Sometimes the questions an interview subject will ask are just as illuminating as the ones that they answer. This is especially true of Thomas Lauderdale, the bandleader of Portland’s completely swellegant, retro-fab Pink Martini.
Strangely, considering the self-styled little orchestra has done no shortage of globetrotting over the past 15 years, Lauderdale isn’t overly familiar with Vancouver, even though we’re a six-hour drive from the City of Roses. As far as he can recollect, Pink Martini has only played here once, and his recollections of that gig are admittedly a little sketchy.
“I think the last time we were in Vancouver we played with an orchestra,” Lauderdale says vaguely, on the line from Portlandia.
As a result of his lack of familiarity with Lotusland, Lauderdale has a query, this coming about halfway through his chat with the Georgia Straight.
“Where are you from?” he asks. “Were you born in Vancouver? What are the most beautiful things to do there?”
While it might be a simple question, it’s also a significant one, in that it speaks volumes about what Lauderdale loves about being part of Pink Martini, which has been blending cocktail-flavoured jazz, classical, and gold-gilded pop since 1994. Even though the group’s forays to Vancouver have basically been nonexistent, the bandleader acknowledges that he’s been lucky to have seen the rest of the world.
Pink Martini first made a splash in France, the title track of the group’s eponymous 1997 debut becoming a hit in the land of berets, Bordeaux, and baguettes. Pretty quickly, Lauderdale realized that he wasn’t going to be content being a big fish in the little pond that is the Pacific Northwest. Over the past decade and a half, in between selling out Carnegie Hall, landing songs in movies like Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and appearing on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Show With David Letterman, Pink Martini has been dedicated to touring overseas. As a result, it’s built a devoted fan base not just in Europe, but also in Asia, Africa, Australia, and just about everywhere on an airline route.
Those experiences have given Lauderdale a considerably more global outlook on life than that of most of his countrymen, two thirds of whom, infamously, don’t even own passports.
One of the things he loves most about being abroad is the way that he’s thrown back to an older time, when something as simple as airline travel seemed more civilized.
“Coming back from our recent tour, where we went from Turkey to Greece to Spain, was definitely jarring,” Lauderdale notes. “In North America you are herded into lines and then barked at. That sort of stuff doesn’t happen in Europe.”
Consider that statement a sign that he has more than a passing affection for the past. This surfaces repeatedly during his interview with the Straight, which starts out with Lauderdale raving that he’s just finished showing his friends Leni Riefenstahl–shot footage of the 1936 Olympics.
Not surprisingly, considering that Pink Martini draws heavily on vintage musical styles, Lauderdale is of the opinion that things were in many ways better back when cocktail dresses and snappy suits were a part of any night out on the town. In fact, read between the lines, and you get the feeling he would have loved to have come of age in the ’50s, when all of America seemed shiny and new and full of promise.
Pink Martini may hail from nearby Portland, but MusicFest marks only the second time it’s brought its self-styled orchestra to Vancouver. Autumn de Wilde photo.
“What is remarkable about this period is that, at least on the surface, everything is gorgeous,” he says. “Everything was built to last—people had refrigerators that would go on forever. Then, starting around ’64, everything changed to become sort of darker. Beauty was no longer in vogue. It was almost like a loss of gorgeousness.”
Pink Martini is, then, on a mission to restore some of that fabulousness, the group having evolved from a stripped-down loungelike combo into the 10- to 12-person orchestra that it operates as today. And with that growth has come a worldly perspective seldom found in pop music. (Lauderdale and cosinger China Forbes can croon in over 15 different languages, the doubly impressive thing being that they aren’t necessarily fluent in most of them.)
Pink Martini’s latest, 1969, finds the band teaming up with 63-year-old Japanese pop-music icon Saori Yuki. With the woman who’s been called Japan’s answer to Barbara Streisand handling the vocals, Lauderdale and his Pink Martini cohorts tackle everything from sweepingly cinematic pop (“Yuuzuki”) to symphonic bossa nova (“Blue Light Yokohama”) to skeletal classical (“Yoake No Scat”). Amazingly, the two collaborating camps even manage to make “Puff the Magic Dragon” seem both regal and profound.
Quite understandably, Lauderdale is completely thrilled with what Pink Martini has pulled off with 1969. One of the big reasons? He’s long looked for a way to crack the country of Japan.
“I always thought the band would do better in Japan sooner than now,” Lauderdale reveals. “Now I realize that the songs we were recording [in the past] were not on any Japanese person’s radar. Like the theme Black Lizard from 1968, which is about a cross-dressing jewel thief who nabs young beautiful people and holds them hostage. But doing songs like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ with Saori Yuki has been great for us.”
Presumably to the point where he’ll now be in a position where he can ask folks in the Land of the Rising Sun what exactly he should be doing on his next visit to Tokyo.
Pink Martini plays the Orpheum on Friday (August 17) as part of MusicFest Vancouver.