[2 September 2008]
There are bands out there whose existence seems to have been preordained. Orphans and Vandals is one of these. I was lucky enough to stumble into one of their shows in North London last spring, and I found myself mesmerized by their effortless poise and magnetic stage presence. Most of all, I was struck by the notion that this young band had hit upon an instantly classic sound. During the following weeks, I would delve into some of the band’s online offerings: songs like “Christopher” and “Strays”. The former track caught me off guard with its plaintive balladry, while the latter’s combination of groove and lyrical bite reaffirmed my belief that Orphans & Vandals is probably the most exciting thing to come out of the UK music scene since the release of The Decline of British Sea Power.
Shortly before I left London, I was able to watch the band again, this time at the Old Queen’s Head in Islington. Orphans and Vandals closed another breathtaking set with a seething rendition of anti-anthem “Metropes”, and afterwards I was able to chat with the band briefly about their origins and musical tastes.
The nucleus of the group is singer/songwriter/guitarist Al Joshua and bassist Raven. According to a press release, the two have been playing together ever since they assembled a more “scene-centric” unit around a year ago. A few months later they had reformed, establishing the band’s current line-up, which includes Gabi Woo (drums), Franchesca (strings), and Quinta (strings).
As far as tastes and influences go, however, things are much less cut-and-dry. When I asked Joshua and Raven whether they were familiar with bands like Pulp or Arcade Fire, they both just shrugged. “Never heard of them.” What I discovered later is that an ignorance of modern musical voices has contributed a great deal to the band’s signature sound. There are obvious and less obvious threads connecting their music with that of pop predecessors like Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, and others, but ultimately this is a band whose singular vision remains fairly unclouded by contemporary influence.
(Photo: Si Gross)
The music itself is wondrous: Joshua’s songs of disillusion and defiance spiraling wildly over Raven and Woo’s heartbeat rhythmic tandem. They’re primarily lyrically-driven pieces, but Orphans and Vandals’ vision also incorporates a wide sonic palette that includes violin, viola, musical saw, and harmonium. One can perhaps attribute this to Joshua’s admiration for American avant-garde composers Harry Partch and Steve Reich. Interestingly, these composers have employed the use of speech in musically unconventional capacities. When I interviewed Joshua via email, he wrote of his fascination with the spoken word, with the diverse creative possibilities of human voice.
Lyrically, however, Joshua is a decidedly literary songwriter, and if he’s intently focused on the delivery, then he’s equally keen on the substance of the words themselves. Following the dissolution of the band’s original line-up, Joshua embarked on a pilgrimage of sorts to Charville Messiers, birthplace of 19th Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. The trip, says Joshua, grew out of a desire to “disconnect from everything.”
The new band was conceived around this time, and the bulk of the material in their live set was written after this period. When I asked the singer what he finds so compelling in Rimbaud, he replied,
“I just feel a tremendous connection with him. There was no division for him between his work and his life, and there is a spiritual desperation to both, which remains constant his whole life through […] His vicious sense of humour, lack of sentimentality, and sexual candor all resonate with me. He adapted, deranged, and innovated forms and structures of poetry to fit what he had to say. Not the other way around. He was an imp of the perverse.”
In light of Joshua’s songs, the above could almost be read as a kind of mission statement. Songs like “Strays”, “Mysterious Skin”, and “Christopher” exude a raw sexual energy. There’s a deliberate confusion of gender boundaries that resembles Morrissey, minus most of the melodrama. On “Mysterious Skin” (the track most obviously haunted by Rimbaud), for instance, a sex scene seems to be rendered from the perspectives of both parties in a kind of neo-cubist fashion. Joshua’s got a keen ability to transport listeners—to paint vivid scenes with very few brushstrokes. Many of his most emotionally charged lyrics tend to concern external observations, and it’s with a real sense of lingering trauma that the narrator of “Christopher” sings, “I read they found a whale / Swimming in the Thames and stuck a harpoon in it’s tail / Well, they dragged it to the shore, Chris / And they cut that fucker up, Chris / And it made me so sad to see”.
Asked about the current of disenchantment that runs through his songs, Joshua is forthright. “Yes,” he says, “there is disenchantment and disillusion in our work, but those things are symptoms of a larger aim—which is dissent. If you feel you’re seeing the world through a glass darkly, you’ve got to smash the glass to see what’s really there. It’s like J.G. Ballard said—sometimes you’re putting up road signs that say ‘Dangerous Turns Ahead. SLOW DOWN!’ and sometimes you’re saying ‘Dangerous Turns Ahead. SPEED UP!’” The anxiousness of Joshua’s characters to “smash the glass” (to effectively progress from orphan to vandal) reflects the “spiritual desperation” the songwriter finds such a profound connection with in Rimbaud.
(Photo: Maxim Lachmann)
It’s important to note that desperation is different from desolation, however. In my review of the band’s “Terra Firma/Christopher” single, I called the music of Orphans and Vandals “romantic music—street music”, and I still feel strongly about the romantic inflections of their work. Much like Lou Reed (or, say, Tom Waits), Al Joshua tends to write about the underbelly of society. The world of his characters is prevailingly nocturnal, and, as previously mentioned, tinged with anxiety and disaffection. His protagonists are isolated figures, stranded at the bottom of seas or pining for rural homelands far away from the unrelenting hustle and bustle of the city. What’s endearing and emboldening about this particular brand of “street music” is that it can be so unflaggingly dedicated to probing the harsh realities of life, even as it sweeps you off your feet. In this sense, it’s romantic music.
They say that art imitates life. I’d add that it validates it too. What’s great about the artistry of Orphans and Vandals is that it feels like a refreshingly bold attempt to reawaken people, to remind people what it’s like to feel acutely, in case they’ve forgotten. Quite simply, theirs is music about people for people—people rushing in and out of buildings; people falling over drunk; people weeping into their morning coffees, or coughing over first cigarettes in the freezing streets. For them, detachment is never an end, and in their earnestness they achieve something that the irony of modern rock almost never can: genuine sympathy.
For Joshua, veering away from theatricality in music is an important step. While I don’t necessarily agree with him on all counts, his dedication to the idea of making no overt division between art and life is both admirable and a key to what’s so great about his songs. He objects to what he deems the personality projection and masquerading of many rock bands. “That’s theatrical,” he complains, “It’s accepted because it doesn’t deviate from accepted formulas. If you step outside of that, some people will always react against you and think you’re putting on an act. I don’t mind, though. I like to upset them.”
Orphans and Vandals will be recording their debut album this summer (planned for release in the fall), and with songs like “Strays”, “Metropes”, and “Mysterious Skin” in tow, it’s likely to be a hit with introspectives and groovemongers alike.