Meet the Electric Toothbrush Sisters, St. Louis' Favorite New Father-Daughter Band

Apr 9, 2021 at 12:25 pm
Nick Zengerling and his daughter, Nina Von Trone Zengerling, joined by her good friend Bianca the chicken. - JENN DEROSE
Nick Zengerling and his daughter, Nina Von Trone Zengerling, joined by her good friend Bianca the chicken.

The Electric Toothbrush Sisters are everywhere.

In the last twelve months, the local father-daughter duo played Stay At Home Fest, St. Louis Public Radio’s House Show series, an I Watched Music On the Internet set and are now preparing to play an Anti-Fascist Concert Series put on by Patrick Haggerdy of Lavender Country fame. They’ve released a full-length and a self-titled tape, and recently dropped the track “Ring-a-Ding-Ding (Spring Song),” which this author feels is the best song ever written about springtime.

After interrupting a practice session (the pair were rehearsing a rousing rendition of the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat”), front-person and eight-year-old child Nina Von Trone Zengerling joined her dad and bandmate, Nick Zengerling (of Bug Chaser, Catholic Guilt and Maximum Effort, to name a few of his dozen-plus projects), and her mother, Sarah Trone, for an interview in their front yard.

Electric Toothbrush Sisters started because of the pandemic. As Nick explains, “Kids had to stay home, so we started doing a daily music hour as part of our day. Math, science, reading, music and poetry. Nina started reading poetry and practicing writing.”

“And onomatopoeias were one of my poetry assignments,” Nina chimes in. “It was pretty hard.” Onomatopoeias, she explains, are words that sound like what things do: “Birds chirp, chickens bawk.” (It’s worth noting that Nina’s own chicken and close friend Bianca is strutting around their yard for the duration of this interview.) Nick set about putting Nina’s poem to music, and with that, the Electric Toothbrush Sisters’ first official song — the aptly named "Onomatopoeia Song" — was born. 

On the mechanics of songwriting, Nina explains that it’s mostly “rhyming things with other things. Like, in the spring song [“Ring-a-Ding-Ding”] — the grass is green, flowers are blooming, and you can go outside and take nice walks. So you just find stuff to rhyme with that!” 

Other Electric Toothbrush Sisters lyrics are formed from Nina’s life experiences. The song “Dumpster Fire,” for example, came out of a traumatic event many St. Louisans can relate to. “Nina was haunted by this dumpster fire she saw in her friend’s alley,” Nick says.  

“I couldn’t sleep,” Nina interjects. “All I saw when I closed my eyes was fire.”

“So I said that writing a song about her fear might help her get over it,” Nick says. “So she rode her bike in little circles in an empty parking lot, telling me all the things that she remembered from seeing the dumpster fire.” The songwriting tactic worked, and Nina overcame her fear. 

“Sad Parks” also came from Nina’s life, when parks and playgrounds suddenly became off-limits to children everywhere. “I was in the car and saw a playground [wrapped in caution tape] and said, ‘This park looks like it’s so sad!’” she explains.

“Do you know what you did there?” Nina’s mom Sarah asks. “Personification!” Sarah ticks off the other types of figurative language with all the authority of a parent who has guided her child through at-home learning over the last year: “personification, similes, metaphors, idioms and hyperbole.” Nina shrugs.
Of course, as any musician writing from experience can tell you, the practice can be tricky when it comes to personal relationships. When asked if Nick was really a “Mean Mean Poppa,” as one December track would imply, Nina laughs, “No!”

“Oh, [Nick] is a real enforcer, he really lays down the law around here,” Sarah jokes.

“Actually,” Nina giggles, “you’re both bad guys. I’m the good guy.”

It’s natural that being in a family band would come with arguments, and even disagreements about who the bad guys are, but in this case, the pair is remarkably good at compromise, and uses creative differences to make songs better. “We tell each other what should be different, then we agree about what would make it better,” Nina says.

