A Conversation With The Ladybug Transistor

The Ladybug Transistor formed in Brooklyn in 1995, and frontman Gary Olson has been the band’s sole constant member. Clutching Stems (Merge) is the group’s seventh album and the first to be made following the 2007 asthma-related death of drummer San Fadyl. Since, the band’s lineup has solidified behind Olson, featuring Kyle Forester, Julia Rydholm, Mark Dzula, Eric Farber and Michael O’Neill. The Ladybug Transistor will be guest editing all week. We recently caught up with Olson via email.

MAGNET: You have gone through a bunch of lineup changes over the years. Do you think the current one is in it for the long haul, or do you want to keep mixing things up?
Olson: Well, in our earlier years the group consisted of two couples and siblings. It wasn’t quite Fleetwood Mac but definitely a deeply intertwined band situation with all of us more or less living under the same roof for a couple of years. They were beautiful days, but it couldn’t last forever. There were a few years of constant change and tinkering with the lineup, but some of our newest recruits, Eric and Michael, have been with us for almost four years now. These days we’re all adults and most importantly good friends—a happy and mature family. I don’t see any major changes on the horizon unless they replace me with Robert Palmer.

How does the way you recorded Clutching Stems compare to how you did previous albums?
We did a lot of remote recording in the Poconos, so it may have more of a broken-down honeymoon-resort vibe to it.

What effect did San’s death have on the album and how you approached writing and making it?
Obviously, it was very difficult. San was a very dear friend and had quite a magical touch to his playing. It was important for us to make a good record, to honor him somehow in that way. He was a pretty opinionated character, so I’m not sure what he’d make of Clutching Stems, but I’d like to think we still carry a little of his swing.

You’ve lived in Brooklyn all your life, right? What has it been like witnessing the change of both the borough itself as well as its music scene?
As a kid, people often reacted with horror or amusement when I told them I was from Brooklyn. There were some hard times in the ’70s and ’80s. Times that are easy to romanticize now, but I gained quite a bit of useful knowledge out of living through it. Gentrification is creeping in everywhere these days, but there still is a vast variety of neighborhoods and culture and food here. It’s a huge city, and after all of this time, I’m still exploring it. There wasn’t much of a music scene in Brooklyn when I was growing up except for L’amour (The Rock Capital of Brooklyn!), which had an excellent metal scene and a few ska bands that I would hear people talk about in high school. A bit different than what’s happening in Williamsburg these days

How much non-Ladybug Transistor work goes on at your Marlborough Farms studio, and how has the place changed over the years? How active are you personally there?
The studio has evolved a bit over time. These days, we have a 16-track, two-inch tape machine that gets used as much as the newer digital setup. I still favor a lot of the old microphones and preamps. I worked a lot on the last couple of Crystal Stilts records and did the Cinema Red And Blue album with David Feck from Comet Gain. Both are projects that I’m really proud to be a part of. I have a pretty steady rotation of good local bands that I’ve worked with including German Measles, the Beets, Beachniks, McDonalds and the Fisherman 3.

What’s a typical day for you when you aren’t working on Ladybug Transistor stuff?
Make an excellent cup of coffee. Pick something from the backyard and cook it for lunch. Loop around Prospect Park with Julia. If it’s a summer day, I will undoubtably be at the beach crafting my Jimmy Buffett act.

Do you think the band’s lack of bigger success has made it easier or harder for you to continue to do it?
A bigger splash may have killed us off many years ago. It’s often inevitable when there is a lot of money and business around. I’m certainly thankful for the modest success that we’ve had. It’s pretty tiny but has lead us to a lot of places in this world that I thought I’d never get to see and plenty of enduring friendships. We do other things and have other interests outside of the band and music. I think the balance has been key to our longevity.

Do you still keep up with new bands? Who are some of your current favorites?
Yeah, I still see lots of shows. I love running into bands by chance and getting surprised. Tanks Amigo are the greatest locally. They played at our annual Christmas party. I listen to the radio a lot. There’s a a great Jamaican pirate radio station in my neighborhood. Pretty amazing reggae DJ sets some nights, and on Sundays they play gospel and old rocksteady records. Other than that, I listen to the whatever is on the hot-hits dance station—real chart fare. I’m always interested in what’s blaring out of other people’s car radios

What do you and the rest of the Ladybug Transistor have planned for the rest of the year?
We just did a show with the Left Banke, which was pretty exciting. West Coast in early September. We’re playing with the Olivia Tremor Control and Music Tapes in Portland. It will be great to see that whole gang again. Some European touring next season, and I’m feeling some writing coming on.

—Eric T. Miller

“Clutching Stems” (download):