Gary Olson is the lead singer (and formidable trumpeter) of The Ladybug Transistor, the Brooklyn-based band that first introduced the Marlborough Farms collective to the indie pop world. The Ladybug Transistor’s first two albums, Marlborough Farms (1995) and Beverly Atonale (1997) contained, as Gary wrote in the debut album’s reissue, “very mid-90’s indie sounds,” but they also had a warmth that became synonymous with the band’s music. The third album, 1999’s The Albemarle Sound, is generally considered the breakthrough. Having enlisted Jeff and Jennifer Baron for his previous album, he now brought along San Fadyl, as well as Sasha Bell and Mike Barrett of The Essex Green. The band’s sound was transformed with lush, pastoral melodies and richly-layered arrangements of strings, trumpet, and guitar.
Meanwhile, the songwriting duties were dispersed, democratically, throughout the band. Sasha, who only sang on one song on Albemarle Sound, took more prominent vocal duties in their next two albums, Argyle Heir (2001) and The Ladybug Transistor (2003). The latter took their sound at a slightly new angle; recorded in Tucson, Arizona, the flavour and swagger of the American Southwest is distinctive on the record. This year, hopes are high for the imminent return of the Ladybugs.
Are you working on a new album, and if so, can you provide any details? Is a tour in sight?
San (Ladybug drummer) just arrived in New York from Zurich where he normally lives. We’ve all been getting together lately for rehearsals and are working on arrangements for new songs. Along with Julia [Rydholm], San and Jeff Baron, we have Ben Crum and Kyle Forester from Great Lakes helping a lot with these sessions. We’ll get a lot of basic tracks done in the coming weeks and build on them throughout the spring. We’re planning on a late 2006 album release and an EP earlier in the year.
We have some touring pending for this summer. San, Jeff, and I also spent a lot of time last year working with Kevin Ayers on his next record which was done at Wavelab in Tucson and at Marlborough Farms. Heather McIntosh and Joe McGinty also contributed a lot to the album. Kevin is in London now working on finishing vocals. I hear they are planning to have it out this autumn.
Describe Marlborough Farms if you can, and how it became a home for so many talented musicians. Is it still in use by the Ladybug Transistor?
Marlborough Farms is a big old house in the Victorian Flatbush area of Brooklyn. Most of Ladybug have lived here at one time or another. It was an ideal place to be at the time the group started coming together…with enough room for all of us to live and record. I’ll always call it home and it will always be very much a musical place. Kevin Barker (of Currituck Co.) and Heather McIntosh (of The Instruments) currently reside at the Farm so there is always some interesting happening here. The studio has been busier than ever, as I’ve settled into doing a little more freelance recording work these days. Will Hart, John Fernandes, Derek Almstead and Heather of Circulatory System were here in February doing some overdubs for their next record. It was a great experience to finally get to work with them.
The style of your music changed dramatically with The Albemarle Sound in 1999, although there were signs of a new direction with the previous album; can you talk about what prompted the shift?
Well, there was no real band on the first two records. Ladybug began as more of a recording project with me and our original drummer Ed Powers playing most of the instruments. I was experimenting a lot with my new 8 track…going in many directions, I’ll confess. We became more of a band once we began to tour properly with the Beverley Atonale album.
Around that time Jeff, Jennifer and Sasha became more involved. We suddenly had four songwriters in the group and wanted to make something that reflected the records we loved at the time (Love, Kinks, Jan and Dean, Byrds) and that was The Albemarle Sound. San also came in to take over on drums and all of this helped Ladybug make that leap. With Julia joining the lineup just after Argyle Heir, we had our first dedicated bass player, which truly rounded out the evolution.
The songs are always just credited to The Ladybug Transistor; are the songwriting contributions as creatively democratic as they seem?
I’ll admit it’s a bit vague to credit all of our albums like that. Basically on the last three records, the songwriters (me, Jeff, Sasha and Jennie when she was with us) all contributed the same amount of songs, so I was just listing writing credits as “The Ladybug Transistor.” I think it came from an idea I had when we started about wanting the group to be more collective-like and less about egos. Songs definitely originated from different people though and maybe they should be credited individually for that.
There seem to be a lot of connections with your bandmates and Sweden. How did this come about, and can you describe the connections as they are today?
Outside of the US, Sweden and Norway were the first places that seemed to have some kind scene for what Ladybug were doing. Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel had been over the year before and reported back many good things. We visited the first time and played the Emmaboda Festival. I still meet people who were at that show. On that trip we met people and bands who became good friends over the years…and have even performed at one of their weddings.
I’ve been going to Scandinavia every year since then with Ladybug or doing solo shows with friends who live over there, so it’s a special place for me. Ole [Johannes Åleskjær] from Loch Ness Mouse plays with me regularly when I’m there, as well as Wyatt Cusick from Aislers Set who has been living in Gothenburg. I met Jens Lekman last year and had a nice time joining him as a touring musician on his US tour last autumn.
Is “The Swimmer” based on the Burt Lancaster picture, and was someone in the band a fan of the film? [In the 1968 film, Lancaster plays a man who deals with a crisis by swimming all the way home through his neighbours’ suburban swimming pools.]
Yeah, we are big Burt fans. I saw that movie during a really bad heatwave one summer, so it was perfect timing. I really liked the concept of swimming home through a network of backyard pools. It also seemed to fit in well with the water themes of Albemarle Sound–“Oceans in the Hall,” “Like a Summer Rain,” “Meadowport Arch.” Those figures on the front cover came from a painting we found in Venice.
Originally published in Optical Atlas. Reprinted by permission