For nearly all of Lake Street Dive’s 15-year history, the Boston indie-pop quartet stubbornly refused to bring on any additional musicians to help recreate their lush studio sound. But that thinking went out the window (and up on stage) in 2017, when the group invited keyboardist Akie Bermiss to expand their live sound. Guitarist/trumpet player Mike “McDuck” Olson, singer Rachel Price, bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese found they got much more than a truer faithful representation of their songs with Bermiss in the fold.
“I think that our past selves sides would’ve denied up and down that we would ever have considered adding another member,” Olson acknowledged 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.”
“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 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,’” he explained. “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. [The band members met 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 mindset.”
Freed from having to figure out which band member would have to play which keyboard part (with their hands already full), Lake Street Dive found their overall sound enhanced with the inclusion of Bermiss. It also allowed Olson to expand the role of guitar playing beyond being the primary melodic and tonal instrument in the group’s live sound.
“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, like, 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 sorts 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.”
In fact, the band members liked what Bermiss did so much in the shows, they brought him in to play on their latest album, Free Yourself Up, and were further delighted by the impact the keyboardist’s playing had on the Lake Street Dive sound.
“We found 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 kinds of tasty musical elements that Akie contributes.”
Free Yourself Up still sounds very much like Lake Street Dive, but there are some significant new wrinkles in the music. The band has stretched out a bit stylistically. Though they’ve retained the hooky pop melodies, good-time feel and soulful elements that have defined the group’s five previous studio albums, the new Dive is a bit fuller and rocks a little more. This is especially true of “Dude,” a standout track with a funk groove matched by a catchy chorus. Other songs get extra jolts of energy as well. A rock interlude adds grit to “Baby, Don’t Leave Me Alone with My Thoughts,” while “You Are Free” benefits from some righteous riffage in addition to its buoyant melody.
Bermiss’ presence is felt throughout, spicing up “Red Light Kisses” with B-3 organ sounds and weaving a synthesizer into “Doesn’t Even Matter Now.”
Olson said the group is pleased enough with Free Yourself Up that a good chunk of the new material was incorporated into the band’s live show as soon as the album dropped in May 2018.
“[We were] showcasing a lot of new material right off the bat, interspersed, obviously, 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.”