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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Featured Stories

What’s All This Hullabaloo About?

by Wayne RikerMarch 2024

Steve Denyes, founder and musical brainchild of Hullabaloo.

“When I was a young musician, I didn’t want to be a rock star that played stadiums, I just wanted to play my local concert in the park.” Those are the words of Steve Denyes, a local singer/songwriter/guitarist you may never have heard of, but who is content with flying under the radar here in America’s Finest City.

“I can remember going to see Peter Sprague play at our local concert in the park when I was a kid,” Denyes recalled. “To me that just looked like the best possible scenario, playing music you love to a crowd of friends and neighbors. The next day, I happened to see Peter at the beach going surfing…what could be a better life than that!” Sprague returned the sentiment. “Steve Denyes is one of the most solid characters from the Del Mar surf/music scene. I see him sharing good vibes. His music is top notch as he shares the true spirit of music. If there was ever anyone who deserved to be president of the United States, it’s Steve!”

Denyes is the founder and musical brainchild of Hullabaloo, a unique musical act catering to entertaining young audiences. It all started when he and childhood friend, Brendan Kremer, made a life-changing observation at Kremer’s twin daughters’ one-year birthday party in 2004. “We had fun, the kids had fun, and the parents had fun,” as Denyes recalled that moment of epiphany. “We didn’t think much of it until some of the other parents started asking us to play for their kids’ parties.”

Initially resistant to the idea of playing kids’ tunes, the two were able to chart out a propitious path for success. “Brendan was a rock ’n’ roll drummer and I was a singer-songwriter/folk geek,” Denyes explained. “We both looked at children’s music as a path we’d never want to go down, mostly because the music that was out there at the time was pretty awful, mostly singing hamsters and purple dinosaurs.” It wasn’t until they heard musical artist Dan Zanes, who was making music that families could enjoy together as opposed to music exclusively for children, which Denyes’ used as a model for creating music palpable for kids and parents alike.

Shawn Rohlf, Brendan Kremer, Denyes.

“That inspired us to throw our hat in the ring and put our own spin on it,” Denyes exuded. “The more I played, the more word spread and the crowds got bigger. Parents and caregivers are always looking for fun stuff to do with their kids and when they find something fun they spread the word. And now, 20 years later, we’re still at it. Hullabaloo has been my full-time job since beginning in 2004.”

Since then, Denyes’ vision has blossomed into a very busy agenda on many different levels, both musically and business wise. “Once we had a little momentum, the job was never about finding work, the big task was scheduling it,” Denyes explained. “Answering emails, sending out invoices, and doing all the behind-the-scenes work that it takes to keep things on track.” Seeking out a booking agent became a priority as his business began to boom, retaining three different agents over the years. “It freed me up to prepare for the many gigs coming in and gave me time to write and record,” he continued. “For the first dozen years we put a new album out each year; it was a crazy time. In those early years I would say yes to everything. I’d go anywhere in a one-hundred-mile radius. If I knew there would be a crowd, I’d play for free, if the money wasn’t available I’d still go just to sell CDs and add names to our mailing list. In those days people bought CDs and I could survive off those sales alone. Gradually I transitioned into paid gigs where I could additionally sell CDs. In the days before the pandemic we were playing as many as 350 shows a year, it was insane,” he beamed. “I’m super lucky that I came up in the sweet spot where recording technology was good and relatively inexpensive and people actually bought CDs. I thank my lucky stars for that every day…that’s what has made this all possible,” he concluded.

Denyes shared his strategy and philosophy in playing gigs for kids as opposed to an adult audience. “Playing music for kids is completely different,” he stated. “With kids you’ve got to keep them singing, dancing, clapping, and stomping their feet. If they’re not physically engaged in the music, you’ll lose them. You might be able to get away with one song in a set where they are just listening but even that is risky. I don’t generally work with a set list as I try to react in the moment to what’s happening in the audience. Sometimes they need to get up and dance or sometimes they need a calm sing-along so things don’t go off the rails. I sometimes have a lot of tricks up my sleeve but that doesn’t mean I always get it right. For me that’s the fun and the challenge in crafting a set that takes them on a big adventure. Twenty years in and I feel like I’m still learning… I’m humbled on a regular basis,” he confessed.

