They have songs about doing the limbo and chicken chimichangas. They’ve got a mobile app. They’ve got a series of TV spots that are poised for airing nationwide. But most importantly, they’ve got Hawaiian shirts and ukuleles. The Atomic Sharks are the ukulele-playing duo of Kris Hensler and Kenny Taylor playing child-friendly music and adding in a dash of education for good measure.
They’re the brainchild of Hensler, the program director at WFWA, who came up with the concept and name. Hensler then asked Taylor, a full-time musician and educator, to come aboard, and the Atomic Sharks were born. Both Atomic Sharks are veterans of several well-known local bands and knew each other from playing together in some of those previous bands.
Hensler and Taylor initially got together in 2014 and began songwriting using a simple guideline: they wanted to play Jimmy Buffet-style island music that’s kid-friendly, but that adults could enjoy as well.
“The biggest point that I try to tell people is that we don’t pander to kids,” says Hensler. “If you just listen to it casually, it doesn’t sound like kids’ music. But the lyrics, the themes are kid-friendly.”
Of course, humor and fun are a big part of the Sharks’ repertoire, which shows through in their songs, image and mascot. They typically dress in Hawaiian shirts and have a 70s style ukulele-playing cartoon shark named Vinnie. Their graphics have a retro, tiki-style theme. Vinnie even has a mobile game developed by a Monroeville, Indiana-based company
Their goal is to get kids not just into the music, but into playing music as well. While they don’t try do much educating onstage, they do invite kids to come up to the stage after the show, where they have five or six ukuleles on hand to introduce kids to the instrument and to playing music in general.
“If there are some kids who want to pick up the ukulele, we can show them a couple of things. We can show them enough to play a simple little song,” says Hensler. “The idea of that is not so much to teach them a whole bunch, but just to kind of inspire them to go home and become interested in music. We do it as much for inspiration as anything else. To show them that they can make music is part of the concept”
As for their choice of instrument, the ukulele was chosen in part because it’s relatively easy to play. But it’s an instrument that has some serious adherents.
Anyone whose only association with the instrument is Tiny Tim’s 1968 novelty hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” would be surprised to learn that the instrument has been experiencing a resurgence since the late 90s. While that Tiny Tim song may have seemed like the final nail in the coffin of an instrument whose popularity had been in decline, indie bands began using it in the late 90s, most notably on the Magnetic Fields’ 1999 opus, 69 Love Songs. Since that time the instrument has become practically ubiquitous.
“More and more bands that utilize a ukulele player are becoming popular, so I would say it’s a trend,” says Hensler. “One of the ways you can tell is that almost every major guitar manufacturer has started building a line of ukuleles, and they don’t do that unless there’s money to be made.”
Hensler was able to use his knowledge of the PBS system to conceive of another outlet for their music: a series of short educational videos that will air between children’s programming on public television. Aptly entitled “Music Minute,” because all 10 are a minute long, the series was sponsored by Sweetwater and shot at WFWA. They videos introduce kids to basic music elements like tempo, melody and chords with the help of a bongo-playing puppet named Jimmy Bouffet. The videos are already available online, and they’ll likely start airing later this year nationwide.
“Every adult in the world knows what a melody is, but a four-year old doesn’t. So we’re trying to introduce some of those basic ideas that a four-year-old doesn’t understand that other people might assume they already know,” says Hensler. “So for me it’s been fulfilling to be able to introduce some of those ideas to kids and then send them on the same path that I was sent on because my dad was a musician. I learned a lot of those ideas early on, but a lot of kids don’t have that, so I feel that’s something I can provide.”
As for their choice of musical style, it may have been Hensler’s fandom for Jimmy Buffet that gave him the idea to play island music in land-locked Indiana, but their tunes offer a sunny escape from the sometimes very cold Midwest.
“We’re offering fantasy more than anything else,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s tongue-in-cheek because, obviously, we are in Indiana, but we’ll take it all with a grain of salt,” says Hensler. “We’re the Atomic Sharks and we play ukuleles with Hawaiian shirts on. We don’t take ourselves super duper seriously, but we do take the music seriously.”