Founded in 1994 by Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini has carved out a unique niche for itself in the world of music. The large and ever-expanding group combines many genres of music – from pop to classical to ethnic styles – and delivers it all in an exuberant, engaging and multilingual manner. A Pink Martini concert experience is a musical travelogue, taking the audience on a trip that celebrates the varied musical character that defines the human race. The band stays very busy, but in a brief moment between shows – and ahead of the group’s December 7 date at the Grand Sierra Resort’s Grand Theatre – band leader Lauderdale took time to chat with Rock On about the group’s vision, its past and its future.
If you had to describe Pink Martini in the form of a mission statement, what would you say?
Thomas Lauderdale: Well, I have said many times that I’d like to think that if the United Nations had a house band in 1962, we would’ve been that band. And I mean that in terms of aesthetics, and also in terms of the ethos of the band. So I guess that is sort of our mission statement. What we do is to bring people together through music by a band made up of people from multiple countries and backgrounds, both cultural and musical. Our music blends many genres and styles and even eras, and that comes through in both what you hear and what you see on stage.
Pink Martini plays shows both as a self-contained unit and accompanied by an orchestra. In terms of arrangement, how does preparation differ between those performances?
In terms of preparation, there’s a lot more that goes into it when we perform with an orchestra than when we do a regular Pink Martini show. At this point, we’re almost 29 years into the band; we have some original members and many others who have been with the band for many, many years. So we really do know what we’re doing on stage without a ton of prep for each individual show or tour, beyond soundcheck.
But when we perform with an orchestra, I have to get set lists in advance to the orchestra. They almost always have a librarian on staff to get the music ready for their musicians to practice. That’s actually very challenging for me, because I am usually really “in the moment,” thinking about each show based on what feels right and fun, how the last night went, and things like that.
When we are prepping for a tour, and I’m on a break in between, I’m wedging interviews (like this one) in between multiple shows and tour dates, trying to get things done for my own personal life or for boards that I’m on or other things. And then it’s back on the road. So the set lists get made before soundcheck. But when we perform with an orchestra, I have to think about the shows weeks before we’ve even left for tour.
That said, I really do love performing with orchestra. There’s something really special about that for both the audience and the band. Being backed by an orchestra really adds another dimension to our music.
The multilingual nature of Pink Martini show is a key to its appeal. Was singing in many languages part of the original concept, or is that something that developed later?
You know, I am glad that you also think that it’s key to the appeal. I feel that very strongly. It was not something I explicitly set out to do, but I also have never shied away from songs beyond the U.S., outside of what’s currently popular and is in other languages than English. In fact, I have always gravitated towards songs in other languages, songs from other cultures, songs that are almost completely unknown in the United States.
Of course, our biggest hit “Sympathique” is a song in French. I have always loved the romance and sexiness of French music. Even before I started the band, I took French in high school and college, and I loved Edith Piaf. So to the extent that we are a multilingual band – and I think we’re up to 26 languages at this point – that has certainly evolved over the last three decades. But it has always been part of the fabric and the DNA of Pink Martini, and of my musical aesthetic.
Other than personnel changes, how has Pink Martini changed in the years since you began?
In some ways now we are getting back to one of the roots of band. I originally envisioned Pink Martini as a sort of variety show inspired by the brilliant Paul Reubens, who passed away recently. I absolutely loved Peewee Herman’s Holiday Special. It was a total variety show of various characters, and that was something that I wanted to emulate in Pink Martini. In fact, I got the Del Rubio triplets, who were in Pee Wee’s special, to join for some of those very first thrown-together Pink Martini shows. The band moved away from that as we became more professional and developed our own repertoire and style, but I’ve brought just a bit of that variety show feel to certain shows in recent years. And that’s been really fun for me.
In your experience, when people come to a Pink Martini show, what surprises them the most?
I think the incredible Edna Vazquez and Jimmie Herrod consistently blow people away. The fantastic China Forbes is still our lead singer, and she’s the main draw for a lot of people, as she absolutely should be. As is the whole Pink Martini experience.
I think the other thing that people consistently say is that while few of the songs are in a language they speak or understand, they still love it. A lot of audiences – particularly in America – are not exposed to music in other languages. But they’re always surprised how much they still enjoy it. Even if you don’t speak French, Farsi, Hebrew or Arabic, it’s there for you. The music is truly a universal language, and people come away from concerts feeling that.
What do you find most rewarding about the group?
The opportunities that it has given me to see the world, to meet incredible and interesting people, and to do something that I love. I respect and love everybody in the group; their contributions are amazing as well.
Does the group tailor its performances – e.g. change the set list, etc. – to specific countries or regions?
We have been on tour in Europe several times this year, in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and France. And those audiences absolutely go wild for hearings songs in their languages, songs that they can sing along with. And they do! This past week we definitely played more of our songs in French.
I will often look up a song in the language where we are touring, usually an old song or a well-known classic. When we traveled to South Korea in 2011, China learned “Sang Gaak,” a popular Korean song. Earlier this year we were in Alaska, where our PR and Marketing director was born and raised. We opened up our concert with the Alaska State Flag song, and the whole crowd stood and sang it with the band. That’s not something we would do at any other concert. Things like that are really fun, and local audiences really appreciate them. So sometimes it’s a new or different song just for that concert, like in Alaska.
And sometimes a new song can end up in the Pink Martini repertoire, which is what happened in South Korea, or learning “Askim Bahardi” in Turkish, which we then recorded on Je dis oui!
If you could go back in time and give some advice to the 1990s version of yourself, what would you say?
I’m not sure. I never thought I was going to be in a band, much less the leader and founder of a group that toured for almost 30 years. I wanted to be the mayor of Portland! This is such an unlikely and improbable path, and it’s worked out. So I don’t think I could warn my past self towards or away from it. I think it just had to happen, and here we are!