Lake Street Dive takes risks for ‘Side Pony’
Lake Street Dive bassist Bridget Kearney doesn’t mind the idea that the band’s live shows sometimes seem like they could run off the rails at any point. It’s one reason the four-person group has never added musicians to its touring lineup, even though it’s sometimes challenging to cover some of the instrumental parts from the studio recordings of the songs.
“Sometimes the amount of things, because of our like limited instrumentation, being basically three instrumentalists, it forces us to, each one of us, like (drummer) Mike Calabrese will sometimes be shaking a tambourine at the same time as like using all three of his other limbs to play the drums as well as singing a background harmony at the same time,” Kearney said in a recent phone interview. “It’s kind of almost a thing where you’re watching someone just like almost fall off the cliff and they just make it. It’s exciting in that way.”
Besides, staying a four piece live also meets another goal — giving audiences something different from what they hear on Lake Street Dive’s albums.
“We like keeping it the original format,” Kearney said.
“It’s pretty special, I think, that it has been the four of us and just the four of us all together for 12 years now. It’s a dynamic we’re really comfortable in and like working in. And I think also, as a listener, I really love going to live shows where the performances are different from the record. It’s cool to like see musicians on their toes a little bit and covering different parts than they do on the record and re-creating the song. So, that’s one thing that touring as a quartet allows us to do, is differentiate it from the studio versions of the songs.”
The willingness to take risks doesn’t just show up in Lake Street Dive’s live shows. It was also a characteristic the band embraced in making its current studio album, “Side Pony.”
The “Side Pony” project represented a whole different prospect for the group, which formed in 2004 in Boston after Kearney, Calabrese, singer Rachael Price and trumpet player/guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson met at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Up to this latest album, the band members were used to making albums essentially in their own bubble. In fact, they didn’t commit to making Lake Street Dive a full-time endeavor until 2012. By then the group had three albums under their collective belts — two self-released efforts and a 2010 self-titled release on Signature Sounds Recordings.
The next album, “Bad Self Portraits,” was recorded in 2012, but was held up from release because Price was signed to another deal as a solo artist, and Price’s label refused to allow “Bad Self Portraits” to be released because she was bound to that solo contract.
By the time that situation was resolved and “Bad Self Portraits” was released in early 2014, a buzz had already started building around Lake Street Dive.
Some of the attention came from a You Tube video of the group doing an acoustic version of Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back” — on, of all places, a residential street. It became a You Tube hit, which helped draw attention of some high-profile media outlets, including “Rolling Stone” magazine, which touted Lake Street Dive as one of music’s best new bands.
Two-plus years of touring surrounding “Bad Self Portraits” only amplified the buzz and Lake Street Dive gained a sizable audience — and created considerable anticipation for what the group would do on its next album. So for the first time, there were expectations for Lake Street Dive and its music going into the “Side Pony” project.
“We were definitely wary going into making ‘Side Pony’ of the sort of sophomore record curse, either repeating yourself or vastly changing, making it a much bigger production that was completely different than what was magic about your original set up,” Kearney said.
This is where the group’s willingness to take risks helped combat the pressure to overcome the so-called “sophomore slump.” And Lake Street Dive took plenty of chances with “Side Pony,” beginning with putting no stylistic limits on the music they were creating.
“I think that’s part of what made us successful in the first place was just like being open minded to including a lot of different elements into our music and kind of trying new things, learning what we are good at through a process of trial and error, which by definition includes errors, but being humble and letting those in for the sake of getting somewhere,” Kearney said.
Taking on new challenges
Another risk was working with a new producer in Dave Cobb, who challenged the band in a number of ways.
First and foremost, Cobb changed the group’s songwriting methods. In the past, the band members wrote individually and usually made pretty complete demos with most of the instrumentation in place before presenting the songs to their bandmates. Often, recording was a question of the four band members replicating the demos.
For “Side Pony,” Cobb had the group members bring their songs in when they were still at an early, skeletal stage.
“It was definitely scary, walking into the studio session deliberately in an earlier stage of arranging the songs than we’d ever been before,” Kearney said. “It’s really challenging to open yourself up and be vulnerable with your creativity, like throw out ideas that aren’t finished and you know need work.”
But Kearney said this songwriting experiment was good for the band on several levels, beginning with forcing the four band members to be more collaborative in the writing and arranging of songs and helping them to better identify and use their individual strengths as songwriters.
Kearney feels the songs themselves benefited from this songwriting approach.
“The songs are going to be more able to grow together as a batch of songs,” she said. “It also kind of like puts the songs themselves on a more equal footing to judge OK, does this song really have something going for it, and this song was maybe resting too much on the production side or the arrangement we had come up with and actually doesn’t quite have as much to stand on as a song.”
Playing to strengths
The songs on “Side Pony” certainly suggest that the group members played to their strengths. Like “Bad Self Portraits,” the new album is plenty eclectic, seamlessly blending rock and soul on the frisky “Godawful Things” and the standout rocker “Spectacular Failure,” drawing on ‘70s Philadelphia soul and a bit of Motown on “Call Off Your Dogs,” displaying a bit of classic rock on “Close to Me” (which even mimics a bit of Jimi Hendrix in its opening guitar part), bringing some blues to the table on “I Don’t Care About You,” and mixing perky pop, folk and soul on the title song.
Fans can expect Lake Street Dive to showcase a good number of the new songs on tour this winter, while retaining a long-standing trademark of its concerts.
“We’re playing a lot of stuff from (“Side Pony”), kind of highlighting the songs from that,” Kearney said. “And then we’ve got some of the old standbys from ‘Bad Self Portraits,’ kind of like some fan favorites of those. We also, as always, like to incorporate some covers into our set just as a way of inviting in some listeners that may be new to our sound.”