Pink Martinis and a Polaroid: One Night with a Little Orchestra

by Luke McCann | 7/16/15 7:49pm

I often live in denial, if not outright fear, of what strangers must think of me when they see my desk for the first time. Small and without decoration or detail, its top is scattered with half-finished novels, pens that ran out of ink months before and crumpled sheets of paper. It is, to the horror of those who live with me, in a constant state of disorder and hysteria — a living piece of performance art depicting the life of the young adult I call myself. I can never quite force myself to part with anything, and new objects find their way into my chaos each day.

I added two new items to my desk collection this past week, at least until I can find them a more permanent home. Tucked in the pages of Michael Foucault’s “The History of Sexuality,” between the pretentious literature-student scribblings on authority, discourse and power with a capital “P,” are two black-and-white Polaroid photos. The images are hard to make out, a product of the fluorescent lighting that left one too bright and the other too dark. In each photo are six people. Three of us are Dartmouth students, and on the wings of the photo are Kyle Mustain and Nicholas Crosa. China Forbes, the vocal powerhouse who commands the spotlight of any stage on which she appears, stands in the center, gazing over her glasses and striking an eye-catching pose.

Behind the camera is Thomas Lauderdale, a small man whose conversations wander between his literature studies at Harvard University to his disdain for the shades of colors on the rainbow pride flag. Lauderdale grew up in Indiana, raised on a plant nursery before moving to Portland, Oregon. His unique flair, a combination of old and new, manifests itself in his large, Polaroid camera. It’s a sizable black cube, seeming almost awkward against his delicate frame, but he handles it as if he were there when film was first created. He positions us with care for the photo, asking Kyle to lift his head so the light catches him just right, shaking each Polaroid just seconds after it’s taken before complaining about the quality of each photo. These four make up just a small portion of Pink Martini, a musical group of nearly 20 members that mixes jazz, classical, pop and other musical genres from across the globe. The camera itself is like Pink Martini, anachronistic yet modern.

This Tuesday I saw the band playing to a sold-out audience at the Hopkins Center, Forbes standing center stage, Lauderdale at her side on the piano and the remaining members spread across the stage in a musical regiment. They played songs spanning the group’s 20-plus year history, alternating spare, mellow songs in Greek alongside upbeat, Spanish lyrics over contagious rhythms. Those sitting in the 900-seat Spaulding Auditorium mirrored the performance on stage, many audience members clapping along to one song before settling in and swaying their heads as the group played the slower pieces of their repertoire.

“They are great, as you can see, they’re just fabulous performers,” Hop programming director Margaret Lawrence said. “Their show makes so much sense for a community like this because it’s very sophisticated, but it’s very fun and they sing in a ton of languages. It’s a fabulous package.”

This past week marked the third time the group has performed at the College, and a “fabulous package” may be the best way to describe a group that combines such a breadth of musical styles, languages and sentiments when taking the stage. A Pink Martini concert is a brief ticket across the globe and through decades. In one moment you are walking the streets of Tokyo amid the bustling nightlife, another you’re tapping along in a hole-in-the-wall bar in Seville. Although it was said in jest, there’s a truth in Lauderdale’s quip that “If the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we’d be that band.”

If one thing can be said about a Pink Martini concert, it’s that audience members can never be too sure what will come next. Forbes opened the show by inviting the audience to sing “Happy Birthday” to Lauderdale. Before performing “But Now I’m Back” (2009), a song sung in response to an angry lover in which a man confesses he just left to get a snack, Forbes asked for audience members to come on stage and sing background vocals with her. Later, Lauderdale invited people to come dance in front of the stage, joking that they should create “a swing mosh pit.”

Lawrence, who has known about the group for more than two decades, said that each performance is different. When Pink Martini came to campus in 2011, Forbes was experiencing issues with her vocals, and Portland-based musician Storm Large filled in as the group’s vocalist. When the group asked if there was anyone Greek in the audience to help sing along to “Never on a Sunday” (1987), one audience member stood up and came to the stage. While she was invited to sing a single line from the song, Lawrence said the audience member knew every word to the song and packed an impressive voice of her own.

