What do you do when you love playing rock music, but you can't sacrifice a family for the risk of the road? Install a crib and playpen on the tour bus? Sure, if you're making that sort of money. Record for a major label from a home studio and refuse to tour? Hilarious. Or you could do what the four men in Sandbox do: Play children's music and love it.
Sandbox plays the songs we've known since childhood in a style we've liked since college. Upbeat and catchy, mixing elements of folk and country with rock music, Sandbox springs tempo shifts and front-porch acoustic guitar into favorites like "The Alphabet Song." They soak "Skip to My Lou" and "On Top of Spaghetti" with harmonies and playfulness. Still, while bassist Jeff Morats, percussionist Chris Bean, and guitarists Ed Hoffman and Frank Tuttle make kids songs sound like grown-up rock, they insist they worry mostly about impressing the young ones.
"The first time that we did a show, we were scared stiff," says Morats, himself a father of two preschool boys. "These little people in front of us, children, are the most honest audience out there. If they don't like it, they'll walk away or completely ignore you. They're not going to clap politely."
Sandbox sprang from a question, remembers Morats: "How can we do something, both playing music and doing something that's accessible to the families, that you're able to share with the family at a reasonable hour?" Now, instead of playing smoky bars late at night, they can be found outdoors in the sunshine or at birthday parties, passing out shakers—"basically water bottles full of rice"—so their younger fans can get in on the music.
"The key for kids is the interaction," says Morats. "That's one thing that we really try to focus on." The members of Sandbox do the Hokey Pokey with the kids, and during "Old McDonald," the singing stops long enough for the listeners to shout out the names of their favorite animals.
Morats is quick to mention that Sandbox appreciates its adult fans, too. He talks about parents who wander by when Sandbox is onstage, often lingering and listening to the rest of the set. Morats attributes this to the timelessness of the songs, but there's something else at work here. Instead of merely offering standard rock 'n' roll renditions of kids classics, they add what Hoffman calls their own "sort of spin" to each track. The stylistic variations in their songs come largely from the band members' individual tastes and experiences: Morats played in a Portland, Ore., pop-punk rock band called Mother's Choice, while Tuttle most recently played in a Chapel Hill jam band. Hoffman, formerly of longtime Raleigh folk favorite Tuckered, says he prefers jazz and bluegrass: "I love bluegrass music. We sort of borrow a little bit from bluegrass here and there."
The band agrees that mixing their sounds is important for both halves of their audience. "The parents end up having to listen to this stuff over and over again when the kids like it," Hoffman says. "It's important for us that the kids like it first, but we also want the adults not to go into shock."
Hoffman hopes that Sandbox can continue to bridge that stylistic gusto with that timeless appeal when they begin to introduce more original tunes into sets. The band is working on original material now, inspired in part by the success of No!, the 2002 kids album from They Might Be Giants, a long-running, Grammy-nominated, quirky New York band.
But the guys of Sandbox aren't necessarily looking to give up their day jobs. This is still fun. In fact, when they try to decide who's having more fun, the band or the kids, Hoffman takes the easy (and likely correct) answer: "It's probably a tie. Hopefully the kids but probably us."