Meet TeleBear's Summer Jammers: Key Wilde

Posted by Gerard Longo on

Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke have been playing music together since 1990. Since then, they’ve taken a variety of influences and have brought them together to create unique, fun children’s music.

Key Wilde took some time out to answer questions in advance of the duo’s opening performance at TeleBear’s Summer Jam, sponsored by Air Products and UGI, on Wednesday, August 10 from 2-4 p.m. on the Air Products Tell Me More Stage at PBS39.

You guys have been playing together for more than 25 years. Tell us how you got started as a duo. 
I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and had been performing my original songs at clubs in the East Village and some of the old folk venues near MacDougal St. I was thinking about forming another bluegrass band, but I really wanted to focus on my own material. I responded to an ad Mr. Clarke placed in the Village Voice looking for a collaborator interested in writing songs and singing harmony. He was living nearby in Greenpoint, so we started playing together. I liked his songs and he liked my songs, we shared a twisted sense of humor, and we sang harmony well together. 

Your influences are among the most diverse you’ll find in music. You draw from everything from punk and hardcore, to bluegrass. What was it like to marry those styles together? 
We both liked a certain style of music discovered through different sources. In addition to bluegrass, I really loved the late 70’s bands like The Clash, Ramones, Elvis Costello. Fast, upbeat music with an emphasis on harmonies. Clarke liked the 80’s hardcore bands – also very upbeat, but noisier. I introduced him to Country Blues and the Everly Brothers. He introduced me to the folk music of the British Isles. We both loved the Beatles. When we first started out, we were both playing acoustic guitars with no rhythm section so, to give our sound some range and variety, we drew from all of our influences. Someone early on described us as Syd Barrett meets Hank Williams, and that sounded like a good thing. 

You weren’t always children’s performers. Tell us about some of the bands you were in during a past life.
I played in a bluegrass band called the Rank Strangers, and Mr. Clarke led a hardcore band called Boring Sponge. When we started out together as an acoustic duo, we called ourselves “Key and Ric,” and later, “Reak and Stump.” We performed all over the East Village, and were regular performers at a great bar called Sunny’s in Red Hook, Brooklyn where we were onstage from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. After a couple of years, Mr. Clarke switched to electric guitar, and we eventually added bass and drums.

What led you to focus your efforts on making family-friendly tunes? 
The biggest factor was the birth of my daughter in 1997. I couldn’t stay out until 2 a.m. playing music anymore, but I really enjoyed staying home with the baby. When she started attending a cooperative preschool, I ended up being the guy with the guitar leading the singing. I found that the kids responded more to my quirky original tunes than the standard kid fare. I just needed to clean up the language a little, and I had a complete repertoire. Mr. Clarke had been teaching in the New York City public schools for years at that point, so it wasn’t too hard getting him on board.

You guys make an effort to keep things light and humorous in your music. Why is that important to you?
If you can make an audience laugh, they will be more open to everything else you do. When we started out playing open mics in folk clubs, we would often have to follow long-winded folk singers who seemed to use their allotted time as a ten-minute therapy session. We would hit the stage with something upbeat, funny, and totally unexpected, and wake up the audience.

You’re also a skilled visual artist. Tell us how you have incorporated your artwork within the duo’s music? 
We’ve always had a Do-It-Yourself attitude, and I have created images to go with the music from the beginning. Gig flyers, cassette covers, postcard mailers – all that stuff. We often create characters in our songs, and I love bringing the characters to life in a visual form. Songs often start out with a visual character in mind. When we perform at schools and indoor venues, projected images are an integral part of the show. I have also created animated videos for many of our songs, and have started making videos for other Kindie artists including Dean Jones and Alastair Moock. One of my videos has more than two million views on YouTube, so that’s a great way to reach people all over the world.

How did you first hear about the opportunity to perform at TeleBear’s Summer Jam?
My friend Kira Willey told me about the series and invited us to be a part of it. We have appeared as special guests at each other’s live shows for a few years now. I love her music, and she has a large, devoted following in Bethlehem. We were both very disappointed to see the kids’ concerts phased out at Musikfest, so this is an exciting opportunity.

You’ll open TeleBear’s Summer Jam for us on Wednesday, August 10 from 2-4 p.m. on PBS39’s Air Products Tell Me More Stage. What can those in attendance expect from your performance?
They can expect fun, rocking, upbeat tunes! I hope the audience comes prepared to laugh, sing along, move around and be part of the show. We will introduce them to some animal characters – real and imagined – and even show them how we make up a song. The main goal is to have fun and enjoy the day together.

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