The Ladybug Transistor • Clutching Stems
Last week, in interview with singer-songwriter, Meredith Bragg—a friend since college—it occurred to us, as it often does, how lucky we are to have so many talented, creative friends. Not to sound like a broken record, but the same realization has crept up on us this week as we take some time to talk with friends and musicians, Gary Olson and Julia Rydholm—two members of the seminal indie band, The Ladybug Transistor and two of our favorite Brooklynites, especially when it comes to park- and beach-going. Since their 2007 album, Can’t Wait Another Day, the band has gone through some significant line-up changes, the most dramatic of which was brought on by the death of their drummer, San, from a sudden, serious asthma attack. A lot of growth has happened since then and that’s evident on Ladybug’s seventh album, Clutching Stems, out now on Merge Records. The sound has grown more complex and contemplative and, from a listener’s point of view, it’s given the band a deeper appeal that far outlasts pop hooks or harmonic play—it’s damned fine song-writing and solid, grounded musical exploration. The new album and recent touring gave us an excuse to chat up Julia and Gary about the new album, touring the world, and songs about trees.
Kindness of Ravens: So, you’ve been a band, in name and rotating membership, since 1995. That’s—simply put—a cray-cray long time. What’s the secret to staying together and active for so long? Most bands crash and burn or at least whimper and fade before they can celebrate their 16 year anniversary (that’s silver Holloware, by the way—save you time with your gift-buying this year).
Julia Rydholm: Sharing a mutual enthusiasm and curiosity for similar music genres and music history is one binding element, for sure. Working with talented people we adore and respect also certainly helps.
Gary Olson: Julia receives her 11 year pin this fall and gets a free trip to the Caribbean.
KoR: We’re told corporate incentives like that are imperative to optimal performance. Okay, we’re suckers for names and presentation, so I have to ask a question you likely get ad nauseum—where’s the name Ladybug Transistor come from? And don’t tell me it was one of those internet name generator things because the internet barely existed back then.
Julia: It’s a kind of radio.
Gary: I found one during my early days of thrifting. I was hoping we could keep company with The Beatles or Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
KoR: That is a pretty rad radio. Okay then, what’s behind the song/album title, Clutching Stems? Seems so poetic and…mournful, I think.
Julia: Some of my favorite Olson lyrics. The image conveys such a sense of achy emptiness. I think anyone can relate to that pit-of-the-stomach, “alone at the drive in,” lonely feeling of being stood up by or separated from someone or something significant. Feeling robbed. Hanging onto hope when there isn’t any.
There is a longing feeling those words carry, and that sentiment seems to be a recurring theme in all the album’s songs. It felt like an appropriate moniker for the album.
KoR: We like the cover shot. Are you guys on a Brooklyn beach or is that, like, Iceland?
Julia: The moon.
Gary Olson: We used our entire recording budget to get there.
|Gary + Julia. On the moon.|
KoR: You’ve gotta have priorities, right? Listening through the album—which, first off, sounds great—you start with some really great, upbeat hooks and melodies, and then seem to settle into this kind beautiful melancholy. I know you all and you generally seem like pretty positive people, but I know you’ve gone through some hard times as a band since the last record. Is that something you wanted to reflect in the writing of Clutching Stems or is it more that songwriting just tends to happen more when you’re feeling a bit blue?
Julia: I’ll defer to Gary on this one. He’s the wordsmith.
Gary: Well, I did spend more time with the lyrics, editing, and phrasing this time…. In the past we’ve been accused of being a bit “pastoral” and such in our presentation so maybe I was trying lower the expected dose…and have an attempt at writing more about people than trees. There is still plenty of landscape in there though, but maybe not just all of the lush green type… some arctic moonscapes. Of course losing San wasn’t easy but there is plenty of his spirit in there. He’s part of the band DNA now.
KoR: That’s a lovely sentiment. You’ve got some new faces in the line-up these days—most notably for us, Michael O’Neill from MEN/Hirsute—and then Mark Dzula and Eric Farber. Was it odd bringing in so much new blood? The new record sounds like Ladybug…but it also sounds different. Is that just growth or do you think the new lineup affected the song-writing and sound a lot?