“The band just stood back and let this community member, who wasn’t planned, sing the entire three stanzas and the crowd went crazy,” she said. “So you never know what’s going to happen at a Pink Martini show.”

Almost each song was introduced with a short story from Lauderdale, though Forbes often chipped in with details or whispered to him across the piano. “Sympathique” (1997), one of the group’s earliest singles, which went on to be nominated for Song of the Year at France’s Victoires de la Musique Awards, was partnered with a story about the band eventually being sued in France only to be asked for autographs after the settlement.

Lauderdale told of songs inspired by advertisements in decades-old magazines or inspired by an eye-catching title of a record in a small Japanese store. Lauderdale, the founder of the group and what Lawrence called “the mastermind of everything,” acts as something of a master of ceremonies when Pink Martini takes the stage. His conversations with the audience are quick and funny, weaving together a narrative that connects songs and inspirations from years spent traveling the world.

The funniest story, and perhaps the most reflective of the band’s style, came at the beginning of the show, when Lauderdale described what lead to Pink Martini’s formation. Before entering the world of music, Lauderdale began in the political sphere, attending small-town rallies and fundraisers with the idea that he may one day run for mayor. A bill had been recently introduced that would align homosexuality with practices like beastiality, pedophilia and necrophilia. “You know, the four that always seemed to get lumped together,” Lauderdale joked.

He gathered a group of musicians and began traveling around the state of Oregon to raise awareness against the bill, and the group soon began to attract more attention than he’d imagined. A year later, he asked Forbes, a classmate during their time at Harvard, to join the group, and Pink Martini began to take shape.

After exiting the stage to a lengthy standing ovation, several members of the band gathered outside Spaulding Auditorium to sign autographs and chat with fans, passing out slices of Lauderdale’s chocolate cake to anyone who came through the door. I jumped to the front of the line, trying to attract someone’s attention before the group was carried away by fans asking for autographs and news on any new music. I knew securing at least one brief interview with a member of Pink Martini was crucial for the story, and I was ready to grovel to Forbes for a few minutes alone to interview her.

I approached the table and introduced myself as a journalist, and Lauderdale handed me a piece of the cake. The group, she said, wouldn’t have time to talk to me tonight because they were heading to a party in Norwich with some of her family and friends immediately after. I offered my contact information, told her I could do a quick phone interview tomorrow. “Come with us,” she said.

An hour later, I pulled onto the side of a dark back road in Norwich, only a few miles from campus but tucked so far into the woods that I doubt I would have ended up there on my own. Lit torches lined the driveway, and in the center of the backyard was a campfire with chairs circled around. Those in the band who weren’t exhausted after the performance drifted around the party, with another dozen or so people scattered throughout.

Forbes waved me over to the campfire, where she was surrounded by relatives and friends asking her to pose for a photo, her own voice settling over the group from the speakers just inside the kitchen door. She had been the one to agree to an interview at the party, but the mingling of voices and stories around the yard seemed to offer too many distractions to capture her attention for long enough to begin asking any in-depth questions. She would tell me to begin the interview before interjecting with her own questions, asking about my major and how I’d ended up taking a story about Pink Martini that brought me to Norwich at midnight on a Tuesday. She’d hold up her finger, ask me to give her a minute before shouting across the party to a friend or family member with a story she’d just remembered about them from the time she spent in Vermont.

Throughout the gathering, she glided between one group of relatives to a small huddle of her bandmates, only pausing longenough to deliver a punchline and let her laughter ring out against the silence of the surrounding woods. At the party, like on stage, she commands attention, beckoning the spotlight to follow her as she drifts along. She commands the spotlight, but does not demand its undivided attention, and while she may waiver before sharing a drink, she’s quick to share center stage with anyone else. Rather, her energy that brought other guests to her, drawn familiarity with being at center stage that can only come from years in front of crowds.

