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In the 10 years since the Doo-Dads arrived, the subculture has arguably become a nationwide musical force, and Kansas City has played a crucial role. After the band Recess Monkey played Jiggle Jam, the band members returned to Seattle and helped start something that Jeni Cosgrove calls "the only scene comparable to Kansas City's in terms of collaboration." In 2002, the Austin Kiddie Limits festival began in Texas. In 2005, one of the organizers of Kindiefest, a national music conference, joined forces with Perry Farrell to create Kidzapalooza.
When another icon of KC children's music, Krista Eyler (aka Funky Mama), is asked about the Doo-Dads, she further proves the Cosgroves' point. "I love the Doo-Dads!" she says. "Their music is so unique, and the musicianship of their rock and roll is some of the best in the kindie world nationwide. Doo-Dad Ken [who also heads up the accomplished instrumental trio OJT] is probably one of the top two organists in Kansas City, if not the best, and adds such spice to their songs. All the guys are gifted musically."
Kesler's wife, Lendy, says, "Getting drawn into the kids' music thing has been a blast, a great experience for everyone involved. I love the fact that the scene is growing and the possibilities are endless. It's fun seeing some of the kids, who were die-hard fans of the Doo-Dads from the early days, now that they're in middle school and high school. We'll see them at one of [daughter] Audrey's basketball games or at the store or some band concert, and they'll recognize Matt immediately and be a little shy but really thrilled to see him."
A child's life can be a dark and lonely place. Five minutes of perceived abandonment feels like eternity. Such is the truth addressed by the Doo-Dads' new single, "Hey, Mr. Robot."
That theme lies just under the surface in several of the group's songs, especially "Mama Be Right Back" and the Alejandro Escovedo-sung "Forever I Love You." This time, over a spooky mix, the tale is of a child whose robot best friend dives to the bottom of a swimming pool and refuses to come up.
Niewald says, "We started looking at people like Mr. Rogers, who, in retrospect, appealed to us because of the kind of groundbreaking things he did. Like, he brought the subject of death to his audience, and the way he explained it was really honest. As we were progressing with the band, we agreed: Let's not be too sugarcoated."
The Doo-Dads' own story is far from sugarcoated.
"We had big-time doses of life hitting us," Niewald recalls of the year before the Doo-Dads' formation. In 1999, Jim Strahm (Kesler's partner at the music store Midwestern Musical Co., as well as Niewald and Gose's former bandmate in Absolute Ceiling and Gose's fellow Saddlemen member) was diagnosed with throat cancer.
"Joe and Matt sat in with the Bindlestiffs," Niewald explains. "There was a brotherhood of bands, and Jim was always part of that. We were all really close."
"It was intense," Kesler adds, "because he didn't tell anybody much besides us. He didn't want to stress out his parents. It started out, they were going on a vacation, and then it was almost Christmas and he didn't want to ruin Christmas."
At the time, both Kesler's and Niewald's wives were pregnant. That December, the women wound up in adjoining rooms at the hospital, Kesler's daughter and Niewald's youngest son born just a couple of days apart. Grand Emporium owner Roger Naber dropped by with champagne. Within five months, Strahm would be gone.