Wearing a green rugby shirt and armed with his handy dandy notebook, Steve Burns entertained children from 1996 to 2002 as the human host of Blue’s Clues. His adventures with his evidence-leaking, cerulean-shaded sidekick became one of Nickelodeon’s biggest hits and one of the most enduring (and memeable) children’s shows thanks in no part to Steve’s aw-shucks approachability and the way he spoke plainly to kids. While the internet might swirl with rumors of his death, Burns is very much alive. And he’s back in the children’s entertainment business with a new album and new sidekick: Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips.
Burns and Drozd have been buddies for a while. During his stint as a solo artist, Burns opened for The Flaming Lips and made an appearance in the band’s film Christmas on Mars. On their new album Foreverywhere, Burns and Drozd play the sort of glittering, psychedelic tunes children of the 70’s may have heard out of their parent’s 8-track. And the lyrics tell tales about Unicorns who used to front rock bands having existential crises and a fact-driven song about kids pooping that sounds like the theme of the weirdest gameshow of all time. It’s fun, catchy, and exactly the type of music most parents can listen to and not feel compelled to go all Van Gogh after the 11,000th playing.
Here, Burns talks about forming STEVENSTEVEN, those Blue’s Clues days, and how internet rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated.
Since you left Blue’s Clues, there’s been a lot of, uh, rumors about your well-being. Obviously, they’re not true. What did you make of all those ‘Steve Is Dead’ myths?
At first, it was highly disturbing because it bothered my mom so much and I would just be furious. Then it became in a way just so interesting. In the current age of information, things that get on the internet with enough traction are indelible. You see it politically, the truth, verity doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s repetition. If you repeat something long enough on the internet it kind of just doesn’t go away. Some days it still pisses me off. I don’t want to associate Blue’s Clues with those things. The one that got me really mad is the one that said I died in a Dodge Charger. I would never drive a Charger! That’s a cop car.
How did you hook up with Steven Drozd?
I’d always been a closet musician and into music production. I was blown away by The Flaming Lip’s Soft Bulletin, still my favorite record of all time, and I knew someone who knew someone who knew the producer. I cashed in every favor I had to send the guy a CD of my music. He confessed later he only listened because he thought it would suck so bad. But he was kind of impressed and called me and asked if I’d wanted to work together.
I was in my 30s and going bald, so I just knew that I was done. If the state of my pleated pants was any indication of the wig technology I’d be given, I made the right choice to leave.
And that’s how you met him?
I went to the studio and Steve was there and it really was 10 minutes later we were sitting on the floor laughing hysterically. It just went from there. He started making my mediocre songs so much better. So I released a whole record Songs for Dustmites. It got good reviews, but nobody bought it. But then The Flaming Lips took me on tour and we became friends. Years later, Nickelodeon asked me to write a song about a show about a groundhog which I did with Steve and that was our first kids’ music. The song came together so joyously we decided we had to write a kids’ record together. But we were both so busy it took us forever to do it.
How would you describe the music you make as STEVENSTEVEN?
We call it “Everybody Music” because it’s really our best effort at making music for all ages at once and is why we named the album Foreverywhere. There are some songs on the record that definitely skew towards younger or older kids but within the aesthetic of each we never compromised it to a point where we didn’t love it. Some are just funny; some are really moving.
What do you think it brings that other kids’ music doesn’t?
It’s always been my opinion that children’s entertainment is too often limited to the “Yay!” spectrum of kids’ emotions. Kids I’ve met are highly complex emotional beings — I’ve met some really angry kids, sad kids, kids who are really determined and for me music has served all those emotions. I remember as a 5-year-old I loved The Rocky soundtrack; not just “Gonna Fly Now” but the sad motifs on that record. I listened to that whole record all the time and was very moved. I look at my friends’ kids and they’re all singing “Let It Go”; that’s a pretty profound song that kids might not understand lyrically but they’re feeling something. And that’s way more than “Yay!”
The rumor that got me really mad is the one that said I died in a Dodge Charger. I would never drive a Charger! That’s a cop car.
Now, on to Blue’s Clues. When was the moment you realized the show had blown up?
There wasn’t any. It’s only now 20 years later I’m starting to understand. I’ve never been comfortable with even the small marginalized version of fame I had. I was never really comfortable with it.
If you look at what was happening, the relationship with kids was working. These kids believed I was talking to them and their friend. I think if I allowed that to be real I wouldn’t’ have been able to do the show. Looking back, I’m grateful it was so carefully researched and brilliantly conceived and the things I was saying to these children were all wonderful.
What were your favorite shows/movies/characters growing up and who or what was your inspiration for Blue’s Clues?
My source material for Steve was a lot of Grover, a lot of Fred Rogers, and the Easter egg final scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“You’re still here?”) for talking to camera.
You hosted the show for 6 years. What did that teach you about kids and what they best respond to?
To create a realistic, believable relationship to individual home viewers, that was really interesting as a young actor. I thought that was a really cool challenge and I attached to it right away. I loved the element of silence, they gave me enormous freedom to be silent and create a moment.
And as far as kids are concerned, I took a cue from Fred Rogers, the idea that you talk to people with respect for where they’re at. It seemed clear to me early on and became clear early on that you really can talk to kids like this [goes into loopy voice] if you want to. That’s in your back pocket; it’s a gimme, but Blue’s Clues wasn’t interested in that. We were interested in a deeper connection. We wanted to hold their attention and be constructive and teaching.
My source material for playing Steve on Blue’s Clues was a lot of Grover, a lot of Fred Rogers, and the Easter egg final scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Who were the more obsessive fans: the kids or their parents?
At its best, I called Blue’s Clues the “Rocky Horror Children’s Show.” Kids had a script, knew what was next, couldn’t wait to be part of the show, sing the songs, do the dances, sit and think at the right time. That was a form of obsession we were cultivating [laughs].
In terms of parents, I’m not fortunate enough to be a parent at this point, but from what they’ve told me you’re kind of held a little hostage by some of the media your kids are ingesting. To the degree that Blue’s Clues was unique and held kids’ attention, it allowed parents some free time.
What led you to leave the show?
It felt like I’d been doing it forever. I inhabited this weird ageless space on Blue’s Clues acting like a kid/older brother/definitely not an adult. I was in my 30s and going bald, so I just knew that I was done. If the state of my pleated pants was any indication of the wig technology I’d be given, I made the right choice to leave.