“THE ACOUSTIC BASS HAS A DISTINCTIVE tone that immediately separates our band from other bands,” says Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive, a quartet that adds a modern indie-pop touch to its lively blend of early-’60s soul and golden-era Nashville. But for all of Lake Street Dive’s infectious, swinging pop sensibilities, its members all have strong technical backgrounds. Kearney, who began playing the upright bass in the 4th-grade orchestra, met powerhouse singer Rachael Price, drummer Mike Calabrese, and trumpeter/guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson at the New England Conservatory of Music, where each was studying jazz. The four musicians formed Lake Street Dive to explore their shared love of pop music, and they refined the group’s sound over several records, exemplified by their popular cover of “I Want You Back,” which slows down the Jackson 5 classic to a slow-jam lament. The quartet’s latest, 2014’s Bad Self Portraits, features a title track about this selfie-obsessed era, written by Kearney.
What does playing upright offer this music that maybe an electric bass can’t?
I emulate a lot of the techniques of electric bass players, like using ghost-notes and hammer-ons, and I play those to sound as close to an electric bass as possible. Tone-wise, it’s a whole other world. You can get a deep, full sound when you record the acoustic bass, which is similar to how you can get a deep sound with infinite space from an acoustic piano that a digital piano doesn’t quite have on its own.
The band’s instrumentation gives you room to be melodic with your lines.
I like that the band creates a lot of space for the bass, because we have a fairly minimal instrumentation. As a bass player, a lot of times you’re required to stay in your role where you’re laying a bed for the harmonies to sit on top, but in Lake Street Dive, there’s room for me to be a part of the song’s rhythmic and melodic construction. We try to make the bass parts as memorable and have as much content as the vocal melodies. So, what’s fun about the band, and what stands out, is that the bass gets to do some active stuff.
Left, Lake Street DiveWhat did you have to leave behind from your jazz and classical training to move in a pop direction?
One of the ways we started was by not playing so many notes! Specific to the bass, I continue to play in an improvisational way, but I have a line that I can remember as a starting point, and then I dress it up. You have to be conscientious of the way your playing is going to be listened to and give the ear something to latch onto. Then, when you play with that basic bass line, it’s all the more exciting.
There is a ton of stuff you can get from applying complex musical concepts, but you have to trust your ears and ask yourself, “Is this sounding good, or not?” You have to have a filter, as a non-technical musician, to ask yourself if you’re enjoying listening to this.
You do a lot of background singing. Do you have advice for bassists who want to work on singing?
You can build it up the same way that you can construct a drum groove. Isolate one part, then the other. I work on nailing one bar of the bass part, then add the first part of the vocal part. Once you have that on a loop and have the feel down, add the next note. Just break it down and take it slow.
Learning to sing the vocal melody while playing is really valuable, too. I took lessons from Ben Street, and he talked about singing standards and playing walking bass lines through them and asking yourself how is this note working with the vocal melody, does this make sense, and how can this work best together. Bach chorales are also good for practice—I like to play the low line and sing the high line.
Sometimes it sounds like you’re using overdrive. What situations call for you to distort your upright?
It gives us another color to work with. You spend all this time trying to do these complicated things with music, and then you put your foot on this pedal, and immediately you’re in this other world.
The chorus on “Seventeen” slows down about 20 beats a minute, and the vibe is a lot heavier, and stepping on my Ibanez Tube Screamer adds to what we were going for mood-wise. I use it for solos sometimes, too. I have a solo on “Bobby Tanqueray” that pops out from the guitar and drums, when I have a little edge to the sound.
Where is the band going next?
We’re getting started on the next record, and we’re going to record it live. We’ve recorded live before, but it was isolated, with maybe a sight line—but this is going to be all live, in the same room, including the lead vocals. We’re aiming to do a lot of the arranging in the studio, too, to capture some of the collective energy of a moment in time and give the record a feeling of coherence. But, we’re also walking into the studio and recording live with unfinished arrangements—it’s terrifying! [Laughs.]
Lake Street Dive, Bad Self Portraits [2014, Signature Sounds]
Bass Chadwick Folding Bass (“I’ve played this on the last three records and tours. It’s really practical and nice, especially if you’re amplifying.”)
StringsD’Addario Zyex synthetic core
Pickups Fishman Full Circle in bridge; Zadow magnetic pickup attached to end of fingerboard
Rig Acoustic Image amp, Eden 4x10 cabinet
Pedals Radial Engineering Tonebone, (Fishman Full Circle into one channel, Zadow into other); Ibanez Tube Screamer for overdrive. “Using only the magnetic pickup for effects was a recipe for success. It doesn’t feed back, and you can crank the sound and blend it with the Fishman, for a rich, more acoustic tone.”