Interview with Lake Street Dive
By Justin Trudell
There are a lot of musical acts that put on an incredible show, but they aren’t very technically skilled. You’ll hear plenty of amazing musicians, but their shows are a bit of a bore. It’s rare to find that sweet spot of style and substance, but Lake Street Dive have occupied that happy medium their whole careers – and are finally getting their due recognition for it.
The first time I saw Lake Street Dive, they were performing on The Colbert Report. Colbert has always had a great track record featuring acts you might not see on other late night shows, but these guys were something different altogether. Lake Street Dive had a pretty simple setup – drums, guitar and a singer – but, they all sounded different than anything else. Everyone was performing so powerfully and passionately, they seemed to LOVE playing with each other, and their song was so damn catchy. I’m glad to see more people catching on to Lake Street Dive, and I was beyond excited to get a chance to talk with them about their upcoming show at Michigan Theater on March 1.
Bassist Bridget Kearney took some time to talk to How Was It Detroit about their new album, their growing popularity, and her experience as a snake handler.
How Was It Detroit: The new album, Side Pony, comes out February 19th. What does that term “Side Pony” mean? Besides being a killer look from the 1980s.
Bridget Kearney: Well that title comes from a song on the album also called “Side Pony”. It was a song McDuck, our guitar player wrote. The original inspiration was that he got married in the spring, and his wife was wearing a side pony at the wedding. And he just thought that was really cool that she had that non-traditional, off-kilter, bold hairstyle for their wedding. And it sort of became a large emblem of being yourself and doing your own thing, unapologetically embracing alternative. So it’s kind of a big thing for us to represent. Sum up the goals for the record and the goals for the band in general for individual, alternative type of band. Not going with the mainstream. Not doing something straight down the pike like everybody else is doing.
HWID: From the tracks I have been able to hear, the new album seems to have more confidence, almost a swagger. Is that a reflection on you as a band and how much you have grown?
BK: I wouldn’t characterize it that way as something we were going for, but I think there’s probably something to that. When we did our last record (Bad Self Portraits 2014), we were probably playing around 50 shows a year. For the last two years, we were probably playing closer to 150 or even 200. So, we have definitely grown a lot as a band and probably have more confidence because of it. Just from getting out on stage every night and getting better at what we do. The fact that we were able to be together that much in the last couple of years has allowed us to focus on how we can get better each night and how we can play better together and work better as an ensemble. So yeah, I think that’s in there somewhere.
HWID: Lake Street Dive has become quite popular over the last few years, is it something you guys are aware of? Do you feel the growing numbers at shows? Does it change how you play a show?
BK: It’s definitely something we are aware of, you can’t not notice it just walking into bigger rooms every night and seeing people in the front of the house, or in the whole house singing along to the words and think, “Wow, they actually know our music.” It’s really exciting. There was a period of adjustment for the live show of being able to just make bigger gestures that people can see in the back of a big room.
We kinda grew up in these small clubs where everybody can see your every change of facial expression and movement. Then all the sudden the stage is literally much bigger. So we did have to learn to perform for a bigger venue. But I think most of all, it’s been a blessing to spend so much time and energy on it. Before for the last couple years, we were all working in different jobs and playing in different bands and stuff. The increase in popularity has just meant we get to be together a lot more and put in our 10,000 hours or whatever they say it takes to be a master at something.
HWID: As music fans, we sometimes think a band is successful because of album sales, or awards, or just popularity. What do you guys, as musicians, consider “success”? With both a new album and individual shows?
BK: I would say we are pretty music focused. I mean, that’s probably why it took us 12 years to get on a major label. [laughs] We have always been focused on making the music better. I would say the main goal, music wise, is to just be able to support yourself on the music. That’s the whole problem as an artist, “How am I able to sustain life where I can spend my energy when I wake up in the morning on my art?” Keeping that goal in mind, I think, we are satisfying that goal like we never have before and it’s great. Beyond that, you just want to always keep making records that are exciting to you. The whole thing about being in a band, people always say it’s like a marriage or a family, you want to keep that relationship strong and keep surprising each other and pushing each other towards a better collaboration. That’s something this album did for us too, we were writing in a more collaborative way than we ever have. It’s something we are all excited about doing more of in the future.
HWID: This is the first album for Lake Street Dive with Nonesuch Records, how did signing with a major label change your recording process?
BK: I am very glad to report that in most ways it didn’t change the recording process. Going into this major market we did have some anxiety about people on the business side of it forcing us to do things we didn’t want to do. With Nonesuch, they’ve been incredibly supportive of our creative decisions they are an artist friendly label and they’ve always said to us, “We signed you because we like what you do and we aren’t here to change that.”
