The Ladybug Transistor
Interview with Gary Olson
The Ladybug Transistor have been around for 16 years and have released 7 albums so far, from Marlborough Farms in 1995 to Clutching Stems in 2011. The musicians have changed but there’s always been a core of Gary Olson and Julia Rydholm. And while there have been good times (The Albemarle Sound in 1999 was hailed as “the last great pop album of the century”) there have also been tragedies, with their great drummer San Fadyl dying suddenly after an asthma attack before the release of Can’t Wait Another Day in 2007. The Ladybug Transistor have moved away from their indiepop origins and baroque-pop developments of the late’90s and early noughties to something better described as classic pop on Clutching Stems, absorbing influences from the Go Betweens and Fleetwood Mac to Phil Spector and even New Order. The Clutching Stems line up is Gary (vocals), Julia (bass), Kyle Forester (keys), Michael O’Neill (guitar), Mark Dzula (guitar), Eric Farber (drums). Alongside his work in the ‘Transistor, Gary is one of the key go-to guys for independent music in Brooklyn, having recorded Crystal Stilts, the Stilts/Comet Gain supergroup Cinema Red And Blue, The Beets, The German Measles and others at his Marlborough Farm home-cum-recording studio. We spoke to Gary Olson at the Fortuna Pop 15th birthday party in November 2011.
SXP: The Ladybug Transistor have been around for 16 years. Do you feel like godfathers of indiepop?
Gary Olson: It’s funny - every time we put out an album I feel like we’re starting out over again. I always feel we’re a new band! But it’s nice - being able to come back to London every year or two for 11 or 12 years and having a little community of familiar faces here.
SXP: You’re playing this Fortuna Pop! festival with the Ladybug Transistor but I heard that you were down to appear about 8 times with various bands?
Gary Olson: *laughs* Well some of them are just little walk-on bits. Had to do one in costume last night! That’s the curse and blessing of being a trumpet player – pretty often you’d like to see a show but someone asks you to play the trumpet. But it’s great because it gets you into a show or a nice festival or something.
SXP: The line up has changed but the Ladybug Transistor has gone on. It that because of you or do you find lots of kindred spirits?
Gary Olson: The line up has always been slowly evolving, expanding and contracting. Julia and I are the two long-term members and then we got Kyle on board about five years ago and our guitarist and drummer have been with us the past two years. It helps bringing new people to the group because it keeps it fresh. Our original line up maybe wasn’t so sustainable because there were relatives in the band – our bass player Jennifer was the sister of Jeff who was our original guitarist, and Jennifer and I were going out for a time, and Jeff and Sasha our keyboardist were. So it was a situation that probably couldn’t last forever! And it didn’t. It didn’t exactly go down in flames but we obviously had to do it a different way.
SXP: Do you make a distinction between being a musician or a producer? Marlborough Farms seems to be referenced on a lot of record sleeves these days.
Gary Olson: I enjoy balancing the two. I do a lot of recording work these days and I really enjoy that and feel that I’ve definitely gained something from all the different people. The past three or four years have been busier than ever. And that isn’t good compared to playing music [which is] I guess my proper job. But being able to do recording work is wonderful because I’m still really interested in most of the bands that come to me. And it does provide some income that I can’t get from just performing with Ladybug! *laughs*
SXP: Why do they come to you? Is there a Marlborough farms sound?
Gary Olson: *grows thoughtful* Maybe it’s more of a vibe around the place. I keep things pretty low key. It’s all in my home that I’ve lived in for a long time so it’s very, err, homey! So there isn’t the same intimidation of going into a sealed off place with double–plated glass windows.
SXP: Do you have favourite bands that you’ve recorded?
Gary Olson: Well, the Cinema Red And Blue record was fun because it was just using your first instincts to get it all done. I listened to that again, for the first time in a while, and you could feel that sound of something together. The record I recorded for the Beets, I really liked the way that one turned out too – there’s a pretty interesting band and we did a lot of that one, except for the backing vocals, almost entirely live. That also has that sound of something that’s happening, that’s just coming together at that moment.
SXP: I heard that you recently went digital at Marlborough Farms. Were you always committed to analogue recording?
Gary Olson: I’m set up for both really, so I could do anything these days. It really depends on what the project needs. The bands that do more of a live thing, like the Beets and the German Measles, are a bit more suited to tape. And Crystal Stilts, that’s a fully analogue operation as well. But sometimes people want to come in and just do some overdubs or bring in some files already recorded and that’s more suited to computer stuff. With the Ladybug record, it was a balance between the two. We started off on tape and then did a bit with the computer. Ladybug doesn’t get too fancy with edits and corrections!
SXP: I noticed on the new album all the references are to places in the proximity of New York, like Brighton Beach and the Hudson Valley. Is New York important as an inspiration?
Gary Olson: I guess it’s really all I know. I was born in Brooklyn, and now I live only 10 minutes away from where I grew up. As my life has gone on, I’ve always imagined moving somewhere else far away but it’s such an easy springboard to anywhere in the world that I feel pretty content being there just as long as I have something coming up, like this [gig].
SXP: You’re still in New York City, ever though your place is called Marlborough Farms.
Gary Olson: We’re in Brooklyn, which is a big borough, and the neighbourhood I’m in is actually pretty good - we have all these 100 year old trees on our block and the park is close by. So it’s like being in the city but it’s a bit balanced. The ocean is 30 minutes in one direction, Manhattan is 30 minutes in the other. It’s perfectly situated for me.
SXP: I hear that you’re a big fan of the ocean. Phil Sutton told me to ask you about beach dates.
Gary Olson: Which is the last great beach date of the year? I don’t know yet. There might be more. I’m a pretty seasoned off-season beach goer and last year I was swimming in New York in late October. I do love it. The first and last days, I’m always out there. And my house has become a little bit of a surf shack as well. I’ve been living with Amy Linton now for a few years and she’s an avid surfer so our living room has a rack of surfboards in it right now, instead of a fireplace.
SXP: Are you planning a new album?
Gary Olson: Yeah, we’re starting to write a bit now but it might be a little while – it might be a couple of years!
SXP: When you say “we” it’s not just you?
Gary Olson: No, it’s always collaborative. Our process, for the past couple of albums, has been I’d just ask the guys in the band, namely Kyle and Mark on this record, for any scraps of music they have around and I just try to work on that germ of an idea and build it into something. And then we sort of demo it a couple of times and bring it to the whole band.
SXP: There are few really distinctive voices these days but yours is classic-sounding – you can hear Scott Walker and perhaps Richard Hawley in there. Do you train it?
Gary Olson: *laughs* After we made our first album and my vocals on that were a lot flatter or more indie, I definitely knew I wanted to try to do more proper singing, to bring something else to it. But I don’t practice!
SXP: You’re associated now with loads of hip bands like Crystal Stilts, and you’ve recorded others like Frankie Rose, and your own music is classic pop. So what music do you like to listen to?
Gary Olson: I like running into things. I used to be an avid record collector and I worked in record shops for years. I worked in a shop on Bleeker Street and we’d get these long faxes from a distributor in London. I’d be able to check off what I wanted and it’d come in the next couple of weeks. Being able to see what was coming out a month later, and being the first one to know, was really exciting,. But these days, I almost don’t want to know, I don’t read the music papers any more *laughs*! I just like running into things randomly, and being taken by a band live that I hadn’t heard. So I don’t think I buy as much music as I used to but I still listen to it a lot.
Note: Picture shamelessly lifted from brilliant site http://www.underexposed.org.uk/ and Bob Stuart, the Ralph Eugene Meatyard of the indiepop photography world.