The Orwells Convert Animosity Into Musical Fuel
The Orwells: "From handing out CDs in the hallway in high school to playing a show in a different European country every day -- that’s insane to think about."
The Orwells are the latest in a long line of Chicago-area bands who felt like outsiders in its hometown music scene. They’re the guys who didn’t play it humble, wait their turn or make a big deal about paying dues. They played with attitude, didn’t take themselves too seriously, liked to cause a ruckus on stage and wrote catchy, hard-hitting songs about the usual topics that obsess teenage boys.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why the quintet, which has been playing together since they met eight years ago at York High School in Elmhurst, named their latest album “Terrible Human Beings” (Canvasback/Atlantic). If a band is going to acknowledge its less-than-favorable reputations in certain quarters, it might as well do it loudly and explicitly.
“We have that reputation around the band, around the people we grew up with, so we own it,” guitarist Matt O’Keefe says. “The things we’ve gotten ourselves into over the years — we are the suburban kids who came in cocky and went downtown, and we’d get a little bit of that ‘you’re not from here, dude.’ In a weird way, it motivates us and you become more of a group. You face opposition, and it pushes you to write better songs, to fight back harder. In rock ‘n’ roll, it’s good to have something to push back against.”
If a rock band isn’t ticking someone off, it’s probably doing something wrong. But on “Terrible Human Beings,” the band’s third album, there’s something more going on. It pushes beyond the low-fi basement rock of the self-produced 2012 debut album, “Remember When,” and the more polished 2014 major-label initiation, “Disgraceland,” which produced the minor hit “Who Needs You.” Its release was preceded by a jaw-dropping nationally televised performance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” with singer Mario Cuomo writhing on stage while the bemused host looked on.
On the previous album, “We were trying to play caricatures of what we are: suburbanites driving around drinking beer in dad’s car,” O’Keefe says. “But we wanted to evolve. ... There are still parts of what people liked about us as this suburban high school band, but musically and lyrically what I’m most proud of are the songs that push us out of that.”
With a nudge from producer Jim Abbiss, the band takes a more expansive musical approach, stretching out on the long instrumental coda to “Double Feature” and in the ambient interlude “Body Reprise,” while the lyrics address the difficult passage into adulthood from a more nuanced and skeptical perspective in tracks such as “Creatures,” “Hippie Soldier” and “Heavy Head.”
O’Keefe and fellow guitarist Dominic Corso met in middle school and shared a mutual affinity for bands such as the Velvet Underground that were largely unknown to their peers. The next year they met the band’s future rhythm section, brothers Henry and Grant Brinner. Then Corso’s cousin, Cuomo, completed the band as its vocalist and most flamboyant personality.
“He was a year older and he was the dude who was always in the school suspension room, which freaked me out,” O’Keefe says with a laugh. “He’s a total character, a funny dude. He seems kind of vicious on the outside, but he’s a great guy.”
The Brinner brothers didn’t always see eye to eye either. “When they’re on stage they connect in a way their personalities really don’t,” the guitarist says. “They both won’t back down — one needs to get the last word or the last punch. They’re like bulls going at it.”
Yet a passion for music gave everyone a mutual goal. They appropriated a better-known band’s name in high school for their first gig at a garage in Elmhurst.
“We wanted people to come to our show, so we put their name on the flier,” O’Keefe says. “People came out to see the wrong band, but they showed up.”
A short time later, the older band broke up, and the newly minted Orwells focused on writing a song a week. The individual members would each put together a demo during the school week, then they’d meet every Friday to pick the best one and build up an arrangement.
After graduating from high school, the band members skipped college to focus on taking the band as far as it could go. A major-label deal ensued and they worked with three high-profile producers — Abbiss, Dave Sitek and Chris Coady — in cobbling together “Disgraceland.”
“Going through that experience with the first one on a major, we were still teenagers at the time and we had expectations of what it would do for our band that were kind of premature,” O’Keefe says. “Now we have a better understanding of how it works, and it becomes harder to be influenced or molded by other personalities or opinions.”
But they did take to heart one piece of advice given to them by Sitek while working on the previous album. “He said something we applied to this record,” O’Keefe says. “He said, ‘Bands like to ask themselves what can we add with all these new instruments, but it’s more powerful to say, what can we take away?’”
In the same way, the band has dedicated itself to delivering a more focused live show. Whereas in the past the emphasis might’ve been on the band’s antics and spontaneity, “we don’t want it always to be about what we’re doing physically on stage, but more about the lyrics or a guitar part.”
With a certain degree of maturity has come an appreciation for how far they’ve come: a major-label deal, TV appearances and multiple European tours. “You fall into this groove that wherever you are in the world, there are a bunch of people coming out and singing your songs,” O’Keefe says. “From handing out CDs in the hallway in high school to playing a show in a different European country every day — that’s insane to think about.”