Talking to Pink Martini’s pianist, arranger, and bandleader Thomas Lauderdale just may convince you that he’s the best friend that music will ever have.
Upon listening to any album, it seems that both literally and musically, he can visit any country in the world, make friends with its music, win people over, and make it look completely effortless. As almost a dance without steps, he brilliantly empowers all of the band members with his cushioned accompaniment, tailored musical arrangements, level-headed balance of solo and ensemble feature, and constant invitation to a diversity of musical influences.
The self-described “little orchestra” from Portland, Oregon draws inspiration from many musical genres, including jazz, Latin, classical, cabaret, world music, and pop. As Lauderdale had originally planned to become a politician (in fact, he once worked for much-loved Portland mayor Bud Clark), he found himself unsatisfied by the humdrum music at civic and political gatherings, and was inspired to form Pink Martini in 1994 in order to create a more inclusive and pleasing soundtrack to such events. With album after album celebrating global culture, it’s no surprise that Pink Martini has performed to sold-out venues worldwide, has performed with over 50 orchestras, had five gold albums in several countries, and is still going strong after 18 years. We caught up with Thomas via phone about the band’s origins and ethic, bandleading from behind the piano, and their latest studio album, Get Happy.
On Get Happy and previous albums, you represent so many cultures. China Forbes sings in so many languages. How do you get the keyboard to “speak” these languages?
For me, all of the music is really melody driven. If the melody’s fantastic, everything else is fine. It’s actually almost the only criteria for anything we write or perform, and it has to be beautiful. You have those sweeping beautiful moments in modern culture, so that’s it. I try to stay out of the way a lot of the time. I think a lot of pianists play very loudly and assert themselves, and I feel like I’m a really great accompanist. I listen well and I can “breathe” with whatever’s going on. I feel like there’s a certain amount of empathy and patience that’s required, and then you just hope that you’re not butchering or being offensive to the language in a way that’s typically not acceptable.
Sometimes I’ve found myself working with mainly African music, which has a certain set of rules; although now I understand that these rules are constantly shifting. And you know the way that I was comfortable to play was a 1940s, pre-bebop style. In general, I go nuts when there’s too much noodling. You know who Jo Stafford and Paul Weston are? They had alter egos. “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” were their alter egos and they did a whole album as them. He’s always just one touch sharp in everything and the band is somewhat together, but point being, there’s a lot of noodling and it’s hysterical.
As the bandleader and arranger, how do you balance providing structure with musical freedom in an ensemble with such diverse instrument groupings?
I don’t know exactly how I do it. It’s a very tricky thing. Whether or not things go well at rehearsal can depend on things like the blood sugar levels of everyone. . . .
How do you decide who’s most appropriate to take a solo on a certain song and as a ringmaster of sorts, how do you manage the traffic flow?
I don’t know as the band members would say I manage the traffic flow very well! [Laughs.] I think a lot of our stuff is pretty old fashioned in its approach so there’s kind of a general expectation for how things unfold. I’ve gotten into real trouble if I try to micromanage too much because, for one thing, I don’t know what I’m talking about, and for two I feel like we’ve got great musicians who really know their instruments and the idea is for them to bring their very best, to do something appropriate with everybody else.
As a follow-up to that, are Pink Martini’s songs and arrangements more through-composed, or are you more likely to improvise from a lead sheet?
It depends on the song. Sometimes it’s been lead sheets, sometimes it’s been no sheets, sometimes it’s been very orchestrated and with particular arrangements.
Do you write your arrangements to fit the band, or do you choose the band to fit your musical arrangements?
Certain things just work out. For example, I didn’t realize that Timothy [Nishimoto, percussionist and vocalist in Pink Martini] didn’t really have a song that he was singing on as much on this recent album, but before I could think about that, I had decided that we wanted to do a Japanese song of the 1940s, “Zundoko-Bushi,” and of course Timothy is Japanese so it was just perfect. I guess I must have been thinking about him in some way, but I hadn’t really processed that; it was more just luck.
Do you ever use electronically sourced sound instead of a live instrument? For example, I think I hear sampled strings on “Je Ne T’aime Plus.”
It does if the live instrument is no longer available, if it has left the building, so to speak. I really do like real sounds. As to the song you mention, there’s a chance that Dave [Friedlander, recording engineer] may have done something like that because he tried to pull something on the Japanese song as well. I wouldn’t put it past him, now that you ask the question. [Laughs.]