They were really open-minded when we chose Dave Cobb as our producer. That is kind of the first decision to make when you’re making a new record – where we are going to make it and who we are going to make it with. Dave Cobb is having a really big year. He’s Grammy-nominated producer of the year, he just played with Chris Stapleton on SNL so his name has grown a lot in the last year, which is amazing because he deserves it. When we picked him, like a year and a half ago, he was kind of this outlier, weirdo, like not the traditional choice, ya know. And Nonesuch was completely behind it, so we got in the studio with him.
The one big difference I would say with this album is that we had more time. That’s the best thing about being on a bigger label, you just have more resources and they can say, “Yeah, you want a month in the studio? You got it.” We had more time than ever before to track extra songs and see which ones came out the best. And there were certain songs we recorded in a certain way and said, “no we didn’t really get it, let’s do it again” or “let’s change a few things about it” and that’s a luxury that we have never had before. So that was nice. It’s been really cool so far.
HWID: I checked out the Lake Street Dive Instagram and I noticed you recently went on a trip to Cuba, how was that?
BK: Yeah! Rachael and I took a trip to Cuba in December; it’s easier to get in there as a US Citizen. We went there for professional research, that’s what you can get a visa for these days. So we went and took some drum lessons, we went to a bunch of shows and took some dance lessons. It’s an amazing place. It’s full of incredible music and nice people, beautiful places. We tour a lot of the year, and we’re busy 24 hours a day for like 80 percent of the year. So in the “off season” – between album cycles and stuff – it’s really nice to just get out there in the world and see some things that are going to excite you and give you ideas. Traveling for us was a great way to do that, it’s always good to just experience some music in a deeper way and might become a jumping off point for something new for us…not that we are going to become like a Salsa band or anything [laughs].
HWID: Specifically that picture in Cuba though, how did those guys get a table in their mouths and why were you blindfolded?
BK: It was a show that these guys were putting on and they did all kinds of spectacular things. They were breaking bottles on their chest, and breathing fire and stuff. Towards the end of the show, they asked for a volunteer or not even a volunteer, they just came into the crowd and said, “You! Come up on stage”. And then, sat me on a table, then put a blindfold on me, and I didn’t really know what was happening. I felt something rising underneath me, felt something being put into my hands, and then later saw that picture. [laughs]
HWID: Did you freak out when you found out it was a snake you were holding?
BK: To be honest, I sort of guessed it would be a snake, and I’m scared of animals, in general. Like I’m scared of pets. But, I guess I just believed in this team of guys at that point because I had seen them do a bunch of crazy stuff and I would let them put this in my hands because they knew what they were doing. Yeah, it was a strange feeling, cause time really stretches when you’re in Cuba holding a snake. [laughs]
HWID: Did you ask to take the snake home?
BK: No…but they did make me kiss it though!
HWID: What’s the story behind the Halloween special cover songs?
BK: We had a friend of ours in Boston that did a Halloween show where they would dress up as a band and play a show as them and do a bunch of covers. We thought that was a really cool idea. The first one we did was ABBA and it was really fun. We have been dong it since then, just for fun. The thing about learning cover songs in general even beyond when you’re actually wearing a costume, is you kind of are already wearing a costume. You are kind of in the persona of someone else, which I think is really valuable to get inside the heads of other bands. You can kind of figure out how their brains work and it pull that little element out and use it as a part of your own music.
HWID: I really liked the one you did this year with Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody. The way Racheal went all out with the mustache and broken half-mic stand like Freddie Mercury used to rock. Even the way you guys started with the spotlight behind you just like the original video, it was awesome!
BK: Thank you! We lucked into some sweet production tools because we happen to be playing that night at a theatre in one of the California schools in the theater building. There wasn’t a mustache prepared so our friend that sells merch for us on the road ran to the theater production workshop team and asked for one and they said, “Sure, what kind of mustache do you want?” [laughs]
We kind of stretched the limitation of having the two guys, two girls band, like we did for our past few years. So we wanted to pick a band that was musically exciting. That’s what led us to Bohemian Rhapsody, which is an INCREDIBLE song. Learning that song and getting inside the head of Queen was awesome, that was an incredible piece of music.
HWID: Mike (Calabrese) had a Ziggy Stardust tribute on January 12th, it unfortunately was two days after David Bowie passed. What kind of an influence was David Bowie for you guys as musicians?
BK: Mike especially had been a real Bowie aficionado for a long time. Like you said, that wasn’t a tribute concert or memorial. It wasn’t planned that way. That’s just what Mike was doing with his time off, planning a show because he loves Bowie that much. I think reflecting on his life, it’s really astounding how much he was able to embody what we are talking about what we are talking about with this whole Side Pony thing of “do your own thing”. Bowie had invented something that no one else had even made close to that before. He did that while being very open and positive to what other people were doing. He just had so much love for everyone in his life and was definitely an inspiration for us.
HWID: Yeah, he was a big influence for so many musicians. Well, thanks so much for your time Bridget. We are looking forward to your show in March!
BK: Thanks! We are looking forward to playing Detroit!
Lake Street Dive will be at Michigan Theater on March 1st. Don’t miss out!