In The Pink
Going back to 1994, there was an openly gay man named Thomas Lauderdale, who had recently graduated from Harvard and planned on running for Mayor of Portland, Oregon. But a funny thing happened on the way to the political forum he was accidentally sidestepped by show business (for political reasons) and has never looked back.
That was the year the classically trained Lauderdale formed a quartet of musicians for a one-night only gig. Fourteen years, three immensely successful albums and countless world tours later, the quartet has grown to a group of a dozen musicians, a fabulous lead singer, China Forbes, and a following, both gay and straight, that has made them a global success story.
In this interview, Lauderdale discusses how it all began when he needed an opening act for a fundraiser. Dissatisfied with the lack of commitment from the entertainment industry to open the benefit, he discusses how he “threw on a cocktail dress” and stepped into the spotlight with three other musicians to open the show themselves. In the decade and a half since, he now can’t imagine doing anything else but having fun and entertaining audiences all over the world with their musical gifts.
Of course, over the time we spent talking, his passion for politics came up, along with his initial and still relevant desire to escalate the gay community to equal status in this nation, his realization of the success of Pink Martini when playing the Hollywood Bowl and debuting at Carnegie Hall, and why headlining the event, “Evening Under The Stars” that will take place on May 3rd, is so important to him.
Truth be told, no matter if Pink Martini is shaken or stirred, the ingredients always turn out to be a perfect blend. Now it’s time for a taste of Pink Martini. Drink up!
STEVEN HOUSMAN: First off, congratulations on your immense success with Pink Martini. Is it everything you imagined it would be when you put together a four-man band fourteen years ago?
THOMAS LAUDERDALE: It’s quite a bit more than I imagined. It was originally supposed to be a one-time effort, opening for the Del Rubio Triplets for a benefit in 1994. I brought them to town for a “NO ON 13” benefit, which was a campaign working against an initiative to illegalize homosexuality in the state of Oregon. I had just seen Pee Wee Herman’s Christmas Special, which featured every guest star imaginable from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Grace Jones to k.d. lang to Whoopi Goldberg and Little Richard, Magic Johnson and the Del Rubio Triplets, and I thought they (the Triplets) were just unbelievable. These three women were actual triplets somewhere between the ages of 70 and 80, wearing little mini skirts and booties playing guitars to the songs “Walk Like An Egyptian” and “Whip It.” I thought it would be a great idea to bring them to town to do a fundraiser and I needed an opening act, and the surf band I wanted to hire wasn’t returning my calls, so I threw on a cocktail dress and found a band and started it. It just took off from there, and we found ourselves as the house band for politically progressive causes. I was supposed to go into politics at that time, but it soon became clear to me this was even a more fabulous career playing music and running around the world having fun.
SH: I understand that you are a Harvard graduate and had the intention of running for the mayor of Portland. Is that accurate?
TL: Well, that’s what I really wanted to do more than anything. But suddenly I had this band, and the band just sort of took off. We had a great career in Portland, then we took ourselves to the Cannes Film Festival and that launched our European career.
SH: What made you decide to go from a quartet to a twelve-piece orchestra shortly after you began?
TL: It was really accidental. There would be people that were either in the Oregon Symphony or in other bands or playing jazz around the corner in a club, and we just kind of grew. And I guess since I was coming from a classical background it was just more and more exciting to add people to the mix.
SH: Was there one defining moment in the career of Pink Martini when you realized it was a success? If so, what was it?
TL:I would say it was when we first played at the Hollywood Bowl. That was great. It was just a huge thing. Last year we debuted at Carnegie Hall, plus we played a bunch of times in Europe. I guess the latest tours are just a reminder of how lucky we are because things have gone so well.
SH: I’ve never seen you live but I’ve always enjoyed your music.
TL: Thank you. Our music is romantic and, in a way, escapist, but also global at the same time. It’s also very accessible. Music means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Whether we’re playing in a small farming community in Oregon or Istanbul, it has this appeal that’s really approachable and neighborly. It’s amazing how well Barack Obama has done in modern America, and in the same way the band has that inclusive vision of America. I think that it hasn’t necessarily been articulated in so many ways in recent years, but the band’s success is slightly related in the sense that here’s a different aspect or a different take on America which is just as viable and real as the American presidency.
