If the Boston quartet Lake Street Dive hasn’t quite made it onto your radar yet, rest assured that is about to change. At their recent show at Stubb’s in Austin, TX, Texas Lifestyle Magazine was lucky to get some time with the band to find out how their catchy, beautiful harmonies and eclectic approach to songwriting produce the toe-tapping dance parties that define their live shows.
Bassist Bridget Kearney once said that the band “thrives on the creative energy of chaos.” When asked to explain that theory, drummer Make Calabrese says simply “our lives are chaotic.” “Half the year we live in a bus, see a new city every day, eat chicken salad standing up in a room full of musty couches, and Facetime our loved ones from Holiday Inn lobbies. Besides the wealth of material that generates, it calls for stability and structure, which songwriting and performing provide when creativity is applied. It’s necessary for sanity.”
In this same symbiotic way that chaos brings order, so does hard work increase the odds of having a little good luck fall your way. After more than a decade together, 2016 has seen a meteoric rise in the mainstream success of Lake Street Dive. While much of that recent (and rapid) success can be attributed to the label that recently picked them up, Nonesuch Records, they know they could never have garnered the attention of a label that size if it wasn’t for the momentum they had worked so hard to build up until then. A dedication to killer live shows hasn’t hurt either. In an era of auto tune, digital re-recording, and manufactured perfection, Lake Street Dive is doing something revolutionary – they are connecting with their audience. In what seems like yet another dichotomy that defines them, the band says there is one word that can make or break a live show – feedback. “It’s a nightmare when it’s the type coming through the microphones, but when it’s the energy of the crowd feeding back, it’s bliss” Mike says. “We work hard to put on an energetic, well-crafted show. But it can’t grow from there without the audience pushing back. When they do, a sensation is created where you lose yourself and every moment is effortless. That’s a great live show.”
The four friends have come a long way since their days together at the New England Conservatory of Music . For their latest album, Side Pony, they got the opportunity to work with Grammy award-winning producer Dave Cobb. Cobb, best known for his work with artists such as Shooter Jennings, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson, definitely brought his own energy to the process. Mike likened this experience to “the full catastrophe.” “There was tension, which is to be expected between creative minds, but also a lot of chemistry. Because it ran the spectrum in this way, I believe the album captured a lot of energy, which is always a good thing. He’s a very bold, focused person and we decided early on to let him do his thing with us. We didn’t have a concrete idea of what the album should be or how it should sound. So in the end he pushed us in ways we didn’t expect and it had some major impact on the end result.”
Working with industry greats like Cobb is one of the many perks that come with being on a label like Nonesuch. Generally speaking, most everything the band does is being done on a slightly grander scale these days. In addition to access to a wider array of producers, there is a bigger budget, bigger stages, and more resources at their disposal. Most importantly, a bigger label can devote more individualized attention to the promotional aspect of a new record. And a wider breadth of distribution means the music makes its way to eyes and ear that otherwise may not have been exposed to it. But as a wise man once said – “Mo money, mo problems.”
With increased fame and visibility come increased demands on your time. The music business is a strange double-edged sword in this way. Consider it like this – Musicians enter the business to create music and then share that music with the world. Once that music is out there, the more people that hear it and love it, the more demands there are on your time for interviews, photo shoots, fan Q & A’s – you get the picture. These things all require a sacrifice of time that would otherwise be dedicated to your touring and creative lives, which is the reason you signed up for life as a musician in the first place; and so goes the business. So now the band has to be extra diligent about building rehearsal and creative time into their daily routine. Luckily for them, they’re all doing what they truly want to be doing, they still legitimately enjoy each other’s company, and they don’t play any music that doesn’t speak to all of them.
Before you start to think Lake Street Dive is all work and no play, it’s important to mention that they also take immense pride in not taking themselves too seriously. Take their “Break Up Songs for Kids” segment from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, for instance. This whimsical peek into these classically-trained superb instrumentalists is one of the most accurate representations of them; both as a group and as individuals. According to Mike, the Colbert clip was more than simply appropriate, “it was borderline psychic… We create silly songs about funny things behind the scenes constantly. That is part of who we are, and we definitely want people to see that.”
But how much of a band’s true, individual identities do their fans ever really see? There is an old adage that says you should never meet your heroes. The reasoning behind this is that inevitably, an artist’s true self ends up being distorted by the very spotlight that placed them in the public eye. Lake Street Dive doesn’t want to be one of those bands though, and meeting one of their own heroes proved that was possible. Mike explains “the logic of that precaution was dismantled for me after the band met Paul Simon earlier this year on the Jools Holland performance. He was as cool, collected, and humble as his music, as well as humorous as the bits he’s done with SNL or Chevy Chase in his ‘Call Me Al’ video. And I like to think that even at our level, with the modest amount of attention we have, the same would hold true of a fan meeting us.”
In addition to presenting their authentic selves to the world, growing up and maturing together has made them open and honest with each other. Often brutally so, in fact – it was a necessity. Unlike most groups, in which one person (generally the singer) writes most of the songs, the members of Lake Street Dive share songwriting duties across the board. This calls for each member to be able to put their egos to the side and simply do whatever is best for the band – an art which is difficult to master, and has been the demise of many otherwise successful groups.
This honesty and the complex sound that results from true collaboration are at the heart of what makes Lake Street Dive so enigmatic and captivating. Their sound is diverse to the point of being uncategorizable. They play beautiful, well-crafted songs, but they are also just real people telling real stories. Their songs are infectious and relatable, and they give the feeling of being much bigger than their four members. They’re playing bigger stages, bigger festivals, receiving increasing radio airplay and critical accolades, yet they still don’t feel out of reach from their audience. And the thing is, no matter how much commercial success they achieve, they probably never will. Like Paul Simon proved to them, it’s possible to be great both in front of and behind the curtain.