Posted March 7, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale: Ringleader or cruise director

Pink Martini and the von Trapps
Pink Martini and the von Trapps

Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale originally thought he’d run for mayor. But when that didn’t happen, he formed the “little orchestra” Pink Martini. Playing an exotic mix of world beat and pop, the band has a singular sound that’s turned it into an international sensation. Its new album Dream a Little Dream features Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August von Trapp, the actual great-grandchildren of Captain and Maria von Trapp. August even wrote several of the tracks on it. Guest vocalists Wayne Newton, Jack Hanna, The Chieftains and Charmian Carr (Liesl in the original film version of The Sound of Music) also make appearances. We spoke to Lauderdale via phone from his home in Portland, Oregon.

You played a few shows in January. How’d the shows go?
We were in Southern California and Arizona. It was just a two-week tour. We have a never-ending touring schedule. We have a month on and a month off.

Have you performed with the von Trapps yet?
Yeah. We’ve performed off and on. They’re fantastic. I can’t wait to go on the road with them. We did some road stuff with them earlier this year, but this is a full-fledged tour, which I’m very excited about.

I’ve read a bit about how the band formed but talk about what it was that made you think this “little orchestra” had a chance at success.
I didn’t think of it as succeeding. The band was formed to play at political fundraisers in Portland. It never occurred to me that we could travel and tour. It seemed like an unlikely, preposterous concept given the number of musicians and the type of music we play. It’s not the direction of most pop music. It didn’t seem very viable. It was somewhere between The Muppet Show and Lawrence Welk. We started out and suddenly had a career in Europe before we had one in the states. We spent a lot of time in France and started doing things with different orchestras.

You released your first album independently and yet it became an international success. How exactly did that happen?
I don’t know. [With Sympathique] I made the kind of album I wanted to listen to myself. We released it, and it just took off. Somehow it caught on. I took the band to the Cannes International Film Festival and we signed a deal with a French label. I never imagined we’d have a career. I thought I would become mayor. Now I realize the folly of those ways.

It wouldn’t much fun to be mayor. It’s much more fabulous to be traveling the world and getting applause rather than facing angry constituents.  

How’d you end up embracing such a wide range of music?
My parents were from the earnest side of the ’60s.  I grew up listening to six things: Ray Conniff, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, The New Christy Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. That was my childhood. My father was a minister at some point. I heard gloom-and-doom hymns and I studied classical. It was a combination of all those things. I also grew up in an ethnically diverse family. My parents were white. My mother is from Greenville, Ohio and my father is from Los Angeles, but they adopted a rainbow tribe of children. I have an Iranian brother and an African-American brother. There was this idea of multiculturalism that existed in my family. I used to speak different languages while growing up. I was exposed to foreign films, from Fellini to Pedro Almodóvar. It made sense to do songs in different languages.

You’ve played with more than 50 orchestras. What stands out as one of your favorite orchestral concerts?
The Cleveland Orchestra is the best orchestra we played with.

What about the artists you’ve collaborated with over the years? Which ones stand out?
We usually collaborate with people who are over 70 or 80—Phyllis Diller or Carol Channing or Jane Powell. The von Trapps is the most recent. August is 19 and the oldest is 25, so it’s not the usual age group. They’re totally fantastic, magical people.

Talk a bit more about the collaboration. How did it come about?
I met them at the Christmas tree lighting.  I was coordinating the concert and I’m also on the board for the Oregon Symphony. The symphony called up and asked if I minded if they joined me on stage. I loved them and flipped out. They were home-schooled in Montana and never watched TV growing up. They were taught Austrian folk songs by their grandfather, who’s portrayed as “Kurt the Incorrigible” in the film. It was like walking onto the set of Sound of Music but they’re not actors. Because they didn’t watch TV while growing up, they have this incredible amount of focus and incredible ability to concentrate and learn. It unfolded so beautifully. It was a fun album to work on. You can tell by the sound of it. It was like working on a first album in a way. It’s their first real album. They’re crossing over from being the Sound of Music kids to being something else that is deeper and more meaningful and more viable. They have this past and history which is beloved for people who are 30 years or older. All of us watched it on TV while we were growing up. They’re becoming their own selves and August is writing songs. He wrote three original songs on this album. They’re developing as artists. This album was an effort to help with that transition. I feel like they can do anything they want to do.

How’d they end up in Portland?
I tricked them into moving. It’s a lovely place to live, especially if you have a project. If you don’t have a project, it can be a bit gloomy.

How’d you end up working with Wayne Newton?
He’s a friend of theirs. At the top of the whole recording thing, I asked them who they would most like to collaborate with. Wayne was a neighbor of theirs in Montana. Both he and Jack Hanna, who is based in Ohio, make appearances on “The Lonely Goatherd.” I wish we had more goats in that song. At least we have Wayne and Jack.

Will you collaborate again?
It’s up to them. I’m sure we’ll do some stuff in the future. I’m sure they want to explore things that are beyond Pink Martini. They’re not owned by anybody. They don’t have a manager and it’s wide open. We’re releasing the album on Heinz Records and splitting the profits. It’s set up perfectly so they can do whatever.

Has your role with the group changed over the years?
I’m the reluctant band leader and I write songs occasionally. I’m like the ringleader or almost like the cruise director. It’s become more like that recently now that we have two singers and I can make the show that I always wanted to make. It’s like a variety show meets Laugh-In.

Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates

February 28

March 1

March 2

March 4

March 5

March 6

March 7

March 8

March 9

March 11

March 14

March 15

March 16

March 21

March 22

March 23

March 25

March 26

March 27

March 29

March 30

March 21

April 11-13

Lexington, KY – Singleton Center for the Arts

Indianapolis, IN – Murat Theatre at Old National Centre

Atlanta, GA – Atlanta Symphony Hall

Milwaukee, WI – The Pabst Theater

St. Paul, MN – Fitzgerald Theater

Madison, WI – Capitol Theater

Chicago, IL – Symphony Center

Cedar Rapids, IA – Paramount Theatre

Davenport, IA  – Adler Theatre

Kalamazoo, MI – Miller Auditorium

Goshen, IN – Goshen College

Cleveland, OH – Masonic Auditorium

Athens, OH – Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium

Jacksonville, FL – Florida Theatre Jacksonville

Key Largo, FL – Ocean Reef Cultural Center

Tampa, FL – Ferguson Hall

West Palm Beach, FL – Kravis Center

Miami, FL – Knight Concert Hall–Adrienne Arsht PAC

New Orleans, LA – Civic Theatre

Oklahoma City, OK – Civic Center Music Hall

Austin, TX – Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater

Dallas, TX – AT&T Performing Arts Center

Portland, OR – Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].