Funk, soul brother: Akie Bermiss talks about how he joined Lake Street Dive

Bermiss, left, performs with Lake Street Dive at Acadiana Center for the Arts on Jan. 24. photo by Shervin Lainez

Lake Street Dive, the Brooklyn-based quintet that’s breaking down the barriers of genres of pop and Americana music, is constantly touring. “I feel like we’re a force of nature,” pianist/keyboardist/singer Akie Bermiss says. “We take short breaks throughout the year, but we’re always on tour in some respects.” Bermiss is the latest addition to the band, which released its sixth studio album, Free Yourself Up, in May 2018. A longtime fan of Lake Street Dive, Bermiss was called to go on tour with the group in February 2017. Before this week’s show at Acadiana Center for the Arts, Bermiss talked with me about his experience with the band so far in an interview. The discussion below includes answers and sections that have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Matt Sigur: How’s the tour going, so far?

AB: You know, we’re in Macon, Ga., today. Doing all right. The tour’s going great. It’s nice to escape the Northeast, come out here and play some stuff down South.

I feel like Lake Street Dive is always on tour. When is the band not on tour?

(Laughs) I feel like we’re like a force of nature. The band is always on tour in some respects. We’re pretty frequently on the road. We take short breaks throughout the year.

You becoming a band member — how did it happen? Did you audition, did they reach out to you?

Five or six years before I joined, (my band was) doing shows for Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. I think Lake Street Dive was booked, and Rockwood was looking for a good opener. Rockwood asked if we would open for Lake Street Dive, and I, of course, said yes. We met that night. We played, and they enjoyed what they heard from us. We built a rapport. Then, I went to see Rachael, Bridget, Mike and McDuck (Mike Olson) on these other gigs I’d play. Eventually, they just called me and said, “Would you like to get on the bus?”

And you said, “Of course, thank you.”

(Laughs) I said, “I’ll happily get on the bus. Where is it?” And the rest is history.

In doing some research, you have this solo career, and you’ve been doing so much with that. As a musician, these days, is the touring gig what you were looking for or did you want to be a studio musician?

I started out as an accompanist. It took awhile for me to start singing and playing my own stuff. I’m kind of open to the full range of experiences you can have as a musician.

Part of what I like playing with Lake Street Dive is that you have to call on basically every skill and talent that you have to hang with this band. They’re all great singers, songwriters and arrangers. Every ounce of experience as sideman or solo artist goes into performing with this band, to perform at the level they’re at.

And you’re all music conservatory school kids, too. Is there a competitive aspect between each member? You’re all music school nerds and you can play something they can’t?

I don’t know if music school nerds are ever 100 percent competitive. (Laughs) There’s an element of joyful competition there. But, I really feel that everyone is at such a high level that it’s a collaborative process. The competition is to stay musically fit enough to be part of it.

Is there ever a day where another band member brings something in, and you’re like, “I don’t know if I can play that?” Have you been tested that much?

My first couple tours with them were a challenge. In the beginning, I was unsure if I could learn all these songs. Then, it becomes, “Can I find a place to fit in this space?” It was about not knowing enough of their live stuff to know where the piano would go. I had listened to all their records, but finding a place to do a stuff, and then there would be lines and harmonies to sing.

That wasn’t quite an overload, but it was an immense challenge to be performing with them, not making mistakes. They’ve been together 14 years, cranking through their tunes, and I’m kind of trying to make it look like I’m not sweating up there.

How much time did you have from that call where they ask you to join to the first show?

I think I got the first contact in December, and then I went out in February. Maybe two months. It was definitely baptism by fire.

Part of that initial call was, “We’re in Europe right now, and we want you to join the band in February. But we’re going to be in Mexico, and we’re getting on the bus in Boston. We don’t have time to practice, just learn these 27 songs and be ready to play the next day.”

Besides seeing them, was there anything stylistically/musically that drew you to the band?

