Road Music

The Grammy-winning Okee Dokee Brothers on travel, tornados, and the necessity of motion

You grew up together in Denver. How’d you end up on the prairie?

Joe Mailander: I went to St. John’s University, drawn to the lakes and trails and woods. After moving to the Twin Cities, I invited Justin up.

Justin Lansing: In Denver, Joe had a farm on the plains and I had a cabin in the mountains.

We’d always spend weekends at each other’s place.  And because we had this shared childhood, we have a lot to draw from for our children’s music—we think about what we did as kids. It’s a really freeing way to write songs.

The album that won you a Grammy, Can You Canoe?, was based on a trip down the Mississippi—in a canoe. Can’t picture Rihanna doing that.

JM: We’d never canoed before coming to Minnesota. Colorado has these things called reservoirs, where you drive your boat around in a circle. First place we ever canoed was the Boundary Waters.

Where did you put in on the Big Muddy?

JL: The headquarters at Lake Itasca State Park. That part that most people walk over? We barely skidded over the rocks, then crashed. It was very narrow.

JM: But it makes you think about how big the river is. You realize it’s such a main part of what America is. That’s what we were trying to hit on in the album—it’s really inspired by Lake Itasca.

JL: From there, we skipped past the Cities and put in again at Alma, Wisconsin. We made it to St. Louis in 30 days, camping on the banks of the river or on islands.

JM: One night our whole campsite was destroyed by a microburst, a small tornado. We were on an island and couldn’t retreat.

So you rode it out?

JL: Eh. You could say that.

JM: We cried it out.

Did you perform along the way?

JL: We got out the banjo and guitar in southern Iowa, walked up to a bar having an open-mic night, and unloaded all these river tunes we’d been working on. Kids’ songs, more or less.

JM: The audience couldn’t tell at that point in the night.

Where are you traveling for your next album?

JL: The Appalachian Trail in spring, about a 30-day hike through Virginia. We’ll search out Appalachian musicians, the real folk musicians from the mountains.

What inspires you closer to home?

JL: Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis. It’s close to the city but can feel so far. Also, there’s a staircase down to the river at St. Anthony Main that goes to this very secluded area of the Mississippi. It’s just beautiful.

JM: We had planned to launch from Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul. The mere fact that you can canoe on the Mississippi in the city is amazing. Our trip was sponsored by Wilderness Inquiry, which does urban adventures in these huge voyageur canoes. Lake Maria State Park, near St. Cloud, is another place we like: canoeing, camping, huts for skiing and snowshoeing.

What is it about traveling that inspires your music?

JL: Someone once said that every good song has been written on a Greyhound bus or in an airplane. Movement and changing scenery, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone—that inspires new thoughts.

JM: If we were static, we’d be boring. Travel makes for uncomfortable living, and that hopefully inspires change.

What about traveling to gigs—is that inspiring or a slog?

JM: It’s a fine line. I think someone also said that the world’s worst songs have been written on Greyhound buses and airplanes. 

The Okee Dokee Brothers will be playing shows across Minnesota all month. For details, see