When Punk Goes to Space, There’s ‘The First Rock Band on Mars’

Looking for alternative options to “Baby Shark,” Sleeping with Sirens’ Kellin Quinn, Ryan Key, formerly of Yellowcard, musician and author James DiNanno, and Howi Spangler of Maryland Beach Rock, created a terrestrial union, The First Rock Band on Mars, melding their punk rock roots and a space fascination, creating music for their own children. Home during the pandemic, the four musicians, most of whom have young kids, began piecing together a hopeful gateway to punk rock, their debut EP The First Rock Star on Mars. 

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“There’s a lot of parents that are so sick of hearing ‘Baby Shark,” says DiNanno. “I don’t even want to hear it, so I think that kids are more receptive to music that doesn’t have to be so elementary and simplified.”

Orbiting through a six-part tale of punk and otherworldly places, a terrestrial “Intro” rockets into the energetic title track and “I Know What I Want” then into the dreamier “Comet,” the anthemic “Rockstars of the Universe” and an orbital “Outro.”

Accompanying the album is a children’s book of the same title, written by DiNanno, formerly of the band Silhouette Rising, who had his first son Caden in 2020, and follows the story of child who’s asked what he wants to be when he grows up. “He wants to be the first rock star on Mars,” says DiNanno. “It’s a concept album about space about this band actually traveling into space and eventually performing all over the universe.”

To bring this imaginary story to life, musically, DiNanno reached out to Quinn, who also has a daughter and was on board to contribute music to the book and story. Rounding out The First Rock Band on Mars, DiNanno connected with Key, who shifted from vocals to take on bass and Spangler.

Recorded within two weeks in 2020 with everyone in their respective homes in Nashville, Maryland, New Hampshire and Los Angeles—The First Rock Band on Mars is an escape from the norm of children’s music. 

“Instrumentally, I didn’t want it to sound so simplified and redundant, like typical children’s music,” says DiNanno. “I wanted it to sound like a pop punk album, and I wanted it lyrically to be something that would reach children but also not be so simplified that adults can I get something out of it, too, I might compare it to a Pixar movie. Every time I watch ‘Toy Story’ with my son, I think I enjoy it even more than he does.”

Kids can connect to at least sing along, even if they don’t understand what is being said, says Spangler. “The melodies are there, and it leaves it open to more more stories.”

The First Rock Band on Mars (Art: Luciana Guerra)

Working with the band on the music, DiNanno says Quinn turned around a hook and guitar within 10 minutes, while Key formulated the album’s epic closer “Rockstars of the Universe.”

“These guys are just amazing writers and that part has been inspiring and exciting for me,” says DiNanno, who admits to being out of practice. Also a drummer, DiNanno shifted from his earlier Silhouette days to business and writing.

“It definitely took me longer since I haven’t dusted off the old rock and roll or pop-punk chops in a long time,” DiNanno adds. “I was just getting back into that headspace of writing a song, which was fun and surprisingly challenging, but Kellin wins for quickest turnaround.

Quinn interjects, “‘The First Rockstar on Mars’ song is around four minutes, and it only took me two and a half minutes to write it.”

Key says “It was really easy to get in and write songs for his [DiNanno’s] vision, because it helped to have images and a story and somewhere to start. Building the other songs for the EP was like imagining this kid and his crew out in space. It’s fun to write about about aliens and different planets and be in that world.”

It was like being a kid again and using your imagination, says Spangler. “It was interesting writing and working with dudes from different bands,” he says “I broke it down to just basic songwriting. I’ve always heard like that the best songs can transcend whatever genre, so I just wanted to bring it down to a basic level where it could be a pop punk song, a country song, or even a reggae song.”

He adds, “It’s neat how we all sort of all these different backgrounds came together, and it just works.”

The First Rock Band on Mars proves that aspirational messaging and intent for children needs to change. “When you tell kids you can do whatever you want, get behind it,” says Spangler. “You have to focus and be driven to make it happen, but you really can do whatever you want. You just have to work for it.”

DiNanno hopes the music sparks a genre or something that encourages kids to think in bigger terms. “Looking at the world we live in today, so many things are possible and achievable, and I think that sometimes there are brilliant kids that never go on to fulfill what they’re capable of because they feel as though they need to stay within the lines. I’m trying to encourage parents and kids to think beyond that.”

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