. After we did the Mississippi album, we hiked the Appalachian Trail for thirty days; Saddle Up is our third album in this trilogy.
CP: Wait a minute! You and bandmate Justin Lansing head out on month-long adventures, then write songs about the experiences? That sounds too good to be true.
JM: Exactly! It works really well for our creative process, and allows us to tell the backstory of where the songs come from, too. We also show people the backstory; all of our adventure albums come with a DVD of the trip. And, we”re releasing a picture book, Can You Canoe: And Other Adventure Songs through Sterling Publishing on May 17, 2016. The book will be an illustrated version of our three adventure albums: Can You Canoe?, Through The Woods and Saddle Up. It has four songs from each album – illustrated with the lyrics – and takes readers on a journey from the East Coast, through the Mississippi and into the West.
CP: You and Justin definitely exemplify the Colorado spirit of adventure and exploration. How does immersing yourself in the atmosphere where a particular musical style emerged help you create your own music
JM: It doesn’t just help — it’s essential to what we”re doing because it provides direction and a framework, sonically, for the songs to land in. We”ve found that with both subject matter and genre, a narrow focus actually opens up a lot of creative doors for us.
CP: Each of your adventures was set to the tune of the great outdoors. What role has the natural world played in your personal lives
JM: As Justin and I grew up together, our families encouraged a lot of outdoor adventure. We”d go into the Rocky Mountains for hikes and camp outs. Justin’s family had a place near Breckenridge, and my family has a farm on the eastern plains — so we”d go out there, too, and explore.
CP: Just to clarify, you and Justin aren’t actually brothers, right
JM: No, but we feel like brothers and that’s where the band name comes from. We”ve known each other since we were 3, and we grew up together in Southeast Denver. We even went to high school together, and then we both moved to Minnesota after college.
CP: And after all of this time you’re still inspired by boyhood memories in Colorado
JM: Nature was always an essential piece to our childhood, and we still draw on those memories of being around the campfire, singing songs and getting outside of our comfort zones. That’s one piece to our music. Another is that our families are pretty active in environmental stewardship, and that resonated with us, even as kids. We understood that a deep relationship with the outdoors makes it much easier to care about the environment on a conservationist level. As the Okee Dokee Brothers, we try not to preach — but we definitely want to stoke the fire of loving nature and taking care of it.
CP: Speaking of nature, tell us more about the 30-day horseback journey along the Continental Divide that galvanized Saddle Up.
JM: The stories in our forthcoming album are inspired by exploration through five national parks and camping along the Continental Divide; these melodic tunes cover tales of western wildlife, Navajo stories, Southwest-style Spanglish, the issue of guns in western lore, friendship and much, much more. The trip took place from June 15 through July 15, and something that was kind of fun was, well, when you’re on hikes in the summer you occasionally come across huge patches of snow, and we had a snowball fight on July 4! There’s a segment of that on the DVD.
CP: Any other good outtakes or bloopers
JM: There was a cattle drive that turned into a cattle scatter. The cows were going everywhere because we didn’t know what we were doing. This misadventure is detailed in our field journal, which you can pull out of the front cover of the CD case. There’s a lot of funny stuff in there.
CP: That sounds pretty hilarious. Was the whole trip funny, or were there poignant notes, too
JM: What we try to focus on for each album is collaboration with a local musician or artist. We reach out to people before we go on these trips, and one of my favorite moments on this particular trip was meeting up with Carlos Medina from New Mexico. We worked on a song together called “Somos Amigos” that features Spanish, English and Spanglish lyrics. To sing that song with his band and our band out in the West, on a bridge over the Rio Grande — that was a really powerful experience of bridging language, culture and musical genres, too. That’s a great collaboration that we”re really proud of.
CP: Now that you mention it, your musical style is tricky to classify because it melds so many influences. How would you describe your work
JM: We call it Americana folk music. We”re drawing from bluegrass, old-time music from Apalachia – or, pre-bluegrass mountain music – and country western. We definitely draw from the folk tradition, but nothing we do is too contemporary.
CP: We can’t help but notice that your music is really easy on grown-up ears, too. Are your songs just for kids
JM: It’s for fans of all ages. We want our music to connect families, and we touch on a number of basic themes using metaphors that you”ll see in nature. While hiking the Appalachian Trail, for example, there are ups and downs; there’s a beginning and an end, and there’s also a present moment. That’s a theme we use a lot — being present, and accepting where you are on your journey. This resonates with most parents. The time you’re experiencing with your family is a really unique and special time that’s fleeting; it’s about taking time out to be thankful for that.
CP: Connecting as a family is right up our alley! What can parents do with their kids to foster a lifelong appreciation for music
JM: Listen to music in the car or at home, and have dance parties. Also, bring your children to family-friendly shows. There are a number of local and nationally touring acts. In fact, we”ll be playing in Denver onSunday, April 17 at Swallow Hill Music, and on Monday, April 18 at Holyoke High School. Seeing live music that’s made specifically for kids can really encourage musicality in a family.
CP: You mentioned earlier that these adventure albums are a trilogy. Does that mean Saddle Up is the final installment
JM: When it comes to filming a 30-day trip, this has been a huge project for us. We”re looking to do another album next with a few music videos — but not a full DVD. We wanted to cover the basic regions of the United States, and that’s what we did on this project. We”re happy with the results.
CP: What’s next from the Okee Dokee Brothers
JM: We”re currently writing some songs that have to do with the season of winter. Most of our adventures have taken place when the weather’s good, but it’s also important to remember to get outdoors during winter, and realize the beauty that exists in the crisp, cold air.