Elegantly Simple: Lake Street Dive’s Michael Olson
With his spare approach, bare-bones chording, conservatory training, and improviser’s ear, the guitarist known as “McDuck” gives his rising quartet wings.
The hallowed halls of the New England Conservatory of Music, one of the oldest and most prestigious music schools in the country, might seem like an unlikely breeding ground for a rock band. But this Boston institution is where Lake Street Dive, a quartet now based in Brooklyn, came together when its members were undergraduates there a decade ago.
Lake Street Dive—guitarist and trumpeter Michael “McDuck” Olson, upright bassist Bridget Kearney, singer Rachael Price, and drummer Michael Calabrese—was originally intended as a project to explore a sound the group tagged “free country,” a hybrid of country-and-western and free jazz.
But instead, Lake Street Dive chose to make music people would want to listen—and dance—to. The group’s calling came to be a blend of equal parts Motown, 1960s pop, swing-era jazz, and 1970s horn rock, rendered with the technical mastery the members developed as conservatory students and delivered with a reckless abandon not usually taught at school.
Lake Street Dive, which takes its name from a seedy thoroughfare in Olson’s hometown, Minneapolis, was a side project for everyone until 2012. That’s when a YouTube video of the group playing an unplugged, way slow interpretation of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” on a street corner in the Boston area went viral. Lake Street Dive’s reputation was further solidified when, the following year, producer T Bone Burnett invited the group to play at a concert in New York celebrating the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis, set in folk-era Greenwich Village.
In the winter of 2015, Lake Street Dive took a break from its relentless touring schedule and headed to Nashville with 28 songs. With the help of producer Dave Cobb, the group whittled things down to the dozen tracks that appear on its fifth album and Nonesuch debut, Side Pony. The set captures Lake Street at its most playful and energetic, and is packed with Olson’s tastiest guitar parts.
Premier Guitar recently chatted with Olsen about his group, switching between the trumpet and the guitar, and the maximal mileage he gets from playing minimal parts on a spare setup.
Talk about your musical background, which doesn’t resemble that of a typical rock musician.
I grew up in the Twin Cities area, on the Minneapolis side. My dad has taught band in school for a very long time, so I grew up around music and played trumpet in his band from sixth grade through 12th. In fact, I didn’t have a different band instructor till my first day of college, which is pretty weird.
In college, at the University of Wisconsin from 2001 to 2003, I studied trumpet exclusively and took a fair amount of composition classes. I didn’t start guitar until the first day after graduating from NEC, where I was a transfer student beginning in 2003. I went on Craigslist in Boston, looking for a cheap guitar to use as a songwriting tool, because in college, all the writing I’d done was on a piano in a practice room, and after I graduated, I no longer had access to the practice rooms.
I bought an old Harmony for 30 dollars from someone in Cambridge and played it for several years. I never took a guitar lesson, though I probably should have [laughs]. My learning curve wouldn’t have been as steep.
Lake Street Dive’s string team, Olson and bassist Kearney, also contribute to the group’s rich signature harmonies.
Photo by Lindsey Best
How did you learn to play guitar?
I learned almost exclusively through YouTube videos and watching live concerts—like the Beatles’ famous rooftop concert. Over and over again, I watched what George Harrison and John Lennon were doing. More than any other instrument, you can learn guitar as part of an online community. I’m sure there are a lot of instructors who would disagree with me, but it’s a good place to start, for sure.
What kind of program were you in at NEC?
It was a jazz program, but there wasn’t a big emphasis on traditional jazz, although you can certainly learn it there. The program was very progressive, with a lot of emphasis on modern jazz, free jazz, free improvisation, jazz hands. Just kidding about that last one. It was really about developing your own voice as an improviser, which is great. It was so freeing as a young person who had spent so much time practicing and really working on chops-oriented, regimented stuff.
How did studying there inform your development as a rock musician?
The culture of the school was one in which you could walk up to any student—upperclassman, underclassman, transfer or graduate students, fat kids, skinny kids, kids that climb on rocks, and say, “Hey, do you want to play music with me tonight in a practice room?” And the answer was always, “yes.” Even if you didn’t get anything out of your classes—and shame on you if you didn’t—you could get a full education simply by playing with as many students as you could find and cram into your schedule.
So it was a very fertile environment for learning how to play and how to play with other people. And it really paved the way for Lake Street Dive. Yes, we are heavily influenced by our musical education and we apply ourselves to songwriting, arranging, and performing in the same way we applied ourselves in school—in a studious manner—but also with that kind of creative searching that was bred into us at NEC.
“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.