Lance Higdon on Synth-Rock Dinosaurs and the Evils of Kidz Bop

Lance Higdon in a promo pic for his project Wall With One SideEXPAND
Lance Higdon in a promo pic for his project Wall With One Side
Photos courtesy of Lance Higdon

Adam P. Newton recently became a father for the first time, so he has decided to explain the entirety of post-WWII Western pop music to his new daughter, "Fig" genre at a time.

Greeting, Fig! Ready for another chat with a good friend of mine who also happens to make music and is a parent? I thought so. I’ve been friends with this guy ever since I sold him The Advent of a Miracle by Strongarm in 1999 at the Christian bookstore where I worked in The Woodlands. Wow — that was more than 16 years ago. Since that time, I’ve watched Lance Higdon play with a wide variety of acts across a range of genres, including experimental-rock trio Tambersauro and his "beatless, electronically sourced and process-oriented" project  Wall With One Side; book shows — including his Resonant Interval series in both Houston and San Antonio — and help run a couple of record labels. In short, he’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met.

Hopefully, you and Lance’s daughter will become friends someday, since she’s only six months older than you. The two of you can make music, while the two dads can sit around and reminisce about DIY community-center shows back in The Woodlands.

Houston Press: What's your first musical memory from your childhood? What's your favorite childhood musical memory?
Lance Higdon:
I have a very limited set of memories from before the age of five or so, so the answer is the same for both questions: the first song from the Vicksie the Videositter VHS tape — “Dinosaurs,” which my grandparents kept for me to watch when we went over to their house. It was a synth-rock tune relating primary facts about dinosaurs, sung by a woman dressed like a robot. I hadn’t watched that movie in 25 years, and looking at it on YouTube now, I’m positive it will turn up on Everything Is Terrible! eventually. 

How did your family affect the development and evolution of your musical education?
Neither of my parents were active musicians by the time I was born, but they both had some background. My mom sang in her high-school choir, and my dad messed around with the guitar in college. We always had the family piano and Dad’s Yamaha acoustic guitar around. Both of them sang us lullabies and other little songs about household stuff — doing chores, taking baths, etc.

The range of commercial music I heard growing up was pretty narrow. My parents’ Evangelical convictions led them to turn the radio off for the entirety of the ‘80s (a decision I thank them for now), so it was primarily folky and religious kids’ music — Raffi, Wee Sing and Psalty The Singing Songbook — until late elementary school, when we started listening to the oldies station. Besides a Boyz II Men cassette from my aunt and my best friend’s D2: The Mighty Ducks sound track, I didn’t actively listen to any popular music until I reached middle school and discovered Green Day and The Offspring.

My father, Chuck Higdon, probably had the most crucial impact on my musical education. After a visit by the middle-school band director to my fifth-grade music class, I was positive I wanted to play the tuba — I had good tuba lips, she’d told me. My dad’s response was something to the effect of “No son of mine is going to play the tuba,” and so I took up percussion instead. Thankfully, Houston has Thomas Helton to handle all its avant-garde tuba needs.

When did you start playing music? Why did you start playing music? What keeps you interested in music now?
I started playing music at age 11 when I joined the Bussey Middle School band. I had wanted to take theater initially, but a counselor told me what I now suspect was total misinformation about [how] boring theater was, so to band I went. It was a utilitarian decision — I had to get my fine-arts credit somehow, so I might as well learn paradiddles. I wasn’t really sold on school band until I got to high school, but I was always very eager to play a drum set.

It isn’t an overstatement to say that the video for Green Day’s “Basket Case” set the course of my life thereafter. That song oriented my interests and attitude at the precise moment I needed something to shake off the previous two years of being a bullied social outcast and help me define who I was going to be now. There have been many changes in the way I pursue and relate to music since sixth grade, but that first feeling of power and possibility has stayed true at every turn.

You've spent many years in the music biz, including time as a performer, producer and promoter. How would you describe the various iterations of your musical career to your child?
Man, good question. Assuming she’ll pose this question around the same age I was when I started to care about music, I’ll tell her that music has always helped me understand who I am: as a pre-teen figuring out where he belongs on this planet; as a student and a working man making choices about what he’s willing to give up for the sake of his passion; as a friend building close friendships with her Uncle Ray, Uncle Jeff and many other people who are still involved in her life; [and] as a Christian worshipping God through the sublime communion of sound. I’m positive she will have tuned out by the middle of the second sentence, but maybe afterwards she will understand a fundamental aspect of her dad.