On tour, do you request a particular type of piano from backline, or do you simply use what the venue has?
I’ll try to get a Steinway, but I’ve also played a lot of Yamahas lately. It really depends. I grew up playing an upright with a fourth honky-tonk pedal, so I’m not really choosy about pianos in the end.
You’re known mainly as a pianist, but is there any digital or electronic instrument you find enjoyable?
Well, I think it would be really fun to record with something like the Ondes Martenot, with it’s sliding ring control underneath the keyboard. It’s wild. Are there any in the United States?
The French Connection keyboard by Analogue Systems has the Martenot ring. On a similar note, what are your feelings about analog versus computer-based recording?
You know, we haven’t been able to record on tape recently because the tape machines have been busted, but I feel this slight artificiality [with digital recording]. I mean, the process of recording is inherently artificial in any case, but sometimes I worry that digital recording sounds too good and too clean. I kind of wish that we could just put one microphone up and make it work. On the other hand, it’s interesting all these sorts of things that make it “easier” for us to record something have made us working musicians in a way, because we actually rely on using them. We have to punch in and fix this and that, and so forth.
Do you own any synthesizers yourself?
I don’t and I haven’t. I like the concept of the Theremin, though.
The Theremin seems like an ideal Pink Martini instrument if you found a song that you felt it spoke to. . . .
We haven’t done that yet, but it would be really amazing. I’ve been listening to the Theremin player Clara Rockmore playing “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff, and I just love it.
What’s your advice for keyboardists on accompanying vocalists? How is it different from accompanying instrumentalists?
Well you have to breathe; you have to breathe with them. You have to really try and get yourself on their breathing pattern. I feel like accompanying a vocalist—or accompanying in general—has to be approached so selflessly because you’re just trying to make whomever you’re accompanying sound that much better. One of the things I’m really happy about with the band has to do with the reason I didn’t want to attempt a classical career. I felt it was pretty lonely, and in Pink Martini we get to travel with people, go out after work and drink and cause trouble, and that’s kind of great. It’s great having a “posse” and not being isolated, which is what I feared in the classical world.
What were you drawing on as you arranged and re-harmonized Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “Kitty Come Home”? Any classical composers in mind?
Well, I loved the original version. I may have been thinking a little of “Shepherd on the Rock” by Schubert, and I originally recorded some of those lines with a clarinet, the lines that are actually played by oboe, and mostly English horn. That was one of the inspirations, with the pianos. There are triplets and a swooping clarinet. It didn’t quite swoop in the way I envisioned, so I realized it wasn’t the right thing. So, I first tried the oboe and then the English horn, and felt the English horn was just extraordinary. When I first heard the song, for about five years, I literally thought it was about a lost cat. I had no idea that it was a plea to [singer-songwriter] Rufus Wainwright’s mother to bring Rufus and Martha back to Canada and leave [her then husband] Loudon. So, I liked the melody and the atmosphere of it. Years later when I found out from Rufus what it was really about, it was more heartbreaking than I could believe to record it.
Pink Martini has done many shows with symphony orchestras. What challenges and rewards does that process hold?
It’s more fun. You suddenly have even more of a posse than you started out with, and typically symphony orchestras dread these kinds of shows with pop artists because they feel like they have to do all this stupid stuff—you know, with whole notes—but with Pink Martini we really worked hard to make sure that the orchestrations were fabulous and fun. Literally, if it weren’t for symphony orchestras, we wouldn’t have been able to start traveling the way we do. It was the only way in which we could travel in the U.S. and have a comfortable life.
In the way Pink Martini bends and blends genres, do you see any parallels to Duke Ellington?
Let’s just say that I think Duke Ellington is brilliant. I would want to study with him.
What advice you would have for keyboarders who want to get outside of their comfort zone?
I would say it’s definitely a good idea to take dance lessons, first of all. Are you talking primarily about classical pianists?
Any pianist or keyboardist, actually.
Well, people have to branch out because who knows what’s going to be viable in five or ten years. I recently met [renowned concert pianist] Lang Lang and we threw a dinner party for him. He was talking with his manager about creative work on a new album where they hoped to reach the 20-something-year-olds of America, and one concern was, “Why would you wanna do that? It’ll feel desperate and inauthentic and weird.” And the only collaboration I could suggest that might be interesting would be Björk. But then Lang Lang pointed out that Björk didn’t go over so well in mainland China because she was known to support the Dalai Lama. Point being, it’s so difficult, this crossing of genres. Obviously all of us have to make a living and hopefully we won’t go broke and can take care of ourselves, but I think this “marketing” thing is hideous and humiliating for everybody in the arts.
