The Orwells Rock Away From Responsibility

The members of The Orwells.
The members of The Orwells. Kelly Puleo
The Orwells’ Mario Cuomo once had a skate ramp built in a loft he shared.

Bandmate Matt O’Keefe’s description of the vocalist’s crazy digs sounded like a scene from the Ben Stiller male-model comedy Zoolander. On the run from assassins, the film’s titular character hides out in the apartment of his rival, Hansel, played by Owen Wilson. Inside, they are surrounded by hookahs, dwarfs, and skaters (naturally). Coincidentally, Cuomo and Wilson even have a similar personal aesthetic, both sporting long, curly, blond hair and a stoner drawl.

O’Keefe could not confirm this comparison, as he has never seen the 2001 film. Having a half-pipe in his living room was not something that appealed to the guitarist, anyway. He always wanted a Rube Goldberg contraption that serves you pancakes and Mr. T cereal, like in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

It seems appropriate that a 20-something suburbanite would reference a film where the main character is essentially a man-child. The Orwells, who also include Cuomo’s cousin Dominic Corso on guitar and twin brothers Grant and Henry Brinner (bass and drums, respectively), are men in numerical age only. They have a tendency to behave like careless teenagers when given the opportunity, which is often. The brood of rapscallions, who just released their third collection of indie garage rock titled Terrible Human Beings, made a name for themselves in 2014 when Cuomo wandered aimlessly around The Late Show with David Letterman stage like a bad wedding singer who sipped too much bubbly during the ceremony. Letterman and his bandleader, Paul Shaffer, asked for an encore. Cuomo stared at the duo like a deer in the headlights as Shafer mercilessly mocked his stumbling. Three years later, O’Keefe says that the hypnotic performance is something they might never live down.

“It’s on the internet, so it’s never going to go away. People can watch it whenever they want,” O’Keefe says defiantly on the phone over the sound of his flicking lighter. “If that’s what we wanted to do, then we’d just do it. There are nights when one of us isn’t feeling it. We honestly just play how we feel. We never try to put on any act.”

It is difficult to determine the need for such defensiveness and rebellion from five young white men from the affluent Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. O’Keefe claims they did not have the reputation that their latest release suggests when they were growing up. He had a typical childhood where the only affliction he suffered from was boredom with his conventional surroundings. It was the feeling of restlessness that forced O’Keefe to pick up a guitar and write music on his own. Their unruly behavior actually stems from their pilgrimages into the Windy City.

“It came from coming to Chicago and feeling like, ‘You suburban kids don’t belong here,’” O’Keefe says. “That’s what we were poking fun at.”

Those feelings of inadequacy and animosity are readily apparent throughout the Orwells’ three albums. Their discography runs the spectrum of absurd humor, vulgar fun, and angst-driven rock.

Every decade or so, critics like to throw around the label “pure rock ’n’ roll” to describe music that is free of frills and comes in the form of young men wearing vintage T-shirts and Ray-Bans. The quintet of high school friends bonded listening to those bands. They were in awe of the Strokes, the Stooges, and the White Stripes. If their love of ’80s noise pop isn’t clear after a listening to a few notes, it becomes blatant when running down the track listing of Terrible Human Beings. There you will find the song “Black Francis,” an obvious nod to the Pixies’ frontman. O’Keefe sees no need for the Orwells to think outside their sonic box, because they do not listen to anything else.

“We’re limited to knowing the instruments that we play,” O’Keefe says with a sneer you can practically hear over the phone. “There’s no chance for us to add synths because we don’t own any. None of us know how to operate those things, anyway. We are confined to our own little box because of our talents, or lack of them.”

While not as provocative as the flaming guitars and urination that their heroes the Black Lips’ live shows are known for, the Orwells can be just as unpredictable onstage. If their incendiary performance on Letterman’s show was evidence enough, O’Keefe practically brags about how badly a show can go if someone is not in the best mood. Last year, the group played a set at the Dallas club Trees during the city’s post-South By Southwest party Spillover Fest that ended in a fight between Cuomo and the venue’s security staff.

“From the moment we walked in, there was a feeling that something might happen that night,” O’Keefe recalls.

Things began to escalate when Cuomo kept dropping the venue’s microphone, as he would do at any show, O’Keefe says. According to the Dallas Observer, a concertgoer stated Cuomo told the crowd that Trees was the only venue where Kurt Cobain got knocked out for no reason, which riled up the crowd. The venue’s security had a problem with Cuomo’s treatment of their equipment and began to close the curtains on the band. Drummer Brinner started to get upset and got up from his kit to pull the curtains back. This caused security to rush to the stage. Chaos took over. A fan ran up and threw a vomit-filled trashcan into the crowd. Punches were thrown by Cuomo and security. The police arrived to put an end to the havoc.

“It was kind of ridiculous,” sums up O’Keefe, “We got held in the green room afterward. The security guards saying the cops are coming. The venue films their shows, and they were going to show the tape to the police. They looked at the tape, and it showed one of the security guards had caused it, so they let us go.”

There is no internal or external pressure to change the Orwells’ thinking about their conduct. As juvenile and unprofessional as it seems, their fans are grateful for the band’s “don’t give a shit” attitude. The spontaneity and danger that audiences feel when they buy their tickets and walk inside forces them to engage. Listeners are violently shoved from the safety they get from their smartphones. O’Keefe sees no reason to fix what he feels is not broken.

“There are people out there who are doing way raunchier and intense stuff,” he says. “If the eyes aren’t on them, then I doubt it’s on us.”

You can hear the Orwells begin to loosen their grip on their teenage mindset and embrace the responsibilities of adulthood when listening to Terrible Human Beings. It feels less like an assembly line of songs and more cohesive and connected. O’Keefe credits this push into a more artful territory to producer Jim Abbiss, who produced the debut album of the Arctic Monkeys, another band O’Keefe also credits as an influence. When asked if this next step will make the Orwells less dangerous, the guitarist reverts back to his rebellious, cavalier tone.

“We’ve been lucky enough that [Atlantic Records] doesn’t make us compromise on anything,” O’Keefe says. “I think bands that are in the situation where they are forced to compromise are sacrificing something you shouldn’t. If that ever happened to us, I don’t think we’d ever back down from doing something that we wanted to do. I’m not too nervous about that.”

The Orwells are scheduled to perform Monday, April 3, at Crescent Ballroom.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil