Related story: “Side Pony” album review: LINK
For the record, Lake Street Dive is not a jazzy band.
As drummer Mike Calabrese good-naturedly noted, in anticipation of the band’s show on Sunday at Cargo in Reno, the Boston quartet has been hampered by this misconception since the release of its 2012 breakout album “Bad Self Portraits” and the band has been
trying to put the jazz moniker in the rear-view mirror ever since.
“Everybody still classifies us as jazz in some respect,” Calabrese told Tahoe Onstage. “They don’t say we are a jazz band — which we used to be and was true. But the big thing for us is they see an upright bass and a trumpet in the band and they go, ‘This band is a jazzy band.’ We’re really trying to get away from that and not imply that anymore. Not only that, we don’t feel like we do. It would be clear to us more than anyone if we were injecting jazz, even organically, into what we do.”
The fact is that Lake Street Dive defies categorization, plain and simple. Calabrese and bandmates bassist Bridget Kearney, singer Rachael Price, and guitarist/trumpeter Michael “McDuck” Olson have so colorful many elements of 1960s pop, Motown, Memphis soul and rock and roll that they radiate like a kaleidoscope. People are going to hear what they hear, but the band’s latest album “Side Pony” definitely isn’t the Lake Street Dive of a couple years ago. “Side Pony,” a reference the band believed embodied its philosophy to embrace the unique and to be themselves, shouts its individuality from a rooftop. Calabrese explained the album was a conscious effort to push their sound into something new.
“We were really looking for something different. … There’s a couple songs on the album that were definitely a stretch for us, namely “Hell Yeah,” which was constructed in the studio. “Can’t Stop” was a big stretch for us, as well as other songs like “Call Off Your Dogs” — where it was started by Bridget but we finished it up in the studio. So there are these little things, listening back, where it’s like, ‘That doesn’t really sound like old Lake Street Dive.’ It is in a new direction, which was formed during the writing process for this album,” Calabrese, said.
Knowing they wanted something different but not knowing what exactly they had in mind, the band enlisted the help of producer Dave Cobb (who also produced for Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Secret Sisters). The musicans dug the sound he had cultivated in the studio and were impressed by his use of old-school recording techniques and equipment, as well as the fact he came from a live band approach. While his pedigree spoke for itself it was still tough for the band to have an outsider come into its tight-knit group and shake things up, even if it was what they were seeking.
“We said if we are working for someone that does this for a living, has done this for a living for a long time, and has gotten a lot of traction and accolades for what he has done, let’s kind of dial back the aggressively democratic control that we normally put on ourselves and the band and our whole creative process,” Calabrese said. “Let’s cede that control to someone who really, really knows what they are doing, whose instrument is the studio, whose instrument is a band’s songs and coherence. That was the most difficult thing for us was to cede that control and we decided we wouldn’t take it personally if he moved stuff around and he rearranged us a lot. It really stretched the boundaries of our comfort zone. But you can get a really good product when you do that.”
Lake Street Dive whittled down 40 initial song ideas into 20 demos they sent to Cobb. After one run through of the demos, Cobb cut it down to 12 songs the band worked with in the studio to create “Side Pony.” Cobb recorded the band live in the room with no headphones, which Calabrese said immensely helped with the dynamics. Performing hundreds of shows with large speaker systems to huge crowds had gotten the band out of touch with playing with each other and actually listening to what each person was bringing to the table. Playing so close together and without headphones forced them to not overpower one another and improved the band’s chemistry.
Cobb also had a profound effect in opening the band to different possibilities. As Calabrese explained, Cobb was the defacto fifth member of Lake Street Dive and his deft musical insight proved to be on point more than once.
“I feel like ‘Side Pony’ for one captures a more collaborative spirit because it was the first time when the producer we were working with had us construct songs in the studio. … On ‘God Awful Things’ he totally changed the groove and turned it into more of a double-time thing, and he changed the hook and even some of the words. There is a guitar solo section and he said we needed to add some weird chords to it so it is sort of a departure and makes coming back into the chorus feel a little bit better. Most of the song was there but he said try this or tweak this and then, boom, we never knew the song could be so cool,” Calabrese said.”
The band has been on a whirlwind ride since “Bad Self Portraits” and “Side Pony” is certainly going to take it to another crazy level. Up in the stratosphere like that can make it hard for a musician to look back down to earth and remember where they started. For Calabrese it has been something he has had to wrestle with as Lake Street Dive takes up a lot of creative space for him. But recently he was able to reconnect with one of his first loves, jazz, when he sitting-in with friends on a whim. He also planned a Ziggy Stardust tribute with friends in December that took on a deeper, more emotional meaning when David Bowie died the day before the show was set to take place.
“I’m looking to do some songs that Lake Street hasn’t done that I’ve done with other people and make an album. I really enjoy singing and playing drums. My dream is to have a band when I am off the road that is thrown together just for some fun and I get to play drums, sing lead and just play with musicians I like playing with and have some fun with it. … I don’t think the singing drummer is a dying breed and I certainly like doing it,” Calabrese said.
Whatever the future holds for the members of Lake Street Dive, they’ll continue to rock their side pony with a fiery panache.
Lake Street Dive
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28
Where: Cargo at the Whitney Peak Hotel
Tickets: $18 in advance, $23 at the door if not sold out
For: Ages 18 and older
Related story: Lake Street Dive stars at High Sierra Music Festival: LINK