Q&A with Danny Weinkauf, Bass Player for They Might Be Giants

After 17 years of playing bass for the alternative rock group, They Might Be Giants (TMBG), musician Danny Weinkauf has set out on his own with a new solo album called “No School Today.” I’m extremely excited to share an exclusive interview with Grammy Award winning musician, Danny Weinkauf.

What are your earliest music memories?

I didn’t grow up with a lot of music in my house. There were no instruments but we had a record player. On Sundays my parents played The Supremes, Elvis Presley and Petula Clark. When I heard the Beatles on the radio I thought, "Wow, I love this." At that time I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. I still didn’t play an instrument. When I did pick up the bass guitar my favorite musician was James Jamerson who played for The Supremes. His playing left a lasting impression on me. It is probably connected to the memories of my parents playing it when I was a kid. When I was 17, I bought my first guitar. I didn't play bass until I was 23 when my high school chemistry teacher, Dr. B (who my dog is named after), called me to play bass in his band at a New Years Eve party. I didn’t have a bass guitar so they lent me theirs.

Tell me about how you joined TMBG. 

I was in the opening band for TMBG for 3 years. At that time, their bass player was busy and asked me to sub for him. The manager for TMBG walked on stage during a sound check and asked if I would like to play with TMBG full time. I said I would love to. Now it’s been 17 years, the music is challenging and fun and we’ve done all kinds of things from television shows, commercials, movie sound tracks, adult and kids albums and touring all over the world. Musically, TMBG is open to any music that exists or is not yet invented. Their palette is so wide that there are no limitations. 

You wrote 3 songs for TMBG’s children’s album: “Where Do They Make Balloons?,” “Number 2,” & “I am a Paleontologist,” which you said was inspired by your son Kai’s love of dinosaurs. Are your kids the inspiration for all your songs?

Not all songs but often. In the case of "I am a Paleontologist", it was because of Kai’s interests. I was trying to write a song about electricity and getting stuck, but, when I decided to write about paleontology it came naturally. Some influences can be from a simple thing. One day my wife and I were goofing around and singing about everything in the house. My daughter said, “You’ll sing a song about anything." So I went into my studio and wrote "A Song About Anything.” The fact I have kids makes it more fun and timely. If I didn’t have children it might not be as enjoyable. Speaking of kids, they are my biggest critics by far. I will go back into the studio and re-sing the song or change a section because they didn't like it. I go off their gut reaction. I trust it. 

TMBG were always known for being unconventional and experimental in both music and business. When they ventured into making a kids album, it all seemed to come at a time when kids music was really becoming more sophisticated and being performed by musicians that I love - TMBG, Lisa Loeb, Dan Zanes to name some newer musicians like Laurie Berkner. You still have the goofy tunes of The Wiggles and Barney, but, as a parent, I didn’t want to listen to that.

Fans of TMBG that told us their kids love our music and they love our music. Enough people just kept asking us to make a kids album and we recorded “No!” The response was amazing and making it was fun. We didn’t dumb it down. We recorded the way we always did but made it more kid specific. The lyrics changed the approach while the music stayed the same. 

It also feels like that other music was talking down to kids. My kids never liked it. When my son heard the Ramones at 2, he immediately started to jump around. It was a visceral reaction. I thought I am going to write music that relates to my kid which is how I started my solo album, "No School Today." I want lyrics to be a little challenging so they can ask their parents what does this mean when he sings about "archeology" or about "a science and humanity". They may not understand it at that moment but that can lead to an opportunity for an educational discussion.

Your kids and wife contributed to the album. What’s it like to make an album with your family?

It's great but probably not what people might imagine. My family is busy. When it comes to making a song like “Champion of the Spelling Bee,” it's from a kids perspective so it makes sense to have a kid sing. I asked my son, Kai, to sing it. I have to literally say "Kai, can I get you for 10 minutes?” I grab my song, show it to him, ask him if he wants a recap? Kai will say “no” and sing it, look at me and ask if he is done so he can run back to what ever it was he was doing. 

SiriusXM Kids Place Live had a countdown where they play 13 of their top songs and “Champion of the Spelling Bee” went to #1. The song came on, my wife started dancing around and Kai would leave the room….because he’s 14 now. It climbed up the charts and he wanted no part of it. When it finally reached #1 we had the radio on, I was in the kitchen and they announced “Champion of the Spelling Bee” and they said his name. Kai got up from his computer, came over to me without saying a word, he gave me a hug and then went back to the computer. That was a special moment. He may have been avoiding it all along but he was happy for me and proud of himself. Having my family on the album is really special. I hope they will look back and say, I did this with my family. 

In the song “No School Today” you mention Facebook. Do you think we will see more kids songs referencing today’s technology? 

I wanted it to be relatable for children today. However 10 years from now that may be an antiquated term. I have a couple of nieces that were obsessed with Facebook. That's why I felt it made sense to put it in the song. It was such a big part of their lives, but only a couple years later, my son tells me Facebook is for grown ups. Now the kids use Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Tell me more about your new single “Wonderful Christmas Day.”

It just came out in October. I started writing something that was a little bit ironic and snarky. As I was writing it; I realized I may not like the commerciality of the holidays but I do love Christmas. So I took the straighter route and wrote a song about being at home with family and the smells of food cooking, being together, and playing in the snow.

Your Kickstarter campaign goal for the album “No School Today” was $12,999 and you made $20,685. How have John Flansburgh and John Linnell, founding duo of TMBG, felt about your solo album?

