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Interview with Grammy nominee the Pop Ups

Brooklyn’s the Pop Ups dish on their signature puppet rock sound, their Grammy preparations and how they got their start as kids’ musicians.

The Pop Ups

The Pop Ups Photograph: Eric Waterman

The Pop Ups are one of many kindie bands to call Brooklyn home—not surprisingly, since the borough boasts some of the scene’s leading venues (the Bell House, Littlefield, Brooklyn Bowl) and concert series (Hip Tot, Jam on Dumbo, Kidrockers). The duo of Jacob Stein and Jason Rabinowitz exploded onto the scene in 2010 with Outside Voices, an ambitious electronic-based debut album that raised the bar for modern children’s music. Since then, the Brooklyn duo has played tons of family concerts around the city (they headlined Time Out Kids2012 Fall Kids Fest!) and even starred in the puppet musical Pasta! at Culture Project. Their sophomore album, the Grammy-nominated Radio Jungle, features a bevy of dance hall–worthy tracks that take on the wonders of childhood, from animals and colors to the night sky and big-city life. Stein and Rabinowitz give us the scoop on their unique sound and why they’re looking forward to the Grammys.

Who will be joining you in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards?
Jason My wife and our 5½-month old baby girl will be coming out with us; it’ll be the baby’s first plane ride.
Jacob My family lives in Los Angeles, so my parents, my brother and his wife will be at the ceremony. I’ll have a lot of support.

What will you be wearing?

Jason We don’t know yet. We’ve given it some thought and have reached out to some designers actually and it’s all…well, we’re working on it. We are going to try to skirt the edge of formal. We like that it is black-tie but will get some of our personality into it too.
Jacob I’ll be wearing my beard!

Describe the sound of the Pop Ups.
Jason We describe it as puppet rock, and sometimes we say we’re genre-hopping funk stars who don’t really do funk. Maybe high-80’s pop, but that doesn’t encompass too much. Let’s settle on genre-hopping puppet rock that always has a beat.

Where do you look for musical inspiration?
Jacob What’s most exciting right now for me is that I’m no longer pulling from my own childhood but am drawing on what’s interesting to me at this moment. On the last couple songs we’ve written, I threw in references to what I’m reading and a beard I just grew [for the band’s new song and video “Winter Beard”]. It is really enjoyable because I am able to include whatever I want and whatever I am thinking about.
Jason That has been our ethos in this project from the beginning: writing songs without blinders on. It is all based on working closely enough with kids that that part is natural. We don’t write down to children. They can listen to anything and everything and come along for the ride, so we are trying to be edifying and not just palatable.

What is your favorite song on Radio Jungle?

Jason “Box of Crayons” is pretty awesome and “Connect the Stars” has a special place in my heart.
Jacob “Feelings Change” and “Elephant” have some exciting parts. I enjoy those songs sonically a lot. And they don’t get as much attention—they’re the two songs on the record that aren’t in our live show.

Who are you most excited to meet during Grammy weekend?
Jason Jack Black! Tenacious D is up for best comedy album. He came to see the Broadway show I was in [One Man, Two Guvnors] and I ran into him. He was such a nice guy.
Jacob I’d like to meet Lena Dunham. Her boyfriend is in the band Fun. But I don’t know if they are going to be mingling around at the pre-telecast.

If you win, who is the first person you’ll thank in your acceptance speech?

Jason Speaking for both of us, definitely the first person we’d thank is my wife, Jessica. She’s been putting up with us constantly for years now, living in her house, eating her food.
Jacob She makes really good sandwiches. She has to put up with our shenanigans day in and day out, and does so with a smile and much grace.

If not you, then who are you rooting for?
Jason Everybody brings a different thing to the table. It is an awesome group of talent and sounds. I like them all.

How did you hear about your nomination?

Jason Jessica, my wife, kept refreshing the page on the computer, and then we saw Can You Canoe? and scrolled down a few more inches [and saw Radio Jungle] and all the blood rushed out of my body and I turned into Jell-O. I couldn’t believe it! Then I called Jacob, who thought I was punking him.
Jacob He was screaming and saying we got nominated for a Grammy and I said, “No we didn’t.” But then I found it online and started screaming too.

What’s your onstage Grammy nightmare?
Jason Totally bungling the speech and being a blithering moron up there.
Jacob We played in front of 5,000 to 6,000 people in our first show for the Super Music Friends segment of the Yo Gabba Gabba tour, and a piece of our equipment broke. The wire of our sampler got taught, then it fell and got smashed up. Jason screamed, “What do you mean, it’s not going to work?” to the techie who was trying to explain what had happened, into a suddenly silent arena with his microphone on. That was our very first show. After that, nothing can faze us on any stage.

Since then, you’ve played a lot of shows for families in New York City. How have they shaped your sound?
Jason They are up for anything. They have an excited energy—we always know that we can push to whatever edge there could be in a performance for families, and they’ll be interested in coming along for the ride.

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