for the past 30 years, vocalist-songwriter-trumpeter gary olson has led the brooklyn-based pastoral-pop band the ladybug transistor through seven full-lengths, mostly all released via merge records. he’s also established himself as a go-to engineer, working from his home studio, named marlborough farms, on albums by hamish kilgour, jens lekman, and his very own self-titled solo debut LP, released via tapete records in may 2020. ¶ though billed as a “solo release,” olson was supported by norwegian artists ole and jorn åleskjær (of the band loch ness mouse), and the album was recorded in both brooklyn and hayland, norway. we asked the kind-hearted, soft-spoken singer-songwriter about the trans-atlantic recording experience and how it was to release an album during a pandemic. interview by janice headley
chickfactor: what made you want to release a solo album after decades of being ladybug transistor?
I had been thinking about it for a long time, even going back to 2005. and then whenever I’d gather a few songs together, it would just wind up being becoming whatever the next ladybug record was. ¶ I think some of it was just… a clean slate after all this time. also maybe some flexibility as to who I could play with. I haven’t even got to play many live shows, but when I get around to doing it, it could be a duo or a full band or … just not being kind of bound to the strict “band” structure, and just being able to be more flexible with things.
cf: so the songs on this new album, how far did they date back or were they written fresh in that 2019 period?
we probably started in 2017 or 2018. I got a lot of encouragement from the guys who wound up co-writing all the songs on the whole album, where in 2017 or ’18, they just started sending me scraps of song ideas and we started trading ideas back and forth. and that’s what led to the 7-inch that came out before the record.
cf: did you email files back and forth? or is there some website where you can collaborate?
I did go over to norway—both the brothers, ole and jorn, they’re old friends of mine from the first time [ladybug] visited, going back to like 1999. we had always talked about doing some projects together. ole, the guitarist, had accompanied me for a little solo tour in norway and sweden and spain, when I wasn’t doing stuff with ladybug. but somehow, we didn’t write that much together. ¶ so we finally got around to doing it, and it was good to get a little bit of a push from them. they’d send me a rough draft—sometimes just a riff of a song or something that’s a little more fully formed—and then I’d start working on it and send it back. then I actually wound up going over to norway to record with the musicians that they put together, probably like four or five times over the process of it. so I did make it over there quite a bit, to work on all the basic tracking and all the things that kind of help to do in person and some arranging. and then from there we were able to send files back and forth to get it done.
cf: how do brooklyn and hayland differ?
well, in hayland, there’s no town. It’s maybe 90 minutes outside of oslo and it’s real farming, rural country. the closest supermarket is maybe 15 minutes away and there’s a little village that’s maybe half an hour away.
cf: that sounds like where I’m living in michigan.
ole and his brother, they’re real country boys. they grew up out there. ¶ the things that are similar, though, is we both have operated our little studios outside of our house, and in his case, out of the barn in his backyard. he manages to get a good sound out there and the barn looks awesome. They’re really easy. It’s a real family vibe when I’m out there. they’re always happy to have me stay for a week or however long it takes. so it’s almost become this nice tradition over the years of going out there and visiting them. when I was there a few summers ago, I stayed at a little cabin in their backyard and you could see the moose walking out of the forest at a certain hour, if you were lucky.
cf: that must have been really strange for you when the pandemic hit and then you weren’t doing these trips to norway.
yeah, I mean, thankfully, I was able to get over there a lot, and airfare to oslo is amazingly inexpensive. It’s as cheap as flying to california or to the west coast. we did have a lot of plans and we were going to try to tour as much as possible and take whatever opportunity came our way. so yeah, the timing couldn’t have been worse. the record came out in may 2020, and that was pretty much the peak of everything: of COVID, of social unrest, political unrest. it was a hard time to find the space for this little record.
cf: a lot of bands delayed their release dates, but you held fast to 2020. why?