You mentioned dance lessons a minute ago. Is there something about dancing that enhances a player’s musicianship?
Absolutely! I think everyone should learn how to dance. It’s very helpful because you’re breathing and it’s much more helpful in a way than working with a metronome.
What’s the particular advantage over someone who has never used their full body to interpret music but knows a lot about music theory, can play in odd time signatures, and so forth?
That has always been sort of nauseating to me. I didn’t want to go to a conservatory where all we were going to talk about was that. I’d rather talk about . . . anything else.
On the title track, which is a medley of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days are Here Again,” you go downtempo. Why that choice as opposed to the more traditional uptempo rendition of those songs?
Well, too many songs that are too chipper get really annoyingly so after a while. The other thing I realized is that we always sort of slow everything down in Pink Martini. Is that bad? Everything is just slower. The reason for that is that I feel like there’s so much going on and so much is breathless and we need time to breathe. When I was in the mastering studio with [mastering engineer] Bernie Grundman the first time, you couldn’t believe how many seconds of silence we wanted between songs. I just felt like there always needed to be a bunch of space so that you could recover and then move ahead, of course, before jumping right into the next one.
Many people don’t know about Phyllis Diller’s musical side. Could you tell us about working with her on the song “Smile”?
It was kind of an amazing thing. I love Phyllis Diller. We were playing in Los Angeles on New Years’ Eve and I knew Kim Hastreiter, who’s the Editor in Chief of Paper Magazine, and she was playing glockenspiel and triangle and cymbal with us, and I begged her to take me the following New Year’s to Phyllis Diller’s house, which she did. Phyllis Diller, in recent years—she was 95 when she passed away—became a painter. So there were hundreds of paintings on her walls, each with a price tag, and you could take the ones you wanted and tally it up at the end of the night and write a check and away you went. So I did that and I had to buy a whole new suitcase to make off with my treasured Phyllis Diller originals.
She was also a classical pianist growing up, so I asked during the chili dinner that Phyllis made, whether she would ever give any consideration to recording a song with us. I had these albums from the 1960s that she had done that were sort of wild and weird, some were between comedy and not comedy, but obviously she’s a musician and understands music, so I thought it’d be great to ask her to record something. And then I realized the following day that the song it should be was “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin, who was a friend of hers. A couple of months later, I flew down to Los Angeles to do an impromptu recording in her living room. She recorded it top to bottom and that was it! It was amazing. And I bought some more paintings.
Who would you like to collaborate with musically that you have not yet?
Doris Day, Dick Van Dyke, Fairuz from Lebanon, Della Reese, Little Richard, and Vera Lynn.
Who are you listening to right now that you think might be a surprise to your fans?
I’ve been listening to really weird things lately. “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” by the Ronettes. “Tell Him”—you know that song? “Casta Diva” sung by Maria Callas.
If you had two or three songs to listen to if marooned on a desert island, what would they be?
The Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos number 2 and 3 are fantastic. I like “The Girl from Ipanema.” Tammy Wynette does a really amazing version of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”.
Pink Martini has become a very successful brand. Your fans are hugely devoted. You sell out venues all over the world. To what do you attribute that?
Melodies. It’s beautiful melodies. And we’re not cursing. It’s hopeful. It’s also desolate. It’s a place where people who aren’t getting along can actually find a way to get along for an amount of time, maybe. The goal originally with the band was to create this sort of music that grandparents and grandchildren and liberals and not-so-liberals could all kind of come together and listen to. It’s driven by these beautiful soaring melodies that sort of have the style of the 1940s Hollywood glamour film but are also global and therefore worldly. I feel it’s different from most things that are happening and that we’re going in the opposite direction of everybody else. We’re able to make a living, which is great. I love the band and I’m very happy, most days. There are some days that I’m not happy but generally I realize how lucky I am. Honestly, though, if I really stopped to think about any of this stuff, probably none of it would’ve happened. It would’ve been too scary or too daunting or too much.
Perhaps the lesson to aspiring artists is: don’t overthink?
Overthinking is terrible and it really gets everybody in trouble, especially now, because there’s so much positioning. Again, one of the words I don’t like at all is “marketing.” It just makes me cringe, it makes me crazy. I feel like if things don’t come from the right place, it’s not going to work out. So respond to what’s in front of you, do things to the point, and try not to anticipate too much.