Celebrity Interview: Michael Napolitano of Preschool of Rock
As the creator of Preschool of Rock and Michael and the Rockness Monsters, Michael Napolitano makes music that makes kids (and parents) rock. We spoke exclusively with Michael and his father, Tony Napolitano (a drummer with the 50s doo-wop group, The Ideals), about the importance of family and making great music together.
Tony, we’ll start with you since you’re really the start of it all. How did your own music career come to be?
Tony: My father was a baker. His brother died very young, so he had five more children that he took care of. I went to grade school and I started playing drums. I was in the drum core in church. My music teacher told my parents that I needed private lessons because I was beyond what they were trying to teach me. I would take the train by myself at 12 to NYC and I was taught all percussion by one of the NY Philharmonic people.
Michael: And then you went to the army and you were playing trumpet.
Tony: Right, and then I played with the Junior Philharmonic in Philadelphia. I was picked from high school kids. I got bored with it and decided to do rock and roll. So we joined a band called The Ideals and we put out a record. It was a cool label. We recorded it in a storefront directly onto vinyl, no tape. And then we toured with the record.
Michael: And then he started playing with Joe Pesci.
Tony: It was a great band. It wasn’t just music; it was a variety show. And there was a comedian, Chang Lee whose real name was Dom Roberto, who would do his comic stuff and we would do the music. But getting back to The Ideals, the recording was tremendous and we would do hops. We would do different hops in Philadelphia and Maryland and New Jersey. We would hook up with some of the up-and-coming stars from back then like Fabian; they were unknowns at the time. We opened for Count Basey, we did the Jerry Lewis telethon.
Michael: But you were hanging out with all kinds of amazing people.
Tony: Mom was. She was hanging out with Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. She knew Frankie Valli. She dated a guy named Mike, who was a sax player who wrote “Tell It to the Rain.” My wife has an amazing story about Joe Pesci and a rock. Apparently he borrowed a rock from her for good luck and he never gave it back to her! And that’s how I really met her because we were at a club and we were in the back putting our tuxes getting ready to go on, and Mom was saying, “Give me my rock back!” and Joe Pesci says, “I can’t!”
Do you think he still has the rock?
Tony: I don’t know. Wouldn’t that be something though?
But now, look at your son.
Tony: Oh God, I’m so proud of him. Are you kidding? I played one instrument really well, really, and this guy plays keyboard, he plays drums, he plays guitars, come on! And he writes. He just picked it up.
Michael: I was at all the rehearsals.
Tony: Music was in the house constantly. But I have three sons, and he was the one who picked it up. They can all play, there’s no doubt about that, but not like him. This is a passion, right here.
Michael: And we get to see each other almost every day.
And now you’re carrying the musical torch, so to speak. How did you get your start?
Michael: I started like any young drummer, driving my parents crazy. You play in bands and you do all that. Then I worked with The Blue Man Group for ten years, working with the founders there on new content, doing everything from props to music. I grew up with them and I learned a lot. I worked in the studio with them so when I went into the studio, there’s a certain creativity that exists in the studio that can be taught but you need to be around it and understand it, and I had the pleasure to be around it. And apart from that, I was around a lot of songwriting and that had a huge influence on my own songwriting. I was a drummer and Blue Man is all about drums so I learned from that.
How did Preschool of Rock come to be?
Michael: I started doing children’s music because I had taken my daughter to children’s music and I really didn’t like what I was hearing. So I started writing it and then I had a class and then Blue Man asked me to do a program at their school which is their Blue Man Creativity Center in New York. I did that for a little while, and then Preschool of Rock took off. I just rode with it and it was really fast. It was like a ball rolling down the hill and I was trying to chase it. It’s been going so well. We do the birthday parties and classes. We are in schools, so we deliver education in schools. We do shows and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of energy.
So Preschool of Rock is pretty limiting so we changed the name to Michael and the Rockness Monsters for the music that we’re delivering to the older groups, to families, really. So now it’s a family band and the music is funny and clever, and the instrumentation is amazing.
Would you say that it’s easier to play for the younger set?
