Lemon Bucket Orkestra launches into a new musical narrative with album If I Had The Strength

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra. Photo: Carlos Garat

There is nothing quite like the energy of the Toronto-based Lemon Bucket Orkestra. The ensemble is set to launch a brand new CD in Ottawa on Nov. 1 at École secondaire publique De La Salle. Before the party, trumpeter/flugelhorn player, Michael Louis Johnson, answered questions from ARTSFILE about the new album and the ensemble which is self-described as a balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band. 

Q. Tell me a bit about the music that will be unveiled in the CD If I Had The Strength?

A. On our previous releases, we picked a bunch of our favourite tunes and assembled them in an order that sounded good. Since the success of our guerrilla folk opera, Counting Sheep, we are building a reputation around the world as more than a party band, instead as artists dealing with issues around protest, war and conflict. So we wanted to make an album with a shape to it, and a bit of a narrative. It’s still a mix of songs from around Eastern Europe, but we’ve strung them together with lyrics from a famous Russian prison ballad, tying in the journey of a young man returning home from prison, (or in this case, from war). It’s still a party at times, but if you choose to read the translations, you’ll see it goes a bit deeper.

As always, we’ve taken traditional repertoire and arranged it in our LBO manner, mashing up tunes in various ways.  For example the track we’ve titled Freedom, is a Serbian trubaci tune, (brass band tune) with Russian lyrics from the prison ballad, then a middle trap section with a wailing Ukrainian blues.  

Q. What are you saying with the title?  

A. If I had the strength, I would … what? Fight, change, love you better, help out in a greater way, run into the streets screaming for Peace.

Q. Where did you record it.?

A. It was mostly recorded live off the floor at Canterbury Sound in Toronto, then a few of the solos or melody lines were overdubbed in Dave Plowman‘s studio. 

Q. LBO is the size of a chamber orchestra. Tell me about the personnel? What is the mix of musical backgrounds?

A. Some highly schooled jazz musicians, some street players with zero formal training and everything in between, some have travelled the globe studying with masters of their instrument.  Many of us lead our own bands in other genres; funk/soul, klezmer, swing, electro blues.  It’s all there. 

Q. How do you maintain the continuity of LBO?

A. That’s been a tough one. We’ve lost great players in the past as the LBO schedule gets too overwhelming to keep their other projects going. We try to shape things in a way that everyone has their creative spirit represented, and invited in LBO, and on the flip side, we support each other and encourage our side projects. LBO can open a lot of doors; we try, when possible, to hold those doors open so our other projects can come along on the ride.  

Q. The idea of merging so many musical traditions is an interesting phenomenon of our times.  Is this something your group relishes?  

A. For us it’s really all about the celebration of humanity. There are so many thriving cultures. Music in many places is true community, instead of just commodity. It has passion and life that crosses age and income demographics and genres. Yah, we relish that. 

Q. Are there new musical frontiers you are exploring?

A. We’ll see.

Q. There is a theatrical sensibility to LBO. Was that there from the beginning?

A. Really it comes with experience. We’ve been a group for more than seven years, and have played from street corners to stages of every size. It’s about engaging the audience, not just performing the notes accurately. We don’t do any ‘role playing’ or that kind of ‘theatricality.’ Really it’s just us having so much fun interacting with our crowd, while respecting the music of each moment. 

Q. Tell me about your production Counting Sheep? That seems to have been well received overseas and at home.

A. Yes, it’s been very exciting. It’s an immersive piece where audience members are at a dinner that becomes a protest then becomes a war. I think it’s success is due to the fact that it’s not just about the revolution and the conflict in Ukraine. There are facts that inform you, but really it’s about the power of community. It’s something you experience first hand, eating together, dancing together and when the time comes, if you so choose, fighting together.  

Q. Ukrainian music seems central to LBO. What is the connection there?

A. We play Ukrainian events, Serbian events, Klezmer events, Romani events. Marichka, one of our singers, is from Ukraine. Four and a half of us have Ukrainian blood, the other seven and a half not. Some of us grew up with the food and the music at Christmas and Easter, some went to Ukrainian school and still speak the language, so there is a connection. Others, we just love the music. 

Q. LBO seems to be really interested in building community through various outreach projects. Why?

A. Because that’s what being in a community is about. Sharing music is about community.

Q. What’s next on the LBO agenda? 

A. The release tour is nine shows in 11 days around southern Ontario (and Montreal)  Then Counting Sheep will take up a large chunk of the next year with a production at 3-Legged Dog in NYC, then shows at Berkeley and Stanford in California. Then we are touring New Zealand.  There will be a bit of down time in January as Mark and Marichka (Marczyk) are having a baby.

Q. Anything else on the go?

A. We’ve made our first official music video, (after seven years being a band) for the song Freedom, Mark and I came up with the concept and I got to direct it. you can check out the video here: youtube.com. See you on the 1st.  

Lemon Bucket Orkestra 
Where: Ecole secondaire publique De La Salle, 501 Old St. Patrick St.
When: Nov. 1 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: chamberfest.com

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.