Ahead of WOMAD 2015, trumpeter and guitarist Mike ‘McDuck’ Olson on recording, going viral, Motown, and the end of a year-long tour. Plus, Joan Armatrading.
Lake Street Dive is an indie jazz and soul quartet founded in 2004 in Boston, Massachusetts. The four members met as jazz students at music college in Boston, and caught the eye of many after a sidewalk performance of The Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’ went viral two years ago. Earlier this year they released the favourably received Bad Self Portraits, a colourful reimagining of early pop, soul, and jazz, and will be performing in New Zealand for this first time at WOMAD 2015. Mike Olson (pictured far right) talks about their success, influences, and plans for the New Year.
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JAMES MANNING: Bad Self Portraits is a lively blend of indie pop, blues and jazz. Going into the recording sessions, did you have any particular intentions for the sound of the album?
MIKE OLSON: The intentions were very basic, I have to say. We have historically recorded whenever we’ve felt like it, or when we’ve had enough songs or enough money. It’s more haphazard than perhaps other bands’ recording schedules are. It’s kinda like, “hey, who feels like making a record?” It’s really awesome and it’s worked well for us in the past. We’ve recorded five records, two of which are very old and out of print, thankfully so. The last couple records have been more representative of the direction we’re going in these days.
JM: The sidewalk rendition of ‘I Want You Back’ filmed on a Boston pavement has over two and a half million views on YouTube. Can you comment on the impact of this exposure?
MO: We recorded Bad Self Portraits in a recording studio in Maine, in a farmhouse, out in the middle of nowhere at the end of 2012. We were very removed from civilisation, there was no cell phone reception, there was no Internet, there was nothing. We were wrapping up and driving away from the studio and everyone turned on their phones once we got back to civilisation, and realised we had a video on YouYube that had gone viral while we were away, which was very surprising and startling.
All of a sudden we had this record that we made essentially for the hell of it, that was destined to reach an audience we had never reached before in terms of numbers. Which is kind of rad, because we didn’t think about that going in; there was no pressure, there were no expectations. We were recording for the sake of recording. The amount of people that it’s reached has far surpassed any expectations we had for it, and we’re very fortunate that it has.
JM: Did the solitude of the recording environment leave an imprint on the final album?
MO: That’s interesting. You know, the story behind the Bon Iver record that was really big a few years ago (Bon Iver, Bon Iver) is that he (Justin Vernon) was in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin and recorded an album about heartbreak, and you can hear it on that record. There’s a lot of space, there’s a lot of reverb; you can almost hear the wind going through the pine trees in Wisconsin. There’s not really a direct link to that and Bad Self Portraits. Despite the fact that we were isolated, despite the fact that it was a farmhouse—I don’t think it influenced the sound of the recording much.
One of my favourite things about playing in this band is the fact that the members are very close, we are very good friends. To be locked away for several weeks in the middle of nowhere might not seem like an ideal situation for a band; it could create tension, there might be fights, there might be drinking in excess. But it was a very joyous time, we had too much fun together and we try to translate that into our music—in our live performances and certainly we want our records to be fun. We want people to experience the same joyousness that we are having playing music together while they are listening to the record. If anything has left its imprint on the sound of the record, it’s the fact that we just had so much damn fun recording it.
JM: Drummer Mike Calabrese has spoken of your music: “We want it to sound like the Beatles and Motown had a party together.”
MO: [Laughs] Oh yeah, absolutely. A lot of those British invasion bands and ’70s rock bands, they all listened to Motown and the blues, music that was made at Muscle Shoals and Stacks. I feel like if you’re a student of early pop music, British invasion, you almost have to be a student of Motown as well, early soul, because they go hand in hand. I think that is where we are trying to come from with our music. Yes, it is very early pop rock influenced, but it also has that soul influence that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were all going for too.
JM: Can you name any particular Motown favourites?
MO: Oh god, all of them? [Laughs] The cool thing about those old recordings from Stacks, Motown, and Muscle Shoals is that, though obviously not exclusively, it’s so often the same band. The only thing that changed was the artist who may have ended up on the record. You would have a week to come in and sing a track and all the same guys clocked in for work and sat down with their guitars, at the piano and drums, and the next day someone else would do the same thing. These guys would play music for a living; it just so happened that everything they played on is now considered this classic sound that everyone reveres as classic soul.
My favourite part about these records is not just the soul artists. Obviously, I love Sam Cook and Aretha Franklin, but it’s so fun to listen to the band and realise that it’s all the same musicians on all these recordings. They were inventing this style of music and working together as a team—the guitar players would conspire and they were just having fun. This is what they did every day and now it’s considered almost biblical in what they were making, in terms of how it has influenced rock and roll and modern soul.
JM: What are Lake Street Dive’s plans leading up to WOMAD 2015?
MO: We’re actually wrapping up our year of touring, essentially until we come to Australia and New Zealand. We’ll be recording another record at the beginning of February, we’ve got a one off New Year benefit gig for our friend and record label Signature Sounds, but really other than that we’re finally taking a break. Touring next year will be very different for us; we’ll be coming to Australia and New Zealand for the first time, but it won’t be the crazy album promotional tour we did this year. We’re actually really excited because it’s allowing us to tour for the sake of touring. We don’t have to be playing Bad Self Portraits for everyone excited about the record; we can think about other ways to spice up the show.
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Joan Anita Barbara Armatrading will this week perform a trio of solo, intimate concerts throughout New Zealand as part of her final, full world tour. At 64 years old, the critically acclaimed British singer, songwriter, and guitarist will grace the stages of the Town Hall in Auckland, the Opera House in Wellington, and the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch, accompanied only by her guitar, piano, and iconic voice.
Fans will rejoice in hearing that this is not a final curtain call or retirement gesture. But after 42 years, it does mark the end of world touring. “I want these concerts to be a special lively interactive one to one experience,” Joan has said of the performances. “I want to capture a unique memory for both myself and the audiences.”
Having recorded since 1972, Joan’s back catalogue is an astonishing blueprint of pop music with signature forays into jazz, soul, blues, folk, rock, and reggae. Five of her 18 studio albums have been certified Gold and three Silver, while her songs have been praised for their deeply emotional nature.
Perhaps most inspiring is Joan’s role beyond the music, something that hasn’t gone without recognition; a number of honorary degrees from various University institutions, a member of the Order of the British Empire, a Lifetime Achievement Award, a stint as the President of the Women of the Year Lunch and being chosen to write and perform a tribute song for Nelson Mandela.
Joan the (self-taught) musician and Joan the humanitarian go hand in hand; it is Joan’s nature that beams through her music, music that allows her to touch the lives of many.