Louis Epstein and Dan Groll

The Odd Couple

By David Schimke
Louis & Dan make meaningful, laugh-out-loud children’s music with their Invisible Band.

Collaboration thrives on difference. Just ask Louis Epstein and Daniel Groll, cofounders of Louis & Dan and the Invisible Band, a Northfield-based duo who pen and perform songs for children ages 3 to 10.

On stage, in studio settings, and during casual conversation, Epstein—a professor of music at St. Olaf—plays the straight man, as well as keys, clarinet, accordion, melodica, and tambourine. Reared on musical theater and armed with a PhD in historical musicology, he has a penchant for “pungent harmonies” and began arranging “tuneful parodies” in high school. He also has a knack for the sort of scatological humor that little kids crave, but instinctually avoids potentially suggestive (or just plain gross) subject matter. “I don’t want parents to have a moment of hesitation playing our music,” he says. “What that means is that I can sometimes be a bit overly conservative.”

Groll, who teaches philosophy at Carleton, was weaned on indie rock and roll. A guitarist and drummer, he approaches the creative process like a solo singer-songwriter. He also enjoys cutting up for maximum effect. When publicity shots were taken to promote their eponymously titled CD, for instance, the twosome wore T-shirts and stood side by side for a waist-up portrait. Epstein is expressionless. Groll has a finger up his nose.

“There’s a lot of productive creative tension,” Epstein says with a chuckle. “And to me that’s part of the process. It’s like I teach my students: Nothing happens in a vacuum. You’re always building on others’ ideas. And those ideas are going to be stronger if they’re tested.”

An eclectic collection of 12 original songs—neither too gratuitous nor overly cautious—Louis & Dan’s CD eschews the oftentimes sugary, overproduced conventions of the children’s category for a homespun sound and rhythmic diversity that many parents and older siblings will also find infectious (especially if they’re into groups like They Might Be Giants or Ween).

A marching tuba and battling trombones keep the title track bouncing along like a clown car. “Yupster Food Song” is all hand claps and synchronized harmonies until a cherry-on-top, stadium-ready guitar riff blasts off and brings things into “Hot Dog.” The ballad “Desperado Clio” sounds as if it were written for a G-rated spaghetti western. And along the way, young listeners, who are invited to giggle at the misadventures of “Rodents,” are taught that girls are just as capable as boys (“What Do Princesses Do?”) and individuality is worthy of celebration (“Big Eared Boy”).

“We have a had people come up to us at live shows and say that their kids like to listen to certain songs over and over again, and that’s super gratifying,” Groll says. “The thing about kids is that if they say they’re enjoying something, they’re enjoying it. No one is showing up to be friendly.”

Those who have yet to hear Louis & Dan can download the CD on Bandcamp or check concert dates and stream tunes at their website, which features a short artists’ bio that, like the music itself, is both wry and charming:

“Louis and Dan live across the street from each other in Northfield, Minnesota. . . . Louis lives on the south side of the street. Dan lives on the north side of the street. . . . Louis is short. Dan is tall. Louis is young. Dan is old. Louis is handsome. Dan is really handsome. By rights they should be mortal enemies. But really, they’re best friends who . . . will have children and adults alike dancing, singing, and acting like squirrels.”


 

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