When I first decided to make a solo album, I was worried that John & John would be concerned that it would take my focus away from TMBG but they could not have been more supportive. Doing this record made me realize on another level how generous they are. When I started the Kickstarter campaign; we were on tour in Europe and I raised about half of what I needed by the 4th day. We were going onto the bus to the next city and John F. says, 

    “Hey Danny how’s your Kickstarter campaign thing going?” 

    “Great, I have almost half the money and it was only day 4 of 60 days.” 

    “What are you trying to raise?” 

    “I have almost $6,000 but ultimately I want to get $13,000.” 

    "Well you need 13.” 

    "I know its only been open for 4 days. We’ll get there.” 

During the evening John F. got on his social networks and campaigned for me. He left his laptop open with a picture of him and the laptop next to his smiling face with the number $13,000. That night he raised the other half of my goal by rallying fans and getting them to donate to the Kickstarter campaign. I could have cried. It was way beyond what I could ever have imagined. The whole band has been so supportive. It was touching how amazing the fans were. Not just monetarily but there were people who reached out to me and offered to help. I found the artist of the album cover and help making videos through Kickstarter supporters. The generosity was mind-blowing.

The internet has really changed the way we consume music. John Flansburgh and John Linnell are innovators in this area. TMBG has always been at the forefront of using technology whereas many musicians are concerned over losing money this way. What lessons have you learned from TMBG regarding the business side of the music industry?

The one thing I learned is that the technology is going to continue and change and if you don’t change with it, or in TMBG's case, ahead of it, you will get lost. TMBG’s happen to be amazingly skilled at it. I don’t know any musicians that are happy about the fact that records aren’t selling. Streaming is the main form of getting music and streaming servers are not paying a fair rate to the artists. This is why Taylor Swift just pulled her music from Spotify. There are issues hurting the music business. But the internet is great in other ways by making it easier to get the music out to people. There has never been this kind of access. That’s a powerful tool. It’s these tools that TMBG use to their benefit. I try to follow their example. Although I’ve been with TMBG for 17 years, as a solo artist, I am just starting out. I’m more interested in people hearing my music so any way I can access the technology to have people hear it and know the songs exist - I am open to it.

You work full time with TMBG (television, commercials, music, touring, etc.) and part time as a pediatric physical therapist.

Yes, I have been a physical therapist since 1993. For many years I worked 1-2 days a week as a physical therapist while playing full time for TMBG. It’s a nice balance and couldn’t be more different to being a musician. As a musician, I go out on tour, see great towns and go on stage to cheering crowds. When I am a physical therapist, I go into schools and work with kids that have autism, down syndrome or cerebral palsy and it takes a lot of patience and physical stamina. It’s not all about me being a musician; there are other people that need help and it’s nice to give back in a different way than performing or writing songs.

I heard about the Dial a Song commitment for every Tuesday in 2015 with TMBG. Is it hard writing that many songs along with all the other things you are involved in?

It’s gonna be a challenge but TMBG are some of the most prolific people I’ve ever met. TMBG started before technology with Dial-a-Song. They had a $25 answering machine in an apartment in Brooklyn and they would sing songs into the machine. People would call and get the waiting message; which was a song. It was a very successful way to promote their music but that was something that came out of their imaginations. One point we were on tour and we decided to write a different song every day based on the town we were playing in and recorded them at each venue. We called them “venue songs.” It made that tour interesting and different from any other tour.

My daughter has a friend who loves to write and sing songs. What advice do you have for a young future musician?

It may not be what she wants to hear but get an education. Pursue the music as much as you can but don’t sacrifice your education. I wanted to leave college and my mom said if I want to be a musician that’s great but she encouraged me to get my degree. I have 2 degrees in psychology and physical therapy. Getting a back up career was really important. I know I am really lucky as a musician to work with TMBG but I always had this to fall back on. That way you can enjoy music whether you do it for a living or not. 

When you look back at your career so far, what are you most proud of?

That’s a hard one. There are so many things. Besides being a part of TMBG, I am really proud of making this solo kids album “No School Today." I made my own album, had my family sing on it, one of my best friends mixed the record, my friend co-wrote songs with me, the Kickstarter campaign and overwhelming support especially from the rest of the band. That's pretty special. 

Your kids now are 15 and 12. If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to the 12 year old Danny?

I would tell him to immediately join the school band and chorus because I didn’t do that. I started late and always felt like I was trying to catch up. I would have loved to have had that foundation. Most of what I learned was from records and playing in bands directly. It would have been great to have classes and play in a school orchestra. I would tell 12 year old Danny to get yourself involved in music now; that’s where you’re headed.

What’s next?

We’re working on another TMBG record, touring this year, working on another children’s record later in the year, I have a 2nd solo album I am working on and I am touring with my own band which I am very excited about. I look forward to doing more shows, playing my own songs and touring around the country. We’ll be in San Francisco in August, as well as Denver and Miami. I still work full time with TMBG but now I also have this other new thing going on. It’s very exciting. And I’m a dad and husband, Thankfully, I have a really great supportive family!

Danny Weinkauf has been the bass player for TMBG for 17 years. Credits include: Sex and the City, Malcolm in the Middle, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Jon and Kate plus 8, ABC Wide world of Sports, HBO, CBS Sports, ESPN, Resident Life, History Channel, MTV, Food Network, A&E, Mercedes Benz, Saturn, Burger King, McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, Radio Shack, Big Brother/Sisters, Elmer's Glue, Kohls, and many others. In 2014, Weinkauf released “No School Today.” The album's first single "Champion of the Spelling Bee" went to #1 on Sirius XM Kids Place Live. In October of 2014 Weinkauf released his first holiday single called "Wonderful Christmas Day" as a digital release.