Lake Street Dive returns to Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards in LaFayette on Friday, July 26, to co-headline a show with the Wood Brothers. The show is sold out, but Lake Street Dive just announced an Oct. 19 concert at Geneva’s Smith Opera House, for which tickets go on sale this week.
Lake Street Dive’s latest release is 2018’s “Free Yourself Up,” which produced the hits “Good Kisser” and “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Founding band members Michael Calabrese (drums), Michael “McDuck” Olson (guitar, trumpet), Bridget Kearney (bass) and Rachael Price (vocals) produced the album themselves in Nashville.
In a recent phone interview, Olson talked about returning to upstate New York, the band’s expanded lineup, and Lake Street Dive’s path since forming 15 years ago.
Q: Lake Street Dive last performed at Beak & Skiff in June 2016, a show that was marred by inclement weather. Do you recall that show?
Olson: That was one of the coldest shows I can remember playing. It got in the low 40s by the time we were supposed to take the stage. It had been raining all day long and everything was soaked, and our crew said we have to back up the starting time of your set because we need to make sure the stage is dry and safe to play on.
So we were sitting back in the green room warm and dry, and our Facebook page was blowing up with comments like “Please come out!” and “Please play! We’re out in the audience, wet, cold and freezing – please come out and play!’
That was a tough gig, but it was fun in the end and one of those things where you feel like you bonded with the audience through adversity. But knock on wood that it won’t be as cold this time.
Q: Talk about co-headlining with the Wood Brothers.
Olson: The shows we did with them are so joyous. They are just amazing dudes to be around. The first show we did on this tour was the first time I had really spent any time with them. I had met them in passing and seen them before, but had never actually sat down with them at preshow catering and just talked. They’re incredible guys. They have a lot more industry experience as individuals – obviously Chris Wood with Medeski, Martin & Wood. He was just blowing my mind with stories about their journey.
In terms of a musical pairing, it’s a co-bill, not a support-and-headliner situation. We consider ourselves to be on very equal footing with them in terms of what we can bring to a show and the fans that arrive at the shows. The hope, and I think the reality that we’re seeing, is that there is indeed a lot of crossover between our fans and theirs.
For good reason: they’re a band that really cares about the craft of songwriting the way that we do, their musicianship is really high in a way that we strive to achieve ourselves, and they’re roots reverential in a different way than we are but there’s a lot of shared musical interests with them as well. And a couple of collaborative things that we’re doing in both our set and their set, where we have one another come out on stage, have been really, really cool in a way that doesn’t always happen with other bands. It’s really unique and really special.
Q: You played at the State Theatre of Ithaca last fall with an expanded lineup, with Akie Bermiss on keyboards and vocals. It must be nice to have to have the extra guy who can play 10 notes at a time, and make it more interesting musically.
Olson: Oh yeah, especially when I’m playing trumpet. In the original formation of the band, there was no harmonic foundation. But Akie not only provides that, he’s an amazing singer. When he’s playing piano and I’m playing guitar, it’s like a real band all of a sudden! We can interplay, and it’s not just me chunking out rhythm guitar chords all the time. And he’s a great collaborator and great guy who’s really enjoyable to have on the road. It was originally supposed to be one tour that we’d bring him out on just for fun, and now we don’t want to let him go.
Q: In the original four-person format, I was always impressed about how big the band sounded when the only instruments used were trumpet, bass and drums.
Olson: The original impetus for all the harmony singing and the background vocals that we do was that very issue. When there was just bass and trumpet, we wanted to have a bigger sound and achieve something like that. The solution was all the additional singing.
Before Akie joined the band, we treated the vocals like a keyboard instrument: ‘We need to simulate an organ swell here’ or ‘We sing oohs there.’ In a lot of ways, the background harmonies were for the longest time – and still continue to be – a key component of our arrangements. So that big sound was a conscious decision early on.
Q: I’ve always liked your guitar style. You often use an ugly tone in the middle of a pretty song to make it more interesting.
