Lake Street Dive’s songwriting quartet and salty-sweet new record | Q&A with drummer Mike Calabrese

[Lake Street Dive plays Slowdown on Tuesday, March 7 with Joey Dosik. 8 p.m. show, $23 in advance, $26 day of. RSVP here.]

“If you get the urge to see me, you best pretend you’re blind,” sings Rachael Price during a hip-swaying verse midway through Lake Street Dive’s latest album Side Pony. Like many songs on the Boston quartet’s third LP, “I Don’t Care About You” glistens with soulful motown sheen and cuts with smartness, taking an emotional negative and thrusting it into danceability.

Drummer Mike Calabrese likens it to the classic, bite-size candy that melts in your mouth.

“You think about what makes an M&M so tasty, and it’s this secret chemical combination,” Calabrese says. “It’s salty and sweet, crunchy on the outside and gooey in the middle. The perfect marriage of opposites.”

As a kind of breakout effort, Side Pony bursts with similar unfortunate lyrical sentiments, fleshed out and glamorized and marking a leap from its previous, more confessional LP Bad Self Portraits. Bumbling would-be ladies’ men and well-timed broken hearts are dressed up in ‘60s glitz, the result of the band’s technical pizazz and soul and gospel influences. It shines from the slick combination of Price’s buttery and rangy voice, Mike Olson’s crisp guitar licks, driven by Bridget Kearney’s bouncing upright bass and Calabrese’s exuberant drumming — which can be seen Tuesday night at the band’s turn at Slowdown.

The four of them met at New England Conservatory whilst studying various instruments. What would become Lake Street Dive started as another way to hang out together, as Calabrese tells it. A significant following came due in part to a video cover of “I Want You Back” in 2012 and the touring began in earnest, followed by three full-length albums and a smashingly soulful NPR Tiny Desk concert in early 2016.

Hear Nebraska caught up with Calabrese via phone call shortly after the band’s arrival in Boone, N.C. He chats about the foursome’s collective growth, teaching a master class at their alma mater and which legendary drummer he’d choose to face in a drum-off. Read on for our conversation.

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HN: A little admission: I found Lake Street Dive, as I suspect some other people probably did, through the band’s NPR Tiny Desk concert last year. In watching that, I thought it brought out kind of a folky sound that seemed to come naturally to your band and had some gospel elements too. But then you listen to the new record and it’s punchy and driving. What do you think makes Lake Street Dive so dynamic in that way?

Mike Calabrese: That’s a good question. You know, when it comes to like … there’s a pragmatic element of it. The four of us, we all went to jazz school and have played various types of music while in school, largely acoustically in different combinations with different instruments. We have this inclination to be a bonafide acoustic band when we want to. But at the same time, we have this passion of ours and this idealistic element to what we do that is wanting to write a great rock record and also wanting to plug in and get loud and make people dance. It stems from our different desires with how we like to express ourselves.

HN: I thought the change between watching that video and listening to the record was most stark on your song, “I Don’t Care About You,” which is pretty blunt, if I may. But it’s nice because you have Rachel there and her spectacular voice that softens that a bit. But And I can think of some other songs like “Godawful Things” or “Spectacular Failure” that are unapologetic but still foot-tapping. What do you think makes that juxtaposition to you as a band and to an audience?

MC: I think the word juxtaposition is kinda the key there. You think about what makes an M&M so tasty, and it’s this secret chemical combination that first starts you off like really hard and crunchy and then with a burst of sweetness. It gets mushier and starts to melt, it gets the salty flavor to it, and then the dark chocolate flavor comes through. It’s salty and sweet, this crunchy on the outside and gooey in the middle. The perfect marriage of opposites. That’s the thing. Writing songs in a minor key and really slow, that is obvious. When you can write a song [like] “Spectacular Failure” about a terrible experience and it’s really upbeat, buoyant and has a guitar riff that is reminiscent of cheesy 70s theme songs … it’s like any human emotion. With anger, there’s kind of no nuance to it. But other feelings such as love or regret or anxiety, there’s multiple things to it, there’s more material to it and there’s more room to feel as a result of it.

HN: To my ear, Side Pony has a lot of that lyrical style to it. I feel like Bad Self Portraits was more straightforward confessional and the new record I think succeeds at being a bit more clever. And there’s kind of a sonic evolution that matches that. Is there anything you can point to that led to that change in anybody’s songwriting?

MC: No! It’s kind of a phenomenon, I guess. And we noticed that too, there’s so many negative song titles on the record. It’s kinda ridiculous. All I can say is that Bad Self Portraits, most of those songs were written and recorded when we were pretty fresh to the touring scene. With Side Pony, a lot of them were written right after Bad Self Portraits was recorded, but that was a big year for us. Everybody’s growing and changing and entering their late 20s into their 30s. When you’re doing that altogether, maybe you subconsciously start sharing ideas and feelings. You wake up, in a sense, and move together. That kinda happens when people hang out too much. You start to share each other’s’ mannerisms and thoughts and stuff. The one thing is that we always wanna make sure we are always changing and growing. When that stops, I think the band would stop.

HN: It helps to have four very capable individual songwriters. Something else that i noticed while watching that NPR video. Surely intentionally, it showcased some songwriting differences between the four of you. What is it like to write in that environment, where there’s three other people that could write for an entire band if they wanted to, and how does that work when one of you brings a song to practice?

