Miniature Horses and Underestimated Instruments

Bay and miniature horse in field in ArlingtonLeft: Guitar. Right: Ukulele

We’ve got a few Castaways-isms, phrases we throw around when we’re talking band business. Two are most common.

There’s “It’s bigger than a hat shop,” which refers to the tiny space at Goorin Brothers Hats in Seattle’s University District where we played a show in Spring 2012. When we’re describing new stages, we’ll say things like, “Oh, it’s about the size of a hat shop,” for a small space and “It’s way bigger than a hat shop” for a big stage. We were there, we know what we mean.

And there’s “It’s miniature horses all over again.” In July, 2012, we played a street fair on Madison and during our set, a woman walked by leading two miniature horses. We were all confused by this sight, we stared, some of us lost our places (that’d be me, for sure) and no doubt you could see our surprise on our faces. I turned to Ed and said, “Did you see that? Am I high?” “Well, if you are, I am too. Tiny horses, right?”

But we are actually very familiar with that expression, you see, we get it all the time. Someone will hear us playing, look at what we’re playing, and… there it is. They’re trying to do the math. That guy is sitting on a box but it sounds like a full drum kit. The rest of those people — wait, those are ALL ukuleles, even the bass? That song is… no way, they are not doing Twisted Sister. That is not Ozzy Osbourne. That’s totally a Madonna song, what the hell?

Sometimes they’ll walk right up in front of us, stare at Pete’s cajon, scan the ukuleles, and shake their heads. Then they’ll stand at the back of the room, gawking, while we finish out our set. And the whole time, plastered on their faces… it’s miniature horses all over again.

Mark and I carpool to band practice and we’ve been talking about changing the band’s tagline from “We play ukulele music” to “Seattle’s loudest ukulele band,” a revision on a moniker given to us by Todd Bishop of Geekwire during a radio interview we did after playing the Geekwire Gala.  Todd introduced us as the world’s loudest ukulele band, but our fact checkers couldn’t confirm or deny that. “We’ll go with Seattle’s loudest, the world is a big place.”

“We play ukulele music, it’s not what you think” expresses very accurately what we do, but we wonder if we’re struggling with a marketing problem, if we are, perhaps missing out on gigs because people associate the ukulele with a very specific style of music. And that style is not nitro fueled rock and roll. They read our tag line, they see our pictures, and they go right back to thinking that we’ll be an acoustic act that’s kind of mellow, in short, they do not expect us to rock.

We’ve given some thought to how we can fix this, but a recent visit with a friend made me think that it’s not the band’s problem so much as it’s the ukulele’s well established reputation. I had explained very directly to my friend that we were a rock band, that we play rock and roll. Then, during the break at the show he attended, he said, “I kind of expected something more… acoustic. You don’t do any Hawaiian? I thought you’d be more mellow.” “Dude,” I said, “I told you. We. Rock.” “Yeah you do,” he said. “I didn’t expect that.”

We’re just pushing the uke, and you know what? The uke kind of loves it. We certainly do. And we love to see that look of amazement in the crowd, it makes us happy. But we’re not sure how to break preconceptions about the ukulele. We are a ukulele band. We are also a rock band. You could dress us all in flip flops and aloha shirts and we’d still be a rock band. The uke, even with its booming popularity, is still underestimated.

It’s miniature horses all over again.

Photo by Derrick Coetzee via Flickr (Creative Commons)