Five years ago, the band Lake Street Dive played a set of funky, blue-eyed soul and jazz-tinged rock in the dark back room of Balliceaux to about 20 people. Everyone there could tell the band wouldn’t be playing small rooms for long.
Sure enough, each time the group returned to Richmond the crowds grew larger. There was a packed Camel gig, then a crowded Brown’s Island for a Friday Cheers show, and a triumphant, sold-out National show to celebrate its last album.
Last month Lake Street Dive released its slick major label debut, “Side Pony,” on Nonesuch Records, which debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard charts. The band quickly announced more sold-out shows at large theaters, as well as an opening gig for mega-mainstream pop act Dave Matthews Band at the Gorge in Washington state.
The new album, helmed by Nashville producer-of-the-moment Dave Cobb, may not have that one hit song that launches Lake Street into the pop stratosphere, but you can sense the gears turning. Charismatic lead singer Rachael Price is known for her jazz pipes but also has a gritty soulfulness and proud frontwoman appeal — kind of like a healthier Amy Winehouse. Or, as a writer noted during a live review of a recent Los Angeles gig, “a rhythmically hopped-up version of Rita Hayworth in ‘Gilda.’”
But energetic drummer Mike Calabrese, who wrote several songs on the new album, is the free-flowing heart of the group. Onstage he gets funky while providing stellar backing vocals, slapping a tambourine to his chest and keeping a steady snare beat while wailing away on the “ooh-la-las.” Style spoke with him during his tour stop in San Diego, right before the band played Conan O’Brien’s television show.
Calabrese: Yeah, when things started happening, that all felt like it was coming out of nowhere and it was very exciting. … But I’m glad it wasn’t an actual overnight success, or we wouldn’t have had the history with each other, the experience and the know-how. We’ve been touring through same venues for about three years now. The idea with this record and next is to branch out a little more and get out of our bubble.
At first, it was nice to see a lot of growth happening in Boston and New York — which was where we all lived. But when it came to Richmond, we had never been there before; it was outside our sphere of influence. A lot of thanks for that goes to [Style Weekly calendar editor] Chris Bopst for getting us down there and seeing something in us. It was really nice to finally be like, “We don’t have to stick with the Northeast, we can go crazy.” … The viral video thing was definitely a big help. We had gotten used to putting out these single-shot, outside videos — but when the Jackson 5 video [“I Want You Back”] went viral and got tweeted by the right people, social media did its thing. That was a major turning point.
As always, part of it is who you know. What got us involved with the “Inside Llewyn Davis” concert in New York was a friend of ours from Punch Brothers was working with [Grammy-winning producer] T-Bone Burnett and told him to check us out. T-Bone thought it would be fun to have us on this show. But there were so many people that night in the audience watching. Nonesuch saw us for the first time that night, which led to us getting our current record deal.
We sort of got to him before he had garnered the attention he does now, which was nice. He got on our radar because of Sturgill Simpson’s record, which we loved. It seemed like our aesthetics were in line with him. But it was nice to have a producer who was on the up-and-up and had been doing it professionally for longer than we were a band. … Yeah, he still has that home studio — but we did our record at the Sound Emporium. He has storage and works out of there a lot.
We have a tendency to overthink things, especially when it comes to arranging or producing our music. Dave was very organic, driven by gut instinct. He was fast, too. So we would play him a tune for a minute, he’d go, “OK, change this, this and this, now it needs a bridge, come up with a countermelody here.” We’d do three takes and he’d be like, “All right, you’re done.” We’d go, “What just happened?” In the end it was good, we just put our trust in him and did what we do best. Just play.
From the early days, it was all Ringo and Motown drummers, ’60s bubble gum, L.A. Phil Spector stuff. All those guys were great song drummers. They were more than time keepers. They wrote their own hooks that were always a part of the song. They were, in a sense, composers and arrangers that way. I’ve always loved that kind of drumming.
Coming up, I’ve had the jazz influence from Philly Joe Jones and Buddy Rich. Mitch Mitchell [Jimi Hendrix] has always been a huge influence. Talk about loose — loose but funky. He’s kind of a perfect blend of that.
Modern day, I’d say Questlove is who I look to. I’ll never be as precise as him, but he’s a modern drummer with old-school sensibilities. He’s doo-wop to the core, but yet people are rapping over it. So consistent. That almost encapsulates how I dig it. There is steadiness but subtle interplay that I like about all those drummers.
[Laughs.] Hey, classic trope: the love song. On this particular record, I think a lot of us — from the time of “Bad Portraits”  to now — have had more varied, more adult and crazier experiences with love. So I think the tone of these songs is maybe a little less angsty and a little more serious at times. Maybe cynical but also more accepting. I think we grew up a lot regarding relationships between the two records. S
Lake Street Dive performs at the National on Saturday, March 19, with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. The opening act is the Suffers, who also return for Friday Cheers this summer.