Interview: Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini

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Pink Martini / Photo by Sherri Diteman

One of the songs on Pink Martini's forthcoming album, Splendor in the Grass, includes the line, "Life's a lot richer with a healthy mixture...not to mention lots more fun!" In addition to capping off a great musical romp, this statement also encapsulates the essence of Pink Martini. Over the course of 15 years, four albums and one live DVD, this little orchestra has crafted a sound that's both modern and retro. The group's albums feature a mix of covers and originals—even occasionally alternating between the two within the same piece.

Leading the Portland-based band is Pink Martini founder/pianist Thomas Lauderdale, and China Forbes on lead vocals in multiple languages. Saturday night, Pink Martini will take the stage at the Hollywood Bowl—a venue so perfectly suited to the band's sound that it would be easy to imagine a prescient architect creating this amphitheater with them in mind. LAist spoke with Lauderdale earlier this week to learn about the new album, his love of Polaroid cameras and what he appreciates most about Los Angeles.

LAist: One of my favorite songs from the new album is the title track, "Splendor in the Grass," and it's great how you incorporate Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto #1" at the end. What was the songwriting process like for the song—did you start with Tchaikovsky and work your way back?

Thomas Lauderdale: No, we actually started with the melody, then the Tchaikovsky came later to kick it over the top. The melody came from a Clint Eastwood film [Kelly's Heroes]. There's a song by Lalo Schifrin called "Burning Bridges" and I'd heard an instrumental of this song and thought, "This is just great!" So we wrote a song around that melody with new lyrics. It's sort of a back-to-nature ode.

I also think it's very Oregon in a way. Historically, people who moved to the state didn't come west to become rich. They came here simply to have a better life, and that was tied to being respectful of the land. I think that we're part of this tradition—a different kind of pioneer.

I love how that song ties in to the band's roots. Now, based on what I've read, it sounds like this new album is your favorite since your first album, Sympathique. Is that true?

Well, every album is so different. I would say that in terms of the fun factor, this was certainly the most fun I've had making an album in recent years. I really enjoyed working on the first album, but I was largely working by myself on that one. With the second album, I had so much anxiety and it was a four-year ongoing project. The third one was the first album I co-produced with China. That one was poppier, but I think I was also really concerned with making sure we started and finished on time.

With this one, there was a very laid-back atmosphere. China had a baby during this period of time, so I was sort of left to my own devices. I ended up working with a dear friend of mine from college, Alex Marashian. He'd never produced an album before, but he's always been sort of a muse to me, so I asked him to participate. He flew back and forth five times between Berlin and Portland and we wrote and recorded…then re-wrote and re-recorded!

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Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes of Pink Martini / Photo by Sherri Diteman
You've said that Pink Martini often records a number of different versions of a song when you’re working on an album. Which song had the most versions as you were recording Splendor in the Grass?

That didn't happen on this one. Everything pretty much revealed itself in a very organic way, which is why this album doesn't feel overworked to me. It just sort of unfolded naturally and we didn't really do multiple takes of much of anything.

Are the songs "And Then You're Gone" and "But Now I'm Back" related to each other musically?

Yes, the two songs are based on the same piece, Franz Schubert's "Fantasy in F Minor" for piano and four hands. So it's all Schubert, but one has some Latin flavor while the other is sort of an old-timey stomp thing. Those were fun pieces to work on. With those types of songs, you find inspiration—such as the Schubert—then try to envision it in different ways.

How did the collaboration with NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro come about on "But Now I'm Back"? He has an amazing voice!

Ari's originally from Portland, although I didn't meet him until he did a profile on the band during the recording of our second album. Since then, we've become friends and I learned that he was in a musical group at Yale. In recent years, there have been various scenarios where Ari and a bunch of us have been singing around a piano. I love the concept of the sing-along!

So last June, Ari, the band and a bunch of other friends—I think the band Blind Pilot was there as well—were at Ari's house right before a concert at Wolf Trap in Virginia. We were singing show tunes such as "Oklahoma" and "The Wells Fargo Wagon" and it reminded me of the fact that Ari has a great voice. I'd tried to get him to sing at various points in the past, but after that night, we pretty much wrote "But Now I'm Back" for him.

Will he be performing with you at the Hollywood Bowl concert?

Yes, Saturday night he will make his public singing debut.

That'll be a treat! Hopefully he'll release a full-length album at some point. Moving on to another song from the new album, I heard that the sitar featured in the song "Tuca Tuca" is the one Peter Sellers used in the film The Party. How did you find that instrument?

It's amazing. My friend Rochelle Smithline's husband worked for the Mirisch Corporation, which produced The Party among other films. When they were wrapping the film, they asked Mr. Smithline if he wanted to take anything from the set, and he wisely took the sitar.

I've always loved that film, so I called up Rochelle and asked, "Can we use the sitar as inspiration for some song on our next album?" At the time, I had no idea what we were going to use it for, but then it just revealed itself in the recording process. It became obvious that "Tuca Tuca" would be the track with the sitar solo.








