For generations, one of the most fruitless endeavors attempted by the human race is to try to make teachers cool. It’s just always been too big an ask. We’ve all had that one tryer too; the teacher who will try to use modern kid-speak but gets it horribly wrong (think “groovy”), at the same time shoe-horning pop-culture references about the latest teen idol pop star and/or TV show into unrelated conversations.
It gets excruciating fast. The only way a teacher can hold a modicum of cool is to embrace their intrinsic lack of cool (in the eyes of the kids), thereby playing the geek card and turning the whole thing on its head. Enter the Amoeba People.
Ray Hedgpeth (or Mr. Hedgpeth to you) is a science teacher at the Esther Lindstrom Elementary School in Lakewood, across grades four, five and six. He’s been teaching the sciences for 18 years and, for the past seven of them, he’s also been singing and playing guitar (as well as a variety of other instruments including the banjo and the kazoo) with drummer Mr. (Dustin) Jordan and bassist Mr. (Ryan) Mosley as the Amoeba People.
There’s a loose, gloriously nonsensical, back-story to the band that involves the three of them actually being musical ambassadors for the planet Crouton. They’ve come to Earth to study its scientific knowledge and then report back to the home planet in the form of quirky tunes. Think They Might Be Giants or perhaps the Barenaked Ladies mixed with some Aquabats fantasy. Yep, the guys look like teachers but they’re actually alien superheroes. The ultimate teacher dream.
“When we formed, the mission was to do something crazy and fun and different,” Hedgpeth says. “Science is a big deal to me. I had a few science songs that I use to just engage students, and I found that they transferred quite well to a band setting. I found that kids can actually understand quite a bit if you don’t talk down to them, if you actually give them concepts that even working scientists are using on a daily basis. Kids can grasp it pretty well if you approach it the right way.”
Helping kids learn by putting difficult-to-grasp concepts into a relatable form isn’t just cool, it’s amazing, and important. Other scientists and teachers from around the country have been contacting the band to compliment them on their methods, and understandably so. If you can make kids laugh and learn at the same time, you’ve cracked the code.
“It’s zany and it’s silly, but we find that even the kids in middle school and high school who are kinda like, ‘Whaaaaat?’ — they can’t help but smile at it,” Hedgpeth says. “There’s that quality to it. There’s a lot of humor in what we do.”
Jordan and Mosley deserve special credit; they’re not teachers by profession, yet they’ve taken to the roles for the sake of the band like ducks to water. The trio have been friends, as well as bandmates in other groups, for many years, bonding over a shared love of Devo, Echo & the Bunnymen, They Might Be Giants, and Gary Numan. All of that and more squeaks into the Amoeba People sound.
“Everything from folk to hip-hop to electronic — it all sort if makes its way in,” Hedgpeth says. “It’s all stuff that, if you had a different band, you might not be able to pull those influences in quite as much. Because of the nature of what we do, it being a little more zany, we can pull in those varying influences and make them meld together a little more easily than you could if you were trying to be a serious rock band.”
The Amoeba People holds the rare distinction of being the house band at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, which happens to be the only science museum in the country that has a house band, unsurprisingly. So the band will play day shows to families at a space center, then play a dive bar in the evening. The guys are equally comfortable in both.
“We literally don’t have to change anything,” Hedgpeth says. “Maybe the energy levels. Every venue is different. Our audience is generally anywhere from 8 to 80, so for those shows at science centers I’ve had a few students show up. They dig it. We bring the same interest, energy and humor to any venue we play, whether it’s filled with beer guzzling adults or families on picnic blankets. It’s all the same for us.”
On Sunday, the band will play at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach for the first time, so patrons of that establishment will experience the science-punk for themselves. There are two Amoeba People albums out there that the set will pull from, as well as a bunch of digital-only releases, and a new record, tentatively titled The Fossil Record, on the way.
“We’re going to do our typical dorky favorites,” Hedgpeth says. “We have some geology dance moves during one of our songs that our bass player, Mr. Mosley, is going to teach to everyone. It’s a combination of science-rock tunes and some dance moves. It’s just gonna be a blast, at least on our end.”
If that’s not enough, and it really should be, there’s something called “scientist karaoke” to look forward to. Yep, that’s a thing now.
“It’s the first time we’ve tried this at a show,” Hedgpeth says. “We’re hoping that people will come dressed as their favorite scientist. There’s going to be a scientist cosplay competition with prizes — we have a panel of judges comprised of scientists judging the karaoke and the cosplayers. For the karaoke, you come to the show dressed as a scientist then pick a song that you think would fit that scientist. ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ maybe would be for somebody like Galileo. We hope people come up with their own creative ideas and take part in it.”
When this weekend’s show is over, the Amoeba People will be working on a video for a song they have written about the Cassini satellite, which will be crashing into Saturn sometime in September. That makes for a very firm deadline.
You see though — this is a band that can’t help but teach us things.
The Amoeba People plays at 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 17 at Alex’s Bar; 2913 East Anaheim Street, Long Beach; 562-434-8292; $5; 21+.