Chicago-based five-piece The Orwells stole their band name from another band in their high school. It’s not a big deal though, because who didn’t pick up a copy of 1984 mid-puberty and think, “I should pay homage to this influential literary work via my band, the truest measure of any teen’s respect for something.” But The Orwells recognized this hackneyed trope, and parodied it through plagiarism. This sort of wise-beyond-their-years self-awareness (no one in the band has lived a full two decades yet) is evident in The Orwells’ music too.
The band’s newest EP, Other Voices, out June 25 on East End/ Canvasback, is a wonderfully necessary reprieve from the sample-heavy exercises in layering that are currently so in vogue. The EP is 15 minutes of Budweiser-fueled garage rock that easily rewards you on the first listen, but it’s clever because it’s unpretentiously pretentious. The Orwells have no desire to be the pioneers of some new adjective’d “wave,” their lyrics make no mention of Derrida, and their instrumentals don’t suggest any great musical prowess. But they know they’re good, and it oozes out of each three-chord song with both a sneer and wink.
On the title track, Mario Cuomo coarsely drools, “Don’t grab my hand, I’m not your friend/I’m waiting for my life to end.” Well, we don’t have to be friends y’all, but the ride is just starting. I talked to Matt O’Keefe, the Orwells’ guitarist, and most chatty member. Check out our banter and debate on the best Strokes album, below.
Do you guys write the songs together? Is it a group thing or do you have someone who usually takes the lead?
Matt O’Keefe: The process is usually like, either somebody in the band will come with a piece of music and that can be either just a chord exchange or a riff or something like that and then together we kind of piece it together and you add to it and make it an actual song. And then in that time we’re all figuring out the music of it, Mario’s sitting there figuring out the vocal melody and lyrics, so it’s very collaborative.
Have you found so far that there have been any creative differences that you’ve had to work through?
Yeah we definitely butt heads a lot but we kind of end up meeting in the middle and actually we found that that’s better. When you’re writing something and four people are criticizing and critiquing it, as frustrating as it is when it’s happening, you know after it’s like “Yeah that was a good idea.” It pushes you to try harder; it pushes the song a little bit further.
How have you evolved as a band from your debut LP, Remember When, to Other Voices?
I think there’s a little more to it now. We started and it was like whatever, it’s the first time that we were writing songs so it was like if something sounded kind of good, then we would use it. And the more we did it, the more bored we were with having three chord songs and it just repeats the whole way through so we started putting in different things. The chorus has to have a different chord change, and you start doing solos, but you start taking it a little bit more seriously. Not too much more seriously, but just enough to hear that difference. And I think we all got better and and became more of like “Yeah we wanna be in a rock and roll band and we wanna play shows and we kind of want to express ourselves now.”
When you guys started playing music (as freshmen in high school), was it a spontaneous thing where suddenly you guys were in a band or was it something you planned?
Well, it wasn’t the first band that most of us were in, we were playing in bands in middle school, and when we got to high school we were all not in a band and it was like “Alright, let’s not stop.” We love doing it, it was what we did to not be bored. We never planned to take it too seriously, we started just covering songs in my basement for fun and that led to us writing our own stuff and learning how to record ourselves. At first it was never like, “Let’s try to actually be a band,” it more like “Friday night’s gonna suck, let’s hang out in my basement and practice. Let’s just do it.”
You’ve said before in interviews that your lyrics come from weird things that happened in suburbia and while growing up. How do you decide what you’re going to write a song about?
Whatever you’re feeling, or stories, or what’s happening to you, or stuff like that. It’s something you’re just constantly thinking about, I don’t really know. It’s really kind of spontaneous where you write one line and something just comes to you and it’s this one line and you keep looking at it, then you put meaning to that line and you base the rest of the lines around that. It’s almost like you’re creating your own story for yourself. There’s a bunch of different ways I go about writing, it changes with every song.
Do you think that you mostly explore things that happen to you or other people?
Probably most to me. It’s almost less personal, like it’s something that happened to us and we put it to a different theme because if we’re singing about just sitting in a basement all day, it’s going to be a boring-ass song, but if you stick to the whole idea behind it and some other kind of story, that’s more interesting.
On the EP, you have two versions of the title track, one where it’s produced by you guys and one where it’s produced by Dave Sitek from TV On The Radio. Why did you decide to put both of those on the EP?
We had our recorded version for about half a year so you know that’s the one we were used to do, then we went to do it with Dave Sitek and I don’t know if a lot of people can tell, but definitely for us, we hear such a big difference between the two where we really liked ours for what it was and we wanted it to be on there. It was such a big part of us for six months, and if it never got a proper release, it would’ve felt funny to us.
So which version do you like better?
I would say yeah, the original.
In an interview with Vice, I think it was you specifically who said The Strokes and Jack White “don’t mean shit to you anymore because they’re old.” So do you have an age limitation for influences? Like Iggy Pop never had a chance with you guys?