“Really, [Nick] is teaching Nina to be disciplined and to work for the things she cares about. They practice and practice,” Sarah says. 

“Sometimes practice is hard,” Nick says.

“Nina likes to move,” Sarah says, explaining that sitting still can be tough for her daughter sometimes.

Indeed, Nina loves to dance. Her favorite dance music includes songs by Taylor Swift, ABBA, Katy Perry and Jojo Siwa. Her personal style matches the polished, candy-coated music she prefers — at our interview, she sports a side ponytail in a baby-blue scrunchie and a fleece pullover with a sparkly, rainbow-colored unicorn on the chest, worn over red plaid leggings.

When asked about her fashion choices, she replies, “Mom helps me, but I usually help myself. I like my clothes to pop! Pop means color. I don’t like not-color. Black clothes: bleaugh!” She makes a sour face. 

While nearly all of Nina’s performances have been livestreamed from her family’s sitting room, she felt plenty comfortable performing on a professional soundstage for Electric Toothbrush Sisters’ bonkers set during the Sinkhole-sponsored I Saw Music On the Internet series. “It’s kinda scary going to a different place,” she explains. “It feels weird to play songs in front of strangers, but I’m fine with it.”

“We had to wear ear monitors, and there were so many cameras!” Nick says. “I was more nervous than she was.” 

“Yeah, Dad doesn’t really know how to play keyboard, so he kinda messed up and kinda forgot a solo,” Nina says, grinning.

“I absentmindedly cut it off,” Nick laughs. “And then she looked at me and goes, ‘That’s ten bucks off your pay!’”

“That show was like being inside a disco ball,” Sarah says. “It’s like a secret world inside a nondescript warehouse.”

The Electric Toothbrush Sisters performing on Arch City Audio Visual's massive soundstage in March. - VIA  ARCH CITY AUDIO VISUAL
The Electric Toothbrush Sisters performing on Arch City Audio Visual's massive soundstage in March.

“I wish I could live there!” Nina exclaims. Being that she’s aesthetically drawn to glitter, sparkly rocks and other bright things, it’s no surprise that the light display was the main reason Nina agreed to play the show.

“We only play things if Nina says yes,” Nick says. “With school in session, it’s a lot. It’s hard. It’s really up to her. I ask her and she decides what shows we play.”

“I hope we don’t go on tour,” Nina says. “Well, unless we have a jacuzzi in the back of the truck.”

“What about a bounce house?” Nick asks.

“OK, a bounce house with a jacuzzi!” Nina replies.

On raising musically minded children, Nick offers some advice for other parents: “If your kids seem to like music, find out how you can support that. Listen to tons of music — we listen to so much music in our house. And go buy a cheap keyboard. There are so many cheap or free instruments all over, if you look.”

“Or if you can’t afford an instrument, you can make one with your mouth or with your body,” Nina adds. “You could clap or snap.”

“Or you can whistle!” Nick says. “How’s your whistling coming along?” Nina replies with a determined but unsuccessful airy attempt. “So not too well, huh,” he laughs. “Well, you can turn anything into a drum. The whole world is a drum!”

Nina demonstrates by banging on a few pots on their front porch.

“She just happens to live in a house with a ton of music and instruments,” Nick says. “But it's nothing you want to force on a child, like making your kid take piano lessons.”

When asked if she wants readers to know anything we haven’t already discussed, Nina offers some wisdom: “Save the bees! Grow flowers, walk instead of driving and eat organic food! Bees help make most of our food — they help the world have color! We would die without them and the world would look like lava!”

“Maybe we should write a doomsday song,” Nick adds.

Save the bees — do it for Nina. - JENN DEROSE
Save the bees — do it for Nina.

Before the world turns into lava, you can catch the Electric Toothbrush Sisters online for the Anti-Fascist Concert Series on Lavender Country’s Facebook page or Youtube Channel on April 10 at 1 p.m. You can also listen to their music anytime on Bandcamp — it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

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