Denyes has also lent a hand in certain philanthropic causes. Throughout February Hullabaloo played  20 shows in 20 days to raise funds for Feeding San Diego. “It went great and we were able to raise a bunch of money for them,” Denyes exclaimed. “They do amazing work in our community and they are incredibly efficient with the donations they receive. A single dollar can facilitate two healthy meals! I’m just so impressed with the work that they do in our community. They rescue good, nutritious food that would otherwise end up in a landfill,” he concluded.

Along the way Denyes has recruited a few local musical heavyweights to join him in his musical journey—one in particular—multi-instrumentalist Shawn Rohlf. “Shawn is an amazing artist in his own right,” Denyes detailed, “but he also possesses the skill and temperament to be the best side man you could ask for. He’s the most generous musician, always looking to serve the song and the vibe on stage. When Brendan and I started Hullabaloo, we immediately asked Shawn to join. Now, after a couple of decades, we’re common-law bandmates, so we can go out as a duo or trio or I can play solo. Each combination has worked out really well.”

Denyes in action with a group of young children.

Rohlf’s feelings are mutual. “I knew within a few minutes of picking up on his laid-back vibe that we were gonna be good friends,” Rohlf reflected back. “We’ve worked together on many different projects and capacities, including theater productions, recording studio, and countless live shows with Hullabaloo. We always know how to work hard together and to have a lot of fun and laughs while doing it. He’s great to travel with and we’ve shared many memorable adventures on the road together.”

In addition, Denyes points to his serendipitous encounter with Kathryn Cloward. “I met Kathryn in the early days of Hullabaloo when I played for her son’s playgroup in her backyard,” he reminisced. “Not long after she started the Kathryn the Grape book series, she became a vendor at a couple of the music and art festivals we used to produce. I had no idea she was a musician as well. A few years after that we had her perform onstage at the Hullabaloo Family Music Festival. It’s been amazing to watch her grow as a writer, artist, and performer. For so many years,” he continued, “I was the only one making music for kids and families in San Diego. These days it’s really nice to be able to collaborate with her, Danny (Microphone Doctors), and Alison (Hooray Miss Marae). It’s become a really nice, cooperative scene. We all help each other find gigs, compare notes, and refer each other for gigs we can’t schedule.”

Another watershed moment for Hullabaloo happened when Denyes and his wife, while vacationing, took a tour of Sun Studio in Memphis. Upon learning that the studio was available for recording, plans for a live album from that historic locale went into full gear. “We booked two six-hour sessions on consecutive nights,” as Denyes recalled the ease of booking a date into this legendary studio. “You just find the link on the museum website and email the engineer. It’s like making reservations for dinner, no big deal. It was surreal to stand in the spot where so many of my musical heroes, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison stood.  Brendan, Shawn, and I recorded live in the room just like they did back in the day,” he exclaimed.

“Recording there was a mixed bag,” Denyes continued. “On the one hand, it was a dream come true. On the more mundane side, we had some technical recording issues. We got a few good takes overall in spite of it. We mixed everything back home in Shawn’s studio. In spite of the technical issues, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.” The album, appropriately titled Live from Sun Studio, is widely available wherever you stream your music.

One of Denyes’ hobbies has been his skill at building guitars. When Covid hit and many live gigs dried up, he had more time on his hands for making guitars. “I’d pour hours and hours into a guitar and maybe make a couple hundred dollars on it after I covered the cost of materials,” he mused. “If you broke it down, I was making pennies per hour, but I absolutely loved it. The instruments I make are really unconventional looking as I use all reclaimed and salvaged wood, an odd combination that fortunately captured some attention online and led to a gallery show in La Jolla. Also, I received some nice online reviews that brought in customers to the point where I had a waiting list for instruments. These days I just make the guitars I’m excited to make, occasionally putting them up for sale on my website.”

Ironically, in 2003, Denyes authored a book titled, Gigging for a Living, which featured interviews with local full-time musicians, unaware at the time that he would have that same stature with the birth of Hullabaloo the following year. “I started on this project after I had given up on making music for a living,” Denyes explained. “I was teaching music in the public schools and reflecting on the sacrifice that artists make to fulfill a career. I reached out to some good friends and interviewed them about what it takes to make it work. It wasn’t a how-to book; it was a what-it’s-really-like book. Most of those artists—Gregory Page, Jeff Berkley, Peter Sprague, and Eve Selis—are all still at it currently.”

If Denyes decides to author a second edition of his book, there would have to be a long chapter dedicated to his highly successful and circuitous  twenty-year sojourn with Hullabaloo!

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