By Scott-Patrick Mitchell
It is a brave band who can dub their sound as being an ‘urban musical travelogue’. And that’s exactly how Pink Martini tout themselves as sounding: a brash heady mix-up, cut and pasted together from all over the globe, fused in a mini-orchestra with a very big sound.
‘It’s a collision of brass, percussion, strings and a diva,’ explained Pink Martini’s brainchild Thomas Lauderdale on the phone from the band’s hometown of Portland, Oregon.
‘Having this diversity of instruments makes a lot of flexibility of different repertoire, so we can at once be a soft percussion, marching ensemble, or sort of a French music hall in the ‘30s, or Cuba in the ‘50s.
‘It’s really diverse, and because the membership of the band is so multi-lingual and global in perspective, you can go anywhere from sitar with jazz trombone to something at the other end of the spectrum like a harp and strings.’
And of course, bringing it all together is the beguiling voice of front woman China Forbes. To match their diversity of sound, the band does the unthinkable with their songs – they perform orchestral mash-ups, a veritable slamming together of classical music with equally classic moments of disco and pop.
‘In this particular album, you’ve got Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto – which was originally in 3 and in B flat and is now in four and A – sampled in the middle of the song Splendor in the Grass. Or in the song And Then You’re Gone, we’ve got the string parts from the Gloria Gaynor song I Will Survive kind of swooping out of the afri-cuban Schubert.
‘But I just learned about that phrase, mash-up, and what it means, from my boyfriend, because I’d never heard it before. But yeah, it is kind of a mash-up with real instruments.’
It’s not your usual fair, mashing up classics – well, at least not from such a high-brow perspective. You might expect it off a DJ, yes, but classically trained musicians? It’s certainly a sign of the times, and a sign of bravery, as is another aspect unique to this record.
‘It’s almost a series of first-takes,’ Lauderdale said of the uniqueness of the album. ‘We pressed the record button and most of the time rather than just fiddling with it, it’s a series of first takes. And it wrote itself; it was effortless, we didn’t spend years working on it and it was a lot of fun.’
For a band so entrenched in the history of their music, they also seem thoroughly modern in the way they reinterpret it. Perhaps it’s a cultural sense of zeitgeist as we move into something far more postmodern than we’ve ever seen before.
‘It is ironic but I think it’s exciting: it’s just a different path,’ says Lauderdale of the bands similarities in mashing up music as compared to modern DJs and electro acts. ‘I’ve never really thought of it that way, but it’s good.
‘I think the one thing that’s for certain is that all of us who are in the band come from this era in which, as I can remember I really studied music. We grew up in communities where music programs were still in school and I think the difference these days is that largely, in America, nobody plays an instrument; nobody has the patience to play an instrument.’
Lauderdale pointed out that essentially there are two populations left in America who actually passionately study classical music: Asian-Americans and fundamentalist white Christians. When asked which category Pink Martini falls into, Laudedale was quick to point out that they fell into neither.
‘We’re from the generation before, in which there was still schools studying music. I mean now, in the land of American Idol, where you’re supposed to become famous overnight, you really don’t have to work that hard. You don’t really even have to read music.
‘That’s why we’re kind of out of place; we’re old fashioned in a lot of different ways.’
When asked if he loves popular music, Lauderdale explained that it was only by default: his partner Phillip loves pop music and is the one who brings it into their shared life. That said, Lauderdale does point out how impressed he is with the likes of someone like Jem who manages to not only incorporate Bach’s Prelude in F Minor into a modern song, but then have that song appear on Grey’s Anatomy and Crossing Jordan.
The mention of pop music also turns the conversation to that other Portland export: The Gossip.
‘I just went to see The Gossip,’ Lauderdale gushed. ‘The lead singer Beth Ditto and I went to dinner a couple of weeks ago, in New York City, and she’s got a great voice and I’m now in the Oregon Symphony, so hopefully there’s going to be some collaboration between her and the symphony. I think Beth Ditto with strings would be fantastic.’
Until then you can enjoy Pink Martini in all their glory with their new album Splendor In The Grass, available now through Inertia. www.pinkmartini.com