“With guitar, I’ve got that less-is-more thing going on, and I take a lot of pride in that,” says Michael “McDuck” Olson.
Photo by Lindsey Best
Talk about your approach to playing guitar.
I never thought about this until very recently, when Rachael and Bridget were asking me about some basics on guitar, and I realized that a lot of what I consider to be one of the main tricks of my trade is economy. I don’t have a huge wingspan—I don’t have big, meaty hands—and I like to do as much as possible with what I’ve got. I didn’t study guitar in school, so I don’t know about all the fancy jazz chords and the voice-leading on the instrument.
How, if it all, does playing trumpet inform your fretwork?
At the risk of giving you a boring answer, I’m not sure they’re related in the end. They’re such vastly different instruments—not just because of the physical approach, which is obviously different, but the way I learned the two is quite dissimilar. As I mentioned, playing trumpet from a very young age, and having a band-director father breathing down my neck at home, and then entering a university situation where I was expected to practice a lot made me very technical on the trumpet.
With guitar, I’ve got that less-is-more thing going on, and I take a lot of pride in that. Even if the two instruments were more closely related conceptually, my approach is kind of polarized, which is actually very satisfying in a live setting. I’m lucky to be able to play both trumpet and guitar at a show. I can play rhythm guitar on a few songs—do my job in playing with the best time feel possible—to be part of the band. Then, I can put the guitar down, pick up the trumpet, and play an obnoxious solo. So it scratches all of the musical itches I could possibly have. I’m never gonna find another band that lets me do this.
What makes for an obnoxious solo?
Loud! There’s an old adage used in the trumpet world—and I’m sure it extends to a lot of different instruments—to describe an obnoxious player: higher, faster, louder. In order to be obnoxious, you’ve got to hit all three of those. Some players actually consider that a virtue, but when the band first began I was so very against being in the higher-faster-louder camp. I thought I was at the height of sophistication if I played a solo on a rock tune that was contemplative and all Chet Baker.
Over time, I learned that the audience wasn’t there to transcribe my trumpet solos, so nowadays I’m inclined to be less influenced by Miles Davis and Chet Baker. Don’t get me wrong. If I ever took a jazz gig again, all their influences would come out again. But what I’m more about these days is playing in more of a Tower of Power or Chicago mode: horn rock. The guys playing in those bands—their job was to cut through the mix and to be exciting.
A solo comes at a point in a song where it’s needed to propel things in an exciting direction, to maintain people’s interest and to keep them dancing, to reach a peak where the only thing that can come next is the double chorus and then the out. So, in that moment, serving that function, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s okay to play high, fast, and loud.
What guitars did you play on Side Pony?
I exclusively played an Epiphone Casino that belonged to our producer, Dave Cobb, through an old Fender Twin and a Magnatone.
Was it a vintage Casino or a recent one, and why did it make sense?
It was a reissue—a signature model, I think. I’d never played a hollowbody like that [a thinline, fully hollow guitar with P-90 pickups], and it was awesome. Dave is someone who’s very into sounds. You know how producers and engineers are with drums, spending hours with a kit to get
just the right kick-drum sound, to make it sound
pillow-y and big? On the first day, Dave said, “Why don’t you try this and see what you think?” And it became the sound he wanted to hear on just about everything, which was fine by me. It played really great.
On the opening cut, “Godawful Things,” and elsewhere, you seem to have an affinity for compact chord voicings on the guitar’s inner strings.
What I love is the A formation: barring three strings and using that anywhere on the neck and playing little ideas around it. Or playing a barre-chord formation, but removing the barre and moving the shape around. Playing chords like this makes it so much easier for me to get around on the guitar, and it has the added benefit of not crowding everyone else out with six-note voicings all the time.
What I can get away with by playing three- or four-note voicings, moving a couple notes to get from one chord to the next, really opens up the musical space. It’s really easy for us with this conservatory background and all this training to overplay and fill up the space, and we always have to remind ourselves that less is more. I feel like a lot of great guitar players do that—not necessarily playing voicings in the way I’m describing, but in the way that Lennon and Harrison worked, playing small parts that allow the music to breathe as much as possible.
Are those organ-like sounds on “Spectacular Failure” generated by guitar?
Yes. I actually played them on the guitar, going through an organ emulator—an Electro-Harmonix B9 pedal. It’s a wicked fun pedal, and it’s actually really accurate. The attack is very organ-y, and it’s got great sustain, which makes it sound like you’re holding down the keys. It took a while to figure out how to best work it. I ended up doing a fair amount of fingerpicking in conjunction with the pedal, as opposed to playing with a pick. This gave a more realistic attack.
Michael “McDuck” Olson’s grinding guitar figure, played on his D’Angelico EX-DC, powers up “I Don’t Care About You” from Lake Street Dive’s new Side Pony album. The song displays his preference for partial chords that allow his bandmates sonic space, and the live video reveals the quartet’s mastery of dynamic, interlocking parts.
As a jazz musician, does improvisation factor into your guitar work with Lake Street Dive?
Not a ton. We always say—and by “we,” I’m not sure who I’m talking about [laughs]—that composition is improvisation slowed down, and improvising is composing sped up. What’s very improvisatory for me on guitar is the arranging process. When we’re rehearsing and learning a new song, there’s a lot of improvisation that takes place because we don’t bring in completed songs. We bring in sketches and demos and we trust each other on our individual instruments. We don’t need to dictate to Mike what to play on the drums. We don’t need to tell him on which beat to play the floor tom. And the same is true of everyone else. So there’s a lot of improvisation and stretching and thinking things out in those moments.
But it is also important to me that when time comes for an arrangement to congeal, to be played over and over again night after night, that improvisation is kept to a minimum because I’m confident that what we’ve come up with is what’s right for the song. And I’m not convinced that night after night I’m going to improvise a better part than I arrived at in rehearsal. It’s just not my strength on the instrument. The conservatory mindset of studying about styles and being intentional in what you play makes those rehearsals more than just jam sessions; they’re structured and thoughtful and when we’re done with them we have really solid arrangements, with everyone having really solid parts. And that’s something that we’re proud to play night after night.