“I’m not that old but I’m getting pretty wise” — a sentiment within the early seconds of The Orwells’ new album, Disgraceland, that pretty much sums up the eleven tracks that follow it. Two years have passed since the band emerged from their boring Chicago suburb as five high schoolers hellbent on reminding the world that American rock & roll is still alive. A lot has happened since then for The Orwells. They’ve slain and sweated on audiences around the world, recorded with their favorite contemporary producers, shared the stage with childhood heroes, raked in accolades from distinguished publications and even had David Letterman begging them for more. And now, as they release their irresistibly raucous yet masterfully architected Disgraceland on Canvasback Music, The Orwells are getting pretty wise.
The story of Disgraceland — recorded last fall at studios in London, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Woodstock, NY — is the story of The Orwells escaping the confines of their hometown and of their own expectations for themselves. Back when they made their 2012 debut album, Remember When, they were recording by themselves in guitarist Matt O’Keefe’s parents’ basement. O’Keefe, bassist Grant Brinner, his brother, drummer Henry Brinner, guitarist Dominic Corso and his cousin, singer Mario Cuomo, had been playing together since 9th grade. “We were hoping eventually something would happen and it would become serious,” says O’Keefe. “We were like, ‘We love writing songs, so let’s just keep doing it.’ When we were writing those early songs, the goal was just to make all the other bands in our high school jealous.” Maybe one day, they thought, they’d get to be as beloved as their heroes The Black Lips. “You make good music, say what you wanna say and have a good time — that was what we were shooting for,” O’Keefe continues. “But now that we’re a little older, the goal is bringing rock & roll back to everybody’s car speakers. Sometimes you get afraid to go to the highest point you can, at the price of being called sell-outs or whatever. But we say fuck that, if we can get every single kid playing rock and roll music in their parents’ car stereos, that’s what we wanna do.”
Though they eventually teamed with producers Dave Sitek (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Santigold, TV On the Radio), Chris Coady (Smith Westerns, Beach House) and Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys), they started writing the new album before the first one was even released. “We were still in high school when we wrote the early songs for this album,” says O’Keefe. “So we expected that we would be handing the first few songs we were making out on a CD to kids in the hallways, just like we had before. But as time went on and we got signed to Canvasback, we figured this might be the last album we write while still living in Elmhurst. We wanted to capture what the last 18-20 years of our lives were like, in this anywhere USA suburb.” Songs like “Dirty Sheets,” “Southern Comfort” and “Let It Burn” detail debauched nights, sloppy hook-ups and the kind of trouble you let yourself get into when you’re bored, broke and barely legal.
Recorded in Los Angeles with Sitek last summer, “Who Needs You?” was actually written back in October 2011. Says O’Keefe: “It was the day Obama announced we’d be pulling all of the troops out of Iraq, and we thought, ‘let’s write a kind of 60’s Vietnam thing’ celebrating these kids coming home. As it developed, in my basement writing it, the song became more like, ‘it’s fucked up that we were there in the first place,’ and it was basically a bunch of ignorant teenagers trying to comment on something political.” Released as a single last fall, the tune earned praise from the Chicago Sun-Times, which described it as “ring[ing] with big, chiming guitars, a giant stomping beat straight out of Motown and Cuomo, bellowing societal disgust through a microphone that sounds like it is plugged into a muddy lake bottom: ‘You better save the country/you better pass the flask/you better join the army/I say no thank you dear old Uncle Sam!’”
Cuomo says that songs like the Jim Abbiss-produced “Dirty Sheets” and album-closer “North Ave” are “pretty autobiographical,” detailing “feelings bundled up from high school shit.” Writing about those experiences, he says, is his way of burying them. The rest of The Orwells — all a year younger than the singer — had been playing together for awhile when they finally got Cuomo to join them. “Mario was always that kid all of us knew about,” says Grant. “Not just because he was cousins with Dominic, either. He was that one dude a grade above us who would flick off a teacher or that kind of thing. You’d always hear stories about something crazy that Mario had done. He was definitely that kid everyone knew about and either hated or loved.”
Up until that point, Cuomo had been singing along to CDs in his room, “trying to hit notes and shit.” He cites frontmen like Glenn Danzig and Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator, as inspiration, as well as Iggy Pop’s menacing, self-destructive presence. Though The Orwells’ live show has become the stuff of legend in the past year, inspiring Consequence Of Sound to write, “frontman Mario Cuomo has tapped into something special, carnal, and almost evil,” Cuomo admits that it took him a minute to unleash his own inner wildman on stage: “I was super uncomfortable just standing there and it made me feel really bad and not satisfied with shows, using a mike stand and being boring,” he says. “Little by little as I started moving around more, it started feeling better. It took maybe 50 shows to really get it down and get super comfortable and know what I was doing. I still don’t know but kind of.”
Doing whatever comes naturally seems to be paying off for The Orwells. Their television appearances on Later With Jools Holland and The Late Show With David Letterman in the past year gave audiences around the world a taste of what concertgoers have seen during the band’s recent tours with Arctic Monkeys, FIDLAR and Palma Violets. Footage of the performances instantly made the rounds. “I thought we did it right,” says Cuomo. “I fucked up a bunch, but in retrospect, it’s how rock music should be played: No matter what venue and where you are and who you’re playing for, it’s not going to be perfect. Even if you’re on TV, it’s ok to fuck it up sometimes.”
“The Orwells tap into [a] primal energy… in which youthful abandon and sloppiness are touchstones — and know their way around a nuttily repetitive hook.” – SPIN
“The best new live band in America” – NME
“… a mixture of back-breaking intensity, youthful tomfoolery and the utterly unhinged… With their brattish sensibility and near endless displays of energy, The Orwells seem to tap into that perennial youthful outcast in all of us – the kid who is forever being dragged to detention on reputation alone.” –Clash Music