MC: It’s cool at least that we all write. So many bands out there, it’s one person who is in charge of all that or takes that charge. It’s quite a relief, and it’s exciting because … I get bored with my own songs. I get done with it and I give it to the band and I’m like ugh, I don’t even know if I like this anymore. That’s the cool thing, what may be boring to you, you bring it to everyone else in the band at rehearsal, and it doesn’t matter who wrote it because the band always arranges together. We’re not like “here’s your part and your part” and so on. It’s like hey everybody, here’s my song, would you guys be into it? And if it works, then and only then is it a Lake Street Dive song. Because we have this unspoken agreement that we’re never gonna tell each other what to play unless they ask. Everybody needs to feel like they’re latched onto something in every song we do in some way. Otherwise, it can’t really be our song. It used to be more ego attached to it but at this point nobody takes it personal when a song doesn’t work

HN: Has there been a song that has stumped the four of you that you might have tossed but ended up working out?

MC: Good question. Trying to think. I can’t think of one to be honest.

HN: Do you know pretty quickly when it’s gonna work out, then?

MC: I think that’s generally a part of it. We need to account for the fact that you don’t have a ton of time in the world to really focus in on coming up with arrangements and working on new stuff. We give things more of a chance these days just because our time to work on it is so few and far between. It should be figured out pretty quickly. Paul McCartney, when he was writing hits with John Lennon, he was like if you can’t start and finish a song in two hours it’s not a song. Which is a bold statement. But when you’re talking about a two and a half, three minute song about love, yeah, I mean. We can probably do that all day long. I don’t think the songs would be very good. And if you try it live and you’re able to execute it in a natural way and have people respond to it, that’s another test we run it through. Does it feel good playing on stage? Great, now all we have to do is tweak it.

HN: The four of you met at New England Conservatory, which is a well-told story at this point, but what do you think has kept the four of you together for so long

MC: Really it all comes down to being able to get along. That’s the long and short of it really. We were friends to being with, that’s the only reason we were able to start doing it. We certainly weren’t a good bad to start with. So that was never the point of hanging out. It was, but it was never “I just make such beautiful music with these people that I have to get together with them.” (laughs) It certainly wasn’t that. We all have the same sense of humor and like the same bands and are all inspired by each other and all like tortilla chips, let’s keep doing this. I’ve known these people for 13 years now or 14 years. You still find out new things about someone, like an old friend or lover, but everybody is respectful about one another and treats each other kindly. Especially if you are touring on the road, I don’t care how well you play together.

HN: The four of you taught a master class at New England Conservatory a couple years ago, all seemingly comfortable up there. I’m wondering what kind of prep goes into that and what it was like to return to your school to do that?

MC: They asked us to come back and do it, that was the impetus. It felt awesome. It was like you were made here, made something of yourselves, why don’t you come back and talk to students about what it’s like out there. It was an honor. It was super fun. I’m thankful we were all humble people because we show up and it’s like (pauses) we don’t know how to do this. We don’t know how to publicly speak or talk about what we do like it’s an important thing, why are they making us? (Laughs) But we did it and ever since people come up to us at shows and are like “Saw your songwriting masterclass, it was really great, really helpful.” And I’m glad that people found value in it because it’s certainly not something we ever considered doing. Maybe when tour slows down we’ll just charge people to get a masterclass or something (Laughs).

HN: I thought it was interesting, performing for a venue audience is one thing, but then breaking that wall and exposing your songs in a way to an audience, even in an academic setting. Did anything feel different about that and do you feel like you learned anything about your music by doing it that way?

MC: Hmm. I don’t think so. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe the reason it ended up being fairly easy for us to do was due to the fact that we’ve always been fairly analytical about the way we write and rehearse music. I don’t think we would’ve been able to do the masterclass if we didn’t already think fairly deeply about the way we write songs, or at least those songs specifically. The thing I took away personally was that it almost validated my method, or at least the one I had chosen for the song we discussed. It actually helped people, I might be onto something. To be honest, Bridget and McDuck are the most prolific. Rachael and I looked to them in the beginning before we were writing songs about how to write them. I still consider myself a baby songwriter. I can’t just sit down and do it like the two of them can, but maybe I’m on the right path.

HN: Much different setting, Lake Street Dive performed with the Baltimore Symphony. Have you ever done anything like that before and what was that experience like?

MC: We did it with our alma matter, a jazz orchestra, a chamber ensemble, and yeah a couple nights ago we did it in Baltimore. It was fantastic, we had never done something like that before. With our current technical setup, it did prove to be somewhat difficult. We’re just not used to having so many instruments onstage and so many microphones. But it was awesome to hear our songs fleshed out for violin and stuff. It was clear that our songs had enough melodic material to inspire an arranger to make it sound even bigger than they do on the record.

HN: One more for the road. It’s a silly one. if you could have a drum-off with any musician alive or dead, who would it be?

MC: A drum off?!

HN: A drum off.

MC: Oh, a drum off. My favorite drummer has always been Ringo [Starr] but he’s kind of an [average] soloist. I would have to say Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I mean, he would destroy me. Any one of my heroes playing a drum solo up against me would destroy me. But I’ve always wanted to see how he hit stuff. He had this touch that was loose and aggressive at the same time and I just can’t figure out how he did it. It would be a lesson for me.

HN: It always sounded like he had four arms, or a couple of different wrists.

MC: Yeah! He’s kinda like Elvin Jones playing psychedelic rock.

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.