It’s less an age thing and more of something that happens with age. There’s a certain point where you go from this mean, full of energy, full of emotion, person that’s like a freaking train going a thousand miles an hour and you’re just unstoppable. And that’s what Jack White was to me for the longest time. Then I think once you get older and once you’ve been doing it for longer, people create a label for you and now Jack White can’t escape it and now he can’t change, and each thing he does, it’s like “Oh yeah, that’s something Jack White would do.” It’s just very predictable now. I think that comes with age, the more you do, the more predictable you get.
Do you think in any way that’s avoidable?
Yeah, I mean it’s tough. Once you get to a point, like writer’s block or something, especially if you’re Jack White, you’re going to resort to what you know and what people have liked. It’s hard to go against that.
But even hearing you talk about it, it seems like they still must mean shit to you, at least a little.
Of course. I still listen to Is This It every once and a while and old White Stripes records but I’m definitely not for Blunderbuss and not excited to go see Jack White play live. It becomes fake, it feels like he’s lost his true emotion, his actual anger. Now it’s kind of like put-together Jack White, like, “I’ve got to only put stuff out on vinyl and be this weird guy with all these quirky toys.”
So what kind of stuff are you listening to now?
Nothing really that new. The last new stuff that I listened to was the new Deerhunter album that came out. I kind of like Kurt Vile’s album too. I was listening to Tom Petty not too long ago.
[laughs] Yeah, I like Tom Petty. I’m like rediscovering those old bands from when you first start listening to music and you listen to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and Tom Petty and once you get older, you go back and re-listen to it and you realize how much shit you didn’t understand and the lyrics that went over your head. So now I’m listening to Led Zeppelin and I can’t believe I sang this shit when I was in the fourth grade. Now I listen to it and I have a whole new appreciation for cheesy ’70s, heavy rock stuff right now.
Do you think that’s affected your sound in The Orwells? That looking back into cheesy ’70s rock?
Not really. I’ve been describing the new album as “a bunch of kids trying to rip off Tom Petty and Led Zeppelin who can’t play their instruments,” so it’s like we aim big. It’s never like we’re listening to Led Zeppelin and we’re influenced like “We’re gonna write a song like ‘When The Levy Breaks.’” I don’t have the ability to, I’m just not that good. And in the end I end up writing a three-minute punk-garage song so it doesn’t do much.
You’ve also said that you think a lot of bands today they write very abstractly and are hard to relate to. How do you think that your music is more relatable?
I think everybody’s gone through what we’re talking about because it’s not super personal like I was saying earlier, we sort of take personal things that happen to us and make it so that everyone can relate to it. You get those bands that are singing about, you really have no idea what they’re talking about. That’s what I love about the Replacements, who are my favorite band of all time because I can relate just sitting in a garage drinking like a tall boy on the weekend. That’s just what I did growing up in the midwest. There are bands that use all these metaphors and you lose what you’re talking about in the first place.
Where did you film the video for “Other Voices”?
That was filmed at SXSW. That was my brother was just like shooting a bunch of stuff, he brought a camera down and was just filming us and messing around and then it was like “Oh we have to make a video for ‘Other Voices,’ let’s just throw that footage together and we’ll call it a video.”
That moment where the dude eats the banana with the peel still on it is great.
You guys have a tour with FIDLAR coming up right? What’s the best part about touring?
Our favorite part about touring is the gas stations. Like when you’re on the road and you spend three hours in a car and you finally get to get out and stretch and get whatever the hell you need to survive the next three, it’s pretty fun.
If you make one thing happen on the tour and it doesn’t have to be related to your music, what would you want to happen?
Somebody’s gonna get a tattoo. Every tour we go on, we’re always like “Alright we’re getting tattoos,” and we never end up doing it, so hopefully with FIDLAR one night we’ll all get some tattoos.
Do any of you have tattoos?
No, we’re all tattoo-less.
You’re pure like snow.
Are you gonna do a stick n’ poke?
I don’t know. If they want to stick n’ poke, I’ll let them.
Last thing: On June 1 you guys tweeted “Room on Fire or First Impressions?” I’d pick Room on Fire hands down, I don’t really think that’s even a contest.
OK I would say, I’m gonna go with First Impressions on that. I’m going with First Impressions because Room on Fire is an identical twin to Is This It. And the lyrics, is the same thing. Is This It is the best album because everything Julian sings on that is completely relatable and then you get to Room on Fire and he starts talking more about the same shit, and you know he’s getting a little too personal. I will say First Impressions has the most bizarre lyrics and I don’t like them, but musically, I like the evolution better than making the same album twice.
To me First Impressions doesn’t even sound like the Strokes.
Yeah, I mean the middle section is awful with “Killing Lies” and “Fear of Sleep”. Those are all pieces of shit, but I would say overall, I’m more of a First Impressions guy.