Q&A with Banks and Wag
Love them or loathe them, the all-singing, all-dancing monkey troupe ZingZillas are hugely popular, and even played at Glastonbury this year.
So to answer all your questions, from who's inside Panzee's suit to which weird instrument is the next to be showcased (and if there are plans for a nationwide tour), we invited the men behind the show, Chris Banks and Wag Marshall-Page, for a Q&A in June 2011.
Since playing together in bands in the 1990s, Chris Banks and Wag Marshall-Page have written music for shows including The X Factor, Walk On The Wild Side and ZingZillas, where they are familiar to all parents for introducing children to a variety of musical genres - from Bhangra to Bluegrass.
SESthebrave: My question is around your method of composing. Does one of you do music and the other lyrics? Where do you start? How long does it take for a song on average?
Wag: Our approach differs depending what we're working on. On some shows, we're sat in our studio together, guitars, keyboards, and bagels in hand, batting tunes around and generally dissing each other's ideas until we come up with something we both like. On ZingZillas, Banks has written the bulk of the Big Zings, and I've been concentrating on the production side - mixing, mastering, finessing. Plus I lay down guitars and bass.
Banks: Although for this series, Wag's had a bigger hand in the composition side, too. It keeps things fresh and exciting. With Big Zings, I've always tended to start with the melody. My poor kids have to put up with me humming potential Big Zings while I'm bathing them, chasing them around a play area, putting them to bed. If a tune sticks in my head - or in their heads - I know it's got promise, and the rest will follow. If you omit the humming-around-the-house stage, and skip to committing music to laptop, composing lyrics, programming, recording instrumentalists, recoding vocalists, editing, mixing and mastering - each song usually takes four or five days.
MrsTittleMouse: Is there a difference between composing music for adults and composing music for children?
Banks: Back in the early '80s, the music for Pigeon Street was composed and played by a wicked reggae band called Soul Yard. Jonathan Cohen wrote some amazing tunes for Play Away, performed by a live band. I used to love these shows, work out the melodies on the piano, eventually add the chords. Should you ever go onto YouTube and watch those programmes now, you'll hear the biggest influence on what we are trying to do on ZingZillas. 'For kids' shouldn't mean twee or dumbed-down. It should mean exciting, enthralling, memorable.
ZingZillas proves pre-schoolers can understand and enjoy complicated arrangements, and melodies longer than four notes. If we want them to find TV music as exhilarating as I did 30 years ago, we need to give them something made with the same care and attention you'd give to a 'grown-up' show.
Weblette: Loved the episode with a Theremin - are there any other obscure instruments you're trying to get on?
Wag: This series we're exploring world instruments a bit more. We've got a Bengali Big Zing, a bandoneon, and we're hoping to get a xiao for one episode, too. Just exciting styles that kids, and probably many adults, may not have seen before.
Banks: Plus, we've got the Female Beatbox World Champion. You can't get better than that. You literally cannot.
leelo: What age is appropriate to start playing an instrument seriously? My daughter wants to learn, but at six I feel she's too young as she's only just started reading.
Banks: I assume you mean reading books, as opposed to music. I guess this all depends on the child. I started piano lessons when I was six, but would probably have stopped when I was about nine if it wasn't for the encouragement of my parents who convinced me to carry on till High School. Somewhere between nine and 11, playing piano stopped being a chore and started being a passion. But I do think reading music is overrated. It's a useful skill, but music is about listening and performing, particularly at a young age. Dots on a page are just another way of getting across an idea. Wag - didn't you flunk German in favour of music?
Wag: Yeah, I started playing guitar quite late, I suppose, when I was 14. I used to conceal Guitarist Magazine within the pages of Deutsch Heute during German lessons. When it came to my German oral I realised I didn't even know what "hello" was. I don't think this has really answered the question at all.
FickleFreckle: My son is on the autism spectrum and ZingZillas has introduced him to a whole new world. I was never able to get him interested in music before, which was a shame as his Dad is a musician, but due to the international nature of the music covered we were able to link it to his obsession with flags and he now has a new obsession with music and musical instruments (one we are only too happy to encourage). My daughter, who is three, loves to sing and dance along, too. I was wondering how you decide what music to write: do you find something that excites you and work on that or do you get told to cover something specifically?
Wag: That's great to hear that your son has got into the show. As we mentioned earlier, there's more world music next time around, so he'll have more flags to investigate! As for what music to write, we give the production our ideas, they tell us theirs, and together we come up with what we think is the most exciting and interesting.
