The Orwells: Life After Letterman

Music Features The Orwells
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Members: Mario Cuomo, Matt O’Keefe, Dominic Corso, Henry Brinner, Grant Brinner
Hometown: Elmhurst, Illinois
Current Release: Disgraceland (2014)
For Fans Of: Black Lips, Parquet Courts, Ty Segall

David Letterman is excited. “Yeah! Come on! Finally! Now we’re getting somewhere! Oh, that was wonderful! What do you say? A little more?” the late-night legend exclaims as he shakes hands with up-and-coming Chicago band The Orwells after their late-night television debut in January.

With more than three decades in the television business, you’d think Letterman had seen it all. What could this rising band from the suburbs of Chicago have done to elicit such a response?

The night went something like this: The Orwells spent four minutes tearing through their breakout hit, “Who Needs You,” from their 2014 album Disgraceland. Opening with a driving drumbeat from Henry Brinner, guitarists Matt O’Keefe, Dominic Corso and bassist Grant Brinner followed suit for a rowdy, awe-inspiring performance. Frontman Mario Cuomo, who resembles Thor’s bohemian younger brother, delivered a visceral vocal performance, glancing out at the audience and cameras though an unkempt mane of golden locks as he swayed in his mismatched sneakers and leopard print socks. Couple that with an impromptu writhing routine on the set floor, and you’ve got a show that had Letterman begging for more. Paul Shaffer was imitating the whole thing moments later.

Six months later, The Orwells are taking a break in Chicago, recovering from months on the road opening for bands like Arctic Monkeys and FIDLAR. Their aforementioned, encore-evoking performance from the Late Show could be considered the catalyst for the band’s recent success. Late-night TV, after all, still has a funny way of doing that. A statistically dying medium, it can either (briefly) ruin your reputation (look at Lana Del Rey in 2012), or it can be the stepping stone that leads to nationwide tours. The Orwells are obviously the latter, and guitarist Matt O’Keefe details the Illinois five-piece uniting in their adolescence and how this small group of friends evolved into The Orwells we know today.

“In middle school, me, Dominic [Corso], Henry [Brinner] and Grant [Brinner] were in a band. Then when we got to high school, that band called it quits and we weren’t really doing anything,” O’Keefe tells me over the phone. Even at such a young age, O’Keefe and co. felt the need to satisfy their creative appetites through music. He and the rest of the soon-to-be Orwells began the search for a new lead singer.

“We were looking around for a lead singer and Dominic’s cousin, who is Mario [Cuomo], he kind of sang. [Cuomo] wasn’t really a good singer, he was just kind of like a good friend at that time. So, we were like, ‘Let’s try him out and see what he can do.’ [Cuomo] came over to my house freshman year of high school and we recorded a cover of “Barely Legal” by The Strokes. That was the first thing that we [The Orwells] ever did. Then we thought, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it. Let’s go with this guy.’ And we were just all on board.”

Not even legal themselves, the band began a stint of at-home recording sessions during their high school days, covering bands like The Strokes, while building a catalog of their own material. Soon, the newly formed Orwells had enough songs to translate into a handful of EPs, and eventually, their debut album Remember When. After completing their first full-length record and filming a music video for their single “Mallrats,” The Orwells did what many hopeful new bands do nowadays—they began the process of sending out their music to every publication, blog, label and outlet they could find until someone finally noticed.

“For ‘Mallrats,’ we shot a music video and we were just emailing it to blogs,” O’Keefe says. “We sent it to Aquarium Drunkard, the guys who [also] run Autumn Tone, and they replied basically saying, ‘Hey, do you want to put out the record with us?’ That’s our story. [We] got discovered through email. Super exciting [laughs].”

Although O’Keefe laughs at the thought of getting his big break through an email chain, it ultimately led to a partnership with Aquarium Drunkard and the creation of their sophomore LP, Disgraceland. Having only ever recorded songs in their makeshift basement studio, The Orwells ventured into uncharted territory and began recording their new album in a more traditional fashion—a process that took longer than six months, four studios and three producers to complete.