Michael: No. The younger set, the babies, are the most engaged audience. The toddlers will move, but when you get to the older kids, to retain their attention, in the age of digital, it’s harder. You really have to deliver. We use a lot of props in our shows. The babies really are a special thing. That’s more of a relationship-driven experience than just entertainment. With the babies and toddlers it’s more about connecting with them, using non-verbal communication to give them the positive support that they need in their lives. With that comes all the academic advantage of music class, with all of our instruments and discovery there.
I would think that with kids, there’s no filter. Either they love it or they don’t.
Tony: You know, I sit back there while Michael is performing, and I see their faces. That’s the thing! When you see those faces! Think about it: We had a family get-together with over 100 people. It was a very special first birthday. And one of his main schools wanted Preschool of Rock there. He was going to send someone else, but they wanted him. So Michael had to forego the affair with the family and go to the school. They’ve got 14 teachers, but yet they wanted him.
Right, and here we are all together, doing this interview and cover shoot on a Sunday. How do you handle missing those moments?
Michael: Yes, but there’s flexibility in other areas so I have to make it up. I mean, he worked full-time and then he was working full-time and then music in the night. So I grew up with that.
Tony: But after I met my wife and we had kids, I started doing club dates locally. It was Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and I did that for 15 years. I missed out on some family stuff, I really did.
And now in hindsight….
Tony: Do I regret it?
It’s hard to say, because you’re doing something that you love.
Tony: To be honest with you, when I was doing the club dates, I didn’t love it. It wasn’t the spectacular type of music that I was used to. When you do club dates, you have to play for the people who want to do a rumba, or a samba, or a jitterbug; you’re just playing music.
Michael: We had talked about this before. You’re either playing for a living, or you’re doing the stuff you want to be doing. I’m lucky that I’m doing both.
Tony: I mean, from 18 on, I would have done it for nothing. I would have played for nothing.
Michael: I did that. I toured. (shakes head) No thanks.
So where is Preschool of Rock today?
Michael: We’re doing great. And the reason why I say we’re doing great is because we’re influencing a lot of kids’ lives. We’re also getting involved with large organizations that have their own missions that we’re able to help bolster and partner with. We’re working with The Familia Project in NYC for early head start intervention in good health, eating and exercise. We’re also involved with the Educational Alliance in Manhattan, which is also an early head start program. We’re giving them a strong base of STEM, and self-esteem and music, which is fantastic. We’re still seeing our parents in our Parent and Me classes and doing shows. We consider ourselves very lucky. We’re employing quite a few people and they can put bread on their table for their children. It’s the American Dream, I guess.
Now as a Dad, you had mentioned that there is flexibility, but how do you find your balance?
Michael: I don’t really think there is a balance. There’s a lot of stuff going on all day, all the time. I worked all morning on a new song, then made dinner, then you came over. I have no problem with it. I’ve had worse jobs; in fact, I’ve had no job.
Do you think that your aesthetic has changed over time?
Michael: Definitely. In the past, I produced all my records myself, and now I’m working with someone. I have a band now, so it really helps when you’re putting a record together to not be alone in the process.
Would you ever want to put out an adult CD?
Michael: I did that, and the whole process of making a CD I enjoy, the making of the music. It’s the promoting and the pushing was something that was difficult for me as a young man. So what we’re trying to do with Preschool of Rock and Michael and the Rockness Monsters is to take a more relaxed approach to it. We’re putting out great content and people will notice it. I write, so I have some tender little ditties. [laughs]
So having two little girls growing up in a musical family—
Michael: That’s where I get the tender little ditties from!
Awww. How do you think that’s influenced their own education and growing up?
Michael: Well, my daughter played a song for my dad today. She can sing and play piano. She’s like a little indie chick at the piano. She can belt it out and she sounds really good. And the other one has perfect rhythm; she’s a firecracker. She’s 6, so she flirts around, she’s not too serious yet.
Entertainment and education is our goal, right? Once I saw my daughter clicking at the piano, she started clicking with math, too. So that was very cool to see. I mean, we speak that, my company has it in our brochure, but to see it first-hand is pretty cool.