For seven years now, the Sandbox kids and family band has been a mainstay of Triangle festivals and family stages with their folksy take on classic children's songs, upbeat originals and back-and-forth banter that cracks the parents up.
Jeff Morats, who founded the band, said that in the beginning he didn't think Sandbox would do much more than play at kids parties.
"I didn't really have many expectations," he said.
In reality, it's been a big seven years. The group has played those private parties. But they've also performed at the Shakori Hills Festival, Red Hat Amphitheater, Koka Booth Amphitheater, Morehead Planetarium, the N.C. Museum of Art and Go Ask Mom's events at North Hills (surely a career highlight).
They've been busy in the recording studio too. The band has come out with their fourth album, all original music, called "Rubber Chicken Rock."
It all started when Morats and co-worker Frank Tuttle started talked about playing music for kids. The group eventually formed through various connections - work, graduate school, and Craigslist.
It originally included Morats on bass and vocals; Ed Hoffman and Tuttle on guitar and vocals; and Chris Bean on percussion and vocals. All had played in different bands and, at the time, with the exception of Hoffman, had kids of their own.
Pat Hicks, who plays mandolin and dobro, came along soon after when, as Morats said, the band decided it "would be good to have an actual musician."
"They settled for me," Hicks quickly adds. And then the discussion broke down into a joke about how Sandbox won Hicks after a "rumble" with the band he previously played with.
That banter on display at their concerts is no show. They're actually like that all of the time.
"We all have a really good time cracking each other up," Hicks said.
Today, all five are dads. Hoffman and his wife welcomed a little girl a year ago. There are now 11 kids between them - ages 1 to 25. Hoffman said parenthood will likely change the way he writes music for kids. He better understands the emotions, good times and hard times.
"I understand the challenges a little bit better," said Hoffman, who already has recorded some lullabies he's written for his daughter. "I imagine I'll have a different view now."
The band's recordings starting with "Kid Songs," a collection of traditional children's songs such as "The Eensy Weensy Spider" and "Skip to My Lou," all with some country or rock and roll touches.
Next came the holiday album "Snow Day" with classics such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and two originals. Stefan Shepherd, who runs the national children's music review blog Zooglobble, called it "Southern fried Americana."
"Are We There Yet" followed with 16 originals. (House favorites would be "PB Jam" and "Pajama Party"). It's a mix of all kinds of musical genres - from the folksy to rock and roll and power pop. It got national recognition too. This time from Warren Truitt of Kids' Music That Rocks, who called it a "fun, sweet and silly album."
"Rubber Chicken Rock" is another collection of originals - written by Morats, Bean and Hoffman.
There's "Hem and Haw" about not being able to make up your mind. "Meltdown" about tantrums. "Why?" is based on that endless question from kids. "Missing Piece," a sweet, slow song, is dedicated to those puzzle builders, model makers and game enthusiasts who always end up missing a piece of that 1,000-piece kit. And there's "Rock Song," which is an actual rock song about actual rocks.
It's a really fun album with original takes on classic parenting moments. You can almost hear the frustration in Morats' voice as he sings about the "Missing Piece." And I know I've totally been in the same place as Bean, who writes in "Meltdown" that "you can't hold me down or turn me around." So true.
"Our writing has matured a lot," Bean said. "We really like the song craft now. That's one of the best parts for me."
What's more, the music is complex. We're not talking easy chord progressions and simple sing-song melodies. Sandbox can rock and, as they always have, make sense out of a variety of musical genres. That makes Sandbox and this album fun for kids and parents.
Of course, not everything here is complex.
"There was a lot of thought in the lyrics like "bok, bok, bok," Morats said in the best serious face he can muster.
Indeed, there is the "Dance of the Rubber Chickens," a song with lyrics written by Morats where the band "boks" pretty much the entire way through.
My kids immediately started singing it as soon as they heard it. But it's fun too.
The band will officially release its new CD at a release party from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., July 28, at Fletcher Park in Raleigh. They also will be playing a Kids Party in the lobby of the Durham Performing Arts Center on June 22 as part of the American Dance Festival's kids series. And you can see them this August at Go Ask Mom's event at the Midtown Farmers' Market at North Hills on Aug. 31.
For more from the guys, watch the video where they sing "Hem and Haw" and joke around, as expected.
For the latest about the band, check their website.
Go Ask Mom usually features local moms on Mondays. In June, in honor of Father's Day, we're featuring local dads.