The original four members of Lake Street Dive came together in 2004 at the New England Conservatory of Music, and since have been bouncing around the country, and the world, making the soulfully groove-infectious music they’ve become known for. Their latest album, Free Yourself Up, was released in May, 2018. Drumhead sat down with Mike Calabrese, who plays drums and writes music and lyrics for the band, before their sold out show at The Wiltern in Los Angeles.
CW: How has coming out of New England had an effect the band’s personality, or the way in which you work?
MC: Boston is where the band formed, and where we got our first inspirations, but we’re not all from there…so I kind of feel like the band is very representative in the way that the internet and the connection of disparate locals is able to cultivate strong enough bonds in a musical community as it used to when people grew up together, per se. Like The Cars, were a Boston band, they all grew up together, formed a band and became big. But for our generation, the Internet came about, and traveling is easier, and people are more open minded. So somebody from Minneapolis, and someone from Iowa city, and someone from Nashville, and someone from Philadelphia were all like, “I actually want to go to school in Boston,” because there’s this a great school there, and we all think in a like-minded way. Boston is an international city, it’s a hub, and it’s where people go to study; it’s a very educational place. I think of Boston as an educational town, and as an attractor in this age, for people from all over the world, and it’s the base framework for what we wound up doing. I think that’s what we have Boston to thank for; that’s the thing about the city that made the band what it is. It’s a mecca for education, and we’re all music nerds and wanted to get a good music education. And so that was always the thrust of everything we did, we were studiers of music and we practiced music and we liked to explore music in an analytic and creative way. Going to school where we did, gave us a lot of great tools in an environment in which we felt free to explore all of those things. That’s why the band is what it is today; we were able to meet there, with similar values, and form out of that ideal, that we dig into music and find out what we like and try to recreate it, and that’s what we’ve been doing for 14 years.
CW: In recording Free Yourself Up, how did your process as the drummer change in the studio or what was done differently? Was there a sound or feel you were trying to achieve that was different than the previous albums?
MC: Definitely. We were all producing the album ourselves. It was the first time I ever walked into a situation, talking to an engineer about “I want to do this,” instead of a producer being like ‘this is what we’re going to go for, and that’s why you hired me,’ kind of situation. Instead of being told what to do, it was like ‘now I’m able to make choices.’ And sometimes those choices were, “This needs to sound a certain way,” or “This needs to be a mono overhead instead of stereo because I want it to sound focused and crunchy as opposed to open and clear,” or something that specific. In another sense, there were some tracks where I was working with a click track, which is something I’m honestly new to. In certain instances, in terms of going for a certain sound–like “Good Kisser” is a tune that for the first time I was like “I’ll allow electronics to give this track a certain sound of perfection.” We recorded it to a click track, and it sounded like Lake Street Dive, but there was something about it that was like ‘what if we made the drums sound as perfect to the quarter note as possible,’ and so that was a track where all the in between stuff like ghost notes and stuff like that we left untouched, but on every quarter note we quantized it, and quantized it by moving bass notes and moving janks of a guitar…like D’angelo’s band, for instance, those guys know how to play on all sides of the beat simultaneously. That’s something we don’t do, or wouldn’t necessarily be able to do ever. And so we felt like if we wanted to go for something like that, where all beats are represented around the true pulse, let’s do it in the box; it’s the modern age so let’s use technology to perfect this. So on that track in particular, it’s not a programmed drum beat, but it’s also not a natural drum beat. It’s got both elements happening simultaneously. It sounds like me, if I were a computer with a personality, which is kind of what we were going for on that one. So that’s one instance where we thought ‘let’s make some new and different choices and not have an ego about it.’ I could get down on myself for not having perfect time, like Questlove for instance, or I could just be like ‘well I know I sound a certain way and it’s perfect for the band in so many other categories.’ And in making a new record, why not use technology to achieve a certain sound, to make it happen. It was something I’d never tried before too. I had never done it, and I wanted to try it.
CW: So not every tune was played to a click?
MC: Correct, some were completely open and natural, some were to a click and left messy, some of them we played to a click and quantized.
CW: Is there a song on the new record that you especially look forward to playing every night?
MC: I think the two I’ve been digging on now, are a song I co-wrote with McDuck [guitar/trumpet] called “Doesn’t Even Matter Now,” which is a cool example of me having a seed of an idea and McDuck finishing the idea. And so I like it, I get to play my own song, but it was improved by a friend. Also, it feels like we’re the Black Crows up there–it’s more rock in a sense. And then that’s a close tie with the tune “Hang On” which is a song that is predominantly in 5/4, which is always fun, especially with audiences, when they’re clapping on two and four and the beat gets switched around and they kind of don’t know what’s happening, but they’re still digging it. So that’s a challenge of making an odd time signature feel like something good enough for people to move to. That’s always kind of a satisfying challenge to succeed in doing. I look forward to that one just because it’s fun; odd time signatures in pop music are a good thing.