SH: If you had to give your music a label, what genre would it fall under?
TL: I would say Hollywood musical crossed with global pop. It’s like old-fashioned pop the way it was in the 40’s with the beautiful melodies.
SH: In other words, very dramatic.
TL: Yes! That’s a perfect way to describe it.
SH: Your lead vocalist, China Forbes, has a remarkable voice. How did you find her or did she find you?
TL: She has an incredible voice. We went to college together. She was studying painting, English and theater, and I was studying history and literature. She grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
SH: How do you like our fair city of Palm Springs?
TL: I was last there in November. My boyfriend took me there, and we spent several days running around and went to see the Palm Springs Follies, which is really something.
SH: Have you visited a lot?
TL: I’d say 5 to 10 times.
SH: For professional reasons or for leisurely reasons?
TL: Sometimes to play… actually many times to play. I’ve only been on vacation there once or twice.
SH: Why was performing at this year’s “Evening Under The Stars” a priority for you, especially with the hectic schedule you keep?
TL: The fact that it’s a benefit and it’s also gay-related, and we really haven’t done anything like that in Southern California, so it’s kind of a first for us. I also think it’s an opportunity to reach a whole crowd which should be pretty simpatico with the band.
SH: Speaking of labels, you must be quite aware that you have a large gay following. Do you have any feelings about why that might be, and how do you feel about that?
TL: Very much so. I’m a lot like many gay guys who love that whole aesthetic of the past and the romantic glamour of the Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth years. I just think there’s a general gay aesthetic, even though there are only a few fruitcakes in the band. Our music definitely has a “light in the loafers” sort of feel. (Laughter).
SH: Okay, talk about labels!
TL: Well, we can laugh about it! (Laughing)
SH: When you write your original compositions, is it easier to write alone or do you find collaboration beneficial?
TL: Collaboration makes me a better songwriter. My urge has never been to write songs. My urge has really been to study classical music. I certainly never grew up with the idea that I would try to write a song. I think as an American pop band there are expectations that we have to write a lot of songs, so I have just found different ways to work through that. And part of the great fun of having a band and having friends from different parts of the world is that we get to collaborate with them and write different songs.
SH: You’ve had enormous success in Europe, most especially France.
TL: France and Turkey, actually.
SH: France doesn’t surprise me, but Turkey does.
TL: I think the Turkey thing happened with a certain script promoter that we worked with for years in Turkey. He’s just a dreamboat and has really launched our career there also in Greece. We’ve just been really fortunate along the way. I think we’ve had more success in France than the United States for many years.
SH: Why do you feel that is?
TL: We partnered with a record label there and we just toured a lot. We found touring in Europe easier than in the United States. In the U.S. it’s just an uphill climb. The music industry is really difficult and we’ve remained independent here in the United States. That is, without the assistance of Sony or Disney or any of the major labels. That’s just been a really lucky thing for us. We’ve been able to travel and play with symphony orchestras at different times and we’ve been spending a lot of time in L.A. and New York, sort of building a career there. KCRW and National Public Radio and PBS have been very helpful.
SH: I’d like to go back and talk politics a bit more with you. How do you feel about the way this Primary season has been going?
TL: I think it’s been amazing. If everything goes as planned, then Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee. That’s incredible, considering the choices last time were John Kerry and Bush. So it’s really just very encouraging. Half the country that was largely invisible is slowly coming into vision.
SH: Many people have said that if their choice isn’t nominated, they aren’t going to vote for the other candidate. If by chance Obama didn’t make it as the nominee and Hillary Clinton did, would you still support the Democratic Party?
TL: Of course. I think they’re both great candidates and they’re both very smart. Either one of them would be better than the Republican Party.
SH: I know you have a very heavy touring schedule. Do you have plans yet for a fourth album, and if so, when can we (the audience) expect it?
TL: I think we’re going to start recording it in September, so it’ll probably be out by the spring of 2009.
SH: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. Good luck on your tour!
TL: Thank you and I’ll see you in Palm Springs!
© 2008 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.