INTERVIEW: Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini (new album Je Dis Oui! + October UK tour dates)

Thomas Lauderdale with China Forbes of Pink Martini
Photo credit: Autumn De Wilde

PINK MARTINI has been intoxicating listeners with their heady mix of jazz, classical and good old-fashioned pop ever since they began performing in Portland, Oregon in 1994.  The eleven-piece ‘little orchestra’ quickly gained international recognition following its debut album "Sympathique" (1997). This month Pink Martini releases a tenth disc "Je Dis Oui!" and returns to the UK for an eight-date tour. Founder THOMAS LAUDERDALE spoke to Jon Carvell:

Inspiration for the new record flowed quickly, explains Lauderdale. “Of all of the albums this one took the least amount of time. We probably spent less than 30 days in the studio, whereas the second album took seven years. It felt, in a way, effortless.” With the canvas so broad and the pool of influences so diverse,

I wonder how he managed to decide on which tracks to include. “I think I’ve always operated with my gut instinct. I never really had a plan for the future of the band or even the repertoire; every day just becomes an adventure. It’s really a response to and reflection of daily life in a period of time.” It seems to me that the one thing holding Pink Martini’s eclectic styles together is Lauderdale’s singularly diverse vision, and it’s clear that the band is deeply personal to him, but what is it that speaks to his audiences so directly? “Right now during the shows that we do, we’ve got this new Cuban conga player, Miguel Bernal. When he comes out to the front and sings Yo Te Quiero Siempre by Ernesto Lecuona, it stops everybody dead in their tracks, because it feels so authentic and so earnest. People inherently feel that and are gripped.”

Pink Martini’s ability to capture a moment and transport the listener is in full effect on the final track of Je Dis Oui! which features Schubert’s famous Ständchen, hummed ethereally by China Forbes, whom Lauderdale first met when they were both students at Harvard - he was reading history and literature, she was studying visual arts. I suggest that perhaps the otherworldliness of her vocalise is a throwback to some of the simpler arrangements of Pink Martini’s early days. “I was thinking of the end of the first album which is also piano and voice,” agrees Lauderdale. “The Schubert is such a gorgeous melody. My boyfriend Hunter (Noack) was recording it with China and I went in the studio the same day, so in the end both Hunter and I are playing piano and China is singing.”

Lauderdale is still working on a song featuring the late great Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac, famous in the 1950s for her extraordinary five octave range. Lauderdale met Sumac in Los Angeles around 15 years ago and made some demos, but when the band later flew down to Capital Records to record with her, Sumac’s dementia prevented her from leaving her house and the session couldn’t go ahead. However, the collaboration still has life. “Earlier this year, I suddenly remembered I had this demo, and so we extricated her voice and started recording new accompaniment and orchestration around her, but I just wasn’t able to finish it. That will be on a future album.”

On a more practical note, I wonder if Lauderdale has any tips for emerging bands in the mould of Pink Martini who don’t want to be defined by traditional genres. “I’d say diversify, say yes to everything and consider performing in many different languages and collaborating with people who speak those languages.” It certainly wasn’t easy when Lauderdale was starting out - whilst recording the band’s first album he found himself $30,000 overdrawn - but he worries that in today’s environment it would be even more difficult. “I feel like if I were to start the band now, chances are we’d never get anywhere.”

Yet one of the appealing things about Pink Martini’s story is the absence of an aggressive pursuit of stardom. “When we wrote Je ne veux pas travailler we’d never played outside Portland, so the thought of actually taking a band to France and travelling to Europe was nowhere on the radar. Anytime I‘ve tried to do something it’s less successful I think.” Lauderdale cites his attempts to write French songs for the second album in an effort to echo the success of Je ne veux pas travailler, which had been nominated for song of the year in France. “Autrefois is ok, but there’s a labour there and the labour kind of undoes everything”, he concedes.

In keeping with his international outlook, Lauderdale has always been politically engaged (Full biography and TED Talk here.). Frustrated by how some outlets in the American media were presenting the Occupy movement, in 2011 he arranged a performance in downtown Portland complete with speeches from congressmen, activists and diverse religious leaders. Not surprisingly, he’s concerned by developments in the current American election campaign. ”We could wake up in November to find ourselves led by a madman. If he is elected, the people who voted for him are not going do better while he’s president. I keep saying this in the hope that it activates people who aren’t really thinking about it to think about it, and to vote.” With the prospect of a Trump presidency looming, it seems an appropriate time to champion the multi-cultural, pan-linguistic, musical omnivores that make up Pink Martini.



"Je Dis Oui!" by Pink Martini is available on 21 October, on Wrasse Records (WRASS346)

Pink Martini – UK Tour Dates, October 2016

21 October Colston Hall, Bristol www.colstonhall.org
22 October Royal Albert Hall, London www.royalalberthall.com
23 October New Theatre Oxford www.atgtickets.com
24 October Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool www.liverpoolphil.com
26 October Sage Gateshead www.sagegatehead.com
27 October Glasgow Concert Hall www.glasgowconcerthalls.com
29 October York Barbican www.yorkbarbican.co.uk
31 October Bridgewater Hall Manchester www.bridgewater-hall.co.uk


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