Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Funky with a backbeat: Lake Street Dive drummer talks touring green and chart-topping release of ‘Obviously’

Lake Street Dive will tour through Wilmington’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park on Wednesday. (Port City Daily/Photo by Shervin Lainez)

WILMINGTON — Covid-19 has changed the way many industries function. As it turns out, rock ‘n’ roll isn’t exempt either — at least not for touring musicians. 

For Lake Street Dive’s Mike Calabrese, it left him asking the question: “What’s worth giving up?”

Sometimes playing upward of 300 gigs a year, the Brooklyn-based band — which is touring through Wilmington Wednesday night — has lived on the road for more than a decade. Calabrese and his friends and bandmates, including Rachael Price (vocals), Mike “McDuck” Olson (guitar, trumpet), and Bridget Kearney (bass), founded Lake Street Dive in 2004 while attending school at the New England Conservatory of Music. 

They began playing nightclubs and small venues before slowly building into amphitheaters and pavilions. Shifts and changes have happened along the way: switching record labels thrice, adding keyboardist Akie Bermiss in 2017, and losing founding member Olson, who announced his departure in the spring. 

In March 2020, as the pandemic shuttered the music industry, Calabrese found himself in a situation he had never faced before: being stationary. During shutdown, the musician was able to watch the first seven months of his son’s life up close and personal — something he said he wasn’t able to do when he welcomed his first child to the family years ago.

“For my wife and I, it was the longest stretch of time we’ve ever spent together because we met when I was a touring musician,” he said. “And I don’t think we’ve ever spent more than three months together before I was back out on the road again.”

Nowadays, Lake Street Dive is reconsidering how they function post-Covid-19. Calabrese, specifically, confirmed he is looking at the music industry through a different lens than he was in January 2020.

“In our band meeting yesterday, we talked about how we can maintain creativity for our music, but also maintain creativity in this ever-changing world that we now realize is very, very fragile,” he said. “And be sustainable.”

When touring stopped, naturally, it affected income. Yet, Calabrese said what he gained was immeasurable.

“I realized, very little is worth giving up or sacrificing for any of the other parts of life,” he said. “We’re actually being given an opportunity to do our best work right now, and so I think that’s, at the core of it, why we continue addressing balancing touring, home life and our personal needs right now, even after Covid. … How do you make it so all those pieces — your personal health, the health of your home life, and the health of your career are all supporting each other?” 

Calabrese said he started thinking about mental health seriously a few years back as he was preparing for the arrival of his first child. Palpable terror and depression set in as he started weighing the heaviness of the world at large, specifically climate change. He addressed it on Lake Street Dive’s seventh album, “Obviously,” specifically on the track “Making Do.”

“I don’t think anything quite like having a kid makes you go, ‘Oh, I need to care about more things than just myself,’” Calabrese said.

He intended the song to expand the heart and mind of its listeners, in the same vein the band’s love songs about breakups (“Mistakes,” “What I’m Doing Here”), unrequited love (“Rental Love”), and newfound relationships have struck a chord with listeners in the past. Only this time around, Calabrese called “Making Do” his love song to the earth and to his daughter, sans flowery imagery or language.

“I was just like, ‘I don’t have the energy for any poetry right now,’” he recalled. “I’m going to say exactly what I’m thinking about and feeling. I don’t think it’s any surprise that it turns out to be the stuff that makes a memorable song.”

The process was cathartic, Calabrese explained: “These are the things that make you want to write music. And that’s why music is a powerful processing tool for the writer.” 

Even more restorative was taking action on the road. Over the last couple of years, Lake Street Dive has tried to lessen its carbon footprint. It’s one small part they can control in an otherwise loaded industry — music and theater tours eat up plenty of fuel from artists globetrotting city to city.

“We buy offsets for our tours, carbon offsets, which is just a way to diminish carbon creation, or actually suck carbon out of the air somewhere else through tree planting or through wind turbine development,” Calabrese said. “In a way that matches the carbon footprint of our tour: We fly, we ride a bus, we stay in hotel rooms. All these things are very carbon-heavy activities.”

The band’s entire lighting package is LED, which cuts energy by 75% over using incandescent. Their bus also has solar panels installed on its roof.

