OVERACHIEVERS ANONYMOUS The Ladybug Transistor

For the Brooklyn indie-rockers, change is always constant, but
that doesn’t deter them from pursuing their ebullient intents.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Consistency is a relatively rare attribute in pop music realms,
given the public’s fickle tastes and the challenges involved with holding a
band together for any reasonable length of time. That makes the Ladybug
Transistor something of an anomaly, being that they’ve been at it for
approximately fifteen years, devoid of widespread acclaim and plagued by
ongoing changes in their core line-up. Yet even in the face of such daunting
dilemmas, the band has maintained a remarkably high standard, one that fails to
find them faltering or easing away from an exacting intent.

 

Singer and songwriter Gary Olson has been the band’s sole constant
from the very beginning, recruiting members as needed and sharing players with
such like-minded combos as Essex Green and the Great Lake Swimmers whenever
it’s called for. The group has expanded its canon with an ever increasing
number of beguiling outings, most boasting such vaguely exotic names as Marlborough Farms, Beverly Atonale, The Albemarle Sound, and Can’t Wait Another Day and, in what was likely a rare
moment of repose, one simply titled Ladybug
Transistor.
 
Their penchant for lush,
exacting arrangements, tastefully honed with brass, strings and Olson’s
fondness for wistful reflection, finds the band taking a similar stance on
their newest offering, Clutching Stems,
a grab bag of intoxicating melodies that preserves the band’s rich elegiac
tradition. Recorded in the wake of drummer San Fadyl’s untimely passing in
2007, it finds the band – currently composed of Olson (vocals), Kyle Forester
(keyboards), Julia Rydholm (bass), Mark Dzula (guitar), Eric Farber (drums) and
Michael O’Neill (guitar) – recharged, rebounding and as expressive as ever. As
intoxicating as ever, it conveys a jubilant first impression that lingers long
after.

 

BLURT recently asked Olson and Rydholm to share their thoughts on the
new album and to offer some thoughts on the band’s progress so far.

 

***

BLURT: First off, an obvious question:
What exactly is a Ladybug Transistor?

JULIA RYDHOLM: A band on the run.

GARY OLSON: It’s a transistor radio shaped like a Ladybug…an old ‘70s
thing.  A quick Google image search would return more photos of the radio
than of us. At the time, we wanted to join the ranks of other great bands
named after insects 

 

 Please give us some examples of your earliest
influences.

GO: Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine and a lot of that Canterbury sound.  The Fall, Sarah
Records, Kraftwerk, Spacemen 3.  Those we’re the early days.  

 

JR:
I think we all share an early and deep appreciation for textured melody and
layered atmosphere originating from disparate influence, be it jazz, prog,
classical, big band, classic, new wave, experimental. All these voices find a
role in the musical conversations of our songs.

 

 Your trajectory
hasn’t been an easy one, and yet the quality of your music has remained
consistently high and exceedingly melodic. With all the personal changes, how
have you managed to keep carrying on?

JR: With open hearts and heartfelt enthusiasm for
collaboration. Gary
and the studio at Marlborough Farms are important constants, of course. No
matter the constellation of the at-the-helm personnel though, there is a
prevailing sense of good-humored, melodic curiosity lending momentum and
threading us all together in the present and connecting us with the past.

GO: It’s taken a lot of luck I reckon. Ladybug
has never had much large scale success… there was no big flash. We have a
small loyal base that has contributed lots to our longevity. If we had suddenly
become enormous, it would have ended quickly.  For the scale of what we
are doing, we all have time to do things outside of the band… non music things
which makes coming back to Ladybug to stay fresh.  I can also say that we
honestly enjoy each other’s company.  It’s a good group dynamic now that
we’ve matured.  We are more of a happy family and close friends.

 

 When did you realize that you could actually make a career
in music and that perhaps you wouldn’t have to rely on a day job?

JR: We all have multiple lives… not day jobs, per se. Music
education, studio work, philosophy degrees, art education and publishing
careers all play equally vocal roles in our daily routines, and have throughout
the band’s history. Quite frankly, the cast of this project throughout time
boasts a really nauseating list of overachievers. Though schedules have often
created quite a balancing act, such dimensional lives nourish ideas, keep us
energetic, and engender an open sense of what is possible. The
many-spinning-plates keep us on our toes, to be sure!

