Interview with Mike “McDuck” Olson, Lake Street Dive’s Guitarist/Trumpeter
You all met in conservatory. You must have been surrounded by amazing musicians.
Why did you limit yourself to being a 4 piece?
The original instrumentation was based more on a jazz setup than a pop or rock instrumentation. The Ornette Coleman bands had a drummer and a bass player and two horn players, so in the original idea for the band, which was far more rooted in the jazz tradition, Rachael’s voice was like the other horn player.
If you had to add an instrument (or 2) to your sound, what would it be?
Now that we’re far more rock and pop oriented, and we’ve added the electric guitar to our live shows, we have a much bigger sound. We don’t really find ourselves wanting for another member, but we often have a keyboard or organ player on our records, and occasionally have piano playing friends sit in with us live. But the background vocal component to the band really fills out the harmonies, so we don’t feel like we’re lacking really! Why, do you know someone that wants to audition?
The four of you are immensely talented and educated musicians. You all have clearly spent a lifetime becoming experts in your craft. After years of schooling, performing and hard work, you seem to be gaining notoriety because of a YouTube video. (I actually read that the video was almost an afterthought to boot.) It is an interesting testament to the times we live in.
Could you share your thoughts on this?
I was recently reminded of an Andy Warhol quote: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This has become so much more true with the advent of YouTube. It’s made everybody’s cats and kids celebrities. Don’t get me wrong, we are extremely pleased for the wider exposure the online video has afforded us, but there is a kind of absurd surprise and pleasure that comes from it too for us, that we can work for so long and so hard, and all it takes is a tweet from Kevin Bacon to propel us into a completely new bracket of notoriety.
Is it a sign of hope or despair for the music industry?
I can’t claim to know enough about the music industry to really say. Frankly, it seems like the Internet in general is more trouble than just YouTube for the industry, what with making music free for everyone all the time. You don’t need to go to a show or turn on a radio to get into a band. Of course, this is also totally positive as well; gone are the days of “locality” for a band, in that someone in Cleveland can go online and check out a new band from Albuquerque or Anchorage, you know? So that’s great too. I think people have a kind of soft spot for the way the industry worked in the 60’s and 70’s without knowing why sometimes. It’s changing, just like everything else, with the freedom of information nowadays, and we’ve all got to just roll with the punches.
Does it change the way you think about your own careers as you chart your path forward?
Not really. As a general rule, we try not to think too hard about that stuff. The focus of this band as always been the live show; it’s how we cut our teeth ten years ago in Boston and Cambridge and New York, and it’s how we continue to generate lasting fans. As long as we continue to improve our live performances and take time to make great, fun records, we feel confident that we will continue on a positive trajectory.
I saw you all at a small music festival in Madison, WI this past summer and the MC for the event was very excited to announce the amazing next band: Lake Street Drive!
Does that still happen?
Is it happening less?
Perhaps? I was really holding my breath on Letterman and Colbert, nervous that one of them would mis-read the teleprompter. I just know that someday, if we ever get introduced by John Travolta, he’ll say Drive.
On a side note, did you intend for your name to be abbreviated as LSD? Did you realize it going in?
No. Can you believe it? We’re such squares it literally took us YEARS to make the connection.
Assuming the answer to the above two questions was no, would you change anything now if you could?
My bandmates would say no I’m sure, they have a real fondness for our old, awkward days as a band trying to figure out what we’re going to sound like. But I maintain that I would ABSOLUTELY change how our early years went. We just recently got a recording of our very first gig from a friend, and the rest of the band listened to it and enjoyed it, and I couldn’t listen to one note. It’s so embarrassing.
Your sound is coming from many different directions, certainly within the album, but also, often within a single song.
I am wondering how similar your musical influences are?
You mean within the band? Our music tastes and influences are all totally in line with one another.
Could you each list a few of your musical heroes?
We all love the Beatles and Carol King and Leonard Cohen and Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and Lucinda Williams…the list is never ending.
You are a very unique band that seems about poised to take over the world.
Could you mention a few band’s whose careers you aspire to?
Well we always look towards the Beatles as major musical role models. We don’t want to play half hour stadium shows to thousands of screaming girls per se, but even after they stopped touring all the time, they continued to make very progressive albums, each one different and better and more evolutionary than the past; they grew until the very end. We also don’t want to end with bitterness and acrimony of course either, that’s where we’d prefer not to follow in their footsteps!
On this album, each track was credited to a single one of you.
In the past, there have been collaborations listed. Is this something the audience should read into?
