Music and politics have long been bedfellows, and the Portland, Ore., multilingual hipster orchestra Pink Martini has a long and continual history of lending its talents to politically based events. The band was actually founded to accompany progressive fund-raisers and morphed into something bigger along the way. But I still didn’t expect, especially given that the band just released two albums simultaneously -- a career-spanning retrospective and a new collaboration with Japanese pop singer Saori Yuki -- that my conversation with Pink Martini founder and bandleader Thomas M. Lauderdale would be so focused on politics. The well-spoken and gregarious pianist had a lot on his mind recently when we talked, and we did eventually discuss music when I spoke with him from his Portland home. Granted, the band was fresh off of a hometown rally when we spoke, and Lauderdale is so easy to speak with, I believe that if we hadn’t had a time constraint, we probably would have covered a cornucopia of subjects. Regardless, when Pink Martini play the Balboa Theatre on Saturday night, it’s guaranteed that the focus will be on band’s ever-changing cache of international pop tunes (with some local marching band thrown is as well).
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Scott McDonald: How are you doing?
Thomas M. Lauderdale: Very well. Very well, thank you. Just got back from a European tour. We’re home for five days and then it’s back on the road again.
SM: Nice to get a few days of downtime.
TL: Well, we just organized a big Occupy Portland concert in the downtown square here last week. We were inspired from seeing Occupy Wall Street spread to Europe while we were over there, and we wanted to do something at home. So we just organized this community sing-along in Pioneer Square. Thousands of people came out -- including congressmen and religious leaders -- and it was a peaceful and successful event.
SM: Sounds like a pretty good thing to do with your days off. Things are pretty insane out there right now.
TL: They really are. And I think that’s because it’s such a difficult and crazy time. It’s really hard to know where to begin. Issues are complex, and all of them require a lot of thinking. The issues facing this country can’t just be reduced to a sound bite, and the strategy of the opposition is to try and reduce these things down to exactly that. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans are not doing well. They’re struggling. We’re not producing a lot right now, companies are taking their factories abroad to maximize profits, and people are strapped because of it all. But not only that, there’s just crazy costs associated with health care, and college, at this point, is an unbelievable expense. My father went to Berkeley in 1958, and at that time, it was free. Absolutely free. Now, even if you do get into a good college and go for four years, it’s no guarantee that you’re going to have any kind of employment at all.
SM: Are you seeing that locally?
TL: Absolutely. There’s a whole kaleidoscope of amazing young people who are moving here to Portland after college, and they’re not finding any work. Fortunately, it’s a relatively cheap place to live, comparatively, so it’s not as bad as it could be.
SM: But this isn’t just about unemployed college kids.
TL: No. And part of the reason that we decided to organize this rally last week, in solidarity with the Occupy movement, is that a lot of my friends and people that I know don’t see themselves at all in the protesters. They didn’t identify with who they were seeing out there, and a lot of people are just writing them off as dirty hippies or something -- and there is definitely that element. But I feel like what we brought to the rally was assistance in mainstreaming it a little bit and bringing some of the points to the surface. They called it a “super” rally because there was a free concert, and a community sing-along, with speakers like rabbis, congressmen, religious leaders, the head of the AFL-CIO, and it was all mixed with sing-alongs to songs like “9 to 5,” “Home on the Range,” “I Will Survive,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “America the Beautiful,” all in a public square with about 5,000 people.
SM: That sounds like more fun than your typical rally.
TL: The ability to make a rally fun, and participatory, having people singing together, does a lot. It unified and brought together a large group of people. That’s part of what this movement can do. It helps in getting people to know their neighbors, their community, again. Because we’ve all become so isolated. So many of us, myself included, spend a whole lot of time out there in our own bubble on a cell phone, not really participating in the world. I feel like part of this, at least, can be about the re-emergence of what it means to be a citizen in a very complex world.
SM: Well, it’s not just the Move On folks this time. There seems to be a wide-range of people getting involved.
TL: It’s true. I walked into my bank the other day, and this was before they rescinded the $5 thing, and I told them that I really liked them, and I liked banking there, but I wasn’t sure if I could stomach it. And it wasn’t just me. There was such a rise, and reaction to the policy, the bank ended up backing down. And I feel if people collectively insist, and are prepared to back it up with action, any of us can accomplish anything.
SM: Now my head is abuzz with all kinds of politics. I want to ask you a few questions about music as well.
TL: Well, the link is that the band has always been political. I even planned on running for mayor when I came back to town after college. But what I found was, as we were doing these political fundraisers, I was dismayed at the weakness of these parties for the environment or whatever it was. The thought for the band was to bring a bit of old-fashioned fabulousness to political fundraising so the soundtrack was more conducive to building a community -- and I know that sounds a little hokey. But what I love about the band is that we’ve always had a wide swath of appeal. It appeals to both really conservative people and really liberal people, and old and young, at the same time. It has a wide effect on a lot of different kinds of people, and that’s just another opportunity to bring them together.
SM: Ever get negative reactions?
TL: Well, sometimes I’ve gone too far onstage. I went too far in Jacksonville, Fla., once. I made some anti-Bush statements, and that is not a popular thing to do in Jacksonville, because it’s essentially a strong military complex. But I actually kind of want it at certain times. Unless, of course, it’s something absolutely dreadful that is going on. But I do think it’s far better to bring people together rather than alienate them. And the band certainly hears about it. I’ve been given copies of the book Shut Up and Sing on more than one occasion. And that’s fine.
SM: What’s stopped you from running for office?
TL: I realized politicians are just failed entertainers for the most part. I guess I’m pretty lucky that I don’t have to work under fluorescent lighting every day and have to constantly wheedle people out of their money in a really appalling and humiliating fashion.
SM: Much more fun to be in a band.
SM: How’s [lead singer] China [Forbes, who is recovering from recent vocal-chord surgery]?
TL: She’s getting better. We had a party last night, and she sang a little and sounded fantastic. But it’s a slow comeback. She’s going to take it easy and really let her voice get back to where it needs to be, and we’ll see where we are next year. But for this tour we have an incredible singer named Strong Large, who is a force to be reckoned with. It makes it a very different show. It’ll be something that San Diego has never seen. Plus, we’re collaborating with Bonita Vista’s marching band on the night we’re there.
SM: How did you hook up with Saori?
TL: A lot of the songs that we do, I find in record stores on old records. The song “Taya Tan,” from our third release, is from a record I found 10 years ago from an import I found that was Saori Yuki’s first album. I loved the song, we covered it, and she found out about it last year when we went to Tokyo and joined us onstage. Then, we had her record “White Christmas” in Japanese on our holiday album. After that, EMI Japan asked us to help produce her next album. It was Japanese hits from 1969. I didn’t like a lot of them, so I did my own research and found some I did like. And we did expand the scope so that it included songs from around the world that were recorded in 1969. What was amazing about the project was to have parameters and then trying to be as creative as possible within those parameters. For example, you’ve got “Puff the Magic Dragon” in Japanese and a great Peggy Lee theatrical piece being done in a different language for the first time. You have a beautiful song in French. It was a really fun and incredibly interesting thing to do at the same time.
SM: Sounds like it.
TL: I’m actually unsure how this album will do. With the exception of one song, the whole thing is in Japanese. It’s a beautiful language, but in a way, it might do better in the United States than across the pan-Pacific because it’s music you can play in the background and most listeners won’t be burdened by having to scrutinize the lyrics. The voice becomes just another instrument.
SM: It is a bit crazy how many languages you guys cover.
TL: We just all love all music, and it seems ridiculous to let language be a hurdle.
SM: Thanks again for taking the time.
TL: Of course. Ciao.