Julia: All of them were friends first. Eric, Mark, and Kyle have known each other and played together for a long time. Michael we knew through (Amy) Linton (of the Aisler’s Set). All of them are such sweethearts, so musically talented, and they share similar musical vernaculars and had a great respect for the band’s history. They also had very patient, open approaches to working with Gary, Kyle, and me. Through collaborating everyone found their individual niche and together we found our own collective voice that drew from the past while moving our sound distinctly forward.
KoR: Totally agree on the resulting sound. Alright, I know it’s a bit akin to choosing a favorite child, which, I’m told is difficult but necessary, but what’s your favorite track on the new album? Why?
Julia: “Life Less True.” It was one of the first ones we really worked on for this record. We really honed it live first, recorded it later. The song just has this heartbreaking honesty and momentum that speaks volumes about that point in time. Playing it live feels extremely cathartic and invigorating. And fun! I could play the outro forever.
Gary: At the moment it’s “Breaking Up On The Beach,” simply because of the season.
KoR: To most anyone who knows you—especially anyone who’s familiar with Ditmas and recognizes all those street names in the album titles—it’s pretty clear you’re big Brooklyn fans. Playing the devil’s advocate here, what’s so special about Brooklyn? I mean, I’ve heard great things about…I don’t know…Staten Island?
Julia: It reminds me of my old neighborhood in Chicago. Very residential, approachable, and I’m close to a big ole park. Key ingredients for how I always want to live.
Gary: It’s all I know. Except for a few summers when I was sent upstate for summer camp I have not left the borough. Honestly though I enjoy the diversity and balance of my neighborhood. I can disappear as much as I like. A five-minute walk in any direction will bring you somewhere completely different—from old victorian homes to apartment blocks and to all of the industrial business on Coney Island avenue. Plenty of good food. Prospect Park is close by and you can get to the city or the beach within 30 minutes in either direction.
KoR: It is kind of a different world down there, in a really tranquil way. Okay, so, ya’ll’ve travelled like crazy, right? What’s your favorite non-US city/town/county/village/
Julia: Stockholm, Sweden
Gary: Melbourne, Australia
KoR: Favorite movie ever?
Julia: It’s impossible to single one out. But some of my top picks include: Breaking Away, Breathless, Foul Play, Trading Places, The Sound of Music, All the President’s Men….
Gary: I’m terrible at lists, but any old musical will do.
KoR: What? We love lists! So, cat or dog person?
Julia: My cats; Stewball the dog (band mate, Jeff Baron’s family dog); person? I don’t play favorites with people.
KoR: Oh, no, we meant do you like cats more or dogs more.
Gary: Dogs. I don’t own one but am close friends with a Saint Bernard and King Charles. I enjoy cruising the dog beach at the park on any given morning.
|Gary + Friend|
KoR: You’re totally one of those guys who borrows dogs to pick up the ladies, aren’t you? Oh, Gary, speaking of impressing the ladies—What the hell is that four-string thing you play live? Is it like a weird bass-guitar love child?
Gary: That’s an old Dan Electro bass restrung with guitar strings. It’s in 3 octaves of D. Inspired a little by Glen Campbell’s baritone guitar. It doesn’t really feature on the records any more but I pick little leads from it when we play live so I have something to do with my hands. It’s more of a shield. The perfect weapon for a non-guitarist.
KoR: Better than an actual shield, I guess. Favorite vegetarian restaurant in NYC and/or abroad?
Gary: I miss Veggie Castle, which was close to me in Brooklyn. It was a vegan Jamaican buffet housed in a former White Castle. They had the best veggie burgers. Sadly they lost their lease a few years ago and shut down. There is another location in Queens that I visit whenever I pick up friends from JFK airport. And abroad, I’d say Hermans in Stockholm, Sweden simply for the view. It’s a nice walk up the hill too.
KoR: Cool, little-known band/musician we should all know?
Julia: Not little known, but I adore The Radio Dept.’s albums.
Gary: In two words: Tanks Amigo!
KoR: Best D+D class/race combo?
Gary: I still need to learn. Is there an adult class I can take for this?
KoR: I’ve got you covered, my man. Thanks to you both. I’ll be over with my d20, capes, and fake swords later this week!
Julia: Thank you, Kindness of Ravens!
Gary: When’s lunch?