At the moment we're trying to get our favourite electric guitar player of all time on the show, so we're doing everything in our power to make this happen, Jim'll Fix It-style.
WeeKirkie: My child recently got tested for autism and is a huge fan of ZingZillas. He has always just 'got' you, if you know what I mean. Thank you so much for providing a rich learning TV programme that my son has loved since he was three. He is now five and has everything of yours and thinks you are the bees' knees! Keep doing the good work from one very grateful parent.
Banks: Thank you so much for taking the time to post. It's hard to think how to reply without sounding cheesy, but seriously, me and Wag are well-chuffed by that. It's so gratifying to know that ZingZillas is doing the job it set out to do: getting kids fired up by music. The new series has more emphasis on movement, too. And "the bees' knees" is a brilliant expression I am going to now use lots.
hels71: How do you decide who to have on as guests? Are there going to be more new episodes?
Banks: It's a bit like this: me and Wag, Dominic the Producer, Naz the Music Fixer, locked in a BBC office in Salford Quays, arguing the merits of banjoleles over ukuleles, bigging up glockenspiels, and defending recorders. Ultimately, we end up with a diverse list of styles in which to write. Then it's Naz's job to book the best musicians she can find for each instrument. Last series featured such luminaries as Dame Cleo Laine, Julian Lloyd-Webber, Stuart Zender, Sir James Galway, and lots more. This series, we've already recorded the first dozen musos, and they're all brilliant.
Wags: Because it's coming back. You didn't mention that bit. We're making new episodes.
FairyArmadillo: Any chance of ringing up your old pals Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Busted and getting them to appear on the show?
Wag: Sophie's kids watch the show, so you never know. Busted split in 2005, though, so convincing them to reform for a one-off monkey gig might be a tough sell. But stranger things have happened.
lucasnorth: My four-year-old daughter and I like the ZingZillas a lot, and have seen most of them. Great show, but please can we have a bit more of the guest star actually playing music? You get some incredible people, and then only have about a minute of footage of them playing. A couple fewer minutes of the monkeys would be neither here nor there.
Wag: The programme makers have always tried to strike the right balance between the story and the music. This new series concentrates on the music more, which might be more up your strasse. Hey, I know more German than I thought.
tethersend: Why? Why do you hate parents so much? Why would you do this to us? PS: is the person in the Panzee costume a man or a woman? This issue has caused near-physical fights in my house.
Banks: Parents rock. Especially Mumsnet parents. But the show's aimed at kids. We try to write tunes we think everyone - families, students, unemployed musos - will like, but you can't please everyone. And I'm sensing your displeasure.
Wag: Panzee costume? I always thought they were real gorillas. I've been telling everyone they got the Greystoke bloke in to train them.
StrikeuptheBand: I have found a lot of the merchandise to be overpriced and not that great. My son has a jigsaw that he likes and he quite likes his guitar, but I was annoyed that the big Zing playset only came with one or sometimes two of the four characters, but cost £40 and the additional characters weren't cheap, too. I just wondered if the ZingZillas were touring and if so whether they were planning on coming up here to the north of England?
Wag: As composers, it's the music that we're most concerned about getting right, so we leave the other extended merchandise to the experts. But we were heavily involved in producing the ZingZillas CD which I think is really good value. But then I would say that...
Banks: I was born in the north of England. It would be great if the ZingZillas could tour up there. In fact, it would be great if they could tour all over the world. Start small, maybe.
notearoundmuch: When is there a new series coming? We've seen all the episodes sooo many times. Also, is there any chance of seeing the band live at a reasonable price... as opposed to the gigs at Regents Park/Legoland, which would set us back £60/£90 for a festival ticket. It angers me so much, the inflated prices for these pre-schooler shows.
Banks: Festivals in general aren't cheap, are they? I'm going to Lollibop with my kids - and I've paid full whack for it, but we're going to make a whole day of it and see every act and go on every ride. A little insight into my domestic plans, there.
Wag: You can tell your daughter the new series will be here around Christmas-time.
swallowedAfly: ZingZillas and the Tweenies are close partners in satanicness: were they produced by the same people? Is it a conspiracy to drive us mad? How the jeff do you end up working on ZingZillas - was it a childhood ambition or something you fell into (don't forget to wipe your feet)?
Banks: Good use of the word jeff there. Me and Wag went to university, played in bands, built a studio together, wrote music for commercials, and started composing music for TV. We worked a lot with Ross Noble, Danny Wallace, Dave Gorman, then got into Saturday night telly like Strictly Dance Fever, some stuff for X Factor, then I pitched for a show called Space Pirates, got that, and off the back of that we were asked to pitch for ZingZillas, and we got that. That's how the jeff we ended up working on ZingZillas, in a nutshell.