CW: What’s it been like to grow with a band that’s been together for 14 years? You all seem like a fun-lovin’ group of people!
MC: We’re very fortunate…we’ve beat the odds in terms of finding four people who were able to stick it out for this long, you know? McDuck started the band, he’s the one who got us all together in a practice room at NEC for the first time. And if you had told somebody, ‘go out and find three other people that could work together perfectly for 15 years…’ good luck! The chances would be pretty slim. It’s been everything, I should say. We were lucky to have that connection and that like-minded focus. And we didn’t always agree at every point. We’ve had our struggles, it’s like any relationship. It’s the longest relationship any of us have ever been in. And from time to time it’s challenging to get everybody working on the same page. But, we’re all luckily–at least if we weren’t mature to begin with, we’ve always wanted to be mature. We’ve always wanted to grow up. And some people don’t want to grow up, and I think it’s good when four people are willing to grow together. And that’s what’s happened. We’ve seen every aspect of each other’s lives unfold and change and adapt since we were 19-years-old, which is crazy because a lot of stuff happens to you in that time period. When you’re 18 you’re a moron, and you’re weird. And something kept us going through the awkward, post-adolescent awakenings that everyone inevitably goes through. We’ve experienced everything with each other and it’s one of those things that’s been…if you can make it through, it makes you stronger. It’s been a great learning experience and a great ride and it’s also nice to know that you can share all this stuff with your band and that you’ve all helped each other. It just helps the bond stay strong throughout the years. It could be viewed as you’re stretching out a rubber band so long, and it’ll break one day, but in fact, it’s more like we’re constantly building. It was a good foundation to start and we’re able to just keep going.
CW: Is there a tune that’s evolved the most over the years?
MC: All the songs kind of evolve over the course of playing them, and sometimes you record the song and then you learn how to play it. There’s one song, “You Go Down Smooth,” it’s one of those songs where we’ve never written a song like it that’s perfect in the spot we always need it, which could be for an encore, or for the last song of our set, which is just a big ramp up, triumphant rocker. It was the first of its kind when we first played it. And the way that it has changed is that having heard all the music we have over the past 15 years and having played all different kinds of new songs that we’ve written, we’re able to apply different things to it still. Even before this tour in particular, we were like ‘let’s go for a more down the pike approach,’ instead of a more pseudo-jazz inflected style that we used to do. We were able to keep snipping at stuff, and I think that’s one that’s lasted the longest. We’re kind of continuing to even perfect it still. It’s better to change it as opposed to us getting bored with it.
CW: Who are some drummers that have influenced you more recently?
MC: The drummer that I am now–I have more of an identity as a songwriter and as a singer than I ever did before, because of this band. And I’ve realized through doing that…it validated a longstanding feeling that I had, that I’m not really a “drummer’s drummer…” I did marching band but I never wanted to get super choppy, and I don’t geek out over gear or anything like that, I don’t know everything about vintage drums. I’ve never gone deep into the identity of “I love drums.” I’m not a drum fanatic. Sometimes I give drums a break and play guitar, just to branch out. So that’s why when I first heard this album by Anderson Paak–Malibu–I listened to the album and was like ‘who is this guy?’ I went online and remember checking him out thinking ‘this guy is writing songs, rapping and playing the shit out of the drums.’ And sometimes at the same time. Then his Tiny Desk concert came out, and watching his control and musicianship, and really “loose perfection” as a drummer…and the fact that he can have so much style and charisma as a front person at the same time. He’s a personal hero of mine, and he’s also I think younger than I am, which is a weird thing. It was one of those moments where I had to go “Okay, you have to put your ego aside and take your inspiration where you can get it.” So I look to him a lot, with like, if I ever wanted to be anyone else [laughs]. It’s always nice to find like-minded drummers that I meet on tour that are more on our level. One of those people is Mark Levy, who we went to school with. He plays with this band, Circles Around the Sun. They have affiliations with Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Phil Lesh and Friends…it’s like a new jam super group. They picked Mark Levy because he was a classical percussionist that transferred over to playing more drum set and band and rock music. He’s one of those people whose groove I’ve always admired, and his ability to add energy to things without getting overexcited, which is a habit of mine, whether it’s rushing or playing too busy…Mark always keeps it right behind the rest of the band. There’s also another drummer, Alex Cody, who plays with this band Mikaela Davis. They opened up a bunch of shows for us on a previous tour this year, and as soon as I learned he plays guitar and writes songs I was like ‘of course he does.’ Like me, I think of myself as a “song drummer.” Like the Ringo approach: listen to the song and play drums to it. And keep it simple. This kid, he’s 24-years-old and he’s got this really soulful, respectful and also multi-capable approach to playing drums on a great tune. Whenever I see people like that, I’m like, ‘okay, the song drummer is not gone.’ And that’s why I think Anderson Paak is such a great drummer and someone I’ve been so inspired by. He understands the song, and I always appreciate drummers who do that kind of thing.
