Interview: Mike Calabrese of Lake Street Dive

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Photo by Jarrod McCabe

 

Slinky, sexy, fun, stripped down, and live – Lake Street Dive are on the rise. The indie soul and jazz band has a somewhat unique instrumentation with powerful lead vocalist Rachel Price, Mike “McDuck” Olson alternating trumpet and guitar, Bridget Kearney on upright bass, and Mike Calabrese playing drums. This is feel-good dancing music, masterfully played yet still playful. There is space in the songs to breath and enjoy, and the band has a tight and talented interplay founded on years of developing their craft together. Founded in Boston in 2004, it was the 2012 viral hit cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” that brought sudden national recognition.

The timing couldn’t have been better. After years of touring smaller gigs and venues and living on the road in a cramped van, there was talk of throwing in the towel. Instead, Lake Street Dive toured on the growing success of their covers EP Fun Machine, and the people responded.

Now they are back with a new album, Bad Self Portraits, their third studio effort. It’s full of the same saucy yet soulful numbers that have become their signature sound. Lake Street Dive are playing Seattle on Wednesday, July 30th at Woodland Park Zoo, opening for singer-songwriter Josh Ritter.

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I spoke with percussionist Mike Calabrese about life on the road, how it feels to go viral, and why it’s nice to finally taste success. Calabrese is originally from Philadelphia, but said he lives a semi-nomadic existence these days. In fact, he hasn’t actually had his own apartment in over three and a half years.

Calabrese spoke with me by phone from his sister’s apartment in Harlem. He said he guesses he calls New York home these days, and spends most of his time off there, though he does go back to Philly and also spends time travelling when not on tour.

Lake Street Dive have been together for a decade, but the band started to take off in the last couple of years. “2012 was a really great year for us,” said Calabrese, “There were a lot of additions [to the business and management team] and we were finally going full time as a band.”

That year the band released their covers EP, and the YouTube video of the four-piece playing “I Want You Back” on a sidewalk in Boston started making the rounds. That video has now been viewed more than 2 million times. 2013 was a busy year of touring ever bigger markets. “That video really helped us lunch the big tour in anticipation of our CD release,” said Calabrese.

This makes Lake Street Dive a bit of the perfect modern success story. They put in years of hard work, built their chops and a grassroots fanbase, but it was sudden online attention that gave them the energy to push through the largely thankless years most bands languish in when starting out.

But how does it feel to be a viral hitmaker? “It was really crazy, we were really surprised,” said Calabrese, “You don’t think about it when you’re putting the videos up on YouTube[…] So it was a real surprise, especially since we’d never pegged that one or tried to make it what it became. In a lot of ways it was a relief, because you know we were about to go in and do a new album and the future was a bit uncertain at the time.”

Is this a band built for the big time? “We are named in homage to dive bar bands,” Calabrese said in an online band bio, “we were, are and always will be a dive bar band. Whether we’re playing for 10 people or 10,000 we want them to have that feeling.” Now the group is seeing much larger audiences and ever bigger stages.

How can a group founded on that tight, intimate vibe adjust? “Good question,” Calabrese with a friendly laugh into the phone. “The first bit of it is we’ve been playing together so long, and we’ve played so many shows, that on a certain level we are confident and comfortable in terms of getting up on a stage and knowing what we are going to do.”

Calabrese added that high quality in-ear monitors help a lot, allowing him to hear the upright bass, guitar or trumpet, and vocals of his three bandmates perfectly. In terms of keeping that intimate bar band feeling, it helps that Lake Street Dive seems to attract an enthusiastic audience sensitive to what is happening on stage.

“If we’re comfortable, they’re comfortable,” said Calabrese. Being able to stay loose and have fun while performing comes, in part, from the lean years on the road crammed into a van. While it certainly helps that the group has been touring together for so long, there are some much appreciated benefits to booking bigger tours.

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Photo by Jarrod McCabe

It’s another busy year for the band, with months of shows planned and few breaks ahead. The life of a touring musician means long days on the road, late nights, and the grime and exhaustion one would imagine from this modern nomadic lot. Things for Lake Street Dive have improved markedly this tour. No longer crammed in an old, smelly van with their gear, they now have a tour bus, a driver, and a sound guy, all of which Calabrese said, “couldn’t have come at a better time.”

As for life on the road with the same group of people day in and day out, rarely spending more than a night in any given city, “It’s one of the weirdest lifestyles you can imagine,” said Calabrese, “And it has certainly taken us a couple years to figure out how to do it. We learned to get along when we were stuck inside a Chevy Express. And if you can learn to do that… It’s still tough and you still hate each other sometimes. But if you can figure out your dynamic that way, I think you’ll be set. We’ve only gotten closer and happier and more harmonious as a band.”

Calabrese’s tour essentials include, “Netflix on my phone and a good book.” But recently, his tour salvation has come in a more intangible form. Calabrese took a transcendental meditation course. “Honestly that has changed my life,’ he said, “It’s perfect because it’s a form of meditation that can be done anywhere. That has been a necessity for me, especially in recent times, to stay sane and balanced.”

Most of Lake Street Dive’s stops this summer are festival or headlining gigs. They are only playing three dates with friends Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band: Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland. Calabrese says he’s excited for these shows, “We’ve been a fan of Josh for years now. He’s sort of an idol of ours, actually, and we’ve been buddies of them for awhile. It was actually [Ritter’s fifth studio album, 2007’s] The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter that made us decide to finally record with Sam Kassirer, who plays keyboards in Josh’s band.” Kassirer produced Lake Street Dive’s Bad Self Portraits and played keys on tracks as well.

Wednesday’s show at Woodland Park Zoo is sure to be a good one. Lake Street Dive are a pleasure to watch, as they are a group that clearly loves what they do. They’ve always been a band focused on live sound and performance. And the outdoor summer setting will be perfect for a night of jazz and soul before Josh Ritter’s heartfelt folk. Come ready to smile, and hopefully to kick off your shoes and dance awhile.

 

Tickets for Wednesday, July 30th ZooTunes show (Doors: 5 PM, Show: 6 PM, $25) featuring Lake Street Dive and Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band can be purchased here.

About Isaac Kaplan-Woolner