Wag: Some of the same people worked on ZingZillas and Tweenies. But not us. We have nothing to do with the music on Tweenies.
swallowedAfly: People pay to see the ZingZillas? Is there another planet I'm not aware of?
Banks: Have you heard of Eris, the largest known dwarf planet in the solar system? I was reading about it yesterday. Or am I maybe missing the point?
FickleFreckle: Do you know how they do the monkeys? Does one person play each character, or is there a team of people who do different bits, singing and dancing and so on? I heard Panzee is based on Pink, are any of the others based on famous people? We think Zak looks a bit like Damon Albarn...
Wag: See above for our facetious answer about the bloke from Greystoke.
Banks: I thought Panzee was based on Pink. Then I repeated that as fact on BBC Breakfast News about a year ago. I may have made it up. Don't know about any of the others, I think they're an amalgam of various attributes of various artists.
FickleFreckle: I would like to see Drum having more musical input and behaving a bit more intelligently - the implication seems to be that she just comes up with all this rhythm intuitively, whereas you see Tang really practising, thinking, consulting, revising and so on. Is that just me?
Banks: There are episodes where we see Drum being influenced by other percussionists, perfecting her licks, working hard on her performance. But Drum is essentially the baby of the group, and responds in a toddler-like way. We just presume that she has a prodigious talent for drumming. Whereas Tang is a more mature, thoughtful lad, and the main songwriter in the band, so I suppose it's natural he would spend more time composing and pondering.
porpoisefull: I've noticed that Drum barely speaks. The Wikipedia entry for the ZingZillas says that Drum is 'young at heart'. Is that a euphemism for having learning difficulties, is she actually supposed to be a lot younger than the others or is it just the way female characters are often infantilised?
Banks: Drum is the toddler of the band, hence her limited speech and childlike nature. All of the ZingZillas are children - just prodigiously talented ones. It's interesting you suggest female characters are often infantilised. I think CBeebies at the minute has a lot of good female characters: Octonauts, Everything's Rosie, Wendy off of Bob The Builder.
Gemma Hill, the pop drummer and columnist, specifically mentioned Drum from ZingZillas in a recent article as subverting the gender stereotype of drummers. Similarly, our show has a female bass player, which you'd be hard-pressed to find in many contemporary pop acts. It would have been easy to cast the lead singer as female and the rest male, but I think ZingZillas is playing its small part in presenting young boys and girls with strong and sometimes unexpected gender roles.
Smokedsalmonbagel: Are there any plans for a nationwide tour? It would make a great stage show. Also, my son wrote Panzee a letter but she never replied! Can you check she received it?
Wag: Our BBC Worldwide sources tell us - I'm reading this - they're playing Legoland Live in Windsor on 16th July, Camp Bestival in Dorset on 28-31 July, LolliBop in Regent's Park on 5-7 August, and the Jolly Day Out at Hampton Court on 26-29 August. No-one's told us about any further touring plans, but that doesn't mean there aren't any.
Bobbiesox: I've always wanted to suggest the ZingZillas be our next Eurovision entry - mega catchy tunes, good costumes, and to channel the Apprentice for a minute, a definite USP...Please do it! Will you do it?
Wag: Thanks for your comments. We tried to enter Eurovision in 2005, with Danny Wallace. We didn't get very far. Maybe the ZingZillas will have better luck. This year's Greek entry, Stereo Mike, is one of our best mates. Maybe we should get some advice off him?
Gill79: We love it! My favourite episode is Operatic Todd. My question is - is this from a 'real' opera? In which case, what is it and what is the piece called?
Banks: Thank you. You're not the first person to ask us this! The answer is: it's our own, original piece, although stylistically it's influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan so I suppose you'd call it operetta rather than true opera. I grew up listening to a lot of G&S, as my Dad's a fanatic. I got him to check that our Big Zing was all our own work, and not accidently pinched from The Gondoliers. And my Mum wrote the Italian words, cos she speaks Italian and is clever like that. And it was orchestrated by our old mate Ben Foster, in between orchestrations for Doctor Who. We're hoping Ben will come back to do some work on the new series of ZingZillas.
KDAugust: I love ZingZillas and my daughter who already loves music loves them, too. I would like to start seeing more children playing the instruments to show children of the same age that it's possible to learn and play the instruments just as well.
Wag: If they're great musicians, we'll have them on the show!
Banks: This has been a great laugh. We officially love Mumsnet.