Poochamungas Performs Tot-Friendly Tunes Without Sacrificing Soul
John Joyce didn’t start playing guitar until he was 30 years old. When he picked the instrument up, his daughter was two. As he began learning songs, he also started writing his own. Having his daughter nearby during that time, the words he started writing lent themselves to children, and with that in mind, Poochamungas came to life.
The five-piece Chicago band performs lively rock tunes that appeal to audiences of any age. “The philosophy is, you write great music targeting families,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be child-driven, just child-friendly, so kids and parents can rock out, enjoy, and don’t have to worry.”
The members, Joyce (rhythm guitar, vocals, harmonica), Pete Cunningham (lead guitar), Frank Izzo (drums), Don Zaloudek (bass), and Alton Smith (keys), range in age from 45 to 60 and work as firefighters, postal workers, and in human resources. But the common bond is their love of creating family-friendly tunes that don’t sacrifice musical integrity.
The group began five years ago with Joyce and Cunningham, who work together as firefighters. They first started playing together when Joyce, a harmonica player, started learning guitar. Cunningham had played the six-string since his teens.
“I was songwriting for my daughter,” Joyce says. “I started running songs by Pete and that was the birth of the band. It was very organic.”
The two frequented The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, which offers a wide range of music instruction, from infant through adult. Musicians like John Prine, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Fred Holstein, and others got their start there. The school is a kind of meeting ground for local musicians as well. That’s where they met Smith, who is a piano teacher.
The group found Zaloudek, and though they were already building their song catalogue, they still needed a drummer.
“We went to rehearse at a church and there was a kid playing drums,” Cunningham says. “He said, ‘I’ll get out of your way,’ when we walked in, but we said, ‘We don’t have a drummer yet.’ He played with us, but the 19-year-old kid (Joe) didn’t really want to hang out with the old guys playing kids music. So his dad (Frank), who had taught Joe to play drums, took over. We wear jerseys and the back of Frank’s says: ‘Joe’s Dad.’”
The shows started lining up. While most bands compete for bar gigs, Poochamungas finds its niche at churches, festivals, and family events.
“One of our first shows was a Halloween party at a church,” Joyce says. “There were 70 cars outside.”
The songs continue to come together, initially from the mind of Joyce, but now more collectively through the creativity of the band as a whole. Joyce writes the lyrics and a basic musical outline, brings them to the band, and they flesh them out together. “I write all the lyrics and bring the structure, but a lot of it is developed by the band,” Joyce says. “I can’t do it without them. It’s best to let people do what they do best. It’s like filling in a house. I put up the walls and ceiling and they put in the plumbing, electrical, all the important stuff.”
Since their start, the band has performed throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan and has released two CDs, Mud, Mommies and Mayhem (2010) and Block Party! (2013). Not bad for a group of part-time musicians. And like other recording artists gone kid-friendly, such as Keller Williams or Medeski Martin & Wood, the music has proven a hit among adults and kids alike.
“Kids respond really well to us,” Cunningham says. “It is original music, they won’t hear a nursery rhyme or anything, but they come in and respond to it very quickly. The kids always jump around.”
“Parents like the music, too,” Joyce continues. “We’ve gotten lots of compliments. We’ve been called The Allman Brothers and Bruce Springsteen of the kids’ music world. We embrace that. It’s guitar and piano-driven rock and we try not to write lyrics that upset parents or that they would have to explain later. We want to keep it so our kids can come to a show and not have to worry about it.”
The band keeps as busy as they can balancing performing with their full family and work lives, which is especially tricky during the holiday season.
They’ve been asked to do other kid-centric projects such as a song and music video for one school. “We wrote a song and shot a video for my daughter’s school mascot,” Joyce says. “The song is ‘Fierce Frogs.’ We keep busy!”
The group is working on new material all the time and looks forward to summer, another busy season for the band when they participate in many warm-weather festivals. Ultimately, they’re happy to mix the two things that they love most: family and music.
“Kids have a great time,” Joyce says. “We’re high energy, we joke around a lot, and we’re music-oriented. We’re not a big gimmick band, but we interact with the audience.”
And with every show, Poochamungas works to prove that good music knows no age.