“This was the first time we worked with any producers really,” O’Keefe reveals. “We recorded in four studios with three producers over a span of almost half a year. It was a long experience. We would break a lot, you know, go on the road, and then go back into the studio with somebody else. We recorded in London, Chicago, Woodstock (New York) and Los Angeles. Three different [producers]. It was a much different experience than what we were used to, which was just [recording] in my basement. Before, we would finish the song in three hours you know, half-ass it. If you messed up a little, who cares? But when you’re in the studio with a producer, you kind of have to do your take like 10 times. It was much more tedious than what we were used to, but at the same time, the quality of the recordings turned out much better.”

That last sentiment is something to which The Orwells are still adjusting. Take the Letterman show for example—The Orwells could have begrudgingly given an encore performance of Who Needs You, but in O’Keefe’s eyes, the band had already given their best performance in one take. That’s how The Orwells have always done things. Play it the way you would want it to sound if you only had one shot to do it—8 Mile style. While their debut album can at times sound like a collection of melodic madness, Disgraceland offers a blend of cleaner chaos to the gnarly music of The Orwells. However, with three different producers in four different studios, the band faced a new struggle: keeping a unified sound throughout the record.

“You tell producers what you want and they would put their little twist on it. For the most part, there is a flow between all of them that you can relate back, but you could probably pick out which songs were recorded by which producers,” O’Keefe says.

“They all had qualities about them that other people lacked. That went for everybody we worked with. You know, Chris Coady, who we worked with most of the time was a little more technical, but [he] kind of left it up to us. Or Dave Sitek (of TV On The Radio who produced the title track to the Orwells Other Voices EP), was a really confident dude, and he had his own ideas. And a dude like Jim Abiss, who would just let us fuck around. That was probably the most fun I had while I was recording was when we were with Jim. Just like everything that he had. Any pedal, any kind of instrument, it was like, ‘Lets just see if we can get it on there.’ Then we’d go for it and that’s where we got all these fucked up sounds [on the record] that are just unique in our own way.”

Unique sounds are something that the Orwells covet and crave. Forget a slight inconsistency between recordings. The band’s real fears lie much deeper. This is a band that is carving its own path through the muddled realm of garage rock. A genre where, if you’re not careful, you can be sucked into a vacuum of self-satisfaction and complacency. Something that O’Keefe and his bandmates equally dread.

“I think about it all the time. Especially going in to write our next record. People always say, ‘Don’t set rules for yourself on what you want to do with your music.’ I think once you do that, you kind of unknowingly fall into that kind of vacuum of, ‘Well here’s the stereotype of what my music should sound like,’ and you just start making that. I always think as a rule, you have to be like, ‘Okay, I did this a lot on the last record.’ Or ‘Here was the structure to the songs.’ You think about the structure and the instruments that you used, and if you think about the next one [record], you can write it how you would normally write it. But, you almost have to make rules like, ‘There needs to be an organ on every song and it has to be a lead,’ or, ‘There has to be a sax on every song.’ That’s how you can stay out of that little vacuum, by setting these rules for what you can’t do, rather than what you can do.”

In addition to the rules they set for themselves, The Orwells sometimes find themselves being told what they can or can’t do out of the studio.

“It’s less from the people who work with us, because they’ve met us like a thousand times and they know our personalities,” O’Keefe says. “But especially at a venue, you’ll ask somebody something, or complain about something, like to the sound guy, ‘This sounds like shit,’ and then he’ll be like, ‘Well fuck you, you’re 19. What do you know?’ You can get that anywhere though, that’s just how it is when you’re dealing with people older than you. If I was the sound guy and some 13-year-old was telling me my shit sucked, I’d be like, ‘Fuck you dude, you’re 13.’”

Despite the occasional opposition from the older generation of industry egomaniacs, they’re still plowing ahead at full speed. O’Keefe says there’s another record coming from the band, and we should all be just as excited for it as he is.

“We’re starting to write. It’s kind of getting to the phase now where we’re recording demos with the full band and stuff. There’s definitely something in the works as of now,” O’Keefe says. “I’m excited for this one because the last one we recorded over a long period of time, but it was also written over a long period of time. But this one, if we write this album in a month or two, and then we record it in a month or two, it’s going to be a much more unified [album] than Disgraceland, which I will be very excited for.”