A Not-So-Bad Self Portrait
Contrary to his nickname, Mike “Scrooge McDuck” Olson is far from the standoffish, miserly character of Walt Disney fame.
Attend one of his concerts, and you’ll witness the guitarist and trumpeter for Lake Street Dive being generous with his time, connecting with an ever-growing legion of fans after their shows.
Olson says he had just matriculated to the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston in the early 2000s when he immediately came down with a serious case of mononucleosis. Not wanting to interact with his fellow classmates for the first month of school, he locked himself away in his room, leading them to believe he was simply a jerk and garnering the unflattering nickname.
The mono would pass, and Olson’s nickname was shortened to “McDuck” as the students discovered his true jovial demeanor and his extraordinary musical talents. He formed Lake Street Dive in 2004 along with fellow NEC students – vocalist Rachael Price, bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese.
Combining elements of alt-country, jazz, pop and rock with Price’s soaring vocals, the band (named for the numerous dive bars on Lake Street in Olson’s hometown of Minneapolis) toiled in obscurity for several years after the quartet graduated from college. It wasn’t until they recorded a video of the Jackson 5 song “I Want You Back” that they were discovered by the larger musical world, as the video went viral – accumulating more than 3 million views to date.
That video helped land them a record deal, with their 2014 album Bad Self Portraits racking up critical acclaim and songs like “You Go Down Smooth” and “Use Me Up” receiving significant airtime on the radio. They appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and headlined major festivals around the country, including a rousing performance at the inaugural Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival in 2014, playing in the jam-packed Chameleon Club.
Lake Street Dive (not Drive) returns to Lancaster on Sunday, July 19, for a free show at Lancaster’s Long’s Park Amphitheater. I caught up with Olson from Charleston, SC, where he had just finished a yoga class.
Michael Yoder: You recorded the music for Bad Self Portraits a few years ago now. Do the songs still feel fresh playing them live?
Mike Olson: Yeah, absolutely. I think if we were playing every night to no one, it would feel like it was kind of a drag to be playing songs that are two, three, four or five years old. But the crowd response – it’s funny. We’ll choose to play a song a little bit faster than it is on the record or kind of fool around with it during sound check and try something new out on it. I don’t necessarily know how many new people to the band are at every show. But even slight changes in the arrangement from the record, we get responses from the audience as if it’s a brand new song – like it’s a brand new song that they can sing along the words with.
MY: As an artist, what’s the experience like to look out into an audience of unfamiliar faces and seeing them singing your lyrics?
MO: Completely crazy. [laughs] It’s not something I’m used to yet. And I hope it’s not something I ever get too accustomed to because it’s extremely special. These are lyrics that we’ve all slaved over. We are very devoted to the lyrical side of the songwriting process, and nine times out of 10, the songs are coming from a personal place. Even in that 10th time, if it’s a fabricated story, you still become emotionally attached to the story. So to see hundreds of people singing along is confusing – it’s bizarre – but it’s also so exciting, too. You feel like all that hard work by yourself with a guitar – all those years spent picking apart songs by the Beatles, all the sweat and labor and the love that goes into songwriting that we are so committed to – is paying off many times over.
MY: What’s your favorite part of the live show?
MO: My favorite is when people are holding up their phones with the screens facing towards us and they’re FaceTime-ing or doing a video call with a friend, and I can see the friend sitting at home in their living room and their little face on the screen and that person is also dancing and singing along. I feel like yet another step into surreality, where someone can call a friend, hold up their phone and have the person on the phone sing along – weird.
“My favorite is when people are holding up their phones with the screens facing towards us and they’re FaceTime-ing…with a friend, and I can see the friend sitting at home in their living room and their little face on the screen and that person is also dancing and singing along.”
MY: How much have you seen technology influence music since you started your career as a professional musician?
MO: It’s definitely changed how we interact with fans, how music is consumed and how the lives of musicians are consumed in ways we were not at all prepared for when we were in college learning music. We took a class called “Career Skills” in college at the music conservatory. We were jazz students, so the thrust of the class was getting a gig – how to use technology to get a gig. So there were tutorials on websites and using word processing to make a resume, which is completely outdated. I hope they’re not teaching that class now because I frankly don’t know how important our website is to our fans. I would hazard to say it’s probably not that crucial. I’m sure that sometimes people will visit the page and see that we’re coming to town or maybe we are communicating with them that if they go to the website, they can download something – maybe. But the way that YouTube and Twitter have changed our lives and the way we interact with fans is still startling.
MY: Is there a form of social media that stands out for you?
MO: YouTube is the obvious one – putting a video online and just letting it go and not actively promoting it or actively pushing it. I’m sure it’s kind of the same way that mama bird feels when baby bird leaves the nest – just crossing the fingers and hoping it will take on a life of its own. In a lot of ways, that has become the Holy Grail for bands. It literally separates the bands that are “making it” full time and the bands that are still kind of struggling. It’s not talent that’s separating those bands; technological savvy is not separating those bands; it is the luck of YouTube that is separating those bands. We were toiling in obscurity. We were eking by, and we weren’t touring full time when the “I Want You Back” video went viral on YouTube, and that has changed our lives forever.
MY: What bar would you recommend going to on Lake Street if someone is in Minneapolis?
MO: [laughs] Well, the Lake Street that the band is named after is sort of a Lake Street of the past. My uncle was a musician in Minneapolis for a long time. He moved to L.A. and New Orleans and hopped around a little bit, but when he did live in Minneapolis, he lived right on Lake Street and played in bar bands. He was able to walk to most of his gigs up and down Lake Street. That world no longer exists in the same way. Lake Street has cleaned up quite a bit, although when I was growing up there was a place called the Bryant-Lake Bowl, which was a bowling alley and a bar and a concert space in the back. That was a favorite place for me when I went into town. There’s a band called Happy Apple that I loved to see at the Bryant-Lake Bowl – some fond memories of that.
MY: What drink goes down the smoothest for you?
MO: Oh, man. Earl Grey tea, nowadays. [laughs] The song was written about gin and tonics, but I’ve lost my taste for them. They’re too sugary and too sweet – the tonic water. You can’t drink too many of them. The next morning’s too rough.
Lake Street Dive performs at Long’s Park Amphitheater (Route 30 and Harrisburg Pike, Lancaster) on Sunday, July 19. Free. General admission. All ages. 7:30pm. Click here for more information.