Pink Martini - "Tuca Tuca"

I love what you did with that song. And last night I watched the original Raffaella Carra version on YouTube…

Yeah, it's an irresistible song. And hopefully everyone will learn how to do that little dance. (laughs)

How did you get ranchera singer Chavela Vargas for the song "Piensa En Mi"?

You know, she's one of my favorite singers of all time and it had been a dream to do something with her. We didn't think it was going to happen, but at the last minute, it did. She recorded it in Mexico City at her house with two guitars. Later, we were able to separate the guitars from the voice, then layered on the piano and violin back in Portland.

Is it true you recently performed a musical in Oregon?

We did. We collaborated with the 234th Army band, which was amazing. Former Governor of Oregon, Barbara Roberts, joined us, too. We wrote the fourth act with the first lady of Oregon [Mary Oberst] and the conductor of "Chariots of Fire" [Harry Rabinowitz] and, like, 20 others. It was crazy.

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Pink Martini / Photo by Adam Levey

You're also well known for your Polaroid photography. Will your book [Last Call at the Silverado, which chronicles the social history of Portland's gay-owned-and-operated Silverado nightclub] be released anytime soon?

Maybe after this album is out I'll release the Silverado book. You know, Oregon is really kind of a quirky state. The nudity laws are really lax and everybody gets naked. A lot. These strip clubs are kind of amazing. We've got the oldest strip club West of the Mississippi—female-owned-and-operated. In addition, we have the oldest drag club in the country, and we also have the Silverado. There aren't many places in the country where you can see naked men. There are more strip clubs and more restaurants per capita in Portland than in any other US city.

What was the most surprising thing you learned as you got into Polaroid photography?

What I love about this particular Polaroid Land Camera 250 is that I feel it was the last great American product built in the 60s. It was built to last and it has great craftsmanship, great lenses and great mechanics—kind of indestructible yet it also provides instant gratification. It's so America in many ways.

Unfortunately, at a certain point, everything started becoming very plastic and very expendable. The Polaroids after 1964 and 1965 are different and I don't like them. I much prefer the older ones with the really great lenses.

Another great thing about Polaroids is that when you're traveling, you can give the photo to whomever you're photographing. It's a great gift, especially if you're traveling in places where people haven't necessarily seen photographs of themselves.

Speaking of travel, Pink Martini really seems to appeal to a wide range of cultures and ages. Why do you think that is?

I think the music is accessible and it's created to appeal both to conservatives and liberals. It was also created to hopefully have cross-generational appeal, which I think is kind of rare in modern music. And there was also this concept of doing songs in different languages. Both China and I grew up studying different languages, and both of us grew up in multicultural households, so it really made a lot of sense.

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Pink Martini / Photo by James WilderHancock

You've used the term "musical archeologists" to describe the band. Is there anything you've unearthed over the last few months?

Recently I've just been scrambling to finish this album, but I have rediscovered Eden Ahbez. It's been said he lived beneath the first "L" of the Hollywood sign and it was just him, his wife and his juicer…

His juicer?

Yeah, I think he was a vegetarian.

He was also a composer. He wrote the song "Nature Boy," which Nat King Cole made famous. And Ahbez put out a solo album in 1960, which is just otherworldly.

I'll have to check that out. So have you ever scheduled a tour date just to discover a new place and its music?

Not really, it just sort of happens. When we travel to a new country, we try to find a song to sing in that language. We get some translation so we can communicate a few lines in Turkish or Arabic or Japanese or whatever language we're supposed to be speaking.

You'll be in LA soon. Is there any place you love to visit when you’re in town?

I love LA and Akbar in Silver Lake is a favorite. And actually, before they tore it down, I used to sneak into the Ambassador Hotel.

Really! Was it difficult?

No, there was a broken window in the basement. One year, five us from the band went in and explored the empty hotel in the middle of the night.

I hope you took your Polaroid camera with you!

I did, but it was too dark. I did, however, tear off a piece of wallpaper which now hangs on my wall.

In addition to your off-hours adventures, what is it about LA that's made it one of your favorite cities to play?

I just feel like Los Angeles gave us two big breaks. The first was when we were on KCRW, and I think it may have actually been Nic Harcourt's first week. The other break came with the LA Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. They've been so great to us and we feel so fortunate!

Since our time is coming to an end, would you give LAist readers a taste of what to expect at your Hollywood Bowl show on Saturday night?

It'll be Pink Martini plus a string section, and we're going to play a big combination platter of new and old. It'll definitely include songs like "Amado Mio," "Brazil" and "Hey Eugene!" but we also want to debut a lot of material we've only played once or twice in public. Plus Ari Shapiro's flying out from DC and Emilio Delgado [who sings "Sing" with Forbes on the new album] will be there. It's going to be fun.

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Thomas!

Don't miss Pink Martini Saturday night, Sept. 19, at the Hollywood Bowl. If you're lucky, you may be able to find a just-released ticket or two via Ticketmaster. The little orchestra's fourth album, Splendor in the Grass, will be released on Oct. 27. To learn more about the band, visit www.pinkmartini.com.