GO: A lot of us have other work outside of Ladybug.
 Me with recording jobs, Kyle teaches music, Julia is in the book
publishing industry, Mark is an arts educator and Eric has his philosophy
studies.  There was a time when I dreamed of being a full time musician
but I’ve realized over time that I need other things, other interests to keep me
happy.   That balance has helped keep us around for a while.  

 

 Is there some central principle that guides
you forward, in terms of your music, your creative urges, your mantra etc.?

JR: Um, follow you, follow me? No, that’s not really true. I
was just trying to find a suitable Genesis song to quote.

 

 Very good. But seriously, how do you keep from repeating yourselves?

JR: Playing with new members always keeps voices and points
of inspiration refreshed for sure. We’re also eager students, both technically
and historically. Everyone seeks out new music and new skills for
consideration. That certainly keeps our shape shifting.

 

 Do your albums germinate with a concept in mind or are they driven by
the material?

JR: They mostly germinate with the sentence, “We should
probably try and make another album.”

 

 So who writes the songs? Is it a singular operation or is there
collaboration involved?

JR:
A skeletal melody and arrangement is often singularly proposed, but the
dimensions of a song takes shape collaboratively from there.

GO: It’s often assumed that since I’m the vocalist
that I also write the songs, but it’s really a collaboration. These days,
I often require a songwriting partner to get ideas off the ground.  Our
friend Mark Dzula, who has become more of a part of Ladybug, started sending me
some pieces he was writing with my voice in mind.  A lot of those made it
to the new album.  They would start as demo sketches with room for me to
add vocal melodies and lyrics. Then the band would come in and we’d fine-tune
a lot of the arrangements. We were fortunate enough to road test a lot of Clutching Stems before we began the
album, which really helped the recording process.  

 

 Who comes up with those exacting arrangements?

JR:
An army.

GO: We all do. Kyle has been doing the strings and
all of the lovely frills for the past two albums.  

 

 Given the complexity
of your material, what are the challenges of replicating the music live?

JR: Preserving all the vital vocalizations without starving
or suffocating the arrangements.

GO: It would be great to have strings, harpsichord,
oboe and dancing backup singers at every show, but all of those arrangements
are playable on guitar, piano or organ, so we make it work.  I’ve been
doing some touring and playing Ladybug’s material solo and the music is even
adaptable to that very stripped down kind of situation.  

 

 So tell us about the new album. Despite those buoyant arrangements, the
songs seem somewhat sobering. What inspired the lonely tone of the new
material?
JR: I think there a profound lyrical mood of dilemma
throughout the album. Many of the songs describe attempts to make sense of
things that are not by nature very easy to make sense of – love and loss,
particularly.

 

GO: Maybe I’m writing a little
less about mountains, the sea and the park these days and trying to capture
some pure emotion. There are more people in the songs these days rather than
trees.  

JR: “Life Less True” is a significant song for me. That song was one
of the first ones from the new album to take shape. The lyrics and music
capture an accurate feeling of the search and catharsis that accompanied that
moment in time.

 

 You’ve accumulated an impressive catalog up
until now. Are there any of your earlier albums that you can point to as
significant points in the band’s trajectory, albums that were major musical
milestones as far as you’re concerned?

JR: I think they were all significant points in the band’s
history. They all have meaningful context, stories, and senses of evolution.
Most important, they are all labors of love.

 

 So what lies ahead? What goals are there to be
accomplished? Dreams to be realized? Tours to undertake?
JR: My prescription is simple. Keep calm, carry on. I think our
goals are generally quite modest. Hmmm, it’d be fun to play a larger festival
or two. We tend to hide out on the margins. If I am dreaming big, it’d be a
thrill to play a show with a lot of guest brass and strings.

 

 

 Fair enough. So by way of conclusion, what is the one question you’ve
never been asked?

JR:
There are heaps of questions I’m very relieved that we have never been asked.

 

[Photo Credit: Kenji]

 

 

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