Lake Street Dive really, really loves playing close to your face.
Though the pop quartet is more accustomed to selling out Central Park and playing to screaming crowds at Bonnaroo and Boston Calling these days, they made a point to book a handful of gigs last fall that brought them through the tiny venues they frequented while cutting their teeth. This run of shows—dubbed the Memory Lane Tour—had them playing the Lizard Lounge, a homey, Persian carpet-clad basement spot steps from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the Rockwood Music Hall, one of Manhattan’s most intimate rooms with a reputation for supporting rising talent. In both venues, artists can literally reach out and touch someone from behind their instruments: These spots are so small that personal space is a luxury, and fans, more often than not, have to watch their elbows while dancing so as not to bump a singer’s mic stand.
That up-in-your-business closeness is why Lake Street Dive booked this Memory Lane Tour in the first place: They wanted to get back to the stages that felt like home, because they wanted to play their new songs—the songs that would eventually make up Side Pony, their highest-stakes album yet out now—for rooms full of familiar faces.
“I don’t even think that we realized how much we needed to play in front of people so close up to our faces, to feel that looseness,” says Rachael Price, Lake Street Dive’s powerhouse singer. “The fact of the matter is, we have our fans because there are no smoke and mirrors—we’re just four friends playing songs together. Those shows and the fans’ reaction to those shows were just a great reminder that we just gotta like, fuckin’ play music.”
The fans were into it, thankfully. While 2014’s Bad Self Portraits rendered David Letterman speechless, scored Price a cameo on House of Cards (she sings the national anthem in the second season’s premiere), and eased Miranda Lambert’s broken heart, Side Pony is Lake Street Dive’s major label debut—and their riskiest record to date.
This is their first release with Nonesuch, which is known for its eclectic roster (the Black Keys, Lianne Le Havas, Wilco), and Side Pony similarly embraces several styles in the span of its 11 songs. Dave Cobb, whose production played a huge part in Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell’s recent GRAMMY wins, helmed Side Pony, inviting Price, Kearney, guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson and drummer Mike Calabrese to his studio in Nashville.
From disco (“Call Off Your Dogs”) to surf-rock (“Hell Yeah”) to soaring soul reminiscent of the Muscle Shoals sound (“Saving All My Sinning”), Side Pony dips its toes in vintage tones while staying polished and catchy as hell. It’s no wonder that, in spite of the brand new nature of the material, fans at those Memory Lane Tour shows were getting cozy with Side Pony’s choruses just as the band was themselves.
“Nobody knew these songs because the record wasn’t out yet, but just watching people’s eyes light up when the chorus would hit, it’s just like, ‘Oh, cool! They get what the song is about!’” recalls bassist Bridget Kearney. “Rooms like that have always been this way, but the people who came out to those shows, they’re the types that, by the time we play the chorus for the third time, they already know the song and are singing along.”
The chorus hits especially hard on “Can’t Stop,” a track that Price and Kearney are notably proud of. Before Side Pony, the members of Lake Street Dive worked as four distinct parts of the same machine: They would often write songs and present them to the group before playing them together, so every Lake Street Dive song is technically an idea brought into being by one band member in particular. That wasn’t the case with “Can’t Stop,” which serves as the one track on Side Pony that’s completely co-written.
“Throughout the sessions, Dave had been encouraging us to go to this local record store and buy records based on hilarious covers,” says Kearney. “We would bring them into the studio and play them in the morning, just to kind of fire us up, get us going. We had stumbled upon this Major Lance record that had a track on it that we really liked. Dave was like, ‘Let’s try making a song out of a sample!’ And we were like, ‘You’re crazy.’ But then we went ahead and did that, and that Major Lance sample is kind of the first thing you hear on ‘Can’t Stop,’ these horn parts that occur throughout it.”
Price adds, “It’s hysterical—we’ve been a band for 12 years, and we’re all best friends with each other, but yeah, we just never sat in a room together and were like, ‘Okay! You go work on the lyrics; you go work on the chorus; you go work on this groove.’ That’s what we did, and it was cool, because we made quite a songwriting team with each other. It was like a little factory: everyone has their different strengths and what they can work on the fastest. Now, we know that, and we can do it more, which will be really fun.”
Side Pony shot Lake Street Dive in far-flung directions and challenged them stylistically; now they’ve re-emerged with more songwriting tricks up their sleeves. That bodes well for the band’s future—as does its North American tour (kicking off on Monday night in Phoenix), where the quartet will be selling out rooms 10 times the size (or more) of those intimate stops on the Memory Lane Tour. Lake Street Dive loves your face, sure—but with ever-growing crowds, they’ll have to love you from a distance.