The Kids Are All Right

Baltimore Band Switches Gears (and Lyrics) To Provide Hard Rock For The Younger Set

July 19, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

For years, the Dirty Marmaduke Flute Squad has thrilled and repulsed audiences with its absurd brand of over-the-top hard rock.

The five guys in the Baltimore band wear outrageous costumes (like a giant horse head and a mad scientist outfit) and sing songs that are aggressively inappropriate. But after gigging around the region for a couple of years and releasing the album Die Humpin!, the band members felt like they'd hit a wall. They could only play the same Baltimore venues so many times, guitarist Ryan Graham said. The band needed a new audience.

Then, Graham and the rest of the gang had an idea: They would keep playing as DMFS, but also form their own hard-rock children's band on the side. They christened this new project the Hilltop Hightops, recorded an album of children's tunes and started booking shows around town.

"We already had the costumes," Graham said. "We just thought we could probably play for more appreciative audiences, for more venues, make more money and have a good time playing the music we like."

To form the Hilltop Hightops, the DMFS gang kept the outrageous costumes and the hard-rock tunes, and added a member, drummer Lisa Lunt. (DMFS doesn't have a drummer; they use a drum machine when they play live.) All they changed were their notoriously nasty lyrics. The result is a transformation Graham and his bandmates hope is so absurd it works.

In a matter of months, the DMFS squad has gone from lewd to lovable, from gross to giggle-inducing. Their debut album, Super Galactic Space Banana, just came out. And while they've barely played live as the Hilltop Hightops, they have big hopes that their new project will be a hit with the knee-high set.

Brian Shupe, co-owner of the 8x10 in Federal Hill, thinks the Hilltop Hightops are going to be a smash. He got to know the guys in DMFS when they played at his club a couple of months ago. He's never seen the Hilltop Hightops, but based on what he knows of DMFS, he's more than willing to give the new project a ringing endorsement.

"When you're dealing with five children anyway, I don't think playing to an audience of toddlers is hard to imagine," he said. "Their talent as musicians is only equaled by their sense of humor."

Retooling the DMFS tracks with new lyrics was harder than it sounds, singer and guitarist Nikc Miller said. Morphing DMFS into the Hilltop Hightops presented its own set of challenges.

"It's like starting a whole new band again," Miller said. "Even though the songs are similar, it's truly like starting from scratch."

For example, the DMFS track "You're Too Skinny" turned into "I Like Kitties." The lines "You're too skinny / Don't be shy / Eat some pie" became "I like Kitties / He likes dogs / She likes frogs."

Still, swapping out DMFS' decidedly dirty lyrics for the warm, cuddly Hilltop Hightop tunes wasn't all that easy for singer Steve Thomas. When he was in the recording studio, it took him a while to get used to the new lyrics.

"I couldn't help but giggle," Thomas said. "I had tears rolling down my cheeks because I was laughing so much trying to sing these songs with a straight face. It was ridiculous."

The transformation wasn't without its casualties. Percussionist Mike Bennett refused to join the Hilltop Hightops, and though he still performs with DMFS, he doesn't want any part of the new children's band.

"I just like being vulgar," Bennett said. "I can't not be vulgar. That's the thing. Curse words. I love them. I can't stop saying them. Kids are great. They're cool. They make me smile and stuff. But not as much as cursing."

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Nora Moynihan, director of education and community enrichment for Port Discovery, the children's museum in Power Plant Live, said she'd never heard of a hard-rock children's band before. And she's booked dozens of children's bands at the museum, from reggae acts to folk performers.

When Moynihan wants to book a children's band at Port Discovery, she considers a few qualifications.

"Is it family-oriented music?" she said. "Is it music that's reaching children? ... The bottom line is, what's it teaching the kids and what's it doing with the kids?"

Children can learn from most of the Hilltop Hightops' music, Graham said. Their song "Look Around" is all about the fun things kids can do outside - instead of sitting indoors playing video games. "Fly to the Moon" is based on the first moon landing, and has dates and astronauts' names in it, he said.

"We're all pretty smart people and don't like to have our intellect insulted," Graham said. "We wouldn't do that to children, either."

The Hilltop Hightops might be making music for kids. But Graham thinks parents might like it, too.

"It's still hard-rock music," Graham said. "It's not like we went Wiggles and dumbed it down to horrible pop folk, or whatever they play. Yet. Well, if we have to, we will."

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