No, of course not! We don’t collaborate a ton on the songwriting process, simply because it’s challenging for us. We each have very different methods and processes. However, we are extremely collaborative with the arranging part of making a song performance ready. Usually, a songwriter will bring in a “skeleton” of a song, the words, the chords, a temporary form, maybe some background harmonies; from there, we work on taking it from demo status to something that is totally Lake Street Dive, with a classically Bridget-style bass line, to a feel that only Mike Calabrese could pull off on the drums, and of course, Rachael takes every melody and interprets it with care and love and makes it her own as well. Even if the songs aren’t collaboratively written, they are inevitably filtered through the lens of the band to make each one special.
What are your thoughts on improvisation, both as a band and as individuals within the band?
Since we have such a strong jazz background as individuals, improvisation is a constant for us, even though we play the same basic pop songs each night, and basically in the same way from one show to the next. However, since everyone has such a command of their instruments, each time a song is played, there are variations and embellishments that DO change night to night. This could take the form of a trumpet solo or a vocal riff or whatever, but the important thing is that we are LISTENING to each other with the ears of improvisers, in that if someone does something new or wild, we all react to it, and it elevates the playing in a different way than it we were playing the exact same version of each song over and over again.
Rachael is such an amazing singer, but all of you are very talented vocalists. I really enjoy when Mike Calabrese jumps in and briefly sings lead on Seventeen. I think it adds a great counterpoint to the song. Any one of you could probably be leading a band on your own.
Were any of you lead singers in your past bands?
Mike and I share lead singing duties in a rock band that plays once in a blue moon, and Bridget has sung lead a few times with a band called Cuddle Magic that she and Mike used to be associated with, but nothing so regular as LSD.
For Bridget, Mike and Mike, is it be hard to be in a band with a singer SO powerful?
It’s AMAZING. It’s our not-so-secret weapon. Rachael is the gateway for our songs to see the light of day, here voice draws even jaded music listeners, and she never gets the lead singer diva syndrome. She’s just purely amazing, and we are lucky to have her.
There are some pretty honest songs on this album. Bad Self Portraits and Bobby Tanqueray are both somewhat revealing, almost raw. Rachael brings them to life masterfully, but she didn’t write them.
Could you all speak about how it feels to have something so personal sung on stage by Rachael?
It might be different if Rachael wasn’t such a good friend to each of us, or so willing and giving and selfless with her interpretation. But because she is all those things and more, I’ve gotten to the point where I hear her voice as I write, and wouldn’t want it any other way.
Does it make it easier or harder to write a strong, honest song knowing that you won’t be singing lead on it, but that you will be standing right there, playing along?
Well, yes the songs are personal and drawn from experience, but there has to be an element of fabrication to make the songs as easily related to as possible, and to have the widest possible appeal. Having said that, Rachael also has the capacity to take songs we’ve written, often from painful and honest places, that maybe we as songwriters have stripped away a degree of the emotion, and she puts the feeling right back in. She can breathe life into a limerick. It’s not hard, it’s the way we want to be heard.
Mike Olsen, you have a tremendous amount of freedom because of how tight a rhythm section you are playing with. This allows you to put down your guitar and play trumpet, and sometimes to not even play for long stretches of a song.
Could you talk about this freedom? Did you have to get used to it or is this what you had always been looking for in a band?
I’ve played in so few traditional rock bands, so I wouldn’t know how I would feel without this freedom you speak of. Really what it affords me is the ability to stand back and watch this amazing band up close and personal each night. It’s kind of incredible.
I am pretty sure I saw Rachael singing the National Anthem on this season of House of Cards.
How did that come to be?
I guess the director and his daughter were at one of our shows! Pretty crazy how these kinds of things just fall into place, huh?
You recently had your television premier of the Colbert Report, so I have to ask:
The Colbert Bump – Great Bump or Greatest Bump?
Greatest. I think we’re still riding it!
Anything else to share about being on the Report?
Stephen Colbert was so incredibly gracious and kind. When we rolled up to the tv studio, he leaned out his office window and shouted down to us, waving, saying how excited he was. We even caught him singing our songs to himself while he ate dinner on the set! We were DEEPLY nervous, but he took it easy on us, and made sure we looked at least semi-competent, and the crew was nothing but 100% accommodating and wonderful to us. It’s been a real highlight so far this year.
Did Stephen try and invite himself to sing with you or were you all too intimidating, even for him?
Ha! I have no idea. He just let us do our thing, which was super nice of him! Maybe he’ll have us back, and we’ll back him up on a few songs…just putting it out there…