CW: If you could sit down with any drummer, dead or alive, and have them teach you something, who would it be?
MC: I’d want to talk to Papa Jo Jones about his press roll. Or Art Blakey. Either of them… ‘What are you doing during a buzz roll that makes it so loud and amazingly perfect and beautiful?’
CW: Do you practice on the road and what are you practicing?
MC: More recently I have been practicing because we’re at a level where we can carry a little more gear. Backstage we have more room to ourselves, when we’re headlining. I’ve got a little pocket kit by Questlove and it’s great. It’s not too loud and when the weather is nice I can take it out into a parking lot if we’re in the middle of nowhere and just play. But it’s not as much as I’d like to. When I’m practicing, I’ve been a lot more focused on exploring what is my own technique. There’s the stuff that everybody tells you, ‘it’s either French grip or German grip,’ you know, or ‘do Moeller method, and you have to do it like this,’ and I’ve been able to decide on a way to do anything and go for it. I’ve never been that singularly focused. But I do, when I practice, I try to explore…there’s a basic mechanism to every human body and there’s lots of generalities, which is why you can come up with something like the German or French grip. But there’s also individual preference, and what is getting the best sound, and are you getting the sound you want out of the thing you want, when you want? That is a very basic framework that I try and explore. Am I relaxed? Am I playing in time, and does it sound the way I want it to? And if not, by respecting those three categories, how should I play to accomplish that? And once I find a way to do that, trying to do it for an hour. Just like picking a thing–I’ll start usually by playing along to an album that I’m digging. I’ll try to do something different than what the drummer is doing, and find where it feels the best, and just play for an hour, staying consistent and practice listening the entire time…it’s a very meditative approach to doing it. It’s less about if I can play my flam-a-q’s and more about if I’m executing what I want to hear.
CW: I’m sure you’re asked to do sessions, or sit in with people–do you do that kind of thing and do you see yourself doing more of it?
MC: Yes. I moved back to Boston after so many years of being away, that’s where I went to school and I have a lot of friends there still. I still get together with them and we record stuff, or I’ll do a random Sunday brunch gig and it’s just standards or pop tunes that I know…which I love doing. It’s nice to break out of my normal routine. We’ve been so fortunate, we all hope to continue to tour, but the tour lifestyle, it’s one of those things that I don’t know if we could do it at this level, at this amount, forever. I think some of us may want a break soon, longer than others, possibly, but I don’t know…we definitely don’t want to be 40-years-old and driving ourselves around in a van–if everything got backed off as it is now. But that’s a long-winded way of getting around to the point that someday I do see myself being at home more often. I’d love to get a steady bar gig again, and honestly just play covers. I always wanted to start a high-brow cover band. It was something that I never–I mean I grew up doing that with family, but I’ve always wanted to get a bunch of nerds together, like myself, and just do some perfect cover bar band shit just because it’s fun, and I’ve never been able to do it before.
CW: What’s a tune you’d want to cover in that band?
MC: Purely as edification, I’d love to try to play and sing “50 Way to Leave Your Lover,” at the same time. That’s one of those classic grooves you learn about as a kid. It’s like ‘if you’ve learned this, you’re well on your way to being a good drummer.’ But being able to play and sing that at the same time would be a feat, and in fact, one of my long-term visions is doing a whole night of songs that were written and sung by drummers. Or not necessarily written, but sung on a record by drummers. So I would sing the whole night, and play at the same time. Like Peter Gabriel, Levon Helm, Anderson Paak…Karen Carpenter was a great drummer and she sang too…Ringo. It’s a great thing to find songs that were done that way and I’m sure I could fill a whole night with that music.
CW: Does your frequent wearing of a bandana have any significance?
MC: The bandana thing, it started out as a purely pragmatic aspect, because I do tend to sweat a lot. But it got to the point where ‘we gotta look good every night’ and we can’t wear the same thing and people were taking more pictures than ever…and you know, the girls get up there and are wearing cool designer shoes, and Akie’s got his bowtie, and McDuck has a really cool sense of style and different shoes…I knew I needed a thing. Everybody needs a thing. Ringo had his rings–I have my bandanas. That’s the idea.