Olson: That’s also a conscious decision. We’re going for something unique in everything we do, whether it’s a songwriting thing like a turn of phrase that’s a little out of the ordinary, an arrangement choice that’s out of the ordinary, or a production choice. So that could be a really gnarly guitar sound on a ballad. Trumpet itself is a weird production choice for a rock band; it’s just not a common thing.
We have a relatively limited live palette – we’re not a 15-piece band so we can have something going all the time – so the choices we do make are all very conscious.
Q: It’s been 15 years since you pulled together Lake Street Dive when you all were attending the New England Conservatory of Music. Did you think you’d be still doing it all these years later?
Olson: Oh no, I never thought it would last this long. This was never intended at the outset to be our main, full-time job as musicians. I think we all wanted to be full-time musicians, but coming out of the jazz tradition we assumed we would all be sidemen and leaders of bands and have a lot of different outlets.
The thing that made Lake Street Dive unique for us from the beginning was that it was indeed a band in a very traditional sense. It wasn’t a jazz sort of unit, in the sense where you have a book of charts and if your first-call bassist can’t make it you just call in someone else to read the chart and it’s more or less the same thing. This was always intended to be a band with consistent members and we would learn songs and no one else could do what we four could do.
As that evolved, and as we learned that was not a jazz thing, we began to see the kind of legs that it had. As we made the difficult decision to quit all of our other competing interests, and devote ourselves full time to this band, we did that without really knowing what would happen, obviously. But also, again coming out of a jazz tradition, we saw successful jazz musicians and sort of assumed that was the bar for us. We didn’t know about touring on a tour bus, or the rock ‘n’ roll festival circuit. As we got into that world, and started to learn more about it, and began to see what was possible, I don’t think we ever said, yes, that’s where we want to be in 15 years, but we also were really committed from the beginning to saying we’re going to work as hard as we can and see where this takes us.
There was also not a clear-cut path. I suppose there never really is, but given that we weren’t a band that had real specific scene, it was hard for us to look at a band like us but one that was a few years down the road, and say ‘That’s where we’re headed.’
We’ve done a lot of opening tours for acts that are where we are now or a few years down the road ahead of us. We did a bunch of tours with Josh Ritter and the Yonder Mountain String Band and those were really informative because they showed us what was possible. But it wasn’t like ‘This is exactly the route you’ll be in.’
The same thing is happening now that we’re doing a lot of work with the Avett Brothers – again, that’s a really successful band that has given us a lot of amazing opportunities. And we can see where they have gone, but we’re not like the Avett Brothers, we ‘re not two bands cut from the same cloth occupying the same scene musical genre. We can look to them and say that’s a really successful business model, they’re a great band, and we could be there in another five years. Or we could be someplace completely different, because we are so different from them.
And so it has been a very wild ride, and it’s been one leap of faith after another every time we try something new and explore a new avenue within the music industry. It’s informative when we take those experiences and file them away and push forward.
So the answer to the question is, no, we had no idea that we’d be here. But we also have had no idea, period, what was going to happen.
Q: You can’t really predict how the music industry will continue to evolve.
Olson: Young bands ask us all the time how they can re-create what we’ve done. And the answer is, you won’t, you can’t, and you never could. We could never recreate what Nirvana did in the 1990s, or Madonna did in the 1980s – those were completely different eras for the music industry and the world is very different now. We got in with YouTube before YouTube was completely saturated. People could still stumble across a band playing a Jackson 5 cover pretty easily, it felt like.
But the Internet is different from when we started, and that’s a huge game changer. If somehow we had been transplanted 15 years into the future and were just starting out now, there’s no guarantee anything would happen exactly the same way.
Q: Last question: we’ve had Bridget Kearney and Rachael Price bring their other bands to Ithaca in recent years. When are we going to see a McDuck solo project?
Olson: (laughs) That’s not in the works. That’s not my path. And I don’t think anyone will be disappointed – you don’t want to hear me sing solo!