Forbes joked about her refusal to share drinks with other people. Her voice, she said, is her instrument, and she’s not too keen on the possibility of catching any sickness that might be passed around. She gives off an old Hollywood sense of glamour for a moment, posing as the starlet diva that must have her own drink before cackling and adding, “I can’t share a drink, unless we’re kissing later that night.” Even behind the glasses and denim jacket she’s now wearing, the domineering presence of the woman in a long gown, belting classic tunes in French before hundreds of people, shines through.

Each time she introduced me to another partygoer, she said “He’s a reporter, he’s working on a story,” as if my byline regularly appeared on the front pages of international newspapers and magazines. After asking her a question about the band, she’d grab another member of the group by the arm and insist that I ask them.

“They’re the perfect person for you to talk to about this,” she would say.

This is what makes Forbes such a powerful frontwoman, for she is quick to remind the audience of the people behind her, the men and women who sing backup, the trumpet soloist, the cellist who has the unique gift of making her instrument almost speak. Throughout the group’s performance, Forbes regularly took a backseat, allowing other members to come to the front and take the microphone. Often she sang backup, or as any notable lead vocalist will do, she picked up a tambourine and played along as one of her bandmates took the spotlight.

About 100 pages into “History of Sexuality,” only a few pages past where I slipped in the Polaroids, is a quote that I have underlined, highlighted and quoted several times throughout my undergraduate career.

“We must at the same time,” Foucault writes, “conceive of power without the king.”

It’s not necessarily a quote I ever thought I’d use in story for The D, and perhaps the comparison is a stretch, but the same seems to ring true for the band. For if Forbes could be considered the queen of Pink Martini, the audience never forgets that there is power on that stage alongside her. In a group that bills themselves as “a little orchestra,” there seems to be nothing little about the sound, the musical journey that these musicians will take on while sitting before them in a music hall.

As Forbes fluttered between conversations at the party, I was left largely to my own devices, not familiar with anyone but the band members, only having met them in passing. I stood around the campfire, trying not to seem out of place before realizing that the other guests were a collection just as eclectic as the band’s. I sat next to a woman and discussed the state of queer politics in South America for nearly half an hour before discovering she was a professor at the College. A man offered me a cigarette and we talked about nothing in particular, only realizing that we hadn’t introduced ourselves as we stomped out the ashes. One woman, closer to my age, told me about her frustrations of working in retail. I never asked her name.

This assortment of local people never seemed to question why I was at the party. Most of them heard China’s introduction of me as a reporter and assumed I was traveling with the band for a story. Their ages spanned decades. Some were professors and others artists, and some smoked cigarettes in the corner and others joked about the smell. The party seemed fitting for a Pink Martini celebration, a small group of people with stories of their own who just seemed to work together. No explanations for why we were there or how we knew the band were necessary — it was enough that we were there around a campfire and had nothing to do but talk.

As the night went on and people began to trickle away from the fire and into their cars, I was able to sit down with Lauderdale and Mustain, who plays the English horn, for a short interview. Each question I asked, though, seemed to spark another memory, the two of them often interjecting into the other’s answer with something they forgot to add. I began by asking them how they thought the night’s show had gone, both looking at the other to see who would respond first. It went well, they said, although the crowd threw them off a bit at first.

“I wish it were a little more boisterous in the audience, but the auditorium’s not sort of set up that way,” Lauderdale said.

“It’s strange because some of us had the feeling that the audience tonight was sort of subdued, but when I went outside and mingled a bit, so many people said, ‘Could you believe how excited everyone was during the show?’” Mustain said.

They said the crowd they play to isn’t too consistent across shows, and the crowd often depends on where they’re playing. I asked them where some of their greatest shows had been, and Lauderdale said that Pink Martini has some really great crowds in farm country in Orgeon. Mustain took a few seconds to answer before mentioning Rome, with Lauderdale interrupting at the mention of the Italian city.

