For nearly all of Lake Street Dive’s 15-year history, the group stubbornly refused to bring on any additional musicians to help re-create some of the sounds the band had incorporated into its studio recordings, but could not replicate onstage with just four players.
That thinking went out the window and onto the stage last year after the group gave keyboardist Akie Bermiss a try. Bassist and Iowa City native Bridget Kearney, guitarist/trumpet player Mike “McDuck” Olson, singer Rachel Price and drummer Mike Calabrese found they got much more than a faithful representation of their songs with Bermiss in the fold.
“I think that our past selves would have denied up and down that we would ever have considered adding another member,” Olson said in a recent phone interview. “But we have wholeheartedly embraced Akie Bermiss as sort of the fifth member of the band as a keyboard player. Last year, he was on right around two-thirds of the show.”
The band will return to Iowa City on Monday (9/3) for a sold-out concert at the Englert Theatre.
“We spent a great deal of time (in the past) being, ‘OK, well, let’s see what am I doing? I’m playing guitar and I’m singing, and then I’m going to whistle into the microphone a part that somebody had played on the mellotron and then I have to double this part.’
“That challenge was very exciting for a long time, and I think a natural thing for a group of people who attended a music conservatory,” said Olson, who met the others during their freshman year at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
“Music is supposed to be something of an athletic pursuit. If you’re not sweating, are you really playing? That’s sort of the conservatory mind-set.”
Freed from having to figure out which band member would have to play certain keyboard parts either in tandem with their regular instrument or in place of their instrument, they found their overall sound enhanced with Bermiss handling keyboards. For Olson, it also allowed him to expand the role of guitar beyond being the primary melodic and tonal instrument in the group’s live sound.
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“I’m basically, I’m the only thing defining the tonality of a song. I’m the only thing with more than one note going at any time, so everybody is using me to tune to,” Olson said. “So there are all these checks on the list that I needed to do before I could even think about what I’m playing from a creative standpoint.
“But with Akie there, now all of a sudden, OK, now I can play a little bit of lead (at times). Now we’re constructing these sort of very idiosyncratic key guitar parts that come from records that we know and love so much. Now we’re not fighting with the music, we’re dancing.”
Since the band members liked what Bermiss did in the shows, they brought him in to play throughout their new album, “Free Yourself Up.” They were further delighted by the impact the keyboard had on the Lake Street Dive sound.
“We found that we played a lot differently when there was a live piano player involved,” Olson said. “It’s exciting and it’s inspiring from a musical standpoint, and I think the (live) show is elevated musically just from the kind of tasty musical elements that Akie contributes.”
“Free Yourself Up” still sounds very much like Lake Street Dive, but some significant new wrinkles are in the music. The band has stretched out a bit stylistically, retaining the hooky pop melodies, good-time feel and the jazzy and soulful elements that have been laced through its five previous studio albums.
The sound is a bit fuller and rocks a bit more. This is especially true of “Dude,” a standout funky track with a groove that’s matched by the catchy chorus. Other songs get extra jolts of energy, as well. On “Baby, Don’t Leave Me Alone with My Thoughts,” a riffy change of pace part adds some grit to the song, while “You Are Free” gets some similar riffage to go with its buoyant melody. And Bermiss makes his presence felt throughout the album, spicing up “Red Light Kisses” with what sounds like clavinet and B-3 organ, then weaving synthesizer into “Doesn’t Even Matter Now.”
Creating the latest musical chapter that is “Free Yourself Up” involved taking a few other chances, the biggest of which was self-producing the album with the help of engineer/co-producer Dan Knobler.
Olson said the group actually planned to hire a producer and got well into compiling and considering potential candidates for the task. Then a demo session at Knobler’s garage studio altered that plan.
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“That initial demo session with Dan in Nashville was eye opening, and we sort of, we came away from that kind of — no one said it — no one said ‘Gosh, why don’t we self produce?’ I think it was we were too afraid to say it because we had gone so far down the road of looking for a producer,” Olson said.
Even though “Free Yourself Up” has only been out a few months, the plan is to play a good chunk of material from the album in upcoming shows.
“We’d like to be showcasing a lot of new material right off of the bat, interspersed liberally with more known material,” he said. “But we’re lengthening the show, as well. So it’s going to be a little bit of a longer show, which will ensure that we can play as much of the new record as possible, but also make sure we play the hits, as it were.”
WHAT: Lake Street Dive, featuring Iowa City native Bridget Kearney on bass
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday (9/3)
TICKETS: $46.50 SOLD OUT
BAND’S WEBSITE: Lakestreetdive.com