“You can run it for a couple of days,” he said. “If no one’s using it, you can run the fridge and the lights on solar panels, especially if you’re in the south and southwest.” 

Lake Street Dive is touring in support of “Obviously,” released on Nonesuch Records in March 2021. Already, the album reached No. 1 on Americana/Folk, No. 2 on Current Rock Albums and No. 2 on Current Alternative Albums, as well as No. 5 on Billboard’s Top Album chart. 

Its release had been delayed by more than a year, though the band completed “Obviously” in Nashville mere days before Covid-19 shutdowns went into effect. They sought the help of producer Mike Elizondo.

“We wanted to produce in a way that is either heavily influenced by or directly inspired out of the hip-hop movement,” Calabrese said. “I mean, hip-hop is a genre of invention.”

Elizondo has worked with the likes of Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, as well as as with Fiona Apple and Carrie Underwood. Because of his influence in hip-hop, the band reached out, knowing the producer only did three or four albums a year. Turns out, Elizondo had Lake Street Dive on his radar as well.

“He’d been wanting to work with us for years,” Calabrese said. “It was humbling.”

Though Elizondo brought decades of experience into the studio, Calabrese was clear the relationship was simpatico: Elizondo listened intently and encouraged Lake Street Dive to follow their instincts, the drummer said. He worked to honor their sound while also pushing them beyond their comfort zones and opening arrangements more.

“He really brought things out of us that he heard that we never necessarily captured,” Calabrese said. 

It can be heard on many tracks, including “Feels Like the Last Time,” which features Bermiss beatboxing.

The uptempo “Hush Money” was one of the last songs Calabrese worked on with Olson. Though Calabrese didn’t write it, Olson sought his musical input. 

“I gave it a hook and a leg,” Calabrese said. 

The drummer said he first views a good track through its percussion. “It also has to have some hookiness,” Calabrese clarified. 

“Hush Money” essentially revolves around the idea of how money can be used in a harmful way. “That song is definitely a holdover of some of our more politically minded songs,” Calabrese said.

He called Olson one of his songwriting teachers, as well as stand-up bassist Kearney (who helped write “Making Do”). Olson announced his departure from Lake Street Dive in May, with his last show on tour taking place in June. It was an amicable split, according to the band, who praised their co-founder on social media as a “friend, leader, listener, dreamer, thinker, schemer, supporter, agitator, composer of both silly and heart searing songs, performer of tasty guitar parts and blistering trumpet solos, arranger of background vocals, cutter of steaks and all time number one all star of waxing philosophically for hours on end to get us through late-night drives in the van.” 

When Lake Street Dive first started out 16 years ago, their intention was to be a traditional jazz band. 

“We had these lofty, kind of theoretical, esoteric heavy ideas,” Calabrese said. 

Then Olson switched things up and planted the seed to becoming a free-form jazz band that would play in honky tonk dive bars. In that sphere, it meant people would be dancing and having a good time.

Lake Street Dive began toying around with crossing genres and bending sounds early on; soulful R&B rhythms came to life against underscores of jazz, rock, and pop melodies. Calabrese said they desired harmonies that harkened to Simon and Garfunkel with the magnetic rhythms of Diana Ross. 

“I remember being in the studio and Rachael saying, ‘Guys, we sound funky — like, there’s a backbeat. It’s got a good tempo. We’re all playing simply, and the songs are like 3-and-a-half minutes long. But what does this mean?’”

They began to notice early on, while performing in the dives, the songs people reacted to most were ones they could dance to. It became a quintessential detail Lake Street Dive would thrive on — one that Calabrese said came from road-testing their sounds and leaning into a youthful earnestness to perform without barriers.

“I think that’s why, to this day, with the exception of the most recent record — which captured us in a new and more exciting way — we’ve been primarily a live band people want to come see … I don’t think it was until this last record where the recording actually, clearly represents the energy that you would find from us on stage.”

Lake Street Dive will be stopping through Live Oak Pavilion on Wednesday, Oct. 20 for Riverfront Park’s last Live Nation show of the season. Tickets start at $25; Covid-19 vaccination cards or a negative Covid-19 test are required upon entry.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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