Though they sound like something that might spawn a sharknado, all Kris Hensler and Kenny Taylor are fishing for is giving kids a good time.
Atomic Sharks is what the Fort Wayne duo call their new ukulele act aimed squarely at the 3-to-13 set.
It’s a huge trend for performers to put out music for kids that doesn’t sound like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ but sounds more like adult music, says Hensler, a 51-year-old veteran of area bar bands.
Technically, we’re aimed at kids, but the music is not designed to be strictly for kids, he explains. It has kid-friendly lyrics and that sort of thing, but we want also to play toward adults, so they can be there and tap their feet and sing along and such.
Hensler considers the act part of a burgeoning kindie movement – a combination of kids and indie – music for children that’s not corporately homogenized, such as you get with Disney tunes.
For the Sharks, he says, that means an island vibe that’s beachy, not preachy.
One number, Catch That Wave, is about surfing. Sail Away is about running away and joining a band – of pirates, not punk rockers. Chicken Chimichanga tells the tale of a shark who gets tired of eating the same fish for dinner every day.
Zombie Hula is – well, use your imagination, Hensler says. Kids do, at the drop of a (beach) hat.
I thought there are a lot of songs to teach kids to count to 10 and do the alphabet. I don’t have to cover that again, Hensler says, and there are a lot of songs that try to teach little life lessons.
Ours are more low key. They’re just about having fun.
But there’s also a serious side to the duo, both parents themselves.
The Sharks try to add a bit of music education to their shows as ambassadors for the sometimes scorned and oft-misunderstood ukulele.
Early on, they approached the Hala brand of ukuleles as a potential sponsor. The company now provides several ukuleles designed for children so Hensler and Taylor can teach lessons with the instruments after shows.
We do these ukulele sessions, and one thing I tell parents is that I can get them playing something in 10 minutes, and that’s hard to say with any other instruments, Hensler says.
The unfortunate thing about a lot of kids when they try to learn an instrument is they get discouraged and frustrated early on. The ukulele gives them a sense of accomplishment, and they’ll go on. It’s a good bridge instrument.
He stresses that the ukulele is a legitimate player on the music scene, not a toy.
You can play anything on the ukulele that you can play on any instrument, he says, citing Taylor as an example.
He calls the 53-year-old, who teaches guitar and banjo at Sweetwater Sound, an accomplished ukulele player.
With a long history of playing other stringed instruments with area bands, including The Red Belly Boys in the late 1980s, Taylor was very fired up about the ukulele being used, Hensler says.
He says the switch to children’s music was, in part, motivated by a desire to get out of playing in bars.
As we started having kids, it became more and more difficult to stay up till 3 a.m. playing clubs, he says. Kids get up at 6 a.m., no matter what.
Hensler started by improvising songs for his daughter to help her get to sleep. Then he got the idea for a children’s band, named Madeline’s Toybox after his daughter. Now attending Fort Wayne Community Schools’ arts magnet school at Weisser Park Elementary, she sometimes helps with shows.
Next, Hensler says, he got a hankering for island music and started writing more songs in that vein. He was influenced by a short time he spent in Key West in the early ’80s.
It’s very much an island lifestyle, and that got me into island music, Hensler says.
I’ve been a big fan of rock n’ roll my whole life, but when you get older’ you want to stop and smell the roses more, I guess, and the older I get, the more I like island music.
The Atomic Sharks have been in existence about a year, Hensler says, with most of that time spent writing original music.
At present, the Sharks don’t have recordings, choosing only to perform live – perhaps soon with a breathing version of their ukulele-strumming shark logo, Hensler says.
He and Taylor build a lot of interactive elements, including singalongs and limbo dances, into shows, which have shorter songs to cater to kids’ shorter attention spans.
You’ve got to be very cautious with it, he says. The typical pop song is 3 1/2 minutes, and we try to keep ours to 2 1/2 minutes, and that goes for the length of the show as well. We don’t go beyond 40 minutes.
Kids do have to be engaged, and want to be engaged, Hensler adds. They don’t want to just sit there and watch.
Atomic Sharks play at kid-friendly venues, including festivals, museums and libraries, which book the Hawaiian-shirted, straw-hatted pair as part of tropical- or animal-themed events.
Upcoming performances will be at the Three Rivers Festival in July and Explorer Day on June 7, an inaugural children’s festival sponsored by WFWA PBS39, where Hensler works as director of programming.
The Sharks’ next appearance is Saturday during Beatlefest.
The group also might have an upcoming gig at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, after Hensler and Taylor met Jack Hanna, the zoo’s TV-hopping director emeritus, during his recent sold-out speaking engagement at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert.
Hensler, who played in the rock and ’80s new wave band Agency, says his long years playing in bars were not wasted.
Indeed, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he compares the kids in Sharks’ audiences with slightly tipsy adults.
They’re uninhibited, he says of the kids. Sometimes you’ll have little ones just walk up on stage and start dancing with you. That’s the fun part.
They’re just like a little drunk person onstage.