"People often assume that since I'm the singer, I'm writing the majority [of] everything," Olson says. "but it is a lot more of a collaboration between all of us. I really love when people give me sketches or threads of ideas. I'm able to give it direction and shape it and write lyrics and melody over that."
Pittsburgher Jennifer Baron, along with her brother Jeff, played on the band's highly regarded albums The Albemarle Sound and Argyle Heir. She agrees with Olson's assessment of the band's dynamic.
"It was really a nice give and take, and really democratic," she says. "Jeff, Sasha [Bell, the keyboardist], Gary and I would write songs. So we would bring song ideas, finished ideas or song parts to practice."
Clutching Stems, the band's newest album, is its first in four years, and the first since the sudden death of drummer San Fadyl. That tragedy may have factored into the album's creation, but what's most significant is that The Ladybug Transistor is entering a new phase with its distinct, orchestrated pop.
The creative process of the band's early days can be traced to a house known affectionately as Marlborough Farms, in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood, with a 16-track recording studio in the basement. By the time The Ladybug Transistor recorded sophomore album Beverley Atonale in 1997, Olson, the Barons and original drummer Ed Powers all lived there. (An earlier lineup recorded the band's debut, named after the house.)
"It was this neighborhood that no one quite believed existed in New York," Baron remembers. "It's all residential, so it's kind of removed from what people think of -- the insanity of New York and the trendy hipsterness. We really drew inspiration from that sense of place."
Beverley Atonale and The Albermarle Sound were slow and dreamy at times, with layers of vintage organs, guitars and strings weaving in and out of compositions that have drawn comparisons to Burt Bacharach and the Beach Boys. Olson admits that a lot of classic '60s pop inspired them. "We really loved Glen Campbell and the first John Phillips record," he says, referring the former Papa's solo album, John the Wolf King of L.A. "And of course we really liked the Beach Boys. It made an impression on those records."
With their own studio available at all times, the band members were able to take their time and map out arrangements for songs, having friends write out parts for string players when verbal cues weren't enough. "We didn't just orchestrate the [songs] or add instruments. It was, ‘How many bars for this melody?'" Baron says. "We'd save instrumental versions, and do a lotta different mixes."
Signed in 1997 to long-standing indie label Merge Records, the band's reputation began to grow due to heavy touring both in this country and in Europe. One of its more significant performances came in 1999, when Belle & Sebastian asked The Ladybug Transistor to play a festival in England called Bowlie Weekender. Spread over three nights, it featured the Scottish hosts and numerous others, and became the inspiration for the annual All Tomorrow's Parties festival. "We met a lot of people at that festival who really helped us later on," Olson says. "It led to us playing other places in Europe that year. I still keep in touch and see a lot of those people regularly."
Jennifer Baron played on one more album, leaving when Pittsburgh installation-art museum The Mattress Factory offered her a position. Jeff Baron continued on for two more, also playing with bandmate Sasha Bell (who joined on The Albermarle Sound) in another band, The Essex Green.
A few weeks before The Ladybug Transistor released Can't Wait Another Day in 2007, San Fadyl, who had joined on the third album, died suddenly from an asthma attack. His passing affected the band emotionally and musically.
"We threw ourselves into things right after it happened," Olson says. "And we actually did quite a bit of touring. I think it might've been some sort of therapy. It just took a while to step back and process what happened and find a path for the new stuff."
It took the band four years to release something new, but Clutching Stems sounds energized. Upbeat tempos set the scene for arrangements that at times have a 12-string guitar engaged in a call-and-response with an oboe and clarinet, or trumpets playing over more of those Bacharachian chords.
"In the past we've been accused of being overly pastoral in the writing and the sound. I would have more songs about oceans and trees and parks," Olson laughs. "I think I've finally gotten away from that. I'm trying to write more about people."
Olson, who still lives and records in the Marlborough Farms house, hopes the Pittsburgh performance will incorporate the Barons, joining the group for a mini-set of songs from their tenure in the band.
"Or maybe we'll do a cover of ‘Lightning Strikes,' a Pittsburgh original," he says referring to Lou Christie's hit, with its falsetto chorus. "I don't have the range. We might have to do a baritone version of it."
ANDY WARHOL MUSEUM'S SOUND SERIES AT THE SCULPTURE COURT. Feat. The Ladybug Transistor, Joy Tujours and the Toys du Jour Thu., July 7; Bill Callahan and Hidden Ritual Fri., July 8. Carnegie Museum of Art Sculpture Court, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $12-15 per show; $25 for two-day pass. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org