I was a fan of their music for quite some time. I remember before they broke as a big band they would play in Rockwood, and I would be playing the other room. I had friends who were like, “You gotta check out my friends’ band from Boston.” So I would check them out, and they were just incredible to begin with. I was a fan for a long time before we met. It was a show I would see whenever I had the opportunity.

There’s also a great challenge in coming to a band that’s never had (keyboards, organs, pianos) as a working, touring part of the group. At the same time, the pressure of the body of work and talent creates the need to be at the top of your game without a rehearsal and practice. To be the best you can be. To me, that challenge was thrilling. If it wasn’t, I would have been the wrong person for the job.

I was reading about how you describe yourself as a music geek, and I want to know what you’re listening to now.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Randy Newman actually these last couple of months. When I was learning piano, I would listen to Allen Toussaint to get that sort of like groovy, rhythmic but also soulful piano thing happening. To me, that’s the top level of what a piano can do in terms of making people dance. There is that New Orleans influence there. I listened to a lot of Dr. John. I was a big Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway fan, too. Classic soul and R&B definitely influenced how I approach a tune.

I saw that Lake Street Dive’s latest single, “Good Kisser,” is on the Americana charts, and to me, that doesn’t compute. This song — Americana? I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on that and how today’s music seems genre-less.

I think it’s sort of liberating to be in a place like this. It’s harder to distinguish yourself when it’s like, “This is specifically what I do, and I’m the best at it,” like “I do boogie-woogie piano and I’m the top of my class.” There’s something beautiful about how it is now. It’s like the Wild West and you roll into town and now you’re the sheriff. If people agree you’re the sheriff, you can do that.

That’s how I feel about genres with Lake Street Dive. We put out a song that has elements of Americana perhaps in instrumentation, elements of The Beatles and rock, pop and soul. If people get in the town of Americana, and they say, “You guys are the new deputy here.” It’s like, “OK, we’ll take on that mantle for as long as we can do that.”

Everyone who describes the sound of Lake Street Dive has to come up with a melange of various genres. You have to hear the band to get people to circle close to what the band is like. Then they’re like, “Of course, you’re right. It’s all those things you had said. It’s everything.”

Are you collaborating with the band now?

It’s funny because I also didn’t understand what their songwriting technique was when I first joined, but it’s kind of they all write. When they were doing Free Yourself Up is when I joined up and started playing with them, and they were doing a lot of co-writing. A lot of various people writing on various things. Very organically, I was folded into the Lake Street Dive sound. I didn’t do any official writing. I was just there in the studio. They were self-producing so it was this organic thing where I’d be like, “Should I play this keyboard?” They’d be like, “Nah, that’s the thing to play.” In the future, I think the plan is to have me around, co-writing. We’ll see what happens.

You can present them a song and say, “This is it.”

Yeah (laughs), “Guys, I’ve written a new No. 1 hit. We can all relax.”

Do you have a preference of recording or playing live?

It depends on your mood. It’s one of those grass is greener situations. I think if you’ve been in the studio for a while like when we were doing this last record, you can’t wait to get out there and play these songs for people. And once you’re out on the road, you’re playing these songs and that leads to more inspiration and you want to do more recording.

It’s a nice vicious cycle of wanting to record then wanting to perform. It never ends. Hopefully that is the fuel that keeps us, as you said, on the road all the time.

Have you been to Louisiana before? Lafayette?

I have been to Louisiana with other bands touring. We’ve been to New Orleans twice in the two years I’ve been with Lake Street Dive. We haven’t been to Lafayette; I’m looking forward to that.

What did you think of New Orleans?

I like New Orleans. It’s nice to go to a city that’s just completely its it own thing. You can’t say New Orleans is just like Cincinatti. It’s its own animal. It’s all very original. I went there when I was 17 just to hang out. Just hearing music in the street, eating red beans and rice and getting the whole feeling of the city.

Lake Street Dive performs at Acadiana Center for the Arts on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and show details are available via AcA here. 

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