my record label is in germany, and they were a bit more optimistic about things. the record was already manufactured, it was already going into distribution, and at that time, I think that no one thought we’d be in the same place nearly two years later. maybe it would just be a few months before everything got back to normal. so, it was a little bit of a gamble. I think the worst part of it is that many shops were closed for so long that it didn’t get into the stores at that crucial time. as far as browsing, I don’t think people really got to see it on the shelves very much.
cf: now that restrictions are starting to lift, do you think you’ll eventually do a tour?
yeah, I have plans that have been canceled twice already. [laughs] there’s a german tour that was supposed to happen in april that looks like it’s happening in november now, and then there’s some little festivals in norway that are coming in the summer, and I’ll probably do at least a few more shows around that. and I did do a show in new york last summer, in that little window right before delta hit.
cf: gosh, that’s right. was it an outdoor venue?
no, that was indoors. it was a little hectic. no one really knows how to act when you’re in an indoor setting. to have a beer, you have to pull your mask down for a second. especially at that time when things were really coming back strong. it was hard to get the etiquette down, at a show.
cf: totally. [ladybug bassist/violinist/vocalist] julia came and visited me when I was in new york for the yo la tengo hanukkah shows. and it was exactly like that: you’d pull your mask down to drink, and then, the music’s so loud, if you want to talk, you kind of have to get up in each other’s faces. yeah, it’s a strange time for a show.
yeah, I’m hoping we turn the corner now because I’d really love to get out there and play again. I only did that one show in new york, so I’m just hoping there’ll be more sometime this spring or summer.
cf: that would be so awesome. so, you came up with this very clever idea during the pandemic to deliver album purchases in the new york area via your bike! can you tell us about this brainstorm and what those bike rides were like?
well, I really wanted to get the record distributed in new york because all the stores were closed. so I had the label send me a big box of them, and then got the word out that I’d be willing to deliver anywhere within the five boroughs. I’m not normally much of a long-distance cyclist, but I thought it would be an interesting way to see … I lived in new york my whole life, but I saw so many new streets and parts of neighborhoods that I’d never seen before when I was getting all the way out to queens and into manhattan. and it was also really nice to see people, because at that time, a lot of people were just emerging from isolating for a couple of months. I met a lot of people who hadn’t seen their families and hadn’t really left their neighborhood even. after a couple of months of just more or less doing the same, it was that thaw of seeing people face-to-face and having a short conversation and checking in—sometimes a longer one, I’d sit outside and have a beer with people and it was really nice. I even made a couple of new friends along the way that I still hang out with.
cf: oh my goodness, that couldn’t be sweeter. so the new album, it definitely sounds kind of ladybuggy, but it also has maybe more of like a ’70s pop thing going on. and I was wondering, what were your influences in the making of this album?
I’m trying to think if there is anything in particular. I’m always bad when I’m put on the spot about influences, but it’s OK. I think it’s more about trying to get a natural sounding production, which has always been something that I go for. so it might sound like the ’70s. maybe that’s where I’m wandering around [laughs].
cf: I can’t remember the title of it, but there was one song in particular that reminded me of that bee gees song “massachusetts.”
oh yeah, which ladybug covered, oh, a good 20-odd years ago.
cf: it just kind of had that sort of hazy, melancholy kind of quality…
probably something with a lot of strings, I’d imagine, if it sounded like the bee gees.
cf: I don’t know if you still do this, but what cassettes do you currently have in your kitchen?
Let’s see. we had our kitchen painted, so there’s only a few dozen in there, but I do have a box that I stored here on this couch. let’s see what we’ve got: the bobby fuller four…
cf: oh, I’m not familiar with them.
you know, “I fought the law”?
cf: oh, yeah!
cf: do two more.
the shop assistants…
and oh yeah, gail might like this one: the cure’s standing on a beach and side two has all the b-sides and rarities from that time, so it’s a double play cassette. this one is actually what inspired me to do my own little cassette release. I did an edition of the album that’s 50 copies, and the b-side to the cassette is an instrumental version of the whole album, but I replaced the vocals with trumpet melody, so it’s almost like the easy listening version of the record, and that’s only available on the cassette itself. there’s no digital version of it, but maybe I should get around to putting something up.
cf: classic chickfactor question: what would be on your rider?
our classic one was, we’d always ask for chocolate, especially for san [fadyl] when he was with us, our drummer, and we’d always ask for candy, especially when we were touring in europe, because we just wound up with a lot of local or random stuff or some easter candy. whatever local junk food they had was always interesting.
cf: what was your first concert, as a youth?
