Lake Street Dive: We Want Them Back

Lake Street Dive has come a long way since the 2012 debut of its YouTube video, a cover of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” With 9 albums and/or EPs to its credit, the Boston-founded, Brooklyn-based group has steadily built upon its successes. Lake Street Dive’s origins were built upon country and jazz, but today the band’s sound is both more mainstream and harder to pin down stylistically.

After more than a decade as a quartet – drummer Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney on bass, Mike “McDuck” Olson on guitar and trumpet and Rachael Price on lead vocals – Lake Street Dive added a keyboardist in 2017. Akie Bermiss first joined the group as a touring musician, and is featured prominently on the band’s most recent releases, the 2018 album Free Yourself Up and a new EP of session outtakes, Freak Yourself Out.

Lake Street Dive at The Orange Peel, Asheville NC
photo ©2019 Audrey Hermon Kopp

Olson says that the addition of Bermiss has changed the band’s approach to song arrangements. “Before we started touring with Akie, there were a lot of spaces” in the band’s sound, he explains. “Effectively being a power trio, our tendency was to fill up those spaces with oohs and ahhs and things of that nature, always heaping more things on.” With Berman adding keyboard textures, the other musicians all play a bit differently. The expanded lineup “frees me up to play more lead guitar versus constantly chunking out chords,” Olson says.

And trumpet – a prominent and often signature sound in much of Lake Street Dive’s earlier releases – is less prominent on the newer material as well. Olson says that these days the group finds it “far more challenging to write songs that are sort of appropriate for trumpet. Especially for me as the person who plays it, the trumpet can feel sort of gimmicky after a while.”

Olson says that because Lake Street Dive’s music is rooted in what he describes as “a British invasion and soul rhythm section tradition,” many of the songs on the new album are more rooted in the bass/drums/guitar/vocals format. But fans of the group’s trumpet-adorned work need not go unsatisfied. The new EP features plenty of Olson’s horn playing.

And since the passing of Aretha Franklin, the members of Lake Street Dive have been spending a lot of time listening to the 1971 album Aretha Live at the Fillmore West. That record is an exciting audio document of a performance featuring saxophonist King Curtis and the Memphis Horns. “I’m not going to make any solid predictions here,” Olson cautions, “but an album is very much a snapshot of where a band is at that particular moment. And what we’re listening to at a given time influences us a lot.”

Alongside plenty of original material, the band’s collective love of cover versions can reinforce the notion of Lake Street Dive as a “retro” band. But that doesn’t greatly concern Olson. “We try to incorporate one or two covers into any set,” Olson says. “Because covers tend to be the way that our fans gained entry into our music.”

Lake Street Dive’s breakthrough 2012 EP Fun Machine was an mostly-covers collection, featuring reinventions of songs by George Michael, Paul McCartney and others. Coupled with the “I Want You Back” viral video (a version of that song is also on the EP), the release helped catapult the group into the wider public consciousness. Once again hedging his bets just a bit (“we don’t have any studio time booked,” he says), Olson allows that the band is considering “a followup to Fun Machine” in the near future.

Whether or not that project comes to fruition, it’s a safe bet that Lake Street Dive will continue its practice of using a different producer for each album. “Honestly, we have always sort of scratched our heads about the role of producer within the context of our band,” Olson admits. While a traditional role of a producer includes being an arbiter during creative discussions, things aren’t so simple for Lake Street Dive.

“Because there are four equal voices and opinions – five now with Akie – a producer is often just another voice in kind of a chorus in the studio,” Olson says. “We have a hard time saying, ‘Okay, everyone shut up and listen to one person,’ because we value one another’s opinions so highly.”

After what he characterizes as “play[ing] the ‘name producer game’ with Dave Cobb for 2016’s Side Pony, Olson notes that the group returned to “a more collaborative vibe,” working with Dan Knobler for Free Yourself Up. Along the way, the band keeps learning and improving. “Free Yourself Up made a synthesis of [our earlier] experiences, and transcended those experiences,” Olson says. “And we made a better record for it.”

You may also enjoy my 2016 interview with Rachael Price.