Since 2004, the Boston-based southern rock band Lake Street Dive has been pumping out its own fusion of soul, jazz, and bluegrass music with a heavy nod to sounds from another era. Thanks to some high-profile TV appearances, a viral video, and unique one-night only concerts, the classically trained four piece has catapulted in popularity.
This Thursday, February 23, the band becomes the latest act to participate in the BSO Pulse series, which pairs indie bands with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with the help of WTMD. Though they have played with big bands and jazz ensembles before, this will be the first time the band—guitarist and trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson, upright bassist Bridget Kearney, drummer Mike Calabrese, and vocalist Rachael Price—will have played with a traditional orchestra. We caught up with Olson to talk about influences and inspirations, how life has changed, what to expect from their show on Thursday, and how Kevin Bacon helped give them a career boost.
A lot of bands are called “genre-defying,” but you have your tentacles in so many different sounds: soul, jazz, bluegrass, Motown, southern rock.
Mike Olson: That’s true. Our audience is not a super specific “x” type of crowd. And there really is no other way we could function. As a band, we are all influenced by the music of our youth. Even though our tastes have definitely matured and split and divided a million times, we still consider the Beatles to be our collective favorite band. When we were all kids and our parents had the radio on in the car, the oldies of the ’80s were the ’60s, and that was such a golden age of pop music. Every song was just this perfect, three-and-a-half minute pop song. That was such an incredible time for music and it’s not going to top that. So our bread and butter musically is ’60s soul, British invasion stuff, and early ’70s rock.
You’ve been around for almost 15 years, but to what do you attribute your most recent success?
MO: Well the constant touring can’t hurt. [Laughs] We sort of attribute our break to a couple of really specific things that happened within a short period of time back in 2012 and 2013. We made a video on a street corner in Brighton, Massachusetts playing “I Want You Back” and that went viral and was getting shared by all kinds of folks. Kevin Bacon tweeted about it, which really set it off. All the sudden, we went from being excited about 200 people looking at it to "Oh god, this video has 1 million views."
There are a few others gigs we did that were super beneficial to our career, specifically The Colbert Report and performing a one-night only concert of the music from Inside Llewyn Davis, where we got in front of a lot of New York media darlings for, like, a minute, which is I guess all you need. And we just haven’t stopped since.
Has that success changed your day to day?
MO: There are certain creature comforts we’re able to afford ourselves. We travel with a crew, we sleep overnights between shows on a bus. Four or five years ago, it seemed pie in the sky and we’ll never get there. Mike Calabrese, our drummer, his dad would always tell us when we’d rehearse in the basement, "You’ve gotta find ways to make money while you sleep." Now that we’ve gotten to this place where there is already momentum, things happen without us directly trying to make them happen anymore.
Two nights ago in New Haven, we played at a show at a venue with 2,100 people, which was a sold-out show. The last time we played New Haven was to a 200-cap bar and it definitely wasn’t full. In the past, the model that we had always used was, if you want to sell out a venue, you go to that town and play there every six months and you do all the radio promotion and you flyer up and down the main street. But now we have this momentum, which has a life of its own. So day-to-day is like a bizzare-o new reality.
It’s funny, since we’re not touring in a tiny van together listening to one iPod anymore, we don’t always know what music we’re all into. So we’ve started planning these “listening sessions” and, independently from each other, we’ve all recently gotten into hip-hop and R&B, listening to a lot of Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar. I’m not saying we’re going to put a hip-hop album out, but it would be hard not to be influenced in that direction.
What can we expect on Thursday? I know you guys have so many amazing covers.
MO: We are kind of delving into our back catalog right now. We’ve recently dusted off [George Michael’s] “Faith” and we pulled out Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It.” Those were so fun that we’ll probably be playing those a lot on this tour. But it’s been such a different experience planning this symphony show. We have been communicating a ton. We have been working with this really cool national arranger Don Hart and we’ve been talking to the symphony folks for months now. We’ve added a piano player to our tour, which will make this experience even more special.
You guys recently played a show with the New England Conservatory jazz ensemble and you’re obviously about to play with the orchestra. How do these shows differ from, say, a bluegrass festival?
MO: There are some logistical and conceptual differences to prepare for sets like that. If we’re playing that big boisterous festival and it’s golden hour and people are starting to rage for the night, we’ll play a ton of covers and make our songs more up-tempo. When we’re guest artists with an orchestra, these arrangements are exactly what these musicians prepare for. So we want to nail these right on the head and not stray too far.
Being on stage at the Baltimore Symphony—if it’s anything like in Boston with the big band—we’ll hear our music differently. That’s so unusual for us because we play the same music every night and, for the most part, we know what the song is going to sound like. But with the additional musicians and with a different environment, it’s like hearing someone cover our music while we’re playing it.
How do these types of experiences influence you as a band?
MO: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Back when we were in college, guest artists were somewhat of a regular fixture in our academic and musical life. Especially in a scholastic environment, they wanted us as music students to meet with established and professional musicians. Those were always really valuable experiences for us. Now being on the other side of that is pretty whacky.
It’s kind of like lightning in a bottle—you can go to the symphony and hear their concert and that’s great. You can come to a Lake Street Dive show and that’s hopefully great. These kind of one-offs have mythical qualities because they are singular for the audience and players. It gets us out of our mold and routine. It was really special with the big band and I’m sure it will be the same in Baltimore. We’ll all be experiencing something for the first time together. And there’s something intrinsically beautiful about that.