In the winter of 2002, Steve Burns had left his job hosting the Nickelodeon show Blue's Clues, the top-rated commercial program for preschoolers, and was headed for the woods. He drove his Volkswagen north through a blizzard out of New York City and arrived at an upstate barn owned by music producer Dave Fridmann, then best-known for his expansive sonic touches on albums by The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. Burns had lined up studio time with Fridmann on what would become a well-received solo album called Songs for Dustmites, but before Burns even laid down a note, Fridmann introduced him to the upstairs houseguest: Flaming Lips drummer Steven Drozd. [Note: Nickelodeon and MTV News are both owned by Viacom.]
"I was terrified to meet him, honestly," Burns said of Drozd. "But within 10 minutes we were sitting on the floor with guitars, laughing hysterically."
What followed reads like indie-rock fanfic: A professed Soft Bulletin devotee ("It completely rearranged my brain," Burns said) begins an unusual but nearly instantaneous musical partnership with one of the mad geniuses who created it — a union that culminates in a jointly created psychedelic children's album called Foreverywhere, out Friday (February 24).
Since that winter when Drozd helped Burns work on Dustmites, the two have become friends; Burns even toured with the Lips in 2003, and the pair recorded "I Hog the Ground" for Nickelodeon's Jack's Big Music Show a few years later. Their current musical union, called SteveNSteven, matches the heavy, freewheeling psychedelia that Drozd has long cultivated as part of the Lips with Burns's underdog narratives about stomping giants, lonely unicorns, and deep-sea creatures. They make a lot of sense together.
You don't have to strain to imagine SteveNSteven's "The Unicorn and Princess Rainbow" alongside the wide-eyed Sesame Street-isms of Lips tracks like "The Spiderbite Song" and "It's Summertime." The measurable difference is Burns, who is decidedly not Wayne Coyne and has no interest in asking if it's gettin' heavy. He'd rather imbue each track with a stimulating kids' concept, like the glee of successful potty-training (on "OK Toilet Bowl"). After six years on Blue's Clues and some time spent talking to child-development specialists, Burns developed an ethos: never pander.
"We deliberately took kiddie-cliché ideas and tried to elevate them, which is why there's a unicorn and a rainbow princess," Burns said. "The kids I've met are very emotionally complex people. I just don't think that there's much difference between what makes music great for adults and what makes music great for kids."
This manifests in Burns's dynamic musical framework (reminiscent of Blue's Clues' recurring "Mailtime" song) and the candied melodies and celestial rock flourishes Drozd glazes it with. "A couple times I was like, I want to do a heavy, Black Sabbath kind of riff that meets Schoolhouse Rock," Drozd explained. "That's how we came up with 'Mimic Octopus.'"
"He's freakish, you know?" Burns said of his collaborator. "He is one of those guys who kind of stares into the middle distance for 45 seconds and then has the song done in his head." That's why Burns plays "almost nothing" on the album, he admits, though it's clear he designated himself the big-picture guy, fact-checking lyrics about the mimic octopus and helping to craft character reprisals throughout the 11 tracks: "I was extremely careful with curriculum."
So, let's break down the syllabus: Musically, "Mimic Octopus (Secret Wizard of the Sea)" is a fun three-minute groove buzzing with synthesizers and Drozd's signature colossal drumming, but what's most notable is the subject matter. It strategically concerns not a regular octopus, but a creature adept at "impersonating sea snakes, lionfish, and flatfish — a strategy used to avoid predators," according to the MarineBio Conservation Society. As such, Burns sings, "If you're feeling predatory / You won't know you're looking at me / You can't eat what you can't see." It's glam, it's challenging, and it's far less patronizing than, say, "Now I know my ABCs."
There's also "A Fact Is a Gift That You Give Your Brain," the tune that may prove the most empowering anthem for kids growing up in the post-truth age. "Wondering makes you wonderful," Burns recites before the song twinkles into the next one: "OK Toilet Bowl," a potty-time how-to written from a stray jingle Drozd cooked up more than a decade ago. It's in keeping with the way each Blue's Clues episode would end, with Burns's honeyed tenor ushering viewers out the door in song. That voice, much lower now, inhabits Foreverywhere's brazen whimsy and big concepts, too. "His voice is so open and so friendly," Drozd said. "Kids respond to that."
He would know: His son and daughter, both young during the initial recording sessions, were "the ultimate test subjects," Drozd said, "and they love Steve as well." After years of pilgrimages from New York to record for "dirt cheap" in Oklahoma, where Drozd lives with his family, Burns has earned the love.
You can hear it. And in the most jubilant moments of pro-poop jam "OK Toilet Bowl," you can feel it, too. "I don't think it's a song about that," Burns said without a trace of irony. "I think it's a song about courage."