You're a fairly new father. Did you and your partner discuss how you'd talk to your kid about music? What sort of planning was involved in beginning your kid's musical education?
Lydia was a very pleasant but very unexpected surprise, so there was virtually no planning about anything besides where she would be born and what we would call her. Thankfully, my wife, Noelle, is as big a music freak as I am, so Lydia has been getting schooled since she was in utero. She kicked the hardest to Sonic Youth, Built to Spill and Indian classical music; booty music still makes for the surest nap-inducer. Now that she’s here, our plan is simple: keep instruments around and available for exploration, take her to as many concerts as one can reasonably take an infant, and sing all the time. It’s more like musical un-schooling, I guess, but her rhythm is great. She learned to stand up by gripping onto one of my floor toms and beating on it. I’m pleased.

With your daughter recently celebrating her first birthday, what's the role of music in your house now at the moment? What do you anticipate it becoming as she grows up?
This kid definitely inhabits a sound-rich environment. There’s music of all kinds playing in the house from morning to bedtime. She has tons of shakers, some bongo drums, and a very nice toy piano purchased for her by a great-aunt and great-uncle. They all get played. We just leave the pots and pans on the kitchen floor at this point. As I mentioned previously, we make up little songs about whatever’s going on in the house — taking naps, doing chores. Songs by the Isley Brothers and The Who have been artfully turned into Lydia theme songs. She’s going to be bummed when she finds out life is not a musical. With any luck, she’ll never adopt the artificial, advertising-driven division between the amateur, semi-private music of your daily and family life and whatever records she winds up buying (or lifting from her parents’ collection).

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Since you're a former teacher, have you created any sort of "music curriculum" for her? If so, what might it entail? If not yet, will you ever?
I plan to teach her how to play the drums and line up some piano lessons. I do hope that she’ll get a kick out of playing with me, and that it is part of our relationship for the rest of my life. Besides that, I’m already struggling to curb my When I Was Your Age/You Kids Today Just Don’t Know/Get Off My Lawn tendencies, so I intend to hold off on too much required listening. The only albums I feel paternal obligation to show her are Rich Mullins’s Jesus Demos and Karate’s The Bed Is In the Ocean.

Are there any genres you plan to shield her from? Any you want to point her toward specifically?
The THOU records and Screw tapes are gonna stay on the shelf for a while, but they’re both artists I hope she’ll love when she’s at the right age. The only genre I think it is imperative to protect her from is Kidz Bop. Of all the slimy, amoral maneuvers the music industry has made, Kidz Bop is the most sulfurous by far. There are toddlers listening to “Wrecking Ball” and “Toxic” instead of “Mr. Froggy Went A-Courtin’” or “The Bear Went Over the Mountain."

Traditional children’s songs teach kids to love nature and embrace being silly, which in turn teaches them how to be both confident and vulnerable. Kidz Bop obliterates that precious, limited time in order to make children (and their parents) yet another marketing demographic, consuming innocuous fluff at best and deeply damaging subtexts at worst. I’m not opposed to pop music on principle, but that calculated destruction of a time in your life that is so formative and totally irreplaceable. That’s more satanic to me than any Slayer CD.

Higdon and daughter Lydia
Higdon and daughter Lydia

Big Picture: What do you want your child to understand about music? It's been important to you for so long, so how do you hope to help her realize the role that music has played in your life?
One of the many beautiful things about Lydia’s relationship to music right now is that she enjoys the entire spectrum. My exploration of experimental and improvisational music for the past 16 years has enabled me to derive pleasure from every single sound I encounter. Lydia doesn’t need that perception training. The dichotomy between intentional and unintentional music isn’t a concern for her.

Now, I’m not so naive to assume that she is going to grow up and just automatically embrace free improv and be a noise auteur or whatever. I’ll do my best to keep that dichotomy from ever being an issue, but my love for her isn’t attached to her aesthetic choices. I won’t be thrilled if she winds up listening to nothing but the 2020s equivalent of Florida Georgia Line — or, God forbid, the original Florida Georgia Line — but you can’t control who your child will become, even if you fancy yourself a “Cool Dad” (a delusional conceit anyway).

Above all else, I want her to know that this is the best means I possess for expressing my love for her. I’ve spilled a lot of text in my time, but when we are having daddy-daughter time, I’m often at a loss for words. What can you say in the face of the ineffable mystery of seeing part of yourself in the face of another person? It’s heavy for me. But girls especially need affirmation from their daddy. So I just try to sing everything to her, dance with her to the music that has formed me, and play free together. I’ll exhaust that language too if I can. Music is my world, and I want to give the world to her.

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