“I remember Rome being really great — young 20-year-olds, everyone was kind of stoned and making out,” Lauderdale said while they both laughed. He waited a few seconds before adding, “that’s not really what happened in Hanover.”

While Spaulding Auditorium wasn’t necessarily filled with cannabis-smoking young adults overcome with sensations of being in love and in Europe, Lauderdale said the Dartmouth crowd “has always been surprisingly fun,” adding that he liked its diversity, including “plenty of older foxy people.” If the group enjoys the crowds in Hanover, they shouldn’t have to worry about being invited back. When it comes to Hanover, Lawrence said, “there will always be a place for Pink Martini at the Hopkins Center.”

Our conversation was interrupted as someone walked toward our corner of the yard, saying her final goodbyes to Pink Martini before she headed home. After several minutes, she drifted away toward her car. At this point in the night, my recorder was on its final moments of battery life, and I knew I only had the opportunity to ask a few more questions while I had two of the band members’ attention. I asked what their favorite part of performing with Pink Martini was, and Lauderdale again brought attention to just how eclectic their audiences can be.

“I love the diversity of our audiences,” he said. “I like when it’s, you know, just really f---ked up. Like really conservative people sitting next to really liberal people. Older people sitting next to younger people, people from the Middle East sitting next to Jews. I just love that. I think one of the best aspects of the band is this sort of diversity inside the audience.”

Mustain interjected at this point to tell a story about Lauderdale being seated next to Ted Nugent after getting tickets to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. The notably conservative musician and Lauderdale, Mustain said, seemed to hit it off great. That clashing of backgrounds and ideas, it seems, is central to how Lauderdale leads the band and his life.

“I really like having conversations with people from totally different worlds, who think I’m totally going to hell,” he said. “It’s sort of building this tiny, quiet bridge. Who wants to sit next to people who have the same opinion and the same set of goals? I just don’t find that interesting.”

The night was quickly coming to a close, and within a few minutes only the band members, the host and I remained around the fire. We offered to help clean, the six or seven of us rustling around the kitchen as we sang along to “The Little Drummer Boy” that played over the speakers. Each time we had collected another piece of trash, Forbes told us we just had to try the bean dip mixed with the guacamole, but no not on that cracker on this one, pushing an appetizer toward our mouths before we had time to object.

It was nearing 2 a.m., my eyes beginning to droop after several hours with a band I had only hoped to speak with for five or 10 minutes for my story. Lauderdale and Forbes went to bed, both wanting to explore the area during the band’s free time the next day. Crosa, the group’s violinist, and Mustain invited me to spend some time with them on their bus, and I invited a couple of friends along for conversation.

The mood was light, my tape recorder dead and the air of a formal interview long gone. We sat behind the Hop, smoking the occasional cigarette and letting the discussion wind through an assortment of topics through the next hour. Mustain talked to us about his time at Yale University and his thoughts on global politics, Crosa discussing his newfound passion for the universe, forgetting the word “physicist” for a moment. They asked us about our studies, told us about being flown to Russia to play for a wealthy man’s concert. At the end of the night, they apologized for keeping us up so late, concerned that we had merely been entertaining them as a sign of good faith.

There’s a running joke in the band about the group’s name, and Lauderdale says had he known this small collection of musicians playing at political rallies would one day travel the world and sell out concert halls, he may have named it something different. Yet for a group that combines the music of decades-ago swing halls with the rhythms of the world, somehow making these things fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, perhaps Pink Martini is the perfect name. The group blends the old with the new, the classic with the eclectic. Pink Martini is two blurry Polaroid photos tucked into a book of theory on a cluttered college desk. It’s a large, clunky camera in the basement of a fraternity, capturing the life of today with the technology of back then. The group is a martini — a classic, timeless mix that somehow fits together. Yet they’re bright, young and abrasive — the perfect shade of pink.