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Interview with Joe Mailander of Grammy nominee the Okee Dokee Brothers

Joe Mailander of the Okee Dokee Brothers chats about finding inspiration on a Mississippi River canoe trip with his (faux) brother and by playing to NYC crowds.

The Okee Dokee Brothers

The Okee Dokee Brothers Photograph: Alex Johnson

Although this young bluegrass duo hails from Denver by way of Minneapolis, New York families may recall stomping their feet to the Okee Dokees’ upbeat tunes at venues like Symphony Space and the Bell House. Childhood friends Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing (they’re not actually brothers!) sowed the seeds for their third album, Can You Canoe?, as they paddled down the Mississippi River—all the way from their Minnesota hometown to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis—in June 2011. The pair’s Huck Finn–like journey has inspired a whole albumful of songs that transcend standard kiddie fare to examine relationships and what it means to be one with nature: facing the elements in a camping tent, dealing with mosquitoes and dreaming of New York City through the lens of a “Bullfrog Opera.” We caught up with Mailander to chat about the duo’s inspirations and Grammy preparations.

Within hours of the nominations being announced, you made a joke on Facebook about looking for a plaid tuxedo. Have you decided on an outfit for your inaugural red carpet walk?
Since we don’t know anything about these formalities, we asked Bill Harley’s opinion; he said if we want to blend in and not get hassled too much, a tuxedo is a safe bet. We’re into classic fashion anyway, so we’ll probably wear tuxes. We won’t be pulling a “Gaga,” that’s for sure!

How would you describe the Okee Dokee Brothers’ sound?

Lyrically, we draw from an Americana tradition, filling in with a modern take on archetypal stories and adventures as they relate to families. We go for simple music that holds depth within a historical perspective and pays homage to the natural world.

How much of the material on Can You Canoe? is derived directly from your own childhood memories?
The main inspiration comes from our shared childhood: taking hikes with our families and going on adventures with each other as kids. Our vivid memories of those experiences form the backbone of many of the songs. Moments from our current lives factor into them too, like our canoe trip down the Mississippi. We also draw from literature, and what we think are overarching themes that connect people to each other.

What is your favorite song on Can You Canoe?

In “Thousand Star Hotel,” there’s a moment when we’re laying back and looking up at the stars, then the sky opens up and we see a thousand stars. It starts with a simple banjo and voice and only three lines of lyrics, and that builds and builds. What is so cool about the song is that your imagination parallels the expansion in sound. Your mind opens up while looking up at the stars—but it can’t stay open for too long because there is so much to take in, and you come back down to earth with the music, returning to that simple banjo and voice at the end.

Has performing live for families in New York City helped to shape your sound?

Definitely. Playing in NYC has been really good for us. We went through a progression of playing Brooklyn shows and other East Coast venues, and realized that it was different than the crowds we played to in the Midwest. We thought we had to amp up the coolness, but we quickly realized that that isn’t what kids or families care about, and that you can’t be a fake. Playing in the big city has taught us to find out who we are and make that work. The biggest lesson is that what really works is universal, and that is authenticity. 

Who are you most excited to meet during Grammy weekend?
I am really excited to meet the Pop Ups, and to hang out with Liz Mitchell and Bill Harley. It will be nice to have friends and kindred spirits at this big crazy circus, where we can find comfort and shelter within our “competitors.” There is talk about walking down the red carpet as a team, a kindie team, instead of solo.

Who would you thank first in your acceptance speech?

It’s got to be our families. That is what we are all here for. Our parents always encouraged us from a really young age. We’re trying to pass that on to our fans, that same encouragement, sense of adventure and support of creativity that our parents gave us. We’re trying to convey to kids through our albums that it is okay to dream big, have crazy ideas of adventures, and play music and dance with your family.

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