[pause] do I have to say? [laughs] It’s so embarrassing. I could remember my first five, and the contrast is pretty wild. my first one was rush at nassau coliseum on long island, and I think my second was u2 on the unforgettable fire tour at radio city music hall with the waterboys. yeah. and the third was either like depeche mode and the smiths, around that same time.
cf: were they on the same bill?
no, but they both played. I went to a lot of shows at the beacon theater and they were both at the beacon. we got really lucky with the smiths tickets because my friend brian and I were waiting on line to buy tickets. you used to be able to get the best seats if you went to the venue the day they went on sale, because they always held the first five or six rows and you could only get those in the box office…
cf: wait, when you say “on line,” you mean like a physical queue?
yeah, yeah, yeah. these were paper tickets. this was 1985. [laughs] the whole culture of kids my age waiting in line for concert tickets, you know, it was a very social thing you could do. so, we went up to the beacon theater to wait on line to buy smiths tickets. and as we were getting closer and closer to the box office, there was this rumor making its way down the line that after the first show sold out, they’d start selling tickets for a second show. so we just hovered around the box office until they started selling tickets for the second show and we got second row center tickets.
cf: oh my god, that is so fortuitous. oh my god, so jealous. [laughs] so, I read that you are a gardener. and I have to ask, like, have you started anything yet? or like, what are you going to plant this year? or, what’s your favorite thing to plant right now?
It’s still a little too cold out to do any prep outside, but I think sometime in march or april, we’ll start turning over the soil in the backyard. we grow a lot of tomatoes, and cucumbers do well over here, and like a big variety of peppers. we make the most of our yard in the back. normally, we’ll have at least a dozen tomato plants back there.
cf: it must be really sunny?
we do what we can. we had to prune a couple of trees to get a little more sunlight back there, but yeah, that does keep us busy.
cf: my partner has a huge backyard. it’s like an acre big and he gardens, which is why when I read that you garden, I was like, “oh, I wonder what he grows?”
do you have any pests that come and eat your stuff? any deer or…?
cf: yes, but I’m not sure what it is [laughs]… we have deer here. we have wild turkeys and they’re huge and they run in, like, flocks.
yeah, they’re exciting when you see them. i see them in pennsylvania sometimes. there’s a grape arbor on the side porch here at the house, and normally you don’t get many pests or animals bothering anything in the back, but they love the grapes, the raccoons and possums. so, in the mornings, in the summer, in the fall, they’ll just come and sneak in in the middle of the night and have a party and the whole porch is just covered with grape skins and like the remains of whatever they’re eating.
cf: we have a black walnut tree, they kind of have like this tennis ball casing and then the actual nut is within it. and I think it’s raccoons, squirrels, or one of those guys, but they crack them open and they just leave all the shelling in the yard. we cleaned the yard at some point last year and had bags and bags of shells.
cf: well, I only have one more question for you, and it’s another classic chickfactor question: gary olson, what do you have in your fridge right now?
[pause] can I go look for you? taking a look really quickly. I just took a picture so I could look at it while I’m on the call with you and it’s like a crime scene. There’s way too much stuff, but let’s see. There are not too many things that are fresh because I’m about to go out of town for a week and I’ve been working for a while. but there are some blueberries, there’s miso, there’s kimchi. there’s a lot of cheese. I make kombucha, so there’s several bottles of kombucha. those are all the interesting things. There’s some beer, but sometimes I’ll have beer in the refrigerator for like two months. I just don’t go through it very quickly. CF